This article seeks to provide a brief overview of the place of the Meadhall within the Anglo-Saxon tradition, as well as its central rite, the symbel. This piece is to be understood as a continuation of, and final sequel to, larger articles on Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Saxon Heathenry.
Prologue: Early Germans
At the dawn of history, German societies are known to us from the writings of the classical writers, as well as archaeological remains. The writings of the Greeks and Romans are somewhat unreliable and have to be taken into context, while archaeological data is open to differing interpretations. However, when the literary record and material remains seem to match with each other, then we are on solid footing.
This prologue seeks to examine Germanic society in general, and religion in particular.
The Iron Age dawns with the Germans being organized into petty tribes along the Rhine and further inland. These tribes varied in size, leadership, and religious inclinations. Their chief function was to control the resources of a given region. These tribes proved unstable and could fall apart easily from the tides of war and politics; often they collapsed when their leaders died (Todd 29-30).
The tribes were governed by both “kings”(reges, singular: rex) and “war-lords” (duces, singular: dux). The so-called rex seem to have been little more than the first-among-equals within the nobility (Pollington, The Meadhall 101). The dux was chosen for merit in times of war, and could be quickly dismissed if he proved a military failure (Tacitus), (Todd 33-34).
The kings were advised by a tribal council. The rowdy tribal warriors assembled; they met on new moons and full moons. The tribal priests proclaimed silence; the king then deliberated at length. Afterward the entire tribal council was expected to vote on the matter. Silence from the assembly meant a rejection, while brandishing their spears met approval. The tribes also elected so-called magistrates to preside over very local areas (Tacitus).
The base of society was serviced by the family. Family was patriarchal. A “kin” or kindred might consist of 20 – 50 related households. The chief duty of the kin was to prosecute feuds with rival kins (Todd 33).
The status of family was a strong one. Some have said that there was no sense of individualism in early Germanic societies; one was defined by the family, and one lived and died for them (Gronbech 18). In any case, it seems that “frith” was possible only within the family structure. Frith meant mutual inviolability. At the end of the day kinsmen were to lay aside any differences and reconcile with one another. They had to support each other against enemies; a slight against one kinsman was a slight against his entire kin (Gronbech 18-20). With this mentality, as has been mentioned above, Germanic society was rife with feuding.
According to Tacitus, the early Germans thought the gods too vast to make lifelike images of them, or to build structures of worship. Religion was thus an outside affair in woods and groves (Tacitus). Archaeology confirms votive deposits in watery areas, as well as wooden posts in peat-bogs (Todd 107-108). Much of the votive deposits consist of war-gear and the remains of animal sacrifice (Todd 111). Tacitus mentions that human sacrifice was practiced to “Mercury” whom most scholars think is *wodanaz, the precursor of Woden/Odin. Archaeology confirms the presence of bog-corpses that seem to have been ritually sacrificed, though the context is not always clear (Todd 115).
Transition: Migration Era
Writing in the 1st century CE, Tacitus describes a long list of tribes and their supposed locations (Tacitus). By the 5th century, a lot of the tribes he mentioned have disappeared, to be replaced by the peoples who ultimately carved up the Roman Empire: the Vandals, the Goths, the Franks, the Alamanni etc.
What had happened? We noted above tribes were unstable: they broke apart all the time. Within four centuries, clearly something had happened to reshape the German cultural landscape.
To the east, Germanic tribes felt pressure from the invading Hunnic nomads who would, in due course, establish themselves as a quick-lived empire that would ultimately invade Roman soil (Heather 237).
To the west, the tribes reacted to the advance of Rome. Rome had united a plethora of Mediterranean peoples into an economic and cultural powerhouse of an empire held together by a disciplined military. The wealth of this empire called to the Germans: for the first few centuries of contact, Germans would periodically raid these lands before the Roman military annihilated or expelled the invaders. When not raiding, the Germans made the most of Roman wealth through trade, military service with Rome, and engaging Roman diplomacy that demanded “gifts” of money to encourage alliances (Heather 73, 75).
Trapped between the Huns and the Romans, and goaded by Roman wealth and military prowess, the old Germanic tribes of Tacitus’ day had largely collapsed. They amalgamated into larger, more cohesive units that could better take on enemy armies (Heather 205). Germanic society had become increasingly warlike among its male population (Heather 65).
These new, super-tribes were largely run by men who called themselves kings (Heather 38-39). But these kings were not the petty kings of Tacitus’ era. These were closer to the kinds of kings that we would think of – strong leaders with household guards (Heather 45). But these “kings” were in truth nothing but the old “war-lords” under Tacitus’ day. They had made the most of a violent era, having seized enough wealth and warrior retainers to forge permanent political power (Heather 46).
