Tag Archives: fire element

Building an Earth Oven Part I: Foundation, Dome, and Structure

An earth oven is an oven made of cob (a mixture of clay, sand, and straw) with insulating features (firebricks, bottles).  It is an extremely efficient and sustainable method of doing any baking you might need to do. One firing of your earth oven can allow you to bake different things for hours (pizzas, breads, casseroles, vegetables, etc), and it takes only a small amount of wood to heat.  We fire ours by simply picking up deadfall sticks and branches, cutting them up, and that’s all we need. An Earth Oven is fully sustainable to build and to cook with, and you can locally source literally all of the materials for the oven (and in fact, minus fire bricks, you can probably harvest everything you need from your own land or the land around you).

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

An Earth Oven allows you to connect deeply with the earth itself, encouraging you to slow down, root, and ground.  It is certainly a nice example of “slow time” and “slow food”, as the oven takes a few hours to fire before you can bake in it, and it requires some learning.  With that said, the rewards of this approach way outweigh any challenges you might experience as you learn and grow.

 

The other thing about your oven that is rarely discussed is that it is truly a sensory experience.  Your earth oven will allow you to bake any number of delicious creations–and when you bake in it, the smell of the bread permeates the clay itself, and it has this incredible smell, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  Even on cold days, being near your oven will keep you warm (and your oven will stay warm for literally hours–possibly all night).  It is just such a wonderful thing.

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Earth ovens are a wonderful kind of “hearthspace” where we can cook foods for ourselves and loved ones, use natural materials to build from the land and honor the land, and create a very sustainable and low-input cooking method that is a joy to make and a joy to bake in.  In this new series, I’ll offer full details about how to build an earth oven step by step!  This series will have three posts–today’s post covers materials, preparing the foundation, preparing the base, and creating the dome.  Next week’s post will explore insulating the oven and finishing the oven through a mosaic/cob, finish plaster, and options for doors.  The final post will explore how to cook in your earth oven and some tips and tricks I’ve learned in my first year with the earth oven.

 

Preparation: Materials

In order to build your earth oven, you will need to prepare some materials and do some prep work.  Earth ovens are not expensive to build–most of the investment is in your own time and labor.

Materials for building:

  • Stone and urbanite: You will need some kind of base for your oven; most people use local stone or even urbanite for a strong foundation.  Urbanite refers to waste materials like broken bricks, broken concrete blocks, etc.  You can use urbanite to “fill” the inside of your base and create a stable foundation.  I have also seen people build ovens on old large stumps or platforms.
  • Subsoil / cob: First, you will need access to your subsoil (that’s the soil that is not full of organic matter, but the soil below it). You will need quite a bit of subsoil, so make sure you have easy access. Once you have access to the subsoil, you will want to do some soil testing (which I explain in the link) so that you can be sure you have good subsoil to work with.  To access subsoil here, I found a tree that had gone down and uprooted itself–the roots and ground below it was full of all of the subsoil I needed.
  • Straw:  You will need a bale of straw for your cob.  Straw adds strength, can provide insulation, and can help hold your structure together.
  • Sharp sand. You may also need some sharp sand (known as builder’s sand) depending on what your cob tests reveal. You can get this from a landscape supply or building supply place.
  • Sand: In addition to the sharp sand as an additive, you will need sand to build your sand dome.
  • Newspaper: You will need 3-4 newspapers for your dome.
  • Bottles: You will need at least 20 wine bottles for insulating your base. These can be foraged from recycling bins, saved by friends, or even found at local restaurants. Depending on your structure, you can also use smaller recycled bottles to help with insulation (I did this, but some people use an only straw).

Tools for building:

  • Wheelbarrow or cart: You need something to move materials around your site.
  • Shovel: A shovel for digging subsoil and moving cob around.
  • Screen.  To prepare your subsoil, you will need to screen it of larger items (stones, debris, etc).  For this, you can build a simple soil screener (this also works great for screening compost!).  Make your soil screener large enough that it will sit over your wheelbarrow or cart that you will be using to move it.  I built mine with scrap lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth.
  • 5-gallon buckets: A few buckets are super helpful.  They can move cob from where you mix it to your oven.  You can fill some with water to rinse your feet.
  • Tarps:  A small tarp will allow you to mix your cob.  You might want several, especially if you are doing the work yourself (I found that when I was doing the work myself, I would gather materials – screen cob, gather rocks, etc, on one day and then build on the next, so tarps were able to keep my cob screened and protect it from the elements).  You also will need a tarp to cover your cob oven until you can have a structure built for it.
Source of clay / subsoil - a tree that uprooted during a storm

Source of clay / subsoil – a tree that uprooted during a storm

Cob screen in action - this was built with scrap lumber and 1/2" hardware cloth

Cob screen in action – this was built with scrap lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth

Other Tools and Materials:

  • Pizza peel (I created one from an old aluminum pan and an old rake handle)
  • Firing door and baking doors (more on this in an upcoming post)
  • Shelter structure

We’ll cover these last three in an upcoming post.

Preparation: Oven Size

You can decide how large of an earth oven you want to build.  There are many measurements in the Build Your Own Earth Oven which I used as a reference.  Here’s a simple diagram of the oven and dimensions that I used.  These allow you to figure out how large of a foundation and base you need and will determine the overall structure.

For example, to get good airflow, I created an oven that was 27″ in diameter, which included an 18″ high dome.  Your door should be 63% the height of the oven, or 11.5″ high.

