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Mysteries of the Hearth

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Finally, autumn has come to the Willamette Valley here in Oregon.  I say "finally," although summer is brief enough here and most Oregonians would probably wish for a few more weeks of it.  Autumn, however, is my favorite time of year and I look forward to it year-round.  The early morning crispness has changed to a genuine chill that lingers through more of the day, the acorns have started to fall and the squirrels scamper after them, eager to begin fortifying their nests against the winter.  The leaves have begun to turn color and soon their branches will become a canopy of gold, scarlet and pumpkin orange.  It is September, and my thoughts turn to my home, my own nest, and to what fortifications I might make now to make it a welcoming and nourishing place in the months to come.

What is the center of your home, its heart?  For most Americans, the answer would probably be "the television."  However, hopefully that is not the case with the average pagan, and a few of you have probably guessed where I'm going with this: in traditional European pagan cultures from Greece to Scandinavia, the center of a household was the hearth.  However, there is room for a little interpretation in what constitutes the hearth for you.

Let's back up a little.  Etymologically, the word "hearth" comes to us from the West Germanic "hertho" and means "burning place."  Right away this evokes the mysteries of fire, hinting at a more than purely utilitarian purpose for the hearth, and inviting comparison with two other places where things were traditionally burned: the temple, where sacrifices were put into fire pits for the gods of the wind and air (as the Aesir--Frigga's tribe by marriage--are), and the crematorium, where the followers of these aerial/celestial gods were immolated after death.  These nuances of animal sacrifice and cremation may not be a welcomed addition to your dinner preparations, but think about it: unless you're vegan, what else are you really doing when you cook food? The only thing missing in most modern households is the religious connection, the honoring of the slain animal and blessing the food while offering up a first portion--the best portion--to the gods.  (There is no reason why we cannot still do these things today, by the way, even if we buy our meat in a supermarket.)

The hearth is a place of fire, and fire is a great mystery, a living entity that from time immemorial has agreed to cooperate with man, offering comfort and destruction alike.  Nothing that fire touches can be simply one of these things or the other--purely nurturing, or solely destructive.  Wildfires, for example, are certainly destructive, yet many seeds cannot grow unless they have been scarred by fire, and fires clear away the underbrush that interferes with the growth of new trees.  The hearth, as a place of burning, carries these mysteries at its very core, as do the goddesses who tend the hearth, of which Frigga is one.  Being a hearthkeeper (or a homemaker, for that matter) is neither  a simple nor a banal thing. 

As the place where food was cooked, the hearth also naturally became a place for people to gather.  It was a haven of warmth and nourishment, where meals were enjoyed by the family and visitors, and the news of the day was shared.  Even when mealtime was not imminent, the women of the household could usually be found gathered by the hearth, swapping stories or information while their busy fingers worked at the ancient textile arts of spinning, weaving or stitching.  (Textiles provided the family with shelter and comfort when away from home; they could be considered, in effect, a moveable home--which gives an idea of their importance to human civilization.)  The latter scenario was largely the same even in the case of medieval highborn women or queens, who would have had a fire in their own privy chamber and women around them with whom to spend the day stitching and talking.  (The "stitch and bitch" being not that new a phenomenon after all.)

The Havamal--an Icelandic text whose title means "Words of the High One" (the High One being Odin)--tells us that when a visitor arrived at a household, he was given a place by the fire "to warm his knees" in return for news or entertainment, the old fashioned version of television.  A household was widely judged according to its hospitality--a word that comes to us from the Latin "hostis," meaning "to have power."  In Northern Europe especially, hospitality was a matter of survival, and a hearthkeeper--the woman who carried the keys in a household, who had the right to admit or deny entry to it--wielded the power of life or death over visitors; if you didn't take in a man who had been struggling a long distance in the cold and offer him a place by your fire, a hot meal, and a bed for the night, he might very well die of exposure.  And once again the darker connotations of the hearth, its role as a place of death as well as nurturing, become clear, as does the special status, the sovereignty, of the one who keeps it.

