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The symbolic and ritual importance of words spoken over the horn

I think all too often one of the major problems we have in the overall heathen/asatru community is that many don't understand the symbolic nature of our ritual structures.

Most of those who come to our religion, come first from some form of Christianity. Let's put ourselves in a hypothetical situation for a moment. Let's say you know nothing about Christianity, and you find yourself at a Catholic service. At the conclusion of the service, Communion is given to those appropriate believers in the church. As an outsider you can watch this process, and somehow understand that the bread/wafer they're eating, and the beverage they're drinking has some sort of ritual importance, but the symbolism is lost to you.

A Catholic however would understand this symbolism. Generally speaking it is an acknowledgement of Christ, in remembrance of him and all he represents to Christian believers. The meaning of the communion goes back to the last supper, when Christ during his last meal with his disciples before his arrest and eventual execution on the cross, told to his followers (according to the Bible) "This is my body" in regards to the bread at the meal, and in referencing the wine he states "This is my blood". In a sense, because Catholics believe the Eucharish is literally true, they are 'consuming' their God/Savior and in the act of doing so taking him into their lives and are vitalized by doing so.

Similarly, the act of ritually speaking over a horn, even sharing a horn in our tradition is steeped with symbolism. Yet were we to ask the question "what does it symbolically represent" most modern heathens couldn't tell you, or at best they'd simply say "it represents the horns and cups the ancient believers of the Norse Gods, like the vikings also used." They only see the 'surface' and base symbolism, not the deep ritually important significance. There's only a very small percentage that truly get the vastness of what the horn, the mead (or other drink in it), and the act of speaking with the horn truly represents.

The Drink - Symbolism

Let us begin first, with the drink in the horn itself. The mead symbolically ties to two stories in our lore.

The first appears in Skáldskaparmál, and is the story of Odin gaining the mead of poetry. Kvasir who was created from the spit of the Aesir & Vanir was said to know all things. But he was later murdered by some dwarves. The dwarves pour his blood and mix it with honey essentially creating a special type of drink referred to as the mead of poetry. This drink gives whomsoever should drink of it the ability to recite any information, or solve any question... essentially making them into a poet and/or scholar.

Eventually Odin goes after this mead, (also known as Suttungmjadar), and brings it back to all the gods of Asgard in the guise of an eagle. Pursued, he has to quickly be rid of it, and so spits out the drink into vessels other gods of the Aesir have placed out for him. But in the process some mead missed the containers. The mead that missed the containers is known as the rhymster's share or the "skáldfífla hlutr" which anyone can drink. But the mead specifically in the containers are what the Gods drink, and what the skalds have been said to drink from. Just as draupnir is the oathring from which all other oathrings derive, this mead becomes the symbolic source mead of all meads imbibed.

The second story is found across a few specific sagas (Gylfaginning, Hauksbok, and Volupsa). This is the story of Odin entreating Mimir, for a drink from Mimirs Well (Mimirsbrunnr), which is the well of both memory and wisdom. This well in turn is one of the wells that connect with and in a sense therefore also water the world tree Yggdrasil, just as Urdabrunnr, the well of the Norns also waters the tree. In order to gain this drink, Odin gave up his eye (which now resides in the well). Odin did this after hanging on Yggdrasil (as found in the Havamal) for nine days and nights. This can be interpreted as saying that he hung to gain knowledge:

  • knowledge of the runes
  • of life and death since the tree roots to both places and the Goddesses that dwell over life/death
  • and even a greater knowledge potentially of the nine worlds themselves

And then after learning this knowledge, he then sacrified his eye so he could have the wisdom to use the knowledge he gained, and the memories of how to use his knowledge and wisdom in context.

The lore itself suggests this wasn't just a one-way street of Odin gaining all these things. But that Mimir himself drinks 'mead' made from the waters of the well and Odin's eye. So here we have the God of wisdom and memory, drinking knowledge.

