The symbel is a rite practiced by all followers of the Elder Troth, probably going back to Common Germanic times. It is one of the holiest of rites, for the symbel-horn or cup is the embodiment of Wyrd's Well within the Middle-Garth: the symbel-hall thus becomes, for the space of the rite, that holy stead at the Well where the Ases ride to their Þing, where the dead and the living are gathered in a single moment of might. It was also the most enduring of the Heathen rituals, for the making of toasts at feasts never ceased, nor was it even driven into heaths and hinterlands as were so many of our other folk-ways: the drinking of minne, in one form or another, is still practised in the highest society today.
At root, the symbel is the practice of sitting (often ordered by rank; today it is also usual to sit in a ring, but in old days folk were probably lined up on their benches), passing a drinking horn, and making toasts, boasts, and oaths. Speeches were made and gifts given during this rite; alliances formed and agreements made solemn. A full interpretation of the history and spiritual background of the symbel, especially in terms of its relationship to Wyrd, is given in Paul Bauschatz's The Well and the Tree; nearly all true folk who have written or spoken on the meaning of the symbel in latter years have drawn their understanding of the rite from this text.
Fitting behavior at symbel is as follows: if possible, folk should sit rather than stand, though the person making the toast should choose to do either. The holder of the horn is the only person who should be allowed to speak, and s/he has the right to keep it and talk as long as s/he likes - though good manners ask that no one drone on too long. Tolerance is absolutely necessary for symbel to work well: if a toast is boring, a song badly sung, or a poem clumsily recited, or if you do not agree with the feeling that has been expressed - keep your feelings to yourself; others may not share your opinion, or may feel that the heart and soul which gave rise to the toast mean more than its presentation. There is no breach of symbel-custom worse than breaking into another person's toast; in the days of our forebears, apparently, that possibility could not even be considered.
If, however, you feel that the message of a toast is truly obnoxious, you can then make a counter-toast when the horn reaches you. For instance, there was one symbel when a guest made a distinctly racist speech; the next couple of toasts were odes to tolerance. Toasts to Loki are also (quite often) followed by toasts to Thonar or Heimdallr. So long as such counter-toasts do not range over into attacks upon the original toaster him/herself, they are quite acceptable - one could even argue that they are needful, in view of the way in which all words spoken at symbel are set into the Well of Wyrd.
When a toast has particularly stirred you, it is acceptable to cry "Hail!" or "Heilsa!" when it is over, but longer expressions of approval are also disruptive.
If you must leave a symbel or come into one after it has started, do it as quietly as possible. Do not walk across the ring where everyone can see you; sneak in or out behind people's backs. The symble-ring is not an hermetically sealed space in the sense of a magical circle, but it is a holy stead, and distractions must be kept to the lowest level possible.
Especially in larger groups, many folk choose to keep their own drinks with them and drink while other folk are toasting. This is quite all right: the symbel is a merry time as well as a mighty one. It was thought uncouth to get really drunk at a symbel, but drinking well and enjoying oneself were very much a part of the rite. Eating at symbel, however, is and was not done. Among the Franks, the tables were carried out after dinner when the serious drinking began; Bauschatz suggests that food was "purposefully excluded from the ritual" (The Well and the Tree, p. 74). In Hávamál 33, it is told that one should have a little bit to eat before coming to a feast; the same is often true of symbel. In fact, it is probably better to schedule the symbel so that it falls after the main feasting.
While the symbel is basically a social rite, strengthening the bonds that tie true folk together within a holy setting, it can be done with as few as two or three people - in fact, some of the mightiest symbels take place in very small groups of lore-wise folk.
Either a horn or a large cup can be used, but the horn is better: Even after the conversion, the horn was still the holiest vessel, the link with the elder forebears. Orkneyinga saga ch. 66 tells how the men had been drinking from cups all evening, but changed to horns for the minne-toasts.
