Decorating the Truth

I’ve spoken before about the practice of writing praise poetry as a skald, and spoken at length about the importance of carefully authoring your life story. When we consider these two things together – praising others with careful authorship – we run into an interesting consideration of historical accounts: the decorated truth.

I wrote a poem a little while ago, as part of an SCA job duty – my task was to write a poem commemorating the deeds of a particular group of warriors at the Pennsic War. Now, I couldn’t actually make it to Pennsic this past year, so that put me in an odd position. How do I write a truthful accounting of something I never actually witnessed?

That, my friends, is the function of the storyteller.

The world was joyous – wealth and peace were
found in all the lands – few were troubled.
But idle minds and idle souls
flourished in those fair fields of plenty.
A sin begat a greater sin,
and soon the ills of ailing hearts
tainted and tortured the track of men –
evils arose to wreak their doom.
Far to the west was found a cleftland
stretching deeply – still it is so named.
Deep in the belly of boiling earth
was birthed a beast of burning rage.
Of ache and hurt – of heart-woe and
sinful vengeance was sired the monster.
The enemy of man was eager to work
his schemes and plots through the sky-burner.
The worm of flames on wings of smoke
took to the sky and scoured the land.
It razed cities and ruined farmland –
its greed begat a grief profound.
Too little it owned – the land was ripe
and rich with prizes it possessed not.
Its wanting grew for want of grace,
and with it grew the rage of the wrathful demon.
To the East it gazed – a gainsome plot
it thought that place – a prize to claim.
From the air it loosed an oily flame-gout
and landed in the ruins it left behind.
Where trees once stood now stained earth
alone could be found – no life survived.
The woodlands rusted like weapons of iron
where the creature stopped – still they are so named.
To the north lay the linden-halls.
A cry went out – the oaks of battle
moved to reclaim their calloused soil!
Fierce the fighting – the flame-clash of
sturdy trees of trials was felt in
every land – and in every hearth.
Terrible their losses, but at last the woods
of wounding-poles repelled the corruptor!
Back to the west the wyrm retreated –
fleeing at once the wasted rustlands.
To fairer fields far it hastened,
to tend its wounds – and tender its revenge.
A host of the dead it dragged from the grave –
tattered banners and bloody flags
raised from the depths – red with corpse-mud
that cuprous lake – it is called this still.
In the East rallied an army valiant,
with strong-limbed and long-remembering
warriors eager as wolves at the feeding.
They marched to that place – that mire of death –
to meet the host of the hell-fiend
and put an end to the evils of men.
Hall-Konr lead them – that hero of old –
none since the Geat were known as well!
Met at midfield the mass of spears –
no din of swords since was as deadly.
The fiercest of men fell to the past –
but the pure souls of savage Tygers
welled in their breast as they battered the foe!
Soon they pressed the sea of rotting
back to their graves – that ground they took
and that lake was cleansed – cleared its good name.
But victory was brief – that villain with fury
descended from the sky and scoured the ranks.
Its hell-fires flooded the plain
and rent to ash the ashes of valor.
Countless their dead – their courage faltered –
no blades could bite that beastly hide.
Mighty Hall-Konr hacked at the fiend,
but stony claws struck him to the earth.
Slinked and stalked the serpent of hell
to the fallen liege, that lion of men.
A great breath it gathered to loose
a river of death – a red flame-sea.
The gout erupted – but razed no man,
the shower parted by a shield of iron.
Clad in a byrnie of black and gold
was an oak alone – lost is his name.
That brave warrior buffered his king –
saved his sovereign from certain death!
With dwarf-steel he struck at the beast,
hewed its hide with a hungry blade.
The wretch howled and hurried away –
but he grabbed its tail with a grip of iron.
Then homeward hied the hell-fiend and foe –
and never again were they known to roam.
The day was won by a warrior unnamed –
a hero hidden in the heart of battle.
All that remained was the mantle he’d worn,
a scrap of fur from the frozen north.
Said the warriors who’d watched as he fought
that strong as ice he stood his ground –
a frozen mountain – a frigid beorg
of stone and snow – and still we are so named.

So, nothing in this poem ever actually happened, not in the sense of some hard testable demonstrable reality. It does, however, contain truth of a sort.

The poem is dense with references to SCA-specific geography and history (like “Hal-Konr,” which is Old Norse for “hill-royal” and is a reference to Richard of Mont Royal, first king of the SCA), the central one of which is the unnamed warrior clad in black and gold – the colors of the Snowberg tabard. I mean, sure, there was never a dragon that raised the undead or some dude with a magical sword that beat it – but there are certainly acts of valor attributed to the people who form the unit.

I have a friend who is fond of saying that she “never lets the facts get in the way of the truth,” at least when it comes to storytelling. And that’s really a good way of looking at it. A storyteller is not a camera – we do not take pictures nor record video.

Rather, we tell the sort of truth” that is felt, rather than that which literally occurred. We recount the feelings, emotions, and connections that bind a group together. The facts matter less than the effect or the perceptions of each person, and that’s what we choose to remember.

I used to think my grandfather was 8 feet tall, at least when he sat us kids down to tell us nonsense stories about Indians living across the lake. And I lived my life reacting to my grandfather as though he was that tall – I gave him my attention and paid him heed. So what if he was shorter than me? My emotional connection to him rendered him taller in my perception, and that connection is as “real” as numbers on a tape.

We forget sometimes that our emotions are real things – the byproduct of biochemical reactions that proceed in discrete pathways. We can manipulate stimuli to produce reliable results. Feeling sad or happy is as real as pain or glycolysis. The result is a bit different, but so be it – does that make it less valid? Of course not!

When we recount stories or memories or really any event in the past, we’re really recalling our perceptions and interpretations of those events. We are biased and fallible. Different eyewitnesses will recount the same tale differently because they all experience a literally different reality – nobody’s brain “sees” the same information; that’s why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Your brain creates a literally different reality than that which exists in someone else’s brain. Your memory is the way it happened – for you.

So if we all experience different events, and we all remember them differently, why focus so much on literal truth? I mean, sure, we often need to know what “really” happened – but if you’re telling a story about this party you threw this one time, why not let the tale grow taller in the telling? This is part of crafting your own story – you choose how you will be remembered, and how you will remember other things. By letting a story grow larger, we emphasize our emotional connection to it and the connection we share with those who experienced the same thing.

Yeah, we can burst someone’s bubble: “That’s not how that happened!” I’ve been there and done that. But y’know what, life can be pretty shitty much of the time. Instead of relentlessly pursuing factual accounts, it can be nice to let some whimsy take over – and remind us of the parts of life that we truly cherish.

Those are things worth celebrating and decorating. The nuts and bolts of how it happened? Well, that’s not as important as the effect the events had on you – and if you choose to remember it being a bit greater than reality, so be it. Truth is not limited to a blow-by-blow retelling of objectively true information – your reactions to information are also a part of that truth. Those reactions govern how you behave, right? You live your life as though they’re real – so just make them real.

And then kill the stupid cat before it lets your secret out.

This is how to get attention on the Internet, right? Pictures of cats? That’s the real moral of the story – put a cat in it, and people pay attention.

Brewing With Egil: A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

Or is it 10,000 words? I dunno, numbers were never my strong suit – that’s why I’m a microbiologist!

Whatever. This is going to be a first for me, folks: a post of fewer than 500 words.

I’m shocked.

I promise that I will return to my regularly-scheduled ego-stroking pontification in my next post.

In an efforts to yet again collect, explain, and outline just whatever the hell it is that I think I know about Viking-era brewing, I’ve come up with a nice visual representation of my research pathways. The goal is to eventually make a fully-hyperlinked drawing, where you could click on any part of it and get more information. Pop you over to a specific reference. All that good stuff.

If you get really really drunk, and look at it sideways, and also have some brain damage, it kinda makes sense.

