What we see in the fire

A hand, holding matches, reaches toward a blurry flame

More than anything else, my druidry is rooted in fire. Waters are important, plants and animals are important, but fire: fire is foundational, light and heat and fellowship and welcome and civilization all rolled together in a twisting, glowing spire of flame. It’s no accident that I worship Brigid, whose fire gives strength of healing and poetry and home. And yet I often see fire instrumentally: as a means of illumination (literal or metaphorical), as a gateway, as a sort of converyance of the gods.

I was reminded recently, however, that the fire can be more than a means to an end, but rather an end in itself. One week ago marked Three Cranes Grove’s celebration of Dumannios, the second (lunar) month of the Celtic year. In this month, 3CG honors the Matres and Matronae (“The Mothers”). We know from the writings of Bede that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated their feast day on December 24th, Mōdraniht. And further, in the darkness of the year we often turn to protection and comfort; much of the Mothers’ epigraphic evidence we have from antiquity centers on pleas for protection, both in the labors of childbirth and in the struggle of battle. And so in the Dark Moon we honor the Mothers, who watch over us from our births until our final breaths.

For this moon’s working, we took our usual omen, and then turned to firegazing to contemplate the messages of the Mothers and the rest of the Kindreds. This, too, is appropriate; while 3CG usually refers to Dumannios as the ‘dark’ month, linguist Xavier Delamarre gives it as the month of fumigations, of smoke and vapor and soul and vital force (Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise 153). In this month of darkness we look to the fire and its vitality for reassurance.

I must say, however, that the fire wasn’t terribly reassuring to me this month. We had these omens, which our seer Lisa took on the Greek oracle:

  • What is our path till the next rite? Desire righteously (Epsilon)
  • What is our individual focus? Strength can be weak (Delta)
  • What should the grove focus on? Righteous judgment (Psi)

These are challenging omens. Here was no “bounty of the land” or “strength in community” — these omens call us to discernment and moral rigor. And what I saw in the fire was no more comforting: as I settled back on my heels and looked into the coals, my eyes were drawn firmly to a branch slowly splitting, looking ever more like a dark body, wreathed in fire. I thought of our national situation, the mounting wave of xenophobia and hatred rising from national and international events and spurred onward by the early presidential contest, classifying some bodies as worthy, and others as dangerous and unwanted.

Desire righteously: which of our desires are righteous, and which are petty, spurred on by fear of otherness? When are our own desires for safety and complacency unrighteous; when do they lead us to harm others?

Strength can be weak: Bravado and belligerence may seem like strength, but often they are paper masks that tear and crumble, leaving only emptiness behind. And as corollary, those things which may seem weak — compassion, concern, humility — may be the stances that take the greatest moral backbone to uphold.

Righteous judgment: This is, to me, the most difficult. Even as I typed the two explications above, I questioned myself: are these the messages of the gods? Or are they the messages that I tell myself? How can one be certain that one’s sense of righteousness is, in fact, righteous, instead of self-serving and self-affirming?

In the end, I can never be entirely certain. But I take heart in the fact that, in this month where we seek comfort, I don’t find myself comforted by the messages from the fire. I find myself challenged. And this, too, is the gift of the Mothers: though they protect us and bring us comfort, like good parents they also bring us challenge and hard truths. In this time of pan-cultural celebration, may we look past the glister to see into the shadows. And when we see others waiting there outside the fire’s light, may we always extend a hand of welcome.


Header image: “Playing with fire,” Matthias Weinberger/Flickr (CC BY-SA) 


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