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One of the great images of the heroic age is the scene of heroes sitting at a table, drinking horns of mead, boasting of their great deeds, and oathing to accomplish greater deeds in the future. This is the sumbel, a rite we still carry out today, in which we honor our gods, summon up might from the past, and strengthen our bonds with each other. We share a horn of mead in blót when a particular deity is being celebrated. We pass the horn in sumbel to hallow our prayers and oaths, and to welcome heroes and ancestors to our fellowship.
Site nū tō symle ond onsǣl meoto,
sigehrēð secgum, swā þīn sefa hwette.
Sit now to sumbel, and unseal your thoughts
of victory’s glory to men, as your mind encourages you.
While a blót is a ritual giving of gifts to a deity or other holy being, the sumbel is a ritual that celebrates and strengthens the community, both the gathered humans, and the gods and ancestors who are invited to take their place among them.
Described as simply as possible, the sumbel is the practice of sitting together, passing a drinking horn, and making toasts, boasts, and oaths. Speeches were and are made and gifts given during this rite, alliances formed, oaths heard, and agreements made solemn. The sumbel strengthens the bonds that tie true folk together within a holy setting. Unlike a blót, it can’t really be done by a lone person.
Literary Sources for Symbel
Feasts of this kind, with the gathered people drinking toasts and swearing oaths, are described in the sagas, and according to Hymiskviða 1, the gods themselves can be sumblsamir, “eager for sumbel.” However, the most detailed descriptions of sumbel appear in Beowulf, especially the scene in which Beowulf boasts that he will kill Grendel and refutes challenges from Hrothgar’s counselor Unferth (320-661). Sumbel is one of the great pleasures that a ruler’s thanes enjoyed in the meadhall, and losing it was keenly missed, as seen in the lament The Wanderer 92-96 (Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, p. 136):
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Where has the horse gone? Where has the man gone? Where has the treasure-giver gone?
Where have the seats at sumbel gone? Where are the hall-joys?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the ruler’s majesty! How that time has departed,
grown dark under night’s cover, as if it never existed.333
The Religious Significance of Symbel
How does a Heathen sumbel differ from a group of friends sitting around a table and drinking?
The single most important cosmological image in Germanic mythology is the World Tree, which holds all the worlds. At the root of the Tree is the great Well. Snorri speaks of three wells, each at one of the three roots of Yggdrasil (Gylfaginning 15), but Bauschatz feels that these are three repetitions of the same fundamental image (pp. 22-26), and many Heathens think of the three wells as levels of a single Well.
Boasts of our own past deeds, or of the deeds of past heroes or our own ancestors, bring the might and main of the past into the present moment.
Oaths and promises to accomplish great deeds work in the other direction: they take the might and main of the present moment and set it in the past, where they shape the individual’s and the group’s own wyrd (pp. 109-110).
Those who speak worthless words over the horn—such as false boasts, or oaths that will never be fulfilled—risk shaping their wyrd in ways that they cannot escape without harm or humiliation.
Many Heathens feel that such words are potentially damaging to the wyrd of everyone present, not only the speaker of the false words.
How to Symbel
It is usual to stand in Blót, but several texts use the set phrase “to sit at sumbel.”
Sumbel is also almost always said to take place indoors, unlike blóts, which could be performed indoors or outdoors. Today it is usual to sit in a ring or rectangle, with the hosts or group leaders sitting at the head of the hall. In the sagas, halls are described as having two rows of benches; the head of the hall sat at the high seat, in the center of one bench, flanked by his highest-ranking and most trusted thanes, while the most highly honored guest sat facing the host at the opposite bench. Less honored guests sat farther away from the head of the hall. Modern groups with a developed hierarchy may choose to assign seating by rank, with higher-ranking personages closer to the head.
Although the word is sometimes translated “feast,” food is usually not served during a sumbel; Paul Bauschatz suggests that food was deliberately excluded (The Well and the Tree, p. 74).
At larger gatherings today, sumbel is often held after dinner. Some groups like to begin with the gathered folk being ceremonially offered a basin of water and a towel to wash and dry their hands, taking a cue from Hávamál 4:
Vatns er þǫrf þeim er til verðar kømr,
þerru ok þjóðlaðar,
góðs um oeðis, ef sér geta mætti,
orðs ok endrþǫgu.
