The tiny sparks from my flint and steel shower down on my char cloth. This flint and steel set was a gift from a fellow druid from almost a decade ago, a gift that has long offered me a connection with my ancestors. It takes me a few moments to remember the technique he taught me, striking the steel against the flint in a particular way with a particular angle to my body. Starting a fire in an ancestral way isn’t just a mental act; its an embodied one. I breathe deeply and remember, and the tiny sparks fly from my tools to the char cloth. After a few more attempts, a single spark lands on the cloth and starts to glow orange. I carefully pick up the char cloth and blow on it to increase the ember size, then place it in a specially prepared “nest” of bark, pine pitch, and soft cattail and milkweed fibers. I blow some more on the nest. At first, nothing happens, and I fear the spark is lost. But then it starts smoking, more and more, and suddenly, the whole nest is aflame. I lay this nest carefully down and begin layering thin plant stalks and dried materials that I had prepared in advance, slowly building the fire from that tiny ember. In 30 minutes, the fire is blazing and warm, and I feel intimately connected with it because I was able to start it on my own with basic tools.
We call Beltane a “fire festival” in the neopagan traditions because fire plays a central role. Modern Beltane festivities are derived from the ancient tradition in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man where people lit fires and drove cattle through them as a blessing as they went out to pasture for the summer months. People seeking blessings also lept over the fires. For a nice description of the history of this practice, see this site. Fire was such an important part of Beltane because fire represents the sun, and by May 1st, people are eager to welcome back the sun, to enjoy the sun of the long summer months, and to have sunlight to kiss our crops that they may be fertile and abundant for the long winter ahead. Today, in honor of the fires of Beltane, I want to talk about fire as an ancestral practice and encourage exploration and experimentation with fire and fire starting in more traditional–and ancestral–ways.
Fire and the Ancestors
Fire is one of humanity’s oldest friends, tools, and teachers. New research from the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggests that homo Erectus–our pre-human ancestors–had been cultivating and working with fire at least one million years ago, possibly 1.5 million or more years ago. It is likely that when we evolved from homo Erectus into homo sapien, fire was with us. That is, when we birthed from the ancestral womb into the species we are today, fire was with us. When our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies and developed agriculture at the start of the Holocene 8000 years ago, fire was with us. When our ancestors needed to stay warm in harsh winter weather, fire was with us. When our ancestors needed to keep back the predators in the dark, fire was with us. Fire is with us even now, as we heat our homes, move our vehicles, cook our food, and journey far and wide.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about fire is that it is one of the two things that distinguish us from other species (the other being language, although that fact is currently under debate). Fire scares and drives away animals and insects, while it invites humans in closer. If you are camping in the woods, its instinctive to want to have a fire, get close to it, and burn it brightly. Some of my most frightening times in nature have been when I was alone in the dark woods without the warmth and comfort a fire offers. This, too, was ancestral. Because my ancestors have been enjoying the warmth, light, and protection of fire for literally millions of years–it is no wonder that the primal part of my brain felt it lacking, especially when I heard critters afoot in the cold and dark night.
Today, people gather around fires, indoors or out, just as our ancient ancestors did. At any outdoor event or camping trip, there is a fire to be found. And where there is fire, there are people gathered, laughing, cooking food, telling stories, drumming, sharing songs, or more. Indoors, the fire has much of the same function. The hearth in traditional times was the center of the home. The fire burning, food cooking, the sharing of skills and traditions across generations. The hearth offers us a place to join with each other, teach each other, and nourish our own spirits.
Fire also has also contributed significantly to human evolution; Charles Darwin said that humans were distinguished evolutionarily by two things: language and fire. We can see this is true from both the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of human societies. First, fire has the unique ability to render food more digestible: we see that the application of fire to meats, vegetables, and fungus creates it more nutrient-rich and dense. Some scientists suggest that this has had a strong evolutionary function, in that more nutrient-rich foods, honed by fire, allowed for a larger brain to develop (as typically, about 1/5 of our total calorie intake goes towards our brains). Fire also was a driving force in moving humans further up the technological ladder: fire is what allowed us to create and refine copper, bronze, iron, steel and today, many, many advanced technologies still rely on basic principles of fire. Thus, each successive civilization has learned new and powerful ways to harness fire–and sometimes, to destroy with it.
Fire has had spiritual connotations throughout human history, and across human cultures. The worship or deification of fire, known as pyrodulia, pyrolatry, or pryolatria, was common, particularly in pre-industrial societies. The ancient alchemists and hermeticists, too, understood the importance and power of fire. Alchemists divided fire into four types including the “secret fire” upon which all inner alchemy (spiritual alchemy) was based. Likewise, in the Golden Dawn tradition, fire is considered the first element, and everything descends from fire. Ancient societies, including Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese, venerated fire and worked with it elementally and ceremonially.