If you get really really drunk, and look at it sideways, and also have some brain damage, it kinda makes sense.

Alright, so that probably doesn’t explain shit to most of you. But! I thought this was a neat little diagram, so I used it as the centerpiece of a much more useful bit of summary: a poster.

Yes, that’s right – I’m going legit. Posters all up ins. Paper to follow. Publication? It could happen!

I don't fuck around.

I don’t fuck around.

Click that picture for the embiggened version. Go ahead. You know you want to.

I don’t know if I need a new hobby, or if I’ve found exactly the right hobby.

I promise, this will all eventually lead to beer.

And that’s it! Look at that! Short and sweet!

Maybe I should just unnecessarily kill some whitespace. Y’know, to keep with tradition.










There we go. Much better.

Until next time!

Historical Brewing 101: This Is Easier Than You Think

I’m liking this whole “write posts on Sunday” thing. I rarely have things that demand my attention on Sundays, so I often find myself sitting around with time to kill.

Perhaps I shall redirect that killing time to whitespace – fill the void with something useful. Slash and burn pixel forests with self-aggrandizing pontification on topics of incredibly specific interest and arcane origin. Type quickly and loudly simply for the sake of hearing the music of my keystrokes. Fill your eyes with needless words expounding far beyond the point of necessity, into a realm that can only be described as ego-stroking.

You love it and you know it.

So, basically, I think the Sunday post will become the norm. Adjust your calendars accordingly.

And yes, there will be a return to the every-other-week schedule soon. Moving to a new place imminently! Once life stops exploding on my face, we’ll return to the usual.

I expect you all are quivering with anticipation.

See, it's funny because I am also a jolly fat man. That's right, I'm fucking jolly.

See, it’s funny because I am also a jolly fat man. That’s right, I’m fucking jolly.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to teach brewing at an SCA event up north a bit from Albany. It was a great experience – I had several very eager students turn out to learn all about homebrewing from the very basics (as in, “yeast + sugar + water = booze” basic), and it was quite the educational experience for me as well. This is why we teach, after all – as we give knowledge to others, so we receive it in return.

Teaching these classes helped me codify a position I’d long been trying to express; I’d like to share that with you.

While the SCA has a fairly well-defined mission in “recreating the arts and traditions of pre-17th century Europe,” the truth is that the accuracy of said re-creation varies. A lot. A whole lot. The group casts a fairly broad net in attracting members, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness – we can take in people with a diverse range of interests and cultivate their inner Medievalist geek, but we also don’t separate by interest level or expertise. Thus, you get a very mixed bag in terms of research interest in the group as a whole. It’s a byproduct of being inclusive, and it’s a good thing, I think. Certainly, there are groups which cleave to a higher standard of accuracy and authenticity, but we can find that level in the SCA as well – and you’re more likely to find the SCA than, say, Regia Anglorum.

But what I occasionally run into is a person who not only isn’t engaged in recreating the art of the era – they actively oppose it. “Pfft, why would I make period wines? They were probably crappy!” Or “I don’t care about doing research – I just want to make something delicious.” Or better still, “Research is too hard to do.”

“Research is too hard, so I’m just going to do whatever?” That’s crap. That’s like saying “I don’t want to base my observations on facts – I’d just rather pull things out of my ass.” That is an unfortunately common mindset in the world (one to which we are all vulnerable), and we can work to reduce it by engaging in critical analysis.

I think it’s rooted, in part, in the desire of creative people to invest themselves into a project, and in doing so add to their own social value. We put a lot of ourselves into, say, a song that we write or a beer that we brew. We take our ideas, and using our hard-won skill, translate them into another medium that may be consumed by others. There’s a lot of ego wound up in our creations. We share that with other people. “If they like this, then they’ll like me and they’ll see that I have value!” We ingratiate ourselves to a society by our contributions to it, and we take that to heart.

But when we work from another’s source material – try to recreate someone else’s creation – it seems to us that we no longer are conveying our own ideas. “These are someone else’s ideas! What if they’re wrong? What if their idea sucks? If I create that and promulgate it as my own, everyone will think suck!” We have to remove our own ego from such attempts at re-creation, because we need to think about how someone else did something – whether or not we think that’s a good idea. This creates a situation where someone may dislike a thing and direct that at us, while we stand there helpless trying to defend a thing that never came from us in the first place.

This can be daunting for many. We stand to lose investor confidence. Our social currency will weaken. Purchasing power declines. Our credit rating may be downgraded.  And so, we become fiscally conservative regarding our social currency – stick to what we know works, and don’t take risks.

It’s all a lie. As I will show shortly, the process of re-creating is one of translation – and any translation involves choices on the part of the translator. That’s where you get to invest yourself – but because people are unfamiliar with it, because it is a new direction of expression and investment, they become scared.

Let’s take a look at how to overcome such fears. What follows is an applied form of the scientific method, used to recreate an ancient wine; while I’m focusing on ancient wine, this principle can really be applied (in specific modified forms) in any area of life that involves analysis of information and synthesis of ideas.

What's the worst that could happen?

What’s the worst that could happen?

This is my process summarized:

1) Find a source

2) Identify and list critical steps

3) Ask questions and map possible answers

4) Continue asking questions until you can’t answer (or give up)

5) Pick your answers and justify your choices

6) Reassemble into a novel method

7) Experiment, document, and repeat

Most people who have done this to any extent will look at that list and go “Well, no shit.” This, however, is not always obvious to people, and there are a few other principles that we need to know going in:

  • Perfect replication is probably impossible.

In much the same way that science will never lead you to “100% certainty,” any attempt to replicate an item from history is inherently flawed. That’s OK – impossible goals are still useful, because they ensure that we’ll always  try.

  • Every step along the path can be useful.

This ties back to my “being wrong is good” argument. Even our failures will teach us valuable lessons, and if you’re following a tightly-regimented process, your learning pace will be greatly accelerated. The key is to remember that you will be making choices while also documenting alternate paths – so long as you do that, you will have a map that you can continue to explore, time and time again, until you have satisfactorily exhausted its secrets.

Let’s do this step-by-step:

1) Find a source: You can do this the hard way (see the “Brewing with Egil” series), or you can “cheat” and find something that you want to replicate. Let’s cheat! I’ll start with an ancient Greek technique for something called Coan wine. Keep that open in a new tab as you read the rest of this.

2) Identify and list critical steps: Here, I like to look for things that are both familiar and foreign. Reading over the recipe, it ends with regular wine production: remove the grapes, press them, store the juice. OK, so we know where we’re ending. The initial stages seem bizarre, though. Collect seawater? Dry the grapes? What? It doesn’t have to make sense right now – what you need to do is cobble together a list of summarized steps:

  1. Obtain seawater with sediment removed.
  2. Pick very ripe grapes that have dried after a rain.
  3. Dry grapes: in the sun for 2 days, or outside generally for 3.
  4. Take 10 quadrantrils of seawater and 40 quadrantrils of grapes, in a container that can just hold all of it.
  5. Soak the grapes for 3 days in the seawater.
  6. Remove the grapes, press in the treading room, store the juice.

As I said, you don’t need to know what anything means just yet. In fact, it’s better that you don’t – put everything that might be relevant into your summary, and keep the original source handy in case you missed something. You’ll also need the originals for the next step.

3) Ask questions and map possible answers: What do I mean here? Let’s start asking a few and you’ll get the picture.

Start with step 1, the seawater. I’ll just start asking questions that come to mind:

  • Where is the seawater from?
  • What is the salt concentration of the water?
  • Are there other minerals leftover?
  • What kind of jar is the water stored in?

Now, start answering questions, and “mapping” different possible answers. Sometimes, a question has a fairly straightforward answer – but sometimes, multiple possibilities appear equiprobable. Put it all down. Note your sources – you can ask questions about those too.

