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Feast & Symbel

By: Garman Lord

 


When heathens gather, there is apt to be the obligatory ritual, and of course not everybody likes ritual or finds it particularly inspiring. However, either the aett does ritual rather ineptly, and therefore tends to keep it brief and perfunctory and just get it over with, or else does it well, in which case it is apt to be longer and more elaborate, but also more interactive and participatory. In any case, what is generally more important to people is what is to come; the thing generally missing in Xtianity but the central point in heathenry; the feast.

Heathen feast cookery and drink does tend to be quite good, in my own experience at least, and heathen feasting lasts considerably longer and more enjoyably than any ritual could ever compete with. It may of course have its drawbacks, as it involves a lot of work, which too often falls
disproportionately on the shoulders of the few; notably certain of the women, who too often find themselves putting the most into feasting and getting the least out of it. The wise aett, however, does generally know how to find ways to share the work out better and fix that problem, just by putting a little disciplined thought into it.

And even then, though feasting may be the central point, it is usually not the high point, which in most aetts is bound to be symbel. Symbel is apt to be the test of any aett's quality and sincerity. Good aetts have good symbel fairly effortlessly; bad aetts have bad symbel, despite their best efforts. Good symbel is, in fact, symbel wherein the gods are invisibly present and sharing the drink and inspiration; that's really the test. The horn goes round in a growing spirit of an almost magical exaltation, in which the boasting just seems to keep getting better and better as people excel themselves for the moment. Bad symbel, on the other hand, seems to go steadily downhill from the first boast, and to lie flat and uninspired, often simply abandoned altogether as soon as possible, meaning, of course, that the gods got annoyed or bored and left, for whatever reason. In sum, however, we do seem to find that ideally the flow of a good gathering tends to be ritual (good), feast (better) and symbel (best,) with everyone finally leaving the grounds possessed of a high that will seem to last for days, and when aetts regularly have good gatherings, heathen attendance tends to be considerably more regular than any Xtian church congregation attendance, not because the heathen attendees are particularly pious, but merely because, unlike Xtians, they enjoy their fainings and look forward to them.

In Theodism, we tend to be blessed fairly regularly with good symbel mainly because of our deep prevailing interest in heathen art and culture, as opposed to mere dressing up and acting out fantasies. Heathen art and
culture, taken on its own archaic terms, not our modern ones, is not really very accessible and takes a lot of work and study to understand and exploit, but when the interest is great, the treasure trove to be mined there is very rich and strange, and the payoff very great whenever symbel comes around and those regularly engaged in such studies get a chance to trot out and show-and-tell their treasures. At such times, the natural boost to the quality of the symbel bench is enormous, because not only do the heathen attendees seem to find such exhibitions culturally interesting, but the gods themselves often seem to find them even more interesting than the human attendees do. It has often seemed to me an effective way of keeping the gods, who may not find your fantasies anywhere near as interesting as you do, present and interested in your symbel at times when they might otherwise get bored with your company and wander back off to their heavenly homes prematurely.

In any case, another aspect of good heathen fainings seems peculiarly striking to me; the reactions of Xtian newcomers who may be present. The reasons for the presence of such people may be many and varied; sometimes they may be people of no overt Xtian conviction thinking of going heathen, or even friends of some heathen who have managed to get themselves invited, out of mere curiosity or even perhaps for a naughty lark. There is of course never any way to realistically tell such people what to expect, the cultural impact of Xtianity having been so great as to expunge from the lexicon of religious processes and expectations all words adequate to accurately describe what heathenry and its practice really are and how they really work, such that the only way to really understand a heathen gathering is to be there. And in such cases, the reaction of such outsiders when it's all over is, inevitably, surprise. They may have expected it to be churchlike, based on their experience of Xtian church services. They may have expected it to be peurile, fantastic and phony, like a Wiccan sabbat, or say rather a Hollywood movie version of one. They may have expected it to be dark and satanic, naughty, even evil. What they never seem to expect is what they inevitably say it turned out to be for them; joyful, innocent, fun.

This expectational mismatch has always seemed a cultural wall expressly designed to opaquely wall off the heathen experiential subtext from the host-cultural world. And even after that wall has been breached, it is far from a guarantee that such people, much as they may have enjoyed themselves at your gathering, will be back next time. Much as they may have been liberated from their false impression of non-Xtianity, it won't necessarily mean that heathenry is, in their mind, for them. At best, heathenry isn't unpleasant, like a medicine; it doesn't leave the kind of nasty aftertaste that properly punishes their guilty souls the way they might expect of a truly virtuous religion. It isn't excessively emotional or particularly painful. Xtian cultural redaction of their religious lexicon simply leaves them no suitable religious pigeonhole for a troth like heathenry in their subjective expectational realm of religious bad conscience. In the end, the paradox of heathenry seeming too religiously naughty to ordinary people, by being too nice, leaves us with perhaps the least-noted problem of heathen religious outreach in the greater world; the re-catechizing of conventional religious expectation, in terms of the rewriting of the lexicon of the conventional religious idiom.

In some places, of course, like California, such rewriting may actually be underway and farther along than elsewhere. However, it also leaves us with the internal problem of the heathen dynamic; that it is indeed joyful and gratifying, yet on a rather low-res level; perhaps only a tenth as joyful and gratifying and important as it potentially could be and ought to be. All good fainings really seem to provide most of heathenry with are these little occasional breathing spaces wherein our troth may find an hour or two of frith, after which, of course, it's over, with the gear all put away again, the gods gone home, and then heathens are right back to their usual internecine sandbox games of power tripping, politicking, stabbing each others' backs and cutting each others' throats. Is heathenry really supposed to be this way, then? Practically nobody thinks so, and yet practically everybody does it. And so long as heathenry continues to be this way, it's doomed to worthlessness, both in human terms and in the sight of the gods.

So what's the answer then? Is it the Xtian answer; love your enemies, love your neighbor as yourself, forgive, turn the other cheek? Practically no heathen I have ever known seems to think so. Is it the low-church answer; periodically ODing on huge dosages of phony hysterical agape fellowship, maudlin sympathy and pity? One doesn't seem to find a huge heathen mandate for that sort of approach either. In fact, it seems to me the most likely and most natural heathen answer may lie somewhere in the realm of  heathenry with real heart. Nothing in that idea would seem to run contrary to traditional ordinary heathen sensibilities, or be incompatible with what we all experience of heathenry at its best, namely the joyful merry natural
gemutlicheit of a good gathering. The only real question; how does heathenry, in practical terms, get from here to there?

Let me just kick out one idea then; others may of course have others. It seems to me there ought to be some sort of pan-heathen gild or cult, totally non-sectarian and non-theological, that simply takes on the larger issue of heathen frith and good fellow-feeling as its specialty. Other avenues to be explored by such a gild might even include such consultational issues as human relations, personal hangup-resolution, character building, etc. The gild's membership could regularly be the conduits to their own aetts of the fruits of that gild's labors; moreover, aetts which do not have such members themselves could perhaps arrange to have visits from members by inviting them to do workshops and seminars, putting them up and paying their expenses. There are all sorts of avenues that such a gild could explore, surely, and once they amassed a corpus of such heathen cultural wealth and became able to share it, heathen fellowship could over time start becoming such a rich joyful business that heathen everywhere would be enjoying their religion too much to care about squabbling anymore and spoiling the general fun, and would begin spontaneously to drop the bully-boy politics, backstabbery and reindeer games as really no longer appropriate and quite obviously no longer cool, if they ever were to begin with. Any comments? What do folks think?


Happy Hallows and Godspeed..........

Garman