Lady with a Mead Cup, by Michael J. Enright

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while now, yet put it off because, like most important new scholarly works that have an impact on modern Heathenry, it was priced far out of my budget range.  When I realized I could get it from the University of Oregon library, however, (how I love that place!) there was no further need to wait.  Before diving into it from the beginning, my first move (as with most nonfiction books) was to check the index for names of interest (Odin and Wodan being first on that list, of course) and look up a few of the page entries.  After skimming around in this way, I became very excited about one of the author’s key premises.  (More about that in a minute.)  Now, having read the entire book, I find myself both still excited and rather disappointed.  (This is still one I’m going to have to own, however.)

The first section uses Beowulf as a jumping-off point for examining the rites of sacral kingship—more specifically, how the scope of kingship evolved from tribal leader to warlord commanding men from many different tribes.  In order to bind together such a disparate group, it was necessary to create a fictive kinship, and the easiest way to do this was for the warlord to assume the position of father while his wife took the role of mother.  For this reason, the warlord was often referred to a hlaford, or loaf-giver (the one who provided food for his people).  Enright argues that it would be only natural for the queen, therefore, to take on the role of the provider of drink.  In this way, liquor service in the mead hall not only served as reinforcement of oaths (spoken over the horn), it also helped to create a family structure which formed the backbone of the comitatus, or warband.  He also argues that the Germanic comitatus structure, along with many of the traditions connected to it, originated in Celtic custom in the late Iron Age, which the Germanic upper-class mimicked because the Celts were the more advanced culture at that time.

From here, we move into a discussion of historical warlords (especially Civilis, who controlled access to the seeress Veleda), the role of Germanic women as described by Tacitus, and females as instigators in the Icelandic sagas.  Contrasting the general perception of “everyday” Germanic women as having a little bit of prophetic power with the overwhelmingly masculine monopoly on performing divinations for both the family and the state, he concludes that prophetess-queens such as Wealtheow or seeresses controlled by warlords, such as Veleda, were the exception to this, and that such women were regarded as “honorary men.”   He makes it clear, however, that this does not mean they possessed any real power; rather, the queen in the meadhall scene of Beowulf is acting as an agent of the king just as much as the thyle is.  The thyle stirs the men up, challenging both newcomers and ill-thought-out oaths, after which the queen moves in to encourage and inspire the men by foretelling victory, while soothing hurt feelings and restoring the family atmosphere through serving sacred drink.   Enright then attempts to reconcile his portrait of Wealtheow’s role with that of Veleda and other prophetesses by arguing that in addition to bolstering the morale of the group, it would only stand to reason that the prophetess also became the one who served drink to the men—beginning, of course, with her husband, the king or warlord himself, as a way of continually establishing his authority.  Afterwards, she would serve the rest of the men in order of precedence, to reinforce the political structure of the group.

At this point, Enright introduces his first important idea: that the offer of liquor by a high-ranking woman to a powerful man may have served two purposes at once: 1) when performed by a queen or other powerful woman, it bestowed sovereignty on the man, making him a king in effect if not in name, and 2) it was specifically an offer of marriage, which the man accepted by accepting the drink.  As evidence for this, Enright cites examples from a number of texts, including Paul’s  Historia Langobardum and Saxo’s Historia Danorum, demonstrating a recurring link between marriage, kingship, prophecy and liquor which he then, in the third section of the book, backs up with archaeological evidence

The final section explores Enright’s theories on the origins of Wodan as the god of the comitatus and prototype of the warlord-king.  Rejecting the idea that Wodan began his career as an indigenous Germanic storm demon, Enright proposes instead that he had his origins in the comitatus itself, which in turn had its origins in Romano-Celtic Gaul during the late La Tene period.  Here is where he both annoyed me and gave me a considerable sense of vindication.  To start with the annoying part, Enright seems especially bent on promoting the idea that Wodan’s cult was based on the military careers of three separate generals who rebelled against Rome during the last centuries BC and first centuries AD: Hannibal, Sertorius and Civilis (but especially the latter two).  His case is based on the fact that all three were one-eyed masters of disguise who carried spears, and that both Sertorius and Civilis controlled a prophetess (although the argument is somewhat weakened by the fact that, in Sertorius’ case, it was not a woman but a white doe).  This whole line of reasoning struck me as both unnecessary and absurd, and I find it much more likely that the warlords in question were mimicking Wodan’s attributes rather than the other way around.  But then, I regard the gods as distinct and independent individuals who are just as real as you or me (only more so), while the author clearly doesn’t, seeing them as mythological constructs at best.

I found his other argument far more interesting: he piles up a good deal of evidence that Wodan first appeared in Romano-Celtic Gaul as an aspect of Mercury connected with kingship.  He cites numerous inscriptions, offering stones, and reliefs that refer to or depict Mercuries Rex and Mercurius Hrano, this latter name (meaning “ the brawler,”) being closely related to one of Odin’s names in the sagas, Hrani.  Reminding the reader of the backdrop he has established for the leadership of the warband—a king who is the bread-provider being paired with a prophetess-queen who is the liquor-provider)–he remarks that it should not be difficult to locate, in the Germanic pantheon, a goddess who fits this exact description.  And yet, she is not there, and the only divine female who fulfills all aspects of this role during the late Iron Age is the Romano-Celtic Rosmerta.  A goddess of sovereignty and prophecy, Rosmerta was above all connected with the serving of sacred drink (as depicted in numerous reliefs from this era) and it was in fact she who was paired with Mercurius Hrano and regarded as queen to his king, and thus as Wodan’s earliest consort.  When his cult moved further into the Germanic mainland and then to Scandinavia, she was replaced by the indigenous Germanic Frigga.

Given that a lot of my own work has revolved around the mead of poetry motif, I immediately made the connection that, while Frigga did preserve some of Rosmerta’s original attributes, such as prophecy and control over the household, she lost one crucial role: that of liquor provider.  Since it is traditionally the lady of the hall who both brews the mead (or oversees its brewing) and serves it, modern Heathens have tried to plaster this role onto Frigga, yet it is (in my opinion) a rather poor fit, since none of her myths reference it.  Yet there is one female in the pantheon whose central myth does revolve around sacred drink: Gunnlod.  Even the author did not make this connection, but it seems to me that the mead story—in which a powerful giantess offers Odin a rare and special drink, and he accepts it—may be preserving an older story about Wodan’s marriage to Rosmerta, and also possibly how he first became king, through being wed to a goddess of sovereignty.

All considered, I highly recommend this book, especially for Wodanists but also for all amateur Heathen scholars in general.  Parts of the text are dry and hard to persevere through, but much more of it is fascinating, even (for me, anyway) riveting. You may not agree with everything Enright has to say in these pages (I certainly didn’t), but the book does provide rich fodder for thought as well as a number of suggestions for future research and investigation.

(This review was originally posted to a previous blog of mine in spring 2010.)

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