The Hearth (part one)
‘I really do want people to come home to a real fire. A nation without the flames of
a fire in the hearth, and birds singing outside the open window, has lost its soul.
To have an ancient carboniferous forest brought to life at the centre of your home, its flames budding and shooting up like young trees, is a work of magic.’
(Roger Deakin 2008)
Oh how I wish Roger Deakin’s words could come true, and we could all have a real fire, a fire to warm oneself by and watch the flames licking each other and rising and falling amidst the dark of the chimney breast. Yet the majority of us are not of the lucky few with access to such ‘works of magic’. However, recently I set myself the task of spending some time looking into the meaning of the female mysteries. As this seed took root, a good place to start my adventure appeared to be right there in the hearth. And although lacking the luxury of a real fire my investigation uncovered many treasures hidden in its recesses; and many wonders came to light as I dug a little deeper than the surface soot. Without too much effort I could begin to understand what it means to engage with this place that is positioned somewhere in the room, and yet is also open to the sky via the chimney. It was, and can be at the hub of domestic activities, and as we will find out, activities between the realms. This place of fire has been a site of worship sustenance and warmth, a radiant hub of social religious and family activities throughout the ages, and a central position of all the activities going on within the home.
As the dictionary definitions suggest, the hearth can be ‘an open recess in a wall at the base of a chimney where a fire can be built;’ as such it is ‘part of the fireplace’ which in contemporary settings is ‘usually paved and extending out into a room.’ And as one conjures up this image, one can’t help but notice the hearths connection with the chimney, which pushes its way up to the heavens, connecting the living or working area with the territory beyond. This passageway releases the smoke from the fire, along with any charms, spells and spirits in the charge of the practitioner working at the hearth. As I sit here in the rather sterile heat of this central heated home; I can’t help but evoke my childhood memories of those Disney-like film images, as the magic pops out of the chimney in regular puffs and gives away the goings-on below.
Whilst I loiter for a while with my childhood memories and images; a figure appears. This fellow is a rather portly gentleman, clothed all in red, with white hair and beard, which gives the appearance that he is as old as time itself, this gentleman is known to many as Father Christmas, a great hero of children throughout the ages. This fire red figure is accompanied by elf–like helpers who listen at the chimney to ascertain whether the children below are well behaved or not; bringing gifts to those who fit that perfect child ideal wished for by every parent. Imagine being bypassed by Santa Claus, a terrible fear that kept many-child walking along the straight track. This gentleman was so important to me as a child that when we moved to a new place, with boarded-up chimney breasts and a clean gas fire my thoughts overflowed with fearful confusion; how on earth would He be able to leave me my much desired; and may I add, much deserved presents? But my parents; as parents do; had an answer; ‘Do not worry dear, we will leave the back door unlocked.’ So I left out the carrots for the reindeer, and a bit of mums homemade cake for gift bringer, and a little drop of her homemade wine, and went off to bed. (It’s amazing to think how a life of cake and wine offering started so early on in my development) However I was still left a little worried as to whether He would be bothered to clamber down off the roof, and find his way to my waiting stocking, not even considering for one moment that it may be a lot easier to enter by the backdoor, rather than a rather portly gentleman climbing down the very narrow chimney. (Strange how a child’s mind easily accepts such things) Now to return to the point, and avoiding any further self indulgent fireside tale telling, I will get back on track, albeit still loitering for a moment in the company of Father Christmas.
Before I leave him to enjoy his cake and wine, I would like to consider his famous cry of ‘yoh hoh hoh’, which I can’t help but connect with ‘IO HO’ as referred to by William G. Gray; the “mighty shout of laughter” ‘said to accompany creation (the big bang)’ of chokmah. According to Gray ‘IO HO’ is another form of ‘IHVH’ ‘possibly man’s oldest name for God’, a very masculine form of consciousness, right up that tree, or perhaps up the chimney.
Still warming myself in the embers of my infant memories I see another childhood figure, this time a female one, Cinderella, There she is sitting by the hearth, taking up her imposed position of sleeping amongst the cinders fetching the water and tending the fire. This tales appears to have little seedlings all round the world, shooing from a parent plant that appears to have originated in China. However the tale we know so well, as with many of our childhood favourites, has an interesting version amongst the collection put together by the brothers Grimm. Aschenputtell (Ashputtel, 1812) which translates as ‘Cinder fool’ unfolds the familiar theme of a wealthy gentleman, whose wife dies and leaves behind one daughter. He then takes for himself a second wife who already has two daughters of her own. They were very pretty, but not very nice young ladies, ugly on the inside in fact. These two ugly sisters gave all the most unwanted jobs to the first pretty, very well behaved first wife’s daughter. (Another link with good behaviour and the chimney) It was these ugly sisters that gave this young lady the name of “Cinder-fool”. I know I am roaming from the point somewhat, but I find this all rather interesting. In the Grimm’s version, It appears that her father set off on a journey, bringing back the requested ‘fine clothes, pearls and diamonds’ for the sisters, and as he rode through a copse, ‘a hazel twig brushed against him and almost pushed off his hat: so he broke off and brought it away; and when he got home he gave it to his daughter. Then she took it and went to her mother’s grave and planted it there, and cried so much that it was watered with her tears; and there it grew and became a fine tree. Three times every day she went to it and cried; and soon a little bird came and built is nest upon the tree and talked with her, and watched over her, and brought her whatever she wished for.’ A tree with gifts, well I never!
Interestingly according to Harold Bayley ‘Cinderella variants-form the foundation of nearly half the world’s fairy tales;’ He links the version of the tale that we are rather more familiar with where Cinderella gains beautiful robes and then is deprived of them with Ishtar, who is also ‘deprived of her beautiful robes’ due to her ‘descent into the under-world.’ In fact According to Bayley changing of clothing appears to be one common thread in the 345 variants of this tale collected by the Folklore society, in 1893. The version of this tale which has become the most commonly repeated came from France towards the end of the seventeenth century.
It appears that even Martin Luther took up the position of the downtrodden in the cinders and used the thread in his Table Talks, however here he refers to the “Aschenbrüdel, the ash-brother, whose place in the family becomes suppressed by his brothers. (Bettleheim) And amongst these so called ‘ash-brothers’ we find Joseph of the many-coloured coat fame. So although I have roamed; we can see how the hearth also took on a position to represent oppression, and the following rise to glory of the underdog. It is easy to see how life at the hearth was very difficult, dirty and not the choice of many. A job to be given to others, to the underdog, yet on the other hand when we consider the lot of those who work there, the long term benefits are the rewards in the end.