Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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Walking, Running, Jumping Through the Fire

Ever since I can remember, when I've had to do something difficult -- having a hard but necessary conversation, atoning for a wrong, going through a process of change, or persisting through a hardship or trauma -- this phrase would come to me: Walk through the fire. Even as a kid, I knew it meant that I could get through whatever it was in one piece if I held myself together, kept my eyes and feet facing forward, and accepted whatever happened as it came. If I kept going at a steady pace, the “fire” wouldn't consume me; I'd make it to the other side. I didn't know where that phrase came from, but it always gave me strength. It still does. And it’s true -- I’ve always come out on the other side, more or less in one piece.

Hares and Fire

Fast-forward to me in my 20s, reading Terry Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight for the first time, and I come to this poem:

 

"The hare runs into the fire.

The hare runs into the fire.

The fire, it takes her, she is not burned.

The fire, it loves her, she is not burned.

The hare runs into the fire.

The fire, it loves her, she is free." (70)

 

The recognition hit me like a lightning bolt. It resonated with the same truth I’d been walking with, just in a different form. Pratchett got the idea from something a neighbor told him when he was a boy: "The hare isn't afraid of fire. She stares it down, and jumps over it, and lands safe on the other side" (350). He later found the same folk wisdom in The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson, who also note that the hare will jump toward predators to escape, not away from them. Hares don’t turn away from what threatens them -- they go right through it.

 

The hare is a powerful, complex animal in European folklore. In Britain, it’s one of the physical forms of the corn spirit (Edwards). Similarly, in northern Germany, it’s said that a certain witch used to take the form of a hare and run through the corn. Unfortunately, one of the men mowing shot her with a silver bullet, forcing her to return to her human form and leaving her with a wounded arm that never healed (Thorpe 26-27). Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie also claimed to take the form of a hare. In England, Germany, Silesia, and some Slavic areas, the appearance of a hare in a village was thought to be an omen of fire, and it was even believed that hares could breathe fire (Pentangelo 3-5). It’s possible that the hare as an omen of fire is a result of hares fleeing forest wildfires into towns and villages, and the wildfires naturally following after.

 

There is also a poignant Buddhist tale involving a hare and a fire. It begins with several animals, including the hare, vowing to feed any beggar who comes to them in order to practice charity. While other animals catch prey or harvest fruits for the purpose, the hare (an incarnation of the Bodhisatta) decides to offer himself. Lord Sakka, king of the devas, discovers this and appears in the form of a beggar to the hare. The hare follows through with his vow, but when he lies on the burning twigs, his body isn’t burned. Lord Sakka reveals himself and then, to honor the hare’s selflessness, paints the image of the hare on the full moon (Varma). 

Fire Jumping

Fire is purifying, protective, and nourishing. It can be dangerous, but it also gives us warmth, cooks our food, and keeps away pests and harmful spirits. To honor and engage these powers, people have long lighted fires for sacred ceremonies and festivals, burned offerings, kindled bonfires and jumped over them, walked across beds of hot coals, and passed themselves and livestock through the smoke. Elizabeth Wayland Barber explains that people have two reasons for ritually jumping over fires: “Purification for spiritual and bodily health was first… Second, the higher you jumped the higher the crops would grow” (107-108). Fire jumping and firewalking were mostly done at festivals celebrating seasonal shifts. In Eastern Europe, these purifying fires typically occur during the spring and summer Rusalia, the time when the rusalki -- ancestral water spirits -- emerge from the water to nourish the fields.

 

But in some Gaelic areas, bonfires were also lit at Samhain. Participants would jump over the flames, pass through the smoke, walk between two bonfires (with their livestock), or otherwise use the bonfire to purify and protect themselves for the coming winter. Ronald Hutton describes one such practice in Moray: “one after another of the youths laid himself down on the ground as near to the fire as possible so as not to be burned, and in such a position as to let the smoke roll over him. The others ran through the smoke and jumped over him" (365-368). Smoke is a universal tool for purification and protection, and to bathe in smoke is to be blessed.

 

Pratchett notes another reason for jumping over a fire: “It was considered so potent, and so scary to the powers of darkness, that people would even get married by jumping over a fire together” (6). Barber recalls a similar Bulgarian tradition, “If a girl and boy, holding hands, managed to jump through the fire without losing hold of each other, they were viewed as all but married” (108). Jumping through or over a fire was a test of faith and courage, and doing so with a partner was proof of the loyalty, trust, and care needed in a marriage. And it’s not just onlookers or each other that a couple proves this to -- they prove it to the sacralizing fire as well, which then blesses their relationship and preserves it.

