I have been sitting in this chair for five hours. It is, at best, 45 degrees Farenheit; a cold wind occasionally blows through the tin-roofed pavillion. It is two o’clock in the morning and there are still twenty people between me and the damned horn. My best friend Sarah and her friend Mark – along with the punky redhead whom the gods were merciful enough to place on my left side – have all given up, gone to bed. We have a ceremony in less than six hours that I will need to be up for. My only respite – the only thing which keeps me from getting up in disgust and going back to my tent, hoping to steal four hours of sleep on my rapidly deflating air mattress – is the Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin on my shoulders.
High Symbel is no joke, folks.
I spent the weekend before last camping at my beloved Gaea Retreat, about an hour (well, 45 minutes if you drive the way I do) outside of Kansas City. The event was Lightning Across the Plains, a heathen gathering I’ve heard about for years but never managed to attend, even though I lived in Kansas City for three years.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. My relationship with Heathenry is much more difficult than my relationship with Wicca. I was raised a witch; I’ve known the steps since before I realized they were a dance. My family of Wiccans, though it took me a long time to accept it, has done more to shape me than anyone else could hope to. Doing Wicca – or at least the isolated, mutant form of it that grew in my parents’ living room in St. Louis – comes easier to me than almost anything else.
But I came to Asatru much later, and with hesitations that I’ve never had with Wicca. Much of that, I think, is a feeling of phoniness, of ignorance. My connection to Asatru comes mostly from the mythology and a handful of mystical experiences that, while they were extremely powerful to me, fit squarely into that lovely category of Unverified Personal Gnosis. (“But you don’t know Thor likes Jägermeister. That’s just UPG.”) I belong to no kindreds, swear no oaths, make no mead.
Yet this stuff is still important to me. No religious experience has effected as startling a change in my life as the first time I participated in a seiðr, being led down into the roots of the World Tree until we came to the Well of Wyrd. I don’t even remember what I asked the diviner that night. I just remember the tree, the incredible awe of seeing its branches spreading overhead, seeing every leaf, every gnarl and whorl of its bark. I never imagine in that kind of detail: the tree felt like something more than my head could have produced by itself.
Heathenry tends to be a solitary activity for me – I have my altar and my Eddas, and mainly I keep to myself. At festivals, I often spend my time attending every Heathen ritual and workshop I can find, but that’s a different atmosphere entirely. Festivals are anonymous: if you’re getting too comfortable, you can always run away and hide in the merchant circle.
To put this more succinctly: I think of myself as a Heathen, but, for whatever variety of syndrome you want to diagnose – imposter, only child, restless leg – I feel uncomfortable being around Heathens.
(Were I performing this essay in the manner of a stand-up comedian, there would be a short pause at this moment.)
So I’m sitting under the pavilion with about two hundred Heathens after midnight on a cold autumn night, clutching my sheepskin and hoping to the gods that the pace will start to pick up.
There were two symbels during the weekend of Lightning Across the Plains. The first, the “folk symbel,” held on Friday night, was more informal: we all sat around the fire, and whoever wanted to toast called out for the horn and stepped up. A queue formed very quickly, as you’d expect, but overall, if you wanted to talk, you could expect to get the horn within half an hour of calling for it. The High Symbel, on the other hand, involved everybody at the festival. Everybody got the horn. Everybody got to talk. Everybody made a toast.
THE MATH: 200 people X 3 minutes = 600 minutes / 60 minutes per hour = 10 hours in the dark.
(Note that, while this calculus assumes a three minute average speaking time, that might be a wildly optimistic estimate. The first speakers might have kept to that. By the time we were halfway through the pavilion, people had begun to offer four toasts apiece. And then there was the gift-giving… No wonder Sarah went to bed.)
The High Symbel lasted, by my admittedly sleep-deprived count, six and a half hours from the pouring of the first horn to the final speaker. It was, by far, the longest continuous ritual I’ve ever taken part in, and yet, also one where I felt somewhat alienated and alone. At least half of the toasts were made to the gathering of people at the festival, with long explanations as to the relationships that had been formed there and maintained over the five years LATP had been running. It being my first year – and with you now knowing about my own hang-ups regarding the Heathen community – you might be able to understand why those toasts didn’t resonate as much with me as I would have hoped.
I sat there, listening to these people, all strangers, thinking about what had brought me to this place. I listened to them toasting their kindreds, and the households that they had befriended here, and I thought of Sarah, of her parents, of my coven.
It’s not necessarily an easy rope to walk. I’ve been told by some Heathens that I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself one, not so long as I continue to dirty my hands with Wicca. But I belong there – belong with my family, and my friends, and the Horned God and the Mother Goddess.
And I belong here, too, in this hall, with these Heathens. I belong here, in this company, drinking from this horn, speaking these words. The greatest mistake we make, I think, is bifurcation: the idea that we must always choose one or the other, that we must belong to one path and shun all others, that to believe in multiplicity is to really only believe in one gray muddle. I reject that notion.
The horn finally comes to me at just after three o’clock; there are only four people left in line after me. I make my toast to the nameless poets of old, just as I had been planning for the past four hours, and pass the horn along to the man on my right. Warmed slightly by the mead, I sit back down, clutch my Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin around my shoulders, and think to myself, My god, I’m never going through this again in my life.
And then I pause, listen to my neighbor’s toast, and think, Yes, I probably will.
Note: Edited to add some links. -Eric