Your oven can be larger or smaller, of course, depending on your needs.

Preparation: Selecting a site

I think it is really important to spend time selecting the right space.  Your space needs to drain well (especially if you are in a temperate climate that has snow/ice).  Your space also needs to be protected from the elements as cob is a natural material that will weather quickly if left without protection.  Your space should also align with your landscape (see setting intentions with nature).

Your oven should be somewhere easily accessible.  You will need to tend a fire every 20-30 minutes for four hours in order to have an earth oven hot enough for pizzas or other baked goods.  Thus, you don’t want to put it so far away from your house that its hard to tend the fire (but not close enough to cause any insurance issues!)

For my earth oven, I decided to build in a little nook on the edge of the property that leads into forest.  That provided both shelter from the elements (and it will get a permanent roof this year) as well as being pretty close

Preparation: Clearing and Foundation

To build your earth oven, it begins with a good foundation. Any cob structure should have “a good hat and feet”, and the foundation is the “feet” part of that equation.  Here is step by step how I built my foundation.

I began by measuring out my foundation – 46″ based on the height of my oven.   Then I removed all of the plant material (as described in this post); I worked to replant any material that needed to be replanted, etc.

Clearing the space

After clearing, I dug down 1.5 feet and added a gravel base for drainage.  Its hard to tell from these photos, but we are on a slight incline, so I made a drainage area to the left of what you see here.

Foundation of gravel

Foundation

Preparing and Mixing Cob

The next step is to screen and create your cob.   I went to my site with my wheelbarrow and put a 5 gallon bucket at a time in my screen.  Using a rock, I worked the cob through the screen. (More details about making cob here).

Screening cob

Screening cob

After that, I moved it to my building site and prepared to mix the cob.

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

To mix the cob, you will need an old tarp, two or more buckets of water (I like to use warm water!), and some happy feet.  First create a well in the center of your cob and, just like making noodles or dough by hand, then start mixing the cob with your feet.  You can use the tarp to flip the cob and keep working it.

For building, you will want to also add handfuls of straw (I cut the straw up so it’s a little shorter) and work that in.  Ideally, you want something with a good consistency that sticks together and isn’t too wet and crumbly.  You can add more water or more soil as you mix.  I have more detailed instructions on mixing cob in an earlier post.

Mixing cob

Mixing cob

You can also get others to help you–friends, children, or even geese.

Goose helpers

Goose helpers

Building your base

In addition to the cob, you will also need something to build your base up that is fireproof and stable–rock or brick is a very good choice for you. For my foundation, I used a mixture of cob along with locally foraged stones and urbanite (old concrete bricks that were broken and strewn about the property.) A good foundation and good base are critical to the success of your oven. You want to build your base high enough that it’s comfortable for you to fire and use the oven.  I kept mine pretty low cause I like to sit on the ground when I work!

I began by mapping out a circle (using a string and some chalk) and building the outside of the circle up using the cob as a mortar.  On the inside, I added my urbanite brick pieces and filled in all holes with smaller stones and cob.  Here’s the first layer.

Building the base.

Building the base.

As I worked, I continued to build up the stones on the outside.  Since I also planned some decoration, I had stones I had already added mosaic to that I wanted to include.  These pieces were made of mosaic materials leftover from both from doing my mosaic bathtub a few years ago + broken pottery and plates that I save.

My mosaic stones

My mosaic stones

It took me two building sessions, but the base continued to grow.

Base after adding mosaic stones

Base after adding mosaic stones

You can see that I’m building up the inside of the base as I build up the outside of the base.

Base before insulation layer

Base before insulation layer

At this stage, I have the base at the top level and as high as I want it.  You can see I am using a piece of wood and a level to check to make sure everything is level as I work. The next step is to add the insulation layer to the base.  The insulation layer is made up of a straw-rich cob combined with wine bottles.  Bottles offer insulation, which keeps heat from getting absorbed by the stone below.  Insulation is really an important feature of these ovens–investing the time to do insulation will allow your oven to be used in colder temperatures, hold heat longer, and heat up sooner (meaning you use less wood to make that happen).

Thick layer of cob in base

Thick layer of cob in base

I started this with a thick layer of straw-rich cob. Straw itself is insulating as it traps small amounts of air in it as it is worked into the cob.

Next, I layered the bottles with more cob in between each to create a solid foundation.

Bottle insulation

Bottle insulation

Here’s the bottles with more cob added

Bottles getting covered

Bottles getting covered in cob

After the bottle layer, I used the board to smooth out the layer and wait for the base to dry about a week before continuing.

The base is done!

The base is done!

Except that we have powerful raccoon activity, and that night, someone tried to dig up my base to see what was in the bottles!

Coon activity

Coon activity

I repaired the cob and then started putting a tarp over it at night to deter the raccoons until my base was a bit more dry.

Laying your firebrick

Firebrick layout

Firebrick layout

To start your hearth, you want to put down a fresh layer of cob so that you can set the bricks in carefully.  Slide the bricks against each other and make everything perfectly level.  To make an oven that is XXX” inside (which is enough to cook a few breads and two small pizzas, perfect for small groups or families) you can use fifteen firebricks in the following pattern (the two firebricks in the back were redundant and I removed them later).

Notice here that I’m also planning a lip to pull my pizzas in and out of the oven.

Circle for dome

Using a string, I made a circle to show me where to build the sand dome for the oven itself.   Now I’m ready to build the actual oven.

