Some Crafts of the North
Our forebears were great crafters, whose works in wood, metal, and stone still stand as some of the finest artwork of the world. Not only do we have their example to follow, but, if we want to do the things they did in something like the way in which we did them, we often have to make our own materials for so doing. Good mead is not sold in every winestore, nor drinking horns in every mall; and traditional woodcarving or handwoven fabric, when they can be found, cost more than most of us can even think about affording. The crafts spoken of here - mead-making, horn-making, wood-carving, and spinning - are only a few among those practiced by our forebears; they also worked with metal, leather, embroidery, stone, horn, amber, and everything else that was available to them. They made their own clothes, their own ships, their own beer, and their own weapons. Some of these skills are easily mastered; some require years of training and a great deal of equipment. In whatever way it is practiced, crafting is a deeply rooted part of the Northern tradition, and doing it strengthens our souls and brings us closer to the thoughts of our ancestors.
Simple Mead, or,
Or, How to make The Drink of the Gods with a Minimum of Pain
(by Will von Dauster, from Mountain Thunder #3)
There is no question that mead, or honey wine, was a favourite drink of our Germanic forebears. For those of us who have tasted real mead, it remains a favourite drink today. Notice, I said real mead. Much of what is sold in the United States (or Great Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia! - KHG) as mead is mead only under the loosest of definitions. A great deal of it is cheap grape wine laced with honey and other sugars. It is, in my humble opinion, truly awful. Those few purveyors of true mead seem enamored of the idea that, since mead is made with honey, it must always be sweet. In some cases, drinking a glass of Mrs. Butterworth's pancake syrup would be preferable. Who could like this stuff? Our ancestors must have been really desperate for a drink.
Well, maybe not. Perhaps you've had the pleasure (usually) of drinking a friend's homemade mead. One taste of homemade and most of us need no further convincing. The best way to get real mead is to make it yourself. No problem. You ask your mead-making friend for advice, and you are treated to a two-hour lecture on the niceties of specific gravity, various yeast strains, discussions of acid, and enough other details to convince you that the only way to make mead is to get your Masters degree in molecular biology with a minor in chemistry.
What is wrong with this picture? While our ancestors were certainly not stupid, chances are very few Vikings had the aforementioned sheepskin hanging on the bulkheads of their ships. Yet they certainly made and enjoyed mead. Hum.
Your instincts would be right. Making really good mead is not as difficult as brain surgery, requires no magical incantations (although one wouldn't hurt), and will not bankrupt Donald Trump (whoops! too late). Mead making, in this author's experience, is actually easier, albeit slower, than making beer. Speaking of slower, there is an order of monks in Ireland which is said to make mead, then set it aside for eight years or so before drinking it. While this no doubt produces a fine product, the good news is that mead is usually quite tasty much sooner. The other good news is that, unlike beer, properly made and bottled mead only improves with age. At least as much age as you or I are likely to give it.
In this article we'll go over the basics of mead-making: The simple way. My only qualifications for writing this is that I have made quite a few batches of mead, all of which turned out, in my opinion and the opinion of my enthusiastic friends (including the current Warder of the Lore! - KHG), excellent.
So let's get started scrounging. As with most hobbies, mead-making takes an initial investment. Uh oh, here comes the bad news. Right. Here is a one-time shopping list, in no particular order.
Find yourself a five-gallon glass water bottle, the kind water companies used to deliver water in. Where can you find such bottles in this age of plastic? Some water companies still use glass, so there is one source. Your local brewer's supply shop will carry them, usually for around $10. Put the word out; you might be surprised how many people have one or two of these lying around. Get as many as you need, but get at least one. Two are better. These are called carboys, by the knowledgeable mead-maker, or by those who want to appear smarter than you.
While at the brewer's shop, purchase a couple of bubble-type water traps. These traps look like something straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, forming an "s" pattern with a plastic tube, with maybe six bulges along the length of the tube. These are used to keep the mead isolated from the outside air, and contaminants, while it is aging. Do not buy the beer-style floating water traps - these can reverse flow and contaminate your mead.
Buy as many plastic corks with holes in them as you need, the size of the opening of your carboys. The holes will hold the base of the water traps you just bought.
Under the category of plumbing supplies, purchase a length of clear, flexible plastic hose, and two lengths of plastic tubing long enough to reach from the neck to the bottom of the carboy. Then, if your shop has it, buy one bottle filler valve and one stand-off end cap. These should not run more than a dollar or two in the US. You will find them invaluable when it comes time to bottle your mead (in eight years? Patience!). The bottle filler valve is the little orange plastic dohickey (a scientific term) with an even smaller plunger at the end. The mead flows into the bottles only when the end is pushed down onto the bottom of the bottle. The stand-off end cap keeps your plastic tube out of the dead yeast...but I get ahead of myself.
Another invaluable plumbing item is the faucet-mounted bottle-washer. This represents an investment of around six dollars. The gadget (another scientific term) screws on the end of your sink faucet, and sprays (hot) water up into any bottle or carboy at a high rate when one is pushed over it, making bottle-cleaning a relative snap.
Now it's time to pick up some cleaning supplies. Get a packet of sodium bisulfite - this is used for sterilization (the bottle's - relax). One packet lasts a very long time. There are other substances popular for sterilizing equipment, but the bisulfite has always worked well for me, and is relatively easy to rinse off (it comes either in a powder form or as "Campden tablets" - KHG). Get a bottle brush or two, for obvious reasons.
The last hardware item you should get before leaving the brewers supply shop is a good brewing thermometer. This is important, because yeast critters are touchy about baths that are too hot.
Somewhere conjure up a five-gallon stainless-steel pot. Revere Ware makes a good one, and is readily available. Porcelain pots are also OK. Some people recommend a seven-and-a-half gallon pot, but this is too heavy when full for easy manipulation, and you've already bought five-gallon carboys anyway.
While at the brewer's shop, you will pick up a few other things, but this is your initial capital outlay as they say in the wonderful world of corporate America. Everything else falls under the heading of supplies or froofroo. The latter can include such things as a specific gravity (SG) tester (Science!). Nice to have, but you don't really need it (heresy - the mead police knock at my chamber door). The SG tester helps you determine how much alcohol is in your mead. Don't worry, it will be the right amount.
