“Earth, air, fire, and water. These four essences are the building blocks of the universe. Everything that exists (or that has potential to exist) contains one or more of these energies. The elements hum within ourselves and are also “at large” in the world. They can be utilized to cause change through magic. The four elements formed from the primal essence or power-akasha.” (Cunningham, 210)
They are vital to our understanding of the path we walk on this earth, and our reception of the energies we call out to in ritual. Each of the four elements are crucial to every formal ritual, and I would like to dedicate this space to Fire. The transformational power of fire has long been harnessed by magical traditions and religions the world over.
On an altar, fire is placed on the south side--usually in the form of a candle, although lava rock can be a fine substitute. It’s energy in the wiccan tradition is ascribed masculine. Every flame that is lit and extinguished should be done so with intent, from the lighting of your male and female candles, or lighting a fire in your cauldron, to lighting a spell candle. To quench the flames, “use your fingers, candle snuffer, or a knife blade. Blowing them out is an affront to the element of fire.” (Cunningham, 17)
Most texts and instruction regarding witchcraft assume that the reader is already familiar with what fire represents, which can be frustrating! Almost every religious tradition utilizes fire to transmutate offerings from the mundane realm to the spiritual realm, but what are the specifics? I wanted to take a deeper dive into how this has played out in lived situations, so I will start by talking about more commonly practiced religious traditions and how they use fire, then move into the wiccan experience. I want to be clear that I am not of the belief that religious traditions can be whittled down to a set of common phrases or beliefs. I think that sort of view is inherently derivative and simplistic, and disregards the complexity of individual experiences.
It’s certainly easy to see why fire is such an important element. The sun is our life giver, growing all of the substance around us. Our hearths heat our homes and cook our food. Fires can transform metals into their pure form and allow it to bend to our will. Fires can create and destroy. Cremation practices the world over cite the death and rebirth, or freeing of the soul, in their tradition. Not to mention the underworld in Greek, Roman, Christian, and Muslim traditions are described as being flooded in fire. It is metaphorically used to describe those with certain “fiery” personality types. It is the basis of the leap from a more primitive species to the homo sapiens walking the earth in collective communities today. Greek, Cherokee, and Hindu traditions all tell stories of a hero stealing fire from the gods to give it to humans. It protected and still protects humans from predators. It is commonly symbolic of the afterlife and the removal of the soul from the body. As Gaston Bachelard says in his “Psychoanalysis of Fire,”
“...fire suggests the desire to change, to speed up the passage of time, to bring all of life to its conclusion, its hereafter. In these circumstances the reverie becomes truly fascinating and dramatic; it magnifies human destiny; it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano, the life of a log to the life of a world. The fascinated individual hears the call of the funeral pyre. For him destruction is more than a change, it is a renewal.” (Bachelard, 1968)
In Hinduism, the Rig Veda says “Like a boat over the river, take us across for our welfare, Oh Fire, let our sins depart from us.” (Although, it should be mentioned that the Vedas are rarely read and play a very little role in actual practice). The book, The Camphor Flame, is one of the greatest ethnographic researches that I have read regarding lived Hinduism, and if you haven’t had a chance to read this book then you should do so without delay. The book explores the Hindu persons relationship with Hindu deities, and its role in representing deities as well as offering the flame itself and other gifts. Fire in Hinduism is also a witness, often to marriage ceremonies. The fire, as a personification of Agni, represents Agni’s role as the sacrificial and domestic flame. Agni as hearth is sacred to homemakers across the subcontinent who tend to its warmth to keep a happy and healthy home.
The idea of a “baptism by fire” occurs in the new testament (Matthew 3:11, Mark 10:38, Luke 3:16, James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:7) to mean a trial of faith by fire in both literal and figurative terms, in which the one being tested emerges more purified or holier than before. This can mean, especially for the medieval practitioner, the fire of martyrdom. The ‘fire’ of the Holy Spirit is mentioned commonly in the bible, and “baptism by fire” is also used to describe the destruction of the enemies of Christ, both in terms of demons and the flesh. Almost any Catholic church or shrine you visit will have a designated area to light a candle: either in memory of a loved one, as a way to visualize and add power to a prayer or blessing, or as a devotion to a saint.
The position of Keeping the Flame in ancient Greece, also called the Keeper of Life, was a sacred one indeed. A woman known as the vestal virgin was a priestess chosen from the “College of Vestals” and was a state appointed role whose salary was paid by the government. From Martini Fisher, “In the Temple of Apollo in ancient Greece in the seventh century BC, no women except the Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, were allowed into the innermost part of the temple...Vesta (also, Minerva) is the Roman goddess of the hearth and home. Therefore, her role in symbolizing the Roman state was as the hearth and heart of Rome. Standing literally at the center of the city and serving to bind the city together, the goddess’ official title was Vesta publica populi Romani Quiritium (Vesta of the Roman People).” Brigid of the Celtic tradition held a similar role; she was simultaneously the sacred flame and the protector of those who used and kept it.
