Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Youngest God

It's a crisp night in late October. A friend and I have driven out to the annual “Burning Man Midwest” event that for the past decade or so a local couple has hosted at their place in rural Wisconsin. A stiff breeze is blowing out of the northwest. We process through the woods with jack o' lanterns, and circle up around the Wicker Man.

He's a Cornstalk Man, actually—this is the Midwest, after all—a 25-foot wooden armature covered with bundled cornstalks that we'd harvested earlier that day. As we arrive, we set our pumpkins in a circle around him, at his feet.

The ritual continues, and we all know where it's headed. But Fire has other ideas. From the candles in the jack o' lanterns, the Man lights himself, in several places. The dusty, dry cornstalks kindle with a crackle, and the fires mount alarmingly fast. In a nightmare moment of awe and terror, the separate fires merge into one, and their united voice roars with the terrifying freight-train roar of a tornado.

We're standing around a swirling 75-foot firestorm, and there's nothing we can do about it. This fire will do what it wants to, and we cannot possibly stop it. Sparks and blazing corn leaves fly on the stiff wind into the woods behind us, with its carpet of dry leaves.


That was my moment of conversion.


“This is no mere element,” I think in some deep recess of my being. “The ancestors had it right: this is truly a god.”

And I bowed down to the ground before the awesome might of this god—I “fell upon my face,” as the colorful idiom has it—and prayed as I have never prayed before that he/she/it would spare the woods that night.

Then I arose from my worship and went out with the others to stamp out sparks in the fallen leaves, the ritual forgotten.

The “Four Elements” model has never worked for me. It twists my nuts to know that all up and down the east coast of the US pagans turn their backs on the Atlantic Ocean to invoke water in the west. That's just plain wrong: that something we've read in books should trump our own experience. Should trump the way the world is, for gods' sakes. That's what the poets call “unwisdom.”

To the ancestors, Fire was a god (or goddess): Agni, Hestia, Vulcan, Gabija, Brigid. That Fire consents to live in our homes and cook our dinners should not deceive us: we live out our lives on Fire's sufferance. Let us remember this, and be accordingly grateful.

They say that Fire is the youngest god, constantly reborn in every moment. Fire does not live on all worlds (not all worlds have fuel), but Fire lives on ours. In Old Craft lore, the ritual begins the moment the Fire is lighted.

Thankfully, Fire did not take the woods that night.

But that ritual left its mark on me, nonetheless. I have heard, in terror and helpless rapture, the awful voice of a god.

And I will not forget.






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Tagged in: Fire fire gods
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Michelle Simkins
    Michelle Simkins Tuesday, 17 June 2014

    I often use the standard four directions, four elements if I'm doing circle indoors. Of course, I live on the West Coast, so water IS to my West--which means all the correspondences makes sense for me.

    But I, too, have often struggled with assigning directions to elements, which after all live everywhere always. Sometimes I don't bother with that kind of seating chart, and just speak to fire when I light the first match, etc. Whatever feels most appropriate and most respectful is what I go for.

    I also struggle with calling the directions, as if they aren't ever present: in my practice I tend to ask them for their attention instead of their attendance.

    But I love the way you take it a step farther, working with them as entity, as deity. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 17 June 2014

    Thanks, Michelle. So far as I can tell, the assignment of elements to quarters originates with Eliphas Levi, which isn't very far back as these things go (mid 19th-c). What rankles me the most is how thoroughly identified they've become. When we look Eastwards, do we see sunrise, moonrise, springtime, birth, new beginnings, the Atlantic Ocean, the ancestors that come from the East, etc., etc.? Likely not. In that sense, it seems to me that the four elements have come to stand in the way of actually looking, seeing, and thinking.

    Rant, rant, rant. Think I'll go have dinner. My friend Robin always says, "It's all about blood sugar."

  • Mabnahash
    Mabnahash Saturday, 21 June 2014

    Michelle- I don't understand what you mean by calling the directions. The compass points are hardly sentient. I certainly invoke at each quarter, but it's for the purpose of creating a cross-roads. I'm creating a road, with fire and sound and with my spirit, in each direction, and calling spirits from that direction to walk it. Those spirits are not some grand idea of North, South, East and West, nor are they in the least elementally associated. The spirits that come are those of the land in that direction, the fey, and the dead. Most of those are the mighty dead of the craft who have a particular interest in and obligation to my workings, and those are who I am calling particularly. The others show up and that's fine. I do this because without the crossroads, magic is far less potent.

  • Michelle Simkins
    Michelle Simkins Saturday, 21 June 2014

    Mabnahash, I mis-typed. I meant to write "I struggle with calling the elements as if they aren't ever present." I agree that creating sacred/magical space is essential to powerful workings.

    My apologies for being inattentive to such an important detail: I really shouldn't use the internet when I'm over-tired.

  • Mabnahash
    Mabnahash Saturday, 21 June 2014

    That should be whom I am calling, not who, but I can't edit the comment.

    Also, after several years of ranting against them as a protoscientific periodic table that has little ability to accurately describe the complex reality of the natural world, magical or mundane, I am coming back around to the elements. They really can be a useful paradigm at times. I dislike associating them with the directions, though, for the exact reasons Steven outlined above- there's just so much more in each quarter, and the elements are very limiting. I see fire less as one god, Fire, than as many gods that inhabit many fires, though, just as the gods of rain and storm and sea are related, but not one god Water.

    Goodness, I've written a lot. Maybe my blood sugar is too high.

  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes Friday, 25 July 2014

    For what it's worth, corresponding the elements with the directions goes back at least to Agrippa, and probably further. However, the correspondences are based on astrological symbolism:
    Fire - East
    Air - West
    Water - North
    Earth - South

    (Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book II, Chapter VII. p. 258 in the Llewellyn edition.)

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