A man who comes to a meal needs water,
a towel, and a friendly welcome,
good manners (if he might get them for himself),
talk, and silence in turn.337
The host of the sumbel may make some requests before the rite actually begins, especially if some of the guests are not Heathen, new to Heathenry, or new to the group that is hosting the sumbel. For example, some groups consider it disrespectful to shout at the Gods; others find nothing wrong at all with a rousing bellow of “HAIL THOR!!” or the like.
Symbel Begins: Filling the Drinking Vessel
The sumbel begins with the filling of a drinking horn with mead, beer, ale, wine, or cider. As with blót, a sumbel can be celebrated with non-alcoholic beverages, or may be celebrated using two horns, one with alcohol and one without. Large cups can be used if a horn is not available; the Bayeux Tapestry, for example, depicts a feast at which people are drinking from both horns and cups.
There are several references to Germanic rulers being inordinately proud of their table furnishings for feasting; Chilperic of the Franks boasted of his fifty-pound golden serving tray, and the treasure of the Vandals included golden drinking cups and other tableware (see Enright, Lady with a Mead Cup, pp. 49-51).
The leader may speak a blessing or other prayer over the filled horn, and then speaks a toast, traditionally to a god or goddess, or to a group of them. This can be as simple as “Hail Odin!” or as complex as an original poem in elaborate skaldic meter. The leader then takes a swallow of drink from the horn. Before 2020 this was often drunk directly from the horn, but in the post-Covid age, it is much safer for leaders to pour a little drink from the larger horn into their personal vessel. It is traditional for the gathered people to reply to the toast with “Hail!” or “Wassail!”
Passing the Drinking Vessel at Symbel
The leader then passes the horn. At smaller and less formal sumbels, the horn may be passed directly from one person to the next, but at larger sumbels the horn is usually handed to a designated horn-bearer, who goes around the room, giving each person the horn, hearing their toast, and then taking the horn from each person and giving to the next in turn. Horn-bearers may give their own toasts either at the beginning of the round or at the end. They also keep track of the level of drink in the horn, and may refill the horn whenever necessary.
When the horn has gone round the first time, the leader may pour out some drink into the blessing-bowl, giving the gods their share. In some traditions, the leader pours out the gods’ share and then ladles some of that share back into the horn, symbolizing the exchange of gifts of might and main between gods and humans. The horn may then be passed for another round.
Roles at Symbel
Besides the roles we talked about before, the Host, the Cup/Horn-Bearer and the assembled, there are some specialized Roles you might want to consider for your Symbel.
It has become common in general Heathen practice to designate a thul (OE þyle, ON þulr) at sumbel.
The only thul depicted in the lore as acting in his office is Unferth in Beowulf, who’s portrayed unsympathetically, but Michael Enright has reconstructed what a thul would have done (“The Warband Context of the Unferth Episode”). The thul was, and should be today, both a religious functionary and a trusted warrior of proven bravery.
At sumbel, a thul today should be familiar with the deeds and reputations of the gathered people, and should know very well which ones are likeliest to back up their words with deeds. As Unferth does in Beowulf, a thul may challenge others’ oaths and boasts in a ritualized verbal duel known as flyting—especially if the person is a stranger to the hall, as Beowulf was.
Flyting may come across as confrontational, but there’s a serious point to it: by his challenges, the thul ensures that everyone who oaths or boasts at sumbel is worthy and able to back up what he or she has said. If the person truly is worthy, the flyting will make this worth evident to everyone in the hall (as when Beowulf replies to Unferth’s challenges).
The thul also forces would-be swearers to define exactly what their oaths will entail, and what they will have do to keep it—it may be easy to wriggle out of a vaguely worded oath, but it’s hardly a worthy act to swear one.
The thul’s flyting may also incite each man to furious effort to accomplish what he has set out to do. But the thul’s role was and is also similar to that of a “sergeant-at-arms”, who must either soothe or forcefully end any serious strife building up in the hall; he had to be both a pacifier and an inciter. Today, if a sumbel has gotten out of hand—if people are becoming combative, or otherwise losing control—the thul should intervene, and either calm the people down, expel them, or in the very worst case, shut down the sumbel.349
One more personage that is sometimes seen at sumbel is a scop (OE), shope (modernized English), skald (ON), or minna-singer (OHG), a poet and singer. At any sumbel, individual participants may offer toasts in verse or in song, if they have the skill; in the story of Cædmon in Bede’s History of the English Church (IV.xxiv), Cædmon’s fellows at sumbel pass a harp around, taking turns playing and singing. (A sumbel in which everyone offers a song or poem is sometimes called a “shopes’ sumbel,” similar to the bardic circles seen at pagan gatherings.)
