For you Home Brewers out there…

… or anyone interested in beer, brewing, and associated lore. I doubt the whole book will be of interest, but these few pages I typed out are probably at least a little bit interesting if you’re a brewer:

From Roles of the Northern Goddess by Hida Ellis Davidson. London: Routledge, 1998.

(from the Chapter titled “Mistress of the Household” (Pg 138-141):

Yet another important use of water by the women was for brewing ale, the usual drink for all ages at a time when water was often suspect. Its association with a goddess may be seen in ancient Egypt, where beer transformed the goddess Hathor from a wild lioness about to destroy humankind into a benevolent deity (Blecker 1973: 50). She is addressed in a hym as ‘Mistress of Both Lands, Mistress of Bread, who made beer with what her heart created and her hands prepared’, and described as ‘the Lady of Drunkenness, rich in feasts’ (W.J. Darby et. al 1977: 529). The effects of fermented cereals may have been discovered accidentally by women baking bread, and it was women who did the brewing in Ancient Egypt, as may be seen from tomb paintings. The Egyptian method was to work the malt into a dough to convert the starch into maltose, and the women are shown kneading, sieving, and brewing (W.J. Darby et. al 1977: 531). Although the rich drank wine, beer was the general drink in Egypt, and formed an essential part of offerings to the gods.

In medieval times in northern Europe, brewing was done mostly by women and, as with butter-making, often went wrong for no obvious reason. This was because the process depended on experience and judgment, with many different factors being involved. The grain most used was barley, which was stored for a time in the barn or oasthouse [sic?], then steeped in water and germinated until it began to sprout. It was dried in a current of warm air in the malting house, after which it would remain stable for some months. The malted corn was ground in early times by women using a quern and sieve, and in later medieval times by men when mills came into use. It was not necessary to gind it finely, but each grain needed to be cracked so that the husk could float free in liguid. Once ground it was put into water and heated in a mash tun, so that the soluble starch was converted by enzymes int the malt to fermentable sugars. This solution, known as the wort, was drawn off, and further sugar washed out to get a dilute wort, until only the husks were left, to be used as animal feeding stuff.

It was at about this point in the process that in England hops were added from about the fifteenth century onwards, giving the ale additional flavour and making it less perishable. Before this, mugwort or other herbs were used for flavoring, but the ale very soon turned sour. The wort was boiled for some time and cooled in large shallow trays of wood (causing a risk of infection) before being run into fermenting vessels where yeast was added. This was another hazardous part of the process as, while the temperature had to be kept low, excessive cold was injurious. Fermentation took several days, and went on after the beer was put into casks, sometimes with additional hopes or sugar added. Some gas might be let out when the beer was finally put in the cellar, but if too much escaped it would go flat.

There was clearly much room for error here, with no exact means of testing the temperature or the length of time needed at various stages, while much depended on the original state of the barley and the weather. An example of the risks involved is Margery Kempe’s account of her failure as a brewster in the fourteenth century, at a time when brewing was largely done by women outside the monasteries. she claimed that for three years she was the leading brewster in Lynne (King’s Lynn in Norfolk), but suddenly things went wrong:

For though she had ever such good servants, cunning in brewing, yet it would never succeed with them. For when the ale was as fair standing under barm as any might see, suddenly the barm would fsall down, so that all the ale was lost, one brewing after another. (Butler-Bowdon 1936:28)

A contrasting picture of successful brewing is that of St. Brigid, for this was one of the many bhousehold skills at which she excelled, even when supplies were scarce. One Easter she was left with only one measure of malt in a sieve, and two troughs to hold the liquid. She used the first for steeping the malt in water, and then brewed the ale in the second; when this was distributed around seventeen churches at Easter, there was plenty for all (Stokes 1890: 188-9).

It was customary for women to brew their own ale at home up to about the seventeenth century. However, this involved much labour, and before hopes were used beer was drinkable only for a few days, so that medieval women often preferred to buy from ale-wives and brewsters like Margery Kempe. Alternatively if they paid a ‘fine’ they could sell part of their own ale to their neighbours. There were official ale-tasters (mostly men) who judged the standard and price of the ale, and fixed the fine accordingly, and records of these payments have given information about the women (and occasionally men) who sold ale locally (J.M. Bennett 1986).

