Fire is one of the most ancient tools that humans have and one of the things that separates our species from others on this beautiful planet. Humans have an incredible ancestral connection to fire. Think about how a fire draws you in–when you see a campfire or fire in a hearth, you want to get close and stay warm. That is probably because we humans have been working with fire for somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million years. 1.5 million years ago, our ancient ancestors would have been Homo Erectus; and so, as we evolved into Homo Sapiens, it is very likely that fire was already with us. For more information on fire and ancestral fires, I suggest checking out this post!
Because of this deep connection, if we move forward quite a bit in time, we can understand why as people built permanent homes, the hearth–that which contained the fire safely indoors–was the center of the home. Yet today, fire is something that many modern homes have completely lost–where we’ve boxed up fire in stoves or use electricity or gas instead of our more ancient heat, light, and cooking source. Most people in modern homes have almost no connection to the equipment that keeps them warm in the winter or cooks their food–and that ancient ancestral connection to fire is missing. So in today’s post, I wanted to talk about working with a hearth in a magical way–how you can reclaim an abandoned hearth, create a “hearth space” indoors even if you don’t have a hearth, or create an outdoor hearth, all as part of sacred actions.
A hearth has different levels of meaning and rich history in many different cultures. Let’s start with language because language can offer fascinating aspects of history. “Hearth” itself can be traced back to Proto-Indo European *ker, which has connections to modern words in English including hearth, coal, and carbon. Anything that goes back as far as Proto-Indo-European demonstrates a very common thing present in very ancient human cultures situated in Europe and India, and is a little slice into that ancestral history. From there, we see that Hearth is present in Old English as ‘heorð” later moving into our more modern term. Latin also gives us another clue, with the Latin word for hearth being “focis” or “focus”, demonstrating the importance of the hearth. Thus, value and connection to fire and to a hearth is literally woven into our language as far back as we can trace.
Traditional peoples give us another insight into the importance of fire. As explained in Ropes to God: Experiencing the Bushmen Spiritual Universe, Keeney describes how the Kalahari Bushmen, have the fire as part of the center of their community activities–the fire each night is where they share their stories of the day, eat, and connect with others. Stories shared around this fire are the property of the entire community, and are a way for them to weave connection with their surrounding landscape. Here in the US, you can see the importance of the indoor hearth by visiting our oldest houses or seeing historical reenactments. In early US history, the hearth was centered in the home, massive hearths that measured 6 or more feet across with many different cooking tools. These hearths started to slowly be replaced during the industrial revolution as a focus on efficiency and productivity became core values. Thus, the traditional open hearth became replaced by more “efficient” and “hands-off” technologies in the last 150 or so years. In his book On Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane describes fire as being “unceremoniously boxed up” in boxes of Iron; he argues that this “boxing” of fire created disconnection both with wood and fire. While the idea of a hearth may look different in different cultures and parts of the world, the fact that some form of fire and heat exists to cook, to connect, and to warm with seems to be a staple of human existence.
The traditional hearth even inside a house is the center of the home, and I would argue the hearth functions a bit differently than any modern equivalent, like a kitchen. If you think about the center of the home now, depending on the home and family, it is likely the living room, where everyone crowds around the TV, or perhaps the kitchen table, where everyone eats. But neither of these spaces has quite the same relationship with you in terms of comfort, protection, and warmth that a traditional hearth has. I believe that in moving away from traditional fire cooking and hearths, we’ve lost something important, something rooted in slow time and slow living that would be useful for us to consider bringing back.
Key Features of the Hearth: Physically and Magically
If we want to think about re-creating some of these important spaces for ourselves (regardless of whether or not we have access to indoor fire), it’s useful to understand the different features of a hearth from both a physical and magical perspective.
On the practical side, a hearth is first and foremost a fireproof surface that creates a safe space for your fire or stove to burn. The hearth extends well beyond your open fireplace or stove, creating, literally, a safety net for any coals, sparks, or flames that may jump out of the fire. The hearth is what contains the fire, makes it safe, and also provides us additional tools to engage with it. If we consider this from a magical perspective, the hearth literally is built for physical protection, making it potentially very good to use for magical protective work.
There’s also a communal aspect to the hearth. Prior to the replacement of open fireplaces with coal, gas, or electric stoves/boilers/heaters, the hearth was also the source of warmth, heat, and light for much of the year. As the cold and dark closed in during the dark times, families would gather around the hearth to tell stories, share meals, work on various handicrafts and repairs, and spend time together. We see this feature in hearths whether or not it’s an outdoor or indoor space. Thus, the hearth is a space that allows us to share with each other and to stay warm and comforted–again, connecting to blessing, protection, and stability.
Fire provides us safety and life. Making fire is a critical skill for all humans (going back to my discussion of Reskilling at Imbolc a few weeks ago). Making fire was certainly one of the very first skills our ancient ancestors would teach their young, because for many, it would mean the difference between life and death. A fire can be the difference between safety and fear, between freezing and warm, and between safe water to drink and unsafe water. Again, we see the theme of safety and also having something that is a powerful tool to help us provide for our needs.
The hearth also puts you in direct connection with the elements. To make a fire, you would have to gather wood and prepare it–requiring knowledge of the land, how to forage, dry and store wood, tinder, and kindling. You also need knowledge for how to use those materials to start a fire through the application of air and friction. These require connection to nature through the wood and stones in the hearth, the element of air for oxygen which feeds the flame, as well as the element of fire itself through the blaze.
Finally, the hearth is where, traditionally, meals are cooked and shared. Before modern stoves or burners, a hearth was the only source of heat for cooking, and people spent a great deal of time at the hearth. Unlike your modern stove, hearth cooking requires a lot more monitoring, knowledge, time, and skill. That is, you are tending the fire, you are working carefully with the coals, and you are building a relationship with it as you cook your meal. There is simply no equivalent to cooking over the fire vs. cooking over a stove. So here, we see the principles of connection as well as slowing down.
