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Symbel: A Heathen Ritual
by Arlea Hunt-Anschütz


One of the most fundamental heathen rituals is a drinking ceremony generally known as symbel (pronounced 'SUM-bell'). The word means 'feast', but within modern heathenry has come to refer to a particular activity that would generally take place at any Germanic feast-- the drinking of the memory cup. This sort of ceremony is well documented in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and German sources. For example, we find the following description in The Saga of Hakon the Good:

The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast, and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat. Othin's toast was to be drunk first --that was for victory and power to the king-- then Njorth's and Frey's, for good harvests and for peace. Following that many used to drink a beaker to the king. Men drank toasts also in memory of departed kinsfolk.

Symbel can take place sitting round a table during a feast, standing by an altar during a heathen ritual, relaxing round a hearth fire, or in various other circumstances. When our group conducts symbel we pour mead into a drinking horn. It is ritually blessed (usually by someone waving our holy hammer over it and asking for a particular god's blessing on the mead). Then the horn is passed around to each person present over the course of a number of rounds. The purpose of each round is announced in advance. There are three main things one can do with a symbel horn: toast, brag, or boast. After any of these acts, the person holding the horn takes a drink of blessed mead. The act of speaking over the horn and then drinking from it symbolises taking publicly spoken words into your body so that they become a part of who you are, part of the layers of wyrd that make up your life.

Within our heathen group, most of the rounds of symbel tend to be devoted to toasting gods, ancestors, and friends. If, for example, the round of symbel is dedicated to the goddess Hreğa, the person who is handed the horn raises it up and makes a toast to the goddess, extolling her virtues and thanking her for gifts she has granted, then he or she takes a drink and passes on the horn. If the round is devoted to ancestors, a person may take up the horn and make a speech about the praiseworthy accomplishments of one of their ancestors or thank ancestral spirits for help they have provided. If the round is devoted to friends, people usually praise kindred spirits whom they wish could have been at the symbel or friends who have recently done something praiseworthy.

People can also brag in symbel. Bragging means praising oneself over the meadhorn. This is a chance for anyone who has accomplished something difficult and noteworthy to make a public announcement about it and have friends acknowledge their accomplishment in a religious ceremony. Modern heathens might brag about such things as having a book accepted for publication, being given a meaningful award or promotion, accepting a wedding proposal, or fulfilling a boast.

A boast is a pre-emptive brag. A person can boast in symbel about something they are committed to achieving. All the people (whether they be humans, gods, or other kinds of wights) who hear the boast are witnesses to what the boaster has said they are going to do and are bound to hold them to their goal. For example, a native English speaker might well state in symbel: "I boast that I am going to become fluent in German within the next two years. I've signed up for evening classes starting next week." This person commits herself to achieving that goal on several levels. She has taken her words into herself, making the boast her destiny. She's made a commitment in front of any gods called to witness the ceremony-- and they may well decide to use divine influence to hold her to it. On a more practical level, she's publicly announced what she intends to do. If she doesn't follow through due to lack of planning or sheer laziness, her fellow heathens have every right to chide her about it, and her reputation will be lesser in their eyes. Conversely, if she does follow through on her boast, she will gain self-confidence and gain prestige in the eyes of others.

Symbel is an ancient ritual that is just as meaningful to modern heathens as it was to our ancestors. Although we usually use mead and a drinking horn for formal symbels, any kind of booze and any kind of drinking vessel will do in a pinch. Spontaneous symbels can be held at a pub or restaurant, round a campfire, or wherever heathen folk have gathered. Since pre-Christian Germanic toasting traditions never died out, but rather became secularised within Christian society, symbel is a pagan ritual that can be openly held in public (i.e. all fine drinking establishments) without drawing undue attention.

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