It is also often said that the Irish texts tell of the practice of drinking mead at Samhain, which is one of the four ancient Celtic feasts held on October 31st celebrating the new year, but this is actually once again not specified.2392 One thing leading to another, it often results in the belief that Irish mythology recounts that the druids were used to drinking mead at Samhain. In reality, it seems that there are no texts mentioning such a custom. As Samhain was the only timeless mystic night of the year when the supernatural world opened up to the natural world, it is nevertheless possible that the druids consumed some sacred intoxicating beverages specifically at this time, so as to facilitate the communication with the divine, but this is not related in the Irish texts.
In fact, despite the persuasive account given in Christian-Jacques Guyonvarc’h’s remarkable work on the subject, there is no clear evidence that mead was part of the feast of Samhain. He supports this idea by quoting the famous episode of Mesca Ulad [‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’], preserved in the 12th century Book of Leinster (folios 261b-268b), describing the feast held by Conchobar in Eamhain Mhacha at Samhain, during which mead was flowing freely.2393 The Irish version actually does not precisely refer to ‘mead’. The confusion may come from the mistranslation of the Old Irish word mét (Modern Irish méad), which Guyonvarc’h glossed as ‘mead’, whereas it actually signifies ‘size’, ‘extent’, as Watson specified in his glossary.2394 The Old Irish word for ‘mead’ is mid, genitive medo or meda (Modern Irish miodh). The Irish text and its translation are the following:‘Blíadain don chúiciud amlaid sin ina trí rannaib co ndernad feiss na Samna la Conchobar I nEmain Macha. Ba sed mét na fledi cét ndabach do cach lind. At-bertatar áes gráda Conchobair nar furáil mathi Ulad uile ic tomailt na fledi sin ara febas.2395
However, it can be assumed that mead is highly likely to have been part of the “every kind of ale” mentioned in the legend.2397 The only reference to Samhain and the drinks consumed on that day is an adorable poem, dating from the 8th c., describing the specific foods and drinks ingested on the four Celtic feasts. This poem, which is given in Appendix 4, refers once again to ‘ale’, not to mead. When you come to think about it, this poem pertains to folklore and not to mythology. Thus, it seems quite normal that it does not refer to mead, for ‘ale’ was probably drunk by the folk, while ‘mead’ was reserved to the sacerdotal class.
From all of these etymological, archaeological and literary data, it can be concluded that mead was the intoxicating beverage consumed in religious contexts to make contact with the divine world. The Cauldron of Hochdorf proves that mead was for instance ritually used for funerary rites and that its complex composition and preparation certainly required much time and an immeasurable knowledge of Nature and its various virtues. There were different kinds of mead, depending on the various honeys of flowers, trees or even mushrooms, used in the composition. Mead was therefore the ‘Ambrosia of the Celts’, a counterpart of the Soma or the Haoma, the respective preparations of which were also based on honeys of various plants which are today unknown. Like the Indian and Persian intoxicating beverages were deified as gods bearing their very names, it can be noticed that mead was also deified as goddesses in Celtic religions: the ancient forms Meduna and Comedovae, mentioned in Gallo-Roman inscriptions, and the later form Medb, reminiscent of those old forms. These goddesses embodied the drink itself, symbolised the intoxicating powers of mead, and, to my mind, all the cults and rites attached to this divine beverage. What were then the functions of those intoxicating goddesses? Why did they purvey intoxicating drinks and in which context? What did it symbolize? In other words, what were the rites of mead-intoxication attached to?
The four Celtic feasts are Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), Beltaine (1 May) and Lugnasad (1 August). For more details on those feasts and the legends attached to them, see Mackillop, 2004, pp. 377-378, 270, 39, 309-310 ; Guyonvarc’h, 1995a.
Guyonvarc’h, 1960, p. 491 & 1986, p. 51: “L’année où l’on divisa la province d’Ulster en trois parts, on fit le festin de Samhain chez Conchobar à Emain Macha. Il y eut l’hydromel des festins: cent cuves pour chaque boisson. Les officiers de la maison de Conchobar dirent que tous les nobles Ulates ne seraient pas de trop pour la consommation de ce festin à cause de sa qualité.”
Watson, 1967, p. 95.
Watson, 1967, p. 2.
Hennessy, 1889, p. 3.
Mahon,(unknown date), p. 86: explains that ale is an old type of beer, made of barley, though rye, wheat and oats. It was generally flavoured with herbs, plants and spices and could be drunk hot or cold. Beer, which requires hops in its brewing, dates from the introduction of these in the 16th c. In other words, ‘ale’ is sort of the ancestor of ‘beer’. Bragget was made by fermenting ale and honey together.