Creating Your Sand Dome

I think the most labor-intensive part of this entire process is building the dome and cobbing the dome. Everything else can be done in stages, but this really has to be done all at once. This part is a great time to invite some friends or family to help you if you are doing this on your own.

Start by mixing 1-2 large batches of cob (with straw reinforcement) and tarping that while you build the dome.

To build the dome, you will want a ruler (to test the height of the dome), newspaper, and a few wheelbarrows of sand.  I mixed my sand right in the wheel barrow and got it to a consistency where it would build up well.

Mixing the sand

Mixing the sand

Building the dome

Building the dome

So then, start building the dome, using the guide you drew.  I stuck a metal art ruler down the center of the dome so I would know exactly how tall it was (with a goal of 18″ tall).

As you get further along, you can take a small board and smooth and shape the sand dome.  PUll out the ruler, and you are ready to build!

The completed dome

The completed dome

Go head and coat the whole sand dome with a layer of thick wet newspaper (this creates a barrier both to keep the cob from sticking to the sand and gives you a sense of where to dig out later.

Now, you want at least a 2-3″ thick layer of cob all around the dome.  You dont’ want to press the cob into the dome, but rather, shape the walls downward with your hands.

Building the oven

Building the oven

Keep working your way up.

Oven build continued

Oven build continued

A lot of ovens have some kind of door area. We used old bricks to build our door area (planned out in advanced).  To keep the door balanced, we added two pieces of packing foam that we cut to the right size.  These were later pulled out when the structure was dry.

Building the arch

Building the arch

The arch proved a bit tricky–we layered sticks in between the sand dome and the foam arches and that provided enough stability until the oven dried.

Here is our completed first layer of the cob oven.

first layer of cob finished!

first layer of cob finished!

At this point, you will want to give your oven some time to dry.  We put a little pavilion over it and allowed the summer sun to dry it out.

Digging out the oven

The next step is to dig out your oven and light a few small fires to help dry out the inside of the oven. You can just use your hands, a small trowel, or a stick.  You want to be careful as you dig out so that you are not digging into the cob itself (hence why the newspaper barrier is so useful).

Digging out the oven

Digging out the oven

I used my shovel to remove the bulk of the sand and then got in there with my hands as I got closer to the walls. I let the oven sit another week after I pulled out the sand, and then I lit a small fire for a few days to get the inside dried out.  Here’s the very first fire.

First fire

First fire

Alright! That’s over half of the oven build.  In my next post, I’ll show how I added layers of insulation, a final plaster, and also decorated it with more mosaic pieces that were salvaged from broken pottery.

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

One final thing I want to say now is this is an incredibly good way to connect with the element of earth.  There is nothing more grounding than having your feet and hands directly in the soil, shaping it, honoring it, and getting to know it.  I really enjoyed my time building this and felt incredibly grounded afterward!

The AODA’s Seven Element System: Above, Below, Within, Earth, Air, Fire, Water

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree demonstrating the seven-element framework

 

Perhaps the first thing to think about in any system of spiritual or magical practice is the way in which a practice offers a framework to understand reality. These frameworks vary widely based on the spiritual tradition: some use a complex system of deities to map concepts to reality.  Deities often have domains and represent certain aspects of reality (e.g the Horned God Cernunnos of Celtic Mythology can represent fertility, abundance, the land itself, and so forth). Other systems may have songs, stories, and dances to help explain the world.  Other systems may recognize different kinds of energies and map them (such as the Jewish Kabbalah or Yggdrasil, the world tree, in Norse tradition, In AODA, our primary framework is a seven-element framework. The seven-element system is a highly adaptable and non-dogmatic framework that you can use for a variety of purposes, whether or not you belong to AODA. As an elemental framework, it works with a classification of energies present on the land to provide a framework for raising and drawing energy in particular ways, for rituals and more. Once you have an understanding of a system of representation like the seven elements, you can work with it in any myriad of ways to develop your own unique practices, adapt it to your local ecosystem, and so forth.

 

The seven elements include three aspects of spirit: spirit above, spirit below, and spirit within, as well as earth, air, fire, and water. Thus, in this post, I’ll explain the historical roots of this framework and some of its features. This post is really the precursor to next week’s post when I show how this kind of framework can be used to create any number of rituals and practices, including land healing and blessing.  (As a reminder, since I became Grand Archdruid of AODA, I’m dedicating one post a month to AODA-specific practices!)

 

Understanding the Elements as a System of Representation and as Symbols

The first part of the seven-element framework is the four classical elements. The classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water or some similar equivalent were part of many ancient cultures including those of Ancient Greece, Persia, Babylonia, Tibet, and China. In ancient Persia around 600 BCE, the ancient philosopher Zarathustra (Zoroaster) seems to have originated–or at least, first written down–the four-element theory and described the four elements as “sacred” and “essential for the survival of all living beings and therefore should be venerated and kept free from any contamination.”[3] The failure to keep these elements pure could anger the gods. If only the modern world had such wisdom!