From now on, all you have to get when you are ready to make mead are the main ingredients, and bottles. As for bottles, swing-tops (Grolsch beer comes in these) are best and most forgiving. You are going to need about forty when it comes time to bottle the mead, so get started.
As for the main ingredients, basic mead consists of water, honey, acidifier, and yeast. That's it. Let's go over each of these in order.
Water: Just turn on the tap, right? Wrong. Chlorine-contaminated water was never a part of the mix, and still shouldn't be. The best is to find a mountain spring and get your water there. A good well is next best. As a last resort, bottled spring (never distilled) water is OK. You need about four gallons of it, five gives you a bit of leeway.
Honey: Can't do it without honey. The little yeasty-beasties munch on the honey to do their magic. I recommend about twelve pounds of honey per batch, which usually works out to about one gallon. Raw unfiltered honey is best in my experience. Your local health or organic food market should have bulk honey. Here that runs about $1 per pound. If you live near the country, honey is also commonly sold along the roadside. The kind of honey does make a difference. Clover honey is light, thin, and makes a light and fresh mead. Wild flower honey is heavier and a bit sweeter. If you are fortunate enough to be near a honey supplier, ask there and ye shall receive knowledge.
Yeast: Here is where I am supposed to give you a bunch of Latin names. My ancestors not only couldn't speak Latin, but spent much of their time trying to hold back the expansion of the Latin church and its minions. So, in plain English, there are three basic kinds of yeast used in mead-making. These are white wine yeast, red wine yeast, and champagne yeast. Pick up two packets of which ever one you decide to used. Each kind produces a different end product, so pay attention.
White wine yeast is the least energetic. These guys like to party and have a good time. They generally do a pretty poor job of eating all that nice honey. The net result is that this kind of yeast produces a lower-alcohol, very sweet mead. This is usually quite tasty, but some people find it too sweet. I find it works well with spiced meads.
Red wine yeast is the all-around workhorse of the bunch. It works a bit harder than the white wine varieties, eating more of that yummy honey. This means there is less of it left over, but a bit more alcohol. Typical results with red wine yeast are moderate sweetness, tending to be a bit drier than with white wine yeasts. This yeast seems to work best with fruit-flavoured meads.
Champagne yeast is the heavy metal of yeast. These buggers really go to town, working overtime to consume every last bit of honey. The result is a very dry mead, with a good flavour but almost no sweetness. With a few tricks, you can easily make sparkling mead with champagne yeast (gee, who would have thought...). Personally, I like this yeast with the sweeter honeys, such as wild flower, and no extra flavourings. Be forewarned: this stuff can produce very high levels of alcohol in your mead, amounts in the 17% range are not unheard of. Careful!
Acidifier: Unflavoured mead made without an acidifier is flat-tasting, almost bland. Always use an acidifier in unflavoured mead. The simplest method is to pick up a quantity of acid-mix powder from your brewer's supply shop. Generally three-to-five rounded tablespoons are used for a batch, so use this as a guide. You can use lemon juice or other food acids, but I recommend against it to start. Get brave after you've made a batch or two.
Making the Mead
OK. You've scrounged all the supplies and hardware you need. Let's do it. Begin with rule number one, one of probably the only two rules this author will ever cite. This rule, by the way, is one of the things that differentiates our mead-making from that of our forebears:
Everything you use in the making of mead, that comes in contact with it, must be clean. Period.
There are no exceptions. The problem with filth is that it contains bacteria and foreign yeasts. These can contaminate the mead and ruin it. Before you panic, I have never lost a batch to contamination. Just pay attention. Clean up your work area, probably your kitchen, thoroughly before starting. You are now ready for rule number two:
Never use soap in any form to clean the containers which come into contact with the mead.
Why not? Soap almost always leaves a residue which gives yeasty-beasties heartburn. If they survive anyway, most soap adds very little to the taste of mead. To sterilize the containers, hose, tubes, etc., use a solution of about a tablespoon of the sodium bisulfite dissolved in water. Dip your hands in this solution, then shake them dry. Rinse everything with tap water when you are finished. If you had to use soap, such as an SOS pad, to clean something, rinse the soapy item thoroughly, then scour it with a clean nylon mesh pad dipped in the sulfite solution. Then rinse it with tap water.
By the way, many mead recipes call for sulfite to be added to the mead at various stages. I have never found this necessary. Though generally harmless in small doses, many people are allergic to sulfites. Don't add it to your mead. Best to just be clean and careful, and you should have no problem using just the traditional ingredients.
OK, you've cleaned everything. Pour four gallons of water into the five-gallon pot. Bring this to a boil (gas burners work well). While it is coming to a boil, soak the jug of honey in warm tap water. This makes it easier to pour when the time comes.
That time comes when the water boils. Pour the honey in and stir with a clean spoon (not wood!). Add in about three rounded tablespoons of your acid mix. Gently drop the clean thermometer in, too. It will normally read around 180 degrees F or so after the honey has been added. I like to bring the temperature up to around 190 degrees F before removing the pot from the stove.
This is also not trivial. It weighs around 40-45 pounds, and is full of steaming, hot, sticky liquid. If you aren't built like Arnie, find someone who is or be very careful Place the pot in the sink and fill cold water around it to aid cooling. No, do not add ice cubes to the mead!
When the temperature gets to around 100 degrees F, it is time to hydrate your yeast. Follow the instructions on the packet. If there aren't any, take about 2 cups of lukewarm (boiled) water and sprinkle the yeast on top of the water. Use a clean fork to gently stir the yeast into the water, then let this sit for about 15 minutes. Pour it into the bottom of your nice clean carboy.
When the mead has cooled to around 80-90 degrees F or so, siphon it from the pot into the carboy. Once the carboy is filled, place your water trap into the hole in the cork, fill the trap halfway with water, then cork the carboy and place it in a place where the temperature stays between 60-80 degrees F.
