C’mon, Baby, Light My Fire
I’m writing this on Beltane, which is the historically Gaelic/Scottish festival marking the beginning of Summer. Traditionally, this is the time (approximately halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice) when the cattle would be led from their Winter quarters into the pastures to graze. The event was celebrated with bonfires, through and around which the cattle and herders would walk (or run, or dance), as a symbolic ritual of purification and protection through the coming season.
It got me thinking today about the significance of Fire. Fire has dual and opposite connotations – both destructive and cleansing. Like most things that play a significant role in our lives, it’s a double-edged sword. The other elemental energies that play a role in my Spiritual tradition are similar in this respect. Water is essential for all life on this planet, but it can also surge and drown our people, animals and food sources and ruin our infrastructures. Air is likewise necessary for our existence, but when wind howls and storms and tornados rage, our homes and businesses in their way can be blown to bits. The Earth provides a bed for our crops and shelter for us and our animals, but because it’s alive and growing, its shifting can devastate our dwelling places and cause volcanoes to spew fire and ash and molten rock to cover all in its path. Although we anthropomorphize these forces, calling them “angry,” or “vengeful,” or “heartless,” the fact is that of course they are emotionless and blameless. This is the price to pay for living in a world that sustains us in all ways. Yin and Yang.
Those of you who know me personally, or have read my blog with any regularity or listened to my radio programs know that I’m a serious fantasy fiction geek. I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, talking about or watching Marvel heroes (DC sucks, except for Wonder Woman of course), the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and, most recently, Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones uses the symbolism of Fire in the ancient ways. The Red Woman worships the Lord of Light, and she sees him in the Fire. She even famously sacrifices her enemies (and others, most notably the child of the would-be king) by burning at the stake. The anti-hero Sandor Clegane (the Hound) is terrified of Fire as the result of a childhood incident involving his sadistic brother. The dragons use Fire to destroy Khaleesi’s enemies. The only way to ensure that the dead can’t be turned to wights is to burn their bodies. On and on, we see Fire playing a critical symbolic and ritualistic role in the advancement of the story. The book series itself is “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
As a witch myself, I use Fire a lot to make magic. I use it for warmth and light, of course, and have tried to live in places that use Fire as a heat source. I burn candles. A LOT of candles. And I often use them for rituals. I light campfires and bonfires, and can sit around a fire pit for hours, or until the insects drive me indoors. I burn sage and other herbs (though I don’t smoke them – it’s important to me to take care of my lungs) to purify, and incense to change the atmosphere or my mood. Fire to me is magical and cleansing. And, of course, as a glass artist I use Fire in my work. Although I have done flamework (“hot glass” – using a torch to melt glass at very high temperatures and manipulate it to make beads, marbles, tiny sculptures, etc.), I’m not very good at it and therefore don’t enjoy it much. Most of my art centers around “warm glass” – fusing glass together in a kiln (called “warm” even though the temperatures are often around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit), or “cold glass” – soldering together pieces of shaped glass with a hot iron and liquid metals. I sometimes tell people that I bleed and get burned for a living. Working with very hot tools and substances has given me a different perspective on Fire as useful and practical as well as magical.
The symbolism of Fire has made its way into popular culture and common vernacular. We are “tested by fire” (like blades, which are formed in the flames). We rise like the Phoenix, a mythic creature which burns, then rises anew from the ash left behind. Some religious traditions hold that people who sin are cast into hell upon their death where they burn eternally – seems like to them even an eternity of purification through fire can’t redeem a lost soul. Other religious zealots or those willing to sacrifice themselves to bring attention to a particular cause will self-immolate – set themselves afire to make a point. As the only one of the four elements that people (non-scientists, I guess) can make themselves, it has often symbolized in mythology the connection between humans and the divine – and stories abound of humans getting into big trouble with the gods by stealing fire. The “invention” or harnessing of fire is often cited as a major step in the development of our species. Fire is often also used to symbolize sexual desire and passion. And we burn an “Eternal Flame” on the graves of public figures to symbolize that the light they brought to the world during their lifetimes will burn on in their absence. Even what we see as the destructive power of fire – most notably forest fires, whether caused by lightning, dry conditions or human carelessness – are a beneficial and necessary part of the life cycles of certain species. Here in Maine we burn blueberry fields to increase the yields, and I learned while in Yosemite last year that the giant trees such as redwoods and sequoias need fire to burn their tiny pine cones to begin growth of their offspring. Clearing the deadfall is essential for new beginnings.
Okay, so these are a lot of Fire facts – what’s my point? Sometimes the things we fear most is what will put us on the track to growth. The classic symbolism of Fire as both warmly comforting and devastatingly deadly is an apt metaphor for all of the most powerful forces in our life. An example that comes immediately to mind for me is parenthood – our children are our joy and our life. But their deep importance sometimes leads to our deepest sorrows. We laugh, we beam, our hearts burst with love; and we worry, we grieve, our heads swirl with doubt. As they grow and make their own way into the world, make their own mistakes, find their own sorrows, we ache with the helplessness and guilt and sometimes disappointment. The Fire of our passion for them both warms and consumes our hearts and souls. They are the Phoenixes that rise from the ash of our waning lives.
If you’ve never experienced parenthood, substitute what you love most – your partner, your pet, your calling, your special place in the world. Think of how your passion for that commitment sets the tone for your daily life. If things are going well in that relationship, you are happy, serene, you feel good. If not so good… that discomfort is reflected in the way you interact with others, do your job, go about your day. It affects your health, your conversations, your pace, even your dreams. You can be on Fire, your embers could be slowly smoldering, or you could be reduced to cold ash. The condition of the flames of your passion affect the way you live your life.
Winter has gone and Summer is on our doorstep, bringing with it the warmth and light of the sun. We’ll soon be spending much of our time enjoying the outdoors – in our gardens, on the trails and at the beach. But remember that it’s important to keep your home Fires burning and stoke the flames of your commitments – to your job, your family, your partner, but mostly to yourself. Poke the dying ember … blow on it… rekindle to welcome light and warmth back into your life. For the night is dark, and full of terrors.