Slavs and the History of Alcohol: An Etymological Journey

Slavs are known for their notorious drinking habits and their strong alcoholic drinks, such as vodka and sliwovitz among the northern Slavs, and rakija in the Balkans.

However, there is more to this relationship with alcohol—a connection that reaches deep into prehistory. As we will explore, many terms related to alcoholic drinks can be best explained through Slavic languages.

Kvasir and Kvasac: Fermentation in Mythology

Kvasir is a figure in Norse mythology, known as the wisest of all beings. According to the myth, Kvasir was created by the gods Aesir and Vanir to seal their truce after a war. They each spat into a bowl, and from this mixture, Kvasir was born. He traveled far and wide, sharing his wisdom and knowledge with all who sought it.

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Kvasir’s story takes a darker turn when he encounters two dwarfs, Fjalar and Galar. They kill him and drain his blood, mixing it with honey to create a magical mead that grants wisdom and poetic inspiration to those who drink it. This mead is highly coveted and later becomes central to other Norse myths, particularly the adventures of Odin.

In other words, Kvasir was created when the gods spit into a bowl, starting a process of fermentation. Similar practices can still be observed in some primitive societies around the world, where communal spitting initiates the fermentation of traditional beverages.

Some scholars believe that the name Kvasir can be best explained through the Slavic word “kvasac” – yeast. Kvass is a popular Slavic fermented cereal-based low-alcoholic beverage. The Latin word for cheese – caseus, and the English cheese are both believed to be connected to the word kvasac.

However, not only that the Slavic word is the closest to the name Kvasir, it is also the only one that has a clear etymology. Kvasiti menas to sprinkle or to make wet, reflecting the process of fermentation initiated by saliva.

Mead: The First Alcoholic Beverage

Mead is often regarded as humanity’s first alcoholic beverage, predating both wine and beer for several millennia.

Mead’s simplicity, requiring only honey, water, and natural fermentation, made it accessible to early humans long before the advent of agriculture. Archaeological evidence suggests that mead was produced as early as 7,000 BCE in China, with similar practices emerging in ancient Europe, Africa, and beyond.

The appeal of mead lies not only in its ancient roots but also in its ease of production. Unlike beer, which requires cultivated grains, or wine, which depends on grapevines, mead could be made wherever honey was available. Early humans likely discovered mead by chance, finding that naturally occurring honey mixed with water and wild yeast produced a pleasantly intoxicating beverage. This discovery made mead the primordial brew, enjoyed long before the development of more complex agricultural societies.

In English, the words “honey” and “mead” bear no phonetic resemblance, masking the connection between the two. However, in Slavic languages, the relationship is much more apparent. Slavic word for honey ismed”, and mead is referred to as “medovik”, “medovacha”, or other similar terms, depending on the language.

Finally, some elements of the ancient goddess cult are linked to bees. Most researchers attribute this to honey production, but the real reason was likely their production of mead.

Beer and Pivo: Simple Etymology, Deep Connections

The word beer has a straightforward etymology, simply meaning “a drink.” This is mirrored in the Slavic word “pivo”, derived from piti, meaning “to drink.”

Interestingly, in Sumerian, the word for beer was “kash”. This term is synonymous with the Slavic “kasha”, which refers to porridge, gruel, or oatmeal. In other words, it is the Slavic etymology that perfectly aligns with what this early form of Sumerian beer was.

There is no other modern word that could explain it better. It is well-known that ancient beer had a very thick consistency, resembling porridge more than a liquid!

Wine: The Eastern Drink?

Wine is another fascinating case. Slavic languages are among the few that have preserved the original Latin pronunciation of the word vinum, and that is an interesting fact in itself.

While the precise etymology of the word remains uncertain, this word might be related to the name Venus, potentially signifying the East, where wine is believed to have originated. Georgia, for instance, is often cited as the birthplace of wine.

Furthermore, the ancestors of the Slavs were known as Veneti, which might hint at an ancient relationship with winemaking or at least wine trading.

Zelas and Зелье: The Thracian Green Wine

The Thracian word for wine, zelas, presents another intriguing linguistic link. Its etymology is unknown, although it bears a striking resemblance to the Slavic word зелье (zelje), meaning a magical potion made from herbs (“zeleno” means “green”).

Russian folklore is rich with references to this “green wine,” an alcoholic beverage made from yeast with added herbs, particularly noted in wedding celebrations and traditional songs. This “green wine” could very well be the same type of wine the Thracians referred to, suggesting a cultural and linguistic continuity.

Opium and Opijati Se: Intoxicating Conclusions

Finally, even the word “opium” may have a Slavic root. The Slavic term “opijati” se means to get drunk, and while the exact etymology of opium remains debated, this connection offers a plausible explanation. The root of the Slavic word is known – it comes from the above-mentioned verb “piti” – to drink.

Scholars usually link the word opium to the Latin “succus” (juice), whose only modern cognate is again the Slavic word “sok.” However, “opijati se” seems a more fitting origin, emphasizing the intoxicating effects associated with the substance.

Final Thoughts

As we have seen, the etymological roots of many alcoholic drink names are deeply intertwined with Slavic languages and culture. From mythological connections and fermentation practices to straightforward meanings and ancient cultural ties, these linguistic links reflect the extensive territory once occupied by the early Slavs.

Dionysus, the ancient god of drunkenness and ecstasy, is often considered the earliest symbol of these themes. His origins trace back to the Balkans, although ancient authors claimed that he traveled as far as India and back.

According to some ancient authors, this journey to India occurred some 6,451 years before Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), placing Dionysus’s existence exactly in those times when the first mead was consumed in China around 7,000 BCE. How incredible is that?

Historical References:

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, VI. xxi. 4-5:

“For the Indians stand almost alone among the nations in never having migrated from their own country. From the days of Father Bacchus to Alexander the Great, their kings are reckoned at 154, whose reigns extend over 6451 years and 3 months.”

Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium, 52.5:

“Father Bacchus was the first who invaded India and was the first of all who triumphed over the vanquished Indians. From him to Alexander the Great, 6451 years are reckoned with 3 months additional, the calculation being made by counting the kings who reigned in the intermediate period, to the number of 153.”

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I love your blog!
    For wine I’d suggest that “vino je krivo”. “Vino” means crooked, twisted, which is exactly what “vinova loza” is. In English word “vine” signifies all such types of plants and they all have that property in common, so there’s a reasonable chance that drink is named after the plant (type) and not the other way around. Again, only Slavic languages have more meaning connected to the word, hence deeper etymology.

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