Even in Tacitus’ day, the reges were falling by the wayside; he doesn’t have a great deal to say about them. The war-lords, duces, were gaining power and it was these who were known to the Romans (Todd 31). The tribal assembly of freeborn males was becoming an antiquated and ineffectual relic. Instead the war-lord and his warrior retainers, the comitatus or warband, were coming to fruition (Pollington, The Meadhall 101).
There was an area around the Rhine where Celtic and Germanic peoples rubbed shoulders with each other. Both peoples had a tribal, heroic culture, and the Romans often had trouble telling them apart (Enright 197). However, the Celts had an older and somewhat more sophisticated culture, so any cultural exchange was likely to have happened from the Celts to the Germans. In fact, Germanic warbands seem to be largely copies of Celtic models (Enright 200-201). The Germanic warband employed the figures of the warlord, the religious seeress and the poet, an arrangement which was a staple of Celtic models (Enright 178).
The warband cut across tribal and familial boundaries, uniting young men from a variety of peoples and lands. The young, military-minded men offered their services to the warlord; they were loyal to him to the degree he could reward their service with gifts. Gifts meant wealth, and so the warlord’s chief aim was to appropriate wealth by armed means. The warlord’s imperative was to stay in power through successful military endeavors and profitable plunders; his goals were not necessarily the goals of the tribe, but the maintenance of the warrior retinue that empowered him (Todd 31-32).
How did the warlord maintain solidarity among his troops if they cut across familial and tribal lines? If “frith” existed only among kin, then the answer was to fabricate a “kin” among the troops. Involved drinking ceremonies united the retainers to their lord and to each other, creating a “fictive kinship” (Enright 16). In addition, the lord and his retainers were most likely united by the cult of *wodanaz, a god of magic and death who came to preside over victory in battle, and who is possibly a Germanic reworking of Lug, the Gaulish “Mercury” (Enright 273, 276).
Finally, the warlord needed some kind of central place where his retainers could engage in social and religious rituals. During the late Iron Age, spurred by proximity to the Roman economy, several sites in Scandinavia seemed to have developed “central place complexes.” Emerging elites had fashioned residential halls which served as a basis of power, and around which clustered other buildings and natural areas used for trade, production and religion (Pollington, The Meadhall 114).
Let us summarize the historical evolution. At some point in pre-history the Germans adopted the model of the Celtic warbands. Proximity to Rome inspired the rise of the warband, as the warband was able to capitalize on seizing Roman wealth. The warband began displacing older tribal assemblies; the duces began overshadowing the reges. The old tribes themselves disintegrated as both Rome and Huns advanced against the Germans. New tribes – larger, more cohesive, and more warlike tribes – emerged. These tribes were led by self-styled kings, but these kings were in fact the most successful of the comitatus warlords.
The hall was the ruling place of the warlords-turned-kings. Within its structures, involved drinking ceremonies fabricated a sense of community that transcended familial loyalties. Religious worship, which had been an outside matter, came increasingly inside to the halls, especially under the cult of *wodanaz and the other Aesir/Ese (Pollington, The Meadhall 112).
The Mead Hall
With the historical background in mind, let us finally discuss the Anglo-Saxon mead hall!
Early Germanic society was tribal and communal, and this mentality persisted into Anglo-Saxon times. The hall was the center of communal life (Pollington, The Meadhall 18-19). It was the symbol of group identity, and within its walls order, justice and comradery prevailed (Pollington, The Meadhall 33).
The mead hall – meduseld – is by definition an artefact of the elites, as it was the creation of lords and warlords-turned-kings, servicing them and their warrior retinues (Pollington, The Meadhall 15). Nonetheless, the hall also entertained the lower classes within the lord’s area. Presumably the lower classes, who spent most of their days in drudgery and outside labor, enjoyed the occasions where they could enter the hall for feasting and entertainment (Pollington, The Meadhall 39).
The mead hall serviced a variety of purposes.
- Power. First and foremost, the hall was the center of the lord’s power, and gathering place of his warrior retinues. The retainers took an oath to the lord (Pollington, The Meadhall 108); the bonds that united them to him, and to their fellow warriors, transcended familial loyalties (Pollington, The Meadhall 26). The lord rewarded their service with gifts; the lord was called “ring-giver” as a poetic title depicting his mandated hospitality (Pollington, The Meadhall 52). Mead benches were arrayed in the hall, and hierarchy was established as defined by proximity to the lord himself (Pollington, The Meadhall 86).