The sacred fire wedding ceremony in Native American tradition represents the combination of separate lives--represented through separate fires--uniting as one into a combined flame. AAA Native Arts writes, “Three separate fires are prepared in the sacred fire circle. One large fire prepared in the center of the Circle represents the Creator and the holy union of two people. Two smaller fires are prepared, one in the north and one in the south that represents the bride and groom who have individual lives before the wedding ceremonies. Tobacco, sage, sweet grass and corn are sprinkled on the respective fires by the spiritual leader”. A fire in this instance, serves to represent an individual as well as a combining of lives. If two sticks are turned to ash, how can they be changed back to their original state? Or for that matter, separated once again?
In the Norse tradition, fire is a sign of the trickster god Loki, and in Greek it is indicative of the metal working deity Hephaestus. These legends indicate to me the fickle and stubborn yet transformative personality ascribed to the element in question. Superstitions in the Germanic history of witchcraft are abundant; fire was never to be given away from a woman’s house within six weeks of childbirth and a maid should use strips of a man’s shirt for kindling when starting a fire, because a woman’s would never catch. An Irish Beltane tradition tells of lighting a bonfire, from which tribal leaders would light a torch to bring back to their villages and keep alive for the next year.
Fire scrying is a great example of fire’s use in witchcraft and in ritual; fire scrying the practice of staring into the fire for the purpose of divination. I highly recommend this method of scrying- anyone who has ever been camping knows that it’s quite easy to lose oneself in the flame’s dance. Large fires work much better than smaller fires for this ritual, and preferably one that you do not have to feed very often. As the fire grows and catches on the kindling, open your mind to the flames and rest your eyes where they feel drawn. Notice both the shadows and the light, the patterns in the flames and the sounds. Feel its full force in your body and and its heat on your skin. You may see images or shapes or hints of visions both in the flames and in your mind. You might feel a unique sensation or have certain words or phrases come to mind. Take your time and most importantly, write! Write everything down that you see, hear, feel, or smell in as much detail as possible, because this journal will become quite helpful later when you emerge from your trance-like state to discern the knowledge you were gifted in your scrying. Patti Wigington says, “Messages often come to us from other realms and yet we frequently don't recognize them. If a bit of information doesn't make sense, don't worry — sit on it for a few days and let your unconscious mind process it. Chances are, it will make sense eventually. It's also possible that you could receive a message that's meant for someone else — if something doesn't seem to apply to you, think about your circle of friends, and who it might be meant for.” Fire, being such a fervently willful element, usually (for me, at least) produces the most vivid visions of all the scrying techniques. Take the personality of the flame into account when approaching this sort of divination.
In the interest of brevity, as this is a blog post and not a dissertation, I have left the great majority of examples out. There are an endless number of citable instances of fire veneration and worship across the world and across time. I admit that my knowledge is significantly limited when it comes to examples from sub-Saharan Africa and I hope to remedy this gap in my studies soon. What I do know is that fire is exceptionally prominent in religion and more specifically in witchcraft, in terms of both the heart and the hearth; the sun and the soul. It is the great transformer and the great purifier. It is a living embodiment of the spirit world; how you choose to narrow down the deity it represents is left up to you.
When I talked with my mom about this essay, whose witch name it should be noted is “Divine Naked Fire Wiggler”, she cautioned me from viewing fire as a harsh and unforgiving element. It is curious that I had such a difficult time writing about this element in particular considering I myself am a fire sign (Sagittarius). On further reflection, I think my anxiety of whether or not I would be able to do Fire justice was the hold up. Or perhaps I was identifying the fire within me as that which is always getting me in trouble and which I have learned to dampen. Letting such a thing rage in my wildness is not exactly a great way to succeed in life. And that vulnerability has made writing on this element difficult.
Talking to Lily as I write this, she tells me that my fire is why she loves me, and shares a particularly hilarious anecdote from our college days:
“Because walking down Main Street on our way to a final and you flashed the whole street to show Marissa and me how sparkly your boobs were from the naked bike ride. She took a step away from you that day but I took a step toward you because you were able to breathe fire and I wasn't.”
So maybe I am my mother's child after all. A Naked Fire Wiggler.
But who’s surprised.
Pictured above: Sass from The Divine Naked Fire Wiggler and The Ellenlightenment