If we look to other information we know about Odin, we know that he has two ravens Hugin (whose name means thought) and Munin (whose name means memory). These ravens fly out and return, telling Odin what is going on in the world. This reinforces his connection with both knowledge and memories. Some have posited the opinion that even though one of Odin's eye may dwell in Mimir's well, that he may yet be receiving information from it, and vice versa. Thus linking what Odin knows to what Mimir knows. if this is true, then all that Odin knows ultimately links back to the tree. As well as to Urdabrunnr, the well of life and the well of the Norns that links to the tree, and the Norns are intimately connected with the weaving of orlog, hamingja, and wyrd.

So the drink in the vessel becomes a symbol, a symbol that ties to both Kvasir's blood as the mead of inspiration and the mead of poetry, as well as to Odin's eye in Mimir's well, which links to the world tree Yggrdrasil, and thus links to all nine worlds in Heathen cosmology via it. Intimately linked to knowledge, wisdom, and memory the drink becomes also tied to the well of wyrd.

The Drink in Practice
While mead may have been the originating drink in use in ritual or communal settings in antiquity of those that worshipped the Aesir, if we look at the evolution of function in society, by the Medieval ages many of the places where mead may have been traditional, are now replaced with other beverages like wine in ritual settings. This was in part no doubt also influenced by the symbolism of wine within Christianity and it's connection to the communion. By this token, I personally believe any alcholic beverage will suffice, or truly, any beverage if poured with the intent to be used in a sacred matter can be in the appointed horn/cup.

I myself have used wild turkey whiskey, vodka, rum, wine, a really stout beer (for Weyland), mead, godiva liquer (for a faining for the Goddesses and/or disir). At the end of day it's really just a symbol, and it's about finding what seems meaningful for you.

While most modern heathens will say they prefer an alcoholic drink because of symbolism, using non-alcoholic drinks isn't necessarily forbidden. And while some groups may drink from the same cup.horn, other groups pour their drink from the same source but drink from individual cups (and let's face it, this is a bit more hygienic.

The Horn or Cup - Symbolism

The mead horn or mead cup also is a symbol, a symbol of vessels. First of the vessels that held the mead of poetry, as well as the vessel of Mimir's well, and as such is also connected to the rich symbolism present as described above.

As such drinking from the horn becomes symbolically the same as drinking from the cups of the gods, or from drinking from Mimir's well.

The Horn or Cup in Practice

In ancient times, horns were left over by-product of the slaughtering process, and as such were used for drinking vessels. They were readily available and in plentiful supply. Earthenware cups were also available, as well as cups made from wood, and the very wealthy may have also had access to metal worked cups from silver or gold. I don't think it really matters which you use (horn or cup). In the beginning it may just be what's easily at hand already in your cupboard, but I do think that if this is a religion you have indeed committed yourself too, that you should invest in a nice horn, or cup for ceremonial purposes. Something that you set aside and designate as a religious object. I think since horns are not as common today, and cups are, most of us opt to invest in a horn because it's a bit more rare and helps up mentally key into a mindset when we use it of "this is time for ritual and sacred thoughtfullness" Also in the lore there's LOTS of references to cattle or rams/goats.
By default as Americans we tend to think of horns coming from cattle, but I've seen some Icelandic groups use ram horns, and we have references to goats throughout our lore as well as cattle. So horns from either animal makes sense.

The Symbolism of Words Spoken Over the Mead-Cup or Mead-Horn

In our ritual settings whenever one drinks mead AND speaks over the horn they're tying back to poetry (i.e. the heartfelt aspect of your prayer/hail), knowledge, memory, and wisdom. In turn since Mimir's well is connected to Yggdrasil, this means the waters of his well (and Odin's eye), link into the Tree, which connects them to things that live and die, and ultimately Urd's well where the Norns dwell and work with orlog, hamingja, and wyrd. It is also an act of using your words like a weaver uses thread... the words spoken weave together the vast community into a tapestry. The act of speaking over it impacts orlog, hamingja, and wyrd.

It links you to those who are present, it weaves you to your Gods and Goddesses, connects you to the vaettir, your ancestors, friends and family. Ill chosen words can have negative impact to that tapestry, well chosen words strengthen it.

