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Sacred Fire

This article was written by Ellen Evert Hopman
posted under Celtic Studies


The Goddess in the Sun
Modern Paganism is heavily influenced by Greek and Roman mythology, and as a result certain assumptions are made, such as the idea that the Sun is male and the Moon female. A careful study of indigenous traditions will reveal that this wasn’t true for many—or possibly most—cultures on planet Earth. In Egypt, the Sun was within the eye of the great lion Goddess Sekhmet or within the cow Goddess Hathor at night and reborn from the womb of Hathor each morning. The Egyptians also associated the Sun with Bastet or Bast—Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra, divine protectress of the pharaoh, whose sacred animal was the house cat.

Germanic cultures had Sunna and Frau Sunne while the Norwegian Goddess Sól traversed the heavens in a chariot drawn by the horses Arvak and Alsvid.

The Lithuanians and Lativans had Saule, the Finns Paivatar or Beiwe. The Hungarians had Xatel-Ekwa and the Slavs had Solntse. For the Arabs she was Al-Lat. In Australia she was Bila or Walo. In India she was Bisal-Mariamna or Bomong and in Sri Lanka, Pattini.

The ancient Hittites had Wurusemu, the Babylonians had Shapash. Among Native American cultures she was Unelanuhi to the Cherokee, Wal Sil to the Natchez, Malina to the Inuit and Herkoolas to the Miwok.

In Japan the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is still regarded as the Goddess of the Universe, from whom the emperor is descended.

In Ireland she was Grian (the Moon was her sister) and her path through the heavens was a central tenet of Celtic cosmology. To move "deiseil" or "sunwise" around a place or an object brought the greatest luck. When one engaged in ritual or processed around a sacred object, such as a holy well or a standing stone, it was important to move around it deiseil, in order to go with the flow of the universe.

A sunwise procession around a place or thing in Ireland was called "cor deiseil." In the Hindu tradition a sunwise procession is called "pradaksina" and is said to bring luck and prosperity. Moving with the Sun was a common facet of Indo-European culture.

Moving anti-clockwise, widdershins or "tuathamail" (Gaelic) was considered very unlucky because it meant you were deliberately going "against the flow" of nature. In fact, invading armies would approach a fort tuathamail and the inhabitants would know that they were under attack.

Fire Deities of the Celts
The two most popular deities of the ancient Celts were Brighid/Bride/Brigantia and Lugh/Lugus/Llew. Both were deities of brightness and fire. Lugh was not a Sun God as is popularly supposed; he represented brilliance in craft and in thinking and was called "master of every art." Similarly, Brighid was a Fire Goddess, mistress or patroness of arts. She was a Goddess of Healing, Smith Craft (a magical art in ancient times), and Poetry, and also a patroness of mothers (because to be a mother was to be a mistress of every art to at least a small extent).

Brighid was the Goddess invoked at Imbolc, the great Fire Festival of February 1 that celebrated the lactation of the ewes. Lugh gave his name to the festival of Lughnasad, the Fire Festival of the first fruits of the harvest, originally funeral games in honor of Lugh’s foster mother.

In Irish tradition the Sun was also known as "Áine Clair," or Áine the Bright. She could appear to mortals as an old woman, a young princess, a mother, or a mermaid. "Áine Chliach" lived in a hill (Cnoc Áine). At Summer Solstice bundles of straw, or "cliars" were tied to poles, lit on fire, and carried around her hill. The cliars were then carried through the fields, around the cattle herd, and along boundaries to bless the land with Áine’s fire.

Making Offerings to Sacred Fire
In Celtic religious practice it was essential to make offerings to fire, water, and land. Offerings placed into an earthen pit or into water went down to the Sidhe Realm (Fairy Realm) of the ancestors. Offerings placed at the base of a rock or tree fed the Land Spirits, and offerings placed into a ritual fire went up to the Sky Realm of the Gods. Each of these methods had a powerful magic of its own, but I will focus on Fire offerings here.