Within two days the mead turns cloudy. This is good. Pretty soon you will notice the water trap "burping" every few seconds. This is exactly what we want. It means the yeast is active, "alive", and doing its thing. One half of that thing is producing alcohol, the other half is producing carbon dioxide, which is what we see burping through the trap. Now put the carboy full of mead where your friends, or your pet, or you, will not bump into it and knock the water trap off.
This burping continues for months. How long depends on the mix, the yeast, the temperature, etc. Count on between two and six months. This process is called fermentation. After a while, the percentage of alcohol in the mead gets too high and the sugar too low for the particular yeast to survive, and the bubbles quit. Don't touch it! Let the cloudiness settle out of your mead slowly. Do not worry about the "scud" that builds up at the bottom of the carboy, you'll leave it behind when you bottle.
Some time after the mead has quit burping, the sediment will begin to settle out of the liquid. Ideally, you would wait a year or two for the mead to become crystal clear, but you won't (how do I know? Get real...). Once it has significantly cleared out (usually a couple of months after the burping stops), it is time to bottle the mead. Place the carboy carefully on a counter or other higher place, preferably a day or two before bottling.
Hopefully you've been diligent and emptied forty swing-top bottles. Hopefully you have also not drank from the bottle itself, but have used a glass, horn, or stein. Finally, if you were really diligent, you soaked the labels off, then rinsed the bottles thoroughly and placed the top loosely back on. If you have done all these things, bottling is easy. Otherwise, get to work. Once the labels have been removed, use your handy faucet-mounted bottle washer to spray the inside of the bottles with hot water. Place the bottles in a sink full of warm water and one tablespoon of sodium bisulfite. After a bottle has soaked for a few minutes, rinse it again, drain the water out, set the top loosely on it, and put it aside.
Some people always use new rubber washers on the tops. These can be had at the local brewer's supply shop, and is probably a good idea the first time you use a set of bottles. It is not necessary if the rubber of the old washer is in decent shape, and thoroughly cleaned.
Carefully remove the water tap so as not to spill water into the mead. Assemble your siphon with one of the plastic tubes in each end of the hose. Sterilize it by running first bisulphite solution, then tap water through it. Place the stand-off end cap on one end. Insert this end into the mead and draw enough mead to fill the siphon, watching out for backwash. Let the siphon flow into a cup for a second, then pinch it off and attach the bottle-filler valve to that end and relax. You don't have to taste your mead now.
When you're finished drinking the cupful, place an open bottle on the floor. Insert the tube and push the valve against the bottle's bottom and watch carefully as it fills. Be sure to hold the tube steady, so as to not knock the bottle over if the valve slips against the bottom. When the mead reaches the base of the neck, stop, seal it, and begin again with the next bottle. A friend is helpful in this process. I have never had trouble finding friends when it comes time to bottle mead. Humm.
When you get to the bottom of the carboy, it is best not to bottle this mead, as it might have a bit of turbulence. I leave it to your imagination as to what to do with it. Rinse the carboy thoroughly when you are finished, clean it if you aren't a tad tipsy, else wait until sober for safety's sake.
Labeling your bottled mead is a good idea. It isn't hard to get some self-sticking peel-off labels, or you may wish to print your own, or have someone with a printer and computer make some for you. Be sure to include the date.
While the mead tastes good right out of the carboy, you will be surprised how quickly it improves with age. Even six months add fullness, six years is better. Best to always have a batch bubbling, this makes it easier to leave the aging mead alone...
Remember, making mead or any alcoholic beverage for sale in the United States without a license, and without paying high taxes on the product, is very much illegal. Share your mead, and with a little luck, your friends will share theirs with you.
Chill sweet meads before serving. Personally, I think all mead tastes better cold, but to each his or her own. Mead is particularly appropriate to toast our gods at blots and sumbels, and never unwelcome at new or full moons. Any feast is improved with the addition of some good homemade mead. As my family likes to say, Prost!
For feasts, it is important that habitual non-drinkers, designated drivers, children, and other folk who for whatever reason should not or do not want to drink alcohol that evening have something available which seems festive and also fits in with the ways of our forebears.
Near-beers and low-alcohol lagers such as Clausthaler work for ale, and are in fact historical, being quite close to the "small beer" drunk on an everyday basis in the elder days. Ritually, these, as grain-drinks, can be used where-ever ale would usually be called for.
Non-alcoholic cider can be used in place of the more traditional alcoholic sort (which is often difficult to come by in the States in any case). For a good festive winter drink, apple juice can be carefully heated (but do not boil!) in a saucepan with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg (about 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp cloves, and 1/4 tsp. nutmeg per 4 cups of apple juice). Serve with a cinnamon stick in the cup. Never, ever pour any hot drink into a horn which is coated with wax inside, as the wax may melt.
For mead, honey and water alone are not especially pleasant-tasting, and you will almost certainly want something more. A nice "near-mead" can be made by mixing water and apple juice (by choice, the organic/unfiltered sort) in equal proportions and adding honey at the general rate of 1-2 tablespoons (depending on how sweet you want it; children tend to like it sweeter, adults drier) per 2 cups of mixture. This, blending both honey and apples, is quite suitable for ritual use and can be used whenever mead or cider is called for.
Milk is very fitting for Northern religion, especially in rites worshipping the goddesses, though we would not recommend offering it to Wodan.
Making the Drinking Horn
by Kveldúlf Hagan Gundarsson, from Mountain Thunder 8, Spring Equinox 1993
"Nu hæves Hornet, Hærfadr Odins horn...Hellige Hovild, Aketors Hammertegn, hellige Hovild viet det har."
(Now lift high the horn, Host-Father Óðinn's horn...Holy hof-fires, Ake-Thórr's Hammer-Sign, holy hof-fires hallowed it here)
- Bjørnsterne Bjørnson/Edvard Grieg. From the operatic fragment Olav Trygvason.
