The Importance of Ritual to Asatru
For many new to Asatru, how to perform Blots and Sumbels are sometimes a daunting task; but they need not be!
As will all pagan paths, a Norse Pagan works to form co-creational relationships with their surrounding community; be they the spirits of the land on which they live, with their ancestors, and with the Gods themselves. This is accomplished through performing sacred rituals of honor and sacrifice within a hof or at a hörgr, (temple or alter) on a regular basis.
Let’s discuss first where a heathen performs their venerations to our Norse cosmology, as well as the why; then I will share a brief tutorial on the how.
A hörgr is a type of cairn, which is an altar or shrine made of stones that are either piled, heaped, or stacked. They are used in Norse religion, as opposed to a roofed hall used as a hof (temple).
For Heathens who are familiar with Druidry or witchcraft, the closest analogy’s are that the Hof is similar to a permanently erected grove used by druids; it is a hallowed (or sanctified location) set up for permanent use of sacred ceremonies for Asatru worship, and is usually used by a Kindred or group of Norse Pagans.
A hörgr is the private altar where a heathen would go to do personal sacred rites, and where they would go in a solitary manner to commune with the Wights of the land and the 9 worlds, as well as the Gods of Norse mythology. Many faiths from earth based religions, to Buddhist, to Shamans have an Altar (or many!) set up for their use as a place where they can enter the world of ceremonial pantomime and commune with the Sacred. Traditionally a hörgr was made of piles rocks, but anything from a stump, to a table, to even a window sill, is perfectly acceptable for use as the place where the Heathen has interface with the Norse 9 worlds, as well as with the working powers in Midgard.
How we gain benefit from regular veneration on a regular basis is many fold. If we look at most of the ancient religions of the world, and particularly those that honor the earth, (and in my opinion Heathens are very earth based!) Honoring the earth (named Jord) upon which you live and that sustains your very life is a practice that any pagan should hold foremost in their path. We don’t feel as monotheist religions do: that the land and all its inhabitants are here for our exploitation and consuming. Most Heathens view themselves as Stewards of their patches of Earth, and that the spirits of place called Landvaettir if upset or maligned can cause much blight and unhappiness in the residing Heathens life. To actively care for and thank your land is a very Norse thing to do, and is surprisingly overlooked by modern day Asatru. Another common Pagan practice is they all have a common practice of Ancestor Veneration. Yes, a lot of it is rooted in a belief that their ancestors somehow live on through an immortal soul (but not in every case). In my opinion, venerating ancestors is a way in which humanity has, for many years, remembered those that it has loved and lost and enabled people to come to terms with the reality of death. Moreover as heathens, honoring our ancestors ensure we have good Oorlog and Hamingja(inherited luck), so by honoring our ancestors, whether they be family members, friends or important people who have influenced our lives, is a practice that I think can be of great benefit to us as Heathens.
Furthermore, we have the idea of venerating the Norse Gods. Norse heathenism is currently undergoing a mass re-claiming, as it was a pagan belief system that was almost lost to history due to conquest of
Christianity. Its has only been over the past 50 years that Asatru and our Gods have undergone an awaking from a long time sleep. It is a ancient thought that if you stop believing in/speaking of a God or divine being, they will pass into obscurity and die. Doing something to honor our Norse Gods, to call out their names in worship and as kinsman helps us keep the memory of them alive, as well as move Them into the future. While we don’t necessarily forget about the Lore, as well as the Mythos of our Pantheon while in blot or Sumbel, if not done with regularity, time progresses and we move along in our lives, so without often veneration and conversations with our Gods; we run the risk of not really getting to know them well, not thinking of them for great periods of time, and we lose a connection to them in our daily lives that we once had when we did regular rites of honor and sacrifice. By regularly honoring them, we ensure they are remembered and kept very much alive…and if we teach the next generation to do the same, then we ensure that we are remembered long after we become Ancestors.
Yes, I hear you say, I agree with all that, but get specific, what exactly do I need to do?
I have two suggestions here
Firstly, make an altar, just as millions of people have done throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of human history. Put some pieces of dirt from your garden, pictures of lost relatives on it, and maybe a God post of your favorite Deity. Decorate the altar with a few candles, objects that remind you of people, places, Norse Mythology and anything else you want to. You could either have this altar up in your house, in your yard, or both; and you can change them daily, weekly, or monthly.
Secondly, Create regular ceremonies to carry out at the altar. It could be something simple like lighting a candle for a minute and meditation on you connectedness to the Nine worlds, or something more elaborate including drinking from a remembrance horn and doing Sumbel for your hamingja, as well as spending time meditating on memories you have of your ancestors. Even seasonal celebrations for Jord’s ever changing of her skin can be done here. Do whatever you feel helps you, keeps you plugged in to Asatru, and ensures the Heathen faith remains a viable, evolving Tradition, very much alive, and well!