But at sumbels held by kings or lords, there was generally a designated singer or poet.
For instance, in Beowulf (1065-7), Hrothgar’s scop sings a lay: gomenwudu grēted, gid oft wrecen / ðonne healgamen Hrōþgāres scop / æfter medobence mǣnan scolde—“he touched the joy-wood [harp], he often wrought a song, when Hrothgar’s scop had to proclaim hall-joy before the mead-bench.”
Many sumbels don’t have a designated shope, and many groups may not have one, or feel the need for one. But if someone in the group has great poetic or musical skill, he or she may be designated the shope or skald.
The shope may recite a poem or sing a song at the beginning of the sumbel, perhaps a retelling of a myth to put the people in the right frame of mind. He may also perform at designated times throughout the sumbel, or may simply walk through the hall, playing softly and witnessing all that happens.
The shope’s poetry and music should be enjoyable, but their duties go beyond simple entertainment. By recounting the deeds of the gods, the heroes of old, and today’s Heathen heroes and leaders, the shope brings the might and main of their deeds up from the Well of Wyrd and into the present. He or she is also there to witness the words and deeds of the folk. If they are sufficiently worthy, he may sing of them at later sumbels.
The Three Round Symbel
The most common format of sumbel is the three-round sumbel, also sometimes called the minne-sumbel.
Minne means “memory,” and in the minne-sumbel we remember the deeds of our gods and goddesses, our worthy ancestors, and ourselves and our fellow Heathens. Through the act of conscious memory, we bring the might and main of these wights and their deeds into the present, allowing them to shape our wyrd.
- The first round of toasts is drunk to the gods and goddesses; everyone may hail the deities of their choice.
- The second round is drunk to ancestors or heroes.
- The third round of toasts goes to whatever the participants choose.
Some sumbel-guests may opt to hail another deity or another ancestor. Others may choose to boast one of their accomplishments, or (if it is allowed) swear an oath.
The host of the sumbel may choose to limit the number of rounds to three, and the sumbel will end when those rounds are finished. Generally, all Heathens present participate in all the rounds. In other groups, it is usual to leave the number of rounds open. In this case the sumbel may go on until the host when he or she feels it has reached a natural point of closure—which has sometimes meant all night long. Participants may choose to leave when their need for sleep wins out over their love of hall-
Boasts during Symbel
In the third round, people may choose to hail a deity or ancestor again. However, many choose to offer a boast, or yelp (from OE gilp, gielp; OHG gelph; OS galpon). This is a public statement of the person’s strengths and of worthy deeds they have done. The word comes from the PIE root *ghel- meaning “to shout; to cry out,” and this root also gave rise to ON galan “to speak a spell, to enchant,” galdr “spoken magic,” and gylfra “sorceress.”
Not only was a gielp spoken loudly and confidently, it had special power, affirming the speaker’s strength in the face of all challenges, and implying that the speaker would do equally mighty deeds in the future (Nolan and Bloomfield, “Bēotword, Gilpcwidas, and the Gilphlæden Scop of Beowulf,” pp. 501-502).
But properly done, boasting isn’t empty bragging (which Unferth calls dolgilp, “foolish boast,” in Beowulf 509). It sets your deeds firmly in the Well of Wyrd, affirms your true worth for all to see, and announces your willingness to use your strengths to rise to future challenges. Arrogance is not a Heathen virtue, but neither is false modesty; you’re allowed to express pride in the worthy deeds you’ve done, and you have the right to receive thanks and praise for them.
Obviously, you should never make a false boast. The great baseball player Dizzy Dean expressed a rather Heathen sentiment when he said “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”
Oaths during Symbel
Participants may also choose to swear promissory oaths to accomplish deeds of worth (sometimes called by the Old English name bēot or Old Norse heit).
Both bēot and heit are related to a verb meaning “to name; to call; to command” (OE hātan, behātan; ON heita), which in turn derives from a PIE root that originally meant “to set in motion.” To speak an oath is to give yourself a command—and to set the turnings of wyrd in motion.
