Let’s not beat around the bush. Drinking booze is fun. And so is playing games. Combine the two and you have a surefire recipe for good times. Whether drinking out of a plastic cup while playing beer pong or from a drinking horn while playing old-school Viking games, much camaraderie, shenanigans and braggadocio can be anticipated.
Let’s step back for a moment, though…way back. If you drink from a horn then you’re likely the type who wants to do more than just drink like a Viking…or an Anglo-Saxon, or a Celt, or a Lannister… Playing games in the manner of your favorite fantasy characters or historical groups is an ideal way to really feel like you’re living in their shoes. We’re not talking video games here. Trying to hold a controller while drinking from a mead horn has surely caused many a Skyrim session to go afoul. Even if you have a horn holder or are drinking from a tankard, no true Viking would put a horn down without emptying it first.
The peoples of the Viking and Anglo-Saxon eras, along with their Celtic counterparts, played a variety of games, some involving drinking and some not. For more on the board games, physical recreation, and strategic wordplay competitions (yes, the Vikings were sophisticated poets and storytellers) that took place in Viking times, see the Viking Answer Lady’s description of Viking board games, Hurstwic.org’s “Games and Sports in the Viking Age,” or the “How to Drink Mead Like a Viking: Viking-Era Games and Rituals” chapter of my book Make Mead Like a Viking.
Invoking The Brew Spirits
But for now, let’s focus on drinking games. For Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures, drinking was a big deal. Not only did they do it for fun but there was a significant amount of ritual behind both the crafting and the drinking of their beverages. In making a new brew, they would call upon the spirits they felt were responsible for bringing life to a fermented beverage, and for ensuring it was flavorful and robust.
For ancient Scandinavian cultures, this spirit had various names. Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers tells us:
“The different regions of Norway named the thing that brings the ale into being gjar—‘working,’ gjester—‘foaming,’ berm—‘boiling,’ kveik—‘a brood that renews a race,’ nore—‘to kindle a fire,’ fro—‘seed,’ and one whose exact meaning is unknown, Gong…. Once the gong or bryggjemann or kveik had come, the brewers and their culture had a special relationship with them. In many cultures, indigenous and otherwise, the wild yeast that came into the wort would be kept and nurtured as part of the family (64-65).”
Bryggjemann translates literally as “brewing man,” which is who I like to invoke when I’m bringing new boozy goodness into the world.
In addition to alcohol and other fermented beverages for daily use, the Vikings, Saxons and Celts would brew large batches of mead and ale for special events. These events could range from providing hospitality and feasting (which they took very seriously) to visitors from other clans and villages, to hosting formal religious or diplomatic ceremonies. The latter was a highly formal affair called a symbel, while the former was more of an all-out party called a gebeorscipe.
Whatever the type of feast, strong drink was always involved. These feasts were all held in some variation of a mead hall, which was essentially a large building that was longer than it was wide (i.e., a longhouse) that served as a communal meeting place, feasting hall, and inn all in one.
In Beowulf, we learn about the ritual involved in a mead hall feast, which is examined extensively in the books Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age by Michael J. Enright and The Mead Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England by Stephen Pollington.
A standard feast was always expected to last a full day, with much drinking, eating and gameplay throughout. For a special event such as a symbel, or if a chieftain wished to show off his wealth, it was critical that there be enough food and drink for three full days of feasting. If it fell short, the host would be derided for his poor feast-planning abilities and lack of wealth and, more often than not, violence would occur.
Booze, Food, and Games in the Icelandic Sagas
It’s never a good idea to take booze and food away from a horde of thirsty, hungry Vikings. In the Icelandic sagas, there are many accounts of these feasts, which are described as epic, raucous occasions with copious amounts of drinking, fighting and vomiting.
We see an example in Egil’s Saga, one of the sagas in The Sagas of Icelanders, a Selection (67-68). Egil, a well-respected Viking, joins Olvir and his crew to pay a visit to a farm run by Atloy-Bard to collect rent for Thorir the Hersir, a landholder of several farms. Bard apologizes upon their arrival for not having any ale, and instead asks if they would accept whey and curds (which was common to offer to guests when ale or mead wasn’t available). Thoroughly drained from their travels, Olvir and his men are more than happy to accept this proposal. In the meantime, the farm’s workers are busy preparing a great feast for a visit by King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild, who are arriving that night for a sacrifice to the disir accompanied by a great feast, “a splendid feast, with plenty to drink in the main room.”