In the Northern tradition, it is Frigga Herself, the queen of the Aesir, who is primary goddess of the hearth and home.  This is a bit strange, from the perspective of other pantheons; it is generally not the queen Herself who tends the hearth.  (Just as it is not usually the king who is the principle god of magic, or of war, or of journeying.)  But although She does have attendants who assist Her (the nine or twelve goddesses often referred to as Her Handmaidens), the task is primarily Hers.  In the Northern traditions, it is the wife--the holder of the keys--who is keeper of the hearth and the symbolic heart of the home.  This fact recalls what I said in my introductory post about Frigga fitting the model of a very early medieval queen.  In the early middle ages, sometimes popularly called the "dark ages," kings were more likely to be glorified warlords who had leadership over a tribe of people loosely related by blood and marriage, rather than over what we would think of today as a "nation."  As a result, the king had to be a very capable and preferably also charismatic man with a broad spectrum of abilities, as he would need to take a hand in every facet of his tribe's functioning, from warfare to food supplies to how the horses were stabled.  The king's wife, in turn, had a hand in every aspect of running the royal household, from gathering eggs to stitching linens and weaving wool to selecting cuts of meat.  The idyllic image of the Northern queen greeting visitors with a horn of mead in hand is but a small part of the picture; these were working queens, royal homemakers.  This is Frigga's role in Odin's household, and this is one of the many things she can teach us to do for ourselves, in our own lives: to create a center for ourselves, a hearth, a heart for our homes.  

All of which is fine in theory, but here is where we run into a few logistical problems.  First, where is the hearth itself to be located in a modern household?  Many people--myself included--have such a small kitchen that it barely offers enough room for one person to stand and cook; the idea that it could form a hub for family activity is out of the question.  Also, where does this "heart of the household" business leave those of us who are not part of a traditional American "nuclear" family?  

Let's step back a moment and reconsider the idea of the hearth as a safe haven, a center of warmth and nourishment.  Even if you are a single woman (or man) living alone, don't you need a welcoming place such as this to return to at the end of your workday?  And even if you are a single person living alone and not a wife by any stretch of the imagination, you are still the “holder of the keys” in your household.  Even if that household is but a tiny apartment with a single key to the front door, you alone hold that key, you alone control access to your safe haven, and you can be the keeper of your own hearth.  (And yes, this does apply also to a man living alone, if he wishes it to.  While hearthkeeping is traditionally a feminine mystery, there are so many areas, these days, in which the traditional roles of both genders overlap that there is no point in drawing too fine a line here.  Just as countless men honor goddesses, if you are a man and wish to create a hearth for yourself, go for it!)

A hearth can transform a house or apartment into a home.  And if we bring in the symbolic connections of the temple and the dead once more, we can see how a hearth can provide a welcoming place for a household's beloved gods and ancestors as well--for in Heathenry these two groups are definitely to be treated and considered as part of the family.  As a god-spouse, being a hearthkeeper and a homemaker takes on an additional meaning for me as I seek to maintain a welcoming home for my Husband, Odin.  

How to begin?  As it happens, my own home is currently in need of an active hearth, a central place for my family, gods and spirits to gather for warmth, socializing, fiber arts activities (of course!) and religious ritual.  Currently, there is the too-small kitchen, the living room where my partner and I each have our shrines to our respective god-husbands and where the computer lives on our shared writing desk, and the bedroom where I spin and where we gather for story time.  (Yes, we read aloud or listen to audiobooks in place of television!)  These are all spokes on the wheel that makes up our household, but there is a need for a center, a hub to hold it all together, and, as we have seen, in order to qualify as a hearth that center needs to be a place of burning.  Since we cannot install a fireplace, this will require a little imagination.

Winter calls, and it’s high time for us to begin this task.  If this is something you’re feeling called to do as well, I invite you to join me for my next post and we’ll set about it together!

P.S. On another topic altogether, those who read my post here from last month, on pagan veiling, may be a little puzzled by my new profile photo.  If you’re curious, I talk a little about my decision to veil more sporadically, and my newly blue hair, on my own blog.  Cheers!

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I am a polytheist, Odinic nun, full-time pagan solopreneur, and urban hedge witch living in Eugene, Oregon. Dedicated to Odin since 2002, and recently working with the Morrigan as well. Would you know more, or what?


  • Jolene
    Jolene Sunday, 02 September 2012

    I really love the picture you found to post along with this!

