The Appropriation of Magical Brews
Mead and beer have become part of some whitewashed neo-Nordic ideals.
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Hello, wonderful witches!
We’re going to get a little heavy today, but it’s important. As someone who strives to be inclusive and actively anti-racist, it really peeves me to see pagan symbols and ideals co-opted by people who really have no idea what they mean. (I’m looking at you, white supremacists and people who call themselves “shaman.”) As pagans, heathens, witches, Satanists, Wiccans, or whatever belief system you follow, we tend to be welcoming of everyone—so to see things important to us used in a hateful way is incredibly frustrating. And what makes it even worse is that some of that hatefulness has infiltrated our community itself. There’s an unfortunate rise of supremacist leanings, particularly in some Nordic and neo-Nordic faiths. (Yes, I know most of you are absolutely fabulous and welcoming people, but the trend sadly can’t be denied.)
With that in mind, I asked Kitchen Witch writer Dr. Julia Skinner to take a deep dive into this trend and how some ancient magical beverages—specifically mead and beer—have been appropriated and turned sour both in and out of the magical community. Head’s up; this one’s a long and necessary read. You may want to break it up over a day or two.
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These Magical Brews Originated in Africa—and Face Massive Appropriation
By Julia Skinner
Mead and beer are two of our most ancient beverages, and among Norse pagans, two of the most important drinks. They were some of the first things humans intentionally fermented, and their history is inherently international and multicultural. The first meads are believed to come from Africa, with the first beers either from Africa or the Middle East (and others made in the Americas). These drinks spread with the movement of people across continents.
But if you ask someone in the U.S. today where either comes from, you might be surprised how many people—including a subsect of neo-Nordic pagans fitting snugly into the alt-right—point to the Middle Ages or, specifically, to the Vikings. Our modern (mis)conceptions of this history are also literally whitewashed: People of color are not included in narratives about the Middle Ages nor included in modern depictions of the time period.
Many pop culture depictions (including beer and mead labels) buy into this narrative. Beer is brewed by white monks; mead is drunk by white Vikings. Though medieval-inspired marketing is mostly harmless fun, our culture’s lack of knowledge has more ominous implications. Being divorced from the real history allows it to be warped and used in nefarious ways.
Modern white supremacists have embraced false histories of the Vikings and the Middle Ages. They use the symbolism and cherry-pick stories—not just to pine for a (nonexistent) pure-white past, but also to push for a pure-white future. Mead and beer are a part of this; they’re used both in rituals and as identity markers.
As white supremacy becomes more and more visible—both in general and among some neo-Nordic pagan faiths—it becomes even more important for us to understand the symbolism and history of the drinks as a magical implement. That way, we can disentangle their stories from the myths empowering white supremacy by distorting the truth.
Ancient and Magical Brews
Historians believe mead was first discovered by accident in what is now South Africa around 15,000 years ago by the Khoisan tribe (though some accounts say it goes back even further). The legend says rainwater collected in a tree containing a beehive. As the brew began to bubble, it enticed a few especially curious folks to give it a try. They liked what they found, so the Khoisan began to brew it intentionally.
Mead’s history stretches back millennia in other places, too, including in Ethiopia, where tej continues to be enjoyed today. Europeans have imbibed for thousands of years, but it’s wrong to think of it as an exclusively European drink—and given mead’s appearance on multiple continents, it surely isn’t a symbol of “racial purity.”
Beer, too, has strong roots in Africa and the Middle East, with beers brewed from sorghum, millet, and other grains at least 10,000 years before spreading to Europe. When it reached Europe, the first beers were not brewed by cloistered monks, but by women. By the time those medieval monks started brewing, there was a long (and largely female) history in place.
Flattening the Past
Medieval archetypes are easily recognizable: Medieval Times, brown-cloaked monks, women in funny hats and complicated dresses. And of course, mead and beer are the drinks of choice.
But as historian Noëlle Phillips said in this interview, “Medievalism allows you to imagine the Middle Ages as whatever you want it to be. It tells you more about what we think about ourselves and what we want to be than the past.” Our modern ideas about what the past was like may seem like mostly harmless fun, but omission is at the heart of those false and oversimplified stories.
“I had seen Medievalism in the beer industry for years, but it never occurred to me the extent of what was being erased,” Phillips says. “It flattens history. It plays to our sense of modern superiority and makes us feel more advanced and complex than they were back then.” The history becomes a glimmer of reality, able to be co-opted and used to whatever ends by whoever feels like it.
