The Significance of Symbel

    Perhaps no other rite in heathendom stands out as importantly or as uniquely as sumbel (OE symbel; OIcel sumbl). According to Bauschatz, symbel is the ritual drinking feast at which the participants try to place themselves into the flow of Wyrd through the binding of words and deeds [1,pp 109-110]. In other words, it is a means by which the deeds of now are linked to those of the past.

    Quite a few elder sources refer to sumbel. The phrase sittienat sumble appears in the Old Saxon poem Heliand [1, p 72] and essentially the same phrase appears in the Old English Dream of the Rood (sittan to symle) and the Old Icelandic Locasenna (sitia sumbli at). The word "sumbel" also appears in its various forms in such diverse sources as Hymisqvidha, Judith, and, of course, Béowulf [1, p 73]. It appears to have been common to most of the Germanic peoples.

    The origins of the word "sumbel" are unknown. One of the earliest etymologies theorized it was a borrowing of Latin symbola, itself a borrowing of Greek sumbolh "collection for a meal." This etymology has never been widely accepted, due to phonological considerations and the fact that sumbel appears too far often in the purely Germanic sense of the drinking rite to be a borrowed word [1, p 76]. Bauschatz proposed that symbel may derive from proto-Germanic sum- or sam- ("gathering together") and *alu ("ale"). Using this etymology sumbel would literally mean "a gathering of ale [1, p 76]. "As this etymology implies, sumbel appears to have been a group activity. There are no references to anyone having sumbel alone [1, p 73].
Solemnity seems to have been an earmark of sumbel as well. The Old English word symbelness means not only "festivity, "but"solemnity." This solemnity is not the dourness associated with Christian church services, but rather "a sense of deep significance and importance [1,p 74]." In Béowulf, at Hródhgár's first symbel, "there was men's laughter, noise resounded / the words were winsome [ibid]." At symbel,frith and goodwill prevail [5, lines1016-1019]. "Sumbelness", then, is a ritual mindset of determination to accomplish the rite at hand.

    Order also seems to have played a part in sumbel. To "sit at sumbel" implies order, in that sitting requires a place to sit, and hence some organized distribution of seats [1, p 73]. In Béowulf we get only the vaguest hint of such an order. At the second symbel, Hródhgár sits with his nephew Hródhwulf; his Thyle (spokesman), Unferdh, sits at the king's feet [5, line 1165]. Later Béowulf is described as sitting between Hródhgár's sons [5,line 1190]. The grouping of the greatest of men together implies that some sort of order was used in determining the seating arrangements. The apportioning of seats was probably quite important at sumbel, as such apportioning would represent such as done by Wyrd [1,p 73].

    As stated earlier, sumbel was a ritual drinking feast. The preferred sumbel drink was some sort of alcohol. In Béowulf the men are gathered in the béorsele, "beer hall," and it is an eolowaége, "ale cup," that is passed around [1, p 75]. The drink is never named in the symbel scenes of Béowulf, though it is in Locasenna: "And I blend the mead for them with evil" [1, p 75]."

    Whether the drink was mead or another alcoholic drink, the use of an intoxicant seems significant. Alcohol would allow for the altered mood to take the celebrants out of this space and time. More important is drinking's close relationship to the actions of Wyrd's Well. Like the Well, the cup holds a liquid quite different from other liquids. The drinking at sumbel is also accompanied by speech, just as the watering of the World Tree accompanies the Norns' decrees. The whole point of the drinking, indeed, of sumbel, is to bring the participants, their deeds, and their words into the flow of Wyrd. Sumbel is, in many ways, a reenactment of the Norns continuously speaking the orlaeg while watering Yggdrasil [1, pp 76-78].