Sumbel-oaths are taken even more seriously than normal oaths, because they are made in the sight of all the gathered.
Ann Sheffield commented:
Despite the popularity of this idea in modern Heathenism, I see absolutely no evidence in Germanic literature that someone’s swearing a heit they failed to keep had any effect on “the wyrd of everyone in the hall.” If it did, King Sveinn would never have manipulated the Jómsvikings into swearing such disastrous heit. If your wyrd is already interwoven with to someone else’s (through kinship, friendship, etc.), then what happens to them will naturally have an effect on you, but I reject the idea that just witnessing such a heit, even in sumbel, has any implications greather than the right to mock a person who fails to keep their heit.
A heit that you cannot keep damages your reputation and can make you look foolish. You should not make an oath at sumbel unless you have carefully considered your capabilities and the chances of failure. Know yourself well.
Life can always take sudden turns, and even the most capable speaker can sometimes fail at keeping what seemed like a perfectly reasonable oath—but if you seriously doubt that you can live up to a sumbel-oath, don’t make that oath.
The poem The Wanderer 65-72 (ed. Krapp and Dobbie, The Exeter Book, pp. 135-136) has excellent advice for those who would speak boasts and oaths:
Wita sceal geþyldig,
ne sceal no to hatheort ne to hrædwyrde,
ne to wac wiga ne to wanhydig,
ne to forht ne to fægen, ne to feohgifre
ne næfre gielpes to georn, ær he geare cunne.
Beorn sceal gebidan, þonne he beot spriceð,
oþþæt collenferð cunne gearwe
hwider hreþra gehygd hweorfan wille.
A wise man must be patient,
must not be too hot-headed, nor too quick to speak,
nor too weak a fighter, nor too reckless,
neither too fearful nor too rash, nor too greedy for wealth,
never too eager to boast [gielp] before he sees clearly.
A warrior must wait, when he speaks an oath [beot],
until the fierce-minded one clearly sees
where the thought in his breast will turn.
In each round of the sumbel, whoever holds the horn has the right to speak as briefly or as long as they need to. Some people find it enough to raise the horn and say “Hail, Odin!” or a similar brief hail. Others might feel moved to speak longer, telling the story of the ancestor who inspires them or the god who has blessed them. It is polite for speakers to try to keep their toasts fairly short, especially if the sumbel is large and people have much to do the next day.
On the other hand, sometimes people just have a lot that needs to be said. Try to pay attention to every toast: looking obviously bored, nodding off, checking your cell phone, or chatting with your neighbor while someone else is speaking is poor manners.
Tacitus describes the Germans’ drinking feasts:
“The people are without craft or cunning, and expose in the freedom of revelry the heart’s previous secrets, so every mind is bared to nakedness” (Germania 22).
This passage sums up the sort of feelings that a sumbel can evoke.
For more on proper Symbel behavior please see our article on how to Symbel like a Pro.
Gifting at Symbel
Sumbel is often also a time for gift-giving. Rulers—who were expected to be generous—gave gifts at sumbel to their retainers in exchange for their loyalty and service, a practice that appears several times in Beowulf, for example. It was customary in Norse society for the host of a feast to distribute gifts to his honored guests, which was called leysa menn út med gjǫfum, “to dismiss people with gifts” (Cleasby and Vigfusson, Icelandic-English Dictionary, p. 202) Sometimes retainers and guests gave gifts to their host, as when Beowulf gives Hygelac the treasures that Hrothgar has given him (2142-2176).
Gifting usually happens in the third round in modern sumbels. Descriptions in the lore usually show the lord of the hall giving gifts to his retainers and guests, or vice versa. A sumbel is thus a very fitting time for kindred or organization leaders to thank and gift persons who have contributed to the group’s success, or for members to gift their leaders in thanks for a job well done.
There’s less literary evidence that gifting took place at sumbel among persons of equal rank. Nonetheless, in modern times, the person whose turn it is may choose to bestow gifts on any of the other people who are present—unless the group chooses to restrict gifting for any of the reasons listed below.
Gifting can be highly enjoyable, both to watch and to participate in; it enhances the reputation of a good giver, and it strengthens ties of loyalty and friendship among the gathered.
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