 

As in the classic period, today, the elements can be seen both as physical things (e.g. the soil as earth, the fire as fire, water in a stream) as well as metaphysical. Thus, we can see the four elements represented in nature and in revival druid symbolism, but also emotionally and physically in the human body. For example, earth in the druid tradition is tied to the energy of the bear, trees, and stones on the physical landscape. We can see representations of the earth everywhere we look–in the mountains, the stones, the caves. Its also tied to the personality qualities of determination and perseverance, the physical bodily qualities of being strong or having a high constitution, and the metaphysical qualities of grounding and rootedness. If we were to trace the element of earth back to through traditional western herbalism, we’d also see earth connected to the melancholic temperament, which indicates a deeply reflective, introspective, and quiet individual. Thus, the element of earth as a concept gives us a system to help classify and categorize the worlds within and without. This kind of thing is quite useful when you want to call upon all of the above with a single word or symbol, as we do in the Sphere of Protection ritual and other such rituals in AODA.  What I mean here is this: if I want to bring these qualities into my life, a simple thing I could do is trace the symbol of earth in the air each day (in AODA, it is a circle with a line pointing to the earth), carry a stone in my pocket, or lay down upon the earth.

 

What any elemental (or other) framework does, including AODA’s 7 element system, the Hebrew Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Chinese 5 element system, and so on, is offer a way to represent the world.  It offers a way to take the complexity of matter and spirit and put it into an accessible framework that can be worked, adapted, and understood. Elemental frameworks, such as the classic four elements work to create a more simple system to represent the complexities of reality. The elements are symbols. Symbols are simplified things (e.g. a word, an image) that stand-in for something else or represents it, usually a set of much more nuanced and complex concepts. Symbols help us interpret and understand the world, and offer us frameworks not only for meditation and ritual but also for daily life.

 

The reasons you might to want to master such a system are numerous. For me, it helps me design effective and on-the-spot rituals and practices, design effective meditations, understand the ways my life may be in balance or out of it, and allows me to have a system of understanding in which to work as a druid.

 

 

The Four Elements

And so we begin with the four elements in AODA’s system, drawn from the broader druid revival and western antiquity.  These are some of the classic meanings for each, but in AODA practice, we encourage individuals to adapt these meanings as they see fit.

 

Earth is the element tied to the north, to the dark moon, to the energy of winter and midnight.  We find the earth physically in mountains, stones, trees, all of what classical writers would call “the firmament.”  The energy of earth, manifesting metaphysically, offers grounding, stability, strength, and perseverance. Earth encourages us to be grounded and stable in our work.  In the druid revival tradition, earth is often associated with the great bear, both manifested in the heavens as Ursa Major, but also on earth as a physical bear, who represents many of earth’s qualities.

 

Air is the element tied to the east, to the waxing moon, to the energy of spring and dawn.  We find the air physically in the wind, the sky, the clouds, the rustle of the leaves as they blow in the breeze.  The energy of air, manifesting metaphysically, offers us clarity, knowledge, wisdom, focus, and objectivity. Air encourages us to temper our emotions with reason, evidence, and clear thinking.  In the druid revival tradition, air is associated with the hawk soaring in the air at dawn.

 

Fire is the element tied to the south, to the full moon, to the energy of summer and noon.  We find the fire physically as a fire itself (such as that at a campsite or in your fireplace) but also in the combustion materials to create heat and energy (in the modern world, oil or electricity). The energy of fire, manifesting metaphysically, has to do with our inspiration, transformation, creativity, passions, and will—how we direct our lives and what we want to bring into manifestation. In the classical texts, fire is often closest to the divine as it is a transformative agent. In the druid revival tradition, fire is associated with the stag, often depicted in a summer forest.

 

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Water is the element tied to the west, to the waning moon, the energy of fall and the dusk.  We find the water physically in rivers, lakes, oceans, springs, streams, storms, and even in our own bodies. The energy of water, manifesting metaphysically, offers us intuition, emotion, healing, wisdom, connection, particularly connection with nature and spirit, and flow. In the druid revival tradition, water is associated with the salmon of wisdom, originally coming from the Fenian cycle[4] of Irish mythology, where the salmon who lived in the well of wisdom ate nine hazelnuts and was later caught by Finn, who cooked the salmon and had the wisdom transferred to him.  We might then see the water as helping us have wisdom, which is the integration of the head/heart and subconscious/conscious mind.

 

What I’ve just shared are the meanings that are most common. But in AODA practice, we encourage druids to develop “wildcrafted” and ecoregional druidries. So a druid living in California might have a different interpretation of what these elements are on their landscape than one living in Pennsylvania.  In fact, my own elemental animal interpretations are different based on the dominant animals in my landscape and I tie each of my elements to sacred trees. Each druid can thus adapt these basic meanings and directions as they see fit for their own wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry.

The Three Aspects of Spirit and the Three Currents

Drawing upon the earlier writings of the Greek writer Empedocles who introduced the four elements to the Ancient Greek World, Aristotle added a 5th element, Aether (spirit) to the four classical elements. The original four elements were considered four states of matter with the fifth being a connection to the metaphysical (that which is beyond the physical).  In AODA, we recognize three aspects of spirit–above, below, and within.  This distinction is certainly present in the druid revival (for example, see Trilithon, volume 1 for a druid revival text on the telluric current).

 

Spirit Above: The Solar Current

The Solar current is the energy—physical and metaphysical—that comes from the sun, our ultimate source of life. The solar current is magically associated with things in the sky: the heavens and birds: hawks, eagles, and roosters. Additionally, I have found that certain plants also can draw and radiate solar energy quote effectively—Dandelion (dominant in the spring); St. John’s Wort (dominant in at midsummer), and goldenrod (dominant in the fall) are three such plants. For Land healing or other earth-based work, we can use these specific solar plants when we need to light up dark places (energetically) and focus the solar current’s healing light.