    Sumbel appears to have been held almost exclusively indoors. In Béowulf, both symbels are held in Heorot, Hródhgár's hall, while in Locasenna the gods hold sumbel in AEgir's hall. In no sources is it made clear that a sumbel was held outside [1, p 74]. Further, the sumbel hall (or perhaps we should say sumbelhouse, after OE symbelhús) appears to have been decorated as befits a festival. In Béowulf, Hródhgár ordered Heorot cleaned and decorated with finery [5, lines 991-992]. The celebration of sumbel inside was probably meant to further remove the participants from the earthly time stream and place them into the timeless continuity of Wyrd, the sumbelhouse acting as a barrier to the rest of the world. Decorations, such as those in Béowulf, may well have aided in this process.

The Order of Sumbel

    Sumbel also seems, like all rites, to have had a specific order. The most detailed portrayal of sumbel is in the two symbel scenes in Béowulf, where such an order is implied. The second symbel scene in Béowulf begins with toasts exchanged between Hródhgár and Hródhwulf [5, line 1015]. While toasting to others' health was no doubt as common in the heathen era as today (probably more so), it seems possible that more than ordinary "toasts" were involved. A custom common to the Germanic peoples appears to have been that of the myne drink (ON minnisöl) or "memory drink." The myne drink was drunk to one's ancestors as well as the gods. Fagrskinna states that myne drinks were made to Thorr and other gods [6, 184]. Indeed, myne drinking may appear in the context of sumbel in Heimskringla. Svein calls a "feast" after the death of his father, Harold. At the beginning of the feast, Svein drinks his father's myne, then takes his seat and vows to attack AEthelraéd in England within three years. Other mynes are made to Jesus and the archangel Michael following this[ibid]. The myne drink also occurred in England and Germany and survived as the toasts made to the dead at wakes and funeral feasts. It seems likely that Hródhgár and Hródhwulf may have made myne drinks to the gods and their forebears as well as exchanging toasts between themselves. Following the "toasts" in the second symbel scene comes an exchange of gifts. Hródhgár gave Béowulf a banner, a helm, a coat of mail and a sword [5, line 1020]. Gift giving in the context of sumbel seems to have a triple importance. First, there is the doctrine of giving common to all the Germanic peoples, which "states" that every gift demands a gift in return. As Béowulf had
performed a service to Hródhgár by slaying Grendel, Hródhgár was obliged to give Béowulf gifts in return. To fail to do so would result in a loss of main ("magical power" or "luck") equal in worth to the gift [4, pp 61-66]. Second, the giving of gifts associated with Béowulf's victory further binds the past and the present. The sword, in particular, as an ancient weapon forged by ettins, acts to merge past and present, given as it is to the hero of the day - Béowulf [1, p 115]. Finally, a dealing out of gifts could reflect the dealing done by Wyrd, much as the seating arrangement does as well.

    Following the gift-giving done at the second symbel, the scop(poet) "sings" of Finn's conflict with the Danes [5,lines 1066-1159]. A poem in a ritual or social context, such as sumbel, was called in Old English a léodh.The purpose of the scopléodh (a léodh "sung"by a scop) seems fairly obvious: through reciting an event from history the scop invokes the contents of Wyrd's Well, further strengthening the link between past and present.

    Another type of speech follows the scopléodh; these made by the sumbel's celebrants: the gielp and the béot. On the surface, gielps and béots appear to be the same, and the words are used almost interchangeably; however, there seem to have been some subtle differences between the two. The gielp appears to have emphasized the glory that one's forebears or oneself have achieved in the past-what many would now consider "bragging."The béot, on the other hand, emphasises the promise of an action, "plighting one's troth" literally [1 p 110]. Svein's vow to attack Aethelraéd would constitute a béot. The gielp and béot together comprised most of the speeches made at sumbel. In the first symbel scene in Béowulf, Béowulf begins his speech with a gielp. He boasts of his kinship to Higelác and of his achievements in the past. From his gielp, Béowulf proceeds to his
béot to slay Grendel. Béowulf begins his speech with a boast of his past, the gielp, then moves to a vow for the present, the béot to slay Grendel, and ends it with the phrase "Gaédhá wyrd swá hío scel [5, line 455]", "Goeth ever Wyrd as she shall," thus bringing past deeds together with deeds coming to be [1, pp 110-112].

