Time and again from friends of other traditions within Paganism, or from friends who are heathen friendly, but not overtly religious, I get the question where the ritual and magic they were expecting to see was. I admit, I am an old soldier, and have been doing the drill for so long I long stopped thinking about the steps, I do them without thought in the soul deep confidence that they will work, as they worked for those who came before, and will continue to work when I am dust and ash.
Let me step outside Heathenry and describe what we do in the terms that might be more familiar to those steeped in the traditions of ritual magic or Christian mystism.
Sumbel is a sacrament, similar to the communion of the Christian mass in its form, although based on an entirely different set of guiding principles. The functions that are expected of a wiccan magical ritual are expressed in far different terms, and are not done by the officiate priest, so much as by the assembled folk.
To a Christian, communion is an act that takes place in a sacred space that is defined by the blessed ground of the Church itself, and in some traditions, like Catholic and Anglican, only those who have undergone initiation (Confirmation) are able to take part in the most sacred of mysteries, the holy communion. To a Wiccan, sacred space is created at each ritual by the act of calling the quarters, summoning the guardian powers and setting a physical limit in the casting of the circle that defines a place that is not a place, standing neither in this world, nor the next, where the ritual will take place.
To a Heathen, sacred space is a funny thing, we walk in a world that is filled with the living and the dead, spirit that wear flesh like ours, and dwell in tree, rock, stream and storm. We know the world itself is sacred, so what we define is not sacred space, but frithstead. We define the space that we claim for a ritual and call upon our luck holders (those gods we call to guest with us) as we call to the invited guests, and indeed to all wights present to join us if they will abide by the peace of this place (keep the frith) and depart if they will not. This is our rule for people as much as it is for spirits; if you keep the peace, join us at our feast and become no longer a stranger, act the ass, and expect to land on it when we toss you from the hall. Should you arrive without a body and harbor ill intent, remember those who enforce the frith of our hall for those without flesh bodies are known by such titles as Battle-Glad and Giant-Bane, and Lady of the Slain. We do not call the quarters, as we do not seek to separate ourselves from this world, so we pass willy-nilly across the sacred boundaries with abandon as need or whim takes us.
Invocation of the gods or prayer. This one gets people confused all the time. We are our deeds, and to put it in Christian terms we witness the hell out of our beliefs, and only use words if we absolutely need to. Central to our rituals are feasts, for the sharing of meat and drink, where we come together and turn the work of our hands to the common task of feeding us not as individuals, but as one folk. To come together and put the work of our hands, the offering of foods we have prepared to the feeding of each other is taking the separate offerings and weave them into a single offering, even as we are taking the lines of life and luck that lead each of us to this place are woven together by our wyrd into one folk, bound by our communal celebration, our sharing of joy, our offering of hospitality and praise.
The sacrifice: Ok this one gets people too. To sacrifice is to make sacred, to dedicate to holy purpose an earthly thing. Now we always sacrifice, but people miss about 90% of the sacrifices because they seem to equate pagan and sacrifice with the blood blot. Now don’t get me wrong, we do that too, if the group is large enough that a pig, or a cow makes a reasonable centrepiece of the feast we will strive to make its death a sacred act, and thus lend that ritual meaning to the consumption of its flesh, to make the act of feasting into an act of thanks and remembrance. We say from the gods to the earth to us, from us to the earth to the gods. In other words, we hold that our blessings come from the gods, to the earth whose abundance in turn blesses us. We pay this blessing back by offering our blessings to the earth, and through this, to the gods. This completes the gifting circle and restores balance to the relationship, as reciprocity is a guiding sacred principle for us.
Our sacrifice is what we bring to the feast and what we offer at sumbel. Now the creation of the higher level sacred space required by sumbel is not made by ritual invocation; that simply won’t do the job. Sumbel is a powerful ritual and to hold sumbel requires a level of power that Wiccans are used to doing extended chanting or spiral dances to raise, Christians are used to long choirs and what to some of us are ridiculously long and ornate rituals to prepare.
In layman’s terms, Sumbel is a ritual that is held under the direct eyes of our gods, in the sight of our ancestors, in a place where the power of the gods literally beats on the air, and all who are present partake of the awareness that wyrd is woven with out every breath, that what we say will sound in the ears of our gods and ancestors, and echo through eternity to affect the last of our ancestors yet unborn.
Through the feast and fellowship, the bonds we are creating by common celebration, the offering we give to each other, shared with the wights of the land, the sacred ancestors and the gods have brought to our feast the guests both seen and unseen in common fellowship. We have come to remind each other of what we mean to each other, we have shared of our lives and struggles, shared our funny stories and kids pictures, new tattoos, new job and ten thousand trival details that our lives are actually woven from. This is the raising of power, the laughter and the feasting, the joy and celebration, the intertwining of lives. We begin to see each other as one, as one folk, one kindred. We let the veils fall from our eyes and see each other unguarded. The power is raised, the space is now sacred, the time has come for the sumbel to start.
Sumbel begins with the bit that some mistake for invoking the gods, this is actually 100% wrong. We raise the horn in our Freehold to the Aesir first, the Vanir second, and the Fallen third to begin every Sumbel. We are not invoking the Aesir and Vanir, they are already here. We are thanking them for joining us, praising them for their gifts, and making an offering of our praise and joy in return for the manifest gifts they have given us. We hail the fallen because they too are guests at our feasts, for we remember they are not lost to us so long as they are remembered. We keep their memory ever bright, for we will not have food brought to us, that we will not remember those who cannot be here in body to share it with us. We hail our hosts as well, for if hospitality is the sacrament we offer, most blessed are those who make the offering possible.
