Material Culture 2: Passing the Horn
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Throughout the history of the heathen religion, the drinking horn steadfastly remains one of the most prominent symbols of our troth. It represents, like the individual arm ring or the ring of the tribe itself, the concept of social and spiritual bonding, whether between mortals and other mortals or between the gods and their devotees. The difference lies in the fact that the horn symbolizes replenishment and renewal; the drawing forth of holy might from the ancient well of Urdr itself. According to the Prose Edda, Just-As-High tells King Gylfi that the Urdabrunnr is located above the third root of Yggdrasil, extending up to Asgard and containing holy waters with the power of creation, sustainment, and renewal. The Norns, ancient and wise beings who ordain the Orlog (primal layers) of men and who determine the course of their destinies, take up water from the Urdabrunnr each day and pour it over Yggdrasil to rejuvenate its branches and sustain its life. Each sentient being is like an Yggdrasil in microcosm, and so when we take draughts of blessed mead from the sacred horn at blot and sumbel, we renew and recharge our souls with the purest energies in the universe.
The gods, too, partake of the cup with us at blot, and so through them we are given blessings and vitality, and they are in turn given the positive energies and soul-might from us. We also align ourselves spiritually with the path that the Norns have laid before us, that our steps may be turned towards fulfilling the deeds we are meant to undertake in this lifetime. When the entire membership of a tribe drink from the same horn in the holy rite of blot, their destinies, soul-might, and luck are combined and woven together, and the tribe is quickened more and more into an entity composed of these individuals. The tribe has a destiny to fulfill in its own right, which is made more clear and ascertainable each time we observe both the seasonal and spontaneous blots that the gods have ordained. We reaffirm our purpose in the cosmos, both individually and collectively, and through the taking in of the holy mead we are influenced, inspired, and empowered by our gods to fulfill the tasks they give us and to pursue the goals and dreams we have in life.
The reason why a literal cow horn or a bovine-like horn fashioned of other material is preferred is because in the Voluspa, the sacred cosmic cow Audhumla embodied the primal forces of life and vitality, and was the source of nourishment for Ymir, the forefather of all giants and of the gods themselves. Through licking the salt blocks in the Ginungagap, Audhumla freed the giant Buri from his entrapment in the ice, showing her power to loose the bonds and fetters that would keep sentient beings from fulfilling their destiny (and from truly living at all!) It is one thing to blow aimlessly through life like a tumbleweed, and quite another to come to an apprehension of what we have been put here to do. Through blot, we gain both inspiration and direction to perform great deeds, and the strength and willpower to do so. This does not come easy, however. The gods give us the means to fulfill our orlog, but the legwork and the task is ours to bear.
Another rite central to our religion which makes direct use of the horn as a ritual implement is symbel. While our ancestors would normally drink in pairs during a husel (ritual feast) after the blot was concluded, a single horn consecrated for the purpose of community ritual was used (often the same one used in the blots.) The drinking was done in rounds and the participants sat in a circle (which is where the idea of “drinking in rounds” comes from when we hear of it today.) During the first passing of the horn about the circle, participants generally made toasts to the gods and goddesses to honor their deeds and attributes or to thank them for aid they had given to the individual making the toast. This was often called the minne-cup or minne-draught (drink of remembrance.) The second round was made to the ancestors, and this was likewise a minne cup drunk to honor the name and memory of an ancestor who had lived well and honorably in life and who resided now in one of the many destinations possible in the beliefs of our forebears, from which they could hear the toast in their names and return the gesture with a gift of might and inspiration to the living descendant who made the oath. Often, the whole tribe could benefit from the toast made to an illustrious and mighty ancestor. The third round was often called the bragar-full. During this round, a participant has the opportunity to make a sacred oath before all the assembled company and beyond. In the ring of symbel, and over the sacred horn, the oath resounds throughout the nine worlds. The gods and all other beings are wont to hear it and take note of it, and the words find a place of residence in the Well of Urdr. From this point on, the oath MUST be completed, regardless of what comes of it. At the bottom of the well resides the totality of all that exists in the cosmos, and the liquid which rises to the surface is the magical force by that causes what has been spoken to come to pass. It represents both present and future; from the moment the oath is spoken, the oath-maker must endeavor to fulfill the oath or else risk doing great harm to both their own wyrd and that of their kinsmen.
The word was a sacred thing to our ancestors, and especially when spoken over the horn at symbel. Thoughts shaped words, and words paved the way for actions and the manifestation of reality. Hence, we must carefully tailor the words of an oath to ensure that all know exactly what is intended and that it can in fact be completed. Through symbel, participants essentially become co-authors with the Norns as shapers of destiny; to speak and not put actions behind the words could be a harmful or even fatal mistake. The spiritual rewards for completion of the oath were great, and so it is a good thing when oaths backed by truthful intent to complete them and the means to do so are made. Those who successfully complete oaths will find that from that point forward they are more readily able to meet life’s challenges and to accomplish the goals they set for themselves. They will feel more in tune with their psychic senses, and will better be able to apprehend the right time and place to undertake an action, and the right words to use in difficult situations. It is like trailblazing; when a member completes an oath, other members benefit from the work done and find the “path” towards goals easier to tread and obstacles more readily overcome. It was not the way of our ancestors to meekly sit on the sidelines and never commit to anything, but it should never feel forced. It is very important that oath-makers know themselves and their capabilities as well as those involved in an oath before making it. To serve as a shield against oaths which are foolishly sworn, the Thyle (a judicial figure in Germanic societies) may challenge the wisdom of the oath and compel its author to revise it or take it back entirely. This is an important function, given that the fate of the whole tribe is involved. Though it is the duty of the thyle, the jarl or king may challenge it in their absence, and anyone who is a freeman in the tribe or a higher rank than this may challenge it at will (but do not have to.) Boasts also have a place in the third round, for great deeds accomplished and for oaths completed, that the boaster might rightly reap the rewards of their labors and receive the acknowledgement of the gods and their peers at this holy assembly. Alternatively, toasts to living friends, heroes, and role models can be made on the third round.
Horns consecrated for the purpose of blot and sumbel have been found, bearing the runic inscriptions “ALU” (Ale) and “MEDU” (mead) in order to magically align the horn with the channeling of might and main from the depths of the universal well of Urd. Through ritual actions, the ale or mead used acts as a surrogate for the waters residing in the well. We have many historical sources which attest to the sacred nature of blot and sumbel.
* a more detailed (and more specifically Theodish depiction of Sumbel) is forthcoming in a future entry.