An Anglo-Saxon Symbel

By Eric Wodening

Original version 1st published in Theod,volume II, issue 2, Waelburges 1995

The Significance of Symbel

Perhaps no other rite in heathendom stands out as importantly or asuniquely as symbel (OE symbel; OIcel sumbl).According to Bauschatz, symbel is the ritual drinking feast at whichthe participants try to place themselves into the flow of Wyrd throughthe 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 symbel. The phrase sittien atsumble appears in the Old Saxon poem Heliand [1, p. 72]and essentially the same phrase appears in the Old English Dream ofthe Rood (sittan to symle) and the Old Icelandic Locasenna.The word “symbel” also appears in its various forms in such diverse sourcesas Hymisqviða, 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 “symbel” are unknown. One of the earliest etymologiestheorized it was a borrowing of Latin symbola, itself a borrowingof Greek sumbole “collection for a meal.” This etymology has neverbeen widely accepted, due to phonological considerations and the fact thatsymbel appears far too often in the purely Germanic sense of thedrinking rite to be a borrowed word [1, p. 76]. Bauschatz proposedthat symbel may derive from proto-Germanic sum- or sam-(”gathering together”) and *alu (”ale”). Using this eytmology symbelwould literally mean “a gathering of ale [ibid].” As the etymologyimplies, symbel appears to have been a group activity. There are no referencesto anyone having symbel alone [1, p. 73].

Solemnity seems to have been an earmark of symbel as well.The Old Englishword symbelness means not only “festivity,” but “solemnity.” Thissolemnity is not the dourness associated with Christian church services,but rather “a sense of deep significance and importance [1, p. 74].”In Béowulf, at Hróðgar’s first symbel, “there was men’slaughter, noise resounded/the words were winsome [ibid].” At symbel,frith and goodwill prevail [5, lines 1016-1019]. “Symbelness,” then, isa ritual mindset of determination to accomplish the ritual at hand.

Order also seems to have played a part in symbel. To “sit at symbel”implies order, in that sitting requires a place to sit, and hence someorganized distribution of seats [1, p. 73]. In Béowulf weget only the vaguest hint of such an order. At the second symbel,Hróðgar sits with his nephew Hróðwulf; his þyle (spokesman),Unferð, sits at the king’s feet [5, line 1165]. Later Béowulf is describedas sitting between Hróðgar’s sons [5, line 1190]. The grouping of thegreatest men together implies that some sort of order was used in determiningthe seating arrangements. the apportioning of seats was probably quiteimportant at symbel, as such apportioning would represent such as doneby Wyrd [1, p. 73].

As stated earlier, symbel was a ritual drinking feast. The preferredsymbel drink was some sort of alcohol. In Béowulf the men are gatheredin the béorsele, “beer hall,” and it is an eolowæge, “alecup,” that is passed around [1, p. 75]. The drink is never namedin 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 anintoxicant seems significant. Alcohol would allow for the altered mood needed totake the celebrants out of this space and time. More important is drinking’sclose relationship to the actions of Wyrd’s Well. Like the Well, the cupholds a liquid quite different from other liquids. The drinking at symbelis also accompanied by speech, just as the watering of the World Tree accompaniesthe Norn’s decrees. The whole point of the drinking, indeed, of symbel,is to bring the participants, their deeds, and their words into the flowof Wyrd. Symbel is, in many ways, a reenactment of the Norns continouslyspekaing the orlæg while watering Yggdrasill [1, pp. 76-78].

Symbel appears to have been held almost exclusively indoors. In Béowulf,both symbels are held in Heorot, Hróðgar’s hall, while in Locasennathe gods hold symbel in Ægir’s hall. In no other sources is it made clearthat a symbel was held outside [1, p. 74]. Further, the symbel hall(or perhaps we should say symbelhouse, after OE symbelhús)appears to have been decorated as befits a festival. In Béowulf,Hróðgar ordered Heorot cleaned and decorated with finery [5, lines 991-992].The celebration of symbel inside was probably meant to further remove theparticipants from the earthly timestream and place them into the timelesscontinuity of Wyrd, the symbelhouse acting as a barrier to the rest ofthe world. Decorations, such as those in Béowulf, may well haveaided in this process.