Firewalking: Trance and Liberation

There’s a song tied to firewalking traditions from the Balkans, quoted in The Dancing Goddesses:

 

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine…

When you walk through fire,

you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.” (Barber 343)

 

It is eerily similar to Pratchett’s poem. Balkan and Greek firewalking is a trance tradition in which participants -- called nestinari in Bulgaria -- dance themselves into a trance, culminating in a walk across burning coals without burning their feet. Interestingly, onlookers who have not fallen into the dancer’s trance and tried to walk over the coals “have invariably suffered terrible burns” (343). No one is really sure how the nestinari avoid becoming burned, although there are various scientific theories that nevertheless do not diminish the sacred nature of the practice.

 

These festivals usually occur on the Orthodox feast day of St. Constantine and St. Helen on May 21st, but firewalking can be done at any time, using the hearth fire. Barber notes that “a central point of the firewalking is to facilitate psychological healing among people marginalized by society” (346). Such marginalized people include women (especially younger women newly married into their husbands’ families) and men who did not inherit land from their fathers (346-350). By extension, this could apply to anyone marginalized by society for not conforming to traditional social ideals. So, firewalking was the domain of the oppressed and devalued, those who most desperately needed the catharsis of dancing into a trance and a deeper connection with the spirits of nature on whom the community at large depended. Because of their service to the community, the dancers not only found healing but also elevated themselves socially. As Barber notes of one newly initiated nestinarki:

 

“if the venerable St. Constantine deigns to enter her body and she becomes visibly able to walk on fire, then her status skyrockets: she has been touched directly by holiness. Her new ‘power’ allows her to hold her head up, regardless of her oppressors, and her physical symptoms decline” (347).

 

Dance and firewalking -- deeply intertwined with trance -- are a form of liberation, of circumventing social hierarchy and directly embracing the divine (which, of course, put it at odds with the Church). Dance, as trancework, channels the divine into the human body and the earth, and firewalking is both a trial by ordeal and a ritual of purification, healing, and empowerment.

 

As one Balkan ethnographer notes: ‘We all know suffering. But to come through it, come through fire and water and allow the rest of us to do it too… it’s knowledge from elsewhere” (Buskirk). To "walk through the fire," then, means to let go: of fear, of pride, of expectations. We let the flames take them. We focus on the act of doing, of going through, each step of the way, so that we can emerge safely on the other side.




Works Cited

 

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. W.W. Norton, 2013.

 

Buskirk, Don. “Fire-Walkers -- Greece & Bulgaria.” Folkdance Footnotes. https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/special-occasions/fire-walkers-greece-bulgaria/.

 

Don, Lori. “Animal Folklore: Chasing Hares Through Stories, Myth, and Legend.” Folklore Thursday. https://folklorethursday.com/legends/chasing-hares-stories-myth-legend/.

 

Edwards, Eric. “The Folklore of the Hare.” Eric Edwards Collected Works. https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/notes-and-queries-the-folkore-of-the-hare/#:~:text=Its%20appearance%20in%20a%20village,cows%20to%20give%20bloody%20milk.

 

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996.

 

Pentangelo, Joseph. “The Grant, the Hare, and the Survival of a Medieval Folk Belief.” https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/58676313/AM_-_Grant_and_Hare.pdf?1553200132=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DThe_Grant_the_Hare_and_the_Survival_of_a.pdf&Expires=1601057472&Signature=Lr0BR4d9F~6jkoABPHGuhsFHvYOf~OsWkXiiGanq9kJ6Nllyg1P8kx0R4rviqLOXTBD5hENyB~W6UoQl25z-9P7fsQaXr5-Kxc0gxGRu5fWtecg1P9KtwAIa1Gpu-6H5datmjxMIVNnYKgKRhswsdsHL6WISL5F4E02LAnO2Tn-Atk1axWbL3AArCvz53aUmO6TJW6hnF8zjPmM5GA6BoM6VD1NPTZ0hg2R45As5VhGkP5nKs3AK4gd8eua~EA7iIK66O4cLvcG728i7FDAv7nkBhMWuEm7K2gtJXtV0b-g7RgHM74Dt-1Su7jBLHDmekWLNhbwUURJ0MyIqLOICBA__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA.

 

Pratchett, Terry. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper, 2013.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 3. Lumley, 1852.

 

Varma, C.B. “003 - The Hare on the Moon.” The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories Of The Buddha. Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts: Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. http://ignca.gov.in/online-digital-resources/jataka-stories/003-the-hare-on-the-moon/.

 

Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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