Photo by Berig; used under CC license

Symbel (or sumbel… one of the great things about studying an ancient faith is the non-standardized spelling!) is a Norse tradition that has been written about in various old works from Beowulf to Snorri’s sagas, with regional variations in the exact performance and significance thereof. The word itself most likely comes from an Old Norse word meaning “feast” (or even “ale gathering”… there appears to be some argument depending on how you divvy up the parts of the word). Modern Ásatrú movements have adopted this custom and made some very formalized rituals out of it, but in my household we have a less formal, but nonetheless meaningful version. TheScott calls it by the nickname I dubbed it when first trying to explain what I wanted to do: “A Toast, a Boast, and an Oath.” We had ours on Tuesday as part of our Yule feast, and I thought I’d share the details with you guys, in case you want to try your own.*

The basics of the ritual are this…

  1. A “toasting goblet” is filled with mead (or the beverage of your choice; barbarian alcohol, i.e. mead and beer/ale is traditional, but I promise not to tell if you use wine or apple juice). Everyone also has their own glass of their beverage of choice (usually the same as whatever’s in the toasting goblet, but if somebody truly despises mead I’ll let ‘em pour themselves something else, since they’ll be drinking a lot of whatever’s in their personal cup).
  2. The leader (for ease of writing, we’ll call the leader a “she”) gives an introductory toast. I’ve done this a couple different ways, depending on exactly who’s in the room. When there’s a big non-pagan contingent, I tend to make the toast more general, as in “Hail to the divine, however it calls us. Hail to the old year and the growth it has brought us. Hail to the new year and the promise it brings. Etc.” In a perfect world, I would recommend the leader specifically toast the household gods of whomever is hosting the event, but that does require a room of people who don’t mind toasting gods other than their own.
  3. Round 1 (of 3) begins! The leader starts off with a personal toast of her own to somebody – a god, person, ancestor, etc** – that she wants to honor (in my house, it sounds like, “Hail so-and-so for such-and-such reason.”). Everyone responds, “Hail so-and-so!” and while the toaster takes a drink from the toasting goblet, everyone else takes a drink from their own glass. The toaster then passes the goblet. As each person receives the toasting cup, they make a personal toast and drink from the common goblet, everyone hails/drinks, and the goblet is passed to the next person in the circle so that everyone has a chance to honor someone with a toast.
  4. When the cup has made its way all around, a bit of mead is poured on the ground as the gods’/wights’/ancestors’ sip of the toast (we pour some out a window that’s right by our dining room table), and the goblet is passed back to the leader. (If more toasts are wanted, the goblet can be passed around as many times as the room wishes before pouring some on the ground to end Round 1).
  5. Round 2! The leader begins with a boast — something she did this year that she is proud of.+ Everyone responds and drinks as they did in Round 1 (although instead of “Hail” we answer “Huzzah!” in our house, but then TheScott and I met singing in a Madrigal Choir, so go figure). Again the goblet is passed and everyone gives a boast and drinks, and everyone responds with “Hail” or “Huzzah” (or whatever the house wishes). More boasts can be given if one round isn’t enough, and when everyone is done, a bit of mead is offered on the ground again.
  6. Round 3! The leader begins with an oath — something she promises to accomplish over the next year.++ This is the most solemn part of the ritual, because in doing this publicly, she binds the members of the toast who share her glass to be responsible for her oath as well – if she fails, everyone fails. In Norse culture, oaths are sacred things and not to be taken lightly. Then, as in the rounds before, everyone answers/drinks, the goblet is passed, and everyone makes an oath. We restrict this one to one round (being responsible for too many oaths is a weighty thing), and then the remainder of the mead in the toasting glass is poured on the ground to ask for divine help in the oaths and seal the ritual.

Ritual done, and (for us at least) it’s time for desert!

Each time we’ve done this ritual, we’ve gotten positive feedback from people of all kinds of faiths, including Christian, pagan, and agnostic. The Norse used symbel as a way of tying together a community in spirit (with the celebrations) and common goals (with the oaths), and it really does create a feeling of goodwill among the participants as we share our loves, triumphs, and ambitions.

For those who are interested, I gave the toast this year, and it went something like this:

Hail the Aesir, lords of chaos and creation.
Hail the Vanir, lords of order and prosperity.
Hail the day and the light it brings.
And hail the night – especially on this longest night of the year. Help us to remember that all that comes in darkness is not evil, and all that hides in shadows doesn’t work to our ill.
Hail kith and kin, those present and those not here.
Hail the old year and the many changes it wrought. 2010 was a tumultuous year; may we learn and grow from what has happened.
Hail the new year and the promise it brings. May we find our pace (and a somewhat smoother road) as we move forward into 2011.
[2010 was a wild ride for everybody at the table – for some moreso that others – but I felt justified in asking for the last part!]

And personally, my Yule 2010 Toast, Boast and Oath were:

  • Toast: To Frowe Holda, patron of the well-run household. I’ve begun speaking to you this year, as I am determined to grow as a homemaker — something I’m notoriously terrible at. Thank you for the help you have given me so far in improving, and I wish you welcome to my house in 2011!
  • Boast: I am proud of the work GG and I have done as Pagan Princesses! We’ve kept (almost) weekly posts, joined the Twitter community, and spent our time and efforts working towards something we really believe in: joyous Pagan social living.
  • Oath: This year I will maintain 7 query letters out at all times (for those unaware, I am an aspiring novelist with three manuscripts completed, and I’m currently seeking representation). I will try to keep 10 out, but the number cannot fall below 7! I will also complete the short story I am currently working on and submit it to reputable e-publishers for consideration.

Got a Toast, Boast, and Oath you’d like to share with the Princesses? We’d love to hear them! And as I shared my oath, you’re welcome to bug me about those query letters and that short story all you want!

* I want to reiterate that I am not the representative of a particular branch of paganism, and I don’t claim this ritual to be anything other than my family’s modern reinvention of an old ritual.
** Most people, I’ve found, toast some person whom they wish to ritually thank or toast somebody who’s passed to the ancestors this year, so this doesn’t often come up, but… with mixed religious groups, it’s good to make clear ahead of time what the “house rules” are for who/what is appropriate to toast at your symbel. I encourage you to let people know that their personal beliefs are welcome at the table. Technically, while everyone does respond with a “Hail,” this part is a personal toast, and I believe it’s honest and right that people honor whomever they feel a need to. Each guest is at the symbel because they are loved and respected by the host, and hospitality means treating everyone and their unique beliefs with respect… just as I expect everyone to respect my beliefs and my toast, even if they don’t worship the same way I do. No matter what deities are toasted in the original speech, if my guests want to toast Jesus or Buddha or Shiva, I’m happy to toast along with them.
+ As somebody who’s really not good at “tooting my own horn” as we say in the South, this has been really good for me to have to publicly say something I’m proud of!
++ I don’t recommend making an oath to do something that’s out of your control; last year I made an oath to get a writing agent, and I failed. It’s hard to know if I failed because I didn’t try hard enough or because this is just too out of my control. Since then I’ve stuck with oaths that I can fulfill through my own discipline without any reliance on the whims of wyrd/fate.