Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions
An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.
The Lighted Hearth
The hearth. The center of the home, the center of domestic life. For our ancestors, it was where food was made, stories were shared, textiles were crafted and mended. Eminent scholar of medieval traditions and folklore Claude Lecouteux writes: "Hearth is a generic term for designating the place where fire burns. The hearth can mean different things depending on the era and the region; it ranges from the simple fire pit of primitive dwellings to the more modern earthenware and cast-iron stove, and includes the open chimney, the fireplace, the oven, or the furnace" (The Tradition of Household Spirits, 69). So when I refer to the hearth, I mean the place where the fire dwells and provides warmth and sustenance.
And, when I refer to the "center of the home," I don't mean the geometric center but the emotional and psychic center -- the place where friends and family tend to gather in a household to share meals and stories, to bond. For me and mine, it's always been the kitchen, in the same room as the stove. So, even though I have a fireplace in my home, I consider the stove my hearth. Lecouteux shares this understanding: The hearth "is the symbol of the life of the house" (ibid.).
Several years ago, not long after my husband and I purchased and moved into our first (and current) house, I performed a ritual to invite the sacred hearth fire into my home. I wasn't particularly devoted to hearth magic at that point. I'm also not much of a ritualist -- folk or "low" magic is more my thing. I'm not sure exactly why I felt compelled to perform the ritual. Maybe it was that I was in a new house that was truly mine, and I wanted to make sure that I connected with it and any spirits there. Or perhaps I just had the sense that it was something I should do, something that was meaningful and significant. Maybe I was called.
I sat down on a chair in front of my oven, lit a candle and some incense, rang a bell, and closed my eyes. I visualized the history of the relationship between humanity and fire -- from the beginning of tended open fire all the way to the cast-iron stoves that many of my relatives in the northwest still use to heat their homes, and finally my own oven. I thought of the winter cold and the darkness that my ancestors faced and the danger those things held. I thought of the wilderness, and how making a fire is one expression of humanity's mastery of that wilderness (however temporary and limited). I visualized my ancestors before their hearths, whatever form those took, and felt that deep thrum of connection with them, that tugging of the threads that connect us across space and time. I realized that the sacred hearth fire has always been with me, though I didn't recognize it. I felt its divine presence, ancient and abiding. I acknowledged it and formally invited it into my home, into my life and my practice.
I didn't realize it until much later, but that ritual did more than instill a deeper connection to my home. It transformed me. It opened my eyes to the sacredness of the home as a whole, began the journey of my reconnection with my ancestors, and drove me to learn more about household magic and traditions -- the spirits, the lore, the hidden significance of things we see every day and take for granted. And there is so much lore and tradition surrounding the hearth.
For simplicity's sake, we can categorize these traditions into three basic functions: protection, purification and healing, and divination. For the rest of this post, we'll look at the protective aspect of the hearth fire.
The Hearth as Guardian
Lecouteux spends quite a bit of time covering the various ways in which the hearth and its fire ensured protection for medieval European households (67-72, 178-184):
Newborn babes were placed on the hearth or walked around the hearth, and when visitors came, they were expected to first look into the stove so that the newborn would be protected from the evil eye
Family pets, too, were walked around the hearth three times to ensure that they didn't run away
New servants would greet the hearth fire and stir it up the moment they entered the home -- essentially to present themselves to the hearth and the spirits that reside there
New brides would toss coins into the furnace before the wedding supper
New husbands walked around the hearth three times to establish their role in the home and bond with the hearth
On Christmas day, it was traditional in one region of Switzerland to place "white alms" on the hearth -- milk, butter, white bread, white wine, etc. -- for the souls that entered the home that night to ensure their good favor and protection
Romans would burn the ploughshare in the hearth and then dig a furrow with it in fields to protect their animals from wolves
In Germany's Upper Palatinate, furnaces would be sprinkled with holy water and have hawthorn branches burned within them to expel witches (i.e. malevolent magic-workers, in the older use of the word) from the chimney, which was intimately connected with the spirit world (more on this in a later post)
The heart of an animal would be hung to dry on the chimney above the hearth in a home where pets or children were stricken by malefic spells, and as the heart dried, it was believed that so too would the heart of the guilty witch dry up
A fire in the hearth was believed to safeguard the household against lightning
These are just a handful of many traditions, and other folklorists have noted similar traditions. Yvonne Cresswell, in her study of Manx folklore, noted that the open hearth in the main room of the house was the heart of the home (139). All of the jugs in the room would face the hearth and, when the house was swept, the dust would be swept into the hearth -- not out the door (ibid.). This is because dust is the bearer of household luck. If it was swept out the door, luck would leave the home. Cresswell also mentions a Manx custom of leaving food -- steeped oats, pudding, or soda bread -- by the side of the hearth for the fairies (ibid.). Benjamin Thorpe notes in his wonderful 1851 study Northern Mythology, Vol. 2 that "lightning does not strike a house in which there is...a fire burning in the hearth" (183).
Many of these traditions, you may have noticed, are sacrificial in nature -- serving the fire by stoking it, tossing in coins, leaving food and drink there overnight. This is because the hearth is the gathering place for spirits. These spirits include ancestors as well as "tamed" land spirits who enter the home during its construction or by being invited later on.
Fire drives away the things that threaten us -- disease, chill, dangerous animals, hunger -- for as long as we tend and nurture it. It provides defense and assurance of life. It has been a good friend to humanity for a long time, and it doesn't ask for much -- just some tinder to make a spark, some dry wood to keep it going.
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