The Order of Symbel

Symbel also seems, like all rites, to have had aspecific order. The most detailed portrayal of symbel is in the two symbelscenes in Béowulf, where such an order is implied.

The second symbel scene in Béowulf begins with toastsexchanged between Hróðgar and Hróðwulf [5, line 1015]. While toastingto others’ health was no doubt as common in the heathen era as today (probablymore so), it seems possible that more than ordinary “toasts” were involved.A custom common to the Germanic peoples appears to have been that of themyne drink (ON minnisöl) or “memory drink.” The mynedrink was drunk to one’s ancestors as well as the gods. Fagrskinnastates that myne drinks were made to ÞorR and other gods [6, p.184]. Indeed, myne drinking may appear in the context of symbel in Heimskringla.Svein calls a “feast” after the death of his father, Harold. At the beginningof the feast, Svein drinks his father’s myne, then takes his seat and vowsto attack Æþelræd in England within three years. Other mynes are madeto Jesus and the archangel Michael following this [ibid]. The mynedrink also occurred in England and Germany and survived as the toasts madeto the dead at wakes and funeral feasts. It seems likely that Hróðgarand Hróðwulf may have made myne drinks to the gods and their forebearsas well as exchainging toasts between themselves.

Following the “toasts” in the second symbel scene comes anexchange of gifts. Hróðgar gave Béowulf a banner, a helm, a coat of mail,and a sword [5, line 1020]. Gift giving in the context of symbel seemsto have a triple importance. First, there is the doctrine of giving commonto all the Germanic peoples, which “states” that every gift demands a giftin return. As Béowulf had performed a service to Hróðgar by slaying Grendel,Hróðgar was obliged to give Béowulf gifts back in return. To fail to doso would result in a loss of main (”magical power” or “luck”) equalin worth to the gift [4, pp. 61-66]. Second, the giving of giftsassociated with Béowulf’s victory further binds the past and the present.The sword, in particular, as an ancient weapon forged by ettins, acts tomerge 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 dealingdone by Wyrd, much as the seating arrangement does as well.

Following the gift giving done at the second symbel, the scop“sings” of Finn’s conflict with the Danes [5, lines 1066-1159]. A poemin a ritual or social context, such as symbel, was called in Old Englisha léoð. The purpose of the scopléoð (a léoð “sung” bya scop) seems fairly obvious: through reciting an event from history thescop invokes the contents of Wyrd’s Well, further strengthening the linkbetween past and present

Another type of speech follows the scopléoð, these made bythe symbel’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 forebearsor oneself have achieved in the past--what many would now consider “bragging.”The béot, on the other hand, emphasizes the promise of an action,“plighting one’s troth” literally [1, p. 110]. Svein’s vow to attackÆþelræd would constitute a béot.

The gielp and béot together comprised most of the speechesmade at symbel. In the first symbel scene in Béowulf, Béowulf beginshis speech with a geilp. He boasts of his kinship to Higelac and of hisachievements in the past. From his gielp, Béowulf proceeds to his béotto slay Grendel, and ends it with the phrase ”Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel[5, line 455],” “Goeth ever Wyrd as she shall,” thus bringing pastdeeds together with deeds coming to be [1, pp. 110-112].

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

Unferð’s challenge could well be connected to his office ofþyle. Þyle is glossed “orator” in Old English sources,though there appears to be much more to it than that. In the HávamálWoden is referred to as Fimbulþul, “the Great þyle,” and priorto his advice to the man Loddfafnir he states that it is time to sit uponthe þyle’s stool and chant as a þyle. Similarly, figures such as SigurðR’smaster, Reginn, are referred to as þyles. This implies that the þyledealt with the transmission of lore to others, to some degee or another

The association of the þyle with the transmission of knowledgeis strengthened by the Old Norse word þula, which means “a listof facts in poetic form” or “a poem which lists various facts in some sortof order.” The two words appear somehow connected, so that a þyle wouldbe someone who knows and recites þular.

Unferð’s challenge may well have a purpose. As a keeper oflore it may be the duty of the þyle to challenge béots tht he suspectsmay not be kept.