This includes the history of beer and mead. Women, for example, were central to brewing through the Middle Ages, until it became more profitable and thus of greater interest to men, at which point they pushed the women out. This is partly why our modern pointy-hatted witch looks how she does. She was based on the English alewives who were both craftspeople and entrepreneurs.
There’s also a false whitening of history, one that has been co-opted by supremacists who imagine an ethnically “pure” past. That past is a myth, though. The Roman, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon cultures white supremacists often point to were actually racially diverse, including people of color as saints or in other highly regarded positions. The Vikings, emulated by supremacist groups like the Sons of Odin, frequently intermarried—meaning they were not all the blond hair, blue-eyed warriors that modern westerners and some neo-Nordic pagans imagine.
The Viking Myth
Historian Dorothy Kim notes that “far-right Viking medievalism is not about historical accuracy. Rather, it’s used to create narratives. So, to resist the medieval narratives that activate violent hate, we must create counternarratives.” This includes separating fact from fiction. Our modern understanding of Vikings as “homogenous seafarers” comes from the 19th century, when the Völkish movement literally rewrote histories to “bolster a white German nation state.”
These whitewashed histories were replayed through the rise and run of the Nazi Party in Germany, then by white supremacists in neo-pagan communities, and later by other white supremacist communities. Because the whitewashed histories have been repeated so often, even unintentionally, they have informed our larger cultural understanding of these groups, and of history itself—it’s morphed into something homogenous, violent, and very white. It’s led to both a desire to be better than the past, and a nostalgia for the past, which for some creates a desire for things like durable, handmade goods; a deeper connection to nature; or a slower pace of life. For white supremacists and some neo-Nordic pagan groups, though, it becomes a desire to return to this false history—and in many cases, the Viking past is the one they want to emulate.
Appropriation of Magic and Brews
There is an overwhelming obsession with medieval symbolism among white supremacist pagan groups, but why the Vikings in particular? Why choose a group that was not one ethnicity or even one nationality? Modern alt-right and neo-pagan obsessions with Vikings seem to go back to Nazi Germany and the Völkish historical narratives. By co-opting pagan symbolism, they came closer to their imagined former glory, and this has continued into modern day with groups across the western world, like the Sons of Odin.
This appropriation includes mead and beer, used both symbolically and as a consumable. Far-right extremists who subscribe to Odinism, for example, frequently gather in the woods, drinking mead from collective horns and performing rituals entangling longstanding pagan traditions within a modern white supremacist belief system. In these rituals, mead is one part of a larger ritual meant to recruit, enchant, and indoctrinate, and to strengthen bonds between those already indoctrinated.
According to Dorothy Kim, what is most interesting about Viking symbolism is its ubiquity across all-white spaces: “This use of Old Norse and Viking ‘history’ [is not] limited to specific alt-right subgroups. In fact, it is a generalized social fixture in these circles. For example, when researcher Patrik Hermansson went undercover among the denizens of this world, he attended ‘gatherings where extremists drank mead from a traditional Viking horn and prayed to the Norse god Odin.’ The Viking past contributes to a medieval toolkit of language, allusion, and symbolism used to transmit white supremacist messages.”
Mead, and beer to a lesser extent, have become part of that toolkit, and as the pagan community grapples with white supremacy, so too must they disentangle the history of these beverages.
While appropriating Viking aesthetic symbols isn’t new, the far-right and neo-pagan appropriation of mead is. The Nazis didn’t value it, going so far as to destroy meaderies in eastern Europe, including those in the mead-making epicenter of Lvov (once Poland, now Ukraine). While beer is deeply connected to German culinary culture, the Nazi Party did not seem to have the sort of mystical reverence for it that we see in modern alt-right rituals involving mead (and sometimes beers with medieval or Viking branding).
Mead’s newfound role in the white supremacist and neo-pagan limelight is likely due to this resurging interest in Vikings, coupled with the growth of craft breweries and meaderies—thus offering an accessible way to imbibe popular medieval drinks.
Who Has a Right to Poetry?
According to Norse legend, the Mead of Inspiration (sometimes also called the Mead of Poetry) was a gift from the gods to humans. It gave us our creative capacities: our abilities to dream up inventions, paint a painting, write a poem, or sing a song. In this story, mead is responsible for the very things that make us human.
