What is a Sumbel?
By Bret Shoemaker
The sumbel is one of the most sacred ceremonies that Asatruar participate in. It is a ceremony where toasts are made to the gods and libation is shared with them. Mead, beer, and other alcohol is used in this ritual, although cider and other non-alcoholic beverages can be used for those who cannot drink or do not wish to imbibe alcohol. A sumbel is usually done at the end of a blót, but it can be done on its own as its own rite. The main purpose behind this ritual is to bring the participants closer to the gods and goddesses and to the other participants of the ceremony.
There are three main rounds to the sumbel. The first round is to the gods and goddesses. The second round is for ancestors and heroes. Finally, the third round is for boasts and oaths. It is important to note that whatever oaths are made will be going into the Well of Wyrd and will be seen by the gods as an oath made to them. Oaths are not something to be made lightly.
There is also an “open ended” sumbel. This type of sumbel follows the same three round or a regular sumbel. The difference is that there are no limit to the number of rounds that are done. After the third round, additional rounds are done for the gods, goddesses, ancestors, heroes, oaths, and boasts but in no particular order. The only limit to this type of sumbel is that which is decided upon the participants. A water or apple juice round is sometimes called for when drinking has gone on for a long period of time. There are stories of sumbels that have continued for hours and even days.
A sumbel is started by the person who is hosting the rite. A drinking horn is filled with libation for the ceremony. The host makes his toast and then passes the next person. The horn is passed to each individual in turn. At the end of the turn a small amount of libation is poured onto the ground for the gods and goddesses. Some participants use a Valkyrie. A Valkyrie is a female participant who is given the horn by the host. The Valkyrie then takes the horn and offers it to each participant in turn. The horn is always returned to the host before it is empty so that more libation may be added to the horn after a small amount is poured out on the ground to the gods and goddesses. The gods and goddesses always receive the last of the libation.
When the horn is offered to a participant it is their time with the gods and goddesses. There is no time limit for a toast, story, oath, or boast. Anything can be said as long as it comes from the heart. It can be as simple as a hail to a god, goddesses, or ancestor. It can also be as lengthy as deemed necessary by the participant. Again, as stated earlier, oaths are something no to be taken lightly and anything you say will go into the Well of Wyrd. The act of drinking takes those words into yourself and “drinks in” what they spoke.
The sumbel is the most enduring of all of Asatru rituals. It was used well after the conversion to Christianity. In the Old Saxon poem Heliand, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man and his companions who “sittean at is sumbel”. In Old English sumbel came to mean “Christian Feast Day”. One of the most famous sumbels in Old Norse lore was the sumbel of the Jómsvikings. This was actually a Christianized sumbel where toasts were drank to St. Michael and the Christian Christ. It was such an important rite that it was not suppressed in Christian times in the way that the blót was.