Rites – Sumble / Symbel

Sumble is the most community-oriented of our three rites. It is quite practical and common to blót alone; it is feasible to partake of a sacred feast (veizla/húsel) alone; it is impossible to sumble alone, although some heathens joke about doing it with their pets. In sumble we sit with those dear to us and celebrate them and others, including our ancestors and those who are heroes and examples to us. It is said that when we sumble, the gods also sumble, as they were doing in Ægir’s hall when Loki interrupted the merry-making (see Lokasenna). Sometimes we toast the gods in sumble, but it is primarily a rite to celebrate humanity.

Sumble is a drinking rite. The participants sit in a circle (often around a fire if outdoors), in a rectangle around the sides of a room, or around a table, and going clockwise, each makes a toast (or a boast or an oath, or offers a poem or song), raises the horn or other drinking vessel, says “Hail … !” (“Wes hál” or “Wassail” in an Anglo-Saxon symbel), and drinks. As at a communal blót/blétsung, the company then hails as the speaker drinks. “Hail … !” for a person, “Hail the boast!,” “Hail the oath!,” “Hail the song!” are the usual words (again, “Wes hál” or “Wassail” at an Anglo-Saxon symbel). Usually a horn is passed, as at blót (but see below on Anglo-Saxon symbel).

Usually a blót bowl sits on the table or in front of the first drinker (who is usually positioned in the north), representing Urðarbrunnr, the Well of Urðr or Well of Wyrd; in this case a little is poured into the bowl at the completion of each round, or sometimes by each participant after they drink. The bowl represents the Well, but even if it is not present, words spoken at sumble are believed to go directly into the Well, impacting the orlög of all present. It is important to carefully frame words spoken at sumble, doubly important to keep oaths sworn in sumble, and mandatory for all present to listen to the person speaking. “Man with a horn!” or “Woman with a horn!” are the traditional calls to silence when conversation rises.

This does not mean the atmosphere of sumble is grim; rather, it should be convivial in the best sense of the word, with laughter and much joy. But it is an elevation of the drinking party into the sacral sphere, not a booze-up, and it must be orderly, for the words spoken at sumble, and the speakers’ fulfilment of any oaths made, affect the whole company.

The minimum number of rounds is conventionally three: the common division is that the first round is dedicated to the gods and virtues, the second to ancestors and heroes, and the third to boasts of one’s own or another’s accomplishments, oaths, and songs and poems for their own sake. A sumbel may however be more spontaneous, and it can continue for many rounds—an Anglo-Saxon symbel, in particular, often continues until the host (symbelgifa) or the monitor (thyle) determines the company is exhausted. Or if the setting is a restaurant, closing time may determine when the sumble ends.

It is relatively easy for non-heathens to appreciate sumble; it resembles feasting and drinking customs in many cultures, including after-dinner drinking, banquet toasts, and the later stages of holiday dinners in western countries. With the discipline of rounds and of everyone listening to the speaker and acknowledging what he or she said, it can easily be emulated, and it has been suggested at least once that it could be used as a team-building and problem-solving exercise in business.

However, whether sumbling as a sacred rite or adapting sumble to non-sacral purposes with non-heathens, it is important to avoid drunkenness. Being impaired is not only not the aim of sumble but is dangerous, as it leads to injudicious words. The insults that fly in Lokasenna may be taken as a warning of what can happen, and in the Anglo-Saxon tradition there is always a thyle present to guard against rash oaths. If sumbling for a long time, take small sips of alcohol. Breaks between rounds are useful. Some participants should come prepared with a poem, song, or longer than usual story to slow the rounds down. It is also possible to sumble with non-alcoholic drink; or use the Anglo-Saxon methodology (see below on symbel) and have those susceptible drink only non-alcoholic drink, or switch to non-alcoholic drink after the first few rounds. Finally and perhaps most obviously, sumble after eating, not on an empty stomach.

Since modern heathens, especially in the English-speaking countries, tend to blót with drink and not food, sumble and blót can easily resemble each other. This is commonly deprecated. Blót is to the gods (and occasionally ancestors and/or wights); sumble is for humans and only incidentally includes hails to gods. Most heathens believe it important to stand in blót, if at all possible; we sit at sumble. In blót there may be food offerings, indeed that was the blót to the ancient heathens; eating at sumble is generally deprecated, and in the Anglo-Saxon symbel it is preferred there be no table so that people concentrate on the speaker’s words. There is no conversation at blót, and rarely laughter; a sumble has an atmosphere and rules resembling those of a formal dinner party, so there will be brief comments, exchanges, and outbursts of laughter. Breaks during blót are to be avoided, although an individual may slip away and return; breaks are a good idea in sumble and in a long sumble there will be several. The pejorative “bumble” refers to a sumbel insufficiently distinguished from a blót.

