XV. RITES AROUND THE HOUSEHOLD FIRE
The hearth, i.e., the household fire, is present in all cultures. When humans managed to control fire at the end of the Lower Palaeolithic –and over time they would learn to produce it–, they created a space reserved for this element to which only they would have access.
Humans had lived and moved in a natural environment shared with other animal species up until then. After that first energy revolution, all other animal species would be excluded from that space.
Even though the fear of fire is instinctive in animal species, the link that humans have had with it as they evolved has been so close that they must teach their offspring, as small children, about its danger so that they do not burn themselves. The hearth or household thus emerged as a strictly human space; access by other animals to that space precisely involved their domestication.
The attraction is not only as a child, but remains throughout our lives. We thus refer to the hypnotic power that fire has on us and it has even entered our language related to life itself or to love. Expressions such as fan the flames, say that someone is flagging when they are about to die or being by the fireside are the counterpoint to speaking about the fire of life or of love or of flame of life dying out.
However fundamental this fact from achaeocivilisation seems, it needs to be borne in mind to interpret the subsequent development of domestic culture in the diversity of peoples.
The fire of the hearth as of yesterday was, even among us, a fundamental aspect of the home and at the apex of family coexistence, and is also a basic aspect of the very origin of civilisation.
The microclimate that generates this controlled fire in its environment becomes a sphere of human relations. When that fire is always lit in the same place, it will become a witness of the successive generations coexisting alongside it. It should be remembered that until the butane gas cookers appeared, a fire had to be lit every day of the year, even on hot summer ones, as it was the only heat source for cooking food. In that context, fire has become the symbol of the home in our traditional culture, the spirit of the hearth and an offering to the ancestors.
Numerous traditions related to fire have emerged, such as those listed below and others that will be considered in the chapter referring to the ancient virtue attributed to the household fire and which was widespread throughout the Basque Country.
The household fire would be part of the call for a second tooth to appear, for example. Children used to throw the tooth that had fallen out into the fire and say: Tori zarra ta ekatzu berria (Take the old one and bring the new) (Oiartzun-G). Fire was also capable of cleansing bread or other food that had fallen on the floor or water brought from the fountain after sunset. People or animals that came from outside to join the home had to go around the fire three times.
The embers of the hearth
The hearth wide would not be put out in the past; instead, great care was taken to keep it going. The logs were therefore removed and the embers were carefully covered with ash. The fire would thus be kept smouldering during the night and could be got going again the following morning.
Our survey in Amezaga de Zuia (A) showed it was considered a bad omen if the housewife found the fire out the next morning. However, if the embers were still burning, she would say: “Blessed be God, I have a fire”.
According to Barandiaran, the fire continuing to burn was the gift of the ancestors that, as was believed, visited the house at night. The incantation said in Ataun (G) referred to that belief when piling up the hearth’s embers at night when making the sign of the cross three times over the hearth:
- Nik sue biltzên,
- Aingerûk etxên sartzên,
- Etzên etxekôk bedeinkatzen.
- (As I pile up the fire / angels enter the home, / and bless its dwellers).
He noted that this ritual was already dying out in the village by 1925.
Lighting the hearth on set days
The Christmas log
The Christmas holiday coincides with the winter solstice. The rebirth of the sun is referred to in Basque as Eguberri (new sun – sky) and Urtebarri (new year). Certain practices and beliefs around the household fire at Christmas are lined to the Christian festivity of the birth of Christ. Others seem to be related to the old solstice cults that spread throughout the areas of the early Indo-European Civilisation.
The belief that the hearth had a religious meaning and special virtues on Christmas Eve to mark the birth of Jesus was widespread as well.
New fire at Easter
Until the Liturgical Reform of the Easter Vigil in 1952, the Easter Saturday church services were held in the morning and began with the blessing of the new fire. A piece of burlap had to be used to light it with a flint spark for that fire to be “new”. That fire would be used to light the charcoal in the incense burner and its flames would be used to light the Easter candle.
The origin of that widespread custom in the past to take that blessed fire home to rekindle the fire of the home lay in that rite of the Catholic Church liturgy.
- André VARAGNAC. La cônquete des energies. Paris: (Hachette), pp. 65 & ss.
- José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. Diccionario Ilustrado de Mitología Vasca. Bilbao: 1972, p. 218.
- This custom and the chants sang are included in the chapter in this Ethnographic Atlas on Children’s Games in the Basque Country. </li> </ol>