    Following Béowulf's béot to slay Grendel and Hródhgár's acceptance of it, comes Unferdh's challenge of Béowulf's abilities. Like Béowulf's gielp, it too is rooted in the past (though admittedly from Unferdh's point of view). Specifically, Unferdh refers to Béowulf's swimming match with Brecca, a match which fared badly for Béowulf (at least according to Unferdh) [5, lines 499-529]. The purpose of Unferdh's challenge seems to have been to test the overall validity of Béowulf's béot. If Béowulf's victories were truly through chance, and his true character was reflected in the swimming match as recounted by Unferdh, then his béot to slay Grendel would be invalid.

    Unferdh's challenge could well be connected to his office of thyle. Thyle is glossed "orator" in Old English sources, though there appears to be much more to it than that). In the Hávamál Wóden is referred to as Fimbulthul, "the Great Thyle," and prior to his advice to the man Loddfafnir he states that it is time to sit upon the thyle's stool and chant as a thyle. Similarly, figures such as Sigurd's master, Reginn, are referred to as thyles. This implies that the thyle dealt with the transmission of lore to others, in some degree or other. The association of the thyle with the transmission of knowledge appears to be strengthened by the Old Norse word thula, which means "a list of facts in poetic form" or "a poem which lists various facts in some sort of order." The two words appear somehow connected, so that a thyle would be someone who knows and recites thular.

    Unferdh's challenge may well have a purpose. As a keeper of lore it may be the duty of the thyle to challenge any béots that he suspects may not be kept. Béowulf responds to Unferdh's challenge with a gielp that we must assume is a more accurate account of the swimming contest. The gielp proceeds to a challenge of Unferdh's own character (he is said to have killed his own kin), then to a repeating of Béowulf's béot to slay Grendel [5, lines 530-606].

    Béowulf's response seems designed to reaffirm the validity of his béot by once more linking it to a deed he performed in the past (that it also denigrates the character of Unferdh must be regarded as an added bonus).

    Following Béowulf's béot, Hródhgár's makes a gielp that essentially accepts the béot as valid [5, lines 456-490]. Later, after Unferdh's challenge and Béowulf's response, Hródhgár's confidence in Béowulf's abilities implies that he once more accepts Béowulf's béot [5, lines 606-610]. The acceptance or rejection of a béot's validity, then, seems to have played a part at sumbel. Though Béowulf does not state this, it may be assumed that once each participant has made a gielp or a béot, the process begins again with the scop singing a léodh.

Roles at Sumbel

    Within sumbel there appear to have been four roles (besides the general role of "sumbeler") necessary to the rite. The first of these can be called the "drightelder" (OE dryhtealdor, "lord of a feast");while this word does not occur in Béowulf with reference to sumbel, it describes the position perfectly. In Béowulf the role of dryhtealdor fell to Hródhgár as lord of Heorot. Hródhgár played much more than the role of simple host. As drightelder he seems to have been charged with arbitrating béots and challenges. After Béowulf's béot to slay Grendel, Hródhgár makes a speech (in the form of a gielp) accepting Béowulf's béot. Later, after Unferdh's challenge to the béot, Hródhgár's acceptance is not made explicit, though his faith that Béowulf can slay Grendel implies it. That the drightelder would be charged with arbitrating béots and challenges makes sense. Left unchecked, a seriesof béots and challenges could easily degenerate into ashouting match between thyle and sumbeler, or, worse yet, violence. An absolute authority,such as a drightelder, who could weigh the validity of béots and challenges, would make such disruption less likely. In other ways the drightelder probably acted as a master-of-ceremonies. He probably led the myne drinking and in part helped place the participants in a state of "sumbelness."

    Another important role is that of the scop (pronounced "shawp").In Anglo-Saxon England the scop was an official poet, attached to a noble household(the scop in Béowulf is called the cyninges thegn, "the king's thane"), and charged with reciting eulogies in praise of the king and his forebears. By attracting the "sympathetic ear" of past rulers, the scop insured the well being of the present king, the bearer of the national luck, and in doing so insured the well being of the folk as well. Naturally, to do his job, the scop had to be both a sound chronicler and historian [6, pp 260-262]. The scop's position as an official reciter of praise can be seen in the use of the phrase guma gilphlaeden, "gielp-laden man," to describe Hródhgár's scop [3, pp 116-120].