Béowulf responds to Unferð’s challenge with a gielp that wemust assume is a more accurate account of the swimming contest. The gielpthen proceeds to a challenge of Unferð’s own character (he is said tohave killed his own kin), then to a repeating of Béowulf’s béot to slayGrendel [5, lines 530-606]. Béowulf’s response seems designed to reaffirmthe validity of his béot by once more linking it to a deed he performedin the past (that it also denigrates the character of Unferð must be regardedas an added bonus).

Though Béowulf does not state this, it may be assumedthat once each participant has made a gielp or a béot, the process beginsagain with the scop singing a léoð.

Roles at Symbel

Within symbel there appear to have been four roles (besidesthe general role of “symbeler”) necessary to the rite. The first of thesecan be called the symbelgifa (an Old English word meaning “one whogives or hosts a symbel”). In Béowulf the role of symbelgifafell to Hróðgar as lord of Heorot. Hróðgar played much more than therole of simple host. As symbelgifa he seems to have been charged with arbitratingbéots and challenges. After Béowulf’s béot to slay Grendel, Hróðgar makesa speech (in the form of a gielp) accepting Béowulf’s béot. Later, afterUnferð’s challenge to the béot, Hróðgar’s acceptance is not made explicit,though his faith that Béowulf can slay Grendel implies it. That the symbelgifawould be charged with arbitrating béots and challenges could make sense.Left unchecked, a series of béots and challenges could easily degenerateinto a shouting match between þyle and symbeler, or, worse yet, violence.An absolute authority, such as the symbelgifa, who could weigh the validityof béots and challenges, would make such disruption less likely. In otherways the symbelgifa probably acted as a master of ceremonies. He probablyled the myne drinking and in part helped place the participants in a stateof “symbelness.”

Another important role is that of the scop (pronounced “shawp”).In Anglo-Saxon England the scop was an official poet, attached to a noblehousehold (the scop in Béowulf is called the cyninges þegn,“the king’s thane”), and charged with reciting euologies in praise of theking and his forebears. By attracting the “sympathetic ear” of past rulers,the scop insured the well being of the present king, the bearer of thenational 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 andhistorian [6, pp. 260-262]. The scop’s position as an official reciterof praise can be seen in the use of the phrase guma gilphlæden,“gielp laden man,” to describe Hróðgar’s scop [3, pp. 116-120].

In symbel the scop also serves to invoke the past in order tolink it to the present. At both symbels portrayed in Béowulf, thescop recites most of the deeds of the past [1, p. 110]. In the secondsymbel, for instance, the scop recounts the sudden attack on the Frisianking Finn and his followers [6, pp. 194-196].

Though never stated, the scop may have acted as the recorderof deeds performed by present day heroes, as well as béots made at symbel;hence the scop may have aided the symelgifa in arbitrating béots or challenges.That is, when consulted by the symbelgifa, the scop could confirm or denyany of the statements made. While never made explicit, this seems to bea logical extension of the scop’s duties as chronicler and historian.

The third position necessary to a symbel would be someone toserve 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 Wéalhþéow, Hróðgar’s queen.At the first symbel, Wéalhþéow greets the warriors, then serves Hróðgarbefore going from warrior to warrior with the cup [5, lines 612-614]. Inthe second symbel the poem shows her serving only Hróðgar and Béowulf,though this does not rule out her serving others as well [5, lines 1167-1232].While in charge of the over all serving arrangements, the alekeeper wouldhaver her assistants to help serve the drink, as the reference to “servingthegns” indicates such.

The serving of the cup to each symbeler seems to have been accompaniedby words of praise of the one being served. Again, this is probably tomerge words with the flow of Wyrd; if pleasant words are said of someone,then perhaps he shall have a pleasant wyrd as well. Bauschatz observesthat the

“presence of the noblewoman (Wéalhþéow) at the drinking ofthe intoxicant adds the additional elements of female nurture [1, p.77,]"

though Wéalhþéow’s presence may have a deeper meaning thanthat. If it is taken that the ale is symbolic of the water of Wyrd’s Welland its pouring symbolic of the Norns watering Yggdrasill, then it followsthat the alekeeper (in Béowulf, Wéalhþéow) would symbolize Wyrdherself. Hence, the symbel ritual is in many ways a reenactment of theentire process of Wyrd.

The fourth role in symbel would be that of the þyle. the þylewould be charged with challenging any béots that he feels might not bekept by the individual making them. In many ways the þyle would act asa prosecuting attorney, with the symbelgifa as the judge.

