Since the dawn of time,
human beings have gathered around the fire to make music, to dance,
and to weave magic in the fire light. In the past fifteen years, there
has been a resurgence in our Western culture for this type of ritual,
a reawakening of the shamanic spirit. What is happening during the
course of an all-night fire? After observing the ritual process for
a number of years, and comparing stories and experiences with others,
we have found that the alchemical model is a useful tool for understanding
the all-night sacred fire circle ritual.
While fire circles and
drum circles range from very informal social gatherings to all-night
intentional magical workings, here we will focus on the style of intentionally
created magical drum and dance fire circles that have been evolving
for the past fifteen years on the East Coast, which have now found
their way across the country (to FIREDANCE). One of the main differences
in our rituals is the "container" which we create. In the
alchemical tradition a container or vessel is often hermetically sealed
to outside influences. At our fire circles the participants enter
the vessel with the intention of doing their magical work.
Every fire circle ritual is different,
but there are some elements common to all. In alchemy, the Magnum
Opus, or "great work," is the creation of the "philosopher's
stone," which has many magical qualities. This philosopher's
stone has the amazing power to turn all that it touches into gold,
or to spiritualize matter. Basically, as we see it, we're using a
pattern that we know works to change and grow more fully into our
souls. We are turning lead into gold, on many different levels.
We see the primary goal of staying
up all night, drumming, dancing and singing at a fire circle as an
alchemical process. Each one of us is involved, on some level, in
the great work. We accelerate the processes of personal growth by
accelerating the fire of Nature, which transforms the lead of our
lives into the gold of Spirit. One of the basic ideas behind many
alchemical traditions is that of transmuting or purifying one thing
from a "lower" form into a "higher" form. When
we consider the history of Alchemy, we find many different traditions.
-- Alchemy was born at the tribal fires of Paleolithic societies where
people discovered that the fire acted on different materials in different
ways. This led to the fire workers creating secret societies to protect
their knowledge and power over fire and metals.
Proto-Chemistry -- Medieval alchemists
in European and Arab countries sought to find the philosophers
stone through their chemical experiments on matter and metals. Many
of these experiments lead to discoveries in medicine and eventually
archaic alchemy transformed into modern chemistry, due to the works
of many scientifically inclined, yet spiritually inspired, visionaries
such as Paracelsus, and Isaac Newton.
Spiritual -- In ancient Egypt, the
legendary Thoth was the creator of magic, mathematics, language and
writing. The Greek aspect of Thoth was the mythic figure of Hermes
Trismegistis, whose "Emerald Tablet" was said to contain
the secrets of alchemical transmutation. The Emerald Tablet was re-discovered
in the West during the renaissance, and led many alchemists of that
time to study both Arabic and Western Alchemical texts.
Sexual Alchemy -- In the East, both
Chinese and Indian traditions incorporate sexual imagery into the
understanding of alchemy, the union of opposites, yin/yang, yoni/lingam,
man/woman, and other dualities are unified into the "one thing,"
the great mystery. These traditions transmute sexual energy into union
with the Divine.
Psychological Alchemy -- One of the
most important psychologists of the 20th century,
C. G. Jung, discovered the wealth of alchemical images that appear
in dreams. Jung's work re-popularized the nearly forgotten study of
alchemy in the twentieth century.
Shamanic Alchemy -- Often, in shamanic
traditions, we find sacred medicines, or elixirs, used to alter the
state of consciousness of the shaman, as he or she enters healing
trance. The preparation of this elixir is a further example of the
alchemical process, and the dissolution of the individual ego in the
shamanic state of consciousness is similar to the dissolution of metals
in the alchemist's laboratory. The shaman's journey of death and resurrection
mirrors the alchemist's experiments of dissolving and re-combining
materials. The very nature of alchemical language is intentionally
cryptic, even our modern word gibberish comes from an Arabic alchemist's
name, Jabir -- whose cryptic alchemical notes were incomprehensible
to the uninitiated.
Well, folks, we're breaking tradition
here, in lots of ways -- first off, we're disclosing many of the secrets
we've learned over the years, and we're putting them in writing, in
what is meant to be clear language. We are not trying to transmit
the wisdom of the ages or relay all the information that is available
on the art of alchemy. We are attempting to describe how the alchemical
process can be seen in viewing a fire circle ritual.
