The sumbel is a ritual toasting which is a part of many important religious and social occasions. The Heimskringla Saga mentions Jarl Sigurd toasting Odin for power and victory, Njord and Frey for peace and good weather, and to the dead ancestors. Juliues Caesar recorded ceremonial drinking using the horns of the aurochs, a now extinct species of wild bull. In the epic poem Beowulf, the word sumbel is used to describe the drinking vessel used in the ceremonial drinking that occurred immediately upon Beowulf's arrival to Hrothgar's hall. Traditional European weddings, going back to heathen days, required ritualized drinking from the same drinking vessel. H. R. Ellis Davidson, the noted scholar of Germanic folklore and history, stated that
"The drinking of wine, ale, or mead was of ceremonial importance at all feasts, and it seems to have been this which 'hallowed' the hall when men met for sacrifice."
It is these sorts of rites that the modern practice of the sumbel is based upon. Some hold sumbel only inside, some hold it outside. The kindred should sit or stand in a circle, and a ceremonial drinking vessel, preferrably a horn, should be filled with alcohol. It should be mead, if at all possible, the fermentation of honey. It is the most traditional alcohol, but, if it is impossible to obtain, any other drink may be used, such as wine, beer, or even whisky.
However, nonalcoholic drinks should not be substituted. All historical references specifiy alcohol. Alcohol was the holy entheogen (religious drug) of the ancient heathens. It was regarded as an important social bond and the basis for legal contracts as well. It was the substance of inspiration. Odin is said to take no meat but to live exclusively on wine. If someone cannot drink alcohol it would be better to simply take no part in this ritual rather than to warp it into something that it wasn't. Alternately, though, that participant can ritually touch the horn to his or her lips without imbibing.
The horn should be passed around the circle. (If there is more than one particpant in the sumbel.) Toasts should be drunk to the gods, goddesses, landwights, or dead ancestors. Toasts can be long and elaborate, naming the deeds and good attributes of the god, and giving reasons the toaster in grateful to that one. They can also be as simple as "Hail Odin!" Instead of a toast a bragging story or boast of an accomplishment to be undertaken could be spoken, but any such boast is given the weight of a most solemn and binding oath. Some kindreds limit the number of toasts to be drunk, often to three. Others place no limits but feel that the toasting should continue as long as the participants are so moved. Many kindreds have adopted the habit of, once the toast is given, having the toast echoed, loudly, by all the rest of the kindred. This practice adds much to the atmosphere and bonding of the ritual.
The sumbel is the simplest sort of ecstatic altered state of consciousness to get to, in no small part because it is aided by alcohol. It (and/or perhaps the Ve) are the only altered states of consciousness that most practitioners of Asatru use. One of the primary effects alcohol has is to lower social boundaries and inhibitions. It also generally depresses the activity of the forebrain, the conscious mind. Doing this while toasting the gods and spirits can, in the right circumstances, create a feeling of closeness to the gods and spirits, and a vague sense of immanent deity might develop. Doing this while socially bonding with others can, in the right circumstances, dissolve normal interpersonal boundaries cand create a sense that all present are family or even part of one whole thing, with such intensity that the feeling becomes "realer than real".
And what are the right circumstances? A relaxed and open mind is usually one. Being in a meditative state helps, but even relaxation caused by other means works well. Feeling "charged up" is also often a requirement, and this can be easy to do by drinking the alcohol at just the right rate to provide a lift to the emotions. These things work with the deadening effect of the alcohol to amplify the images brought on by the toasting and social interactions. (Because they are what is foremost in the mind; being brought out, as they are, in the course of the ritual. Having the attention primarily upon them while the emotions are charged up and while the normal background noise of the brain is quieted makes these images and emotions amplified much more than is usually possible, and this can be enough for at least a soft unitary state.)