    In sumbel the scop also serves to invoke the past in order to link it to the present. At both symbels portrayed in Béowulf, the scop recites most of the deeds of the past [1, p 110]. In the second symbel, for instance,the scop recounts the sudden attack on the Frisian king Finn and his followers [6, pp 194-195].

    Though never stated, the scop may have acted as the recorder of deeds performed by present day heroes, as well as béots made at sumbel; hence the scop may have aided the drightelder in arbitrating béots or challenges. That is, when consulted by the drightelder, the scop could confirm or deny any of the statements made. While never made explicit, this seems to be a logical extension of the scop's duties as chronicler and historian.

    The third position necessary to a sumbel would be someone to serve the mead or beer, here called, for convenience's sake, the alekeeper.While reference is made to "thegns" serving the drink in Béowulf, this role seems to have fallen primarily to Wealhthéow, Hródhgár's queen. At the first symbel, Wealhthéow greets the warriors, then serves Hródhgár before going from warrior to warrior with the cup [5, lines 612-614].In the second symbel the poem shows her serving only Hródhgár and Béowulf, though this does not rule out her serving others as well [5, lines 1167-1232].While in charge of the overall serving arrangements, the alekeeper would have her assistants to help serve the drink, as the reference to "serving thegns"indicates such.

    The serving of the cup to each sumbeler seems to have been accompanied by words in praise of the one being served. Again, this is probably to merge words with the flow of Wyrd; if pleasant words are said of someone,then perhaps he shall have a pleasant wyrd as well. Bauschatz observes that the"presence of the noblewoman (Wealhthéow) at the drinking of the intoxicant adds the additional elements of female nurture[1, p. 77]," though Wealhthéow's presence may have a deeper meaning than that.If it is taken that the ale is symbolic of the water of Wyrd's Well and its pouring symbolic of the Norns watering Yggdrasill, then it follows that the alekeeper (in Béowulf, Wealhthéow) would symbolise Wyrd herself. Hence the sumbel ritual is in many ways a reenactment of the entire process of Wyrd.

    The fourth role in sumbel would be that of the thyle. The thyle would be charged with challenging any béots that he feels may not be kept by the individual making them. In many ways the thyle would act as a prosecuting attorney, with the drightelder as the judge.

    It must be noted in Béowulf that neither the scop nor the alekeeper are portrayed as drinking. While this is not specified in any of the sources, the two, as the only possible non-drinking participants, may have seen that the sumbel did not get out of hand. It makes sense that they would have the power, should anyone get too drunk or, worse yet, sick, to end the rite. It must be stressed again that this is not specified in any sources, and thus the option of whether or not the scop and the alekeeper drink should be left to the drightelder or other sumbelers.

The Sumbel Rite

    Sumbel requires that the roles of drightelder, scop and alekeeper be filled. The drightelder should be the owner of the sumbelhouse where sumbel is held. If the sumbel is held in a public place, then the most prominent person present should
serve as drightelder. The scop should be a skilled poet with a good grasp of our legends and lore. If no one with such skillis present, then whoever has the most knowledge of our myths may serve as "scop." The alekeeper role should be filled by a woman close to the drightelder(wife, sister, mother, girlfriend, and so on) or another woman of prominence. Like the scop, the thyle should be someone with a good knowledge of our lore, although his skill in poetry does not have to be of a scop's level. The thyle should also be someone with a working knowledge of modern heathendom and the persons in it, and, perhaps
most importantly, he should have quite a bit of common sense.

    The seating at sumbel should place the drightelder at the head of the table, with those of most importance closest to him and those of lesser importance farther away. The alekeeper should be given a seat near the drightelder. The scop may be seated at the table or at the place where he may best be heard. It is up to the drightelder or a general consensus of the sumbelers whether or not the scop and the alekeeper drink.

