Why Naturalistic Pagans should consider Sumbel

Naturalistic Paganism is on a journey, it is searching for ways to relate to the world around us, often through ritual, but without the supernatural. There have been many suggestions made for how to do this and today I would like to consider another – one with roots that go back thousands of years to the ancient times of our Norse and Anglo Saxon ancestors.

Anyone who has spent time researching Asatru and Heathenry will be aware that one of their most sacred rites is Sumbel. This is essentially a ritual drinking session. A horn filled with mead (honey wine) is passed around a group of gathered people three times and each time the participants praise their gods, ancestors and heroes and take a drink. Alternatively they may also make a vow or boast. It is very powerful.

I think that we as Naturalistic Pagans should also consider adding this type of ceremony into our rituals…even if we practice solitary. A first round could involve praising the Earth Mother (in honour of the Norse and Saxons we could use the names “Nerthus, Jord or Erde” for her), a second round could involve remembrance of and praise for our ancestors, and a final round could involve many possibilities – for example praise for our families, people who inspire us and why, the animals and plants around us or simply anything we are grateful for that day. Gratefulness is a very important practice.

This ritual drinking is not an excuse to get drunk and it is very important to approach a sacred ceremony like this with respect and reverence.

So what do you think? Could a Sumbel be part of Naturalistic Pagan spiritual practice?


Celebrating Beltane 2015

Happy Beltane everyone. Beltane, meaning “bright fire” is one of the four great fire festivals of the ancient Celtic cultures. In ancient Irish culture it was the time when both the Tuatha De Danaan and the Milesians came to Ireland and was originally celebrated when the Hawthorns began to blossom. Half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, it marks the start of the light half of the year and heralds the beginning of summer. According to historian Ronald Hutton, “the ritual of Beltane was found in all Celtic areas of the British Isles, but also in pastoral regions of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.” The historical evidence for the celebration of this festival is much better than for others. The earliest references to it are from 900AD which state “lucky fire i.e two fires Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against the diseases of the year to those fires” and “they used to drive cattle between them.” Another reference says “a fire was kindled in his [Bel] name at the beginning of summer always, and cattle were driven between two fires.” Like the other three Celtic festivals, Beltane is mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and the ritual of lighting bonfires at this time survived right up until the 19th century. Like Samhain, it was seen as a liminal time “when fairies and witches were especially active, and magical devices [were] required to guard against them.” To the welsh, it was one of the “spirit nights.” Hutton says that “rituals were conducted to protect…against the powers of evil, natural and supernatural, not merely in the season to come but because those malign powers were supposed to be active at this turning point of the year.” Other celebrations in English areas at this time include “bringing in the May” and dancing around a Maypole. Bringing in the May dates back to at least the 13th century and refers to gathering flowers and foliage to bring home and celebrate the beginning of summer. Hutton says that there is no evidence for when the Maypole came to Britain but it was first recorded in a welsh poem in the mid 14th century and is also recorded in Scandinavia so probably originated from the continent. The May Pole was not a phallic or world tree symbol but was most likely simply a “focal point for celebrations” or something to hang garlands on.

Beltane marks the beginning of the pastoral season, the time when farmers traditionally moved their herds to summer pastures (driving them between two fires for blessing and protection first) and people could go outside because of the milder weather. The crops were in the ground by now and it was traditionally the beginning of calving season. There was lots of milking to do and making dairy products like butter. It was the busiest time to visit water sources to collect water for healing and good luck. It was also a time for the renewal of rents.

Learning from historical practices, Gaelic reconstructionists celebrate this time by extinguishing a flame (ideally a bonfire) and relighting it. If there is no bonfire or hearth fire, it is a good time to buy a new hearth candle for your altar and ritually extinguish the old one while lighting the new one. They eat a feast, usually including bannocks and oatmeal porridge or soup with soft cheese and shoots of new herbs and salad greens such as wood sorrel. They also decorate their houses with greenery and yellow flowers like buttercups and collect dew or water in the morning (considered potent for healing and maintaining a youthful appearance). They also make offerings to the gods, carry out protection rites to sain their house and land while warding the boundaries, and make charms of rowan. Some groups also see this as a time to renew their bond with the land goddess (the nearest river) by giving her offerings at her river bank. In Welsh myth this is the time when Taliesin was found in a river after being reborn from the goddess Ceridwen, and some pagans may choose to read his story on May eve.

For Norse Reconstructionists and groups like Asatru, this festival is called Walpurgisnacht. It is a night when witches gather and magic happens. It is a time to honour Freya, the goddess of magic and love. Like the Gaelic Reconstructionists, it is seen as a time of supernatural danger, and is celebrated with feasting, bonfires and protective rites. Some modern northern polytheists see the 9 days between Earth Day and May day as the nine nights when Woden hung on the world tree to sacrifice himself in order to learn the mysteries of the runes. It is therefore a good time to focus on runic divinations and making runic charms. Along with this, some celebrate April 23rd as Sigurds Day (the norse equivalent of St George who slew a dragon) and some may choose to celebrate the ancient Norse celebration Sigrblot (victory sacrifice) on May 1st which marked the beginning of summer and asked Odin for victory in war and good luck on journeys.