However, in the texts, Anglo-Saxon symbel and Old Norse sumbl (which may well be a borrowing from Anglo-Saxon) both mean a feast or banquet. Only secondarily does symbel refer to a feast day or holiday. There are several references to happy and ceremonial meals in Béowulf, using that term and others, and things modern heathens do in both blót and sumble are based on them; they do not distinguish the feasting from the drinking. Perhaps the most telling in terms of the meaning of sumble/symbel is the first, lines 86-114: Grendel, condemned to dwell in the murky wild places, is tortured “by hearing daily the loud joy in the hall; there was the voice of the harp, the sweet song of the scop” ( þæt hé dógora gehwám dréam gehyrde hlúdne in healle; þ’ær wæs hearpan swég, swutol sang scopes). The poet rubs in the contrast by dwelling on the content of the song, having the scop retell the story of the creation and God’s gifts to mankind, and intercutting it with the banishment of monsters and demonic creatures from happiness and hospitality, to the moors and fens; the implication is that Grendel’s preying on the men in the hall is precipitated by envy at being excluded, but also that the feasting and revelry are a high expression of the society we are privileged to have and should be grateful for. The word symbel is used as Grendel makes his approach; the men are “sleeping after symbel” (swefan æfter symble, line 119). There are no specifics here about what they are doing except for listening to the scop, but clearly they sumbled to exhaustion, and clearly it was night time, when Grendel the creature of shadows was out to be disturbed. The other references to symbel in Béowulf tell us more about the toasting and give us models for the mode of speech and for the role of thyle, but they also do not distinguish the drinking from the eating.

The ancient heathens came together for blót and veizla, blétsung and húsel, only a few times a year; things and mæthel assemblages, trials and hammering out of contracts, trading and transfers of title happened at the same meetings because people came together in large numbers so rarely. One or more whole animals were sacrificed and eaten at the feast, and in Norse the sacral proceedings were commonly referred to by the composite word blótveizla; also, the few texts we have that recount the proceedings run the two together. It seems likely that the rite of sumble/symbel, similarly, was usually not held in isolation, but that people proceeded from sacrifice to feast and finally after they ate to the drinking rite. Except for those few living at a court like Hygelac’s at Héorot or the royal courts of Norway that are the setting for most of Heimskringla, this would have been an event participated in a couple of times a year, with smaller clan or village equivalents at Yule and perhaps other feast tides. The observances would have stretched over at least one full day; Yule of course is a multi-day festival. Hence, our separation of the three rites may be an artifact of our modern circumstances, when we can quite easily get together, but usually meet in smaller groups than the ancient heathens and rarely can devote a whole day when we do so. To the ancient heathens, it might seem artificial that we distinguish blót, veizla, and sumble and deprecate mixing them by using the word “bumble.” However, times have changed, and in particular we have to guard against the “party” mentality that associates drinking with mindlessness; our rites are charged with meaning and sumble in particular can have bad consequences for everyone’s megin/mægen if not taken seriously. For us, stressing rules of conduct and distinguishing between rites may be the most effective way to keep us mindful that we do not sumble just for the drinking. But when time permits, following the model of the ancient heathens by feasting together—whether as a veizla/húsel or simply in a convivial meal—before sumbling is a good way to guard against drunkenness. And it is also a good idea to follow the model of the texts, and presumably the ancient heathens, by sleeping after sumble rather than driving. This is the custom at Anglo-Saxon symbels and is a good idea for all groups; even with non-alcoholic toasts, sumbling brings tiredness as well as elation, so the designated driver approach is not as safe as sleeping it off.

In Anglo-Saxon heathenry, the traditional methodology for symbel is different from what is normal in Ásatrú groups. Symbel is hosted by a symbelgifa and he or she usually assigns seats, with the guest of honor on his or her left and the company arranged in an order based on rank from the higher to the lower. To his or her right or more commonly facing him or her, there is a thyle, whose task (based on Unferþ’s role in Béowulf) is to challenge rash oaths (the person who offered the oath must either explain his or her qualifications to carry it out, as Béowulf himself does, or withdraw it) and otherwise monitor and correct the proceedings so that the company does not lose mægen through foolishness entering the Well. The symbelgifa starts each round and either he or she or the thyle determines when to take a break and when to bring the proceedings to a close. The norm is for symbel to start in the evening and continue all night. Participants may sit out a round if they need a rest or have nothing to say. A communal horn may be used as in a blót/blétsung or a Norse sumble, but usually everyone has his or her own drinking vessel and these are refilled between rounds from the common horn or from a bottle; in this case the “valkyrie” usually sits to the symbelgifa’s right and is usually his or her spouse or partner. Most Anglo-Saxon groups are strict about forbidding food at symbel and also dislike having a table, since it distracts. Anglo-Saxon symbel is almost always held indoors, since it epitomizes human civilization. So the common procedure is to eat together and then rearrange the room or repair to another room set up for the symbel. This tradition of not having a table and the tradition of sumbling all night mean that Anglo-Saxon sumbles are not usually held in restaurants, as Ásatrú sumbles can be.

Since sumble/symbel is about community, it is cumulative. When one makes an oath, it is a good idea to summarize one’s qualifications for carrying it out, such as previous related accomplishments; this explanation may be required by the thyle at an Anglo-Saxon symbel, where it is called a gielp. After meeting the conditions of the oath, one should boast the fact at a subsequent sumble, either the next or the next with the same group. Community megin/mægen is enhanced by the accomplishments of all members, so it is also good to boast the accomplishments of one’s spouse, partner, and friends, present or otherwise. The dead are also an attribute of a community, and rely on us to perpetuate their reputations, so it is good to praise dead kin and friends, particularly at the first sumble after their death.

Groups vary on the amount of reverence they accord sumble as a rite. Some permit non-heathens to attend the feast before a sumble but then they can only watch the sumble, not participate. Some allow non-heathens, especially if married to members of the group, to participate fully in sumble but not in blót. Some use sumble as an outreach rite, particularly at interfaith pagan gatherings. Where non-heathens are permitted to participate, it is important to clarify ahead of time whether toasts to non-heathen deities will be permitted, and if so whether there are any restrictions.