The drinking horn is the treasure which distinguishes Germanic heathens from everyone else: the lifting of the holy horn is the heart of our rites, the symbel which we share with the god/esses of our folk. It is with a draught from the horn that the wayfarer is welcomed into the hall; a like draught, borne by the walkurjas, greets and heals the heroes who come blood-drenched to Wodan's shield-roofed hall. The passing of the horn when our holy kin are toasted and oaths are sworn binds the folk into a single ring of friendship and frith, and the drink that flows from its silvered rim brings the High One's wod to our minds.
Our forebears chose the horn of the aurochs above all others for their drinking: the fierce wild bull of Europe's ur-woods was the measure of the strength and bravery of those who could claim its horns, and the luck of the drinking horn must have come in some part from the might of the beast that first bore it. Not only natural horns were thought holy, however: two of Denmark's greatest treasures (stolen and melted for the gold in the last century, sadly) were the Gallehus drinking horns - several pounds of solid gold, decorated with religious symbols and images of people and beasts which may have represented scenes from cultic drama. One of these was also adorned with a runic line of alliterative verse: "I, Hlewagast Holte's son the horn fashioned." Glass drinking horns were also made along the Rhine for the Germanic market; despite their fragility, some of these found their way up north and were buried with great chieftains such as the 3rd century (C.E.) warrior of Östervarv, Östergötland whose beautifully adorned glass horn is kept in Sweden's National Museum today.
Although the drinking horn is holy to all the god/esses, it is sometimes especially associated with Wodan, the giver of the mead of poetry who "lives from wine alone" (Grímnismál 19) and whose name can mean either "the furious one", "the inspired one", or "the drunken one". The three interlocked drinking-horns which, surrounded by the ring of the Elder Futhark, are used as the symbol of the Rune-Gild today, appear on the Lillbjärs stone (Gotland, ca. 8th-9th century C.E.) next to the walknot and the image of a walkurja bearing drink to a slain hero. The same triple-horn symbol also appears next to the swastika on the Danish Snøldelev stone which memorializes Gunvald, son of Roald, thulr on the Sal-mounds. The title thulr has received much discussion; but it is generally accepted that it has some relationship to inspired speech and to the cult of Wodan.
Even after the North had been christianized, the need of the Scandinavian folk for their ritual horns was still strong, as shown in Orkneyinga saga LXVI: the men had been drinking from cups all evening, but "when they had been drinking for a time, then they went to Nones (evening Mass). But when the men came in, then minne (the memorial toasts, given to gods/heroes/ancestors originally but usually to saints after the conversion) was spoken and drunken from horns".
The horn also appears as a magical tool in Guðrúnarqviða önnor (Second Lay of Guðrún), in which the heroine says of the enchanted draught her mother Grímhildr gives her: "Every kind of stave was on the horn, / risted and reddened - I could not make them out". Not only is the drink itself brewed of magical/holy things, but the runes graven on it work their might through the draught.
Runic formulae on a horn may either be geared towards a specific end, or generally chosen to enhance whatever is done to the draught in the horn. Some examples are given here:
A couple's horn:
LOVE BE GIVEN LEEK-FAIR SPRINGING / EVER TRUE, ASH AND ELM
AAA AAA (two ansuz-trefots) SKALD-WOD SEETHES AND SINGS IN HORN / ALLFATHER'S ALU AWE-FULL
For health and happiness:
BORNE WITH BEER BRIGHT LAUKAZ SHINES / FRITH-JOY, FRIEND-JOY, FREE-JOY
For drinking the memory-draughts, or in general to link the drinker with the god/esses and his/her forebears:
KINFOLK CALLED, KIND, FROM OLD HALLS / MINNE KIN MINDS WITH MEAD
STARK THONAR STANDS STRENGTH BE WITH DRINK / EARTH'S UR-MIGHT, ALU'S DRAUGHT
(bind-rune of Laguz, Perthro, Uruz repeated 3 times): WYRD'S STAVE-WRIT WORDS WELL, TREE, AND HORN / OATHS WREAK ALL HOLY AWE
For rites in general:
HAIL THE HOLY FOLK HIGH ASE AND WAN / BLESSING-DRINK BE SHARED, BLITHE
The futhark can also be graven around a horn, or lines from Eddic poetry (Sigrdrífumál is particularly rich in good verses for a horn). A horn used for rites may have the names of the god/esses graven about it instead of or in addition to any other inscriptions.
Choosing your Horn
Nearly all drinking horns come from cattle, usually Longhorns. Horns come in two states, raw (with a thick barklike encrustation) and sanded (with the encrustation peeled off). Both can be bought from Tandy Leather, price range approx. $10-20 (guesstimate based on last prices available to me). The only advantage to buying a raw horn is that, if you scrape it down yourself, you can probably keep more of the natural thickness. Otherwise cleaning the outside is a waste of time.
Longhorn sizes range from small enough for a cup of wine to large enough to hold two sixpacks or more. Tandy's small horns are roughly 1-beer horns, their large horns are usually 2 1/2 - 3-beer horns. A larger horn can always be cut down if desired. For practical reasons, the smaller horns are best for individual drinking, especially if you prefer wine or mead. For rituals where a full horn is passed around a large circle, however, a big horn is preferred; likewise, if you follow the Norse custom of sharing a horn between pairs of friends at feasting, a larger horn is better - as shown in the passage from Orkneyinga saga ch. 66, in which the problem of sharing a horn that is too small serves as an omen to the spae-wise Sveinn Breast-Rope that he and his namesake Sveinn Ásleifarson are doomed to a deadly struggle that night.
To satisfy curiosity - the horn of the aurochs came in sundry sizes: the length ranged from 433-845 millimetres along the outer curvature for bulls (no figure given for cows), the basal (rim) circumference range was 257-395 mm. for bulls, 180-264 mm. for cows. This can be compared with a medium-small longhorn: my own is ca. 510 mm along the outer curvature, rim circumference ca. 244 mm, and contains about a beer and a half. The spectacularly adorned Sutton Hoo drinking horns are thought to have come from a bull aurochs. Like the Taplow horns, they must have been imported from the Continent, as the aurochs was extinct in England by the late Migration Age.
