Bloody Cloaks and Beer: The Duties of a Frithwebbe, Part I

Amid discussions of frithweaving, the image most often conjured is one of the demure woman, spinning textiles and soothing the heated tempers of irate tribe. But what of the women brewing deep in the forests? What of the ferocious woman thrusting bloody cloaks into the faces of her kinsmen and naming them as cowards? These, too, are inextricable from the weaving of Frith by the women of a tribe.

In modern tradition, brewing is a craft enjoyed primarily by men. This, however, is a relatively new change to a practice that is thousands of years old. As early as 800 BC, the art of brewing rested solely in the hands of women throughout the differing Germanic peoples.[1] Even after the implementation of beer guilds and the male interjection into the craft around the 1300s, it was the women married to these men, called alewives, that remained largely in charge of the actual brewing while their husbands managed the business of selling. They persisted on in this manner even as the brewing community at large began taking a dim view of alewives and the passing of laws that restricted their rights as brewsters.[2]

It was such an integrated part of the female purview that brew kettles were commonly included as cookware in a woman’s dowry,[3] and full casks have been recovered from the graves of women. In the 1920s, a woman dubbed Egtved Girl was uncovered in Denmark. Buried in 1370 BC, among her grave goods was a cask of ale brewed in the traditional way of including half baked bread.[4]

In Finland, magic women are said to be at the root of the creation of beer. The Kalevala, the epic of Finnish oral history boldly proclaims:

“Thus was brewed the beer or Northland,
At the hands of Osmo's daughter;
This the origin of brewing”.

Further reinforcing this image of the female brewer are the reports made by Roman soldiers, who glimpsed often the barbarian women brewing at their kettles in the forests of the Germanic continent.[6]

Viewed as an extension of baking and kitchen work due to the method of brewing with half baked loaves of bread, the beer crafted by women served a multitude of purposes.

Tacitus remarked that the Germanic people were always thirsty and seemed to indulge endlessly in their alcohol, which made them overly merry. In addition to being a ‘good time’ beverage the liquor, made with wheat and bread and berries and honey, provided much needed supplementation to nutritional and caloric intake, making it a meal staple that helped prop up the dietary needs of the tribe.[7]

Appearing frequently throughout many PIE (proto-indo-european) cultures is the deeply rooted belief that the woman’s art of brewing was not only an expected part of her household duties, but one rife with magic and even divine inspiration. In the Eddas, we find Sigrdrifa offering Sigurd magic ale:

Beer I bring thee, tree of battle,
Mingled of strength and mighty fame;
Charms it holds and healing signs,
Spells full good, and gladness-runes.

This idea of alcohol and brewing being blended with mysticism is not an isolated one. The tale of Kvasir’s creation and death is a well known Germanic tale, and it was through the use of his blood that the Mead of Poetry was brewed. This alcohol is the same famed drink that imparted wisdom to Woden when he drank of it.[9]

Intertwined with these functions is the religious implications of liquor in ritual. During the rite of symbel, the alcohol is poured into the horn and shared between all present. Michael Enright, author of Lady With a Mead Cup, theorized that the shared alcohol was a simulacrum of the blood shared between brothers, reinforcing the ties that bind the band together. No less importantly, through works such as the Anglo-Saxon poem of Beowulf, it is known that words spoken over the holy alcohol are binding.[10] In many modern heathen bands, we see this tradition continued in the taboo against lying while holding the horn. The liquor brewed, poured, and served by the hands of a woman, is transformed from common alcohol to a vehicle for the ritual visualization of Frith.

Upon reviewing the archaeological and cultural evidence presented, we can logically conclude that brewing is not only classically a woman’s duty, but a frithful one as well. With her beer, she supplied a source of good cheer for her kin that ensured their bellies were full at the same time. In one action she both feeds her people and brings them happiness.

That it is also ritually frithful cannot be ignored. Brewed liquor binds men to their words in symbel, and flowed communally to weave man to man and man to chief, strengthening the bonds of tribe and kin.

  1. This conclusion is drawn by a combination of supporting archaeological evidence in the form of grave goods recovered in Bavaria near Kulmbach, and the consistent dominant female presence in brewing across multiple PIE, Sumerian, African and Asian cultures. The prevailing theme, supported by the earliest oral mythology and archaeological evidence such as the Ninkasi Tablet, is of women as primary brewmasters. ↩︎

  2. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600, Judith Bennett, pg 66-69 ↩︎

  3. ‘Three Millennia of German Brewing’ - German Beer Institute 2005; ↩︎

  4. Egtved Girl; ↩︎

  5. The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, Volume 1 ↩︎

  6. ‘Three Millennia of German Brewing’ - German Beer Institute 2005; ↩︎

  7. ‘Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World’ - Joyce Salisbury, 2001, pg 134. ↩︎

  8. The Poetic Edda: Sigrdrífumál, Stanza 5 ↩︎

  9. The Prose Edda: Skáldskaparmál ↩︎

  10. ‘Lady With a Mead Cup’ - Michael Enright, 1996, pg 4 - 41. ↩︎