Outside of blót, symbel (also called by the Old Norse sumbel) is perhaps the highest rite practiced by Wednesbury Shire, and Anglo-Saxon Paganism in general. The idea behind symbel is to place one's self into the flow of Wyrd (Bauschatz pp. 109-110),thus linking deeds of the past to those of the present, and affect those deeds of the future.The rite is preserved in the sagas, Béowulf, and mentioned in the Heliand, Dream of the Rood, Hymisqviða, Judith, and the Lokasenna. Many of these sources use the phrase sittan to symle "to sit to symbel," a phrase which has ritual implications. A symbel was a joyful yet solemn event. In Old English,symbelness means not only “festivity,” but “solemnity.” Symbel is best preserved in the Anglo-Saxon poem, Béowulf, mainly lines 489- 675 and 1491-1500.It also appears in the form of a funeral ale held by King Svien where he boasted to take England by force. In the Fagrskinna it is mentioned memory drinks were made to Thor.
The speech at symbel revolves around deeds past and present. Béowulf in the poem stated who his father was and boasted of past deeds prior to vowing to slay Grendel. Svein vowed to take England in the Heimskringla. These boasts serve one purpose, to place one's self in the flow of Wyrd, and thereby control the results of future events. Results of events in the future are based upon the results of those in the past. Béowulf's béot or vow ends with Gað a wyrd swá hío sceol "always goeth Wyrd as she shall."
Central to these boasts is the idea of the gielp and béot. A gielp is a boast of one's ancestry and a past deed or deeds. It is followed by the béot, or boast to do something. These boasts were not the only form of significant speech at symbel. Symbel begins with the same fulls as worship, three prayers to the Gods, a toast to the ancestors, and a bragafull "the leader's boast." The collective gielp for the tribe or group is made by the scop or poet, who sings the ealdgesagen, the ancient tales of the tribe. In symbel one is attempting to weave their own wyrd. This is done not only through the personal boasts, but through the recitation of ealdgesagen or the “ancient tales” which establish the gielp for the tribe. This recitation of ancient deeds of the tribe serves as the gielp for the béot of the bragafull. The horn is a symbol of the Well of Wyrd, while the lady of the hall pouring the mead or other drink into the horn represents the Norns watering the World Tree daily bringing the past back to the present.
Offices of Symbel
Symbel has certain offices. Primary amongst these are the symbelgifa "symbel giver" or host, and the ealu bora "ale bearer." The symbelgifa is the host of the symbel. They sit at the high seat, give gifts, and recognize important guests. They approve or disapprove of the boasts in hall. As it is the symbelgifa's hall that the symbel takes place in, it is in their utmost interest to control what goes on in it. It is after all their orlæg that is most intricately tied to what goes on in the symbel. Foolhardy boasts, indescent acts, or strife could all have a negative consequences. It is the symbelgifa that gives the bregofull or bragafull, the boast of the group's past accomplishments and a vow to do something in the future.
The ealu bora is the highest lady of the hall, usually the significant other of the symbelgifa. They bear the horn the first round to the symbelgifa and any important guests. They are quick with flattering words, and advise the symbelgifa during the symbel. They ensure that the byrele or byreles "cup bearer or bearers" do their job. The ealu bora is always a noble woman, and shows the innate sacredness of women. She must always pour the first drink as it is her mere touch that makes the drink holy (Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree,77) . She judges boasts using her sense of whether or not the boast will be fulfilled, and encourages good boasts with flattery. This is based in part on the idea that women have certain innate abilities to read the web of Wyrd (see Enright, pp. 170-230). In addition, she also helps still any strife she may see arising. Women such as Wealþeow in Béowulf, were often referred to as friþwebba "weaver of peace." This was done not only through flattering words and wit, but could threats if need be. In Béowulf, Wealþeow states, "Here every warrior is to the other true, mild of mood, to the lord loyal, the thanes stand as one, warbandmen given drink so they do as I bid.(1228-1231)"
The þyle is there also to advise the symbelgifa and challenge the boasts of symblers that he or she feels may go unfulfilled. Unferþ the þyle challenged Béowulf for example, questioning his abilities to complete the task he had vowed to do. The purpose of this challenge done in the tradition of the flyting, was to ensure that Béowulf's words were true. It was a test not only of the hero's resolve, but also his honesty. By pointing out a scenario in which Béowulf may have failed Unferþ is questioning why we should think the hero will succeed now. Béowulf of course clarifies the tale of Becca and himself, and shows he indeed did not fail. The þyle is a position outside of symbel as well, and not just an office of the rite. The word is glossed in Latin histrio "orator"and curra "dandy; jester, buffoon." However, in Old Icelandic þulr has the meaning of "wiseman." In the Hávamál, verse 134, Loddfáfnir is advised never to laugh at an old þyle. And Odin appears as a þyle in the Hávamál verses 80 and 111. A þyle was therefore someone of great wisdom, known for chanting mystical knowledge. The scop recites poetry to entertain the guests, while the gléoman sings songs to do the same.