By making an oath over the horn you are laying the words into the well, fulfillment of that oath will affect you positively... failure to keep the oath affects not only you negatively, but to the mind of some heathens (myself included) also negatively impacts all those who witnessed the oath.

Having a worthwhile boast to say over the horn not only acts as a sharing of information with your fellows (and thus helping community bonds through the sheer act of communication) but also positively adds to your reputation, and thus weaves strength into your threads.

The exchanging of gifts over the horn is a way of demonstrably increasing ties between the gifter and giftee, in the comitatus and 'court' type structure we see emerge in antiquity it was also a means of recognizing and showing preferred status. It's my personal opinion that what we see evolve in the feasting scenarios of Medieval European courts, as well as of preferential treatment given to those of status (who had special seats in church and received the communion first in services) was a partial carry over of how powerful people (politically) were recognized in antiquity. Ideally those recognized were those who truly served the people the most... but as time progressed and the aristocracy built up with those in power further and further removed from those who worked the fields the politically powerful weren't necessarily those who had truly done much for their community, but rather those born to prestige, and power (and to my personal opinion a corruption of what it once was).

So speaking over the horn in ritual is one method of how we continue our relationships with the Gods and Goddesses, friends and family, our kindred, the vaettir, the ancestors, etc.

On a side note, if we look to the 'famous' men associated with Odin we can come to the conclusion that not only were men judged by their prowess on the battlefield, but also for their ability to compose words extemporanaeously in the sumble hall as well as with their overall craft with language and words, which shows us how very important words were considered in the culture. Not to mention the fact sacred knowledge and histories were transmitted orally, and not written, further strengthens the import of 'words' in the ancient culture. The law was even recited orally at the annual althing in Iceland.

In Practice Today

One of the most common rituals, a sumble tends to be commonly organized so that:

  • the first round is dedicated to the Gods (some may also include the disir, and various vaettir also here, other's may move that to subsequent rounds)
  • the second round is to the ancestors, heroes, or other honorable dead
  • and the third round can encompass a variety of things from recognizing living friends and family, oathing, boasting, and even the exchange of gifts
  • when the ritual doesn't conclude with the third round (which is a common stopping place for many groups today) subsequent rounds may continue and they tend not to be so themed but simply 'open' to whatever moves a person in the moment

Now speaking over the horn doesn't have to be a joyless affair, but the words spoken should have meaning, and not be some drunken revelry of silliness that frankly isn't important. For example: a bunch of people (like Beavis and Butthead) teeheeing over 'fire' really isn't worth speaking over a horn about, and some folks in the community (myself included) can even interpret that as INVITING fire to come amongst you like a curse. Remember when you're talking you're connected to not only the mead of poetry, Odin's Eye, but also Mimir's well, Yggdrasil, and as a result all nine words.

There is no doubt in my mind that the spoken word is holy, sacred and powerful. Even if it's just you in some private ritual, a ritual with just you and your family, or a ritual with you and your kindred or some other large gathering of heathens... the act of speaking itself is sacred and important, and symbolically dense with meaning.

You should speak with what moves you, and always your words should be coming from a place of sincerity, truthfullness, and respect.

Some Pointers

A few examples of things NOT to say:
  • So hail to the disir and my ex-wife bitch who's no longer in my life.

  • I may love him, but there are times I wish my brother was dead.

  • Singing a bawdy Irish bar song just because you have Irish ancestors

And yes, I've heard people say these things over the horn!

A few examples of things to say:
  • Hail a particular God or Goddess because of the blessings you feel you've received from them, this can be by words or song (so long as it's sincere!)
  • recognize an ancestor, or hero for their duty, sacrifice, and/or the lessons you may have learned from them

I recommend to people not to make oaths in ritual where others are present unless it's a truly important and significant oath, and that those you are oathing in the presence of are members of a group you've been attending for some time. There tends to be this desire for newcomers to find something to oath about immediately in their first ritual. This isn't necessary. If the oath isn't somehow life-changing, then really it shouldn't be sworn to in a ritual with others where it has the potential of negatively impacting others should you fail to fulfill the oath. If you still feel compelled, then this may be an instance where a private rite between you and the Gods is all that's needed.