- In the Old English epic Beowulf, Grendel the ogre/monster visits the beer hall every night and tears it to shreds.
- This could be a metaphor for how we behave while drunk.
- Waking up the next day, we are racked with guilt about what may have happened.
- This is known as “alcohol guilt” or the “beer fear,” and there are a few reasons for it.
- One is that we lose some memory of what happened.
- Also, we lose out on the part of sleep that helps us process guilt.
In the Old English epic Beowulf, the “monster” Grendel is feared by everyone. He bursts into the mead hall every night, starts tearing things apart, murdering people, and drinking their blood.
He is cursed forever for being a descendant of Cain (from Cain and Abel), and can’t stand the sounds of drunken singing while he’s all alone. So, he attacks the beer hall every night for twelve years, finally rendering it unusable.
Poet and brewer Richard Osmond told INSIDER one reading of Grendel is that he’s a personification of all the things that can go wrong during a night of merriment and booze.
“You could say it’s a metaphor for the social order created by drinking breaking down… as a result of too much drinking,” he said. “Time and again, after a Grendel attack, the narrative focuses on the sun coming up to reveal the destruction, and the warriors waking up, bleary-eyed, to survey the carnage.”
The aftermath may be the benches overturned and covered in blood, or the morning after Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, where they have to follow the bloody footsteps to find out where he went.
“The focus is always on that horrible moment of realisation, and the panicked investigation that follows,” Osmond said
“That’s the true horror of the Grendel section of Beowulf – the very real danger, during every drinking session, that however good and right it feels at the time, you might wake up a few hours later to find the scene turned to utter carnage. Either because of an ogre bursting in and killing people, or you getting drunk and acting like an idiot.”
It’s called hangover guilt
Hangover guilt, sometimes known as the “beer fear,” is something many experience after a night of too much drinking. When you wake up with a sore head and a foggy memory, you can quickly jump to feeling anxious about what happened the night before.
It’s not that something necessarily bad happened, it’s just that the potential is there. You have to piece together the parts of the evening where something could have gone wrong, where you might have said something you might regret, or you may have simply drank too much and made a fool of yourself.
“The feeling of guilt when a person wakes up the next day after a night of drinking is part of the psychological disconnect a person can experience,” Sally Baker, a licensed therapist in London, told INSIDER.
“The ability to focus, be fully cognisant, and to naturally recall events is interrupted by excessive alcohol so that the memory of a night’s drinking may be vague, fractured, or even perturbing. Not being sure what they entirely did or said can cause anxiety for the drinker the next day.”
This anxiety is only perpetuated by the fact you can’t be sure if you misbehaved or not, she said. Also, after drinking heavily, your Rapid Eye Movement (REM) period of sleep is disturbed. It’s during REM where you normally subconsciously process any thoughts and memories that may be bothering you, and resolve anything about which you feel unease or guilt.
“With compromised REM cycles during their sleep, a person can wake up feeling all the negative emotions an undisturbed night would have helped them to resolve and release,” Baker said.
Drinking as part of a society
While drinking feels like a good idea at the time, many people wake up the next day swearing to “never drink again,” because the physiological and psychological impact feels so terrible. Although they inevitably do drink again, as soon as the following weekend.
Arguably, it’s because there’s so much emphasis as drinking being an important part of society for many people. After work, it’s pretty standard for colleagues to make their way to the pub or bar. Birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations are rarely complete without alcohol at least being available.
Beowulf is all about the importance of the beer hall as a centre for community, said Osmond. In fact, the only obvious parallel for how drinking strengthens bonds, creates friendships, and brokers deals is in our society.
But unlike ours, in the town in Beowulf there’s a seriousness to what happens when you’re drunk. There are references to boasts and promises made as if they are more important when the person is intoxicated. In comparison, we are more likely to shake off the events of the evening with the phrase “I was just drunk.”
“It’s almost like… the social lubricating qualities of alcohol create this intensified social space in which some of the most important interactions take place. Which kind of makes sense,” Osmond said. “If you have to make a promise to someone, or be open and honest and convinced by each other’s trustworthiness, then maybe getting drunk together is a way to broker that trust.”
But there’s an obvious flaw. Depending on drunken antics as the foundation of a lot of what goes on in your society makes the beer fear a whole lot worse.
“The vulnerability and openness and closeness allowed by alcohol could easily spill over into fights and emotional outbursts and making stupid promises that you have to keep because you said them in the magical drunk-zone,” Osmond said.
“Imagine how much worse beer fear would be if you were held more accountable for the dumb stuff you did and said when drunk, not less.”