 

Solar energy, being directly tied to the sun, changes based on the position of the sun in the sky on a daily basis.  That is, solar energy is different at noon than it is at dusk, dawn, or midnight. It also changes based on where the sun is in the wheel of the year; the energy of the sun is different on June 21st, the summer solstice than it is on the Winter Solstice on Dec 21st.)

 

Connected to the sun are the other solar bodies in our solar system and more broadly in the celestial heavens. In the Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer notes that other planets in the solar system directly reflect the energy of the sun, so astrological influences can help us understand the current manifestation of the solar current at various present moments.  This is all to say that solar energy is ever powerful, and ever-changing, in our lives.

 

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric

We can see the solar current manifested differently in the world’s religions—Christianity, for example, is a very solar focused tradition.  When you look at pictures of saints or Jesus, they are often accompanied by rays of light from heaven, god’s light shining down, even the halo of light around the head of a saint or Jesus. Buddhism, likewise, focuses on achieving “higher levels” of consciousness and being—these are all solar in nature. Any time that you hear things about ascension, the light of the sun, and so on, that’s the solar energy being connected to and being drawn upon. Part of the allure of these traditions, in some cases, is the idea of escapism—since the material earth is problematic and imperfect, we can ascend and go to more perfect realms. The problem with some of this thinking is that it separates the living earth from all things sacred or holy—I firmly believe that part of the reason that such pillaging of the planet is happening is because of the emphasis in dominant world religions on solar aspects as divine and earthy aspects as not.  The earth, then, is seen only as a resource worth taking from.

 

Spirit Below: The Telluric Current

While the light of the sun comes down to earth, the Telluric current rises from the heat and energy of the earth itself. Ecologically, we have the molten core of the earth which drives the earth’s tectonic plates and thus, shapes the landmass on the surface. Tectonic plates and landmasses, along with the energy of the sun and the composition of the atmosphere, determine our climate[1]. The great soil web of life, which contains millions of organisms in a single teaspoon of rich soil[2], also supports all life. Thus, we can see the importance of the biological aspects of the earth in the larger patterns of life on this planet.

 

The telluric current’s name comes from “Tellus,” a name for the ancient Roman goddess of the earth. She was also known as “terra mater” or Mother earth; later, this was a word in Latin “telluric” meaning “land, territory or earth.” These ancient connections, then, are present in the name itself, where the earth and her energy were often personified and worshipped as divine.

 

This telluric energy starts at the center of the earth and rises up, through the layers of the stone and molten flows, through the groundwater and underwater aquifers, through the minerals and layers of fossils, and into the crust of the earth. It takes its shape from what is on the surface: plants, trees, roads, rivers, valleys, rivers, and so on. As Greer notes in the Druid Magic Handbook, it is powerfully affected by underground sources of water (aquifers); springs and wells that come up from the land have very strong concentrations of telluric energy. This helps explain both why sacred wells, throughout the ages, have been such an important part of spiritual traditions in many parts of the world–and why we can use spring water for healing and energizing purposes. This also explains why fracking, which taints the underground waters themselves, is so horrifically bad.

 

As RJ Stewart notes in Earthlight, it is from the currents of the earth that the nutrients flow from the living earth into our bodies, regenerating them. It is from the telluric that you can find the light of transformation and regeneration. The telluric represents the dark places in the world, the energy found in caves and deep in the depths of our souls. The telluric energy sometimes is about confronting the shadows within ourselves and realizing that those are part of us too. It is about lived experience—the act of being—rather than rationalizing and talking about. In Lines Upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux sum this up nicely when they write, “For us, the sense of traveling through a dark and elemental landscape, pregnant with magical and spiritual forces, is no longer experienced. We have separated ourselves from the land and live within our own abstractions” (246). Take a minute to think about the word “dark” – in modern Western culture, it is immediately associated with evil (showing our strong solar bias).  But darkness can be a place of rest, of quietude, of inner learning and knowing.

 

There are fewer traditions that work primarily with the telluric currents—the Underworld tradition (see R. J. Stewart’s line of books as an example) is one such tradition. Many forms of shamanism, where the practitioner is going down into the depths of the earth or their own consciousness to seek allies and assistance is also telluric in nature. These traditions are frequently concerned with transforming the here and now, and seeing the earth as sacred, understanding the sacred soil upon which life depends.  It’s also unfortunate because, throughout history, many telluric-based religions that were indigenous and earth-based were essentially wiped out by solar ones.

Elemental Wheel - Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O'Driscoll)

Elemental Wheel – Traditional Elemental Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O’Driscoll)

Spirit Within: Awakening the Lunar Current

A third current—the lunar current–can be created by consciously bringing the solar current and the telluric current together in union. As Greer writes in the Druid Magic Handbook “When the lunar current awakens in an individual, it awakens the inner sense and unfolds into enlightenment. When it awakens in the land, it brings healing, fertility, and plenty” (p. 30).

 

We can see ancient humans’ deep knowledge of the three currents and their interaction reflected in the ancient ley lines upon the landscape—for example in Cuzco, Peru, which means “navel of the earth” had at its center, the Inca Temple of the Sun. It was here in the Inca temple that the Coricancha (the emperor) sat at the heart of the temple; radiating the light of the sun outward from this temple like a sunburst was a large web of straight lines reaching into the countryside (Lines upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux, 251). On the other side of the world, we see the same principles at play in China, where the Chinese emperor sat on his throne in the center of the Imperial Palace (the “Purple Forbidden City”), centered on the imperial road and with gates leading outward to the four directions (Pennick and Devereux, 251). In these, and in other ancient civilizations, the rulers, associated with the sun or considering themselves as “sun gods” or “sons of heaven” radiated via these “transmission lines” to bring the solar energy down and radiate it outward to bless the manifestation of the telluric. In both cases, the ruler was the personal awakening that third current and sending it out for the bounty and health of the land.

