Rites – Veizla / Húsel

Veizla / húsel (sometimes called housel) is a sacred feast. In ancient times, it followed blót / blétsung as a matter of course, since the ancient heathens sacrificed animals and the act of sharing with the gods was not complete until they had eaten the meat. Hence all the accounts of blót continue to describe the feast, and they were often run together in Old Norse into the composite word blótveizla. With the modern innovation of the drinking blót, we have no such obvious need to feast, and modern heathens meet more often and usually with more time constraints than the ancient heathens. So the feast is the least observed of our three sacred rites, although a communal meal often does follow a blót or precede a sumbel / symbel, and in non-English-speaking countries it is common to offer food as well as drink in blót.

When a veizla is performed as a separate rite from blót, it is a formal banquet. A blót bowl on the table (at a feast following blót, the same bowl is used and is poured out only after the feast) represents the Urðarbrunnr or Well of Wyrd, as at sumble / symbel, and speech should be considered lest rash statements adversely impact the megin / mægen of all present. In a veizla that follows a blót, particularly after an animal sacrifice, the feasting is a continuation of the offerings and the gods are still present; in a separate veizla, the toasts will invite them to be present. Everyone should have drinking vessels and toasts should be made and joined in by the entire company; it may therefore be a good idea to plan out the sequence of toasts and the food preparation so that the toasts are spaced throughout the meal and the cooks and servers are present and participating in all of them. Assigned seating is common, particularly at an Anglo-Saxon húsel where it usually reflects rank; it is also a way to pair up newcomers with experienced heathens, discourage chatter, and otherwise help ensure a more focused atmosphere than at a secular dinner party. In some ways, the Jewish seder is a good model for the atmosphere of a sacral meal, although there is no script for a veizla / húsel, no equivalent of the Haggadah.

Texts say the veizla took place in the hof, but they also describe a separate altar area. So it is generally agreed that a communal veizla should not be in the vé but nearby, often in the dining area of the same house or in the case of an outdoor blót, in a nearby picnic shelter or indoors. The food and drink, however, are hallowed, using hammersigning, fire, or both. It is actually from descriptions of veizla that both practices are derived.

Some heathens leave a special plate for the gods at veizla, with a normal-sized portion that is then set out outdoors in the same place the blót bowl is poured out (on earth or grass, often under a tree, or alternatively in the fire at an outdoor blót place). For others, the hallowing and the toasts make the entire feast an offering to the gods. The separate plate is more common at a solo or family veizla; in such cases while the humans eat, the plate may be set aside on the altar as at a blót including food.

It seems likely that what the ancient heathens did, at least when they came together at festivals, was sacrifice, feast, and then sumble. If this sequence is followed, the feast may be seen as a transition from the focus on the gods in blót / blétsung to the focus on the human community and tradition in sumble / symbel. It also, obviously, provides a way to cushion the stomach before the drinking in sumble / symbel and thus avoid drunkenness.

The Old Norse accounts emphasize that the meat from the sacrificed animal was boiled; the cauldrons hung over the fire in the feasting area, and when the Christian king Hákon the Good balked at participating, sniffing the steam was accepted as an adequate gesture. We also know that cattle were the most commonly sacrificed animals, followed by horses. Some heathens may therefore wish to serve boiled beef at veizla / húsel.

Since there is not the large body of modern tradition concerning veizla / húsel that there is for the other two rites, I will cite a lore passage from which many conclusions can be drawn about how to do it. Chapter 14 (or 16) of Hákonar Saga Góða or Hákonar Saga Aðalsteinsfóstra (The Saga of Hákon the Good or The Saga of Hákon Fosterling of Æþelstán) in Heimskringla is headed “Frá Blótum” (“Of Blóts”) and states:

