Monday, 3 February 2014


Back the the hearth; part 2 


‘The Hearth became the most sacred, numinous place in the house. It lies at its centre, and is the only part that still opens to the skies.' (Roger Deakin;)
   As we have seen in part one, the hearth is a threshold, a place between the worlds, a platform which links earth with fire, and also air; a triangle of three elements right in the heart of things, the hub and the eye of the home. Then pondering these thoughts a little longer, water is taken to it, the kettle boiled, cauldron heated and those who dwell within hopefully kept alive. 
   Unfortunately, in these days of rather sterile central heating it can be difficult to have a clear understanding of  these images. What a luxury a real fire would be; what a pleasure to gaze into the flames, and glow in the warmth of the burning wood, a hearth of heat and homeliness.  I do remember having living flames in my home, and yes it was messy, however the heat and the warm glow repaid  one  many times over for the work it took to clean it out. I wish I had one, but I don’t; so how am I going to connect with the concept of the hearth as part of the female mysteries with very little opportunity to enjoy one in reality?  First of all I can make myself a model of one, then perhaps it will become easier to engage with the concepts alluded to here, but then, however pleasing to the eye this is, it is only a glimpse, somewhere to work, and not much else.  To achieve this I need to consider at greater length what a hearth is.  I can think of no better way to begin than to turn my attention to someone with greater experience than I have.
     In the book Traditional Witchcraft, A Book of Cornish Ways, Gemma Gary uncovers the hearth and places it as the 'ancient altar', the 'original sacred centre of the home.' This very hearthside is the place where charms can be 'constructed', and left on the hearth overnight to 'cook', it also appears that charms were placed up the chimney, the place linking the inside with the outside world. Strangely enough it is often single shoes (spiritual middens) that are found on little shelves, perhaps giving the modern Cinderella tale a new meaning.
   According to Gary it is via the chimney among other places, that nasty things such ‘as curses and evil spirits may seek entry.’ So charms were placed in these locations as a protection to the household. Gary states ‘Bottle charms of the pre-emptive protective kind are best housed beneath the hearth, within the chimney, beneath the threshold, for these of course are the vulnerable portals of the home'.
  The hearth stone is considered to be 'The stone', 'around which the cultus of the craft operates. In some traditional groups this is the whetstone that keeps the blade of Cunning ever sharp, but for the solitary witch any of the working stones may be used.'. Now this does of course pose me one problem, I have no chimney, so I will have to overcome this problem somehow. One way perhaps would make my altar on a windowsill, or perhaps trap the spell in a pot/bottle, and take it to the outside to take flight. I can however find myself a portable stone, to move from hearth to window.
   Loitering in Cornwall for a moment, it appears that it was right by the hearth that St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall, "rediscovered" the smelting of tin. (the Romans knew how to do this many moons ago, but it appears those skills were lost) and thereby revealed the flag of Cornwall. The legend tells us that he was sitting by his black hearthstone, and the heat from the fire caused a white cross to appear on the top of the stone slab, it is this image we can see replicated in the Cornish flag. St Piran went on to become the patron saint of Cornwall. And the 'tin-bearing ore' provided Cornwall with one of it's means of economic survival through the centuries, in what could be a very hostile environment. An  interesting relationship appears here with something alluded to by Gemma Gary 'An old wise practice, found within the West Country and beyond, to guard the home from the entry of the black witches influence, is to cross upon the hearth the iron fire tools. A simple charm, potent in its form, its material, and location,' A cross of metal, placed on the hearth of the home invoking protection for those within.
Back to the Roots
   So after having spent a little time considering ho a hearth can be used in a magical way. It is interesting to consider why this should be so? My first port of call is the word itself.  where does our word hearth spring from?  According to Ceisiwr Serith it appears that in middle English we find the  word ‘herth,’ and in Old English ‘heorth’  both  of which appear  to stem from the Indo European root  ker,  found  in ‘k’r.d,’ which not surprisingly relates to the heart. Therefore our word hearth shoots straight from a rootstock right there in the heart.  And as we have seen this hearth became the focal place for all the family activities, pulsating  a  life force throughout  the indoor area, keeping those who dwelt there alive.  
      According to Serith this Indo-European root also runs through the Hittite hashsha which can  also apply to the  “hearth, fireplace”,  linked via the “Sanskrit asa” which when translated means “ashes.’ (Polome, 1982, p. 392) [quoted in Serith]. And then from the ashes,  we can see   the ‘Latin ara’ or ‘altar’ So it appears that there is  a  linguistic link between this family place in the home, and a place of worship, which is rooted right there in the ashes of the hearth.
   It appears that the household hearths in the dwellings of Ancient Rome had their own special brand of spirit that resided  there. This spirit, called 'The Lars' was said to haunt the hearth-side, a Genius Loci living alongside  humans. This spirit may have also been a guardian of boundaries, especially those found within the home, so what better place to reside other than this ,portal between the worlds? 