When the horn is emptied, it should be refilled by a chosen hall-idis. This frowe may also carry the horn between folk, rather than simply letting it be passed from hand to hand. It is important not to think of this as a servile role; it was the highest of atheling-frowes who bore the drink in the old days, as the walkurjas bear it to Wodan and his einherjar and Wealtheow bore it to the heroes within Hrothgar's hall. The woman's might here is not only as the source of life but, even as the horn embodies the Well of Wyrd, so she herself is the Norn hearing and ruling over all the words that are spoken into it. In a shorter symbel, the hall-idis should make sure before the rite starts that there will be enough drink within the circle to refill the horn at least thrice; in a longer one, she may pass freely out to get more drink when needed.
The symbel has several forms, fitting to different times and occasions and to different sizes of gathering; it has been found in modern times that it is needful to carefully consider the group gathered before deciding which form will be best.
Up to now, the "shopes' symbel" has not been formally marked as different from others; it has just happened at random times when enough word-skilled folk chanced to be at the same symbel. The shopes' symbel is that sort of symbel at which everyone makes long and mighty toasts, often in the form of poems, tales, or songs. This seems to have been common among our forebears, as most folk were expected to have at least a little word-craft or musical skill; for instance, Bede's account of the poet Cædmon begins with a description of how Cædmon, then lacking all such skill, sat in a beer-hall when the harp was being passed and songs sung, and had to get up and slink out before the harp came to him. A shopes' symbel can go on literally all night - and has! In a small group of folk who know the lore and have some speech-skill, this form takes the symbel-rite to its greatest heights.
For reasons of time and interest, however, a very elaborate symbel does not work as well in a large group, especially if not everyone there is used to it and prepared for it. We have seen more than a few luckless Cædmon-types take the horn after a song, awesomely spoken toast, or a recitation from the Eddas, only to shuffle, blush, mumble "Uh...gee...Hail Odin!" and pass the horn as fast as they could, hoping the next toast would get everyone's mind off them. Such embarassment makes it difficult for the embarassee to be aware of the spiritual workings of the rite. Other folk are just not ready to sit and listen to two hours of mixed performance, and would much rather be in the next room talking with their friends or something. Boredom and distraction, too, do not help a ritual mood. If a large group is gathered at a feast, it is therefore good to mark out a time for a separate "shopes' symbel" along the lines of a ritual "bardic circle", in which taking part is a matter of choice. Some would prefer to listen without having to do anything themselves, some would prefer to listen to some performances and not others; these folk might perhaps sit in an outer ring, where they can come and go without disturbing those performing in the symbel.
The minne-symbel is the most common form, used at nearly all Troth feasts. This is the basic three-round symbel. The first round is drunk to the god/esses, each person hailing the deity of their choice; the second one is drunk to forebears or hero/ines; the third to whatever folk will. The third round is the one at which oaths are usually made and so forth. The word minne means "memory", and it is one of the greatest parts of symbel-drinking - for one of the chief goals of the symbel is to put us in mind of our forebears and the god/esses, to call forth the great deeds that lie within the Well (thus, within the cup or horn itself) and to bring their might forth into the round of our own becoming.
In a larger group (fifteen to thirty people), especially if it is not made up of folk who have been in the kindred of the true for a while, toasts at such a symbel ought generally to be shorter than those at a shopes' symbel: occasional performances are good, but everyone feeling that they must tell their whole life-story quickly causes the attention to start wandering. Usually a few lines of honour or, at most, a short poem or tale are enough. However, it may also be suggested that if the ritual coordinator knows there is someone there with an act that is particularly well-done and/or fitting to the feast, that s/he hint to that person beforehand that the performance would be appreciated.
For a large group (more than thirty people), passing the horn around the room three times and having everyone make a toast - even a short toast - begins to become less workable. In Heimskringla (Hákonar saga ins góða) we see how our forebears dealt with a large group. Snorri tells us that the basic custom was that "The cup had to be borne around the fire, and thus, when the banquet was readied and the chieftain was there, then he had to sign the cup and all the blessing-food. First was Óðinn's cup - that had to be drunk to victory and the might of the king - and after that Njörðr's cup and Freyr's cup for harvest and peace. Then it was customary for many men next to drink the bragarfull ("best cup" or "Bragi-cup" - this was the draught of oath-swearing, as mentioned in the prose of Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar). Men also drank a cup to their kinsmen, to those who had been howe-buried, and that was called minni" (ch. 14). At this particular feast, Hákon, who is a christian, takes the Óðinn's-draught from Sigurðr jarl and makes the sign of the cross over it. When Kárr af Grýtingi asks, "'Why is the king doing so? Does he not want to make blessing?'" Sigurðr, who has been working hard to re-integrate Hákon into society (and eventually succeeded; the poem Hákonarmál, written by the very dedicated Heathen skald Eyvindr skáldaspillr, tells of this king's coming to Valhöll), answers, "'The king does as all those do who trust in their own might and main, and signs his cup to Þórr. He made the Hammer-mark over it, before he drank'" (ch. 17).