In every way, fire reconnects us to our roots, to those ancient ancestors who gave us such an important gift. When I look at the fire from this perspective, I realize that fire is my most important ancestral gift, and thus, one of the best ways to honor my ancestors is to learn and understand fire, to work with fire as they might have, to learn to start and build fires, and to honor them through this practice.
Beltane Fire Traditions, the Ancestral Way
So perhaps this Beltane, consider working deeply with fire in a new way. I offer three such suggestions for how to honor the ancestors and work deeply with fire at Beltane: traditional fire-starting, tending and honoring the fire. These are three of many, many you can consider!
Fire Starting and Honoring the Ancestors
For most of us, fire-starting requires a match or lighter, something that makes a quick flame. We often build a big stack, put wads of paper in it, light it with some fossil-fuel-derived source, and hope for the best. However, learning to make fire in other ways, slower ways, ancestral ways, creates what I can only describe as a different quality fire. For one, you have a different investment in the fire, both from a physical and mental perspective. On the mental side, we use ancestral knowledge, knowing what materials to use, knowing the techniques, learning and failing and growing from the experience. On the physical side, as I mentioned in my opening, fire starting is an embodied practice. These practices take a lot more physical effort, particularly when you are learning. But that physical and mental effort leads us to amazing outcomes: fire we have truly kindled and lit with our ancestors beside us. But also, by starting a fire in a more traditional way, you invite your ancient ancestors to your side, and thus, the fire seems to have a different quality. Finally, the fire has more meaning because you have done it the slow, old way, and that has power.
The “Fire Triangle” I learned at the North American Bushcraft School offers some practical suggestions for ancestral fire starting. This triangle suggests that we need Fuel (something that will easily burn); Oxygen; and Ignition (a heat source, a spark). Traditional fire starting methods are focused on all three, with a specific emphasis on generating the spark, ember, or heat and transferring that into a fuel source that will allow you to produce a flame and using your breath to help bring oxygen into the fold.
The traditional method that I know best, using flint, steel, and char cloth, was detailed above in the opening and requires a minimal investment (a good kit is usually less than $20, you can also make your own charcloth from scrap cotton fiber). There are other primitive fire starting methods that you might try. Here are a few with detailed videos. I prefer videos for this, so I’m going to link you to some good ones)
- Flint and Steel demonstration and method.
- Hand Drill: method overview and instructions (probably the hardest to learn at first, but also potentially the most satisfying). Local materials for me to use include mullein, yucca, or goldenrod stalks and soft pine or cedar boards).
- Bow and Drill methods.
Starting a fire with one of these methods takes practice! I’ve had some basic instruction in the hand drill, and one of my goals for this Beltane is to learn it in more detail this Beltane. After Beltane, I will continue to develop my knowledge of local woods and materials for this beautiful fire-making technique.
I believe that fire building and fire starting can be treated as a sacred practice, a ritual in and of itself. With each step, we can set our intentions from preparing to start the fire in a sacred manner, lighting the fire, and honoring the fire.
Honoring the Fires
Honoring the fire begins with creating it in a sacred manner, and continues with how we tend it and what we do with it. I think that each of us can create our own unique fire traditions, but here area few that I particularly like:
A fire offering. As we make offerings to the land, spirits, or other divine entities, we might also honor our fires.
–Creative offerings. I like to paint things or create things that are specifically for the fire. This may be a wood burned piece, a small painting, or other natural creations. In particular, for these, I like to gather things from the land itself and use only natural materials (such as my natural inks or dyes, watercolors, etc) so that anything I offer to the fire is not going to have chemicals or other byproducts. So my fire-offering this Beltane is a wood burned piece honoring the fire, created for the fire with intent.
–Fire blend of Herbs. You could also create a fire blend of herbs that you can offer; I especially like to include resins or other pine substances in these so that they burn brightly. Cedar or pine boughs are also great choices for this, as they crackle and pop when they burn. A ball of beeswax mixed with herbs is truely a sight to behold in the fire! I might do a whole post on fire offerings in the future.
–Music or Drumming. Play a drum, flute, sing, or make some other kind of music for the fire. Anyone can pick up a drum and offer a heartbeat rhythm and connect with the fire.
–Dance. Dance around your fire, letting your body flow and move (if this isn’t usual to you, just do this when nobody else is around! Even for someone who is not a dancer, you can connect with the fire in this way).
Treating the fire respectfully. Another thing I recently learned at the North American School of Bushcraft is that some native traditions say that you should never throw anything on fire, but rather, place it gently. This is becuase Fire is seen as an elder, worthy of respect. As druids, we might develop our own respectful fire traditions, so for you personally, you might think about what treating a fire with respect means. If you have a regular fire pit or a ceremonial pit, you can develop a layered set of expectations and actions that guide your fire interaction. Remember that the fire is a place for us to gather with our ancestors, and thus, it is always a sacred place.
I hope that this post has been inspirational to you and that you have a blessed Beltane! May the fires burn brightly and may spring once again return.
Acknowledgment: I am indebted to the fire teachings of Jason Drevenak at the North American School of Bushcraft as inspiration for this post.