Below is excerpted from an article on Fire Rituals written for Circle Network News.
It is dark and chilly, October 31st, 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.
The first priority when working with fire has to be safety; for the participants and the surrounding area. A minimum of the expected height, doubled, is needed for a safe zone. Simply, the heat will drive all from this zone. Be aware of clothing especially airy or highly flammable costumes! Mow as much of the surrounding as possible. Keep shovels, water, or water soaked burlap bags handy. Embers can be carried fifty feet or more into the air, only to fall back down on participants. All need to watch out for each other. Nothing worse than a flaming Pagan! Never use chemical accelerants for starting ritual fires!
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!
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!
The 1997 my effigy was built much simpler to around fifteen feet. Similar to the one pictured above built in 1998, 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 pampus 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!
Samhain 1999 The Crone Gate with her Apron. Festivants left an offering in her apron pockets as they pushed their way through stuffed pendulous breasts to enter the circle.
Samhain 2000 The only image I have, Tractor was broke so did all work by hand and lifted with the van.
Samhain 2001 He has a canvas face painted. The ritual featured a Raven seated in a chair hidden between the man's legs who offered black eggs with runes to Festivants.
Samhain 2002 Festivants pushed through the sensory blackness to meet Hekate. We scryinto the cauldron, and are together bound by rope and then freed with a knife and key.
Samhain 2003 The Spirit chair, $offering$ of a dollar hot glued to spirit chair. Gather a tarot card, apple, and pomegranate on the way to a spirit dancer and Charon wisdom at the river. Magus and Empress light man with chair offering.
Samhain 2004 A path with gifts of ash, seed, herbs, and water; then traded for a candle and Festivant added to holes drilled in the ancestor feast table. The phallus raised to horizontal(not quite as high as hoped) and then shot bottle rockets into the crowd!
Samhain 2005 The largest ever at 36 feet, this had the history walk carrying ancestor pumpkins on the pines path. This was the advent of the lift pole in building. After the story of the pumpkins an early lighting took place as pumpkins were placed. A dry and breezy night put us all in touch with our mortality!
Samhain 2006. We divide into three groups and gather with your tribe to find a word, song, chant, or action to offer the horned one and your community. The Horned one and teens gather us all up to meet at the circle!
Samhain 2007; A ritual path of inquisitions and many gifts to guide your personal path. Traded for Candle, hear the creation myth and the'Wheel Turns' chant, all participants light him together with their candle.
Samhain 2008 ritual had a direct procession to the circle. On the path the keening and mourning of our losses is heard; environmental, cultural, personal, and losses in our in freedom. The cutting away of all unneeded was done before the burn.
MPG of Man Raising
Samhain 2009 ritual was the path of choices, each to receive herbs of offering. We speak our ancestors names to Death to enter the circle and pass through to add our offering to the man. Turkey oil lighting for a wet year.
Samhain 2010 was the year of the Goat. The effigy was built in the form of a goat, with horns and hooves. The Abbotts Bromsley Horn dance was the prelude to the lighting. He again was difficult to light with flames rushing all the way to the head, the fire dying back and then a turkey oil boost!
Samhain 2011 The man had a spiked, Mohawk hair style. His face was very simply made. Note building photos, we fill the two teepees of the legs to meet the chest, then "MORE STICKS". Ritual had a station to see yourself as an ancestor and a gift to the cauldron on the spirit chair.
Samhain 2012 We really tried to give him "booty" and with much effort succeeded! We created a kind of mask for his face this year. The building process involves weeks of large community meals, a large part of the sharing.
Samhain 2013 The last year...
This years Corn Man was a joy to build. We did not have huge amounts of help,as usual many of the same stalwart helpers and a few new people and surprises. The standing up went easily, and at each of the three building days we had time for a leisurely afternoon meal and a night dinner for those staying later. We quit a little early each day, just to noe get too far ahead of schedule. Building was a great time to spend together!
The weekend of the burn, we were again ahead of the curve. by friday night much was already in readiness and by 1pm, well he was pretty much ready but for the ritual details. It was the first time we were not overwhelmed with last minute tasks.
After our spirit supper, folks were sent in ones and twos to the tune of "World Below", each carrying the pumpkin lantern of their ancestors. A song greeted them at the circle, and with a few final words and a song each was invited to place their pumpkin around the man's edge, speaking their ancestors names. Our spirit chair was used as a torch to light him, and he is now history.....
Hundreds of people have participated in the last twenty years, and the number of ancestor names muttered during this time is in the thousands. May your name always be heard this day once you join our Mighty Ones!
If you have photos or video of previous years, Please send then to me!