We raise the horn when it comes to us and we focus on the Aesir and then Vanir in each round. We offer as we feel compelled to, towards the god or goddess who we feel has affected our lives and our practice in a profound way. There is no right way to offer, because there is no one answer to how the gods have touched our lives. Is it a teaching? Is it a literal communication? Is it an inspiration? Each person will offer from the heart, and some who have no one specific luck holder they wish to single out will frequently and joyously simply offer to the Aesir and Vanir. The round of the Fallen is the beginning of the true power. As we have begun to share, each in turn, as we blessed the gods for their gifts, now we bare ourselves further to share our losses and remember the Fallen.
To a Christian celebrating the Holy Communion, the wine is transformed into the Blood of Christ, a holy sacrament that connects them to the sacrifice of the White Christ. To a Wiccan the ritual of the chalice and blade is an echo of the Great Rite that is the central sacred mystery, the foundation of life itself. To each the offering of the cup is a sacred binding, a ritual of power and mystery. So too is it with Sumbel.
What we fill the mead horn with is the mead of inspiration, the gift of Odin. His gift to man was Ansuz, inspiration, the source of poetry and music, the gift that allows us to pour our soul into our words and share it with our fellows. This, and nothing less, is what we do at Sumbel.
After the rounds of praise comes the community building, and the sharing, the healing magic and the building of individual strength, the gifts of power that come not simply from the gods, but from the community. This is real power, real change, really, really painful and joyous in ways that literally bring tears in memory, and can make the most mundane literalist feel the union with the community, the ancestors and holy gods in ways they may never have the words to express, but can indeed reap the rewards of sharing. Now we do the Bragaful.
Christianity distains boasting and bragging, teaching its practitioners to be pious and humble. Wiccan traditions focus on freedom of individual choice and harmony, and look with suspicion on acts like bragging which they see as counter to their understanding of harmony. I think if we had a better understanding of each other’s terms we might not be in as much disagreement as it seems we are, but to us, the Bragaful is a tool for harmony, for healing, and for empowerment.
First, we boast of what we have done. There is a price to be paid for what we do, and that is honesty before the community. What we have bragged before them, that is what we have said we WILL do when last we met, either now we boast that we have done it, and reap the honour that comes from a boast fulfilled, or we must admit we have failed our brag, and accept not only the shame of it, but frequently a schild, or a price to be paid for our breach to redeem the honour that we have lost in our failure.
What are these boasts? There are great achievements boasted, by in large. We hear of children born, of graduations achieved, jobs, promotions, works of art finished, promised long running crafts that have been completed. We also hear of great personal achievements that we share only with those we trust, we hear about how long a person has been sober, we hear about a person’s journey recovering from injury, about dealing with the loss of a loved one.
What are the brags? Coming off the baring of the wounds comes the process of healing. It is not enough for a Heathen to say he is addicted as his struggle, if he will not now brag about his plan to beat this addiction. We who are witness to the oath have now a stake in that success, and we will see that it is followed. It is not enough to have struggled with the loss of an injury or a loved one. We will praise you for the strength it took to win through, but now it is time for you to draw upon our strength, to draw upon the example of those who have shared their struggle and to dare to challenge yourself, before all of us to rebuild. To move forward. Throw down your gauntlet to your scars, your demons, your problems that this one thing I vow to achieve or change, and hear your community bear witness, and know that they will hold you to answer for fulfilling it. From them flows that inspiration to keep you on task that when you are asked of your brag at next sumbel you can boast that you have achieved it, or own that you have not, and state what you will do to make it happen now.
Our gods do not use their magic, though strong it is and wonderous, to hide their scars. Odin’s eye, the hand of Tyr, these are not hidden for shame, but shine in our eyes as the price paid, the cost of survival, the triumph overcome. So too do our gods teach us to not hide our scars from our community, to not hide our pain, our fear, our loss. We come together in the magic of Sumbel and in that sacred space, before our community, before our sacred ancestors, and before our gods themselves, we share our scars, our wounds, our fears, our needs.
I hear much about the magic of Wicca, and you hear much whispering from the Christians about the nudity of the Wiccan’s skyclad rituals. I will say this, the magic of Sumbel is real, powerful, and life changing. It is holy in ways no amount of swinging censors, no stole and miter, no cassock or crozier could possibly convey. When we stand together in sumbel, we are naked in ways no circle of nude dancers could equal because it is not our flesh we bare, but our souls, not simply to our gods in silence, or to our priest in confession, but to our community.
The stereotype that I see most outsiders try to slap on heathens is the macho Viking stereotype, and I will be honest with you, in a lot of ways, we truly embrace that stereotype, but look again, and ask yourself why it is that we see people of both genders, all sexualities, all races standing and laughing together. Why is it you see those of right wing, and left wing, vegetarian peace activists and military avid hunters embracing each other and arguing with deep passion and mutual respect? Because we have seen each other naked, not the simple and easy drop your trousers and compare spear sizes, but the real hard naked; where we see each other’s wounds, each others struggles, each others triumphs. We KNOW each other and accept each other, because those differences that we might make sport of in others we know and accept as you being and living true to yourself. We have heard your struggles, and listened to your brags. We are with you in your struggle, and will aid you when we can, for you have made your struggles ours, as in turn when you know success, some of that will be ours as well.
We raise that horn and pass it round the circle as the wool passes around the spinning wheel, each of the disparate threads being woven into a single strand far stronger than any one of them could be alone. This is the weaving of wyrd, the binding of the folk, the weaving not simply of fate, but of community. This is the kind of magic that shapes lives and changes worlds.
That is the magic of sumbel.