It must be noted that in Béowulf that neither the scopnor the alekeeper are portrayed as drinking. While this is not specifiedin any of the sources, the two, as the only possible non-drinking participants,may have seen that the symbel did not get out of hand. It makes sense thatthey 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 inany of the sources, and thus the option of whether or not the scop andthe alekeeper drink should be left to the symbelgifa or other symbelers.

The Symbel Rite

Symbel requires that the roles of symbelgifa, scop, alekeeper,and þyle be filled. The symbelgifa should be the owner of the symbelhousewhere the symbel is being held. If the symbel is held in a public place,then the most prominent person present should serve as symbelgifa. Thescop should be a skilled poet with a good grasp of our legends and lore.If no one with such skill is present, then whoever has the most knowledgeof our myths may serve as “scop.” The alekeeper role should be filled bya woman close to the symbelgifa (wife, sister, mother, girlfriend, andso on) or another woman of prominence. Like the scop, the þyle shouldbe someone with a good knowledge of our lore, though his skill in poetrydoes not have to be of a scop’s level. The þyle should also be someonewith 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 symbel should place the symbelgifa at the headof the table, with those of most importance closest to him and those oflesser importance farther away. The alekeeper should be given a seat nearthe symbelgifa. The scop may be seated at the table or at a place wherehe may best be heard. It is up to the symbelgifa or a general consensusof the symbelers whether or not the scop and the alekeeper drink.

Below is a formula for the rite.

I. Hallowing--This is an optional step which may bedone away with. If it is included, the symbelgifa should perform a suitablerite to set the room apart as holy and prevent the intrusion of troublesomewights, such as the Old English Siþ Gealdor or the hammer working.

II. Forespeech--At this point the symbelgifa shouldopen the symbel with a suitable speech. This speech should be somethingthat will invoke the past and present as they exist in the minds of theparticipants for the proper mood of symbelness to begin. Though it appearsin the middle of the second Béowulf symbel, I sometimes use a paraphraseof lines 489-490. I feel it invokes the past and present quite well.

Sit now to symbel and unseal thy mettes

Sige’s rethe say as thy soul whets

While the above quote is in New English, it may be said in OldEnglish (as we Theodsmen prefer to do) or even translated into Old Norse.

III. Pouring--This stage is actually concurrent withstage IV (the mynes). The alekeeper pours the initial drink for each symbelerin turn. As she does so she should make a statement to each participant,preferably in alliterative verse. In each case, the statement should neverbe demeaning or insulting. Following the pouring the alekeeper and herassistants fill the cup as needed.

IV. Mynes--At this point the myne drinks are drunk. Thesymbelgifa 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 mynesthat may be made and it is up to the symbelgifa and the majority of thesymbelers to decide when enough have been made. Regardless, the major gods(Wóden, Þúnor, Fríge, Fréa, Fréo, Tíw, and so on) should have mynes drunkto them, as should any important forebears. The gods are always drunk tofirst, then the forebears, then the living.

V. Gift Giving--Gifts are now exchanged between the participantsof the symbel. The gift giving should begin with the symbelgifa, then proceedaccording to importance. Not every symbel must include the giving of gifts,so this should be left to the occasion.

VI. Léoð--At this point the scop recites a léoð. Theléoð may be a myth from the Eddas or the recounting of a more recentevent in the past. The léoð’s entire purpose is to link the symbelerswith the past so that they may affect the flow of wyrd.

VII. Gielps and béots--The symbelers then proceed tomake the gielps and béots. The symbelgifa begins the round of gielps, thenit proceeds according to importance. Each participant may wish to end hisbéot as Béowulf did his first one, “Goeth ever Wyrd as she shall.”

Once a béot is made, the symbelgifa may accept or reject it(in which case it is not binding), then the þyle may challenge the béot.The þyle should not make challenges without justification, and shouldalways base his challenge on valid facts, not on his own personal opinion.In other words, challenges should be made only if there is more than areasonable doubt that the previous symbeler might not keep his béot. Therisk involved in making a challenge is aptly portrayed in Béowulf,where in Béowulf’s reply to Unferð’s challenge it is revealed that Unferðkilled his kinsmen.