  • “Coan” wine, after some searching, comes from the Greek island of Kos, which is just off the western coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea.
  • Global average ocean salinity is 3.5%. Around Kos, it’s 4%. Source.
  • Hm. I have no idea. Seawater has a lot of stuff in it, but I don’t know what will settle out and what won’t.
  • There could be several answers here. We know the Greeks used clay amphorae. They also used wooden vessels. They also used leather vessels. All are possibilities.

To start building your “map,” try to visualize the central step about which you are asking questions. Put this first round of questions around that step as radiating lines, and add answers to the ends of those lines. Something like this:

I don’t usually draw a literal diagram like this – this is just how I visualize my process, and how I engage in questioning. The crucial part is to leave your answers lying around as touchstones.

4) Continue asking questions until you can’t answer (or give up): Now you can start asking questions about your answers, and building a web around those. Maybe you pick the “Wood, Leather, or Pottery” answer and start asking questions about it:

You can do this forever. I haven’t even begun to ask all the questions I could possibly ask – and that’s OK. That’s why you’re building the map – you research something until a point where you need to stop (or wish to stop), but leave the map around so you have something to come back to. It becomes a literal guide for your research that you can continue to reference repeatedly.

And with experimentation and learning, you’ll alter that map and find new directions!

5) Pick your answers and justify your choices When you stop, what you’ll have are basic steps, with a huge network of roads and resting points (questions and answers). Follow a road of questions to an answer that suits you, and justify your stop. Any reason is valid, so long as you’re honest about it. Remember, you’ve always got your map, so you can return at any point and keep going down that road.

Perhaps you want to pick one initial answer and explore it until you’ve exhausted all sources of information. Cool. Maybe you want to find enough information to allow you to replicate the product with stuff you have in your house. Also cool. Your purpose will guide the answers you pick, and remarking on why you went where you did will help you when you revisit this map – and yes, you will revisit it. Over and over again.

So remember, you’re in complete control of the journey. It goes as far as you want it to as fast as you want it to, and all steps along the way are valuable. In fact, small incremental experimentation is better than complex multi-variable efforts – it’s easier to analyze your information that way.

6) Reassemble into a novel method Now that you’ve got your answers picked out, you’ll put them together in a logical order, modifying steps as appropriate to incorporate your answers.

So maybe I figure out the exact salinity and mineral content of the Aegian Sea circa 200 BCE. Excellent. I have to somehow incorporate that information into my processing – perhaps I manufacture a purified “seawater” by adding chemicals to distilled water until I hit the right mineral profile.

Or maybe you decided, “Screw that, I live on Kos – I’m just going to go out into a boat and gather up water like they did.” So the boat, the voyage, the destination – those are all part of the method.

7) Experiment, document, and repeat By itself, this is a valuable intellectual exercise – but look, I’m a brewer. I make shit. What good is all this research unless we get something out of it. So we figure out what we’re doing and set up a small experiment.

I did this at the class I mentioned above. I purchased 2 2-quart bottles of concord grape juice (no preservatives), and after a bunch of research and extrapolation, I figured out that I needed to add approximately 35 grams of salt to those 2 quarts of juice to get the right salt content. I used hand-harvested Mediterranean sea salt, because that’s as close as I could get. I used one satchet of wine yeast. Added the salt to one of the quarts, left the other alone, added the yeast.

Easy, right? It would up being ~2 tablespoons of salt, so the rate of addition I figured out is 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of grape juice.

If you’re wondering, it tastes really really weird.

So I tried it, and I just told you what I did (documented) as well as my entire process. Now? I can go back to my map and try it all over again. Like I said, you don’t need to make a literal map – that’d drive you insane – but the principle is one to which you should adhere. Make sure you’ve always got something to go back to, so that you have a launching point for new experiments.

This is essentially an adapted and applied version of the scientific method. We observe, hypothesize, experiment, learn, and do it all over again.

You’ll never be “finished” with it, but you’ll sure as hell make some great progress – and some really interesting products – along the way.

So go forth and try shit out! Dare to fail! Make something really weird! Just make sure you take good notes along the way.

I really just wanted to post this .gif again. Let's say it's something about experiments in human psychology. Yeah, that sounds right.

I really just wanted to post this .gif again. Let’s say it’s something about experiments in human psychology. Yeah, that sounds right.

Smoke and Mirrors: Writing Praise Poetry as a Skald

Oh, right, I have a blog!

Life is exploding right now, so my update schedule is going to be more irregular for the next couple of months. Once I move and regain the ~60% of my possessions which are currently in storage, life will return to some sort of normalcy. Lots of projects in the hopper – authentic medieval gluten-free beer, lighting shit on fire, putting fancy holes in the ground, and more. We’ll get to them in due time.

One hobby doesn’t require a lot of “stuff,” though:  writing poetry. I’ve been on a skaldic poetry kick lately, and I’ve written several new pieces in short order.

The role of the skald in old Norse culture was an important one. While old Norse poetry is rooted in an anonymous mythological tradition, as time went on poets began to develop more complex forms of verse that were directed at everyday events. The skald dropped his anonymity, and became an identifiable figure in the culture. As Christianity began to take over the Norse countries, the skald evolved into a more prominent figure – that of a historian, chronicler, and teacher. They became the curators and stewards of their people’s history – and also agents of change who spread the ideas of Christianity throughout the land.

Many skalds were official functionaries in the courts of prominent Norse figures. They would chronicle the deeds of powerful and noteworthy people, and recite the stories of the people they served. This would sometimes involve the spot composition of lausavisur, or “occasion poetry.” Spot composition is very difficult, and the skaldic meters are quite challenging and complex; how is it that one could reasonably be asked to compose such poetry so quickly?

In my studies, I’ve come to the conclusion that most skalds were really just very good at making you think they were composing on the spot. Verbal illusionists, if I may.

“ILLUSION, Sveinn. A trick is something a skald does for word-fame…or ale.”
I’m sorry, that was terrible.
OK, I’m not really sorry.

Kennings are a primary hallmark of skaldic poetry, and it seems that the “best” poetry used those kennings liberally. At their core, kennings are just literary circumlocutions – substitution metaphors used to extend the word and syllable count of a poem. They’re crucial in order to fit your thoughts into the strictly-counted skaldic forms, the simplest of which still demands adherence to a defined meter.

In practice, though, kennings are forms of literary tropes that are used as cultural “shortcuts,” conveying context, framework, and ideas in small literary packages. This is incredibly useful in a culture with an oral tradition; since literacy was so rare, images were distilled into easily-understood packages that would be re-used in multiple pieces. No reference texts or dictionaries would be needed – the repetition of similarly-constructed phrases aimed at known deeds was enough to cement the meaning in people’s heads.

A skald, after sufficient practice, would be armed with a litany of kennings that could be applied to almost any situation, as they would reflect a general concept that existed in the world. Consider “warrior” in the link there – there are hundreds of documented kennings for the word. Any one of those could be used in place of the word “warrior,” and all were understood to mean that. If you knew 75 kennings for “warrior,” you could talk about almost any warrior in a poem, as you’d have some phrase that would fit the rules and whatever else you’re trying to fit in there.

The consequence of using these tropes is that the content of skaldic poems is often minimal at best. There are lots of words which often present different views of the subject – but most of the poems condense to say very very little overall. In fact, much of skaldic poetry appears to be a method of taking a long time to say “You done good.”

Let’s dissect two examples of my own poetry to see the kinds of things I’m talking about. Warning: if I’ve wrriten a praise poem for you, and you’re reading this, you’re about to learn how I cheat. If you’d rather keep the magic alive, skip ahead.

This is a poem I wrote for my friend Hobbe, who won our local archery championship:
darken the skies.
Mournful cry
mail-shirt goslings.
Winds harry
with wounding-reeds.
Oðin’s rains
rise to a flood.