    Before the sumbel all but the drightelder should be outside the hall. Once the sumbel is ready the participants should enter in an orderly fashion, perhaps in two lines for both the right and the left side of the table,arranged according to the seating. Everyone remains standing until such time as the drightelder indicates they may sit. Below is a formula for the rite.

I. Hallowing -
    This is an optional step which may be done away with. If it is included, the drightelder should perform a suitable rite to set the room apart as holy and prevent the intrusion of troublesome wights, such as the Old English Síth Gealdor or the hammer working.

II. Forespeech -
    At this point the drightelder should open the sumbel with a suitable speech. This speech should be something that will invoke the past and present as they exist inthe minds of the participants for the proper mood of sumbelness to begin. Though it appears in the middle of the second Béowulf sumbel, Swain Wódening and I of Wednesbury use a paraphrase of lines 489-490. We feel it invokes the past and present quite well.
                 Sige's rethe say          as thy soul whets.
                 Sit now to sumbel      and unseal thy mettes

While the above quote is in New English, it may be said in Old English (as we Théodsmen prefer to do) or even translated into Old Norse. Once the forespeech has been said everyone takes his seat.

III. Pouring -
    This stage is actually concurrent with stage IV (the mynes). The alekeeper pours the initial drink for each sumbeler in turn. As she does so she should make a statement to each participant, preferably in alliterative verse.In each case, the statement should never be demeaning or insulting.Following the pouring the alekeeper and her assistants refill the cup as needed.

IV. Mynes -
    At this point the myne drinks are drunk. The drightelder begins the round and the mynes proceed in a sunwise fashionuntil all have made a myne drink. There is no limit to the number of mynes that may be made and it is up to the drightelder and the majority of the sumbelers to decide when enough have been made.Regardless, the major gods (Wóden, Thúnor, Fríge,Freá, Freó, Tíw and so on) should have mynes drunk to them, as should any important forebears. The gods are always drunk to first, then the forebears, then the living.

V. Gift Giving -
    Gifts are now exchanged between participants of the sumbel. The gift giving should begin with the drightelder,then proceed according to importance. Not every sumbel must include the giving of gifts, so this stage should be left to the occasion.

VI. Léodh
    At this point the scóp recites a léodh. The léodh may be a myth from the Eddas or the recounting of a more recentevent in the past. The léodh's entire purpose is to link the sumbelers with the past so that they may affect the flow of wyrd.

VII. Gielps and Béots
    The sumbelers then proceed to make the gielps and béots. The drightelder begins theround of gielps then it proceeds according to importance.Each participant may wish to end his béot as Béowulf did his first one, "Goeth ever Wyrd as she shall." The seriousness of a béot should not be doubted. A béot is not a mere boast, nor evena simple promise. A béot is a mode of speech with the binding force of an oath. Indeed, in Béowulf's béots, he continually uses the Old English verb sceolan (NEshall), "to be obliged to", indicating his obligation to perform the deeds of which he speaks. Because of the binding nature of béots, one should never make a béot that violates previous oaths, nor a béot that he cannot keep. Our forebears and the gods take oaths quite seriously, and the violation of a béot or oath means a loss in one's personal main. As main tends to be helpful in gaining success in any endeavor in life (it certainly doesn't hurt), it is to one's benefit to keep his béots and oaths. Once a béot is made, the drightelder may accept or reject it (in which case it is not binding), then the thyle may challenge the béot. The thyle should not make challenges without justification, and should always base on valid facts, not on his own personal opinion. In other words, challenges should be made only if there is more than a reasonable doubt that the previous sumbeler might not keep his béot.The risk involved in making a challenge is aptly portrayed in Béowulf, where in Béowulf's reply to Unferdh's challenge it is revealed that Unferdh killed his kinsmen.

    If a challenge is made, the participant who made the béot gets to reply. This reply should in some way reinforce the béot, and discredit any fallacies the Thyle may have stated. The drightelder then weighs the béot, the challenge, and the reply and either accepts or rejects the béot.