The brewing of ale depended on the use of both fire and water, and also on skill and luck; the association with a goddess as in Ancient Egypt might therefore be expected in the North. A detailed account of the brewing of ale for a wedding in section 20 of the Kalevala suggests the existence of an earlier myth concerning the origin of brewing. The mistress of Northland neeeded to brew a vast quantity of ale for her daughter’s wedding, but declared that she did not know how brewing originated in the beginning; such knowledge was evidently held necessary for success. Then we are told how ale was first brewed by ‘Osmo’s daughter’, ‘the beer smith, the brewer woman’, hinting at some possible mythological figure, though in Lönnrot’s arrangement the discovery is made by the dauughter of the house, who is to be the bride. Here we have a practical account of brewing after the wort has been produced together with some fantastic magical additions when the beer is fermented.

The girl first boiled up barley and hops, but did not know how to cause the mixture to ferment. She then created a squirrel from a splinter from the floor, by rubbing it between her palms and her thighs, and sent it off to fetch cones from the spruce and pine, but these had no effect. Then she created a gold-breasted pine martenin the same way from a wood shaving, and dispatched it to the den of the bear, to bring back froth from the animal’s jaws; but again, the liquid failed to ferment. Finally from a pea pod she created a bee, which brought back honey, and this time the ale fermented and rose to the top of the cask and over:

The young drink gre up
in the grooved cask of new wood,
inside the birch tub;
it foamed high as the handles,
roared up to the brims (Bosley 1989: XX, 384ff.)

When this occurred, the girl thought at first that she had ruined the drink, but the birds told her that all was going well, and so ‘the beer got its good name, its famous honour’.

The mistress of the Northland was then able to proceed with the brewing on an almost cosmic scale, using barley and hop catkins. She heated the mixture with hot stones and boiled it for months, so that the smoke from her fires could be seen for many miles; finally the ale was left to mature ‘lying underground / in a stone cellar / in an oaken barrel / behind a bung of copper’ (Bosley 1989: XX 503ff.) Then it was necessary to find a singer if the results were to be fully successful, and Väinämöinen chanted a blessing over the ale, since no one else had the necessary knowledge.

Here honey was added as the final ingredient, as this possesses fermenting qualities; it could be added to ale, wine, or fruit-juice to produce various types of mead, the intoxicating drink made with honey popular in many parts of the world (Simonsson 1956: 288). It is, however, apparently ale of beer (there seems no distinction at this stage between the two) which in the Viking Age was drunk at the annual religious feasts, and which was brewed by the women. A strange but vivid story in the late Hals saga ok Halfsrekka, one fo the Icelandic sagas full of legendary material, is of a competition between to queens in a kingdom in Norway as to which could brew the best ale for the feast, and on this their future depended. One of the, Alrek, appealed to Freyja to help her, suggesting a traditional link between brewing and the goddess, but Geirhild, her rival, put her trust in Odin, and turned to him. He dropped his spittle on the yeast, and the resulting brew was unsurpassed. As a reward for his help Geirhild had promised to give him what came between her and the cask; this proved to be her unborn child, the doomed King Vikar, who was forced to give up his life as a sacrifice to Odin when he grew to manhood.

Odin himself did no brewing, but the mead of inspiration, his gift to poets and orators, was continually associated with him in the myths and in early skaldic verse. Accoorsing to Snorri (Skáldskaparmál 57) this wonderful drink was brewed by the two races of gods, the AEsir and the Vanir, when the finally made peace together. All spat into the vat to cause it to ferment, just as Odin did in the tale of the rival queens. Spittle has the effect of hydrolysing the starch into fermentable sugar, and use had been made of this in various partys of the world (M. Barnard 1966: 12); it accounts for the attempt to use foam from the bear’s jaws in the Kalevala. The micture at first too the form of a giant named Kvasir, a word associated in several languages with alcoholic drink (J. de Vries 1957: II, 67). He was capable of answering all questions, but was killed by dwarves, who brewed mead from his blood. Possibly more than one myth has been used here, or perhaps Snorri was trying to account for the description of mead in early poems as ‘Kvasir’s blood’.

The mead of inspiration passed into the possession of a giant; one of the great achievements of Odin was to win it back fro the gods (Davidson 1993: 72). The importance of this episode, thought by some to represent an early myth of the Indo-European peoples, may have pushed into the background the original link between brewing and a goddess in the poems and tales of Scandinavia and Iceland. But the important part which brewing played in women’s lives for centuries, and the suggestion of powerful female figures associated with it, make it a relevant part of this study of the goddess as mistress of the household, the hearth and the spring.

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