The High Holy Days of the Celts (Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain) were all called Fire Festivals. A large bonfire (or in the case of Imbolc, candles) was featured at each of these celebrations. Offerings were made to the fires, such as butter, sacred woods, aromatic herbs, whiskey, and oils, as prayers were spoken and petitions made to the Gods.

Beltaine offered a unique opportunity for purification by fire. At this Fire Festival the cows were led between two sacred bonfires, so close that when a white cow passed through them her hair would be singed brown. This ritual was done to purify the cows as they left the farm and made their way to their summer pastures in the hills.

At Beltaine and Samhain hearth fires were put out as everyone waited for sacred flames to arrive, brought by torch-bearers. In Ireland the Beltaine fires were lit from the great Fire Altar at Uisneach, home of the Arch-Druid, at Samhain from a fire near Tara.

Hearth Fire
Sacred fire was also honored on a daily basis in the home. Hearth fires were often made with peat, because wood was too expensive and hard to obtain. Every housewife acted as a Priestess when she "smoored" the fire each night, carefully covering the embers to keep until dawn. As she did so she would utter a prayer such as this one from the Hebrides of Scotland:

Smáladh an Teine (Smooring the Fire)
The sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! This eve,
This night,
And every night,
And every night,
Each single night,
Till white day shall come to the embers.
Traditional, Carmina Gadelica 84 and 85 (adapted)
(From Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore, by Ellen Evert Hopman, Pendraig Publishing, 2011)

Baby Blessings
Burning peat embers were used bless newborn babies and calves, carried in a shovel around the mother and child three times, asking the fire to protect them.

A Scottish Fire Blessing for a newborn child was done by filling a basket with bread and cheese and wrapping it in clean linen. The baby was laid on top of the bread and cheese; the oldest female present would carry the basket around a fire three times sunwise, and then suspend the basket briefly over the fire. Then the "bairnie" (baby) was put into its cradle as the bread and cheese were distributed to everyone who had helped with the birth.

Communal Fires
One of the most powerful of fire rituals was the "Tein-eigin," or Need-fire. Such a sacred fire would be constructed by the entire community when the whole area was threatened, for example by a cattle disease. The fire was started by friction and had to be made by nine times by nine married men, who would remove all metal from their persons before starting (such as coins, watches, and jewelry). Sacred woods (such as willow, hazel, alder, birch, ash, yew, elm, apple, pine, and oak) were used, or the fire could be made from only oak.

Every home in the area would put out their own hearth fire and then re-kindle a new fire from the flames of the Need-fire. Then they would put to boil water from a holy well or sacred spring. Once the water had boiled it was taken from the flames, cooled, and sprinkled on people and animals to heal them.

Fire Temples and Fire Altars
I have written a new novel, the third in a trilogy of Druid novels, called Priestess of the Fire Temple: A Druid’s Tale (Llewellyn, March 2012). In the novel I explore the idea of a Fire Temple. We know that such temples once existed in every province of Ireland and that Saint Brighid based her famous temple in Kildare on an earlier Pagan model. These temples were sacred precincts where a perpetual fire was kept by Druids. Petitioners with needs would come to the temples to have their questions answered.

I explore the idea of the Fire Altar in the first two novels, Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey and The Druid Isle.

References and further reading:
Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations, Lindisfarne Press, New York, 1992
Hopman, Ellen Evert. Priestess of the Fire Temple: A Druid’s Tale, Llewellyn, Minnesota, March 2012
Hopman, Ellen Evert. Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey, Llewellyn, Minnesota, February 2008
Hopman, Ellen Evert. The Druid Isle, April 2010
Hopman, Ellen Evert. Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore, Pendraig Publishing, Los Angeles, California, 2010
Ó’Duinn, Sean. The Rites of Brighid Goddess and Saint, The Columba Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2005
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_deity. Accessed January 9, 2012.

Ellen Evert Hopman
Ellen Evert Hopman (Massachusetts) has contributed to several Pagan journals and is a popular author of Druidry-related titles. A former teacher at the Grey School of Wizardry, Hopman has been active in American Druidism since 1984. She is a member of the...  Read more

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