Skillful Scot –
Skúli of the bow –
Hobbe Yonge
hobbles Suttung
with flight-swifts
swiftly issued –
jötnar fall
to yew of Snows.

The first stanza consists of 4 pairs of lines. “Battle-drops” are arrows; when they “darken the skies,” it means there are a lot of them. “Mail-shirt goslings” are also arrows; their “mournful cry” is heard as they fall. “Wounding-reeds?” Yup, arrows. And they’re carried by the winds. Unsurprisingly, “Oðin’s rains” is also a reference to arrows.

I just spent 8 lines saying “ARROW’D!”

The next stanza seems to include some directed, personal information – but it’s really a trick. Hobbe’s persona is Scottish, so “Skillful Scot/Skuli of the bow” seems to be a direct reference. However, the form I’ve chosen only requires “skillful” and “skuli” to alliterate with each other. I could replace “Scot” with literally any other adjective and still fulfill the requirements of the metric. This is an example of a stock phrase which has been drop-in adapted to fit my need.

Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an archer – I could change “Skuli of the bow” to “Skuli of the spear” or “arrow” or “ship” or just about anything else, and completely alter the context. “Skillful [descriptor]/Skuli of the [noun]” is a perfect example of a literary trope that can be applied almost anywhere.

“Yew of Snows” is a very common pattern when kenning warriors; [tree] of [noun] is used in countless places. In this case, I used “yew” because it’s used to make bows. That was the extent of the thought that went into that image.

The only part of the poem that actually took composition was “Hobbe Yonge/hobbles Sutung.” Here is how I personalized the poem: I just dropped the recipient’s name into it. That’s it. One instance of name-dropping framed by generic stock descriptions of an archer, and suddenly I’m a skilled poet writing high praise. I could change “Hobbe Yonge” to a different name or direct reference to another person; I would have to change the upcoming line to fit the metrical rule, but it’s doable. Here are some examples:

“Peter Olsen/pounds on Suttung”
“Red rover/reddens Suttung”
“Harald the Fair/harries Suttung”

The whole poem represents a couple of minute’s worth of compositional thought, if that.

The thing that makes it special, then, is that I was inspired to write it by the deeds of the person being praised. It’s a lot like a boxer or martial artist – the components you learn are simple, but the way you assemble them is what makes you an innovative fighter. In the same way, directing these tropes at someone, assembling them appropriately, and making some minor modifications are the hallmark of the poet. The reason I assembled them is that there was a person who needed to be praised; the praise is in the assembling, and name-dropping ensures that the person is remembered for eternity.

This holds true even in more elaborate poems:

Quill-wielder – the willing-field of
water-steed thought-reeded
bears the marking – tearing-bark of
bale-eating ale-meter
stands as stone-face land of honed-much
stave-birds’ graven word-cuts –
wise-elm’s eyes-helm of
adder-cauldron – a skald gladdened.

Follow the link for an explanation. Here, I’ve kenned nearly every noun and verb in the poem, and inlaid two thoughts into a main thesis. Nigh-incomprehensible and dense with kennings – this is the work of the skalds. I wrote this for this geek who made a scroll for me – she’s pretty cool – and I chose to write it in one of the most complex metrical forms.

Yet even here, with all these kennings, there is only one identifying one: “adder-cauldron,” a reference to the toxic dye verdigris that the scribe in question researched expressly for the project. That’s literally it. Everything else in the poem is just a reference to a scribe in general. It could apply to almost anyone who has crafted a scroll. Some of the kennings contain deeper references which have more meaning in context – “bale-eating ale-meter” means “goat,” but refers more specifically to a legendary goat, which is a reference to the storied goat hide on which the scroll was penned.

This is yet another example of the necessity of context in making a skaldic poem personal. Change one kenning and the poem can be directed at someone else – but because it was directed where it was, it carries a little additional meaning.

As a skald, it’s important to be conversant in kennings and their construction; the use of kennings is necessary to be able to write this kind of poetry the way it was written to its audience 1000 years ago.


When you get right down to it, skalds seemed to make heavy use of commonly-understood tropes in order to call up related experiences in the audience, evoking an emotional reaction to a specific situation using stock phrases and concepts assembled ad-hoc with the occasional bit of specific information. You can write many verses knowing very little about a subject – because the entire point is to take a long time saying a few things as elaborately as possible. I can write a poem in a matter of minutes with very little information – I just use lots of kennings that say the same thing in different ways.

The best skalds were those who had the largest vocabularies, and could thus praise almost anyone for almost anything at almost any time. The pieces were transient and ephemeral, but the tropes they used endured beyond them. Tying the subject together with a timeless framework was a method of giving lasting word-fame.

"Scumbag Loki" basically sums up the entirety of the Elder Edda

“Scumbag Loki” basically sums up the entirety of the Elder Edda

I find it interesting that in today’s Internet-centric communications, we’ve begun to move back towards ephemeral context-dependent trope-based communication. Most social communication platforms today focus on high volume short-term condensed information transfer – tight packages of information that convey ideas rapidly, while not really expanding on them significantly.

It strikes me as being oddly akin to an oral tradition; since we’re focused so much on the right now, timing and rapidity of message matter far more than permanence in many circles. Getting karma on reddit, for example, is 99% timing and 1% content – it’s the context that makes any of these communications work.

So, basically, Vikings invented lolcats. That’s what you should take away from this.

Storytelling: Editing Your Material


One of the things I particularly enjoy in the SCA is the opportunity to engage in storytelling. Truth be told, I’ve been exposed to storytelling in various forms since age 5 – when Grandpa Bjarne would sit us kids down and tell us totally made-up stories about the Indians who lived on the mountain across the lake.

The majority of my storytelling and editing experience comes from running pen-and-paper RPG campaigns for the last 16 years. When you play D&D (or when you grow up and find a real game), you are simultaneously engaging in storycraft (usually through the results of die rolls and ill-thought-out character decisions), storytelling (as you awkwardly narrate the action that you think is totally awesome), and story editing (as you learn to cut out the crappy parts and actually make it interesting). I’ve learned to apply these lessons to my efforts at more “traditional” storytelling, and the synergy that is generated makes me a stronger performer overall.

Editing your material is crucial no matter the medium of story conveyance, but it is especially critical in live person-to-audience storytelling, as you will often have to adapt your performance mid-stream based on the real-time feedback you are getting from your audience. If they look bored? “Crap, better get through this boring part – maybe I’ll skip ahead and get to some action. Nah, let’s kill this guy off – he’s boring me. Oh, she looks scared – let’s play it up and get a good reaction. Aaaaand pause for dramatic effect…good!” That sort of internal analysis requires you to stay on your toes and edit your material in completely foreign situations. The stories in your head often become living things – morphing and rearranging chunks of detail that endeavor to reflect a central theme.

So how does it work? What do you need to do?

I don’t even need to say it. You know what I’m talking about.

The most important thing you need to understand is your role as a storyteller (again, no matter the medium) – you are not here to convey a series of mundane details, but rather, you are here to inject a theme into your audience’s brain.

Sure, you can go with a light-hearted comedic piece, or a dramatic tear-jerker, or an action-packed thrillfest – but no matter what you’re doing, your story is ultimately a collection of socially-constructed memes that you are attempting to assemble and convey to your audience. The details are mostly fluff that create a backdrop and help ground your story – but honestly, most of those details don’t matter. Tom Bombadil didn’t need to be in any of the Lord of the Rings movies because, really, he didn’t matter for the story that was being told. When you boil it down, there are really only so many types of story.

I’ll say it again: the details rarely matter when telling a story.

Once you can identify the core themes that a given story is trying to present, detail alteration becomes almost trivial.  This recognition frees you up to treat details like LEGO blocks – plug something in when you need it, because the theme is all that matters.

