Sunday, December 10, 2006

On the mythical origins of drinking and toasting

There are many time-honored customs that rarely intrude upon our stripped-down, modern lives. But on certain occasions we turn to them routinely. Recently, at the Thanksgiving table, my father gave his usual toast. And when I say “usual,” I mean it. He says the same thing every year. But as I now appreciate, that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s sort of the whole point.

First, he expresses thankfulness for our prosperity. Next, he appreciates the fact that we are together, wishes that absent loved ones were present, and hopes that they might be next year. If there has been an addition to the family, or some other important event, he includes it as well. My father is not a formal person, and yet he’s been doing this every year since I was a girl. I remember being gathered around the table with twenty or more relatives, two turkeys, stuffing and all the rest. All of us children would be eager to eat. My father would raise his glass, “I would like to propose a toast”—and one of my cousins, the same one every year—would give an exasperated sigh. If she failed to do so immediately, we would all look her way with expectation.

Recently I heard some intriguing comments about toasting and drinking habits in Germany and Scandinavia, where, apparently, mealtime drinking and toasting are still so important that occasionally the food may become quite cold before it can be attended to. One may not drink before the host has toasted. Gentlemen toast the lady seated next to them in a particular fashion. And, most interestingly to me, at the end of the meal, the gentleman seated next to the hostess is obliged to toast her and in so doing give a clever and perhaps even poetic summary of the evening—the meal, the conversation, and so forth. Such a performance would require not only considerable facility with words, but also an ability to retain the significant and dispense with the trivial—all at the close of a long evening of food and drink. Not exactly your fraternity brother’s drinking game!

Looking back a thousand or more years ago, things were not so different. In Odin’s hall, the mythic Valhalla of Nordic paganism, drinking was more than just a merry pastime. For Odin’s chosen warriors, daily turns at fierce, berserker-type bloodletting were punctuated by nightly rounds of the drinking horn, unending supplies of boar flesh, and lots of words. These included toasting, boasting, bragging, daring and threatening as well as the formal, intricate, measured verses of skaldic poetry. In earthly versions of Valhalla all over the Germanic world, drinking and its accompanying verbal activities were steeped in religious myth and ritual.

One of the central myths of the Germanic pagan religion is that of the Well and the Tree. The World Tree (Yggdrasil) stands with its roots in the Well, which is associated with three female goddesses called the Norns. One of them, Urd, waters the Tree with the Well’s contents. This fluid filters down through the Tree, effectively bypassing the unimportant while causing the most significant earthly events to accumulate in the Well below. Urd is also said to log leggja or, as the scholar Bauschatz translates, to “lay down that which has been laid down”: to proclaim that which has been accomplished. The Well thus becomes a repository of history, knowledge and wisdom, constantly renewed, augmented and documented, It is also constantly recycled to nurture the World Tree above. Odin himself sacrifices an eye for a drink from this sacred pool. A potent drink indeed!

Another mythical, potent fluid in the Nordic tradition is the mead of inspiration, said to impart the ability to compose poetry and speak wise words. This mead was created when the two groups of Nordic deities, the Aesir and the Vanir, sealed a truce by spitting into a cauldron. Their spittle combined to create a giant, Kvasir, who was very wise. The dwarfs killed him and brewed mead from his blood. Kvasir’s fellow giants then forced the dwarfs to give them the mead in compensation for the murder. Finally, through a combination of shape-shifting, trickery and seduction, Odin managed to steal the mead. For this reason, Odin is considered to be the god of poetry as well as war. Granting inspiration analogous to the mead itself, he is the patron of the skald—the court poet who relates a king’s exploits and its implications in verse—as well as the berserker, who rages, fearless, in a trancelike battle frenzy.

Magical or sacred fluids seem to be a recurring theme in Nordic mythology, and indeed, excavation of Germanic pagan graves reveals an inordinately large number of bowls and other containers, which may be assimilated to the Well itself. Reports of early Germanic sacrificial and divinatory practices relate that priestesses hung victims above large vessels so that their blood could run down and collect there. Odin himself hung, in an act of apparent self-sacrifice, from Yggdrasil, pierced by a spear--perhaps his blood flowed down into the Well itself. In any case, kings were required to drink sacrificial blood in the name of Odin and other gods. This was thought to secure the community’s connection with the divine and insure fertility and prosperity, victory in battle, good fortune in travel, and the like.

Thus the act of drinking becomes a ritual act by which one can connect with the important, the sacred, or, as Eliade would say, the “real” that lies beyond the mundane. When we raise our glasses for a toast, the words seem to have greater import than words spoken in an ordinary context. For guests at the German dinner party, the importance of the toasting is partly in the words uttered, but it is also in the enactment of the custom itself. Within the Nordic chieftain’s hall, an earthly reflection of Valhalla, drinking would have been the key to an alternate, heightened form of consciousness and discourse. The mead of inspiration is imbibed, the fluid filters down, and the drinkers’ tongues are freed to comment on the present, boast of the past, and take on obligations for the future. The skald eloquently and intricately relates, describes and contextualizes the proceedings even as the final toaster at a German dinner party. Even as Urd at the Well.


Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree. Univeristy of Massachussetts Press, 1982.

Davidson, H.R.E. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books, 1984. (Original copyright 1964.)

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Harcourt, 1959.

Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Sturlason, Snorri. Heimskringla, or Lives of the Norse Kings. Edited with notes by Erling Monsen, and translated into English from the Old Norse with the assistance of A.H. Smith. Dover, 1990. (This edition originally published by W. Heffer & Sons, 1932.)

Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964

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