The scop's ancient tales of the group serve a further purpose than to just entertain. These tales serve to call forth the group's collective wyrd. In a way, the tales told by the scop serve as a gielp for the group present, and augment the symbelgifa's bregofull. Finally there is the duruþegn whose job it is to guard the door and make sure the symbel is not disturbed.Forms of Symbel
There are three forms of symbel. The first is referred to as symbel, it follows a fairly simple outline, but is a solemn rite with all the offices of symbel. The second is gebeorscipe, the sharing of drink. It is very informal, little more than drinking in rounds with little formality , and without the offices of symbel. Finally there is high symbel, a very formal form of symbel with much pomp and circumstance.
1) Seating - Celebrants are seated according to their árung or rank within the theod. Officers are always seated at the symbelgifa's table along with important guests. They are served in this order as well. In many cases, this is discarded with if many non-Theodsmen are present.2) Forespeech - This is a speech made by the symbelgifa or host of the symbel to sit everyone down to symbel. It should be simple, but eloquent, and its only purpose is to get people ready. Wednesbury þéod, used to use a paraphrase of lines 489-490 in Béowulf.
Sit now to symbel and unseal thy mettes
Siges rethe say as they soul whets.
3) Pouring - The ealu bora pours the mead and then passes it over a flame with words to bless it. She then proceeds to the symbelgifa, says some flattering words, and passes the horn to them.
4) The Fulls - The symbelgifa toasts the three most popular gods of the theod or group, and then says the bregofull, the boast of the theod's past and present deeds.
5) The Minni - Each celebrant speaks of and drinks to their dead kinsmen and friends.
6) Gift giving (optional) - The symbelgifa may then opt to give gifts to the guests. Gifting was an important part of Germanic society. Every gift demanded a gift in return. In Béowulf, Hróðgar gave Béowulf a banner, a helm, a coat of mail, and a sword (line 1020). Since Béowulf had slain Grendel Hróðacute;gar was indebted to Béowulf, and therefore had to gift him. On a metaphysical level this gifting had several effects. Had the gifts not been given, Hróðgar; would have lost mægen or spiritual strength as he was indebted to Béowulf.(Stephen Glosecki, Shamanism and Old English Poetry, 61-66) Further, with the slaying of Grendel, and the gifting of Béowulf a bond is created between the two men. Through the giving of gifts obligations are created. With each new gift, another gift, be it material (like a sword) or immaterial (like a deed) must be given in return. The giving of a gift in ancient Germanic culture either meant friendship or a pledge (Gronbech, Culture of the Teutons, 77-78). It bound people together in ways nothing else could. According to Gronbech, "One might safely trust to the gift and give it full power to speak on one's behalf, for the soul in it would of itself reach in to the obligation, to honour, must bind luck and weave fate into fate, must produce will, or place a new element into it. Therefore, no power on earth can check the effect of a gift halfway, when it has once passed from hand to hand, and therefore, none can resist the spiritual effect of that which he has suffered to come too near.(Gronbech, Culture of the Teutons, 59)" Gift giving therefore played a role in weaving the wyrd of a group in symbel. Gifts in ancient times were given by a lord to his thegns, and kings were considered the gift givers supreme. One of the marks of a good king was to be generous with the giving of gifts. Today as in ancient times this is done in symbel.
7) Open Fulls - Each celebrant according to their rank may then make a gielp and béot, a toast to friends, sing a song, or make bedes (prayers) to the Gods. It must be remembered that a gielp and béotot are aserious matter. It is not the false boasts of Shakespeare's Falstaff. It is the honest and truthful naming of one's ancestry, past achievements, and a vow to do something of significance in the future. It is a very serious matter. The þyle may challenge any gielp and béot made and the boaster may respond. The pattern of this used in Béowulf is as follows:
a) The Initial Boast: This is whatever triggers the flyting (a flyring is an insulting match of which the best example is in the Lokasenna) in Béowulf. In the case of Béowulf, it was the boast to slay Grendel.
b) The Challenge: This is the initial challenge to the boast. It is, in essence, the start of the flyting.
c) The Rebuke: The boaster then rebukes the challenge and further often finds a flaw with the one that isseud the challenged.