Here is a basic outline of Sumbels and blots:
At the first glance, a sumble appears to be quite simple. It primarily consists of a filled drinking horn being passed from person to person and each, in turn, making a toast. The subjects of said toasts can be the Gods, the ancestors, land spirits, heroes or members of the assembled folk. It is also seen as a good opportunity to boast about personal accomplishments that would be of interest to the gathering, or to take an oath if you have a need to take one.
In sumble people are usually seated in a ring, and the horn usually moves around the circle multiple times, three rounds being most common. The horn may simply be passed from person to person, or somebody may be carrying the horn around the ring and offering it to each of the people in turn. If the horn is being carried, then the person doing so is usually referred to as the Valkyrie or the Hall-idis. This is a position of great honor, and it was a role that in old heathen times was most often filled by the wife of the host.
Often, each round is given a topic, and all toasts made during that round should generally pertain to that topic. A common set of rounds is to toast to one of the Aesir or Vanir in the first round, to an ancestor or hero in the second, and then the third round would be for boasts, oaths, or just an open round if you do not have a boast or oath to make. If there are further rounds beyond the third they are usually open to whatever people feel like toasting. Of course, many kindreds use different systems than this, or may in fact use no system at all and just declare all rounds to be open.
Despite it's apparent simplicity, the rite does have a great deal of metaphysical significance, and for that reason there is a great amount of tradition and taboo that has built up around it.
One thing that it is important to remember about the old Norse was that they didn't particularly believe that there was any such thing as chance. Whether good or bad things happen to you is heavily based on your hamingja, or the strength of your spirit, and the thing that most heavily influences your hamingja is the honorability of your actions. Just as important as your personal deeds, however, are the actions of the clan that you belong to. Your luck was believed to be pooled with the luck of those that you consider part of your family or tribe, and if one of your kin dishonors themselves, then that tarnishes your hamingja as well as theirs.
The reason that this point is pertainant to sumble is because this is a ritual that is less focused on communion with the gods, and more towards binding us together as a tribe of heathens. When you stand in sumble with a group of people, you are forging a bond with those people in a very real spiritual sense, and that bond becomes stronger each subsequent time you sumble together.
While this is capable of being quite a powerful thing, it can also be somewhat risky, as it does mean that the quality of their actions will be able to influence your fortune.
Words spoken in sumble are believed to be witnessed by the Gods and the Norns, and are therefore believed to have a greater weight than words spoken in other situations. Due to all of these factors, there are certain things you will want to keep in mind while formulating what you are going to say in sumble.
God Toasts: Since this is a ritual that is sacred to the gods of the Germanic tribes, it is usually required to resrict your toast to the gods and spirits of the pantheon being honored unless the person leading the sumble specifically says that it is okay to do otherwise. If you are not able to make a toast to a member of this pantheon, then simply raising the horn and saying nothing, or saying "hail the gods" is acceptable. Passing the horn along without doing anything is also acceptable, although it may be seen as a touch on the rude side.
Oaths: There are some groups that frown upon having any oaths taken in sumble whatsoever, because breaking a sumble oath is believed to bring a massive amount of dishonor down upon yourself and also upon everyone who witnessed you taking the oath. It is critical, therefore, that you carefully weigh any oath that you may consider taking, and evaluate with brutal realism whether it is an oath that you will be capable of fulfilling.
Many kindreds will appoint a person known as a thyle to make certain that no improper oaths are made during the sumble. If a person is filling that position, then he will likely challenge anyone making an oath and ask them questions to determine whether or not their oath is realistic. It's important not to be offended by their questions, as they are working for the protection of everyone in the circle.
Generally you will want to phrase your oath in such a way that is has a clear condition that will determine whether or not it has been fulfilled. It's best not to take an oath such as "I promise to be a better person" because how will you know when you are finished?
Be particularly cautious about swearing an oath that involves the god Tyr. Although Tyr oaths are believed to be particularly holy, his reaction to broken oaths tends to be quite swift and fearsome, even by the standards of our Gods.
Although your oath should be within you ability to fulfill, it is considered rather pointless to make an oath that you can fulfill with no significant effort. "Weak oaths are made by weak people" is a quote that applies well here.
Boasts: Boasts are less problematic than oaths, but you do need to be careful not to significantly exaggerate the deeds that you are boasting of, as your actual deeds are recorded in the wyrd, and lying about them in sumble is another way to dishonor yourself. Also, inappropriate boasting isan invitation for the gods to test your fortitude, which has a way of turning you into the main character in one of the more depressing types of Saga.
The purpose of boasts is to strengthen the community. Things that should be boasted about would be the fulfillment of an oath, (especially one that was originally sworn in front of the same group) doing something good for the community, or doing something that may be inspirational to others in some way.