Beyond this, you need to know your story (that is, the theme(s) you want to present) and know your audience (the details that will appeal to them). These things are generally easier than understanding the mutability of what you’re doing. Pick a type of story with some themes you want to present, and pay attention to cues from your audience. Learning how to read people is a completely separate skill worthy of its own post – but generally, just look at their faces and you’ll know what’s going on.

Let’s go with a specific example of a story I’m working on right now, because I prefer to show rather than tell.

Yes, Vikings were pretty much like that.

One of my overarching performance projects is an abridged version of the saga of Egil Skallagrimmson. I’m taking the parts of the saga that only concern Egil, editing them down into digestible 8 – 10 minute chunks of live story, and re-poeticizing those poems attributed to Egil. The end goal is to be able to tell a contiguous tale of Egil’s life, focusing only on him while still giving a sense of the historical relevance of the saga.

Right now, I’m working on chapters 47 – 49 in the above link. There’s a lot of story there – probably about 30 minutes or so if I were to just tell it as-written. This is a difficult length to perform for an audience, as most people’s attention will wander after about 15 continuous minutes. That’s why we need breaks or changes in action in other media – listening to a single performer for too long is tiring.

The actual sequence of events in this story doesn’t matter nearly as much as the type of events being told.

These are the major plot points:

  • Egil, as a young (16 years old) Viking, uses his words to inspire his brother’s men to raid a village.
  • He then attends a feast of a wealthy baron, whose daughter is beautiful and sought by many men. She spurns him, but Egil recites a poem, and she essentially swoons – “they got on well together.”
  • A friend of Egil’s father, named Thorir, pleads to the king for mercy on Egil’s behalf (as Egil has previously committed crimes). The king is swayed, but the queen is not.
  • A feast is held, and the queen plans to have Egil murdered. The plan fails, and Egil exacts revenge on those responsible – sending a clear message of defiance to the queen.

The meta-story here should be very familiar to us: a daring rogue-like figure – a charismatic leader of men and charmer of women – is the object of scorn of an authority figure. The “man” tries to do him in using nefarious tactics, but our “hero” triumphs with naught but swagger and witty remarks. He lives to snark another day.

Keeping that in mind, I could condense that 30 minute performance into about 12 minutes thusly:

  • Introduce the theme: “Though he was only 16 and had just begun to raid, Egil’s fame as a Viking grew rapidly.”
  • 1st reflection on the theme: “Aki the Wealthy, who Egil had saved in his first raid, told Egil and Thorolf of a wealthy town named Lund that lay near. The men were unsure of whether or not to proceed. Egil saw this and spoke these words. [poem]. The men’s spirits were inflamed, and they raided the town – plundering it, and burning it down as they left.”
  • 2nd reflection on the theme: “Egil and Thorolf were then invited to a feast. There, they drew lots to pair off – a man and a woman – for drinking. Egil was paired with Arnfid’s daughter, who was very beautiful. She saw Egil sitting near her seat and scoffed, saying [poem]. Egil sat her down and said [poem]. They continued drinking, and got on well that night.”
  • Introduce the Conflict: “But not all were so enamored of Egil’s prowess. Though King Erik had been swayed by the words of Thorir – who had asked forgiveness for the son of Skallagrim, his friend – Queen Gunnhild would not so easily forgive the man who murdered her cousin Bard just one year prior.”
  • A Change of Venue: “There was a great feast being held at the chief temple at Gaular. Gunnhild knew that many people would be there, including Thorir and his guests, so she told her brothers Eyvind and Alf, ‘I want you two to kill both of Skallagrim’s sons, or failing that, whichever one of them you can.'”
  • The Conflict Comes to a Head: “Thorir had advised Egil to stay home, as he knew of Gunnhild’s plotting. Thorolf went, but stayed close to Thorir, so neither Eyvind nor Alf could make their mark. Gunnhild was furious – ‘Then slay one of their men, rather than letting them go unscathed.’ They took to drinking with Thorvald and Thorfid, loyal companions of Thorolf’s and friends of he and Egil. The drinking grew to flyting, and then to fighting. Eyvind drew a small sword and stabbed Thorvald, killing him there. All the men around were furious, but no-one else had weapons, as they were forbidden on sacred ground. Eyvind was outlawed from Norway, but was sent to Denmark by Erik and Gunnhild to work for King Harold Gormsson, who received him warmly and appointed him to his coastal guard.”
  • Payback Time: “News of this reached Aki. A messenger was sent when Egil and Thorolf had come into Danish waters, telling them, ‘Eyvind lays just off the coast on Jutland-side. He plans to ambush you with a large force as you head south. But he is only in two ships, and is close by.’ Egil and Thorolf sailed silently to where Eyvind lay, and ambushed him with spears and stones. Many of Eyvind’s men fell, but Eyvind himself left overboard and swam away. Egil seized his ships, weapons, and wealth, and sang this verse. [poem].
  • Denoument/Link to Next Story: “Thorolf saw the destruction that had been wrought, and looked for a long time. Then he turned to Egil, saying, ‘I think we should reconsider our plans to go to Norway this autumn.'”

Done. That is the core of how I would perform this story, were I to do it as one piece. I’ve cut out huge swaths of detail, but ask yourself – how much does that matter? What I’ve written here is a complete story that reflects the themes expressed in the original. I would add more linking details in here to get characters from one venue to another, but it only requires a few sentences at most to accomplish that.

Now, I’m probably not going to actually do this as one longer story. More than likely, I’ll break it into two shorter stories and embellish with a few more details, just to teach some history and provide context for the action. That will allow me to make stronger links to prior and subsequent works. However, with little extra work, those core elements I have written could be easily turned into a single story.

I stuck pretty tightly to the actual historical record – after all, I’m still trying to tell the saga as it allegedly happened – but nothing is stopping me changing details will-nilly. Do I need to show you how awesome Egil is with those first two examples? Of course not – they’re just there to develop his character a bit. Hell, I could just say, “While Egil was growing quite famous, not everyone was so enamored of him.”

Or maybe I could make Egil hit on the Queen, and it’s the King who orders him killed. Maybe at that very same feast. And then Egil steals the King’s finest ship, sets fire to it, and steals their daughter. Does it really make a difference in the story? It’s all a matter of how I want to present the character at the time of telling.

The lesson here: edit with a machete. Details are often superficial, and don’t serve to really drive the main plot. The first step is to hack away all of the unnecessary bits until you find out what’s really going on. Then, add details back on until you have something that suits your audience.

There’s really no trick to it – all you need to do is analyze, and you’ll find the story underneath all those details.

Brewing with Egil: “Bread or Beer?” More Like “Beer or Beer.” (And a Summary)

I’ve dedicated 5 posts to a lengthy discussion about some of the roots of modern brewing terminology, and grain processing practices from ancient civilizations. So far, I’ve traced a tradition of barley processing rooted in ancient Egypt, documented in ancient Rome (and the surrounding regions),  connected to early Anglo-Saxon England, and echoed in a 16th century brewing practice for Ethiopia – where the technique came from in the first place.

But I care about the Norse people, particularly during the Viking age and shortly after, during the early Icelandic Commonwealth era. How did they get their drink on?

Sure, I can make an argument that contact with Anglo-Saxons and Finns (Laplanders) would have resulted in cultural exchange; let us not forget that the Kalevala contains what is probably an ancient beer recipe that bears a shocking resemblance to the techniques I’ve already described; barley and bitter herbs are boiled, honey is added, fermentation happens.

The Vikings were also descended from the Germanic tribes around the Roman empire – and I’ve already shown that Pliny (and others) document their grain processing techniques – Tacitus in particular describes a “wine” made from barley or other grain, and other document their methods of making porridges, all of which are quite similar to the Roman method. And of course, good ol’ Zosimos describes a method for making a barley “bread” which is subsequently steeped in water, and the resultant “aquam dulcem” (sweet waters) strained and used as a drink.

