Perhaps the most important part of any Viking social gathering, feast, or celebration was the toast: a celebratory and poetic way to foster camaraderie and, let's face it, become merry.

Vikings and alcohol - more than just the quickest way to receive a hangover

One of the most underappreciated aspects of history is the role that alcohol played in momentous decisions. In an era before breathalyzers and alcohol limits, people from Viking societies loved nothing more than a drink. 

Alcohol played a vital role in social gatherings, festivals, and celebrations – to the same extent that it does now, just with many less responsible adults or designated drivers. 

The offering and sharing of alcoholic beverages – be it the famous Viking mead (prized as honey was a scarce resource throughout the Nordic region), beer, or even wine from the Frankish realms was used as a way to foster community spirit, as a social lubricant, an integral part of hospitality and generosity and could even be used for ritualistic and religious ceremonies. 

It was also used for medicinal purposes in an era before widespread medical knowledge and care. Two of the most important alcoholic beverages used were the aforementioned mead and ale. 

Mead was fashioned from fermented honey mixed with herbs and often flavored with fruit. It was seen as a "nectar of the gods," and, combined with its sweet flavor, saw it become a favorite tipple at feasts. 

Ale, on the other hand, was a crowd favorite due to its wide availability and ease of making. This fermented grain beer was enjoyed on special occasions just as much as everyday use.

The skilled art of making a (Viking) toast

Go to any Scandinavian wedding today, and there will be a person designated a "toastmaster." This tradition dates back more than a millennium to the age when Vikings sailed the seas. 

When people from Viking societies held a feast or an elaborate celebration – which was often as much a political occasion as it was a social one – a person was designated as a toastmaster – sometimes called either a skald or a bragarfull (literally a "promise cup" – more on that below).

Often this person was a skilled orator, a bard, or perhaps a proficient poet. They were specifically chosen to deliver witty and poetic toasts with flair and gusto. It should be noted that many of the Old Norse sagas were, in fact, skaldic poems that these skalds would have performed at banquets or feasts.

The toast itself could vary widely. Perhaps it was held in honor of the host and expressed gratitude for the generosity and hospitality shown to those present at a significant outlay. 

Toasts in the Viking times were an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric that bonded people, families, clans, and communities. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A significant percentage of any local chieftain or person in a position of power went to feasting, banqueting, and other deliberately conspicuous and communal acts of merriment. A toast could also praise bravery and valor, perhaps from a recent battle or raid. 

Warriors, upon safe return to their local communities, particularly if they came laden with treasure or other stolen goods, could expect their feats of dashing to be the subject of many a toast.

Often, a ritualistic toast was offered for the warriors that did not make it back home alive. A portion of a drink would be tipped upon the ground as an offering to either the gods to ensure their protection or for their fallen comrades to enjoy. 

Even the dead, if they were deemed brave enough to be selected by the Valkyries to join Odin in his great hall, Valhalla, could expect an afterlife full of drinking, feasting, and toasting.

The meaning of skål

One of our favorite urban legends here at The Viking Herlad comes from the origin of the word skål

Attending a house party many moons ago, when everyone had their fair share of ale, if you know what I mean – the present author was caught in a discussion about this word (yes, I am a wild party guest, believe you me...). 

My friend seemed to suggest it came from the ferocity of the Vikings who would cut the head of their enemies, scoop out all the grey matter inside – and use the skull as a cup, hence the term skål. 

However, though a great anecdote, it has no basis in fact or history. In fact, many supposedly "savage warriors" from the Goths to the Huns to the Mongols were often depicted, by their victims, as using skulls as vessel holders.

The term itself, in most modern Scandinavian languages, means bowl (or cup), and this was the vessel used for drinking and toasting. Sometimes a drinking horn – so loved by Hollywood prop makes nowadays – was also used. 

Toasts – for most people in Viking societies – represented a sense of mutual obligation, an oath of loyalty, or a communal promise, and often all three of these things. 

Alcohol was poured into a cup or bowl, and the toast would be made with the participants then each drinking from this vessel. The remaining members present would often raise their glasses to collectively acknowledge their commitment and responsibility for one another.

For people in Viking societies, a toast was more than just a drunken ritual. They were an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric that bonded people, families, clans, and communities together. 

It was a celebration of accomplishments, a valediction of bravery and honor, and an ode to the Gods that helped strengthen bonds. Now that is something worth drinking for!

The Danish National Museum has more information on alcohol in early medieval Scandinavia, available to read here

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