Blast from the Past, Originally published February 2001.
Author: Ceilidh Lerwick
Fire: The Key to Ritual and Life
There is amazingly very little to say about this issue. I mean, a lot could be said of one wished to embellish and expand and explore all the tangents; however, when it comes right down to it, there is only really a little bit to be said and then one starts to repeat oneself. To almost all ancient peoples living in any climate that became even remotely cold, fire was power. The ability to create fire means the ability to live. Take, for example, the climate of the British Isles. Though the climate does vary from place to place, the Isles are famous for its cold dampness. I know someone who was in Scotland in August and she reports wearing a thick sweatshirt and turtleneck most her trip to keep warm. In a climate such as this, no warmth, no fire, leads to sickness and death.
Because of its great power, fire was often held symbolic of many things: gods, death & rebirth, heath and prosperity. The Celtic festival of Beltaine is one of the most prevalent examples of this –people jumping through the flames as proof that man was in control of the fire, not the fire in control of man. The “eternal” burning hearth of the Celts is also symbolic, life is given by the flames, not to be extinguished except during Beltaine when the flames would be renewed from the Royal fire.
A fire was often the most important part of the Winter Solstice Ritual. This being the shortest day of the year, it is hard to wonder why. When Christianity became the strong religious factor in the Isles, the symbolism of fire was downplayed a bit; however, probably the most interesting study of the Winter Fire Festival would be the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland.
Not specifically Celtic, but a very good study of the extreme in fire festivals. The attitude of the Shetlanders and specifically the Lerwegians is very similar to other peoples of the British Isles. If things had just been a wee bit different in Dundee or Belfast. Well, you get the picture. Highly recommended reading is Up-Helly-Aa: Custom, Culture and Community in Shetland, by Callum G. Brown, pub. 1999. To learn more about Up Helly Aa click here:
It comes down to this, fire was power. It still is in many cases. If you could control fire then you had the power: power over life and death, symbolically and realistically. Fire truly was the key to ritual and life.
If you would like more information on the topics covered in this issue, please see the following sites: (The results of some links make look a little odd as they have been resurrected from the dead through the Wayback Machine.)