A Short History of Drunkenness by Forsyth Mark

A Short History of Drunkenness by Forsyth Mark

Author:Forsyth, Mark
Language: eng
Format: epub, azw3
ISBN: 9780241980101
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Published: 2017-11-02T04:00:00+00:00


Everything in Viking life centred on ale. People sacrificed the stuff to Odin. People lived for it, poets were inspired by it and warriors killed for it. In one of the heroic sagas a king decides to settle the jealousy between his two wives by keeping the one who, when he returned from battle, gave him the best ale.

By the end of the night the mead-hall was probably rather a messy place. Only a couple of things are missing. Two of the usual outcomes of intense drinking are vomit and sex (for preference not simultaneously). For an Ancient Egyptian these would be the whole point. But the Vikings never mention either, despite all their drinking horns.fn2 Instead they dozed off.

There’s a lovely mythical creature called the Heron of Oblivion (I’ve no idea why) that was said to come down and hover over the sumbl until everybody dozed off. Nobody went home. You stayed in your lord’s mead-hall until you could stay awake no longer and then you lay down on a bench or a table or whatever you could find and you fell fast asleep.

This was a slightly dangerous moment. All the warriors are passed out drunk and unable to defend themselves. The poem Beowulf is all about how a monster creeps into the mead-hall at night and eats people, until the hero has the clever idea of staying half-way sober.

To be fair, the risk of being eaten by a monster was statistically negligible, but you might be incinerated. There was, apparently, an eighth-century Swedish king called Ingjald who invited all the neighbouring kings to his coronation. When the bragarfull came round, he swore to enlarge his kingdom by half in every direction. Everyone drank. Everyone got drunk. The Heron of Oblivion did his restful work, and when everyone else was asleep, Ingjald went outside, locked the doors and burnt down his own mead-hall with all the other kings in it.

I’d like to say that that was a one-off, but it wasn’t. There are a fair few accounts of burning down mead-halls with everyone in them. There’s even one of a queen doing it to her husband, which seems fair.

But being dead wasn’t so bad if you were a Viking. They rather looked forward to it. Death simply took you off to Valhalla, and Valhalla was a perpetual party, a sumbl that lasted into all eternity. There was Odin, frenzied on wine, there were all the old friends to whom you had drunk your memory-ales, and there was Heidrun, the sacred she-goat whose udders eternally spurt forth good, strong mead. That was the Viking paradise, and in Valhalla you were drunk for ever.


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