Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Symbel: The Heathen Drinking Ritual?

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Symbel, The Heathen Drinking Ritual- John Wills
Symbel, The Heathen Drinking Ritual- John Wills
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Date:August 5, 2014
If there is one thing that links all Heathen practice it is the early medieval drinking ritual “symbel” also known as “sumble”. This tradition is lifted straight from the pages of Beowulf, The Eddas and other Germanic poetry and is a ritual that equally unites and divides the various flavours of modern Heathenry whilst remaining an act at the core of all our social structures and gatherings.

In this essay, I will examine where symbel comes from, what it is from a Reconstructionist view, what it is not and what symbel means to the members of the Þunorrad Þeod in England.  It should be considered that there is no one right way to symbel as this ritual is a tradition within each folk, family or group, but there are wrong ways to symbel or wrong perceptions of symbel which are due to misconceptions and influences from other religions which I will discuss as they arise.

Evidence for Symbel in Literature

Symbel is mentioned throughout the corpus of Old English poetry with the main source being Beowulf; it is also mentioned in Old Saxon poetry and the Eddas[1], it should be noted that some of the poems containing references to symbel are overtly Christian in their nature such as the Old English Dream of the Rood.  Just a brief examination of the poetry removes common misconceptions about symbel.

The first misconception is that symbel is a mystical ritual linking humanity and the unseen in a similar way that the Christian communion links humanity and Christ. This misconception is debunked in the Lokasenna where the gods are “sumbli at”, “at symbel”, unless there exists higher gods than those gathered in Ægir’s hall the notion that symbel is communion between man and god is unfounded[2].

The second misconception is that symbel is overtly Heathen. If this was the case then its mention in The Dream of the Rood…on heofonum, þær is dryhtnes folc geseted to symle”, “in heaven there are God’s people sat at symbel”, would be most odd to say the least. The primary sources show that symbel is an activity for both man and god, Heathen and Christian, on earth and in “heaven”. The obvious conclusion is that the ritual is a social one not a mystical one.

Whilst the bulk of our knowledge of symbel comes from English and Scandinavian literary sources it would be wrong to assume symbel, or an equivalent, was not practised by the other Germanic peoples of the early medieval period.  In Tacitus’ Germania, he comments in chapter 22:

To pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one … Yet it is at their feasts that they generally consult on the reconciliation of enemies, on the forming of matrimonial alliances, on the choice of chiefs, finally even on peace and war, for they think that at no time is the mind more open to simplicity of purpose or more warmed to noble aspirations.

Tacitus’ study was of the peoples of the Anglii southwards through mainland Germany in the first century. This may not be a description of what a symbel is in later literature but it is undeniable evidence of the use of alcohol at important or formal events.  Physical evidence of high status drinking can be seen from the find of the 5th century Frankish/Merovingian glass drinking-horn from Bingerbrück, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany (fig 1.) and the similar 6th century Lombardic glass drinking-horn from Sutri, Lazio, Italy (fig 2.), bothon display in the British Museum. The use of horns and glass will be examined later.

[1] – Bauschatz, 1982
[2] – Ibid.