A twisting (and sometimes twisted) exploration of devotion, seership, hearth witchery, and spirit work.
It has come as a surprise to me, considering my relationship with Odin (the Wanderer and hedge-crosser extraordinaire), but I have been discovering lately that I am far more of a hearth witch than a hedge witch. Don't get me wrong; I do love wandering through the dark woods at night, threading my way through cemeteries, or exploring the Eugene wetlands. I love to explore these liminal places in a light trance state, letting the already-fragile boundaries between the worlds blur so that I can commune with the spirits there. This is part of my practice, and it always will be. (And in the case of the wetlands, I do this every morning on my walk to work, in the early hours when the human world is still barely stirring but the land wights--or land spirits--are awake and going about their day.) But at the heart of my practice, I am a Doorway for my gods and spirits, and to fulfill that function I must be anchored in this world, even as I work at blurring its edges.
I just had an entire week off from my day job, for the first time in years, and found myself spending much of it at my spinning wheel, or gathering supplies to make prayer beads, or in my kitchen learning to make salted caramels, or planning what I will need to begin producing candles and other non-yarn goodies for my Etsy shop. When given a choice between wandering outdoors and busying myself with activities at home, I nearly always choose the latter. Perhaps my physical condition pays a part in this (I have moderate to severe fibromyalgia, and at this point I still work full time so that saps a lot of my energy), but most of the time I find that I would rather be at home, tending a hearth for my gods and for the spirits I honor, rather than out in the world. My trips out in the world fortify and help to shape my hearth; they feed it and strengthen my center. In this I am like Frigga, who puts Her apron aside and rides with Her Husband in the Hunt during the dark half of the year, but the rest of the time concentrates Her efforts on creating a welcoming home for Him to return to after His wanderings.
To get back to the topic of setting up a hearth in your own home if you do not already have one, despite my previous definition of the hearth as a place of fire, there is always the option of interpreting "fire" symbolically. Along these lines, your hearth can be that place that anchors and nourishes your home, that feeds what you love most about it, the "flame" that makes your home a welcoming place. For some people, it would clearly be the kitchen table where the family gathers for dinner to share stories of their day. For some, it might be a place of literal fire, such as the woodburning stove (and do I ever wish I had one!) where herbal oils and brews are prepared.
If you practice seidhr (or seething, as it is sometimes called in Anglo-Saxon Heathenry), the hearth could be the place where you choose to position your high seat and/or working altar. This would be a very traditional choice, supported by Tacitus' observations that within the Germanic tribes each head of household functioned as that household's priest. In the Icelandic sagas, solitary seidhrkonur (sorceresses or witches) are referred to euphemistically as "women who knew a thing or two" and are always depicted as practicing their magic at home, near the hearth.
In my own household, the hearth has always been a communal shrine, separate from the individual and personal shrines kept for the gods and the dead. It serves as a focal point for lunar celebrations and other festivals, around which the family gathers for any shared rites. In Heathenry, a group that gathers regularly for religious observance is considered to be an extended family group regardless of whether the members are actually related by either blood or marriage. The names used for these groups reflect this: in Asatru there are kindreds, and an Anglo-Saxon group is referred to as an inhired (which means family or tribe), or sometimes simply as a hearth. Since our family consists of only two people (plus the furry members and the spirits) and is thus about as malleable and informal as it gets, I prefer the latter term.
We have always had a fully functioning hearth shrine right up until we moved into the little house where we live now. I'm not sure why it took us so long to incorporate one into our present dwelling. We were forced to re-home two of our cats prior to moving in, so that played a part, and we suffered the loss of another cat (Sassy) a year before Pringle's recent death, as well as the recent loss of my partner's grandfather (who lived back east). All of these things, among other factors, played a part, and the past year and a half has been, for us, a time of pulling in and paring down to basics. But a couple of months ago, when we began to build up the more active parts of our individual practices again, the glaring lack of a hearth shrine immediately became obvious. In order to begin truly celebrating festivals again in anything more than a solitary meditative fashion, we needed a place to do so. We needed to establish a hearth shrine at once!