 

The lunar current also helps us resolve the binary created by the telluric and solar currents—it shows us that unification is possible and art of awakening the lunar current can be part of our healing arts in magical practice. To return to our opening discussion of “energy”; the Nwyfre flows from the awakening of this third current, through the alchemical synthesis and transformation of the other two into the third.  We can see this unification present also in the works of Jung–the unconscious (represented by the telluric) and the conscious (represented by the solar) come into unison to create a more complete and whole person when unified (a process Jung calls individuation).

 

Adapting the Seven Element Framework to Your Practice

If you are drawn to this framework or are a member of AODA, you might find it helpful to start mapping out your own understanding of these elements in your life and in your local landscape and building a seven-element mandala of ideas, experiences, and themes.  You can do this in many ways and, over time, you can layer many different meanings and understandings into your elemental mandalas.  This practice can take time to understand and requires some interaction and observation with the earth around you.  You can use the attached graphic to the left (click on the graphic for a full-size version) to help you map out the different relationships if you’d like.

 

Seven Element Framework Graphical Representation

Here are some of the many ways you can think about building your own:

  • What local animals to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • What local herbs to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • What local trees to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • See if you can identify local features that mark the elements and directions where you live: a mountain to the north, a river to the west, and so on (this practice may also have you switching directions–e.g. if you live on the east coast, the largest body of water is to the east, not
  • the west!)
  • What emotions tie to each of these elements?
  • Can you develop a movement for each of these elements?
  • If you practice bardic arts, you might consider developing a poem, painting, carving, photograph, or any other practice
  • Can you make a physical representation of this framework on an altar or in your landscape?

 

As an example of how this might work, in the photos earlier in this article, I shared one such bardic/artistic representation of my own. Earlier this year, I was asked to create a set of large elemental banners for the upcoming MAGUS 2020 gathering, which is primarily an OBOD gathering, so they were looking for elemental four-quarter banners.  I was asked to do them with an herbal/plant theme. Thus, I spent some time sketching and meditating on what local herbs would be appropriate (and put them into the seven elemental framework, even though I was only painting the first four for the gathering!)  I came up with the following list of herbs based on my own understanding, observation, and attunement with the local region and made several shifts and revisions during the development process.  Here’s my list:

  • Air/East/Spring Equinox: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).  Dandelion is excellent for east because she grows in the spring, she has a yellow flower, she is a dominant plant upon the landscape offering food and medicine, and when she goes into seed, she “takes to the air”.
  • Fire/South/Summer Solstice: Monarda / Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) Monarda here in this region blooms a firey red, bright pink, or light purple in the heat of the summer, usually throughout July.  This medicinal herb is also a very spicy plant–if you eat a leaf, you will have a spicy sensation.  It also helps fight illness and is a native plant here.  I could think of no better plant for fire/south because of both when monarda blooms and monarda’s firey physical nature.
  • Water/West/Fall Equinox: Cattail (Typha latifolia).  Cattail is another native plant here in our bioregion, and a very important one from an ecological perspective, as it helps cleanse and keep our waterways clear.  Like the other plants here, Cattail is a perennial plant, but it is most dominant in the fall as it grows its seed head (which is where it gets the name “cattail”.  Cattail is a water cleansing and water-loving plant often found on the edges of lakes and swamps.  It was perfect for the west!
  • Earth/North/Winter Solstice: Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).  Wintergreen is another native perennial plant here, and while it has its green, waxy, and minty-tasting leaves year-round, by the winter solstice it is producing bright red berries that are flavorful and delicious.  Wintergreen stays green through the winter months.
  • Spirit Above:  Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Milkweed offers such abundance, including four separate harvests for food, during the year, that I think it’s an excellent plant for spirit above.  Part of this is that it has a “spirit” quality as it slowly opens its pods as the season progresses and releases the delightful seed fluffs to the wind.  On a beautiful fall day here, you will see thousands of them in the air, offering a very ethereal quality. It has an enduring nature–there is some form of milkweed always on our landscape, whether it be the beautiful golden pods in the deep winter months to the shoots in the spring.
  • Spirit Below. Ghost pipe (monotropa uniflora).  Another plant imbued with spirit, ghost pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds on dead plant matter (and thus, does not have chlorophyll, giving it a “ghostly” appearance).  Part of why I selected this plant for spirit below is that has tremendous medicinal virtues associated with grounding–this plant is often used for people who need to come back from a bad experience (mental, alcohol/drug-induced or otherwise) and it helps them bring their way back to a place of stability–in a way that no other plant does.  It also has an enduring nature; even through all seasons
  • Spirit within. Sage (Salvia officinalis).  The uses of sage for spiritual purposes can be found in many cultures worldwide (it truly may be a “global” herb as far as spiritual practices are concerned).  Sages are found throughout the world, and certainly, here in my own ecosystem, where they are perennial, easy to grow, and abundant.  Sage has a long history of spiritual use in the druid tradition, and certainly, it burns beautifully, connecting matter with spirit, and serving as a connecting herb.  It has the quality of bringing mind, body, and spirit into the same place.