If a challenge is made, the particiapnt who made the béot getsto reply. The reply should in some way reinforce the béot, and discreditany fallacies the þyle may have stated. The symbelgifa then weighs thebéot, the challenge, and the reply and either accepts or rejects the béot.

Once the first round of gielps and béots has been made, thescop recites another léoð and a new round of gielps and béots begins.This cycle may continue as long as the symbelgifa, scop, and alekeepersee fit, though if the majority of symbelers want to quit it may end there.

VIII. Endspeech--Once the symbel has reached its end,the symbelgifa should utter a suitable closing statement or “endspeech.”

Suggestions for Symbel

Above all else, the state of symbelness must be preserved atsymbel. For that reason, many considerations must be made when holdingsymbel. The most obvious of these is the question of interruptions at symbel.As shown in Béowulf, people can and did enter symbel after it hadbegun and leave before it had ended. Given the sometimes busy schedulesof people today, there is no reason modern heathen can not permit thisas well. It must be stressed, however, that such comings and goings shouldbe kept as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, so as not to disrupt themood of symbelness, which may not easily be achieved again. Similarly,if there is a phone in the symbelhouse, it should be placed off the hookand any electrical appliances (such as TV sets, dryers and so on) beyondair conditioners and fans (necessary in many places in the summer) shouldbe shut off.

To further pevent any disruptions of symbelness, the symbelgifa,scop, and alekeeper should actively discourage any antagonism within thesymbel. No harsh words should be uttered between the participants and eventhe ritualized challenges should be worded as diplomatically as possible.Symbel is no different from any other rite in that frith, above all else,must prevail.

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

The more immediate effects of the symbel ale must also be accountedfor. Symbel is an occasion to influence one’s wyrd, not to get fallingdown drunk. If at any point it appears someone has had too much to drink,the symbel should end right then and there. Better to end the symbel whilesymbelness is still high than to have it disrupted later by someone actinglike a fool, vomiting, or passing out.

Finally, no one who has drunk at symbel should be allowed todrive himself home. To prevent any instance of drunk driving the symbelgifa,scop, and alekeeper should see that sleeping arrangements are made so symbelerscan spend the night, or see to it that rides home are provided. If thescop or the alekeeper have not drunk during the ritual, they would be idealto drive symbelers home. The memory of a good symbel should not be marredby accidents brought on by too much alcohol.

Symbel is perhaps the most important rite a heathen can takepart in . For that reason it should be approached with a sense of frith,solemnity, and, yes, festivity. If a symbel goes well, then its participantsmay expect much happiness to come.

Symbel Wordhoard

alekeeper: The chief dispenser of drink at symbel.
béot: (OE) A “boast” with the binding force of an oath.
endspeech (OE ende-spraec): An epilogueor closing statement.
forespeech (OE fore-spraec): A prologueor opening statement.
hallowing: The setting apart of an area as holy.
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, incharge of eulogizing the lord and his forebears.
sige: (OE) Victory.
symbelgifa: (OE) Literally, giver of symbels.
symbelhouse (OE symbelhús): A buildingin which a symbel is held.
yare (OE gearo): A building in which asymbel is held.
gielp: (OE) A boast retelling the past deeds of one’sforebears or oneself. In symbel, made before a béot.

Bookhoard

1. Bauschatz, Paul, The Well and the Tree. Amherst,MA: University of MassachusettsPress, 1982.
2. Chisolm, James (trs.), “The Flyting of Loki,” Idunna,March 1993, Austin, TX: Ring of Troth.
3. Conquergood, Dwight, “Literacy and Oral Performance in Anglo-SaxonEngland: Conflict and Confluence of Traditions,” Annadale, Virginia SpeechCommunication Association.
4. Glosecki, Stephen, Shamanism and Old English Poetry,New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
5.Klaeber, Fr. Béowulf, Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath andCo. 1950.
6. Opland, Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: a Study of theTraditions. New York: Yale University Press, 1980.

© 1998 Eric Wodening. All rights reserved.

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Back to Eric Wodening's Articles 1½ ÑWixºHçngto others’ health was no doubt as common in the heathen era as today (probablymore so), it seems possible that more than ordinary “toasts” were involved.A custom common to the Germanic peoples appears to have been tha