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Ár nDraíocht Féin
Three Cranes
Chaos Matrix

June 9th, 2011

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12:38 pm - The Living Flame and the Flowing Waters
Today, I read an interesting article on sacrifice (called, appropriately enough, "'Sacrifice' in Proto-Indo-European,") by Stefan Zimmer in last year's Journal of Indo-European Studies. I read a couple of other interesting articles, too, including one by Maurer on RV X.129, but I'll post about that on ADF-Druidry if I need to, so I don't want to post about it here right now.

Anyway, I got to reading and thinking about the importance of fire and water, and how they are so terribly important to the sacrifice, mostly because if we envision the sacrifice as a shared meal (which, of course, it is), then fire and water must be present: they are the two primary elements required to prepare a feast for someone.

Additionally, there are two different PIE roots for both these items: one that is gendered (and thus "animate") and one that is not gendered (and is thus "inanimate"). I made this nifty table in my head for the two different types of fire and water (with a third column to describe the gender of the animate types), and thought others might find the table a bit useful, too.

PIE Word:
PIE Word:
Fire *puHuer-/n- *ngni- Masc.
Water *uod-r/ued-nes
*h2ep-/h2eku-eh2 Fem.

So, why two different types of fire and water? Because while "all Waters are by their very nature sacred," not all "water" is: brackish, undrinkable or poisoned water isn't sacred nor is it fit for ritual use. It is the same with fires: specific fires that do specific things may very well not be sacred. You would not, for instance, consider a trash-burning fire sacred. This is why you never, ever burn anything except fuel and offerings in a sacred fire. Placing cigarette butts or other refuse in a sacred fire is offensive to the deities, because the fire consumes, transforms, and provides the offerings it has received to the deities in the form of food or gift.

These active, living flames and waters are purity and truth. The fire burns those who are not pure or truthful, and the waters do not tolerate those who lie or go are impure. When offerings are placed within them (food laid upon the fire, drink poured out in libation to join the waters), fire and water are the messengers to the deities of not only what is given, but the intention and the person behind it, as well.

Next up? Of Gods and Humans: A Comparison
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Current Music: "License to Chill", -JB

(9 comments Leave a comment)


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[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 03:57 pm (UTC)
Hehe. Yeah, that's a reference to "trial by fire" and such. You see it extended into the witch trials in rather odd ways. Whether a ritual fire would *actually* burn someone, well, yeah. . .
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 04:17 am (UTC)
I have a friend that uses tobacco in a sacred way - doesn't smoke except as a ritualistic offering, and then offers the tobacco to the fire. Even though it is a "cigarette butt" per se, I suppose that doesn't really count as "refuse."
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 10:13 am (UTC)
That's "sharing a meal," if the intent is to share it with the being it's offered to. Putting a filter in the fire isn't :)
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 05:58 am (UTC)
For argument's sake: In rituals created for the purpose of destruction, a trash fire might be very appropriate (and this could be as benign as 'deconstructing un-useful personality traits' to the malignant - use your imagination). Also, the trash fire might be appropriate if you wanted to give specific, intentional offerings to spirits of destruction.
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC)
Perhaps, but I'm speaking of ancient rituals (not clear about that, I know) :) Modern ones may be founded on them, but if you were working with "spirits of destruction" in the ancient world, you weren't doing something benign. You were being a jerk to someone :)

The fire you describe is also a fire built for a specific purpose, though: it's not a random pile of rubbish that happens to be on fire. That's very different as well.
[User Picture]
Date:June 13th, 2011 02:22 am (UTC)
With the clarity that you meant to focus on ancient (benign) rituals, I concede the point.

Though, I specifically didn't say whether the ritual would be jerk-like or not ;-) I've read something recently that discussed some ancient magic - and boy, those people could curse. I have to wonder if the author found the most vivid examples, 'cause the one I have in mind was pretty floridly nasty.
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
'Because while "all Waters are by their very nature sacred," not all "water" is: brackish, undrinkable or poisoned water isn't sacred nor is it fit for ritual use. It is the same with fires: specific fires that do specific things may very well not be sacred.'

Some interesting insights!

I can see how this is especially true for ritual purposes, but do you think this perspective can become problematic when extended beyond ritual context? It seems to me to encourage a certain kind of dualism between the sacred and profane that undercuts our ability to see the interconnection that is both a spiritual and a mundane, scientific reality of our world.

Water mixed with certain offerings becomes un-potable or poisoned, after all, just as burning certain offerings can give off noxious fumes. Furthermore, certain waters or fires that seem perfectly safe and pure to us may in fact contain potentially harmful substances or chemicals - f'ex tap water contains additives like fluoride, as well as chemical run-offs from surrounding industry and even sometimes pharmaceuticals!, while "pure" water found in a natural stream in the wilderness may contain bacteria or deposits that can be deadly to a human being.

What distinguishes purity from impurity in cases like this? For ritual purposes, we might designate certain fires or waters as ritually pure and animate, and then interact with them appropriately in a ritual setting according to their nature (so that a trash heap can certainly become a ritual fire, for instance, or offering only decomposable items to a forest stream rather than the silver or coins we might offer to a garden wishing well).

But I would think that trying to make a distinction between "pure" and "impure" waters and fires outside the ritual context only leads to a confusion about how to appropriately respect the needs of different ecosystems and their inhabitants, all of which are expressions of the sacred.
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
I tend to think that dualistic thought is useful in ritual, but not outside of it. I wouldn't go overboard with it in ritual, either, though :) Purity is a difficult question for modern Neopagans as well: what does it even mean to be impure in the first place? How do you have "impurity" where it does not lead to one group (say, men) infringing on another group (say, women) and suggesting that group 2 is somehow "impure" at certain times, and thus should not be part of the community that ritual is designed to create?

But notions of purity and impurity are still important: they form one of the primary ways we distinguish between "ritual work" and "non-ritual work" (or, as you also correctly call it, "sacred and profane"). We have an innate understanding, I think, of what is "sacred" and what is not, and we approach those things only when we feel it is appropriate to do so.

Even today you will find Zoroastrians who will neither bury nor burn their dead because the former pollutes the earth and the latter pollutes the fire. There was a pretty clear distinction between animate and inanimate fires that's easy to track: both pyre (corpse-fire) and the English word "fire" seem descended from the neuter above, and agni/ignis (ritual/cooking/etc. fire) seems descended from the masculine above. Consider the different images you have with "ignite" versus "fire," and you can see that the distinction is still strong with us.

"Water," interestingly enough, is also from the neuter side. "Aqueduct" is the closest English word I can think of to the gendered word.

Additionally, dealing with the black-and-white ideas of grammar is going to be naturally limiting to us as we look at religion/ritual. It is a very useful exercise, but it certainly cannot be an end-all to the exercises we do.

Anyway, to most specifically answer your question, I tend to think that the way that we treat things is what makes them special, or pure. We should approach those things that we wish to revere as sacred as such. We can do things, not only to fire or water, but also to normal religious sites to make them less sacred: consider the Wal-Mart at Teotihuacan, or the removal of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. And, as you point out, we should never lose site of those things that are sacred in there mere existence in favor of a dualistic system.
[User Picture]
Date:June 19th, 2011 05:02 am (UTC)
Good post! Never thought about the sacredness of fires that much, but I totally get what you mean.

Also, biologically speaking, fire and and water are necessary for digestion of said meal!

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