I’ve described how these techniques are reflected in Anglo-Saxon medical texts and glossaries, likely a result of Roman influence during the period of Roman Britain. I could just leave it at that – an argument based on trade and cultural contact, and a well-supported one I contend.

But did the Vikings do this too?

Yes, Vikings were that hardcore

Almost certainly. “Breads” have been unearthed at Lovö, Birka, and Helgö. In most cases, the bread was very small (~5 cm in diameter and 0.5 cm thick), and appeared unleavened or possibly sour leavened. The composition of the breads varied widely, but common ingredients include: barley, oats, peas, vetches, flax seed, gold-0f-pleasure (commonly called “false flax”), and various field weeds.

Hm. Grains? Bittering agents (vetches, field weeds)? Flax? Hardtack consistency and size?

That doesn’t sound like “bread” in any meaningful way that we know it. In fact, it sounds exactly like the result of the grain processing techniques documented by Pliny and Zosimos.

Indeed, the Old Norse word for “bread” is commonly held to be “brauð;” however, there is much dispute and uncertainty regarding the exact etymology of “bread,” and even Cleasby-Vigfusson’s Old Icelandic dictionary  indicates that the modern meaning was unlikely to be in use during the Viking age.

Given the “bread” finds that have been unearthed, it seems that this holds water. Small wafers dried out, mixed with bitter herbs and flax, are hardly likely to have been used the same way we use “bread.” Such items would be useful to carry around, and would allow you to make a quick meal when you were on the go by soaking in water or some other liquid.

And, for what it’s worth, the word “brauð” would be pronounced quite a bit more like “broth” than anything else. Given its possible ties to words meaning “brewing,” this may well be the actual case – a processed grain cake that could be broken into pieces, steeped in water, and used as a broth/beverage/pottage.

But did the Vikings have alcoholic beverages?

What, you think this is water?

Absolutely. I won’t bother putting out links, because the sagas are full of references to “öl,” which is yet another root of our word “ale.” And there is little doubt that “öl” was used in a celebratory or sacrificial/sacramental context, much like the Anglo-Saxon “beór.” Egil’s saga includes a tale where “öl” is drunk as a sacrifice to local spirits; Egil kills a man because he was lied to about the availability of good drink.

Never get between a Viking and his beer.

Based on all the evidence I’ve gathered to-date, here’s the picture I’m drawing of Viking-age cereal beverages:


Ealu = brauð: cereal-based beverages, lightly fermented or not fermented, sometimes mixed with honey-water, sometimes mixed with herbs, intended as a nutritional/medicinal drink, and possibly as a base for the cultivation of yeast. This is related to the various grain preparations documented by the Romans, the Talmud, and Zosimos.

Beór = öl: mixed-source fermented beverages, intended to be alcoholic, that function as replacements for wine/mead where those items were extraordinarily expensive. The grain base is likely the same as in the “nutritional” beverages, but honey and/or fruit may be added to add sugar, flavor, and alcohol-producing yeast.


There could be a lot of variation within these two broad classes, but the core principle of two different production streams is constant. One is unfermented or lightly soured, to assist in digestion and the assimilation of nutrients; the other is fermented strongly, to create alcohol. Both may include herbs of various sorts, to add bitterness or “medicinal” qualities.

I believe I have built my arguments pretty well, but I always welcome hole-punching regarding my theories.

The next stage: experimentation! I will attempt to reproduce some of these techniques, and the beverages they may have created.

There is much drinking yet to be done.

Brewing with Egil, Part V: Ealu, Beór, Wyrt, Grut, and Mealt


Throughout human history, few pursuits have been as fervent as the one to get totally shitfaced.

Pliny even remarks as much in Naturalis Historia:

“and yet, by Hercules! one really might have supposed that there the earth produced nothing but corn for the people’s use. Alas! what wondrous skill, and yet how misplaced! means have absolutely been discovered for getting drunk upon water even.”

In particular, the Anglo-Saxons seemed to love getting blasted; they had several words that describe intoxicating (and some non-intoxicating) drinks, many of which form the basis for those same words in modern English.

Following are my conclusions about the possible realities of these brewing terms, based on my research to-date.

In addition to the research I’ve discussed before, there are a variety of sources that are crucial to this research:

The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft – a 3 volume book of herbal medicine: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies – a 2-volume collection of teaching manuscripts, containing linguistic glosses: Volume 1 (vocabularies), Volume 2 (indices)

Wyrt: This word is the root of the modern word “wort,” which is the liquid that remains following the mashing of grains for beer production.

Interestingly enough, “wyrt” has another meaning in Old English – “herb” or “plant,” especially those in a medicinal context.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising, especially when you recall the names of some well-known plants: mugwort, St. John’s wort, pennywort, and so forth.

It’s not uncommon for one word to have multiple meanings – but those meanings are almost always thematically related. In the case of “wyrt,” it is used on its own to refer to various herbs on their own. Sometimes, “wyrt” has other “wyrts” added to it, making for a very herbal mixture.

The “Leechdom” books are full of references to “wyrt” and the places where it used; in almost all cases, it is connected to “ealu” and “mealt.” Keep this in mind as you continue reading.

Sound familiar?

Mealt and Grut: The exact meaning of “mealt” is somewhat ambiguous. It is the root of the modern word “malt,” the grain used in modern brewing. The root of its use in Old English is a word that means “melted,” “boiled,” “bitter,” or “sour,” and is seen most often in context with words referring to grain (though one Old Norse use of the word “maltr” describes the foul mood of some folks). No references to the production of “mealt” exist, but there are many references to its uses – all of which seem to be tied to the production of “ealu.” It is pretty safe to conclude that “mealt” likely refers to a processed grain product, likely intended to be “melted,” or mingled with water.

The word glosses with the Latin words “bratium,” “bracium,” or “brasium,” which seem to refer to either a very white grain or…trees in the Cypress family. Hm. Interesting.

When one considers that the word itself has connotations of “sour” or “bitter,” the Cypress association doesn’t seem so crazy. It may be a reference to grain mixed with bitter or resiny material – not unlike the “polenta” described by Pliny and other authors.

Even going back to ancient Egypt, we find references to grains mixed with aromatic herbs – that is the “bappir” of the Hymn to Ninkasi.

In addition, the 4th century alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis, in a fragment about “zythos,” describes a method of grain production quite like Pliny’s polenta; the process includes taking the steeped and dried barley, mixing it with herbs and salt, and baking it into a small cake. That cake is later crumbled into water and heated.

The Babylonian Talmud describes “Egyptian zeethum,” which is a mixture of barley, salt, and wild saffron (not the same as the ludicrously expensive spice).

This is doubly interesting given that “mealt” is connected to “wyrt,” which is connected to the herbal medicine tradition. It is unlikely that any of these meanings are coincidence, especially given the very context-dependent nature of Old English translation.

And for added fun? The word “gruit,” used to refer to a mixture of herbs used to spice traditional ale, is rooted in the Old English “grut,” which is also the root of “grout.” In all cases, the meaning of the word is something akin to “coarse meal.” We also see “grut” used in an herbal/medicinal context.

I conclude that the most likely scenario is that “gruit” referred to a loose meal consisting of grain and herbs, likely heavy on the herbal mixture. “Mealt” referred to a mixture of grain and possibly herbs baked into a small “cake” that mixed with water later; the “mealt” would likely be somewhat sour from its processing. That same “mealt” might be crushed or ground into “grut.”

When you consider “mealt” and “wyrt” in combination, the connection is quite clear; an herbed grain product is mixed with water (creating an herbal and starchy infusion), and sometimes mixed with even more herbs.

So what’s everyone else gonna drink?

Ealu: This word is the root of our word “ale.” The precise meaning of “ale” is subject to some confusion. These days, “ale” refers to a beer fermented with a top-fermenting yeast. In the Middle Ages, “ale” was a category of fermented cereal beverage that was flavored with “gruit,” and “beer” was the same thing flavored with hops.

