Oenomel, Medicine, and Mead

The connection between health and mead is a long one. In the c. 1500 BCE Rigveda, the oldest sacred Hindu text, the accepted translation for one hymn says: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” Book 8 Hymn 48, Griffith 1896.

Dioscorides continues this trend; in keeping with the medical focus of his text, he expands the description of the medicinal uses of mead. These uses vary over time, and seem naïve to modern eyes, but are one of the threads that allows us to follow mead recipes through time. Many recipes for mead append the expected medical effects, or provide guidance on who should or should not drink the product based on their individual health and consitution.

Plain mead (honey and water only) was attributed with varying medicinal uses over time. More importantly, herbs and spices added to mead were often selected for specific expected medicinal effects. Sometimes these additions were made before fermentation and sometimes after.

Today’s recipe is Oenomel. A mead made with wine must and honey. The picture below is a c. 100 BCE wine amphora, found in a shipwreck with more than 1000 others.

1516 Baptista/Barolo Dioscorides Book V Oenomeli DCCCLXV

TRANSLATION (Laura Angotti): Mix together two cadis (jars) of wine and one of honey. Those who will work quickly, cook the wine with honey. Then enclose it in earthen vessels to age. Others sparing a sextari of boiling must, mix in one part of honey, when it is cooled, they pour it out. So prepared for keeping it contains sweetness.

This section appears to contain three different recipes, only one of which is mead. The first two, mixing wine (almost certainly already fermented) with honey or boiling wine with honey (probably to mix more quickly), appear to use the honey for sweetening an existing wine. The third recipe calls for ‘boiling’ must, in many older recipes the process of fermentation is called boiling, I therefore interpret this as must that has begun to ferment.

This recipe in particular is much easier to interpret when placed next to other versions contained in other Dioscorides texts. The 1:1 wine must:honey ratio is very strong, and will not readily ferment. This ratio is not consistent with other recipes for this drink in other editions of Dioscorides. One other calls for a 2:1 wine must:honey ratio, and other for 6:1. These ratios make much more sense in terms of total sugar content. It cannot be said whether the 1:1 ratio is an error, intentional by someone who does not understand that this mix would not ferment well, or intentional with some other intent than easy fermentation.

Picture courtesy of The Met. This c 100 BCE vessel is a bit over 40 inches (1 meter) in height.

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