Noted heathen scholar H. R. Ellis Davidson once commented that the sumbel was perhaps the most important rite in ancient heathenry. It is one of the very few rites that we have any descriptions of. Stupid oral traditions. It is also one of the most unusual religious rituals in the world. I have long wanted to write something on the mystery of the sumbel, but was hesitant to, for reasons that will become clear below.
There are many different types of religion. Some go in for elaborate, formal rituals. Others utilize spontaneous, informal spiritual observance. The heathen sumbel, however, is a strange blend of both. Too formal to be a mere drunken banquet, too much of a party to qualify as high ritual, the sumbel has always been something of an enigma.
The key to resolution of the enigma lies in the nature of the heathen relationship to alcohol. Almost all cultures have one drug that is special to them, that is no mere recreational toy. Such drugs are used to gain access to the realm of the spirits in some fashion. They are called entheogens. Peyote is the entheogen of certain Native American tribes. Marijuana is a Rastafarian entheogen. Alcohol is the traditional entheogen of the heathens.
The key to proper entheogenic use of alcohol is to remember that it is like walking a tightrope. Too little, and you are not drunk enough to contact the spirits. Too much, and you are too drunk to contact them. The goal is that “golden glowing” state where everything seems a little bright, you feel a strange sort of energy and a close connection to everything, and feel simple joy. Sumbel included ritual recitations, and the goal was to recite them flawlessly, no matter how long the drinking had been going on. Proper sumbel meant finding this state and then drinking only so as to maintain it.
Sumbels took the form of feasts, or formal meals, with drinking. Family and religious groups celebrated together. There would be recitations of poetry, or boasts of deeds that would be accomplished. These had specific forms that had to be followed. While this was going on there would also be drinking from ritual vessels. This could include informal feast-style drinking, but it also had ritual formalism. The gods were toasted, as were local spirits such as alfs, dwarfs, and jotuns. One’s own ancestors might be hailed in this fashion as well. Noteworthy deeds of those hailed might be recited.
One of the reasons for alcohol’s enduring popularity is the intense social bonding that it encourages. It blurs the boundaries of the self, lowers inhibitions, and in special circumstances can make a group feel like it has become one. The sumbel is structured to take advantage of this. The informal, alcohol-fueled social gathering assists this softening of boundaries and tendency to oneness. It also relaxes and clears the mind. The repetition of formal ritual words engages the subconscious mind like all ritual does. The constant speech concerning the gods and ancestors keep the minds of the participants turned to them. When a sumbel works right, these factors come together and result in the gods and ancestors being drawn into the group gestalt, just like everybody else. It can result in the experience of becoming one with the gods or ancestors. It requires no advanced ritual knowledge or meditative skills, just the awareness and discipline to maintain a proper balance with the blood of Kvasir.
The mystery of the sumbel is the revelation of the divine in the experience of the physical. It is a blending of the sacred and the profane. Heathenry has no preachers because it needs none. Instead, all devotees may hold direct communion with the gods.
I have been hesitant to write this article for some time. You see, I don’t want it to be confused with something else that is out there. There are a great many lazy, egotistical “spirit workers,” “godhis,” and “seidhmen” out there who seem to have as their sole spiritual practice watching TV or movies while drinking beer and “talking” to their gods. This “ritual” is usually followed by blogging about how the gods are in said holy person’s social circle. The sumbel is not this sort of lazy, egotistical excuse to avoid devotion. It is instead a rather difficult mental and emotional balancing game, that results in having no spiritual experience at all more often than not. It takes practice to perform properly. Learning to do so means cultivating a good relationship with alcohol, the sacred blood of a god.