Horns come in a number of colours, the most common being brown-and-white, black-and-white, and brownish-gray. If you plan to decorate your horn, especially with scrimshaw, it is important to ensure that the part you plan to decorate is a white or cream shade, as designs normally do not show up as well on darker horns unless they are painted in with a very bright or metallic colour.
Preparing your Horn
Horns normally do not come clean on the inside, and require not only sterilizing, but coating with a protective surface or curing. The latter is because horns both smell and taste rather strange until they have been treated.
Begin by rinsing the horn and scraping out as much muck, dead bugs, and so forth as you can. Then fill the horn to the brim with boiling water and let sit until it has cooled somewhat. Scrub the inside again, using a brass scouring pad for the upper parts, a bottle brush or similar implement (such as the "snake" brush for cleaning brass instruments) for the parts beyond your reach. Repeat this process about three times. If your pot is large enough, or your horn small enough, you can simply boil the horn for several hours to ensure that it is thoroughly clean and sterile. A couple of Campden tablets (available at any shop that sells home-brewing supplies) added to the water will ensure total sterilization.
The easiest way to treat the horn after sterilization is to coat the inside with either paraffin or beeswax. Simply melt the wax in a small pot, being careful to watch it at all times as wax is highly flammable. When melted, pour it into the horn and swish it about until the inside is thoroughly coated, then pour the excess back into the pot. DO NOT pour hot wax down your sink, as it will clog the drain. The drawbacks to this method of horn treatment are that you cannot put hot drinks in the horn, and if you leave it in a hot place (near a stove/radiator, in your car during the summer, and so forth), the wax will melt.
Never ever coat the inside of your horn with plastic-based products or anything which might contain harmful chemicals!
Remember that alcohol can be a solvent, and some plastics and enamels can also be softened or dissolved by hot drinks. The only substances which I can recommend for coating the inside of the horn are paraffin and beeswax.
Curing the horn is a lengthier process. The late Anne Harrington recommended beginning with a diluted solution of Lysol or similar heavy-duty cleanser. If you do this, you must be very careful that every last trace of cleanser residue is out of the horn before continuing, as these chemicals are extremely toxic. Gefjon (craftswoman of "Gefjon's Arðr" - see "Organizations and Resources") suggests the use of chlorine bleach instead (hydrogen peroxide will weaken the keratin matrix, as will leaving the horn in the chlorine bleach mixture more than an hour) - 3 parts bleach to 10 parts water, boil the horn for ten minutes and allow to dry for several days out of direct sunlight. A mixture of 3 tablespoons dishwashing detergent per hornfull of boiling water may also be used. In all cases, leave the horn to soak overnight. The next day, rinse it very thoroughly, wash with simple dishwashing soap, and rinse again. When the horn is thoroughly clean and has been purged of whatever you put in it, fill it with a high-alcohol, strongly flavoured ale or stout and let it sit for several days before pouring the beer out. Hopefully this will have gotten rid of the natural aroma and flavour of the horn. If it still smells a little raunchy, fill it with a 50-50 mixture of ale and vodka and let sit for several more days.
A sanded horn will still be rather rough. For simple finishing, rub the horn down with a fine grade of steel wool. When it is smooth, polish with a cloth impregnated with jeweler's rouge (available at rock-hound/jewelry supply shops and at many jewelry stores) or rub lightly with beeswax and polish with a clean cloth.
There are several methods of decorating a horn. If the horn is relatively thick, very fine results can be achieved with the use of a dremmel tool; many of Gefjon's horns show detailed carving plus the artistic use of the natural colour-layers of the horn to create the design. Dremmel tools should be used with extreme caution or not at all on thinner horns (such as the ones normally supplied by Tandy), as there is always the risk of the bit going through the horn. However, the tips of all horns are solid (see Fig. A, inside/outside of horn; use a piece of wire to determine the inner depth of yours) and may be carved without risk. Gefjon recommends the use of the small stone bits for this carving.
Carving with a chisel or X-Acto knife is a little more delicate on a horn. Straight strokes, such as the upright staves of runes, tend to peel away in long strips. To prevent this, make small cross-cuts at the top and bottom of your staves before graving the upright line. If you are chisel-carving designs, carve all horizontal borders first.
Runes can be carved on a horn with a grooved or straight blade. With a grooved blade, a single cut is enough. With a straight blade, cut in at a slight angle, and then repeat the cut from the other side, cutting out a grooved furrow. Slanted strokes are more easily carved with a straight blade. Here you must be very careful, as the grain of the horn resists cross-carving and the blade will tend to slip from your hand and score a long cut across the horn or fly into the air. It is best to make a little cross-cut where you want the line to end.
The easiest method of decorating a horn is scrimshaw. Draw your design lightly in pencil where you want it. Scribe it into the horn with the point of an X-Acto blade (single straight cuts). Cover in India ink, let dry, and rub the ink off with steel wool. The colour will stay within the lines you have cut. Be very careful when you cut, as the only way to erase an unwanted line is to sand or gouge it out. The advantage of scrimshaw is that it is relatively easy to make very detailed designs. However, they will only show up on a white or cream background. Gefjon mentions that the porous character of the horn will sometimes absorb ink in the wrong places. She suggests using polymer-acrylic paint mixed with water to the consistency of syrup. This will also allow you to use colours that will show up better on a dark background.
Whenever using sharp implements on a horn, the horn should be clamped in a vise and you should cut away from your body. Both the curve of the horn and the stubbornness of the grain make it very difficult and rather dangerous to hold the horn and carve at the same time. Assume that your tool is going to skid free a few times during carving and decide what direction you want it to skid in.
Finally, a woodburning tool can be used to inscribe designs on a horn, with relatively good results. Depending on how deep and how much you burn, different degrees of horrible odour can be produced. I have heard descriptions ranging from "It hardly smelled at all" to "Do it outside - and make sure the wind is blowing AWAY from your house!"