This process continues until either the þyle or the boaster falls silent. The symbelgifa then decides whether it is worthy or not.The open fulls continue until the symbelgifa decides the symbel should end.
Gebeorscipe is the term that the scholar Pollington uses to refer to other forms of drinking rounds seen in the lore. They are, what in modern Paganism would be called an "impromptu symbel;" the sort that happen around a camp fire when one Heathen says to another, "Hey lets symbel." As such, it will have many of the same elements of symbel such as boasts, the rounds, gielps and béots. However, it is likely to be very less formal. As such there are no hard and fast rules for Gebeorscipe, the only one perhaps being that it goes in rounds, and there perhaps be initial boasts to the gods and ancestors. This may be the most common form of symbel in modern Paganism due to its simplicity.
High Symbel is only performed by Theodsmen, and not seen often in the general community. Only those of high rank in a theod are likely to perform the rite. The outline below is a consolidation of the symbel outline first presented by Eic Wodening in his article An Anglo-Saxon Symbel, Steve Pollington in his academic work The Mead-Hall, and Paul Bauchatz's academic work The Well and the Tree. High Symbel differs from symbel in the opening rounds and the formality of of the rite. Otherwise everything is the same.The outline for these opening rounds is drawn from Pollington's work, The Mead-Hall pages 42 to 47 with additional elements added from Eric Wodening's outline seen in An Anglo-Saxon Symbel.
1) Summoning - The guests are summoned to the hall by a horn. Pollington notes that on the Bayeux Tapestry, a horn blower is shown.
2) Entrance of Guests into the Hall - The guests enter the hall and wash their hands. Pollington points to a verse from the Havamal, "Water and handcloth and friendly word, a chance to speak, guest friendship will he gladly find, kindness and attention" (Pollington, p. 42).
3) Seating - The symbelgifa as in regular symbel seats each person according to arung. The symbelgifa then takes the position before the high seat.
4) Symbelgifa Forespeech - The symbelgifa opens symbel with words similar to those from Béowulf lines 489-490: "Sitaþ nu to symle ond onsælaþ meoto, sigehreð secgum, swa þin sefas hwettaþ (Sit now to symbel and unwind your measures, victory hearted heroes)," and then sits down. If folks are not already seated they should do so at this point.
5) Ealu bora Forespeech - The ealu bora then enters with the horn in hand. She greets those present, and offers the horn to the symbelgifa with words not unlike those in Béowulf lines 1169-1175: "Onfoh þissum fulle, freodrihten min, sinces brytta! þu on sælum wes, goldwine gumena, ond to Geatum spræc mildum wordum... (Take this full, my lord dryhten, hoard sharer, you be happy, warriors' gold friend, and speak to the Geats with mild words...)"
6) Bregofull - The symbelgifa then says bedes or prayers to the three Gods and Goddesses worshiped by his or her household, followed by a minni to the ancestors. This done, they make the bregofull boasting of the group's past accomplishments, and future plans.7) Guest Speech - If there is a guest of honor, the ealu bora then takes the horn to him or her. They greet the symbelgifa, and then if they wish may make a make a béot, a bede, or other speech.
8) The First Full - The ealu bora then takes the horn to each person by arung. They may make a béot, boast to the Gods, or a boast to the ancestors . The ealu bora then takes their seat, and the task of carrying the horn about is taken over by a byrele (usually a young person of either sex).
9) Gift giving (optional) - The symbelgifa may then give gifts to those present. Theoretically this can be done at anytime during symbel however
10) Léoð (optional) - The scop may then sing a song, either in praise of the gods, the folk, or the symbelgifa.
11) The Fulls - High Symbel from here on follows the pattern of any symbel. The ealu bora may decide to pour mead for anyone at any time along with flattering speech.
Bauschatz, Paul, The Well and the Tree, Paul, The Well and the Tree, University of Massachuetts Press; Amherst, 1982
Conquergood, Dwight, "Boasting in Anglo-Saxon England, Performance and the Heroic Ethos," Literature and Performance, vol. I April 1991
Glosecki, Stephen, Shamanism and Old English Poetry, New York: Garland Publishing, 1990
Gronbech, Vilhelm, Culture of the Teutons, Oxford University Press; London, 1931
Enright, M. J. , Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband, Dublin, 1976
Opland, Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: a Study of theTraditions. New York: Yale University Press, 1980
Pollington, Steven, The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon Books; Norfolk, 2003
Wodening, Eric. "An Anglo-Saxon Symbel." Theod. Watertown, NY, Waelburges 1995