The pagan white supremacist adoption of the beverage as a symbol, then, is more nefarious than simply using a drink to symbolize group identity. When a hate group appropriates magical symbols and culinary traditions, what impact does this have? Symbols and traditions have significance because we collectively decide they do, but when one group claims those symbols as their own, they bury the ways it may matter to different cultures.
In the case of mead, source of inspiration and poetry, that creates an assumption that art and creative thinking are not only just for white supremacists, but also just for people the white supremacists believe are part of a racially pure past. This creates a barrier between the symbol of mead and the multicultural Vikings as they really existed—plus a barrier between humans and their own humanity by implying that only one group has access to creative thought. While mead might be “just” a drink, as a symbol it is so much more.
Beer has similar symbolism in Celtic mythology (Cerridwen’s cauldron of inspiration is thought by some to actually be for brewing), though that symbolism is less widely known outside the Celtic world. Beer can be cheaply produced using a variety of grains, thus serving as an “everyman’s drink” through much of history and in much of the world. To connect it to only one group or one geographic location, then, is to disconnect it from that history. This narrative ties into the myths we’ve built around beer that have, in turn, become fact (a telling indicator of the devastating consequences of changing a food’s story).
Returning History to Itself
The stories we tell about what we eat and drink are critical, as they shape future realities. The more a history is told, the more it becomes a part of the landscape, and if that story isn’t true, it becomes ever harder to disentangle and to set the record straight from the prevailing view. But the consequences are not only to our narratives of the past: By pointing to “tradition,” shared history, “the way it’s always been,” these narratives shape lives today, limiting or granting access to knowledge and resources.
Beer, a cross-cultural and largely women-produced drink, is now brewed in an industry that is very predominantly white and male, thanks to histories rewritten centuries ago that erased women and people of color from the story. Because this history was changed in the past, we are now living with the consequences: A brewing industry that is still overwhelmingly white and male, and often hostile to women and people of color.
If we look at the actual history of mead, its magic isn’t in some fictitious white supremacist past. The magic comes from mead’s longstanding role as a drink shared to nourish community members and strengthen bonds, and its role in myth itself as a bringer of our very creative spirits that make us human. The history of beer, too, is one of nourishing the masses: Cheap to make and offering needed calories and vitamins. It has been a cornerstone of human diets for millennia, and it, too, has a role in myth and legend, in the story of Cerridwen. These drinks have been shared by people for thousands of years in Africa and in Europe, and their history is not one bounded by skin color or the myth of racial purity.
When we don’t understand the history of our foods, we risk having that history distorted or erased. And when those stories are deeply entrenched in myth, it’s critical to understand the myths as well as the historical contexts in which they appeared, or risk having both distorted.
We can counter this by being responsible stewards of the stories behind what we make and consume. This starts with education: Now, more than ever, it is important for us to acknowledge the complexity of the eras we study and the foods we prepare. The more facets of a food’s story we understand (or at least attempt to understand), the harder it is for that history to be flattened or distorted by those who wish to twist it into something it’s not.
Meaderies and breweries often draw upon this flattened imagery, unintentionally, as a way to brand and market products—not because they intend to distort the history but simply because they don’t know they’re doing it. As Phillips says, “I made an attempt to examine how craft beer is a predominantly white industry and how it has attached to this ideal of this period. I think this is an ever-shifting landscape and most brewers are not doing this intentionally. It all ties back to the assumptions we make about beer, in terms of both the whiteness of it and the masculinity of it.”
Kim notes that in Taika Waititi’s movie Thor: Ragnarok, the destruction of the Norse god Thor’s hammer “was a multiracial and postcolonial counternarrative to the white Viking narrative circulating through the alt-right digital ecosystem.” By reconnecting with and perpetuating the real stories of foods and the cultures they exist in, we create our own counter-narrative.
After all, mead and beer are for everyone: It’s about time we embraced it.
Julia Skinner is a writer, food historian, and fermenter who runs Atlanta-based fermentation and food history company Root. Her next book is “Culture Begins Here: Fermentation and the History of How We Eat.” Follow her online at @rootkitchens and @bookishjulia or sign up for her newsletter at rootkitchens.substack.com.
Coming Up Next Week…
Next week we’re heading into one of my favorite mythical lands, Oz, where we’ll learn about the world’s magical food.
See you then!