Beltane is a time for fertility, fun and flowers. By this time most of the tree buds have burst and they’re becoming green again, insects and bees are flying around and countless species of flowers are in bloom, including the beautiful bluebells. It is much warmer now and the land is fertile again. Summer has arrived. For me, its a great time to get outside and enjoy nature coming alive again, to have a bonfire and picnic. One can build a maypole to dance around, or decorate our homes with lots of flowers. It is a good time to eat seasonable foods and make lemonade. This is the perfect time to get out and collect some wild foods to make a wild food salad as part of your Beltane feast. Nettles, Goosegrass, Wild Garlic, Dandelions, Jack by the Hedge, young Hawthorn Leaves and others are available now. This time is also a very good time to focus on the romantic side of life.

15 Practices for Beltane

So Beltane is almost upon us. Here are 15 practices you can do that are either inspired by historical practices, folklore or modern Neo-paganism.

1) Perform a Ritual

2) Light a Bonfire as the ancient Druids did.

3) Extinguish and relight the main fire of your hearth. This could be a literal fire or the pilot light of your boiler.

4) Give an offering to the local river. The ancient Celts saw their local river as the embodiment of the land goddess and offerings were left for her.

5) “Bring in the May” by decorating your house with hawthorn, yellow flowers and greenery

6) Do a saining/ cleansing of your house. Walk the boundaries with fire.

7) Collect dew or the first water of a local well in the morning. The dew is believed to help keep you beautiful while the “cream of the well” can be used in healing rites throughout the year.

8) Learn to make butter and cheese. The ancient Anglo-Saxons called May “Thrimilci” which means three milkings because the cows were milked three times. It is the beginning of the main pastoral season and a traditional time to make butter and cheese.

9) Eat a meal of seasonal wild greens. There are many wild edibles around now – hawthorn leaves, jack by the hedge, nettles, goosegrass, wild garlic, dandelions and more.

10) Read the tale of Taliesin. He was reborn on May eve and thrown into a river by the welsh goddess Ceridwen.

11) Dance around a Maypole.

12) Get outside, walk, camp or go for a picnic.

13) Make a protective Rowan cross charm to hang in the doorway.

14) It’s a time to focus on fertility and romance, so spend some time with your partner. And have sex…..maybe in a forest like they used to.

15) Visit a may day fair or parade and watch morris dancers or the May Queen being crowned.

Beltane and Ritual 2015

Thursday evening is Beltane, the feast of flowers. I will be doing an ADF style ritual using the Solitary Druid Fellowship‘s liturgy format. For the Explanation part I use the following…

Say: “As I stand here on this celebration of Beltane, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my forebears did, I do now, and so may my descendants do in time to come. The dark half of the year is over and Summer has begun. The earth is alive and the land is fertile. Leaves are once more upon the trees, flowers are blooming all around and insects are searching for pollen. Warmth has returned and it is the season of love and passion, the time of fire. I give thanks for the blessings of the earth mother.”


Celebrating Ostara 2015

Happy Ostara everyone. Also known as the Vernal Equinox, Eostre or Alban Eiler (Light of the Earth), this day marks a time of balance, when day and night are of equal length. Until now the nights have been longer than the days, but from here on the days are longer and warmer as we head towards summer. The vernal equinox is a day to celebrate the revival of life after a long cold winter. It is a time when birds are returning from their migrations, animals are giving birth to their young and all around us the world is turning green once again. It is a time when nature has officially woken up – the buds on trees are bursting, seeds are beginning to sprout up out of the ground, spring flowers such as daffodils are blossoming and there is a palpable sense of renewed life all around us. It is the feast of awakening.

Historian Ronald Hutton says that there isn’t “any reliable evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles during the time which became March and April.” However, it is important to note that Bede said that the name Easter came from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre and the month was named after her. Eastre signifies both the festival and the season of spring. Hutton says that one could argue that “Eostre was a Germanic dawn-deity who was venerated, appropriately at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon ‘Estor-Monath’ simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings.’” He goes on to say that the practice of decorating eggs at this time does go back to at least the 1200’s but the chocolate version of the egg is a twentieth century invention. Eggs are a very apt symbol for this season as they represent new life. For agricultural societies, this is also the time when the extra light led to a big increase in egg production and was a welcome source of food.

It is the spring feast, the time to bless the seeds and prepare the land for new growth. In Norse and Anglo-Saxon hearth cultures, Eostre or Idunna are honoured. Neopagans celebrate this day as a time of beginnings and action, doing magical spells for the future and tending their ritual gardens.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by giving chocolate eggs and sweets, painting eggs, planting new seeds and going for picnics and walks in nature. We can also decorate our altars with signs of spring – seeds, daffodils, eggs and symbols of baby animals like chicks, calves and rabbits. This year I am in Korea so my practices will be different from usual. I will still be doing an Ostara Ritual, decorating eggs and going for a walk in nature to search for signs of spring. But I am unlikely to be planting seeds or going out to hunt for wild food. Normally I would also eat foods coming into season too such as wild greens, spinach, spring onions and rhubarb crumble but this year I will eat a meal involving eggs instead.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan.USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.