The horn-bearing/cup-bearing ritual is one that’s often overlooked as simple servitude and an example of women being second-class citizens in a hypermasculine dominated society. While there’s no denying that women were quite disprivileged in the Germanic and Old Norse hall-based societies, the ritual of bearing the mead cup had far more depth and importance to it than a woman simply acting as a glorified servant. It was a ritual strongly tied to queenship, which in and of itself should indicate a level of importance to the ritual. Regardless, when Surtr urged me to research this ritual in preparation for performing it, I was skeptical. What place did this ritual have in a modern and progressive non-reconstructionist heathen practice, even one now tied intimately to king- and queenship? I didn’t understand why he would ask this of me and so I turned to research to hopefully understand what he wanted of me.
As Michael Enright explains in his book Lady With a Mead Cup, the ritual’s purpose was multifold: First and foremost the ritual was one of establishing peace and weaving bonds between the king and his retinue of thegns. The ritual set up was simple: the queen’s job was to pour mead or ale into a horn or cup and take it first to the king. As she passed the beaker of alcohol to the king, she recited a ritualized invocation. This invocation was structured in such a way that it first affirmed the king’s place as lord of the land and ruler over the hall. The incantation then included blessings and even advice to the king. The purpose of the first line was really to affirm the kings ranking among the rest of the elites gathered before him in the mead-hall. This is further reinforced by him being served the mead before anyone else. This was reinforced yet again by the assembled members of his retinue being handed the mead horn in turn by the queen. By forcing them to wait to receive the cup until the man ranking ahead of them had received it, the queen forced the men to affirm their ranking compared to the rest of the elites gathered in the hall. In this way, the ritual served to preserve status between members of the king’s retinue, an important factor in keeping the peace between them. This ritual also further wove peace between men by weaving fellowship between them. This was done by serving them all from the same horn of mead. By drinking from the same horn, they were sharing metaphorical blood with each other. This bound the men of the war-band into a symbolic kinship. In a time where familiar bonds were what defined who one could trust, this symbolic kinship redefined these lines, allowing the king and his thegns to trust each other. Enright argues that this ritual also transformed the king into the symbolic patriarch of the group making the queen the matriarch, a nurturing figure to her many sons within the retinue. Therefore, the war-band was really like an adoptive family to everyone within it. However, it requires the meditation of the peace through the queen bearing the mead cup to make the adoption rites happen.
In addition to peace, I mentioned the aspect of blessing in the invocation. The words said over the mead cup when it was passed was incredibly important. Mead and alcohol in general was strongly associated with speech. This is evident in that the source of poetry was found in mead. In addition, it was a common tradition for people to swear oaths over the mead cup. Beowulf himself swore to kill Grendel while speaking over the mead cup. This was a beot; the concept of the beot was a ritualized boast sworn over mead before a battle. In a variety of Norse texts, we can see examples of men swearing over their cups of mead or other alcohol to marry certain women such as this example from Hervarar Saga where is it stated “One Yule eve in Bolm, Angantyr swore at the Bragi Cup, as then was customary, that he should get the daughter of Yngvi … or else fall in battle.” As such, it would seem that oaths sworn over the mead cup gained a certain gravity to them. In turn, the blessings said by the queen over the mead cup likely also gained a certain extra weight to them. Magic was strongly tied to speech and so this triad of drink-speech-magic likely fed into each other, thus making these blessings believed to be incredibly potent.
The role of serving the mead in the cup bearing ceremony is also a show of hospitality, generosity, and gift-giving. It shows that the thegns are welcome in their lord’s hall among their band of brothers and honors them as part of a noble band of warriors serving the king. In addition, it is a gift of alcohol which in and of itself is obviously a precious gift. with its magical powers. It also was a show of love and hospitality on the queen’s part to the king (in theory.)
After reading through all of the material I could find on the ceremony, I was still left feeling confused. I understood what it meant historically but I still felt like it was woefully stuck in the past. Muspelheim’s stability couldn’t actually be predicated on this ritual, could it? It would be just for show, right? And if it wasn’t just for show, why would they place the importance of this ritual on a mortal’s shoulders? It didn’t make any sense to me but Surtr was still insistent that the ritual be performed. I could see it being an act of hospitality and I could see how the alcohol was an offering to him, but the true meaning he was seeking was lost on me.
The night of the ritual was a stressful one. It was to be performed in the astral before Surtr’s entire court. That plus still not knowing what the point of it was had me incredibly stressed. As I mentioned above, the ritual proceeded by taking the horn of mead to the king (Surtr in this case) first and reciting a carefully structured incantation over the cup. I had written it earlier that night, careful to match the tone and format perfectly:
“My lord and king of flames, I offer you this cup of mead in good health and love and faith. To you who guide us through the fire and grant clarity through the smoke, may you be embraced by the gratitude and love we all have for your guidance and presence in our lives. My dearest friend, may your future be full of light, warmth, and laughter. May the road be easy to your feet and merriment forever ring in your ears.”
It was as I was choking out these words that it began to dawn on me the purpose of this ritual and its place in my practice. Surtr wasn’t asking me to affirm his place at the center of the mead-hall. Unlike the days of old when thegns and jarls jockeyed for position amongst themselves, his position and that of his court were all secure. Surtr was, instead, asking me to affirm his position at the center of my practice. In doing this ritual, I was proclaiming him to be at the center of my life and my spiritual path. It was a public proclamation of my dedication to him and, in turn, to the realm of Muspelheim. With each horn bearing ceremony, I would be repeating this affirmation of his place as central and foremost in my life and spiritual practice as well as expressing my love and desires for his happiness and well-being.
After he had taken his drink from the horn, I think he noticed my gaze had changed from fear to love and he knew I’d gotten the point of what had transpired. He seemed satisfied with my performance despite it being clearly lackluster to the rest of the assembled court, so I assume his satisfaction was not rooted in my performance but rather my understanding. I still fear the social performance aspect of this ritual but now I can comprehend its place within a modern practice, or at least how it fits within my own: It serves to focus on the place of the entities in question that you bear the cup to, affirming their place as central within the practitioner’s practice. It professes a deep devotion to them above the other entities within the practice, as the “kings” of your practice. Again, this is the purpose of the ritual with in my practice. I don’t know if it will ever be relevant to anyone else’s practice considering the ritual is in many ways so out-dated, but I have had to learn to bear the mead-horn and hopefully my learnings will be of help to anyone else who may find they’re called to bear it as well.