   Interestingly, it is also suggested by Angella Della Volpe, as quoted in Serith that  "an individual household ... can be defined as a group worshipping at the same hearth. (p. 83, n. 15) this definition, is endorsed in the Rig Veda; where it says “Let us pray with a good fire” (Rig Veda 1.26.9)
  So we have two things here, one a central place for those who dwell in the home, a place of comforts and substance, and two, a place of worship. And then these  two may appear as interdependant, linked by the dependence on the fire to maintain life itself.
    In my lifetime I can engage with phrases such as "driven from hearth and home"  meaning that one is cut off from the comforts of one's home kith and kin. And the soldiers fighting in the in the Second World War were spoken of as "fighting in defense of their firesides" the place that represented home, and the freedoms and comforts therein. To 'keep the home fires burning' indicated keeping the hope of comfort alive, and the welcome it represented.
     The importance of the hearth in the home takes on even more import when it is taken into consideration   that   in times past, a lit fire in the hearth indicated   possession of a home; ‘In Welsh law a squatter gained possession of land only when a fire had been lit on his hearth and smoke come from the chimney (Owen, p. 339 in Serith).’ And amazingly it seems that ‘The association between ownership and the fire was so strong that the right of a Welsh heir to occupy his father's land was called "the right to uncover the fire" (Rees & Amp; Rees, p. 157)[In Serith].
     Even today Aboriginal hunter gatherers still make a fire each time they settle, even in the heat of their climate. This fire indicates this is their tribe’s space, and this then becomes the place for the group’s social and religious activities. They; like the wartime British, still keep the home fires burning, (albeit outside) and have been known to take a fire torch to another community to help start their fire. And from that thought it takes no small leap to see the importance of the torch of fire in the Olympics.  Building a community of those included. All of this allows us to see the importance of fire lighting, and fire sharing as a pivotal point at the centre of belonging of the tribe.
     Serith points out   that under Vedic law, any ‘new territory was legally incorporated with the construction of an altar to the fire god Agni.’ Agni is a Hindu god whose  name literally means  “fire”, and therefore linguistically, we do not need to take  very  big stride to see how the and a link between Agnis and he Latin word   ignis,  and that spark of fire that lights the greater mass.
  Loitering with Agni for a bit, it is interesting to remember that he is considered to be a messenger, a male deity who intercedes to and from the other gods. He is said to be 'ever-young, because the fire is re-lit every day' it is this relighting of the fire that ensures his immortality. (Wikipedia)
   The Wikipedia entry goes onto indicate that 'In Newar, Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, he is lokap├úla guarding the Southeast’. The entry goes on to indicate that in ‘the Tibetan text Jigten lugs kyi bstan bcos it says’ “Make your hearth in the southeast corner of the house, which is the quarter of Agni.”(ibid) I can’t help but remember those feng shui books I used to read many moons  ago, that  it was suggested that the fire should be in the south east area of the room,   now I can see how that also perfect sense.
   Still spending time away from my native shores, I want to turn my gaze toward the heart of the Roman Empire, to one of the most famous of all hearths, that of the temple of the virgin goddess Vesta and her ‘home fire’, which was kept forever burning. This fire was tended by those famous Vestal Virgins, serving Rome, and their goddess in their unusually round temple. (Many other temples in Rome were square)   Not only was this fire no allowed to go out; but if it did, it was considered a serious crime; the guilty virgin was ‘scourged’ by the pontifex maximus.  
  When we consider the things learnt already about the importance of keeping the fire alive, it is hardly surprising that this was considered such a crime. And then if this wasn’t daunting enough to put anyone off being in the service of Vesta, if those maids who tended the fire lost their virginity, and could no longer claim the veil of virgin attendant, they were put to death in rather a nasty way; they would be interned alive in a tomb and left for dead.
  So it was that the Vestal Virgins belonged to the heart they trended. In this case the hearth of these virgins belonged Rome itself, and no other. Interestingly this fire, if allowed to go out, was relit by friction, and not by any other flame near bye. it was by this manner kept pure, it belonged to no one else. However bleak the existence of these virgins appears to us, it seems their dedication did no go unrewarded. Pliny indicates that these virgin fire tenders appeared to be endowed with certain magical powers as a reward for their service.
   And then  not too far away from Rome, in the world of the ancient Greek, we find the goddess Hestia, also a virgin goddess of the hearth, and of architecture. She claimed the duty of bringing order to both the home and the state. Knowing what we now know about the importance of the hearth, it is not difficult to see the connection. 
   As a daughter of Cronus (the cutter) and Rhea (mother of the gods, whose name appears to link the 'ground' with 'flow' and 'discharge') Hestia received the first and last offering of every household. And it was from her fire, that other fires were lit. In her temple, also round, 'the eternal fires of Hesta were tended,' and this duty was undertaken 'by widows past the age of marriage'. (Serif [Plutarch, Numa, IX]) Or perhaps it was just that these women were more experienced older women, those women would have built their own home fires, and knew how to keep these home fires burning, and were not likely to be distracted as a virgin may be, However it was Hestia herself who held onto her virgin status, and not her tenders, and this, it appears, was despite the attention of both Poseidon and Apollo.
