Posted by: Brian | December 20, 2017

The Celtic Hearth: the Heart of the Household

The Celtic Hearth: the Heart of the Household
By Brian Walsh (originally published in “The Hearth” emagazine 2005)

Traditionally, Samhain is not only the Celtic New Year and feast of the ancestors, it is also the beginning of winter and the end of the outdoor activities of summer. The crops were all harvested; the cattle were brought down from the highlands and the pigs brought in from the woods; fishing and hunting were mostly finished; and the season of battle and cattle-raids was over. Though some outdoor work was still necessary, at this time our ancestors’ attention turned inward to matters of home and family. If the household was important, noble guests would arrive for various winter feasts while on tour of their territories; plans for next summer would be arranged; political alliances struck; marriage matches made; and stories, both entertaining and sacred, both fanciful and historical, were told. The focus of much of this activity was the household hearth. It was not only where food was prepared, but also the primary source of warmth and light for the dwelling, around which people gathered through the long winter nights.

In Iron Age round houses, the hearth was located in the center of the dwelling under the vertical ridgepole which held up the roof and protruded through the smoke hole. Even when the shape of houses changed, the hearth remained symbolically, and often literally, in the center of the house right up until the Early Modern period.

Though the secular functions surrounding the hearth were more prominent in the winter, the sacred functions of the hearth endured throughout the year. The most prominent of these sacred functions were carried out daily by the woman of the house, the (primary) wife of the householder. At night, it was the privilege and obligation of the woman of the house to bank the fire, insuring that it would smoulder under a blanket of ashes until morning. This act was accompanied by prayers invoking sacred protection to guard the home throughout the night. Before Christianity, these prayers would have likely been addressed to Brighid or her local cognate. In the Christian period, these prayers are typically addressed to Mary or Brighid, or occasionally Christ, but the following Scottish prayer only vaguely points to the Trinity:

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,
Each single night.
Amen.
(Carmina Gadelica 84)

The next morning the fire would be roused from under its covering of ash and new fuel added to awaken it for the day ahead, again with prayers. It was considered very inauspicious for the hearth fire to go out at any time, except at Samhain and Bealtaine when the hearth was ritually extinguished and relit. For this reason the utmost care was taken in tending the hearth.

In addition to the daily tending of the fire, there were seasonal rituals which impacted the hearth as well. In Irish tradition, all four Ráithí, the seasonal quarter days, included paying some special attention to the hearth.

Ireland consisted of many tribal groups, who were theoretically (though almost never actually) united under a high king who ruled from Tara. Whoever was king of Tara was usually deemed high king, at least in name, and so had certain religious functions and responsibilities even if he was not politically the actual ruler of all. In this spirit of unity, on the eve of Samhain (Nov. 1st) every hearth in Ireland was ritually extinguished, plunging the whole island into darkness. A sacred fire was brought from Tlachtga to re-ignite the fire of Tara, the personal hearth of the high king and ritually the hearth of Ireland as a whole. Fire from the king’s household hearth was used to rekindle the hearths of households close to Tara. But for those households further from Tara than was practical to travel, bonfires were lit. When the light of these bonfires were seen by neighbouring communities they would light their own bonfires and spread the sacred fire to their local hearths. These bonfires in turn were seen by people in further outlying communities who would then light their own bonfires. From bonfire to bonfire sacred fire spread across the land until the whole of Ireland’s hearths were rekindled. In this way the whole island shares in one fire spread from the high king’s hearth.

On the eve of Imbolc (Feb. 1st), the hearth becomes the center of attention. St. Brighid, the Christian remembrance of a goddess of the same name, is welcomed into the house and Imbolc games are played to court her blessings. This connection is even more obvious among Scottish Gaels, who put an effigy of Bríd ‘to bed’ in a basket by the hearth along with a birch rod. The next morning, they hoped to see the imprint of the rod on the hearth’s ashes as a sign of her blessings. Many household chores were forbidden on Imbolc, but could be resumed the next day, the Christian feast of Candlemas (Feb 2nd).