However, my research has pointed me at a slightly different use case for “ealu,” based on my research and on readings in the above-linked works.

“Ealu” is attested to primarily in medicinal/nutritional contexts. The “Leechdom” books contain numerous references to its use as the base for medicines. In addition, “ealu” is seen with “wyrte” in almost all of its uses, several times with “mealt,” and a few times with “grut.” Numerous herbal remedies instruct that you make “ealu” expressly for that remedy – implying a beverage that is used soon after its mixture.

Now consider the harmony between “mealt,” “wyrte,” and “ealu,” and consider the writings of Pliny and others. Pliny documents the production a beverage derived from processed grain mixed with water – sometimes boiled. The Talmud describes the same thing. So does Zosimos. And 2000 years before all of them? A prayer to Ninkasi recorded the mixture of dried herb bread with water, followed by a brief fermentation. And all of those authors describe methods of processing a grain/herb mixture and drying it for preservation. Many of these sources speak of the nutritional qualities of such preparations, as well as their potential restorative qualities.

When you examine the glosses for “ealu,” we see a connection to the Latin “cervisa” or “cerevisia,” but no other beverages. “Ealu” seems to have stood in a class by itself, as a lightly-fermented tincture of grains and herbs administered for medicinal and nutritive purposes. I posit that it may have actually been intended as a method of stimulating yeast growth for consumption – which may explain why a word like “cerevisia” eventually became the specific epithet of brewing yeast. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, anyone?

The fine tradition of throwing shit together and drinking what comes out.

Beór: And finally, we reach the root of the word “beer.”

This word shares a gloss with “ealu” – that of “cerevisia” in Latin. We also sometimes see “beór” used in remedies in a manner akin to “ealu.” Though we don’t see “mealt” specifically attached to “beór,” it is reasonable to conclude that give its analogous context and shared gloss, the same ingredients went into both.

But it’s more complicated than that. Unlike “ealu,” “beór” glosses with other beverage words. In particular, it is frequently associated with “hydromellum” and “mulsum,” both of which are words that refer to “mead.” Other texts see “beór” used as an analogy for the wines of other cultures.

The fact that the two are used distinctly (the same passage may refer to both “ealu” and “beór” separately, even in the same herbal remedy), and in a mutually exclusive context (as in, use one or the other), leads me to believe that they must be distinct beverages, brewed for entirely different purposes.

Residues of fermented beverages have been found in Iron Age burial sites, often in a ritual or religious context. Digs in southern France and Germany have revealed evidence of grain processing activities. And evidence of multiple-source fermented beverages exists. Wines have historical use as sacramental and celebratory drinks, so the discovery of alcohol production at burial sites is hardly surprising.

Given the association with wines and meads, and the somewhat lower representation in herbal remedy contexts, I conclude that “beór” refers to any beverage that is produced for alcohol. It is a class of wine-like beverages that were likely produced for sacramental or celebratory purposes. Such drinks would have been more popular in northern Europe during the Dark Ages because actual wine was difficult to get. Mead/hydromel would have been more common, but even then, honey isn’t that common. It is quite probable that any such beverage would have consisted of a mixture of different sugar sources – throw everything you’ve got together, ferment it, and drink the resultant “beor.”


So, in short: the fermented grain beverages from the Anglo-Saxon era were likely divided into two broad categories:

-“Ealu” was a freshly-prepared, short-fermented, cereal-and-herb product intended primarily as nutrition and/or medicine. It was derived from “wyrt” made of “mealt,” a processed cereal “cake” produced in a manner similar to that documented by Roman and Greek authors.

The influence of Rome on northern Europe is documented by various excavations dating to the time of Roman Britain. The likely scenario is that Romans brought their “polenta” technology to these northern tribes, who adopted it into their brewing regimen.

-“Beor” may have shared ingredients with “ealu;” however, its primary purpose was different. It would have been “stronger,” in the sense that it contained more fermentable material. In addition, it would have had sugars from three sources: processed grain, honey, and fruit. The yeasts found on fruit and in honey differ from the flora found in grain; fruit and honey have a greater association with alcohol-producing yeast. It is likely that “beor” was a potent alcoholic beverage, intended to replace wine where grapes were not abundant.

Next time, I’ll look at the journey of “ealu” into the culture of the Vikings, and look for connections between these techniques and their techniques.

Context is Everything

Iceland: it’s cold

This past weekend, I participated in the King & Queen’s Bardic Championship. In the SCA, the King and Queen often select Champions of various disciplines – to serve as sources of inspiration for the populace, and to instruct people in and generally elevate their particular field. These are positions of great honor and prestige, and people work very, very hard to achieve them.

I chose to do an in-persona piece; that is, I performed as though I was actually Magnus hvalmagi, and not Peter Olsen telling you a story that Magnus may have plausibly known. I let the character speak for himself, and showed some of his personality. The challenge was to tell Their Majesties what inspired you; I responded with some lines about the cold.

This, in and of itself, was kind of an interesting piece. I wasn’t playing Magnus telling you a story, nor Magnus reciting some poetry that he wrote. No, I was trying to speak as Magnus would have spoken, to respond as though I was he and he is answering your question. Getting into his head, or the head that I imagine he has. Being the character as opposed to being in character.

Every now and again, I ask myself why I like to get dressed up and do this whole “living history” thing. Why do I want to make Magnus come to life? Why do I want to perform ancient pieces of poetry like they’re really super relevant and you should care about them a lot?

The answer, I think, lies with the act of creating context.

Way more interesting, useful, and awesome than the actual book

Sure, we can sit down, read a book, and intellectually grasp its points – but that doesn’t mean we grok those points. We can translate that intellectual understanding to a more functional form – extrapolate a real-world application from sterile, controlled laboratory experiments – but when we do that, we throw our ideas against heretofore untested variables. Invariably, it breaks somewhere, because we neglected to implement the right controls. We didn’t synthesize the ideas in the right context – and even most intellectual attempts to do so will fail at some level.

But when we attempt to make a person come to life, to make a piece come to life – we are really trying to create its proper context.  I never enjoyed Beowulf when I was in school, but when I performed it? Magic. People around me were telling me about this awesome guy who did these awesome things and I should care because he was so awesome and now he’s dead and aren’t we screwed?

When we create a historical backdrop – speaking like an ancient person, wearing their clothes, conducting ourselves in a manner in which they would have – we actively destroy the modern context that has shaped the audience and supplant it with our own interpretation of that work’s context. Sure, we’re often warping or assuming some aspects of the historical background – but the point is in the act of re-shaping. Putting the audience in a different mindset. Re-setting their expectations. We build a new emotional connection between ourselves, the audience, and the material – and so people invest themselves more heavily in the story. They want to understand the piece, and so it carries a much greater impact.

It’s a lot like playing D&D or any other RPG – we all buy in to the same world, and then tell stories that (while silly outside of that world) have a great impact for us within that world.

It’s like LARPing, only way nerdier

A lot of “legitimate academics” scoff at what the SCA does, and rightly so in some cases. We’re not about 100% accuracy – nobody wants to die of the plague, and women really don’t want to be property. That will invariably create a situation where we disregard fact in favor of colorful fiction.

That doesn’t de-value the truly legitimate academic research that many do – and that doesn’t invalidate the principle of what we do on the whole.

I may have to sacrifice some accuracy in order to build a bridge between my audience and my material, but I do so to create a deeper level of understanding of the material in question. To help the audience move from knowing to understanding. Once they’ve made that jump, we can get the facts straight.

It is a thing that I think more people should try out. Who knows – you might just learn something. I sure did.

Brewing with Egil, Part III: Secrets of the Runes – A Look at Word Etymologies

It occurred to me at one point during this research that I didn’t know the origin of the word “malt,” or its true meaning in-period. I had a vague idea that it was probably taken from proto-Germanic, like much of our language, but the specifics eluded me.

