Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Hearth

I'm starting a new book, "Way of the Hedge Witch" by Arin Murphy-Hiscock. It's about hearthcraft and home-based spirituality rather than hedgecraft as such, but as that's an aspect of a hedgewitch's craft, I'm nonetheless quite interested to read it. It's been on my "reading pile" for a while, and it's good to dig into a practical witchcraft book after the mental anguish that was "The Spiral Dance".

There are elements in A.M.-H.'s spiritual witchcraft that reflect mine. I do disagree with her in parts (more on that later in the review) but there are parts of it which are a part of my craft, too. This doesn't happen often, and it's exciting to find. For example, in her spiritual craft, the hearth is a sacred space according to tradition, rather than because sacred space is created around it or within it; it's simply sacred in and of itself. (And of course this may apply to other places as well, such as sacred groves, which many of us recognise as being sacred in their own right.) I feel very much along these lines myself, having always felt a... kinship of sorts, a spiritual link to the hearth, even as a child. I have lived the vast bulk of my life in houses with hearths and fire-places and how I should cope without one I do not know.

In coming to - and over the last decade, gradually forming - my personal religious witchcraft (and in more recent years my Heathenry), the hearth has played a growing part as an element of my craft and my spirituality. To begin with, not so much: I started out with rather fluffy, very modern ceremonial-influenced witchcraft, as many do, because it was the most accessible. In time, however, I came back to the witchcraft that had interested me as a child, the traditional, the vaguely-spiritual, folk-religion craft of the village wise woman. My craft is Pagan and therefore differs from that of most witches over the past thousand years, but there are some spiritual elements and folk beliefs that I think have very much been "passed down", so to speak (and not just by the cunning folk).

Respect for sacred places such as standing stones and barrow mounds is one such thing. Sometimes one wonders why more of these things were not toppled, or smashed, but I suppose there have always been people in the places where these things stand who would not have allowed that sort of thing, for whatever belief or reason. Belief in nature spirits such as Jack-in-the-Green is another; what place would these entities have in the context of orthodox Christian beliefs?

The hearth as a focus for witchcraft and spiritual work is one of these things. Part of that will of course be cultural, as the hearth will have remained the place where the family gathered to cook, to warm themselves, to tell stories and play games or do their work by the firelight. It would have been honoured in a sense for centuries without any particular beliefs connected to it, regarding its sacredness or anything else. But I think a part of it too is linked to witchcraft, the hearth as a shrine or a monument, an altar, a place to work magic, a sacred place in its own right, and that this has been retained through the centuries.

I think you can feel that continuum, that connection. There's no end of books that say this is ancient or that is ancient, and often you can tell just by the feel of it that it isn't so. In a way, you can still smell the brand new polish. There's no sense of a continuum there, no sense of age. Compare to recon religions, for example, where there is a sense of age but no continuum; we are groping in the dark and grabbing on to what we can, piecing things together, re-constructing in the purest sense but without any solid idea of what the whole will look like. (Unless we're particularly lucky and have a religion with a shit-tonne of primary texts, I'm looking at you, Hellenism. I've seen your, you bastards.)

Of course, the way I work with my hearth may be totally different to the way a woman five hundred years ago - or yesterday - does it, but there is still the sense of something continuing on. Something that has been done thousands of times, being done again. Things with this flavour to them are what I love to find, the type of things I hunt down in my search for the missing bits and pieces I will need for my own tradition of religious witchcraft. I suspect this is in some ways akin to the sensation of "repeated ritual" - particular, specific ritual repeated by many people across a number of decades - experienced in religions such as Wicca and, hell, Catholicism. (Neither of which I have experienced, by the way.)

But, the hearth. It is still sacred, though now people tend to sit behind computers rather than around the fire. Still sacred, despite not being necessary and essential; we have other ways of cooking food, lighting our homes, keeping ourselves warm. The fireplace could be done away with altogether. But "there's nothing quite like an open fire", and for many people it's one of the things they look for in a new home. The only thing really to compare in the home is the kitchen and the altar or shrine, if one has one. The kitchen might even be said by some to be an extension of the hearth, as it's the place a "fire" of sorts is kept, a place where the food is cooked and people will gravitate to in family gatherings.

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