Fire has been crucial from the very origins of our humanity. Fire is the power our early predecessors sat around sharing the stories, the campfire throwing out flames of protection that kept the predators common in those days: the cave bears, the hyenas, the smilodons, the tree climbing leopards, a power that has that distinguishing factor of being our unique human power, a trait unlike tool making or language that defines us. Even though, as I write this there is news of Australian hawks using fire, they don’t make the fire. Some physical anthropologists see the evolution of the large hominin brain, and the ability to have sufficient energy resources for groups of such creatures as the key to humankind’s success as one of the most adaptive species. Humans have a much smaller gut than our gorilla cousins allowing much more energy for a larger brain. cooking was part of that evolution ( see primatologist, Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human).
The fire is a community place where commonality can be shared in the sharing of cooked foods. Food is shared, community built, stories told. The fire is also cleansing. The smoke drives away the flies and mosquitoes. Herbs are cured in the smoke, healing potions heated. A whole other layer of use. Eventually fires were harnessed to metallurgy, to the craft of the smith, a further shaping of human environments in ongoing feedback loops of tool development. The smith shapes raw material from the earth into cultural products from daggers to dinnerware, tools to adornments. The ingenuity of trade networks developed long before abstract exchange and the invention of money, connecting cities of the Near East and places in northwestern Europe like Cornwall under the remit of marrying copper and tin: the bronze age. Networks of gifting and bartering between peoples speaking different languages, having different customs allowed all kinds of sharing and mingling. We can be sure many ideas and gods, as well as food and genes were shared.
When people lived in round houses, the hearth fire was literally in the center of the house. The campfire moved indoors, and the most important activities continued by its side. The hearth was literally the sacred center of the home. This can be seen in Brigidine customs,
Brigid’s role in smooring (subduing) the hearth fire, the raking of embers, and covering them with ash, so they’d continue to lightly burn during the sleeping hours of the household in a safe fashion. The fire is subdued but kept alive; it must not go out. Symbolically it was key that the hearth fire never completely went out, except on Beltaine when the household fires were relit from a communal fire. Fires are very hard to make without matches and lighters! These central hearth places remained a feature of Highland and Hebridean life into the 19th century. If they were at the end of the room, the inglenook (next to the fireplace) was the seat of honor for the guest, and the ‘beds’ made for Brigid reflect this giving the most special place of hospitality by the warm fire, where the meal was cooked in simple homes.
the Fire of the Community
We can see practices of burning flames for entire communities in such historical customs as the Flame of Vesta in ancient Roma, flames attended to 24/7, a community hearth flame whose burning was said to protect the city from harm with a dedicated priestesshood, the Vestal Virgins. Similar customs can be cited from other cultures speaking Indo-European languages. The fire at the healing springs of Aquae Sulis at Bath were dedicated to Sulis, who might be another name of Brigantia; the Romans syncretized this goddess with Minerva. In Athens married women maintained the perpetual Prytanaeon fire for the goddess Hestia. Iran had Zoroastrian sacred fires burning. The 19 women who tended the famous flame of Brigid in Kildare are attested from medieval Christian times, but most likely dated to a pre-Christian practice, maybe of Druidesses (although there’s argument that it started as a Christian practice there as Kildare means Church of the Oak)*. Today there is the ruin called the Fire House, often believed to be the site of the small building where the nuns tended the flame; the site or other possible sites are adjacent to St. Brigid’s Kildare Cathedral.
Fire gives us tools. The tools allow us to shape, and carve our world. The bladesmith refines her craft, language one of her tools, metaphors vigorously; magic sparks out of the hammer and the anvil, the cutting of the blade, the testing, the tempering. The forging of our desires and our wills enables cutting some things out of our lives, or out of our communities, when that is the true thing to do. Selection, choices, fusions, melting, conjunctions….The consecrated fire becomes a place to gather around, where we become aware of the sacred spark within our own souls, and an antidote to the fractured, atomized society around us, and in awareness of the kindness, the compassion of the goddess and saint, with her many miracles of sharing food with the needy, and many other acts of kindness and generosity.
Our social order is badly polluted, especially in the United Sates. Some of the greatest pollution in my opinion is that which comes through the media, especially social media, where the images of the ethically repugnant occupant of the White House seems ubiquitous in my feed. Imbolc like other liminal times of the year is a particularly auspicious time to purge our lives of such impurities, of their impact on our own mental states. Whether you are able to light a bonfire, or simply a candle in your living space, and do some glannad with an herb like juniper, this is a optimal time to purify and recenter. If you are able to light a fire let the smoke of the holy fire be absorbed in your skin, in our clothing, as a purifying blessings, and ask the goddess for her blessings. Hopefully you have put out gifts for Her.
May this Imbolc be a time for cleansing and clarifying our truths.
*see Erynn Rowan Laurie’s argument in “Queering the Flame” in The Well of Five Streams.