Það var forn siður þá er blót skyldi vera að allir bændur skyldu þar koma sem hof var og flytja þannug föng sín, þau er þeir skyldu hafa meðan veislan stóð. Að veislu þeirri skyldu allir menn öl eiga. Þar var og drepinn alls konar smali og svo hross en blóð það allt er þar kom af, þá var kallað hlaut og hlautbollar það er blóð það stóð í, og hlautteinar, það var svo gert sem stökklar, með því skyldi rjóða stallana öllu saman og svo veggi hofsins utan og innan og svo stökkva á mennina en slátur skyldi sjóða til mannfagnaðar. Eldar skyldu vera á miðju gólfi í hofinu og þar katlar yfir. Skyldi full um eld bera en sá er gerði veisluna og höfðingi var, þá skyldi hann signa fullið og allan blótmatinn. Skyldi fyrst Óðins full, skyldi það drekka til sigurs og ríkis konungi sínum, en síðan Njarðar full og Freys full til árs og friðar. Þá var mörgum mönnum títt að drekka þar næst bragafull. Menn drukku og full frænda sinna, þeirra er heygðir höfðu verið, og voru það minni kölluð.*

It was the ancient custom that when there was to be a blót, all the farmers were to come to where the hof was and bring with them their provisions that they had to have while the veizla was taking place. Everyone was to have ale for the veizla. And all kinds of cattle were slaughtered there, and also horses, and all the blood that came from them was called “hlaut” and the bowls that the blood was collected in, “hlaut-bowls,” and “hlautteinar,” which were made like aspergills, with which the whole of the altars was to be reddened and likewise the walls of the hof, outside and in, and the people were also to be sprinkled; and the meat was to be boiled for consumption by the assembly. There were to be fires in the middle of the hof floor and the cauldrons hung over them. A toast was to be passed over the fire and he who was holding the veizla and was chieftain was then to sign the toast and all the food from the blót. First was to be a toast to Óðinn, which was to be drunk to victory and the kingdom of his king, and then a toast to Njörðr and a toast to Freyr for peace and plenty. Then many people customarily drank a bragafull after that. People also drank fulls to their kin who had been buried, and that was called a “minni.”

Note that the veizla was a special meal; the farmers were also required to bring provisions with them, i.e., for normal eating and drinking outside the sacral feast. It is also specifically stated that they need “ale” for the feast, so the toasts were important; I interpret the wording here as its being the host’s duty to provide the drink. (“Ale” is a very general word in Old Norse usage; it could have been mead or beer, but would have been of especially good quality for the feast.) The detail of passing the drink across the fire (not “around” as sometimes mistranslated) also occurs later in Heimskringla, in chapters 2 and 3 of Ólafs Saga Kyrra (Saga of Olaf the Gentle), and in at least one other historical saga, and this is and the emphasis on the fire are the basis for regarding it as a hallowing and not merely an accident of the layout of the Norse feast-space. (I note also that this text says the drink “was to be” (skyldi) passed over fire, and that the wording here and in the other sagas is “fire,” not “the fire.”) The “signing,” as well as the spin Jarl Sigurð puts on King Hákon’s crossing his drink two or three chapters later, are the basis of hammer-signing as hallowing. The setting aside as a plate for the gods is nowhere mentioned; it is a modern innovation based partly on other religions, including on the seder. The sequence of three fulls and the terms bragafull and minni have influenced the toasting at modern blóts and sumbles (the tradition of three rounds, the tradition of a round in honor of the dead) as well as in veizla, although few modern heathens feel it necessary to toast only specifically Óðinn/Woden, Njörð, and Freyr/Frea. This account of the proceedings says the fire with the cauldrons over it was in the middle of the floor of the hof, but Eyrbyggja Saga (Saga of the Settlers of Eyr) ch. 4 and Kjalnesinga Saga (Saga of the People of Kjalnes) ch. 2 both say the altar was located in an apse-like enclosure at one end of the hof, and this and archeological evidence (for example at Yeavering, in Northumbria) indicate the blót space and feast space were adjacent but not the same. However, the account of the proceedings passes easily from blót to veizla and back again; the asperging and the reddening of the hof walls clearly belong to the blót, not the feast. And in the later chapter, when the king crosses his cup at the start of the veizla, the people ask “Vill hann enn eigi blóta?” (“Isn’t he going to blót, then?”) So it is evident that the ancient heathens proceeded from sacrifice to feast and to a certain extent combined them in their minds.

* This is a modernized Icelandic version of the Old Norse original, from the Netútgáfn online edition located at www.snerpa.is/net/; the translation that follows the Old Norse passage is my own.