    Once the first round of gielps and béots have been made, the scop recites another léodh and a new round of gielps and béots begins. This cycle may continue as long as the drightelder, scop, and alekeeper see fit, though if the majority of sumbelers wish to quit, it may end there.

VIII. Endspeech
    Once the sumbel has reached its end, the drightelder should utter a suitable closing statement or "endspeech."The endspeech said, the sumbelers may leave the hall.

Suggestions for Sumbel

    Above all else, the state of sumbelness must be preserved at sumbel.For that reason, many considerations must be made when holding sumbel. The most obvious of these is the question of interruptions at sumbel itself.Once sumbel has begun, no one should be allowed to enter or leave the hall. If someone cannot make it to sumbel on time or must leave early, they should either contact the drightelder, scop or alekeeper so some sort of arrangements may be made.

    Otherwise it is better not to attend sumbel. The comings and goingsof individuals could easily disrupt sumbelness, a mood which may not easily be achieved again. To further prevent any disruptions of sumbelness, the drightelder,scop, and alekeeper
should actively discourage any antagonism within the sumbel. No harsh words should be uttered between the participants, and even the ritualized challenges to béots should be worded as diplomatically as possible. Sumbel is no different from any other rite in that frith, above all else, must prevail.

    Finally, considerations must be made concerning the use of alcohol.While mead, beer, and ale are the traditional drinks of sumbel,they should not be served to alcoholics, underage drinkers or pregnant women. For these participants non-alcoholic drinks of a traditional nature(such as sweet cider) should be provided.

    The effects of the sumbel ale must also be accounted for. Sumbel is an occasion to influence one's wyrd, not to get falling down drunk. If at any point it appears someone has had too much to drink, the sumbel should end right then and there. Better to end the sumbel while sumbelness is still high than to have it disrupted later by someone acting like a fool,vomiting, or passing out.

    Finally, no one who has drunk at sumbel should be allowed to drive himself home. To prevent any instance of drunk driving the drightelder,scop and alekeeper should see that sleeping arrangements are made so sumbelerscan spend the night, or see to it that rides home are provided.If the scop or the alekeeper have not drunk during the ritual, they would be ideal to drive sumbelers home. The memory of a good sumbel shouldnot be marred by accidents brought on by too much alcohol.

    Sumbel is perhaps the most important rite a heathen can take part in. For that reason it should be approached with a sense of frith,solemnity, and, yes,festivity. If a sumbel goes well, then its participants may expectmuch happiness to come.

Symbel Wordhoard

alekeeper: The chief dispenser of drink at sumbel.
béot (OE): A "boast" with the binding force of an oath.
endspeech (OE ende-spraec): An epilogue or closing statement.
forespeech (OE fore-spraec): A prologue or opening statement.
hallowing: The setting of wards or other protections to insure an area's holiness.
mette (OE meot): dream, thought
myne (OE) memory, remembrance (as in myne drink).
rethe (OE hredh): Glory.
scop (OE): An official poet, attached to a lord, in charge of eulogizing the lord and his forebears.
sige (OE): Victory.
sumbelhouse (OE symbelhús): A building in which a sumbel is held.
yare (OE gearo): ready, eager
gielp (OE): A boast retelling the past deeds of one's forebears or oneself. In sumbel, made before a béot.

1. Bauschatz, Paul, _The Well and the Tree_. Amherst, MA: Universityof Massachusetts Press, 1982.
2. Chisholm, James (trs), "The Flyting of Loki", Idunna,March 1993, Austin, TX: Ring of Troth.
3. Conquergood, Dwight, "Literacy and Oral Performance in Anglo-Saxon England: Conflict and Confluence of Traditions" Annadale, Virginia Speech Communication Association.
4. Glosecki, Stephen, "Shamanism and Old English Poetry",New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
5. Klaeber, Fr. (trs.) _Beowulf_, Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath andCo. 1950.
6. Opland, Jeff, "Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: a Study of the Traditions". New York: Yale University Press, 1980.