The Basics: Conducting A Simple Sumbel

drinking hornOne of the interesting things about writing this blog has been the number of people with questions about how to go about doing the things that make us who we are. While there are some books and websites out there that talk about the customs and rites that make up the very core of our practices, there is often very little in the way of guidance on how to perform them. There are plenty of really good reasons for this but the most important is that there simply isn’t one right way. Each tribal group and family would have had their own variation on how a blót or sumbel was to be conducted. Even today there is a wide variation. Sumbel, for example, is far more ritualized in Theodish and Anglo-Saxon groups than in most Ásatrú and Nordic groups. It is my intention to start a new series called “The Basics” that will discuss foundation level material and practices in an effort to provide one perspective on them and hopefully give some guidance to those who are looking for tips or methods on what to do and how to do it. I want to stress that this isn’t the only way and it is meant to be a skeleton structure upon which you can build to produce a practice that fits you and your folk.

A Simple Sumbel

Sumbel is a communal drinking ritual. Where blót binds us to the Gods, sumbel binds a folk together. While there are often humorous and joyful times, it is a serious rite and should not be treated as a frat party. Words spoken over the drinking vessel, often a horn, should always be honest and forthright. If you swear an oath, you had darn well keep it. It is also fair and right for the host, or an appointed representative, to challenge an ill-conceived oath or dishonest boast. If you have a low tolerance for alcohol, or have a bad habit of running off at the mouth when intoxicated, it is advisable to excuse yourself before saying something stupid.

1) Seating the folk – For a simple sumbel, the folk take seats according to personal preference. Many people prefer to form a circle around the area where the sumbel is being held because it makes it easier to pass the horn from person to person. For outdoor sumbels, it is common for a central fire to be lit for light and warmth. I recommend starting a need-fire, a fire started by a source of friction, to hallow the site.

2) Starting the sumbel – Before the beginning of sumbel, especially when hosting
newcomers, it is advisable to speak about the purpose and rules of the sumbel. Many
groups stress that only the gods of our folk be hailed, that certain beings like the
jötnar or monsters not be hailed, or other customs of the host or group be observed. It
is extremely advisable to caution people against making careless or false oaths,
especially after several rounds of drinking. It is also good to stress that the sumbel is
held at a frith-stead, so personal quarrels or arguments must be refrained from. If
people are unable to do this they should be encouraged to leave. Some groups also
have an experienced person tasked to challenge oaths they believe are unlikely to be
fulfilled and run the risk of harming the luck of those in attendance. This is a time for
questions to be asked and clarifications made. Many groups officially start the sumbel
with a few lines of poetry or other meaningful words.

Example: “We wend our way to the Well of Urðr, to speak bold words, örlog to lay, and
wyrd to build. Speak wisely, speak true, and bring honor to the folk gathered here.”

3) Toasting the gods – Historically, the first drink should be to the chief gods of the host
group. Common toasts made by the host are to Odin for victory, Thor for strength, and
Freyr for frith. After the host makes the first toast the horn is passed from person
to person to make a toast. Toasts to a specific god is common, as are toasts to all the
gods. For newcomers who aren’t familiar with the gods, many groups advise them to
raise a toast to all the gods. When people of other faiths are participating and who are
not comfortable raising a toast to our gods it is often considered acceptable for them
to simply pass on this round rather than raising a toast to their god/s.

4) Memory drink – This round is a toast to the ancestors and the dead. The folk are
welcome to make a generic toast to the ancestors, including the álfar and the dísir, or
to raise a toast to the memory of a specific person. This round can be very emotional,
especially for someone who has recently lost a loved one and is still mourning, so
some patience might be needed as some might be moved by very strong emotions.

5) Open toasts – The third, and subsequent, rounds are open rounds where people may
make toasts, boasts, or oaths. The folk may perform songs or recite poetry. Gifts are
commonly given during open toasting, preferably during the third round. As the
sumbel goes on, and as people become more influenced by their drinks, it is
advisable to remain aware of their words and challenge foolish or bad oaths. Open
rounds may continue for as long as the host choses. Open rounds generally come to
an end when it is clear to the host that people are either too drunk to continue, to
tired, or inspiration and mood has left. It is better to end a sumbel than let it continue
and become meaningless.

6) Closing – To close a sumbel the host need only announce that sumbel has come to an
end and thanking folks for attending. If you opened the sumbel with poetry or
meaningful words it is advisable to end it in a similar fashion. This makes it clear that
sumbel has ended and people are free to do as they like.

Example: “Now we wend our way home, bold words have been spoken, örlog laid in
Urðr’s Well. Sumbel has come to an end, honor brought to our folk. Remember the
words you spoke here and keep true your oaths.”

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