Thus, like many things that were developed before modern industrialization, to truly experience a hearth in a traditional sense requires that we move back to “slow time”. A hearth requires that we attend to it regularly. As we build and feed the fire, the fire requires our time and energy. We have to gather the wood, store the wood, bring the wood in. We have to make sure the fire stays burning in a safe way. As we put our time and energy into the hearth, we are rewarded with a deepening sense of connection to that space as well as the warmth, protection, blessing, and stability of that place. Even if you don’t have a hearth in your home, there are things that you can do to create this sense of warmth, protection, and comfort.
Creating and Tending a Hearth space
Depending on where you live, how you create a hearth space will likely be very different. I’ll cover some options based on your living circumstances. Ultimately, not everyone has a hearth or hearth space in their house that they could already use, so we can get creative.
A Traditional Hearth. If you have any kind of wood-based heating in your house that is in your living area, this would be your obvious choice for cultivating a hearth space. I’ve been in a lot of houses where their hearth sits unused in favor of more modern heating and cooking sources. My suggestion to those who are blessed with this feature in their home is to use it if they aren’t already! Make this the center of some activity, such as through reading, cooking, entertaining friends, or spending long cozy nights near the hearth. Spend time decorating your hearth, making it feel welcoming and homey. Make it a point to start a fire and enjoy being near it regularly. Perhaps learn some hearth cooking. Do what you can to make this space welcoming, sacred, and inviting.
A Hearth Shrine and cozy space. Many people do not have a traditional hearth space–maybe you live in an apartment or a more modern home that does not have a fireplace. For many years, I was in this same situation, and I discovered that there are many other things that you can do to still bring that energy of protection, comfort, and fire to your life. Using the principles above, consider how you might create a space that is cozy, comforting, and that puts fire at the center. For example, place a shallow bowl with sand and add a number of beeswax pillar candles to the bowl–this will create a “fire area” that you can then safely enjoy. Or, you can use a candelabra or some other candle holder, decorate it, and place it in a central space where you often spend time. I have found that using multiple candles really helps you get this “fire” effect. The other piece of this is to make it comforting, inviting, and a place you want to spend time. You can set your hearth candles up each time, or you can give it a permanent place in your home. You may also be in a living circumstance where candles aren’t allowed to be burned (such as a college dorm or apartment). In that case, you might look to electric candles or even those little plug-in fireplaces–something that will give you some fire-like effect. Around your hearth altar, you can practice bardic arts or crafts, read, meditate, eat your meals, spend time with others, and really practice slowing down.
An Outdoor Hearth Space. Another option for the warmer months is to create an outdoor hearth space. Using the same principles as an indoor hearth, you can create a central firepit that can be lit regularly or even an outdoor kitchen, earth oven, or another outdoor cooking area. Outdoor hearths can be wonderful spaces to spend evenings in the spring, summer, and fall, and still practice connecting with fire, slowing down, and connecting to the living earth. At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we’ve been working on building an outdoor kitchen–we have our cob earth oven mostly finished, we have a completed rocket stove griddle/ maple sap boiler, and we’ll be working on some rocket stove burners and a naturally built pavilion in the years to come. This has become a center point for us–with cozy chairs and a warm fire, you can stay out near the outdoor kitchen and use it for sacred activities.
Hearth Space Activities
Now that you have created or reclaimed some space where you can have a hearth, you might wonder what kinds of spiritual activities and sacred work can be done at the hearth. I would suggest a number of both mundane and magical practices.
Slowing down. Tending a fire requires us to slow down and move with earth time. Committing to a hearth practice is a commitment to taking your time to tend a fire and give that space some of your attention. Relaxing, breathing deeply, and simply getting into the rhythm of the flames is an extremely relaxing and important thing to do. One of the things your hearth space can remind you to do is just to slow down, breathe, and relax.
Cooking. If you are working with a fire, cookstove, or outdoor space, learning how to cook on the fire can be a really wonderful thing to do–it puts you in a much deeper relationship with food and with fire. I’ve started learning hearthside cooking in the last few years. Fire cooking does require different tools than you might use in your traditional kitchen–one of the most useful is a cast iron dutch oven with small legs, which is typically used with coals. You simply take coals from your fire and place them on the bottom and top of the oven (or set the oven in a fire that has gone to coals) and wait. Other useful tools are any cast iron pans (you can use them both on the fire and on your regular stove), griddles, trivets, and other tools. Antique stores are one of the best places to pickup cast iron cookware–and this cookware will last you a lifetime. Once you’ve gotten your hands on a piece of cast iron or two, you can make many different dishes and start to explore this ancient art.
Spiritual Activities: A hearth is an amazing time for any number of spiritual activities. Meditation, spending time connecting with the elements of fire and earth, ritual work or spiritual study are all good choices.
Ritual activities: Your hearth can also be the center of ritual activities, particularly those in the dark half of the year if you are indoors, or outdoors during the light half of the year. Around our hearth we have in our home, we’ve held grove events and rituals that have centered on the hearth. For example, we have built ancestor altars using the mantle above the hearth, where then the ancestors are invited in for the rest of the gathering. We have also used the hearth for celebrating the winter solstice, where we place 14 candles (representing the 14 hours of darkness) and each candle (for more on this, see The Druid’s Book of Ceremonies, Prayers and Songs, which has an entry by Robert Pactti on this approach).
These are just a small taste of the many things you can do as you are thinking about connecting with the ancient element of fire, connecting with nature and the living earth, and learning how to more fully embrace the ancestral ways–which will also be the ways of the future.
I would love to hear stories of your own fires, hearths, and work in this area!