The Icelandic sagas contain many references to malt, but no saga relates its method of production. We can infer from many of the tales that malt was a grain product processed separately from other grains – they also have words for flour, corn, and the individual grains themselves.  We’re also fairly confident that malt was used to make ale, although there is no recorded recipe for doing so in the corpus of Viking literature. Many contain references to the use of malt in the making of ale – some of these are compiled here.

In fact, there is some ambiguity as to the exact meaning of “ale” in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon ages. When we examine the poetry from those eras, we find a lot of interchange of words; in “Beowulf,” Heorot is referred to as a mead-hall, ale-hall, wine-hall, and beer-hall. In Alvíssmálthe question is posed: “What call they the ale, | that is quaffed of men,
In each and every world?” There are many names given – all different types of drink.

If there’s ambiguity in the exact use of the word “ale” – or even its core concept in the Viking age – it stands to reason that there may be ingredient ambiguity.

Indeed, when examining the etymology of the word “malt,” we find that it first appears in its contextual usage in Old English, where it’s “mealt.” The meaning is pegged to be “melted,” and it is presumed to be related to steeping in water – a critical part of the production of modern malt.

But a quick look at Bosworth-Toller shows that the word is a bit more complicated than that. It may mean “malt,” but it can also mean “cooked, boiled,” and it is also related to an Icelandic word “maltr,” which means “sour.”

It’s possible that these alternate meanings impact our concept of “malt” in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking era. The Kalevala contains a passage where beer is brewed by boiling unmalted barley, and I’ve demonstrated a 16th century “beer” whose grain base is sourdough bread – which may be connected to very ancient brewing.

During the production of that 16th century ale, the gluten in the dough fell apart as it acidified. One could go so far as to say that it “melted.” When I made it with a coarse barley meal, the chunky grain broke down into a somewhat smooth dough over the course of several days – again seeming to “melt.”

And of course, let’s not forget that delicious Russian beverage, kvass.

The word “kvass” is first documented in the Primary Chronicle of Russia, in 989. The word is квас, which means “sour” in Old Russian. The word is used in a passage describing gifts given to peasants – food, water, and “kvass.” This is obviously some kind of gift separate from the other two concepts; tradition shows that “kvass” is a lactic-fermented drink made with bread or bread and honey.

Interesting. “Malt” comes from a series of words whose meaning includes “sour.” “Kvass,” a drink made of bread, originally means “sour” in its contextual use. Kvasir is a Viking character who is slain, and whose blood forms the basis for the mead of poetry.

Word meanings are rarely cut-and-dry, and analyzing the origins of our words can give us insight into historical practices. I find myself beginning to wonder about early medieval ales; they seem less likely to map to our more modern concepts of fermented cereal beverages.

My working hypothesis is that early medieval “ale” represents a class of beverage designed to give fast nutrition. The grains were likely processed into sourdough of some sort before being used in the drink, and other sugar sources may have been used in addition. These same ingredients could be used to make higher-alcohol beverages as well.

Brewing with Egil, Part II: “Ethiopian” Beer and Dead Bees


A while ago, I stumbled across a book called A Description of the Northern Peoples, written by the Swedish Catholic archbishop Olaus Magnus in 1555. The original Latin text is freely available online; I have an English translation published later.

In the book, Magnus documents “a method of brewing beer among the Ethiopians or Indians.” It’s worth noting that, in the 16th century, “Ethiopia” was a word used to refer to all of Africa and a chunk of the Middle East; this recipe is not strictly limited to the modern borders of Ethiopia.

You can get the original text (in Latin) for free here:

The recipe is found in Book 13, chapters 30 (in part, to make the bread) and 31. Following are excerpts that convey the recipe. I’ve made the recipe twice so far.

30. On a method of brewing beer among the Ethiopians, or Indians, from a recipe furninshed by my lord Johannes Baptista Habascianus, an Indian priest

“Take flour of ordinary wheat or barley which has not been shaken through a sieve, for better beer comes from this. Make a dough and put in yeast according to the way in which ordinary bread is made. The dough should remain for 10 days before it is baked, but let it be well kneaded daily and sprinkle into it a small amount of flour every day until the tenth day, so that the dough becomes sour. After the 10th day, bake it in the oven until it turns into biscuit. When it is brittle, break it into pieces, put it in a jar, and lay on top a very small amount of sprouted barley. Fill this jar with water and stop it up well for three days…”

31. Making the same beer in a different way

“Take biscuit bread and sprouting barley and put these into a large jar just as I described above, until the third day. Then take a big pot full of honey together with the combs and wax. Afterwards take a large vessel which will hold five times as much liquid as the pot held honey, and wash it thoroughly. While it is still damp turn it with the mouth downwards, to be smoked over dried olive leaves. Next pour in all the honey from the pot, fill the same pot twice with sprouting barley and softened biscuit bread, and put as much water and sprouting barley as you need into the vessel you poured the honey into.
When all these ingredients, including the honey and water, have been mixed together in the vessel that has been smoked, the resulting beer is firmly stopped up with clay for three days. After that open it and, when you have skimmed off all the scum found in the mouth, force it to flow out, as I told you to do with the drink above. Distribute it through a shining white cloth among various clean, handsome jugs, which should then be well stopped…”


He wrote a lot more than that about the beer, but those two excerpts are the bulk of the actual technique. He describes the process for sprouting the barley, extracting wax from the “scum” skimmed off, and talks about the importance of keeping beer away from menstruating women and people “polluted from recent coition.

I decided to take a crack at replicating this recipe, because the technique is unlike anything else I’ve seen. It somewhat resembles the process documented in the Hymn to Ninkasi – but that’s a topic for another time.

I should have used stone-ground flour for this one, with a varied consistency – but I didn’t have access to it. I used whole-wheat flour the first time, and used my barley crusher to make a coarse barley meal the second time.

The “bread” that results from the wheat is pretty interesting. I’ve never let a sourdough go for 10 days; by the end, the dough was the consistency of wet clay, and baked into something not unlike pottery shards. It was also extremely lactic – it tasted quite a bit like a sharp Italian cheese, similar to aged provolone.

The barley bread wasn’t much better – still very hard and dry, but it crumbled more easily than the wheat bread.


The process past the baking is pretty straightforward – soften the bread, mix the bread glop with raw honey (with combs and wax), and drink a few days later. The smoking step is curious at first glance, but olive leaves contain bacteriocidal compounds, so the smoking likely served as some form of sanitation.

The stuff is quite sweet after 3 days, with a strong honey flavor, a nutty breadlike flavor, a touch of lactic sour/tartness, and a very yeasty profile. It’s not unpalatable – it’s just bizarre. Very mildly alcoholic, though it gets stronger as it ferments longer.

When I finished the first iteration, I found a dead bee in the solids – that’s what I get for using raw honey with comb. My friend Fridrikr Tommasson (mka Tom Delfs) helped me name the drink, in honor of the bee’s noble sacrifice: “Drykkjabýdrapa,” or “The Song of the Drunken Bee.” Godspeed, little friend.

I can’t really map it to any modern beverage, and I’m not even sure it was really intended as a “beer” in the way we think of beer. It doesn’t seem like the fermentation is really intended to produce alcohol; rather, it seems to me that the fermentation makes the stuff easier to drink. It’s very thick and rich, rather like a liquid bread. I suspect it may have been intended primarily as a nutrient beverage – a way to make use of the grain that was processed for long-term storage. It’s even conceivable that the yeast content may provide B-vitamins, enhancing the possible nutritive qualities.

This is the recipe that made me start thinking about the potential use of sourdough bread in brewing. Could something like this be reflected earlier in history? What does the sourdough process actually contribute to the beer – since it’s such an obvious specialized processing technique, it stands to reason that the brewers were attempting to manipulate the grains to a particular end.

That is a topic for a different post.