You have to feel sorry for my partner, Mr. Rivergarth. Most people have the choice to read my blog or not, but he's subjected to my oral blogs on a regular basis with no hope of escape. He's trying hard to watch his fighting match on TV, and I'm blogging my heart out about Beowulf. Poor man. Although, if you think about it, we are fascinated at that moment by the same thing, the spirit of the pagan warrior.
So I read Y Gododdin tonight, then I sat down and read Beowulf, in addition, because I wanted a refresher, especially about mead which is prominent in Gododdin. I first read Beowulf in college, freshman year, English Literature. I have since read it a couple more times. (Much of the encounter with the dragon was copy-pasted by Tolkien into The Hobbit, by the way.) I don't read it for any other reason than that it is an awesome story. It's one of those tales that the more you know about life, the more you find of life in its story.
This time around I was specifically looking for references to the symbel rite. They were there, fully elaborated by the writer, indicating that they were not, in his mind, accessories to the story, but integral to the culture of the time and the rationale of events. Years ago, before I knew much about paganism, in general, and symbel, specifically, these passages had no meaning for me. Tonight, they were diamonds.
My copy of Beowulf is contained within The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th ed. This volume provides a nice editorial to each work, as well as, useful footnotes. (E. Talbert Donaldson is the editor for the The Middle Ages section and the translator of this Beowulf.) It really is a joy to read. He doesn't, unfortunately, mention anything about the symbel, although the rite constitutes hearty chunks of the Beowulf text. Without mentioning the rite, though, he sensitively discusses an integral aspect, well worth quoting as one statement of a sophisticated, pagan-warrior spirituality.
Beowulf is testing his relationship with unknowable destiny. At any time, as he is fully aware, his luck may abandon him and he may be killed.... But whether he lives or dies, he will have done all that any man could do to develop his character heroically. It is this consciousness of testing Fate [Wyrd] that probably explains the boasting that modern readers of heroic poetry often find offensive. When he boasts, Beowulf is not only demonstrating that he has chosen the heroic way of life, but is also choosing it, for when he invokes his former courage as pledge of his future courage, his boast becomes a vow; the hero has put himself in a position from which he cannot withdraw.
Courage is the instrument by which the hero realizes himself. "Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good," says Beowulf...
This is the heart of the symbel, the boast and the vow, spoken before the "lady" (who bears so many meanings they would require a book to discuss them all) who offers mead to the warrior. I didn't keep notes, but there are, at least, three instances of the full-blown symbel in Beowulf. Honestly, the entire story can be read as celebrating the principles of a pagan warrior exemplified in symbel and deed and of his philosophy, more than the ideals of young, bold men, but an ethos which dealt, also, with man's mortality.
But concentrating on the symbel, in section IX, Beowulf boasts of his swimming at sea, "In any case it befell me that I slew with my sword nine sea-monsters. I have not heard tell of a harder fight by night under heaven's arch, nor of a man more hard-pressed in the sea-streams. Yet I came out of the enemies' grasp alive, weary of my adventure." Immediately after, he describes the horror of Grendel and then vows, "But I shall show him soon now the strength and courage of the Geats [Beowulf's race], their warfare....The folk's guardian had heard from Beowulf a fast-resolved thought." The queen appears now to legitimize (witness? hallow? consecrate?) the symbel.
There was laughter of warriors, voices rang pleasant, words were cheerful. Wealhtheow came forth, Hrothgar's queen, mindful of customs, gold-adorned, greeted the men in the hall; and the noble woman offered the cup first to the keeper of the land of the East-Danes, bade him be glad at the beer-drinking, beloved of the people. In joy he partook of feast and hall-cup, king famous for victories. Then the woman of the Helmings went about to each one of the retainers, young and old, offered them the costly cup, until the time came that she brought the mead-bowl to Beowulf, the ring-adorned queen, mature of mind. Sure of speech she greeted the man of the Geats, thanked God that her wish was fulfilled, that she might trust in some man for help against deadly deeds. He took the cup, the warrior fierce in battle, from Wealhtheow, and then spoke, one ready for fight--Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow: "I resolved, when I set out on the sea, sat down in the sea-boat with my band of men, that I should altogether fulfill the will of your people or else fall in slaughter; fast in the foe's grasp. I shall achieve a deed of manly courage or else have lived to see in this mead-hall my ending day." These words were well-pleasing to the woman, the boast of the Geat. Gold-adorned, the noble folk-queen went to sit by her lord.