- Justice. The naturally violent tendencies of fighting men were moderated by an imposed peace, known as grith, and the paying out of weregild, or man-price, in compensation for unauthorized slayings (Pollington, The Meadhall 111). The lord or king must have dispensed justice to the broader community too, from within the hall (Pollington, The Meadhall 102).
- Feasting. An informal feast or drinking party (as opposed to the formal symbel) was known as a geborscipe (Pollington, The Meadhall 56). The lords seem to have thrown these rowdy celebrations at times. The hall could also be the center of elite weddings (Pollington, The Meadhall 61). Finally, the Anglo-Saxon word for lord, hlaford, derives from the term hlafweard, “bread-keeper.” Stemming from his role as leader, the lord of the hall doled out bread to his followers in reward for their service (Pollington, The Meadhall 189).
- Entertainment. The hall was the center of social life for the elites; and when weather prevented the peasants from working outside, they could be entertained inside (Pollington, The Meadhall 202). The hall was the scene of storytelling and poetry (Pollington, The Meadhall 202), music (Pollington, The Meadhall 204-205), riddles (Pollington, The Meadhall 212), and board games (Pollington, The Meadhall 219).
- Religion. Evidence for Anglo-Saxon religion is scarce, but the hall seems to have served as the center of worship for the Ese, the gods known to the Norse as Aesir. Of particular note would have been Woden, the Anglo-Saxon successor to *wodanaz, who was the god of the comitatus (Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England 101-102). The symbel was an extremely formal, one might say religious, ritual that united the warrior retainers. Symbel is treated more in-depth below.
Involved drinking rituals were used by the lord to garner a sense of kinship among warrior retainers who had been drawn from different kins and tribes. Alcohol was the central drink; its inherent properties allowed one to attain ecstasy, and thus a measure of communion with the supernatural world (Pollington, The Meadhall 19). If, upon a marriage, a woman left her own family, and became a member of the groom’s family through ritual and drinking, then too could warriors enter into the warlord’s “family” through ritual and drink (Enright 77). The warlord – and, later, king – would have served as the patriarchal head of such a family (Pollington, The Meadhall 79). Meanwhile, the lady or queen would have served as the fictive mother, and she had the extraordinarily important role of “weaving” bonds of loyalty by serving as cup bearer (Enright 85). The liquid drink symbolized the blood of kinship (Enright 16).
From this Migration Era practice grew the symbel. It was a serious affair, but not exactly solemn as it had festive and boisterous elements (Bauschatz 50). Symbel involved drinking and passing the drink, speech making over the drink, and gift giving (Bauschatz 51).
It is theorized that the symbel had more than practical socio-political functions; a Germanic metaphysical understanding of the universe also underlay it. The cup could be said to symbolize the Well of Wyrd (Bauschatz 53). Words spoken over the cup reverberated into the Well of Wyrd, from which actions would arise (Bauschatz 80). In other words, whatever was said over the cup symbolized the intent of the speaker which seeped into the very structure of the universe, informing future action.
As mentioned, the lord (or king) served as the host of the events, whose ability to host such events and provide food, drink and gifts was integral to Germanic notions of power (Pollington, The Meadhall 184).
His Lady served as chief cupbearer. She honored guests with her welcoming speech, and could issue her own gifts apart from the lord. In public she was to agree with her husband, though in private she could offer opposing counsel, and Germanic women were known for giving “cold counsel” (Pollington, The Meadhall 186-188).
Because the lord as host could not challenge guests, which would have violated the rules of hospitality, an official called the thyle was appointed to be the lord’s proverbial pit bull. The thyle’s duty was to question guests and to challenge their claims and boasts, as when Unferth challenged Beowulf. The guest could retort back; if the thyle could offer no rejoinders, then his silence signaled that the guest had won the verbal sparring match (Pollington, The Meadhall 190-192)
The scop, or poet, offered his service to the lord; whereas warriors gifted their arms in battle, the scop gifted his words. The poet was not merely an entertainer, but also the repository of tribal lore in a pre-literate society. Finally he served as the “public relations agent,” singing praises of the lord and his warriors (Pollington, The Meadhall 193).
Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. Amherst: University of Massuchussets Press, 1982. Print.
Enright, Michael J. Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking AGe. Portland: Four Courts Press, 2007. Print.
Gronbech, Wilhelm. The Culture of the Tuetons . Vol. 1 & 2. Oxford University Press, 1931. Print.
Heather, Peter. Empire and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Pollington, Stephen. The Elder Gods: The Otherword of Early England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011. Print.
—. The Meadhall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2010. Print.
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