This is only one set of interpretations of the seven-element system, but I hope this example shows you how you might adapt this system to your own local ecosystem and understanding.  Next week, we’ll continue with the adaptations and work with the seven-element system, as I’ll further illustrate these concepts and how they can work together for land blessing and other kinds of rituals!

 

[1] Ruddiman, William F., ed. Tectonic uplift and climate change. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

[2] ch, Jeff, and Wayne Lewis. Teaming with microbes. Workman Publishing Company, 2010.

[3] Habashi, Fathi. “Zoroaster and the theory of four elements.” Bulletin for the History of Chemistry 25, no. 2 (2000): 109-115.

[4] Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Fenian Cycle.” The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain (2017): 1-5.

Embracing Ancestral Fires and Fire-starting at Beltane

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

The tiny sparks from my flint and steel shower down on my char cloth.  This flint and steel set was a gift from a fellow druid from almost a decade ago, a gift that has long offered me a connection with my ancestors.  It takes me a few moments to remember the technique he taught me, striking the steel against the flint in a particular way with a particulary angle to my body.  Starting a fire in an ancestral way isn’t just a mental act; its an emboded one.  I breathe deeply and remember, and the tiny sparks fly from my tools to the char cloth. After a few more attempts, a single spark lands on the cloth and starts to glow orange. I carefully pick up the char cloth and blow on it to increase the ember size, then place it in a specially prepared “nest” of bark, pine pitch, and soft cattail and milkweed fibers.  I blow some more on the nest.  At first, nothing happens, and I fear the spark is lost.  But then it starts smoking, more and more, and suddenly, the whole nest is aflame.  I lay this nest carefully down and begin layering thin plant stalks and dried materials that I had prepared in advance, slowly building the fire from that tiny ember.  In 30 minutes, the fire is blazing and warm, and I feel intimately connected with it because I was able to start it on my own with basic tools.

 

We call Beltane a “fire festival” in the neopagan traditions because fire plays a central role. Modern Beltane festivities are derived from the ancient tradition in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man where people lit fires and drove cattle through them as a blessing as they went out to pasture for the summer months. People seeking blessings also lept over the fires.  For a nice description of the history of this practice, see this site.  Fire was such an important part of Beltane because fire represents the sun, and by May 1st, people are eager to welcome back the sun, to enjoy the sun of the long summer months, and to have sunlight to kiss our crops that they may be fertile and abundant for the long winter ahead.  Today, in honor of the fires of Beltane, I want to talk about fire as an ancestral practice and encourage exploration and experimentation with fire and fire starting in more traditional–and ancestral–ways.

 

Fire and the Ancestors

Fire is one of humanity’s oldest friends, tools, and teachers.  New research from the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggests that homo erectus–our pre-human ancestors–had been cultivating and working with fire at least one million years ago, possibly 1.5 million or more years ago.  It is likely that when we evolved from homo erectus into homo sapien, fire was with us.  That is, when we birthed from the ancestral womb into the species we are today, fire was with us.  When our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies and developed agriculure at the start of the Holocene 8000 years ago, fire was with us.  When our ancestors needed to stay warm in harsh winter weather, fire was with us. When our ancestors needed to keep back the predators in the dark, fire was with us. Fire is with us even now, as we heat our homes, move our vehicles, cook our food, and journey far and wide.

 

Perhaps the most interesting facts about fire is that it is one of the two things that distinguish us from other species (the other being language, although that fact is currently under debate).  Fire scares and drives away animals and insects, while it invites humans in closer.  If you are camping in the woods, its instinctive to want to have a fire, get close to it, and burn it brightly.  Some of my most frightening times in nature have been when I was alone in the dark woods without the warmth and comfort a fire offers. This, too, was ancestral.  Because my ancestors have been enjoying the warmth, light, and protection of fire for literally millions of years–it is no wonder that the primal part of my brain felt it lacking, especially when I heard critters afoot in the cold and dark night.

 

Today, people gather around fires, indoor or out, just as our ancient ancestors did. At any outdoor event or camping trip, there is a fire to be found. And where there is fire, there are people gathered, laughing, cooking food, telling stories, drumming, sharing songs, or more. Indoors, the fire has much of the same function. The hearth in traditional times was the center of the home. The fire burning, food cooking, the sharing of skills and traditions across generations. The hearth offers us a place to join with each other, teach each other, and nourish our own spirits.

 

 

Fires burn

Fires burn

Fire also has also contributed significantly to human evolution; Charles Darwin said that humans were distinguished evolutionarly by two things: langauge and fire. We can see this is true from both the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of human societies. First, fire has the unique ability to render food more digestable: we see that the application of fire to meats, vegetables, and fungus creates it more nutrient rich and dense. Some scientsts suggest that this has had a strong evolutionary function, in that more nutrient rich foods, honed by fire, allowed for a larger brain to develop (as typically, about 1/5 of our total calore intake goes towards our brains). Fire also was a driving force in moving humans further up the technological ladder: fire is what allowed us to create and refine copper, bronze, iron, steel and today, many, many advanced technologies still rely on basic principles of fire. Thus, each successive civilization has learned new and powerful ways to harness fire–and sometimes, to destroy with it.

 

 

Fire has had spiritual connotations throughout human history, and across human cultures. The worship or deification of fire, known as pyrodulia, pyrolatry, or pryolatria, was common, particularly in pre-industrial societies. The ancient alchemists and hermeticists, too, understood the importance and power of fire.  Alchemists divided fire into four types including the “secret fire” upon which all inner alchemy (spiritual alchemy) was based.  Likewise, in the Golden Dawn tradition, fire is considered the first element, and everything descends from fire.  Ancient societies, including Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese, venerated fire and worked with it elementally and ceremonially.

