2) Curative virtues of honey and mead

It is significant that honey, in addition of being rich in living constituents and composed of sugars which are immediately assimilated, has the quality of directly transferring the properties of the flower(s) from which it is made.2403 The ancients certainly knew that remedies could be found in nature, and more particularly in the plants. And the bees gather pollen and sugar from almost every plant,2404 therefore honey is like a thousand-flower beneficial tea.

The belief in the transmission of the properties of the plants to honey is illustrated by examples in antiquity of men who got intoxicated or died after consuming a certain type of honey, coming from toxic plants.2405 For instance, Aelien mentioned a type of honey, gathered on boxwood in Trébizonde du Pont, which drove people mad but which cured epilepsy.2406 Similarly, Xenophon and Diodorus recount the story of some people who, after eating honey, gave the impression of being drunk, raving mad, and even dying.2407 The curative properties of the plants are, in the same way, transferred to the honey they constitute. For example, rosemary honey, like the plant itself, it is said to improve the functioning of the liver, while lime honey has the sedative properties of the lime flower. Heather honey is diuretic and anti-rheumatic, while fir, lavender and thyme honeys are antiseptics which soothe the bronchial tubes, for the plants have the very same virtues, etc.2408 In addition to integrally preserving all the vitamins, perfumes and therapeutic virtues of the plants, honey contains a small amount of formic acid added by the bees to ensure its preservation, which procures a supplementary natural anti-bacterial agent.2409

If honey contains the salutary virtues of the plants from which it is gathered, mead is also said to keep the properties of the honey from which it is made. As Jean Hurpin states, there is not one mead but multiple and diverse meads, possessing various tastes, colours, bouquets and beneficial properties, according to the type of honey you choose and the way of preparation and fermentation, or if you add other ingredients, such as spices or plants, to infuse in the drink before, during or after fermentation.2410 In Ireland, for instance, there are various recipes of mead, including herbs and spices, such as thyme, rosemary or sweet briar, which must add supplementary virtues to the drink.2411 This is the reason why mead has always been regarded as a popular beverage, possessing hygienic, fortifying, tonic, gastric and diuretic virtues, from which diverse curative concoctions could be made.2412 Moreover, it is interesting to note that to mead were attributed properties concerning fecundity, since an old custom, which consisted in giving mead to newly weds during a whole lunar month - from which the expression ‘honeymoon’ derives - was widespread in Northern Europe and Brittany.2413

It is an acknowledged fact that medicine and religion were interrelated in Antiquity, and sacred intoxication must have held a special place in this religious healing context. The Comedovae could have therefore been the very representatives of some medicinal religious ceremonies during which mead was ritually absorbed, being a means of simultaneously contacting the divine (intoxication) and providing a curative treatment (therapeutic virtues). Significantly, Irish mythology refers to the healing properties of mead. Indeed, the 12th-century text Acallamh na Sen ό rach [‘The Colloquy of the Old Men’] explains that the ale of Goibhniu, which confers immortality on the gods, has the peculiarity to cure illnesses and heal wounds.2414


Signorini, 1978, p.87 ; Hurpin, 1941, pp. 17-19.


For a list of the melliferous plants known in Antiquity, see Billiard, 1900, p. 55.


See Billiard, 1900, p. 56 for various examples.


Aelien, De Naturalis animalis, 5, 42.


See Appendix 1. Xenophon, Anabasis, IV, 8, 19-21 (Greek writer c. 431 – 355 BC) ; Diodorus Siculus, Library, XIV, 30, 1-2. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), who was a renowned botanist, explains in Relation d’un Voyage du Levant, fait par ordre du Roy. Enrichie de descriptions & de figures d'un grand nombre de plantes rares, de divers animaux, et de plusieurs observations touchant l'histoire naturelle, t. 2, 1718, that these accidents were due to the fact that the honey ingested had been gathered from toxic plants, such as the ‘Azala Pontica’, which the Greeks called ‘Aegolthron’.


For more details about the various types of honey, the plants from which they are obtained and their many beneficial effects, see Signorini. 1978, pp. 89-90, 105-122.


Nigelle, 1968, p. 19-104, 119-127.


Hurpin, 1941, pp. 22-29.


Mahon, (unknown date), p. 86: Metheglin is, for example, a spiced mead, which was famous in medieval times in Ireland.


Laubenheimer, 1990, p. 74 ; Hurpin, 1941, p. 22.


Bayon, 1997, pp. 33, 37.


See the section on the feast of Goibhniu in this Chapter. Stokes, 1900, pp. 177, 189 (with corrections to text on page 189).