Monday, February 26, 2007

Valkyries and Brassy Barmaids

Our culture has always been one that values public discourse and a life lived openly. The typical Ancient Greek city state was studded with theatres, stadia, gymnasia and agoras where men spent their days mixing openly and publicly. The frequent religious festivals and games for both men and women encouraged further communal revelry.

Unsurprisingly this openness extended even to clothing and fashion, which was kept to a practical minimum. How different from the dense cumbersome coverings of the peoples further south and east!


This vivacious conduct is in stark contrast to the closed, isolationist way of life practiced by the patriarchal, nuclear families of the ancient Middle East where strict religious law was paramount and where the dreary succession of domestic hovels was relieved only by cemeteries. Towns in the Holy Land had no stadia, amphitheatres or gymnasia, at least not until they were introduced into Judea by Antiochus Epiphanes and Herod during the eastern expansion of the Roman Empire.

“Wood is used along with this humble material [i.e. mud], but stone very rarely. Perhaps ancient Jewish towns and villages, in the same way, may have had more wood used in their construction than would be possible at present, when building-timber is practically unknown in the country; but neither wood nor mud bricks have elements of permanence. The 'tells,' or mounds, which mark the site of old Jewish communities, have, moreover, precisely the appearance of similar mounds now forming around, or, one might say, beneath, existing mud-brick villages in India and Egypt...The road runs nearly straight north, at the foot of the hills, which are frequently dotted with villages, almost undistinguishable from the soil around, because of the leaden colour of the mud huts.” Cunningham Geikie THE HOLY LAND AND THE BIBLE (1887).

It was this tedious pattern of urban living that was later used as a model for Calvin's Geneva and Cromwell's England.


The notion of shared space was by no means confined to the Greeks. Romans, with their Hellenic heritage and the addition of baths and forums, imposed their version of an open society across the rest of Europe. The northern tribes of Celts and Germans however were familiar with this outdoor lifestyle. They had already developed their own public assemblies (the Thing) and Tacitus describes their main entertainment, “They have only one kind of public show, which is performed without variation at every festive gathering. Naked youths, trained to the sport, dance about among swords and spears levelled at them. Practice begets skill, and skill grace; but they are not professionals and do not receive payment. Their most daring flings have their own reward in the pleasure they give the spectators.”

At Yeavering in Northumberland the Seventh Century royal complex included a grandstand, “enlarged once by the addition of further tiers at the back, which doubled its seating capacity. The nearest comparable structures are the stone theatres of the Roman world and it would seem to represent a small section of such a theatre constructed entirely in wood.” Martin Welch, ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND (English Heritage 1992).


Through the hall then went the Helmings' Lady,
to younger and older everywhere
carried the cup, till come the moment
when the ring-graced queen, the royal-hearted,
to Beowulf bore the beaker of mead.

- Beowulf

Naturally the cooler climate of northern Europe was not so conducive to this open lifestyle as that of the Mediterranean, but our ancestors managed to overcome these limitations with the development of the mead hall. Mead in the early Middle Ages was a very different drink from the innocuous concoction we are familiar with today. It was the “mead of inspiration”, mythologically rescued from the Giants by Odin, and mixed with such hallucinogenics as henbane, cannabis or magic mushrooms.

Mead halls were not just men-only affairs; myths, legends and the historical record testify to the presence of women in the halls. The halls were a single large building, often over 50m long, comprising of just one room, which had been developing in northern Europe since the late neolithic period.


The custom of having women serving the drinks was set by divine precedent as demonstrated in this description of Valhalla: “The valkyries lead the slain heroes (the Einherjar) to this hall, to Odin, and they serve them with meat from the boar Saehrimnir. Everyone has enough to eat from the boar, which renews itself constantly. The Einherjar drink mead with this meal which flows from the udders of the goat, Heidrun.” Rudolf Simek DICTIONARY OF NORTHERN MYTHOLOGY (1993).

On the mortal plane of Midgard, women were expected not just to serve the drinks, but also to join in the celebrations. “The earl [Arnvid] gave them a hearty welcome when they arrived and showed them into a hall where there was ale ready on the table. They were served with drink and sat there till evening. Before the tables were cleared, the earl said that seating arrangements must be decided by lot, and that each of the men should have a woman as drinking partner, as long as there were enough women. After that, the rest of the men were to drink on their own.” EGIL'S SAGA

The powerful and enduring archetype of the female hostess is reflected in the more mundane “ale-wives” who managed London taverns from the Thirteenth Century onward. Flick on any English TV soap opera today, and they still maintain their pride of place behind the bar of the Queen Vic and Rover's Return, though sadly without their gleaming armour.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home