Embodied Spirituality: The Hearth

The hearth is the heart of the home. A home without a hearth lacks focus (or perhaps the focal point of the living room becomes the television). This is interesting because the word focus is Latin for hearth.

focus (n.)
1640s, “point of convergence,” from Latin focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), which is of unknown origin. Used in post-classical times for “fire” itself; taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Online Etymology Dictionary

So the concepts of hearth and home were linked in Roman thought too. In ancient times, the hearth, as the sole source of heat in the home, would have been massively important. Now that we have radiators and central heating, we tend to forget about the importance of the hearth. But in ancient cultures, the hearth was the place where you made offerings to the family gods and spirits, the lares and penates (household spirits in Roman religion). The notion of ‘familiar spirits’ originally meant the deities and spirits honoured by your family. In Vedic culture, the making of the sacred fire was a very important ritual.

The hearth - photo by Yvonne Aburrow

The hearth – photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Several cultures have domestic spirits, often associated with ancestors, such as the Cofgodas (cove-gods) of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The English and Scots believed in house Brownies, also known as urisk in Lowland Scots.  Slavic cultures believed in Domovoi, which were originally ancestral spirits in Slavic paganism. There are also Aitvaras (Lithuania), Dimstipatis (Lithuania), Ev iyesi (Turkey – known as  Sahab or Kimsene in Anatolia), Hob (North and Midlands of England), Kikimora, aka Shishimora (Russia), Kobold (Germany – possibly related to the Anglo-Saxon cofgod), Olys’ (a hearth spirit of the Komi people of northern Russia), Lares (Ancient Rome), Pūkis (Latvia), Pukys (Lithuania), Tomte (Scandinavia), and Zashiki-warashi (Japan).

In cultures that use stoves, they have also acquired resident spirits and folklore as well. Domovoi live in stoves. In Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll novels, there is an ancestor who lives in the stove. In Swedish, he is called Förfadern, similar to the English word forefather.

So, from this brief survey of the folklore, we can see that the hearth is traditionally the place where you honour your ancestors and household gods and spirits, usually by making offerings to them. The fire would have been kept burning all the time, so it would be a good place to make offerings.

hearth (n.)
Old English heorð “hearth, fireplace, part of a floor on which a fire is made,” also in transferred use “house, home, fireside,” from West Germanic *hertho “burning place” (cognates: Old Saxon and Old Frisian herth, Middle Dutch hert, Dutch haard, German Herd “floor, ground, fireplace”), from PIE *kerta-, from root *ker- (4) “heat, fire” (see carbon). Hearth-rug is from 1824. Hearth-stone is from early 14c.

Online Etymology Dictionary

The hearth was the heart of the home, and the spirits that were honoured at the hearth were at the heart of the family’s ritual observance. For example, the Lares and Penates were very important in ancient Roman culture:

Lares (/ˈlɑːrz/LatinLarēs[ˈɫa.reːs], archaic Lases, singular Lar), were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. Their origin is uncertain; they may have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries or fruitfulness, or an amalgam of these.

Lares were believed to observe, protect and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location or function. The statues of domestic Lares were placed at the table during family meals; their presence, cult and blessing seem to have been required at all important family events. Roman writers sometimes identify or conflate them with ancestor-deities, domestic Penates and the hearth. Because of these associations, Lares are sometimes categorised as household gods but some had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares. Those who protected local neighbourhoods (vici) were housed in the crossroad shrines (Compitales) which served as a focus for the religious, social and political life of their local, overwhelmingly plebeian communities.  (Wikipedia)

The offerings made to these spirits were usually a part of whatever food was being prepared. In Ancient Rome, both Lares and Penates were associated with the hearth, and were offered food. These customs continted long into the Christian era, and in some places, were never eradicated.   In 1703, John Brand wrote about the people of Shetland making offerings to the house brownie:

 when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called “Brownie’s stane”, wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie.  (Wikipedia)

So, if you want to recreate these customs but you don’t have a hearth, you could have a chimenea or a firepit in your garden, or a shrine with candles in your house. If you do have a fireplace with a real fire, or perhaps a wood-burning stove, then you could have a bowl for offerings on the hearth, and set aside food from your meals for the ancestors. You can also make offerings in the fire itself.

The poem To Lar, by Robert Herrick, gives a glimpse of the variety of offerings that may be made to hearth spirits:

NO more shall I, since I am driven hence,
Devote to thee my grains of frankincense ;
No more shall I from mantle-trees hang down,
To honour thee, my little parsley crown ;
No more shall I (I fear me) to thee bring
My chives of garlic for an offering ;
No more shall I from henceforth hear a choir
Of merry crickets by my country fire.
Go where I will, thou lucky Lar stay here,
Warm by a glitt’ring chimney all the year.

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