The Mether Cup
In ancient Ireland the visitor was welcomed in peace and friendship with a brimming Mether of meade
Custom held that the visitor must share his “welcome sup” with his host and all presents at his arrival, being careful always to pass the cup only to the right (sun-wise) for luck.
Normally the cup was held in both hands while drink while drink was taken from one of the four spouted corners. The deliberate design of four handles and four spouts does suggest a welcome and peace loving wish that encompassed the four corners of the land
How the Mether came into existence…. An Irish Folk tradition
It is claimed in an old tale that King Tuathal The Acceptable, (2nd Century A.D.), a man who may have been impressed with the achievements of the Roman world and anxious to introduce some of their ways amongst his own people, was the first inspired with the concept of uniting the then four kingdoms of Ireland under one central kingship through the simple device of setting up a fifth province made up of parts of the other four and established it as a central or High Kingdom with elements of influence if not control over the other four. Thus is it said the fifth province of Ireland came into existence and Tara became the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
King Tuathal however was a zealous reformer in other ways too. He had seen a Roman cup with a handle and decided that this was advance on the form of the Irish Beaker of his day. He commissioned his smith to make him a Roman style cup with a handle.
The smith duly went to his work bench and after some days brought his work piece to his king. Unfortunately he held the cup by the handle and so the king had no way of taking the cup into his own hand except by grasping it as he would have grasped a beaker. This upset him, it was not what he wanted, the Romans had missed the point and there should handles for both the presenter and the recipient of the cup to grasp. “Off with you” he said to the smith “and make me a cup with two handles”.
The smith returned to his bench and after some days went back to his king and proudly presented him with the new cup and with two handles. However in his excitement he now held the cup by both handles and the king was left with no handle by which to take hold of the cup.
With a roar king Tuathal sent his smith back to his bench to make a new cup. Off he went and on the same day came back in triumph having as he thought anticipated correctly the king’s wish. The cup had now three handles, but the smith unfortunate man that he was, presented his king with his new creation in such a manner that holding the cup by two handles, the third was towards himself and so the king still had no handle by which he might take hold of the cup without loss on his face.
Outraged, King Tuathal commanded his smith to set about making a cup so formed that no matter how it was presented there would always be a handle for both parties to grasp on equal terms. Moreover he decreed, there should be drinking spouts arranged so that the liquid in the cup could be poured into a man’s mouth without touching the sides of the cup with his lips, so that all who would drink from it would be equal in status and none would have to place his lips where others had preceded him.
The cup could thus be shared by peers on equal terms. And so it came to be that the final form of what antiquity came to know as the “Irish Cup” was a vessel with four handles and four drinking spouts.
The name “Mether” is believed to be a corruption of “Meader”
However there is another suggestion to the effect that the name may be derived from the Irish word “Mehill” meaning “gathering”. Indeed “gathering” were the chief social events of the rural calendar.
“Gatherings” were a communal sharing of tasks associated with sowing, hay-making, reaping, threshing, thatching, the great autumnal fairs, weddings and wakes
Obviously the “mether” was central to all such activities. Moreover it was a communal cup passed from hand to hand and was used for all liquids. In fact it was the only drinking vessel in use in Ireland during the whole medieval period. References can be found in historical documents to “Methers of fresh milk”. “A Mether of buttermilk” and the refreshing qualities of half mether of milk left to cool over night and then topped up with fresh first thing in the morning.
In the library of the Royal Irish Academy there is a translation of an ancient Irish epic entitled “The Hospitality of the House of Two Methers” a tale said to have been a favourite of St Patrick and to have been part of the oral folklore extant in his time.
There are many famous methers in private collections and museums, some are richly decorated and were hereditary treasures of great Celtic families.
This mether is an exact replica of a 16th century mether. The design is a form of St. Andrews Cross which would suggest the original was probably the property of a Gallowglass family.