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The Sacred Sumbel
"Drinking bouts lasting all day and all night are not considered in any way disgraceful." ~Tacitus
The drinking of alcoholic beverages, an important Asatru pastime, was a prominent feature of Viking life in the Middle Ages. Beer and ale were brewed from barley, with hops being used late in the period. Mead, a fermented drink made with honey, was popular as well. Fruit wines were made in small quantity locally, although usually used only for sacramental purposes and the wealthy imported wines from the Continent.
The drinking of beer was particularly important to several seasonal religious festivals, of which the Scandinavians celebrated three: the first occurring after harvest, the second near midwinter, and the last at midsummer. These festivals continued to be celebrated after the introduction of Christianity, although under new names. Historical records show that beer consumption at these festivals, even in Christian times, was quite important: the Gulathing law required farmers in groups of at least three to brew ale to be consumed at obligatory ale-feasts on All Saints (November 1), Christmas, and upon the feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24) More ordinary festivities, celebrated even today, are so closely associated with beer that they are known as Ol ("ale") and include Gravol (a wake, or "funeral beer"), Barmot (a christening, or "child-beer") and Taklagsol (a barn-raising, or "roofing-beer").
The drinking of beer required vessels in which to serve the beverage. The oldest mode of serving beer was to offer it in a large bowl, often a brass cauldron in which the beer had been heated, from which everyone served themselves by means of small bird-shaped dippers called Olgass or "ale-geese." In Lokosenno we are given a description of such a beer-cauldron in Aegir's hall. Later Scandinavians drew their beer from the vat into Tapskalar or "tap-bowls,"which were like pitchers, provided with a short pouring spout or lip. Tapskalar were then emptied into pitchers or large tankards, which were set upon the tables and used to serve beer into individual drinking vessels.
The drinking vessels themselves could be of varied types. The most primitive were simple cones made of rolled birch or rowan bark. Carefully polished horns were used. These were often adorned with precious metals and jewelry-work at mouth and point. Coopered vessels made of wooden staves bound with willow bands might take the form of tankards or covered flagons. Very rich Scandinavians might use imported glass beakers, which were called Hrimkaldar, or "frostcups.' Especially important was the Kasa, a cup which was either carved in one piece from wood, made with coopered staves, or later crafted from silver or pewter. Kasor were made with round bowls which widened upwards, provided with two handles which might end in animal heads, stylized animal forms, or birds' beads and tails. Kasor were often of a formal and ceremonial nature, and became associated with special holiday customs. After 1500, various turned vessels made from wood became available.
No less ceremonial than the drinking vessel itself was the mode of serving. The sagas often tell of the first round of drink being served by noble women, as in this passage from Beowulf
Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen now made her appearance according to courtly custom. Adorned with gold, she greeted the company in the banqueting hall. The noble lady first presented a goblet to Hrothgar. She bade him enjoy the revels, upon which the king gladly took part in the sumbel. Then Wealhtheow the Helming princess visited every corner of the hall, tendering the jewelled cup to veterans and the younger men.
The presentation of ale to the lord of the hall might be accompanied with words such as these from Sigurdrfiumal:
Ale I bring thee, thou oak of battle
The revellers would later be served by men or women who "carried ornamental ale cups and performed the office of pouring out the sparkling beer," as was the custom in Heorot. The gods themselves had the Valkyries as cupbearers, as these named by Odin in Grimnismal:
Hrist and Mist the horn shall bear me, Skeggiold and Skogul But Hild and Thrtith, Hlokk and Herijotur, Goll and Geironul, Rondgrith and Rathgrith and Reginleif To the einherjar ale shall bear.
Once the Vikings had their Drinking horns filled.The first full was assigned to Odin, and was made for victory and the king's success. Snorri Sturleson gives Earl Sigurd's first toast at a festival at Hladir in 952 as an example. Freyr and Njord were the recipients of the second toast which was for peace and plentiful harvests. The third toast was often made to Bragi, god of poetry. After this, men might make the Minni, a toast to those of their kinsmen who had become famous. At weddings, the toasts offered might be slightly different: the story of Herraud and Bosi recounts that the cup was consecrated to Thor. The first toast made to all the gods, the next toast to Odin, and the third to Freyja.
These rounds of toasting were a part of the custom of Sumbel (Old Norse)or Symbel (Old English), both meaning "ale-gathering." Toasts might be combined with vows or oaths, boasts, storytelling and song. Tacitus wrote in his Germania of the custom of sumbel, saying "Drinking bouts lasting all day and all night are not considered in any way disgraceful." More than one sumbel is encountered in Beowulf, and in Old Norse poetry such as Lokosenna, where Loki is told:
Seats and places for thee at sumbel
Sumbel is even mentioned in Christian poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, where it is told that "There are God's folk seated at symbel." The term "symbel daeg"came to be used in Old English to denote a Christian feast day.
The sumbel was a joint activity. Those participating came and sat together, usually within a chieftain's hall. It was often referred to as a drinking feast, where ale, beer or mead might be served in a ceremonial cup (such as the kasa), and passed from hand to hand around the hall. The recipient of the cup made a toast, oath, or boast, or he might sing a song or recite a story before drinking and passing the cup along. While referred to as a "feast," the sumbel did not include food, but might precede or follow a meal. A sumbel was solemn in the sense of having deep significance and importance to the participants, but was not a grim or dour ceremony - indeed, at Hrothgar's sumbel in Beowulf, there was laughter of the men, noise sounded, the words were winsome.
However, it was considered poor form to become drunk to the sumbel. Taking drink from the ceremonial cup might be thought of as symbolizing the divine inspiration given to Odin by the Mead of Poetry, and the Allfather had much to say in Havamal about overdrinking:
A better burden can no man bear
This is not to say that Odin was a prohibitionist: he himself drank only wine, and would not drink unless his blood-brother Loki had also been served. It is also recorded that drank each day with the goddess Saga in her hall.
Finally, as Peter Foote points out, while "the Vikings seem to have been men of some thirst," their drink contained large quantities of impurities, and therefore they, too, were subject to "frightful hangovers