Cæsar's De Bello Gallicæ describes how the Germanic tribe-folk adorned their aurochs horns with silver and precious stones at the rims and the tips. Your local jeweler or silversmith can easily put a simple silver band around the lip of the horn (approx. cost $20-30, depending on the size of the horn and the thickness of the band), or you can do it yourself by soldering a strip of 24 gauge fine silver (.99 pure, softer and easier to work with than sterling, and does not form fire-scale when soldered, thus requiring much less polishing) into a ring. Sand the rim of the horn and the inside of the silver ring, coat with epoxy, and force the ring onto the rim of the horn from the bottom up. If in doubt about the length, make the ring a millimetre or so too small; you can always grind the rim of the horn down to meet it.
The tips of horns were often decorated with metal animal heads. Eagle-headed horns appear in the Sutton Hoo,Taplow, and Loveden Hill burials, as well as one one example from early Migration Age Sweden; cow-headed horns have also been found in heathen Scandinavian burials. A good jeweler can make such fittings - but not cheaply!
For ease of carrying, a leather horn-loop can be made for your belt, using a medium-thick tooling leather. This consists of a wide strip of leather, perhaps tapered slightly to follow the shape of the horn, with a belt-loop sewn onto the back before the strip's ends are sewn together. Measure your horn about halfway up and cut out the basic shape; slide the loop onto your belt and stick the horn in it. This same shape can also be riveted onto a chest strap. Another way to deal with a horn is via a side-strap, permanent or temporary. For a permanent attachment, take a long strip of leather; measure your horn about 1/3 of the way from either end; rivet/sew loops at either end of the strap, and epoxy them to the horn. Otherwise, rivet/sew the strap closed, make the loops separately, rivet/sew them to the strap, sling it over your shoulder, and slide the horn in.
V. Buying a Finished Horn
If all of the above sounds far too complicated/time consuming, beautifully carved horns of all description, with or without silver fittings, can be ordered from Gefjon at Gefjon's Arðr (see "Organizations and Resources"). Renaissance Faires also frequently have drinking horns for sale.
For glass horns, the loveliest currently available are the Harald horns (one sized for beer, one for akavit) produced by the Finnish glassmakers Iitala (pronounced ee-tah-lah). These horns, like most of Iitala's products, are made from a lovely rippling clear glass which gives the effect of melting ice. They also have the advantage of brass "feet" attached so that the horn can be set on the table when not in use. Most Scandinavian stores with a good range of glass/crystal carry Iitala's products; I am not sure which American outlets have them. It may be necessary to write to Iitala and ask.
"Hrist and Mist the horn shall bear me
Skeggjöld and Skögul,
Hildr and Thrúdhr, Hlökk and Herfjötur,
Göll and Geirölul;
Randgríðr and Raðgríðr and Reginleif,
they bear the einherjar ale."
- Grímnismál 36
Wood-Carving and Northern Art
by KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson
Wood-carving was the most highly developed artistic skill of the Northern folk. Unfortunately, because wood rots so easily, only a few of the fine pieces of the old days have lived to this time; but they are enough to show us what our forebears could do. Everything that was done in metal or stone was done better in wood; the Migration/Vendel Age jeweler's technique of chip-carving metal is actually thought to be derived from wood-carving skills. In the chapter "Hof-Building", the special soul-might of wood in the Northern tradition was spoken of; wood-carving is a craft with deep roots in the Northern spirit. It was also, together with spinning, the most commonly done craft of our forebears: just about everyone who carried a knife (that is, everyone!) probably spent more than a few winter evenings carving out the things they needed for household work or chipping away to ornament those same things. The Germanic peoples do not seem to have made a lot of "art for art's sake": our art was mostly adornment of those things we needed anyway - house-walls and doors, chairs, spoons, and so forth. It was meant to make that which was used pleasing and fine in every way, and often to bring holiness, magic, and beauty to the most basic items of existence.
The most famous find of wood-carvings is, of course, the Oseberg ship-burial. As well as the highly adorned ship itself, the burial included even more highly ornamented sledges and wains, as well as the well-known animal-head posts which appear on the covers of so many books on the Viking Age. Some, if not all, of these items were probably meant for religious use, and give us a good idea of how the Northern folk used wood-carving for ritual purposes. The general impression is of activity - everything is in motion, writhing with gripping beasts and wyrms; in a dimly lit hof or hall with the firelight flickering over it, such items would have seemed to be continuously moving and swirling with might.
The Vikings had all the types of chisel known today except for the V-gouge. Aside from this one tool, any instruction on traditional methods of carving is likely to be perfectly authentic - if you think perfect authenticity needful for your artwork. However, we must not ever forget that our forebears never sought to limit themselves to the tools of their forebears, but instead, used whatever they could find to make their own work better. The Vikings were not a low-tech, but a high-tech people for their age! Some purists have spoken scornfully of the "soulless dremmel tool"; I myself have successfully used a "soulless dremmel tool" for holy and magical metalwork, rune-risting, and horn-carving, among other uses, and am quite sure that my ancestors would have been delighted to get their hands on such a useful item. On the other hand, it is also true that carving or doing other hand-crafts in a traditional manner is a very fine meditation which helps one to get into the mind-set of our ancestors in a way which mere sitting and contemplating cannot achieve.
The range of techniques used by the Germanic peoples in their religious carvings went all the way from the crudest hackings to make a barely human-shaped branch slightly more human to the most ornate masterpieces of relief and full-round carving, as seen in the Oseberg burial. As well as being carved in relief (which takes a fair bit of training, practice, and time to do well), pictures were also drawn as graphic-art designs and the lines simply graven into the wood - again, something anyone with a chisel or knife can do. Simple symbols were used as well as graphic artwork; both a flat plank and a bowl from the Oseberg burial have plain line-drawings of walknots graven into them, for instance.
The general style of much Scandinavian art was based on the "gripping beast" idea - an animal or human with elongated, intertwined limbs grabbing onto parts of itself or another gripping beast. At the end of the Viking Age and in the hundred years following, these designs became more elaborate, with thin tendrils twisting all over the place, giving a generally attentuated and (in my opinion) somewhat weaker impression than the more solid gripping beasts of the Oseberg burial.
