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It is dark and chilly, October31st, 1996 in northern Wisconsin. Below me a circle of light and drumbeats draw me. The lights of a small warming fire silhouette a large figure shape, two and half stories tall. The procession begins with the sound of bells to draw the Fey folk. On the luminaria lit path, the Maiden greets me with the smell of playdough. She reminds me of my youth. A few paces further, the light of the Mother welcomes me. She anoints me with patchouli oil, and asks, "Do you appreciate the fullness of life?". I mutter, "I do! Great Mother." I follow the sound of bells ahead to a small stone altar at the corner of a large garden. A slightly scary figure confronts me. The Crone covers me in sage smoke, asks, "What have you to offer the Final Harvest?". She ignores my attempt at an answer and guides me forward. I follow the path to where nearly seventy sisters and Brothers have stopped. It is then I first really see it.
Framed by a gate of cornstalks, a giant figure looms. His face is welcoming, horns of corn rise from his head. By the light of torches, I see in one hand a scepter, in the other a large vine basket. The drumming intensifies and a torch appears to light the corn gateway. I join the procession widershins into a large circle. Everything seems backwards this night. As I return back to the West gate, the fire sputters out, its purifying work done. One casts the circle with the ashes of last years Samhain fire. A hand grabs mine with the words; "From hand to hand the circle is cast". Four figures face stone altars decorated with light and symbol. Each in turn welcomes the spirit of the directions. We welcome the Mother and the Father.
The spokesperson for the King steps forward with a scroll. He announces the time has come, the Corn King will return to his home. He has offered to carry with him what this community offers and needs. Slowly at first, a few step forward with words and gifts for the King's basket. Soon all are crowded in front waiting their turn. I know now what this ritual means for me. Just as the circle reforms, wolves howl. With a chorus of dancing wolves, the Blue Hag of Winter arrives. I listen closely as she tells of the harvest, the coming dark time, and the rebirth. She lights her torch and walks the base of the King. To the drummers heartbeat the flames are dancing up his thighs and in moments a tower of flame pushes me back. Several are toning and have arms raised. Most are at the circle's edge watching sparks carried hundreds of feet into the air. A few brave souls dance in the circle. When the figure is totally engulfed with flame the drumbeat quickens and other sounds meet me. Howls, chants, shouts, and toning greet the opening of a gateway to our ancestors!
I kneel to the ground, vibrating with the energy present. The work is done. With the flames still over ten feet high, silent figures release the Quarters and the circle is opened. I see folks following the bells back for the Spirit Supper with the ancestors. I choose to drum for the dancers left. The fire is almost approachable. Celebration is needed after this night's work! This is the magic of fire rituals.
Fire Rituals connect with practices as old as human spiritual expression. They offer the opportunity for Neopagans to integrate one of natures simplest and most powerful forces into their lives. Fire rituals are spectacular, powerful, and dynamic. I have co-sponsored, written, and led many fire-based rituals. They have involved from fifteen to eighty people and fires were from ten to thirty feet tall. I have learned careful planning is important for safety and to integrate fire into an effective ritual.
My experience with building effigy figures for fire rituals began with sharing a friends harvest celebration. He gathered up the years garden waste at Samhain, added some scrap lumber, and added a stuffed figure. After we joined forces his interest in paper mache' led to more elaborate figure effigy designs. We were drawn to the use of human effigies. Animal totem and object designs are easily adapted. I feel the burning of a female figure would bring too many memories to overcome at this time. In our early designs, a pair of green poplar poles was cut, offerings made, and the poles were wired into a tall "X". Holes were dug at the edges of our fire pit and the poles securely placed. The pole tops supported a cardboard paper mache' head. A crosspiece was added, wired in place, to form the shoulders. The arms and mache' hands were added and the whole figure filled out with dry brush. Grapevine, twine and wire are used as needed to hold the shape together. A "skin" of corn stalks and decoration with garden waste gave rise to the name "Corn King".
Each year's figure grew in height and our building techniques adapted. In 1996 we built the figure laying face down on our picnic table, quickly added the brush for the top half, and the head. We then raised it with a barn rope, lift pole (see photo) and a pickup truck. We had prepared the holes in advance and had a slab wood stopper to direct the poles into their holes as it approached vertical. Many people joined in the week prior to a ritual to build the main structure. Over the years we built several in excess of twenty feet!
Last year my effigy was built much simpler to around fifteen feet. I used an "X" in which the top halves were arms raised. A third pole held a grapevine head looking upward. A large teepee fire was then quickly laid below. We used a skin of pampas grass and used garden waste exclusively for decoration. Apples, asparagus fronds, broccoli plants, and comfrey leaves all added the details. It was built quickly and looked magnificent!
In ritual, fire presents great challenges, and opportunities. It is best to have most of the fire laid in advance. Including ritual participants in the final decorations builds community and adds everyone's energy to the fire. A time for individual offerings (words, herbs, masks, or personal items) during the ritual seems a necessity. We have also allowed time; right before a ritual, for people to have individual time in the circle with the figure. An ancient tradition is to add a personal stone to the laid fire. If you can find it in the ashes the next day it is a totem for good luck the whole year. I have always looked at fire as a messenger; carrying to, or away from. It can symbolically cleanse away obstacles.
Our fire rituals have always been at Samhain and so incorporated the symbolism of the season. The effigy was decorated as the male symbol of the final harvest. The corn Kings death allowed for the rise of the "Holly King". It represents ritually opening a gateway for communication with our ancestors and a physical manifestation of the Cone of Power.
I learned not to try to ritually compete with the power of a large fire. Do your ritual work, energy raising chants, song, or words prior to the lighting. Plan for each to respond to the fire in their own way. The power present seems to overwhelm attempts at organized song or chant. Toning works for some as it still allows other to feel free to respond with drumming, dance, words or simply awe. If the fire has a specific aim, the priest-ess directs that energy. Do not try to control fire's energy, directing is difficult enough. When photos have been taken of our fires, they often include images of faces in the flames. Scrying often reveals images and insights. Close a fire ritual quickly, and simply, soon after the height of the fire has passed. Enjoy the balance of the fire freely outside the ritual context.
Fire always offers surprises; a burnt cloak, a large collapse, a flaming arrow that bounces off, a failed lighting, or a partial burn. Be prepared to adapt to the fire. Prepare for possible injuries, secondary fires, and quickly changing the flow of your ritual. This past year our "Jack in the Brown" offered its own challenges. I lit the pampas grass skin and the fire quickly raced to the top and sputtered out. The drummers had a warming fire at the edge of the circle and after a few anxious moments I added coals from this fire. The chant "Spirit of fire come to us, we will kinder fire" spontaneously arose. Several began fanning with their cloaks and within minutes the fire really took off. Two fires in one! An individual task transformed into a group success. What could have been a "failure" became a deeper, more personalized event for all.
Fire offers a connection to our ancestors and to our past, spiritually, and as a species. Ritual fires are a physical manifestation of the awesome power of an important element and directional symbol. In this age of monetary valuing, it is particularly satisfying to build something of beauty and complexity, its sole value for a single ritual. It is a manifestation of community effort transformed. Find the facilities to accommodate a large fire ritual and do it!
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