On the eve of Bealtaine (May 1st) Irish hearths were again ritually extinguished and the whole island plunged into darkness. The process of relighting the hearths was similar to what happened at Samhain, only this time a sacred fire was kindled by the druids on the hill of Uisnech. It is this druidic fire, in contrast to the king’s fire at Samhain, which is lit and spread across the whole of Ireland. Incidentally, there was also a prohibition on Bealtaine of letting fire or live embers leave the house, lest the household’s prosperity be taken away with the fire.

At first glance it would seem as though Lúghnasadh (Aug. 1st) is an exception to the above pattern, as the hearth usually is not explicitly mentioned in the seasonal customs of this holy day of first harvests and market fairs. This is not surprising considering the very public nature of the festival; but if we look a little closer, there are some household customs. Most important of these was a token harvest by the householder, which was then made into bread by the woman of the house, sometimes with berries collected by the children. This meal, like every other meal, would of course be cooked on the hearth. What sets this meal apart is it is the first meal of the new harvest, and so exalts the Powers that insure that the household will not starve through the seasons ahead.

So it is clear that the hearth plays an important role in the rhythms of the day and the year, at least in recorded insular tradition, but these are not the only times when attention is paid to the hearth. Reflecting what Bruneaux asserts with regard to Celtic sacred sites, the most important features of the home (as well as the community or the territory) are likewise the entrance, the perimeter, and the center. This is why prayers and auguries were done while standing in the doorway, and why perambulation of ritual boundaries, and circumambulation of ritual centers are all such important features in Celtic religious practices and/or later folk practices. The role of the center, which may be taken up by a tree, pillar, well, pit, or fire in various sacred sites, is taken up by the hearth, and the ridgepole above it, in the domestic cult.

With little evidence for separate or extravagant domestic shrines in a Celtic context, it is likely that the central hearth served in this capacity, not only as the representation of the hearth goddess, but also as the locus for worshiping other household gods as well as the ancestors. Iron Age and Romano-Celtic hearth andirons have been found in many regions decorated with bull, horse, or ram heads, all of which are sacred and sacrificial animals. One andiron from a late Gallo-Roman site was marked with “laribus augustis”, etched in an unprofessional hand by the householder, explicitly linking the hearth with ancestral spirits in his time and place. Evidence for ancestral reverence at the household hearth takes its most intimate and immediate form among the Aeduii of Gaul where the dead were actually buried under the household hearth. A variation on this practice is found around Lough Gur, Limerick, where the dead were buried under the hearths of abandoned houses, as though to afford them a hearth of their own, mirroring the living around `living’ hearths by putting dead people around `dead’ hearths.

Clearly, the cult of the hearth was not limited to matters of food and the home. It had important implications for community identity, as is made obvious in the Ráithí customs above which link the family hearth to the hearth of the king at Samhain, and the druidic fire (perhaps representing the hearth of the gods?) at Bealtaine. In addition to linking the family with one’s contemporary world, the whole of the nation and those who shared one’s gods, it also linked the living household to the community of those who had gone before, the ancestors.

For most of its history, Ireland consisted of many tribal groups, who were theoretically (though almost never actually) united under a high king who ruled from Tara. Whoever was king of Tara was usually deemed high king, at least in name, and so had certain religious functions and responsibilities even if he was not politically the actual ruler of all. The religious functions of the high king in Ireland, or a king in his particular region, mirrored that of the householder in his house. Similarly, as discussed by Enright, the role of the woman of the house is reflected on a grander and somewhat diffused way in the roles of the filidh (bards), cup-bearers, and, of course, the queen.

No discussion of the hearth would be complete without a look at the goddess of the hearth. With many local variants on her name, she was called Brighid and Bríg among the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland; Brigantia in Briton; and Brigindo, Brixia and Bricta among the Gauls. The Romans usually conflated her with Minerva, though she may also be profitably compared to Vesta, especially in relation to the hearth. This much beloved goddess was worshiped throughout the western Celtic world, and continued to be worshiped into the Christian period as the Gaelic saint Brigit and the Breton saint Brec’hed, keeping much of her original character and qualities intact.