    Despite the prevalence of Hestia-as-hearth practice within Hellenism, I've maintained that Poseidon is my hearth, and that's always been a very good thing for me and my path . . . and it's always made better by having physical representation of such. My goal, as you know, is to have my gods and spirits, period, be the center of my life, and having that communal hearth-shrine is amazing for that. We've had it, we've mostly always had it, and I didn't realize how much I missed it until last night.

    I think we're on the right track!

  • Beth Wodandis
    Beth Wodandis Sunday, 02 September 2012

    I think so, too!

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Sunday, 02 September 2012

    What a lovely post! We *are* one of those families whose living room is dominated by a screen (though we rarely watch network -- or anything with commercials on it) although we have an actual hearth. (Two of them, in fact, but we light a fire there only rarely.) The heart of our home is our kitchen table in our generously-sized kitchen with a lovely picture window that looks out on the entrance to our home. Even in our old 1200 square foot home (where we mostly raised our 3 kids before moving to Oregon and much bigger digs) the kitchen table was front-and-center. I've been in homes of friends and relatives in which the kitchen is cluttered and the table overwhelmed with "stuff" (and meals take place in front of the tv which is a complete taboo in my book) and it always makes me very uneasy. Now, I think I know why I've always jealously guarded and sought out a sacred space in my kitchen. Thanks for the insight.

  • Beth Wodandis
    Beth Wodandis Sunday, 02 September 2012

    In all honesty, we only don't have a TV at this point because we abused the privilege back in PA by watching too many episodes of "Iron Chef" and "How do I look", so when we moved to Oregon we promised ourselves we would not get one, or that if we did we would use it only for movies and not get cable service. I am getting to the point, though, after four years of watching Dr. Who and the very occasional movie on a laptop screen, where I would actually enjoy owning a flat screen!

    I envy your hearth! The kitchen table is a very traditional and respectable heart for the American home--although sadly more so twenty years ago than it is today. After my father died (when I was 13) I grew up in one of those households where the kitchen table was just a junk repository; I ate in front of the TV and my mother at the kitchen sink, and I am definitely the poorer for it, though in this case we kept different schedules so she was not really at fault. Still, it makes me uneasy too and I certainly did not raise my daughter this way!

    Jolene and I have had a "hearth center" (if not an actual hearth) in every house we've lived in together before this one, and we recently realized that it's the one thing we've been lacking, living here. Time to fix that!

  • Justin Patrick Moore
    Justin Patrick Moore Tuesday, 04 September 2012

    I always liked the meal prayer given by poet Gary Snyder ever since I first read it: "Thank you for this food, the work of many hands, and the sharing of many forms of life." It's simple and nonsectarian.

    Also I like the way the word "husbandman" used to be used in pre-industrial times... as a thrifty manager of property and of a household. The husband was not only married to the Hearthkeeper (I'm not trying to put gender roles on these things...) but was also married to the Land. Whereas a King may have been responsible for and married to the Land on a larger basis as head of the entire tribe, as you pointed to, the Husbandman was married to the Land of their immediate property and environs.

    Either way I think we need both Hearthkeepers and Husbandmans.

    In my own family we are lucky enough to have an old Chambers gas stove that was my mothers... and we do often sit around the table. I like this old Chambers stove from the 40's because the fire in it, as the pilot light, is always lit. It's always warm there whether we are cooking or not. We also have three (non-working) hearths/fire places in our home. On the mantelpiece of one of them I keep my ancestral shrine.

  • Justin Patrick Moore
    Justin Patrick Moore Tuesday, 04 September 2012

    Beth, I forgot to mention... I'll be following your series of posts with great interest!

  • Beth Wodandis
    Beth Wodandis Friday, 07 September 2012

    Thank you, Justin! *g*

    Yes, I agree that we definitely need both Hearthkeepers and Husbandsman--and I love that term. It perfectly captures the concept of having a sacred duty to care for and tend to the needs of one's immediate land, as a king on a smaller scale, just as every woman is queen on a smaller scale within her own home.

    I have to say that I'm envious of your antique gas stove; that sounds lovely! I would have a wood burning stove if we owned our house instead of just renting, but as it is I'll just have to settle for the heavenly smell that fills the air from all the wood burners in Eugene around this time of year. That smell is one of my favorite harbingers of fall!

    One idea I've come across for non-working hearths is to put an iron cauldron in the fireplace and fill it with candles. (Beeswax only, of course!)

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