Guide to Norse Feasting
The Sumbel, or Minnesweig, is a ritual in which the meadhorn is passed around the circle and participants toast the gods, ancestors and heroes or each other. By doing so, we link our luck and connect to the primal power of the Well of Wyrd. It is one of the most ancient and holy of practices, with analogues in the Greek symposium and the Wiccan cakes and wine (as well as the Christian communion and Jewish Passover). In ancient times, the practice could be part of the great tribal celebrations or domestic worship, an elaborate feast or a simple passing of the cup. The horn might also be passed as part of a blót (blessing) for one or more gods. (For more information on blót and sumbel, see Our Troth, Vol. II)
In the old days, sumbel took place after the feasting was done. In Hrafnar, the horn is passed in a number of contexts. Winternights, in the fall (mid October) opens the new year and the winter season (combining aspects of Harvest and Samhain). It was dedicated to the alfar and/or disir. Hrafnar takes it as an opportunity to focus on the alfar (male ancestors and heroes) and the gods. The Midwinter Feast was held in honor of Freyr, Thor and Odhinn. At this time we ask them to give us good seasons. Modranicht (Mother Night) was also a Yuletide festival. Hrafnar may celebrate either or both of these or honor Thor (Thunderman), depending on the drought situation and the December party/ritual schedule. In January, Hrafnar banishes the Trolls and opens the calendar year with a formal three round sumbel in which the first round is for the gods, the second for the ancestors and heroes, and the third for whoever one wishes to honor. In Sweden, the disir were honored in February, and Hrafnar takes this opportunity to focus on the disir (female ancestors/guardian spirits), and the goddesses. In March, when Hrafnar celebrates its anniversary and welcomes new members, we drink to each other and ask the gods to bless the kindred. At the Spring Feast in April (combining aspects of the Spring Equinox and Beltane), we honor the goddess Ostara and the major Aesir and Asynjur. The Vanir are honored in May. All these feasts are held indoors, and are essentially domestic rituals. However our Midsummer feast in June is held in Utgard — outside in Tilden Park, where we drink to Sunna and celebrate with a barbecue. In July, we take advantage of good weather for a silent feast at which we make offerings to the powers of nature. August and November have no set schedule, and provide an opportunity to honor specific gods or goddesses.
In a traditional setting, folk journeyed for days to get to the steading where the feast would be held and stayed a week or more. The feast itself could easily take a night and a day, with time for recovery. So long as we have to fit our feasting into a busy work schedule, we will have to curtail our natural desire to invoke everyone in sight, and spread our worship out so that over the year everyone gets a chance to honor and be honored.
At Hrafnar, feasters load up their plates at the beginning of the feast, which helps people relax and provides the fuel to get through the evening. When the alfar and disir are being honored, each participant fills a horn or cup with something appropriate, and (briefly) salutes his/her ancestors of the flesh and/or spirit, lifts the cup, and drinks. All may lift their cups in honor and echo with “Hail…”
In the second part of a feast, the horn will be carried round for each of the god/desses being honored. The first invocation of each of these rounds gives everyone an opportunity to meditate on the deity being called. Then an appropriate chant is begun. The chant calls in the energy of the deity and gives everyone something to do while waiting for the horn to complete its circuit. As the horn goes around, each participant may bless it (with palm outstretched over the mouth of the horn or by making the sign of the hammer with closed fist), charging it with energy. You can also draw the appropriate rune over the horn. The worshiper may then murmur his or her own invocation and prayer and drink to the god, saying “Hail X”. When the presence of the god/dess is felt, some may say, “Be welcome, X…”
The invocations are serious, but not solemn. Once the song has started, you may get up if necessary. When the horn has gone around the circle, the remainder is poured into a bowl and later returned to the earth in offering.
Sending the horn around gives the worshiper an opportunity to experience the presence of each deity and to pray at a moment when the deity is especially accessible. In return s/he gives energy. Rarely, a participant (usually the first invoker) who is experienced in possessory work and is deeply involved with a given deity may find him/herself carrying the energy of the god. A strong over-shadowing can add a great deal to the intensity of the experience. Individual communications may take place, or the god (especially FreyR) may want to dance.
Follow your instincts in interacting with those who are carrying god-energy — go with the experience if it feels right — if it doesn’t, decline. If you find yourself moving into a state of consciousness you are not ready for, touch the floor, eat or drink something, ask someone to help you ground. To bring people out of trance, we give them water to drink or salt to taste, sprinkle them with water, blow in their ears, etc.
The beverage used depends on the deity. Mead is usually the drink of choice, but many of the god/desses are just as happy with sparkling or plain apple cider, water, or milk. Other deities may prefer ale or beer, or wine. The “high” experienced in sumbel is distinct from the usual effects of alcohol. When charged by god-energy, even a non-alcoholic beverage such as apple juice becomes inebriating. If you have a cold, after blessing the horn in the usual way pour a little liquid into your own goblet or horn. The horn may be blessed and passed without drinking as well.
The style of invocation used depends on the worshiper and the deity. Some are conversational, some incantatory. Invocations may be written ahead of time, but during the sumbel they should be memorized rather than read. What you lose in polish is gained in intensity. A collection of written invocations for various deities is available for personal meditation, as models, and for inspiration.
Participation is enhanced if you dress in festival clothing (but it should be comfortable). Hrafnar’s commitment to sustainability means we don’t use paper plates. We do have permanent plates and silverware, but it is even better if you can bring your own feasting gear. Invoking requires a large drinking horn, available unfinished from Tandy’s. Such horns can be completed fairly easily by sanding with increasingly fine grades of sandpaper, sealing, and fitting with leather straps. Large goblets can also be used. A smaller goblet, tankard, or horn is also useful for water or a non-alcoholic drink to toast with if you don’t wish to imbibe whatever is currently going around. For eating, wooden plates and bowls from Cost+ are attractive (burn your name on the bottom with a wood-burning tool). Another choice is a paper plate on a wicker platter, available at the grocery store. Pewter or tinware from the Renaissance Faire or elsewhere are also good choices. In addition, you will need a cloth napkin, an eating dagger, a spoon and fork or forchette. Many keep their gear in a wooden box or wicker picnic hamper which can be used as a table if you are sitting on the ground or floor.
It is a good idea to bring a bottle of whatever you like to drink, as well as a bottle for the deity if you will be invoking. Food for the feasts usually features a main dish appropriate to the festival — roast pork for the Vanir, for instance, or rabbit for Ostara. Other appropriate foods are those characteristic of Germanic culture — barley, pickled cabbage, sausage dishes, and traditional recipes. Bread and butter, rye crackers, cheeses, and pickled herring are good finger foods. For sweets, European fruits (especially apples), pies and pastries are all appropriate. Feeding the folk gets expensive, and it is appreciated if those attending contribute or call to ask what they can bring.