Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions
An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.
The Healing Hearth
Continuing with my first post’s examination of the significance of the hearth in a home, we’ll look at the lore regarding the healing and protective powers of the hearth, its fire, and an important hearth implement, the chimney hook. Unless cited otherwise, the information below comes from Claude Lecouteux’s excellent book on household lore, The Tradition of Household Spirits.
Before we can appreciate ancient and medieval European traditions of healing, it’s important to understand what ancient and medieval Europeans believed about the nature of illness. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Middle Ages, it’s stated that:
the “distinction between material and spiritual causes of illness is a fuzzy one… Most folk and classical remedies identified illness with specific material causes and prescribe combinations of herbs or other natural products to cure or alleviate symptoms… Other ailments had invisible causes -- from airborne poisons, elves, dwarves, or demons -- that required invisible help from spiritual forces to counteract them and hence required the use of ritual actions derived from ancient practice or from Christian liturgy” (30).
In other words, there were two accepted ways of understanding illness -- the material and the spiritual -- and while there were material cures for certain ailments (based on medical knowledge of the time), it was understood that spiritual powers could supplement material treatments or, if there was no known material cure for a given illness, could be used alone to drive out illness caused by spirits. Both aspects of this double view of the world (the spiritual and the material) played a significant role in healing and disease prevention for ancient and medieval Europeans.
Treating Illness and Ailment
From ancient into modern times, hearth-based healing rituals were performed for all members of the household, human and non-human alike. People lived in close proximity to their animals, and illness in domestic animals very much threatened the livelihood of the people who husbanded them. Thus, animals also received material and magical treatments for disease. For example, when cows suffered from udder pox, people in Mecklenburg would draw “a triple circle around the hearth cinders while reciting” a spell to heal them (71). All, or most, of us are familiar with the power of circumscription as a protective act -- many pagans and magic practitioners continue to use circles in ritual today. Lecouteux in Demons and Spirits of the Land also shows that it is a claiming act, an act of marking off space as one’s own (or as one’s deity’s) for one’s own purposes (92-102). It’s an act of taming as well as warding, and perhaps both of these aspects of magic circles were understood to drive out illness-carrying spirits.
For people, too, there is an abundance of folk rituals for healing winter-related illnesses and discomforts. Lecouteux writes that in Norway “chapped lips are cured by embracing the stovepipe of the earthenware stove” (71). Similarly, swollen lips are treated in Iceland by kissing the chimney hook “while asking if the master of the house is about” (ibid.). The “master of the house” is a euphemism for the household deity, and the chimney hook was associated with this deity and therefore treated with reverence. For example, the chimney hook often received a bit of food (by having the food rubbed on the hook) as an offering. Thus, the chimney hook was a fetish for the household deity who could be petitioned for healing.
Chimney hooks also aided in healing sore throats. Latvians would rub the chimney hook against their throats to soothe them; in Wittenberg, Germany, people would breathe on the chimney hook while saying, “Jode, Joduth, I cannot swallow the hook of the chimney hook,” followed by an invocation of the Trinity (75).
Other stove-related healing traditions include:
- a Slavic folk tradition that involves speaking what Lecouteux calls “incantations” before “the oven with the flue closed” (71)
- a burn-healing tradition in Saxony and Lusatia, in which the person who was burned would grease the stove mouth and say, “I am greasing you, heal me!” (ibid.)
- a medieval German tradition of placing sick individuals on the oven, a practice that is still performed in Russia today, according to Lecouteux (ibid.)
Note that the above are acts of propitiation -- a plea or command for healing, sometimes with an offering. Again, this suggests that healing was the work of the household spirit connected intimately to the hearth or stove.
The Prevention of Illness
Of course, the best way to survive illness is to prevent infection from the start. The Black Plague was a significant concern for medieval Europeans, and so there were rituals to keep it at bay. In Sarkau, East Prussia (now Poland), people “protected themselves against the plague by carving a furrow with a chimney hook” (75). Again, this harkens to the chimney hook’s association with the household deity, who is a protective force for those living in the home. Since ancient times, furrows were carved to demarcate sacred spaces and personal property (Demons and Spirits of the Land 96). Thus, furrows created not only a visual barrier but also a spiritual one against plague-spirits. Lecouteux shares an interesting story:
“Around 1650 in Lower Saxony, a Wendish [i.e. ethnically Western Slavic native of Germany] peasant encountered the Plague and spoke with her. Finally she [the Plague spirit] promised to spare him, commanding him: ‘Strip yourself bare, keep not a stitch of clothing, take your chimney hook, leave your house and run around your farm in the direction of the sun, then bury it beneath the lintel” (75).
The chimney hook was representative of the house as a whole, and it was common practice in the medieval period to hand over the chimney hook to the owner of a new house or otherwise use it to perform a ritual of circumscription around the new husband or bride to signify their possession of the home (73-74). Removing the chimney hook from the hearth effectively dis-inhabits the home, as the household deity naturally goes with the fetish. Likewise, the removal of clothing would have a de-civilizing effect as well, as one is essentially removing the trappings of civilization, going back to wildness. If a house was empty and there were no people around, the Plague could not afflict anyone and would therefore move on.
Similarly, there is an ancient German practice called “nothfjur” mentioned by Lecouteux, in which all the hearth fires in a community would be “extinguished whenever there was an epidemic that struck animals or humans, and they would be relit after it had passed through” (68).
Some preventive rituals are associated with taboos, such as refraining from throwing bones into a fire after eating, which would cause a toothache, or urinating on the fire, which would cause “apoplexy or urinary gravel” (69). Reverence for the hearth fire, which is related to the home’s household deity and therefore the luck and success of the household, was necessary, and any actions that could be construed as disrespectful could be punished with ill luck, such as the maladies mentioned above. Even removing the chimney hook from its place on the hearth and throwing it away could bring on stomach aches in the offending party (73-74).
Other preventive rituals involve laying hands on or above the stove. One German tradition had people place their hands on the stove on a Sunday morning and say, “May clay and stone take my chill, first for a month, then for a year, then for as long as the sun travels the sky. In the name of the Father…” (71). Another European tradition states that if someone places their hands above the fire, “no worm will enter his ear nor will his nails turn dark” (100). Perhaps the belief was that the cleansing power of the fire would transfer to the hands of the recipient and then enter the rest of his or her body, or it could be that it was an act of supplication that was rewarded with good health; it could also mean something else entirely.
The Center of Protection and Healing
The hearth was not only a place to seek warmth, nourishment, fellowship, and cultural wisdom through storytelling, but it was also traditionally a place to find healing or protection from disease. In older European households, the hearth was the abode of the household spirit, who supervised and protected the household in many ways. Offerings and propitiatory rituals rendered favor from this sometimes capricious spirit, who (like many spirits) could harm as well as heal, but when treated fairly and honorably, would be more apt to care faithfully for the dwellers of the house. Illnesses brought by outside spirits could be eradicated through this spirit’s help, and the inhabitants of a household depended heavily on it for their well-being. These days, many of us focus our appeals for healing on the “bigger” deities of our faiths. Perhaps the time has come to seek a more intimate relationship with the powerful local spirits that surround us, even in our very homes.
Jolly, Karen, et al. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania, 2002.
Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions, 2015.
---. The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions, 2013.
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