Sacred Space and Fire are a part of the ethnic and cultural heritage of all people. Calling the corners, opening circle and appreciation of the ‘Spirit Beyond the Sun’ in celebration belongs to all cultures; although we have different rituals there is so much overlap.
The Sun is so much more than a flaming ball of gas that gives light. The light of the sun is turned into energy that feeds plants through photosynthesis, these plants then provide oxygen for the rest of us to breathe, we also eat the plants and use them to build our homes and weave and colour our clothes. The human body cannot utilise the vitamins and minerals we eat and drink without the presence of vitamin D, which is produced when we spend time in sunlight and the human brain produces serotonin when the light of the sun enters our eyes. The Sun makes all human, plant and animal life possible. The beneficence of the ‘Spirit Beyond the Sun’ is made manifest in the Sun, and all of its cousins; the individual fires that we use to light and heat our home and cook our food. Because of this we could, if we chose, begin to see sacred energy and loving spirit in every fire.
‘It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate or vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and apocalypse. It is pleasure for the good child sitting prudently by the hearth; yet it punishes any disobedience when the child wishes to play too close to its flames. It is well-being and it is respect. It is a tutelary and a terrible divinity, both good and bad. It can contradict itself; thus it is one of the principles of universal explanation.’
In the African, Aboriginal, Native American, Pagan, Celtic, Norse, Greek and Roman traditions we find evidence of the deification of Fire, or at least a spiritual practice of appreciation. The Greeks paid homage to Hestia (later renamed Vesta by the Romans); the virgin Goddess of Hearth and Home, protector of families who saw that the residents were safe, fed and clothed. And, because a town or city was seen as an extended family, there would be a communal hearth for each city, village, town and/or district. The first offering in any ceremony was to the Goddess of the Hearth, the Sacred Fire of protection and sustenance. The Celtic, Native American, African and Aboriginal acknowledgement was more elemental; all of these traditions involve opening sacred spaces, making offerings to the spirits and/or ancestors, lighting cleansing herbs from the central flame, music and dancing.
The tradition of the Yule log came from the Norse and dates back to the iron age (before the medieval era). Traditionally the log was a whole tree, which had to burn for the twelve days of Yule. Yule is celebrated at the winter solstice and at that time all the fires and candles were allowed to go out, then the anointed Yule tree would be lit, offerings made to welcome back the sun and all the fires and candles in the community would be lit from the one sacred flame. It was considered extremely inauspicious for the coming year if the log did not light straight away or if it went out during the twelve-day celebration.
In Native American traditions the Sacred Fire was lit, tended and carried by the Keeper. It, too, was allowed to die once per year and a new sacred fire lit in ceremony; just like in the Yuletide ceremony. It is important to remember that the Native American tribes were nomadic, it was an honourable responsibility to be called to the position of Fire Keeper and to tend and carry the sacred flame from one place to another. As the tribe settled for a time in a new place the one sacred fire was used to light all fires within the community. If the fire was allowed to die the Fire Keeper might even be killed by the community. The Fire Keeper in a sacred ritual is the conduit from the Fire to the Elders, Dancers and Community and reverse, so all energy and intention flows through them. Holding that sacred space can be extremely exhausting for the Fire Keeper, but the energy of the fire sustains all; Elders, Dancers, Keepers and the Community alike.
In Native American ceremony, like the tribal ceremonies of the Aborigines and the indigenous San tribe of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana (also called Bushmen in common vernacular), there are offerings to the Spirit, the ancestors, dancing, drumming and the burning of sacred herbs, plants or trees. Many of the sacred herbs that are burned or smoked have recently been found to contain anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant healing qualities, which nomadic people did not have the equipment to press out as oils but were able to utilise through burning.
In some Aboriginal traditions the word for fire/flame is the same as the word for family, much like the words home and hearth are linked in Europe, and there are a great number of ceremonies that utilise fire in Aboriginal culture. For instance, people entering a new territory would be welcomed in ceremony, introduced to the spirits and ancestors of that region and brought under the protection of the people of that region, they might also be protected by sacred fire using Acacia or other sacred trees.
In one Aboriginal tradition the sacred fire is utilised in a very complicated, formalised form of fighting that allowed them to end resentments between groups. In this way those ‘With Anger and Without Shame’ might address their issues with the group ‘With Shame and Without Anger’ and find peace without bloodshed or loss of life. While in the San traditions of South Africa and Botswana the Fire Dancing Ceremonies are said to heal more than just physical and psychological illnesses, they also heal ‘star sickness’ which causes resentments and jealousy that give rise to discord in the community. In this tradition there is Sacred Fire, Sacred Song and Dancing allowing the healers to enter into a trance and when they are full of healing energy see and heal illness through laying on of hands, sucking out the illness and expelling it (often through sound). In this way the Fire Ceremonies maintain health and harmony in social groupings.
So, although it is inappropriate to mimic the fire ceremonies of other cultures without invitation and full understanding of their histories and significance, it is appropriate and beneficial to seek a deeper connection to and appreciation of Sacred Space and Sacred Flame. We can look both to our ancestors and other cultures for inspiration. The Sacred Circles and Fires are in all our histories, all our cultures and at this time there is a desire to ‘wake up’ to the Sacred, to bring greater reverence and integrity into our lives. One of the ways that we can do this is to create or take part in rituals with others, welcoming in the ‘Spirit Beyond the Sun’ and all its little cousins with reverence, open hearts and minds and to see what guidance and teaching they offer us.
2016 Pilamaya Graduate
Dance for All People, “What is the Sacred Fire?” https://danceforallpeople.com/about-fire/
Ethnography & the Production of Anthropological Knowledge: Essays in honour of Nicolas Peterson, “Splitting the Atom of Kinship: Towards an understanding of the symbolic economy of the Warlpiri fire ceremony”, John Morton, La Trobe University https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p111611/html/ch02.xhtml?referer=&page=7#footnote-13495-1
Indigenous People, ‘Fire Circle’, http://www.indigenouspeople.org.uk/fire-ceremony/
The Culture Trip, “11 Facts About Aboriginal Australian Ceremonies”, Tom Smith, https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/australia/articles/11-facts-about-aboriginal-australian-ceremonies/
The University of Melbourne, Indigenous Knowledge – Resources, ‘Fire in Ceremony’, https://indigenousknowledge.unimelb.edu.au/curriculum/resources/fire-in-ceremony