Calling on Chaotic Forces Calling upon a member of the Jotnar in sumble is almost always not allowed, unless the Jotun is one that is specifically known to have an alliance with the Aesir, such as Aegir. Being that we are gathering to honor the Aesir, making a toast to beings that they are known to be actively at war with is considered deeply inappropriate.
Toasting to Loki in a sumble is more complicated, because some kindreds don't have an issue with it, whereas others consider it grounds for ending the sumble, banning whoever did it from events, and possibly finding some rope and an appropriate tree. In a private sumble, it is best not to call upon Loki unless you have discussed the issue with the sumble host beforehand and been told that it is okay. Calling upon him in a large public sumble is almost always a bad idea. It is best to keep in mind that the purpose of a sumble is to strengthen the bonds of frith among the attendees. Whether you feel that Loki is a being of pure evil or merely mischievous, his actions do almost always run counter to that purpose.
At it's most basic form, a blot simply consists of calling upon a god, (or several) and then making an offering of some sort. In old heathen times, this was nearly always an animal sacrifice, with a portion of the sacrificed livestock being offered to the gods, and the remainder going on to form the main course of a sacred feast after the ritual. The classic livestock blot is extremely rare these days, since most modern heathens have neither access to livestock nor the knowledge to humanely sacrifice one, but the few who are able to pull this off are generally respected within the faith for doing so. Either way, the few that do occur are usually firmly invitation only, so it is highly unlikely that you would stumble across one of one of them without advance warning.
These days, the blot is still an offering of something valuable to the gods, the offering most frequently being alcohol or some sort of hand-crafted object. This mirrors the gift giving culture of the ancient Norse, where the primary way that bonds were formed both between man and between man and god was via an exchange of gifts. As mentioned earlier, the core of this ritual form is simply to call the gods and give them your gift, and in simpler rituals such as a daily devotional rite, this may be the entirety of the ritual. More formal rituals usually do include a bit where we formally accept the gods return gift, and also varying amounts of ritual window dressing, which can vary widely from kindred to kindred.
Although the sacred feast used to be fairly integral to a blot, it is less common these days. There usually is food after a ritual, but it is not generally considered to be an actual part of the ritual itself. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in this practice, however, so it may become more common in the future. A ritual that does involve a sacred feast is often referred to as a Husel.
It is difficult to write a standard Blot outline due to each kindred basically having their own system for doing them. I will attempt to list off some of the more common elements, however.
1. Opening Chant This is usually a slow chant that is used as a grounding mechanism, and also to get the gathered folk into a ritual frame of mind. Chanting like this is primarily a local practice within the northeast region. It originated within the heathen community with Raven Kindred and has since then spread to some of the other kindreds in the area via various organic means. The most common chant that is used here is "Odin, Vili, Ve", but in Eplagarðr Kindred we also frequently chant the names of runes that pertain to the ritual at hand.
2. Hammer Rite It's is common to begin a ritual by sanctifying the space in some manner, although if ritual is always held in the same space it is not necessary to do this every time. The most common means to do this is via a Hammer Rite, in which the power of Mjollnir is called upon to bless the space. This is occasionally a bit controversial, since the rite is indubitably a modern invention, and in some of it's earlier and more complex forms it was very noticably based on the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram used by ceremonial magicians. Most kindreds do still use some variant of it, however. Most commonly it just involves holding the hammer aloft and asking it to sanctify the area, either just once, or once in each cardinal direction. Other possible ways to hallow an area would be to carry a lit torch around the area, or to drive a ring of tall stakes into the ground and then link them together using a blessed cord called a Verbond.
3. Call upon the gods. Generally we try to respectfully request the attention of the gods in as poetic a manner as we're capable of.
4. The offering. We give our offering to the gods, frequently via burning. This is where things get a bit foggy, because many kindreds instead segue into a sumble at this point. In that case, there frequently is no offering, but the gods are thought to stand with us in sumble, and at the conclusion of each round they are libated to from the horn.
5. The return gift As a symbol of the gods return gift to us, we ask them to bless a vessel of water or mead, which is then used to asperge the assembled heathens. frequently this is instead a horn of mead which is then passed around for all to drink from. This can be a full sumble as mentioned earlier, but in larger groups it is usually a single round where everyone simply drinks from the horn and possibly makes a brief toast to the god/dess of the occasion.
6. Closing Usually at the end of the ritual the remaining mead is libated to the earth, and the ritual concludes.
So get out there and be one with your Landvaettir, your Ancestors, and the Gods! You will be a much more complete and fulfilled Norse Pagan for the experience, I promise! For further reading on Ritual see: https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/circle-magazine/sample-articles/pagan-rituals