Although Scandinavian art shared influences with Celtic knotwork, and knotwork designs also look fitting in a Germanic setting, the art of the North was not as neatly planned as the mathematically precise art of the Celts. Its character is more organic - not chaotic, for there is pattern to it, but it cannot be plotted out on a grid as Celtic knotwork can.
As well as the various intertwining designs, the Viking Age artists also used plain, though stylized figures for representation of naturalistic scenes. These are mostly seen on the Gotlandic picture-stones, which depicted specific images (battles, sacrifice, the hero coming to Valhöll, and so forth). Such images also appear in metalwork, most specifically as the little pendants, brooches, or figurines which may have had some religious import (the walkurja or idis with the drinking horn, the horn-helmed dancer, and the horseman, among other common figures), and in textile art (the Oseberg tapestry). These are particularly well-suited for doing as simple line-carvings.
The basic guidelines I offer here are meant for the simplest sorts of carving: if you want to take up woodcarving on a serious basis, I strongly suggest either finding a teacher or looking for well-illustrated books on the subject. Written descriptions alone are probably the least helpful means of learning such a craft. However...
Choosing your wood is the first thing. This will clearly depend on what you are doing, but there are certain things to avoid. Unless you are using a "soulless dremmel tool", avoid oak like the plague. It is very hard and more than a little prone to break if you try to do small detail work. Alder is another bad wood for carving. Ash is quite good, rather on the hard side, but not too much so, and able to take fine detail without any difficulty. The same is true for cherry and other fruitwoods. The very best wood for carving is linden (basswood), which is soft, but strong enough not to splinter and flake too badly. In general, however, experience is the best teacher.
When carving, especially if you are learning from a book or by trial and error rather than from an experienced teacher, remember the first law of carving:
Always Cut Away From Your Body!
As mentioned in the discussion of carving drinking horns, knives will slip. Chisels will slip. The most you can do is make sure that when they slip, your flesh is not in the path. I studied traditional Bavarian woodcarving with a Meister Stein- und Holzbildhauer for several years, and I still nick myself once in a while - that is, whenever I forget to stop and think about where the chisel will go when it does get away. Someone who thinks s/he can do woodcarving without slicing him/herself once in a while is either an optimist, or a lot more cautious than I am. Someone who does not plan to avoid or minimize all possible damage that can be done by an accident with a knife or chisel is a fool.
You are best off if you can grip your piece tightly in a vise so that you will have both hands free (be careful to put little pieces of scrap wood between the jaws of the vise and your carving to keep the carving from getting dinged or splintered). You will either have to be able to move from side to side as the direction of your cutting changes with the grain of the wood, or resign yourself to unclamping and reclamping the piece a lot.
When doing relief carving, always work from lowest to highest. Draw your rough design onto the flat wood, then chop away the background area. You will almost certainly need to use a chisel and mallet for this. Save the highest bits (such as human noses) for the very last. Make sure that you never undercut (cutting beneath an edge of wood so that it juts up at an inverse angle from the background), as this will make the protruding edge likely to break off.
Always cut with the grain or slantwise across it, never straight across it. The reason we know that runes were first designed for wood rather than stone or metal (in spite of the fact that we do not actually find runes on wood until several centuries after the first metal examples) is that all their strokes are either upright or slanted: there are no horizontal strokes or rounded lines because these are much more difficult to do in wood.
Keep your tools sharp. A dull edge will make the wood more likely to splinter than to let itself be cut cleanly. Also, if the tool is not sharp, you will have to push harder, and this makes it much more likely that you will lose control and it will slip and gash something you didn't really want gashed.
For simple line-carving, slant the blade slightly and make all your cuts going one direction, then turn the piece around, slant the blade the other way, and cut all of them into V-grooves. This can be done neatly and effectively. If using curves in the design, be very careful, as there will be points along the curve where the wood strongly resists being carved in this manner. This is how woodcarvers get sliced.
With any sort of carving, the ideal is to get clean, sharp cuts which slice away all the little flakes and need no sanding afterwards. But you will need to sand anyway. A medium-grain sandpaper will deal with a lot of flaws in your basic technique, and, when folded into a sharp corner, can sometimes be more useful for defining very small details (such as eyes and mouths) than is the actual tool. After the medium-grain, go down to a very fine-grit, finishing with one that is about 600 for the last smoothing. On a harder wood, such a fine sandpaper will very nearly polish it.
Once you have finished your sanding, you will want to do something else to care for the wood of the piece. Any hobby store or wood-shop will sell various sorts of stains and finishes, ranging from a clear wax which darkens the natural colour just slightly and protects the wood to serious, deep brown stains and various sorts of gildings or silverings. In the old days, linseed oil and beeswax were probably among the favourite finishes. If you plan to have it outdoors, you will want to get a protective finish which is specifically designed for the purpose of waterproofing and so forth. Remember, many of these finishes are fairly toxic, and should not be used in a room without good ventilation - read the warnings on the labels and take them seriously!
Carvings were often painted; the use of painting on wood by itself may also have been fairly common, and this can really be done by anyone. To paint wood, you first need a base undercoat; then apply your acrylics. Red, black, white, blue, and yellow were the most popular colours of the Viking Age.
The artistic styles of the North varied considerably over time, and simple descriptions cannot really convey their appearance and feeling. The best I can do is to recommend textbooks for the would-be carver or artist to seek out. Full bibliography on all of these is in this work's "Book-Hoard".
For Migration Age art, the best single source is Karl Hauck's Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit (7 vols., three of which are simply photographs and line-drawings of bracteate art). Bookstores do not carry this set, and unfortunately, it is prohibitively expensive: those who do not have access to a good university library will probably have to resort to asking for it through inter-library loan. The general character of the bracteate art was spoken of in the chapter on the Migration and Vendel Ages.
The basic text for Viking Art is, big surprise, Viking Age Art, by D.M. Wilson and Ole Klindt-Jensen. Shirley Blubok's The Art of the Vikings is also recommended. Another book which shows rich details of Viking artwork is Lennart Karlsson's Nordisk Form om djurornamentik (Nordic Form of animal-ornamentation), which is in Swedish, but is mainly an art book full of excellent pictures ranging from ca. 400 C.E. to the end of the Viking Age, and also has an English summary. This book can be ordered from Statens Historiska Museum, Box 5405, S-114 84 Stockholm, Sweden (paperback, 115 Swedish kroner).