Notice that the queen "thanked God" in this overtly pagan rite. That's typical during that time and the whole-hearted confusion survives to modern days. There's a "preacher" in Colorado (of Colorado Springs persuasion, sadly), encouraging people to pray for rain during Obama's Dem. nomination acceptance speech, which is to be held outdoors in Denver. If it sounds like witchcraft, that's because it's based on the same pagan principles. Charles Guignebert said it well enough in his book, Ancient Medieval and Modern Christianity (1961), "...Western peoples in the early centuries of the Christian era never really understood the Christian dogmas, nor have they understood them since....The Western peoples have, strictly speaking, never been Christians," and "Christians in name, but bearing the impress only of the Christian legend and nourished upon formulas passively repeated, these men--the vast majority of professed Christians--remained actually pagans...."
As for Y Gododdin, I haven't come across any editorials--yet--implying that the entire poem, practically from the first word to the last, is one long celebration of the symbel pledges offered and honored by the three hundred warriors who rode off to battle, pretty sure they weren't coming back alive. The historical time frame is right for it, though. Events in Y Gododdin, composed by Aneirin in Old Welsh, are supposed to have occurred around 595-600 A.D. At least one event in Beowulf, in Old English, is dated at around 520 A.D. Christianity was nominally introduced by the Romans, but had not penetrated very far north during this time--think Hadrian's Wall. Ninian initialized a mission to the Picts around 400 with limited success. Columba had more success in 563. Comparing these dates, you wonder Christianity is mentioned at all in either composition.
Aneirin's song is a collection of homages to three hundred warriors who set out from Edinburgh (Eidin) to fight overwhelming odds in the south against folks we might call Englishmen. Y Gododdin is a loose composition compared to Beowulf, which tells a story in logical sequence, and, thus, the Gododdin lacks the exposition of ideals we find in Beowulf, but not the ideals. There are fewer references in Y Gododdin to our lady, who suggests we're dealing with the symbel rite, but she's not entirely absent. Another aspect of Y Gododdin, besides the maiden reference, that points solidly to the symbel is the appearance of the drinking horn, typical in the Scandinavian mead ritual.
from verse 16
he passed the drinking-horn round in his palace. The first brewing of bragget was his;
from verse 47
A chain of iron about both ankles, caused by mead, by horn, by Catraeth's raiders.
As for references to mead drinking, in general, the poem would be much less in meaning and length if they were omitted. The Cult of Mead seems to be at its height in Y Gododdin. It not only seals the vows of these men, it provides their reward (reference to the afterlife? maybe...) and emboldens them for battle.
from verse 2
Diademed, to the fore at all times, breathless before a maid, he earned mead.
Rent the front of his shield, when he heard the war-cry, he spared none he pursued.
He'd not turn from a battle till blood flowed, like rushes hewed men who'd not flee.
(These translations are by Joseph Clancy, by the way, copied from the online text of Y Gododdin. There's another online text by a different translator, but I haven't finished that version yet. It's substantially different, although there's still a lot of mead!)
from verse 3
He would spare neither mail-shirt nor shield; none could, on mead he was nourished,
Ward off the stroke of Cadfannan.
from verse 11
They drank mead, gold and sweet, ensnaring; for a year the minstrels were merry.
from verse 13
A man went to Catraeth at morn; he guzzled mead-suppers at midnight.
A disaster, keening of comrades, his campaign was, hot-blooded killer.
from verse 97
He was grim in combat and before he was covered with clods of earth
Edar earned the right to drink his mead.
One gets the idea (and this goes on and on, verse after verse). The concept of mead emboldening the warrior, which we read so boldly in Y Gododdin, is not altogether absent from Beowulf. Near the end, when Beowulf faces the dragon, a single warrior finds the courage to aid his king. The other men have abandoned Beowulf and wait for the outcome, but "Wiglaf spoke, said many fit words to his companions--his mind was mournful: "I remember that time we drank mead, when we promised our lord in the beer-hall--him who gave us these rings--that we would repay him for the war-arms if a need like this befell him...."
Wiglaf gave his word, consecrated it with mead, most likely offered by a lady, and when the time comes, it is his memory of that vow which gives him courage. Maybe I'm stretching, but I think it can be said that "on mead he was nourished," as in the language of Y Gododdin. You might say he was also ensnared, obligated by the vow given while drinking mead. Like Donaldson said about Beowulf, "When he boasts, Beowulf is not only demonstrating that he has chosen the heroic way of life, but is also choosing it, for when he invokes his former courage as pledge of his future courage, his boast becomes a vow; the hero has put himself in a position from which he cannot withdraw." To use a quote of a quoter (because the book I'd love to get my hands on starts at around $230), Eric Wódening quotes Bauschatz from The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, "symbel is the ritual drinking feast at which the participants try to place themselves into the flow of Wyrd through the binding of words and deeds. In other words, it is a means by which the deeds of now are linked to those of the past."
What man has not boasted or made vows while drinking his mead? Many of which he was later obligated to honor? That's the crux, then, isn't it, honoring the vow. I think the men at Edinburgh spent a year drinking mead, preparing to face their deaths and gain immortality, pagan immortality, the enduring fame of their honor and courage.