Her name means ‘High/Exalted One’ with the added connotations of ‘Rising-Up’ and implications of fire and heat. Given her role as Banfile (she bard), her name likely also has a punning connotation of ‘sacred utterance’, linking her to other Indo-European gods like the Norse Bragi and the Vedic Brihaspati. Her Gaelic epithets include: Banfile ‘She-Bard’, Bé nGoibnechtae ‘Smith woman’, and Bé Legis ‘Healing woman’, as well as Briugu ‘She who runs a hostel’, Ambue ‘without cattle’ (referring to her as warrior and protectress of young warriors), Búadach ‘the Victorious’, and Boillsge ‘of brightness’.

In Gaelic tradition, Brighid is a daughter of the Dagda. She is a fire goddess with many solar traits. She is patron of the bards, and a goddess of poetry and inspiration. She is a goddess of healing, smith-craft, the hearth, hospitality, protection of the home, young children, and inexperienced warriors. Brighid is said to lean over every cradle, and through her interest in healing and children, she is often assumed to preside over childbirth (a role once governed by Bóann’s sister Bé Binn). Brighid is also protector of crops and livestock, especially against disease and malicious magic, and presides over dairy production and many household crafts. With the death of her only son at the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Brighid started to keen. As this was the first time keening was ever heard, she came to preside over grief and mourning. Like the hearth itself, Brighid is intimately entwined with many everyday aspects, and so is a central feature of our lives from the cradle to the grave. It is the multivalent, culture-bearing quality which probably caused the Romans to see the Gaulish manifestations of this goddess as Minerva rather than quiet unassuming Vesta.

In her most regal aspect, the hearth goddess can even take on the role of Sovereignty. This is seen, though not emphasized, in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired where Bres gains his kingship over the Tuatha Dé by marrying Brig. Preeminently, the Sovereignty aspect of this goddess is seen among the Brigantes, for whom Brigantia was their tutelary goddess, a role which no doubt extended out of her qualities as culture-bearer and victory-bringer, and perhaps as the incarnation of the hearth of the nation (echoing the role of Tlachtga, legitimizing the king’s hearth at Tara).

Though worshipped through the Gaelic world, Brighid’s primary shrine was at Kildare. Kildare is about 60km away from both Uisnech and Tara, creating an equilateral triangle with them. Given Uisnech’s druidic (1st function) connotations, and Tara’s political/warrior (2nd function) connotations, it is not hard to imagine the shrine of the hearth goddess as having a decidedly nurturing (3rd function) quality. This was a round enclosure, in which a perpetual fire was tended by nineteen nuns in the Christian period, and probably nineteen virgin priestesses before that. They are the hearth keepers of a whole people, not unlike the role of the Vestal virgins in Rome, and (if Celtic logic resembles Roman logic on this count) their virginity insures that the hearth they tend remains a sacred communal hearth. Because the woman of the house tends the hearth of her husband’s household, were these priestesses married the fire they tend might be seen as that of a given individual rather than everyone. A similar 3rd century British temple, also with an eternal flame, was dedicated to ‘Miverva’.

Celtic sacred sites took on a variety of shapes, but it is interesting that Brighid’s enclosure was round, which may reflect another Pan-Indo-European precedent. Vedic rites had more than one fire; among them were a square fire as the ‘altar of offering’ and a round fire to represent the household or community of the petitioner. The round fire was tended by the petitioner’s wife. Likewise Roman rites had a square altar for offerings and a round fire on a tripod where wine and incense were offered at the beginning of the rite. Furthermore in Rome, Vesta’s temple was round, while those of other gods were square or rectangular.

Though certainly most prominent, Brighid is not the only deity in Gaelic culture with hearth associations. Previously mentioned is Tlachtga, the daughter of Mug Roth, whose fire is used to re-light the high-king’s hearth at Samhain. Furthermore Triad 120 mentions the hearth of Morrigan as one of the three things that constitute a smithy, along with Nethin’s spit and the Dagda’s anvil. As a final example, we also have a reference in Dinneen’s Gaelic dictionary, of Goibniu, the smith god, being invoked to insure a good yield while churning butter by putting a live ember in the churn.