There are a number of introductory books on the Vikings in general for a popular market which have excellent pictures and short discussions of the different Viking Age styles. Among these are James Graham-Campbell's The Viking World and Bertil Almgren's The Viking (otherwise known as the "Ugly Viking" book due to the fact that the people in it all look like prunes, and famed for a really unsurpassable 2-page illustration of Ugly Vikings with axes chasing terrified Ugly Monks).
For representational art of the picture-stone style, the best collection of pictures is Sune Lindqvist's Gotlands Bildsteine. This is not in print, but the smaller, more popularly-oriented Stones, Ships, and Symbols (Erik Nýlen and Jan-Peder Lamm) is.
Although recreations of our forebears' art-styles are an excellent way to get in touch with their thoughts and souls, it is also important for us to show forth our understanding of the might of the god/esses in the best way we can, and to pay attention to other folk of this age who have worked with the images of the North in a modern manner. The beautiful oil-paintings from the Ring Cycle in the Nibelungensaal on Drachenfels can be just as spiritually moving as any of the elder pieces of artwork, for instance. David M. Wilson's The Northern World shows modern works based on Teutonic Heathen cultural themes. A list of artists who have done work of this type includes August Malmstrom, Constantin Hansen, Christoffer Ecksberg, Peter Arbo, Erik Werenskiold, Edward Burne-Jones, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Bruun, Johannes Flintoe, Henri Fuseli, Peter Cornelius, Axel Revold, N.A. Abilgaard, M.E. Winge, Arthur Rackham, and Nils Blommer (Chisholm, James. "Art in the Hearth", p. 24). We should also seek to bring forth our own Heathen art, drawing, as best we can, on both traditional and modern techniques to create the mightiest effects we can.
Spinning and Weaving
As spoken of under "Frija", these are the mightiest crafts of the Teutonic woman - though not just limited to women, even in the elder days; Viking men also spun on their long sea-voyages (Carol Patricia Keese, "The Ring of Web", p. 12). Spinning and weaving are the crafts of Wyrd, deeply important to the reborn Troth; indeed, Elder-in-training Carol Keese is currently heading a Troth guild, the Ring of Web, for those interested in seeking out both the practical and spiritual aspects of these arts (those interested should write to the Ring of Web c/o the Troth).
Spinning is the easiest way to get started, calling only for a drop spindle and some wool (available at many craft stores which specialize in yarn and knitting). A traditional soapstone spindle-whorl is easy to make: all you need is a small block of soapstone (perhaps 1.5" square by 1/2" thick) and a Swiss Army knife. The block must then be rounded off; it can be used as a flat disk, or shaped into a wide cone - many variations on the basic shape were used. The important thing is that it be well-balanced. The knife is used for the basic shaping; soapstone can then be ground into shape on a rough stone (or even a slab of concrete) and sanded smooth. A nail or a very thin blade of some sort can be used to pierce the hole in the middle. Again, this must be almost perfectly centered, or the spindle will wobble.
To mount the spindle-whorl, take a thin dowel (about a foot long) and taper one end so that the whorl can be forced 2-3 inches up it. Carve a small ring about a quarter-inch from the other end.
The easiest way for a beginner to start is to take a piece of thick yarn and tie it just above the spindle-whorl. Twist a loop in the yarn and bring it over the tapered end, pulling it tight just below the spindle-whorl. Now twist another loop and pull it tightly into the little ring at the other end of the spindle. The spindle should now be able to dangle freely. Fray the end of the yarn about an inch above the spindle. Sort out several pencil-thick pieces of wool about the length of your arm and lay them over your knee. Splice the end of one into the frayed yarn and begin to spin the spindle, pulling the wool slowly through your fingers. When you have reached the end of that piece, splice in another.
The spun thread must always be kept tight. When this becomes uncomfortable, untwist the original yarn-loops (being sure to still keep the spun thread tight at all times, or it will unravel) and wind the thread around the spindle above the whorl, leaving enough free so that you can loop it below the whorl and at the top of the spindle as you did with the original yarn. Continue until the spindle becomes unwieldy. When that happens, take a stick and wind your spindle-full of yarn onto it, always being sure to keep it tight. Start over.
Hand-spun yarn, especially a beginner's spinning, is not very good to knit with, but it can be woven with. Since there are so many different types of weaving, and most of them require rather more complex equipment than spinning, we will not go into them here.
Easy to make, the corn dolly has probably been part of Northern religious practice since we started harvesting grain. Also called "tomtegubber" (manly) or "tomtegumma" (womanly).
Take a handful of dry stalks of grain and clip the heads off. Soak in water for an hour or two, until pliable. Fold in the middle and tie string around an inch and a half or so beneath the fold. The bulbous bit thus formed is the head. Separate out two small bunches for arms and tie them off at the shoulders. Tie another string tightly where you want the waist. If you are making a tomtegumma, you can simply trim the stalks below at the desired point and they will be her skirt. If making a tomtegubber, separate the remaining stalks into two bunches for his legs and tie them off. Then criss-cross two more small bundles over his shoulders and tie another string around his waist. Trim the loose stalks at about mid-thigh height to form the skirt of a tunic. Tie the arms along their length and trim them where you want them. You may want to have the corn dolly holding something (like a staff or a bundle of grain); in this case, leave extra length which you can wrap around the item and tie tightly back to the arm.
For hair and beard, heads of grain can be stuck into the corn dolly's head. A tomtegumma will want a little cap or such so that she does not look bald. Corn dollies can be adorned with cloaks and hats or other wear. In Sweden, I (KveldúlfR Gundarsson) once saw a beautiful tomtegumma who had a red pointed hat and a red bodice sewn onto her, while stalks of grain had been stuck head-down all about the edge of her skirt.
Corn dollies are great fun for the whole Hearth or Garth, including the children, to make together at harvest-time. They can also be used as god-images for a small home harrow.