Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Beer, the Sacred Drink of the Hearth

Bonfires, drinking, music, raucous celebration: Walpurgisnacht is a wild night that celebrates the coming summer – longer days, sometimes brilliant heat, and bursting fruitfulness. Since the medieval period, the bonfires were believed to ward off witches, but it may have been witches themselves who first lit the fires on hill-tops and mountains. Last year, I discussed the broom lore associated with this holiday. This year, I’d like to take a look at another favorite aspect: the alcohol, or more specifically, beer.

Homecrafted and Wholesome

Beer is one of the most-consumed drinks in the world, and an entire subculture has built up around craft beers, ales, and ciders over the past decade. Where I live, there are at least four or five craft breweries in a 30-mile radius. I love it. Beer is sacred to me (as it has been to many peoples since time immemorial), and the smaller and more artisanal a brewery is, all the better in my opinion.

For much of history, ales, beers, meads, and other alcoholic beverages were brewed at home. As Jeff Flowers writes,

“Homebrewing was the norm in the medieval period, leading the way to the widespread development of breweries. Medieval beer drinkers relied on the drink for more than just enjoyment, occasionally using their brew for additional nutrition as well.”

Due to many factors, medieval water quality was often lacking, and the brewing process ensured that there was something clean and calorie-rich to drink. As brewing expanded into an industry, monasteries served as major breweries, but people continued to brew at home. And it was largely women who were in charge of homebrewing. Tofi Kerthalfjadsson explains:

“As one of many staple food stuffs, beer and its making were generally the domain of the Lady of the manor and her cooking staff. Most of the references we have for brewing are from cook books, often close to and associated with the sections on baking.”

Baking and brewing go hand-in-hand for many reasons. As in bread, grains are the essential ingredient for ales and beers, whether it’s barley, oats, or wheat. Yeast plays an integral part in the fermentation process in beer/ale-making, as well as being the ingredient that makes the bread rise. These similarities have led some to call beer “drinkable bread.”

Toasting the Spirits

What does this have to do with Walpurgisnacht? Saint Walpurga, an 8th century nun who became an abbess in Germany and for whom the holiday is named, is often depicted in art with grains as well as a spindle or distaff and dogs. Significantly, all of these symbols were first associated with a number of German goddesses ruling the hunt, midwinter nights, childbirth, and spinning, including Frau Holle (whom you may recognize from the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name). In fact, grains are so strongly associated with Frau Holle and goddesses like her that porridge, oat gruel, and other grain foods are traditionally left out for them during the Winter Nights.

Frau Holle is, among other things, a goddess of witches, and witches are a major aspect of Walpurgisnacht lore. Popularly called the Night of the Witches, Walpurgisnacht is the night when witches – perhaps following in the goddess’s train – fly to the Brocken in the Harz mountain range to hold their Sabbath.

While this became a subject of fear requiring protective acts (such as bonfire-lighting) in the medieval period, we can alternatively view it as a celebration. Lighting the bonfires welcomes the summer and draws celebrants together into a sacred circle. Fire is sacred, illuminating, and empowering, and gathering round it establishes and deepens communal bonds.

Communal drinking, too, has this power, and the ales and beers we imbibe around the fire can be ritually shared with the spirits as they ride through the dark, wind-whipped skies on May Eve. Give them a nod, pour drink for them, and you might find yourself blessed with health and wealth.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

Comments

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 13 April 2018

    I remember reading an article in either Natural History or Discover magazine about fruit beers in the Amazon. One of the local Indians was quoted as saying "Water gives you dysentery, beer just makes you pee."

    Biblical Archeology Review had a fascinating article about beer in ancient Israel. They also mentioned that unfiltered yeasty beers had more protein than bread.

  • The Cunning Wife
    The Cunning Wife Saturday, 14 April 2018

    Thanks so much for sharing that info! Love the story about the Amazon beers. It''s no wonder that beer was/is so revered -- clean, nutritious, and satisfying. Kvass is a similar drink and is very easy to make from home. An article for another time. :)

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