I am a Virgo, and as such a born perfectionist; if I allow myself to, I will delay doing anything until I know I can do it perfectly. This trait is clearly not conducive to getting anything done whether religious, magical, or artistic, so my philosophy has become that it is better to begin simply and to elaborate later on. In this case, our beginning was a folding table we found around the house and positioned between our respective shrines to Odin and Poseidon. For our full moon feast of August, we decorated this shrine with a canning jar filled with fresh flowers, added a scented soy candle in a tin, and placed our plate of food offerings for the household's gods and spirits on the table. A simple beginning. Since then, we have added a little shelf, which sits at about eye level above the table and can hold the offering plate and the candle. (Due to the cats, if we are going to leave food out it needs to be as far off the ground as possible!) Perhaps at some point in the future we will purchase a piece of furniture to replace this set-up--a baker's cabinet with shelves, maybe--but for now, this will work.
All of this seems very simple and no frills, and for us, that's the idea. I love to accumulate religious paraphernalia and tools (generally either handmade or consisting of natural objects such as branches, bones or shells), but in this case, what we needed was a blank canvas, a shrine that can be customized for each lunar festival and each holiday. Like a kitchen table that needs to be kept relatively clutter-free if it is to be filled with dishes for the family every night, our communal altar cannot perform its function if it's loaded down with images and symbolic knick-knacks right at the onset. It will probably acquire some type of handmade covering eventually, and as I am a "woman who knows a thing or two," it is possible that my high seat will be set up somewhere in this viciinity when I am performing oracular seidhr. Your own household altar, however (should you choose to set one up) can be as simple or elaborate as you choose. Another great option for a household "hearth" would be a standing shrine that holds something representing each member of your family, or, if you have patrons among the gods, something representing each person's own patron. This would provide a great setting for a Heathen family's fainings or blots (offerings to the gods, ancestors or spirits). It's up to you!
A few suggestions for setting up your hearth shrine: I would recommend starting with a thorough physical cleansing, and then cleansing it spiritually. Especially if you are "repurposing" a table or other object of furniture from around your house, you will want to do this because spiritual muck accumulates along with dust, and you will want the symbolic center of your household to start off fresh and clean. You can cleanse it using may different methods, but being Heathen I prefer to use the opposing and complementary elements of fire and water. (The Heathen creation myths tell us that the world emerged from fire and ice, so by using these elements you are in effect creating your sacred space.) I carry a lit candle around the area in question, which is a traditional method of both claiming the space and sanctifying it. Then I place the candle on the atar and sprinkle salt water on and around the area, or sometimes I will use a condition water such as Florida water. Florida water is a recipe designed to clear away spirital muck and unwanted spirits and attract good spirits; it is certainly not Heathen, but it does work! You can find it in a Hoodoo botanica or in the Latino foods section of many supermarkets, or you can make your own by filling a bowl with fresh cold water and adding equal drops of orange, lavender and clove essential oils. Wipe the intended altar surface down with this mixture, sprinkle it around the general area, and cleanse your own aura with it for good measure by wetting your hands with it and swiping it down the front, back, and sides of your body, a few inches away, in a clearing motion. Another great method of cleansing the space and yourself is to burn mugwort, which is commonly used by Heathens for this purpose as a recels (incense) and is also sacred to Odin.
After purifying the space, I use runes and charged oils to dedicate it. For my Odin altar I use a special Nine Herbs oil blend I developed, but for a household altar you would want to use an oil designed either for home blessing or general altar blessing. There are many options for this; frankincense essential oil in a base of oilive oil with a few grains of sea salt mixed in is a good choice, but if you want to stick to more traditionally used Anglo-Scandinavian herbs a few drops of rosemary (for protection and purification) mixed with lavender (for peace and harmony) would also work nicely. Good runes for blessing the hearth shrine are Algiz (for protection), Othala (the rune of the home and the ancestors), and Mannaz (which stands for social interactions). I generally trace the chosen runes into the surface of a shrine with the oil.
After that, the choice of shrine coverings, what to put on your hearth shrine, and how to use it are all up to you! But whatever you decide, I think you will find that having a communal area to place offerings and around which to gather for celebrations can only enhance your household's religious experience.
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