The scene Snorri was describing was probably one in which each man had his own cup or horn, but the chieftain stood in the holiest part of the hall - by the fire where the meat from the blessing was being seethed - and spoke and signed the first toasts while everyone else drank with him (and those who did not want to drink to Óðinn signed their own horns with the Hammer). After the leader had made the communal toasts and blessed the food, then it seems as though the focus of attention broke up, with each man making his own toasts to heroes and kin by himself (or among a small group of friends?). This format can be used either as set forth in Heimskringla, or adapted to the basic Troth formula in which the first round goes to the gods, the second to heroes, and the third at the rite-leader's choice (something widely fitting, such as forebears, the thews and the folk who show them forth, or the kinship of the true, perhaps). Individuals can then continue making their own toasts informally until they run out of either inspiration or ale.
I. Once the folk are seated, by rank or however the leader has chosen to arrange them, the leader takes up his/her place. The hall-idis, if there is one, fills the horn. The leader speaks:
"At Wyrd's Well we sit in stead of all might,
sitting at symbel this eve.
All holy wights hold seats in this stead,
ringed 'round the World-Tree's roots,
blithe at the hallowed burne.
Elder ways from elder times,
rise from Well to ring in toasts.
Here Ases deem, all awe is wrought,
words we speak Wyrd sets as law.
Forth froths the ale forth gleams bright mead,
the holiness brewed from heavens and earth,
from Heiðrún's horns, from Hvergelmir deep -
We drink and speak the draught of might.
II a (for a shopes' or minne-symbel)
In first round shines our speech to the gods,
we hail the highest of holy folk!
In second our howe-kin or heroes great,
the third round's toasts are ruled by our wills.
II b (for a large feast-symbel). The leader raises the horn high; the folk raise their drinks as well while s/he speaks.
I drink to Wodan wise drighten on high,
sig to the sibs all true!
Good to the land as leader fares well,
wisdom to wielder of might,
that deeming be done well aye,
and fair go all things with folk.
Those who do not wish to drink to Wodan may Hammer-sign their own draughts, saying something like, "Hail to Thonar - I trust might and main", or bless them quietly in whatever other way seems fitting. All drink deeply; the hall-idis tops the leader's horn off and s/he raises it again, saying,
Hail to Njörðr (or Nerthus, as you choose),
nytt we thy blessings, fruitfulness give thou to folk.
Well do we hail the Wans all mighty,
that ships fare all shining-laden,
wains fare heaped up with weal,
harvests all rich and high.
A ship-crescent may be traced over the horn; all drink deeply; the hall-idis tops the leader's horn off and s/he raises it again, saying,
Hail to Fro Ing, frith-god, beloved!
weal-full world's god!
Boar-tusks ward us from woe ever,
with stag-horn shining with dew
with brightness of bells ringing high,
our Fro, bless us with frith!
All drink deeply. The leader then says,
Now hail we kin and heroes of old,
now drink we minne's might.
Bragi's cup all boasts and oaths,
speak each as seemly 'tis,
and words fair speak at will,
till feasting fares to an end.
III. To close a symbel, the leader takes the horn (in which only a little drink should be left) for the last time, and lifts it, saying,
Holy deeming is done this night,
our words set in the well.
Now we fare forth, and folk holy all,
from Ases' awesome seat,
from the mighty Well of Wyrd,
wend all to the worlds of home.
S/he drains the horn and knocks three times upon it. The rite is over.