Upon their arrival, Bard is nowhere to be seen. When the king asks for Bard, someone tells him that he is outside attending to his guests. Not pleased with that response, the king demands that Bard and his guests come into the hall and join the main feast. The king then offers Olvir a place opposite him in the “high seat,” a place of great honor. Egil is invited to sit next to Olvir. At that point, ale is served and toasts are made, “each involving a whole ale-horn.” Bard, perhaps realizing that his guests aren’t entirely pleased at being told there was no ale, serves Olvir and his men so much drink that they begin passing out. Olvir remains standing, but has about had his fill. A man with a reputation for holding his drink, Egil takes Olvir’s horn and finishes it off. Seeing that Egil “was clearly very thirsty,” Bard hands Egil another full horn.
Despite the massive amounts of booze he has imbibed, Egil still has poetry in him, speaking this verse before finishing the horn:
You told the trollwomen’s foe
you were short of feast-drink
when appeasing the goddesses:
you deceived us, despoiler of graves.
You hid your plotting thoughts
from men you did not know
for sheer spite, Bard:
you have played a bad trick on us
Bard, clearly offended but not ballsy enough to do anything about it, tells Egil to quit mocking him and keep drinking. Egil does just this, finishing off every horn handed to him, and those meant for Olvir. Showing his true character, Bard convinces the queen that Egil is bringing shame on him by “always claiming to be thirsty no matter how much he drank.” They then decide to mix poison into Egil’s next drink. Egil is no fool though. He takes his knife, slices the palm of his hand, carves runes into the horn, smears the runes with blood, speaks another verse, and lets the horn drop and shatter.
As Olvir is on the verge of passing out, Egil helps him to the door, where Bard offers a farewell drink. Before tossing the horn aside, Egil speaks a final verse:
I’m feeling drunk, and the ale
has left Olvir pale in the gills,
I let the spray of ox-spears [drinking-horns]
Foam over my beard.
Your wits have gone, inviter
of showers on to shields;
now the rain of the high god
starts pouring upon you. [the rain could refer to poetry, vomit, blood, or all of the above]
The scene ends with Egil thrusting his sword through Bard’s stomach. Bard falls down dead, pouring blood, and Olvir proceeds to spew vomit. The story goes from here, but it certainly conveys that Egil is a Viking who knows how to hold his drink!
Mead hall feasts weren’t always such brutal affairs. Elsewhere in Egil’s Saga, men and women are referenced as being paired up for drinking games, staying with the same partner until one or both of them passes out. The players would empty their mead horns, participate in verbal sparring, recite poetry, boast of their exploits, and taunt their opponents endlessly. As their level of drunkenness intensified, things would get interesting. It was important, no matter the level of intoxication, that the poetry, boasts and taunts be met with approval. If the effects of alcohol showed too much, they would be ridiculed or even challenged to a duel.
Don’t Fall in the Mead Hall
Interested in recreating this in your own home or mead hall? You could wing it, or you could have a little help thanks to (shameless self-promotion alert!) a little game my friend Dave Brown developed and that I have happily helped test and fine-tune rules development for, Don’t Fall in the Mead Hall.
This tabletop dice game is simple and quick to learn but has a subtle level of strategy. While it’s enjoyable without strong drink (just ask my five-year old daughter), providing your own mead or ale, and incorporating role-playing (“You shouldn’t talk about Ragnar’s wife like that! Her beard is lovely.”) adds its own element and allows you to truly drink like a Viking.
As the game progresses, you’ll throw chairs, order drinks for other tables from the mead wench (a very respectable position), call opponents to the battle mat in the center of the hall, or defect to another table because your table is full of a bunch of weak-livered milk drinkers and the other table looks a lot more fun. The game ends when there is only one Viking left standing, surrounded by the bodies of other Vikings.
However you decide to re-create the past, always remember to have fun while you’re drinking, and never drink and joust.
The man who stands at a strange threshold,
Should be cautious before he cross it,
Glance this way and that:
Who knows beforehand what foes [or drinking buddies!] may sit
Awaiting him in the hall?
— Havamal (Sayings of Har / Sayings of the High One), Stanza 1
Jereme “the Viking Yeti” Zimmerman
Jereme Zimmerman is the author of Make Mead Like a Viking and writes regularly on homesteading, brewing, and simple living for Earthineer.com as RedHeadedYeti, as well as for New Pioneer, American Frontiersman, Backwoods Home, and several other print and online publications. He grows mushrooms and gardens organically along with his wife, Jenna, and daughters, Sadie and Maisie, in Berea, Kentucky. You can follow him through his website, on Twitter, and Facebook. He lightens up along with his co-nerd and fellow Viking David Brown by creating games and nerding out as Viking Nerds. Follow their nerdly adventures on Twitter and Facebook.