    And then nearer to home, leaping across to the famous fire of Bighid of Kildare we find an example of another virgin-tended hearth. Gerald of Wales, Giraldus Cambrensis and other writers describe this hearth as 'a fire surrounded by a hedge'. this hedge could be crossed by no man. I am presuming that this fire must have been undercover. Just imagine how difficult it would have been to keep a fire burning, outside and in a country not known for its arid weather conditions. Now unlike Hestia and Vesta, this fire belonged to a mother of one child, again this  fire was attended to by virgins. This time we call them nuns.
Serith points out that;
'Kildare is not far from Uisneach and Tara, the religious and political centes of Ireland,
forming an equilateral triangle with them. By the time the existence of the fire is recorded
the virgins are nuns, ("brides of Christ") and Brighid is a saint, but their Pagan origins are 
assured by the temple of "Minerva" (like Brighid a craft goddess) in 3rd century Britain
                which also had an eternal flame.'(Puhvel, 1987, p 174)'
     Many interesting links spring to mind here, if we think of Brighid we are never far away from smith craft, which leads us back  to the fire. Along with fire we think of candles back there in the home. And then she is also commonly associated with thresholds, which links back to the Lars that we met earlier, which takes us back to that homely hearth of the family.  And then in her fiery role my imagination can't  help but draw similarities with the Shekinah, the light and bride of God.
    However, moving back across to those warmer drier climes, it seems that in both Roman and Vedic public rituals there was more than one sacred fire.
 'The main fire was on a square altar, the ara, which stood in front of each temple. This was the one into which the main offerings were made. Next to it was another fire, in a round metal tripod, into which was offered incense and wine at the beginnings of  sacrifices. These were the standard offerings in the domestic cult, and this fire may therefore be identified with the domestic hearth.' (Dumezil, pp, 314 -15) [Serith] 
This domestic hearth, as opposed to the grand fires we have been examining recently, 'received offerings to family deities and ancestors.' 'Although the family priest ( the pater ) might be male, the fire tender was female.' (ibid)
    Serith goes onto suggest that in Vedic tradition; 
     'The domestic hearth is certainly the primary of the two. The garhapatya is lit from the sacrificer's  own heart. If the other two fires go out, they may be relit from the garhapatya if it goes out, the entir  ahavaniya (including the ashes) must be moved to the garahapatya's place before the ritual can continue'. (Aitareya Brahmana 7.5, in Keith, 1998, p. 292)'  (ibid)
   So the lighting of the fire had to be done from scratch,not from pinching flame from elsewhere. And it is interesting to note that this needed more than physical strength and commitment but as we say, one needed to 'put one's heart into it.'. We have already seen that the Virgins of Vesta lit there fire by 'friction' or in my opinion, a great deal of effort. So the lighting of the home fires, that fire right there  in the hearth, stems right from the heart, and is kept alive by the dedication of the one tending it.
  Then when I take a little time to continue with these thoughts, not so long ago a married woman was considered to be bound to her husband, and as a sign of this she would dutifully tend her husband's hearth. The wife and mother, although taking up a place that modern day women may cringe to ponder, still had that place of charm making.
   Having returned from my own journey, and settled myself back in my own hearth. I look back to the pages that kindled this journey in the first place, Words penned by Shani Oates, Maid of the Clan of Tubal Cain in her book The Star Crossed Serpent 11.
     'Within earlier Paleolithic societies, recumbent stones deemed to be Her body, personified in the earthen alter in the fullest sense. These continue to serve as the central focus of many dwellings as hearthstones. Charged within the 'Old Covenant.' the Maid as 'bride' of the Old Horn King represented by the hearthstone, binding her spirit to His to the Stang she holds, transmitting its virtue to her Clan, a cohesive unit for its survival and continuity. In this manner. 'The House That Jack Built' through the son/Sun, embodied  within the figure of the Maid as refuge for the Egregoric spirit.' (p83)
Again according to Oates
‘In the Neolithic world She had been a stone block, a throne mount to represent the bond between Man and Creatrix. Her presence was one that enthroned and enveloped the Monarch within Her status.’
  So I have been round the world and returned to the stone slab of my hearth, no literal fire burns here at the moment, but the fire that burns here is in my heart, lit by dedication and hard work.
Sources
Bayley,H. The Lost Language of Symbolism Volume 1 (1912) http://archive.org/details/lostlanguageofsy01bayl
Bettleheim, B (1927,[1977]) The Uses of Enchantment, The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books, USA
Burke, C. S (1913[1995]) The Handbook of Folklore; Senate, The Guernsey Press Co Ltd, Guernsey.
Deakin, R ( 2008 ) Wildwood, Penguin, London
Gary, G (2008) Traditional Witchcraft, A Cornish Book of  Ways, Troy Books, London
Gary, G (2011) The Black Toad, Troy Books, London.
Gray,W.G. (1997) Qabalistic Concepts, The Living Tree, Weiser Books, Boston.
Oates, S (2012) Star Crossed Serpent. Vol 11 Mandrake of Oxford
Serith, C ‘The Prot-Indo-European Hearth; http://www.adf.org/articles/cosmology/pie-hearth.html
Warner, M (1995) From the Beast to the Blonde, On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Vintage UK, London