By Anatoly Liberman
Tales that explain the origin of things are called etiological. All etymologies are etiological tales by definition. It seems that one of the main features of Homo sapiens has always been his unquenchable desire to get drunk. Sapiens indeed! The most ancient intoxicating drink of the Indo-Europeans was mead. Moreover, it seems that several neighboring tribes borrowed the name of this drink from them (and undoubtedly the drink itself: otherwise, what would have been the point of taking over the word?), for we have Finnish mesi, Proto-Chinese mit, and Japanese mitsu, allegedly modifications of Indo-European medu- or medhu-. Being inebriated allowed one to converse with the gods; intoxication and inspiration were synonyms from early on. We now have a different view of alcoholism and have reduced the sublime state to the dull legal formula “under the influence.” But things were different in the spring of civilization. One of the most memorable myths of the medieval Scandinavians is about a deadly fight for the mead of wisdom and poetry.
After a truce was made between two warring clans of gods (the cause of the war has not been discovered), they met to make peace, took a crock, and spat into it. Saliva causes fermentation and has been used widely in old days for processes like the one being described here. From the contents of the crock the gods created a homunculus called Kvasir, who turned out to be sober (!) and extremely wise: there was no question he could not answer. He traveled far and wide and taught men wisdom. The name Kvasir happens to be an almost full homonym of Slavic kvas (usually spelled, for no legitimate reason, kvass in English), a malt-based drink, one of whose indispensable ingredients is bread. However, despite what some books state in a rather dogmatic way, the coincidence between Kvasir and kvas may be fortuitous. Although not directly, kvas is related to Slavic words for “sour.” Closer cognates mean “froth” and “cook; boil”; one of them is Latin caseus, the etymon of Engl. cheese. In Germanic, Kvasir resembles verbs like Engl. quash and squash. Both are usually traced to Old French, but similar-sounding and partly synonymous verbs, for instance, English squeeze and quench, are native, while Modern German quetschen, corresponding to Engl. quash, is a word of disputable etymology (perhaps native, perhaps from French). Whatever product the gods obtained through fermentation, its base was first “crushed” or “squashed.” Kvasir appears unexpectedly in a later myth connected with the capture of Loki; however, his life must have been short, because two dwarfs killed him.
In the world of Scandinavian myths we encounter gods, dwarfs, and giants. Despite the associations these words carry to us, “an average giant” did not tower over “an average god,” whereas the dwarfs were not tiny. Giants and dwarfs became huge and small in later folklore. In Scandinavian myths, they were distinguished by their functions: the gods maintained order in the universe, the giants tried to disrupt it, and the dwarfs were artisans and produced all the valuable objects that allowed the gods to stay in power. Most unfortunately, the myths of the Germans and the Anglo-Saxons have not come down to us, and only some traces of them can be reconstructed from popular beliefs, the evidence of place names, and the like. But to continue with Kvasir. Two malicious dwarfs called him aside for a word in private and killed him, after which they let his blood run into two vats and a kettle. They mixed the blood with honey, the main sweetener then known, and it became the mead that turns anyone who partakes of it into a poet or a scholar. The same two dwarfs, who were rather uncharacteristically evil, killed a giant and his wife and incurred the wrath of the couple’s son Suttung. To save their lives, they forfeited the mead, and it became Suttung’s property. Still later, Othinn, the greatest god of the Scandinavian pantheon (we can see part of his name in Wednesday, literally “Wodan’s day”) stole it from Suttung with the help of Suttung’s daughter and almost perished while carrying it home in eagle form. The mead is now in the possession of the gods, but with their permission mortals can occasionally get the taste of it.
Several things stand out in this myth. Since the drink was the result of fermentation, it must have been alcoholic. Its base is not mentioned, but we are told that honey was added to it. Everybody wanted to possess it: the dwarfs did not stop at murdering Kvasir to get the treasure, a giant considered it to be sufficient compensation for the death of his parents, and Othinn went great lengths to obtain it, though the feat might have cost him his life. Drinking the mead resulted in inspiration and wisdom. In the story, the drink is called mead, but the only etymological link to it comes from Kvasir’s name. If the name is Slavic, it was the inhabitants of the lands to the east who taught the medieval Scandinavians to make kvas. If, however, the name has a Germanic root, it carries the connotations of squeezing or perhaps crushing to a pulp. Regardless of the technology and the origin of Kvasir, the myth tells us that everybody valued the beverage but sheds no light on the origin of the word mead.
Here are some of the cognates of mead in the languages of the world, all of which mean “honey”: German Met, Old Icelandic mjöðr (ð has the value of th in Engl. this), Old Irish mid, Russian med (pronounce it approximately, as though it were written myod), Latvian medu, Classical Greek méthu, Sanskrit mádhu, and Tocharian B mit (Tocharian is an ancient Indo-European language of Central Asia; the letter B refers to its Western variety). The word’s spread is truly impressive, and there are two theories of its origin. Most researchers believe that it is genuinely Indo-European, while others derive it from a similar-sounding Semitic root meaning “sweet.” Several parts of this story are particularly intriguing. First, medu-~medhu- bears some resemblance to mel (Latin mel means “honey,” with the Greek and Gothic words being close cognates; to remember mel better, think of mellifluous “flowing with honey”). Second, mel- resembles the root of milk. Our story begins to flow not only with honey but also with milk. Engl. honey, along with Dutch honig and German Honig, stand apart from the med- ~ mel- words. Obviously, the etymology of mead resolves itself into a search for the origin of an ancient Indo-European word for “honey.” We have to concern ourselves not with the drink but with the produce of bees and its application to human life.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”