With this brief overview of what the Hearth has meant to our predecessors – by looking at both Iron Age pagan practices and subsequent folk practices – we are now left with an important question: Can this be relevantly and appropriately translated into our modern practice?

The hearth and her fire are no longer the focus of attention in our homes; the television has taken that prestigious position. Our heating system is hidden in our walls, and our stoves are relegated to the corner of the kitchens, ignored when not in use. Even if we are lucky enough to have a fireplace, it has become a romantic archaism of no practical significance. However, even though our lifestyles have changed, we have not. We still require light and heat and food, as well as shelter, well-being, and companionship, all of which are represented better by the hearth than any modern device. We still gather in family units, both biological and chosen, and create communities in which we share and grow, create and nurture. We are still beholden to each other and to all who have gone before us to define who we are. So, if we are essentially the same human beings our ancestors were, and the hearth goddess, as a divinity, represents an eternal constellation of truths and Mysteries in this world, then certainly many hearth-based beliefs and customs can be relevantly and appropriately translated into our modern practice.

Even though most of us do not have literal hearths anymore, we can still honour the hearth goddess, and all that the hearth stands for generally, by setting up a household shrine. Exploring how this might be done inevitably moves this article from a historical exploration of the cumulative experiences of our ancestors to a more ‘confessional’ exploration of modern personal experience. Since the ancient Celts seemed to focus their domestic observances on the hearth (and since my biases are both Celtic Recon and minimalist) I would suggest a single household shrine on a shelf over the stove or on the mantelpiece, if one has a fireplace. This household shrine would be the focus of all household observances. The center of the shrine should, of course, be dedicated to the hearth goddess, with the other household gods to the right, and the ancestors to the left. Household gods would include the patron deity of the householder’s profession and the personal patron deity of each of the household’s members. The ancestors could include not only deceased family members, but also other dead people who have profoundly shaped a member of the household and their worldview or work, such as personal role-models or important founders or innovators of one’s religious tradition, profession, or nation.

Having said that, as neo-pagans, it is up to each individual household to determine how traditional or innovative, and how minimalist or extravagant, they wish to be in defining their hearth, their household practice, and how they wish to honour the gods. Furthermore, if a household honours more than one pantheon, it might be prudent to have separate shrines, each following the mandates and precedents of the culture in question. There are also practical concerns to be considered. For example, our household varies from my stated one-shrine ideal because we don’t have much room in the kitchen, so Brighid is above the stove, and the rest of the household gods are on the top of my computer hutch in the main room.

Brighid’s shrine has a Bride cross and a candleholder that looks like a miniature fireplace. We also have a couple of small bottles with water from special places and a bronze lamb I cast myself in a metal working class. Our ribín or brat brides come and go, and we use normal household dishes for offerings. Your household hearth shrine need not look like mine; I include this description merely to provide food for thought.

In closing, as Samhain approaches, with its traditional relighting of the hearth fire, consider doing something special at your hearth, be it setting up a household shrine for the first time, or paying special homage at your existing household shrine(s), or simply lighting a votive in the center of your stove for the hearth goddess. Spend some time mulling what the hearth has meant not only to countless generation of Celts, but to humanity as a whole. The fire which has given us light and warmth and cooked food; the fire which was pivotal in transforming us into tool makers and shapers of metal; the fire around which our history and sacred stories were told. Take some time to contemplate the hearth, and the goddess whose Mysteries are embodied in it.

Selected Bibliography

Bruneaux, J.L. (D. Nash, trans.), The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites and Sanctuaries, Sealby, London, 1988.

Danaher, K. The Year in Ireland, Mercier, Minneapolis, 1972.

Enright, M. Lady with a Mead Cup, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1996.

Kondratiev, A. “Brigit”, Devoted to You (J. Harrow, ed.), Citadel Press, New York,2003.

Patterson, N. Cattle Lords and Clansmen, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, 1994

Rees, A&B, Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961.

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