Hail and welcome to my first monthly article with The Pagan and the Pen. If you would like to read my columnist introduction, please see my previous post.
This month, I want to talk to you about sumbels.
Maybe, you have heard of sumbels (also spelt sumble and symbel), but you have no clue what happens, never mind what is expected of you?
Hopefully, this post will answer all those questions and more.
What is a sumbel?
A sumbel is an Asatru toasting ritual with alcohol. The participants of the ritual are expected to speak and make toasts as the horn of mead (usually) is passed around. There are three rounds to begin with:
- Round One: To the Gods and/or the Goddesses
- Round Two: To the ancestors and/or a personal hero
- Round Three: For an Oath, Boast or Toast
Round One: To the Gods and/or the Goddesses:
As the horn is passed to you from the right, you will raise it in the name of a God or a Goddess (or both) that have shown presence in your life or who you have gained some insight from. Be that a creative insight or wisdom or whatever effect they have had on your life recently. Explain why you are toasting this deity.
Once the toast is said, you would generally say ‘Hail’ or ‘Hail adding the God or Goddesses name’ at which point the participants reply with ‘Hail’ or ‘Hail adding the God or Goddesses name’. You would then take a drink from the horn and pass the horn to the person on your left. Please note that if you do not drink alcohol or dislike the drink that is being used for toasting, for whatever reason, you may pour your share into the fire, into a blessing bowl, or onto the ground as an offering. You may also dip a forefinger into the liquid and anoint your own forehead. This is all acceptable behaviour.
Round Two: To the Ancestors and/or a personal hero:
During Round Two, you will raise the horn in the name of your ancestor(s) or a personal hero of yours (Batman or Spiderman do not count as heroes…lol). You may describe your ancestor or hero and why you are toasting them, you may state what effect they have had on you or your life or what inspiration you have gained from them. Short tales about their mighty deeds or the reason why you’re inspired by the person being toasted are appropriate. Just make sure to keep your story under a few minutes, or people might start losing interest.
The ancestor or hero you toast should be a deceased individual, as opposed to a still-living one. Many Heathens believe that it’s ill luck to toast an ancestor that is still alive. Exceptions are made when praising a large group that has accomplished a mighty deed (such as a group of firefighters that have risked their lives to rescue others), or to toast the people who are assembled at the sumbel.
Once the toast is said, you would generally say ‘Hail’ or ‘Hail adding the name of the ancestor or hero’ at which point the participants reply with ‘Hail’ or ‘Hail adding the name of the ancestor or hero’. You then take a drink from the horn and pass the horn to the person on your left, again you can make an offering of the liquid in their name.
Round Three: To an Oath, Boast or Toast:
In this final ‘official’ round, you will raise the horn in an Oath, Boast or Toast. You may choose one of these three toasts:
- You may make an oath to do something or improve on something, but be prepared for it to be taken very seriously. Never oath anything you do not expect to be able to complete.*
- You may boast about something you have achieved recently, something that you are proud of yourself for.
- You may toast anything or anyone that has brought you happiness in whatever form and has improved your life or well-being.
*Remember, this is a ritual and any oaths taken at this time are considered absolute and binding to the point that the other participants will make note of your oath and keep you to it. They may also come up with a forfeit, which is usually something you deeply wouldn’t want to do, as a precaution against you failing your oath. The penalty for failing to keep your oath must be something that would exact such a high price that it would be easier to fulfil the oath than to not keep it. I can’t emphasize just how binding these oaths are. Also, remember that in the Norse Tradition Honour is a virtue and your word is your bond.
Once the toast is said, you would generally say ‘Hail’ at which point the participants reply with ‘Hail’. You will take a drink from the Horn and pass the horn to the person on your left.
After these three main rounds the sumbel may end, although sometimes sumbels do continue with a more relaxed attitude. Should you wish to partake of any further rounds, you may use any of the three main toasting rounds whenever the horn is passed to you. However, if you do not wish to make further toasts, it is acceptable to take a drink from the horn and pass it to your left without comment, or simply pass it without drinking. The leader of the sumbel with let everyone know, at the end of the first three rounds, whether the sumbel is to end or if it will continue until either the horn is completely drained, or the gathered people decide that they have had enough. Since there is no circle or magical boundary created between the group and the outside world, the people are free to excuse themselves out of the gathering and re-enter at any point after the first three rounds are complete.
Please remember to not drink heavily from the horn during the sumbel as being drunk is consider bad form and, of course, disrespecting a tradition’s ritual is very ill-advised.
For those of you who are not familiar with drinking from a horn, there are a few points to remember. Firstly, never drain the horn completely of the liquid. If you notice that the level is getting low when you receive the horn, mention to the Gothi (goði) or Gythia (gyðja)** that the horn is almost empty. They will ensure to refill the horn so the sumble may continue; if a horn is emptied completely, the liquid must be blessed before the sumble may continue. It is far easier to simply bless the liquid at the beginning and adding further liquid to the remaining drink automatically blesses it. Also, every horn has a “sweet spot” that it is easiest to drink out of. Some horns have the nasty tendency of drenching the drinker with the entire contents of the horn when tipped the wrong way and an air pocket hits the mead at the bottom. The general rule is “Point down and you won’t drown.” If the point of the horn is pointing towards the ceiling as you drink, you might find yourself needing a towel.
**The actual term Gothi translates as God-man, while Gythia means God-woman.
~ A goði or gothi (plural goðar) is the Old Norse term for a priest and chieftain. Gyðja signifies a priestess. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothi
I’ve had the honour of being present at many sumbels and their sizes have differed enormously from four people to over thirty. I find the most preferable size, for the intimacy of a good sumbel, is between five and fifteen.
I hope this post has given you a basic understanding of what a sumbel is and how to participate in one, if ever you are invited. Please feel free to leave any comments below or ask questions.