 

In every way, fire reconnects us to our roots, to those ancient ancestors who gave us such an important gift.  When I look at the fire from this perspective, I realize that fire is my most important ancestral gift, and thus, one of the best ways to honor my ancestors is to learn and understand fire, to work with fire as they might have, to learn to start and build fires, and to honor them through this practice.

 

Beltane Fire Traditions, the Ancestral Way

So perhaps this Beltane, considerworking deeply with fire in a new way.   I offer three suchs suggestions for how to honor the ancestors and work deeply with fire at beltane: traditional fire starting, tending, and honoring the fire.  These are three of many, many you can consider!

 

Fire Starting and Honoring the Ancestors

For most of us, fire starting requires a match or lighter, something that makes a quick flame.  We often build a big stack, put wads of paper in it, light it with some fossil-fuel derived source, and hope for the best.  However,  learning to make fire in other ways, slower ways, ancestral ways, creates what I can only describe as a different quality fire.  For one, you have a different investment in the fire, both from a physical and mental perspective. On the mental side, we use ancestral knowledge, knowing what materials to use, knowing the techniques, learning and failing and growing from the experience.  On the physical side, as I mentioned in my opening, fire starting is an emboded practice.  These practices take a lot more physical effort, particularly when you are learning.  But that physical and mental effort leads us to amazing outcomes:  fire we have truely kindled and lit with our ancestors beside us. But also, by starting a fire in a more traditional way, you invite your ancient ancestors to your side, and thus, the fire seems to have a different quality.  Finally, the fire has more meaning becuase you have done it the slow, old way, and that has power.

 

Another naturally created sacred fire

Another naturally created sacred fire in a special firepit

The “Fire Triangle” I learned at the North American Bushcraft School offers some practical suggestions for ancestral fire starting. This triangle suggests that we need Fuel (something that will easily burn); Oxygen; and Ignition (a heat source, a spark).  Traditional firestarting methods are focused on all three, with a specific emphasis on generating the spark, ember, or heat and transfering that into a fuel source that will allow you to produce a flame and using your breath to help bring oxygen into the fold.

 

The traditional method that I know best, using flint, steel, and char cloth, was detailed above in the opening and requires a minimal investment (a good kit is usually less than $20, you can also make your own charcloth from scrap cotton fiber).  There are other primitive fire starting methods that you might try.  Here are a few with detailed videos. I prefer videos for this, so I’m going to link you to some good ones)

  • Flint and Steel demonstration and method.
  • Hand Drill: method overview and instructions (probably the hardest to learn at first, but also potentially the most satsifying).  Local materials for me to use include mullein, yucca, or goldenrod stalks and soft pine or cedar boards).
  • Bow and Drill methods.

Starting a fire with one of these methods takes practice!  I’ve had some basic instruction in the hand drill, and one of my goals for this Beltane is to learning it in more detail this Beltane. After Beltane, I will continue to develop my knowledge of local woods and materials for this beautiful firemaking technique.

 

I believe that fire building and fire starting can be treated as a sacred practice, a ritual in and of itself.  With each step, we can set our intentions from preparing to start the fire in a sacred manner, lighting the fire, and honoring the fire.

 

Honoring the Fires

Honoring the fire begins with creating it in a sacred manner, and continues with how we tend it and what we do with it.  I think that each of us can create our own unique fire traditions, but here area  few that I particularly like:

 

A fire offering.  As we make offerings to the land, spirits, or other divine entities, we might also honor our fires.

–Creative offerings. I like to paint things or create things that are specifically for the fire.  This may be a woodburned piece, a small painting, other natural creations.  In particular, for these, I like to gather things from the land itself and use only natural materials (such as my natural inks or dyes, watercolors, etc) so that anything I offer to the fire is not going to have chemicals or other byproducts.  So my fire offering this Beltane is a woodburned piece honoring the fire, created for the fire with intent.

–Fire blend of Herbs.  You could also create a fire blend of herbs that you can offer; I especially like to include resins or other pine substances in these so that they burn brightly.  Cedar or pine boughs are also great choices for this, as they crackle and pop when they burn. A ball of beeswax mixed with herbs is truely a sight to behold in the fire!  I might do a whole post on fire offerings in the future.

–Music or Drumming.  Play a drum, flute, sing, or make some other kind of music for the fire.  Anyone can pick up a drum and offer a heartbeat rhythm and connect with the fire.

–Dance.  Dance around your fire, letting your body flow and move (if this isn’t usual to you, just do this when nobody else is around!  Even for someone who is not a dancer, you can connect with the fire in this way).

 

Treating the fire respectfully. Another thing I recently learned at the North American School of Bushcraft that some native traditions say that you should never throw anything on a fire, but rather, place it gently.  This is becuase Fire is seen as an elder, worthy of respect.  As druids, we might develop our own respectful fire traditions, so for you personally, you might think about what treating a fire with respect means.  If you have a regular fire pit or a ceremonial pit, you can develop a layered set of expectations and actions that guide your fire interaction.  Remember that the fire is a place for us to gather with our ancestors, and thus, it is always a sacred place.

 

 

I hope that this post has been inspirational to you and that you have a blessed Beltane!  May the fires burn brightly and may spring once again return.

 

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the fire teachings of Jason Drevenak at the North American School of Bushcraft as inspiration for this post.