There are three basic components of
alchemy which are salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt is fixed or stable,
and represents the body, including the physical space and the ritual
preparation. Sulfur is volatile, and represents spirit, including
drumming, singing, dancing, oratory, music, and prayers. Mercury is
mutable or changeable, and represents soul, the inspiration and intention
of the ritual, coming from within the individual or group soul.
We have found that it is extremely
helpful to mentally and physically prepare ourselves before entering
into an all-night ritual. Before we go to the fire circle, we often
bathe and choose our ritual vestments for the evening, to reflect
our individual or community intentions. The ritual costume often symbolizes
the archetype we are embodying during the ceremony that evening. Magnus
tends to run a lot of Mercury energy, so his costume often includes
a winged hat and a caduceus wand, along with his shamanic bag of tricks.
Spinner often carries Lunar energy, and her costume usually includes
head wraps and veils, and she carries a medicine bag containing various
enchantments to be administered throughout the journey from dusk to
dawn. We've asked many people what they do before they go to the fire
circle, and people have a variety of individual practices, ranging
from simple cleansing breaths to chakra meditations, to the lesser
banishing ritual of the pentagram, or other preparatory rituals. Often
at our fire rituals there is a formal fire lighting ceremony where
the members of the community join together and state their intention
for the evening's ritual. After a brief opening ceremony, the fire
is lit, the drums begin, and the dancing starts.
Sometimes, there are those who arrive
late to the fire circle, while the ritual is already in process. In
these cases, we have found it to be very helpful to enter the space
gently, to come in slowly, so that we can tune into the energy already
in process, without disturbing or distracting from what may already
be happening. Often, we will cover ourselves completely with our cloaks
and be "invisible" for awhile. We recommend walking three
times around the perimeter of the circle before entering. We know
what would happen if a piece of hot metal were suddenly submerged
into cold water there would be a lot of hissing and steam, and the
vessel might crack -- so we're trying to acclimate ourselves before
entering, to merge into the circle, rather than to crash in. The integrity
of the vessel is of the utmost importance.
We strongly encourage
safety and personal responsibility. We do not support unsafe behavior;
this includes jumping the fire.
Consider drum etiquette. If a drum
is covered, or lying on its side, the drum is resting and is not to
be played by anyone other than the owner. If a drum is left upright
and uncovered, it is considered to be available for anyone to play
with proper respect. We avoid playing drums while wearing rings, since
this can damage both the drum and the hands of the player.
Additional space is needed on the outside
of the circle for perimeter work, so all resting or "nesting"
spaces should be far enough back from the torches so that congestion
and noise disruption won't become a problem.
Benches or hay bales are for drummers
that are engaged in playing. If we decide to take a break from the
front line of drumming, we take our drums with us, to our nests, so
there will be room for other players to sit.
The intention is to maintain the magical
space and to avoid "splodging" (disrupting) the energy of
those who are doing deeper work. We strive to maintain magical space
and to avoid mundane chit-chat. Please be mindful of the state a drummer
or dancer or singer is in before talking to them, touching them, or
offering them food or water. If they don't make eye contact with you,
leave them be.
Enter the dance circles at the pace
of those already dancing. Be aware of the fire tenders entering with
wood and exiting the dance tracks. The dance track closest to the
fire moves the fastest. The next ring of dancers moves a little more
slowly. The third ring is for rattles and trance dancing and moves
even more slowly.
We honor small voices and softer stories
with deep listening and focused attention. This includes checking
in with eye contact and empowering others, since "every man and
every woman is a star."
All are empowered to share the honors
of smudging and watering and feeding the fire, to be actively involved
in holding space, drumming, singing, and dancing.
Our intention is to keep the energy
moving, in a focused, magical way. Keeping the energy moving around
the fire will prevent the drummers from getting blocked from the fire.
"Driving the fire" is the
term we use for the people who are circling the fire with small rattles,
and antlers. The intention is to keep the dancers entranced during
times where the rhythm stops or fluctuates. There is always some sonic
stimulus occurring, with the exception of moments of sacred silence.
After a period of silence, or an energy
crescendo, we need to be very mind-full about what the words are that
are spoken into this fertile space. Before you speak, consider if
what you are about to say is an improvement over silence.
Avoid making announcements -- sing
or speak directions poetically instead of didactically.
"Sacraments," smokable or drinkable,
stay outside the torch ring.
Do Your Will
IV: The Elements
-- Eagle. The element of Air symbolizes the power of breath and
all things expansive. This includes chanting and poetic offerings,
invocations, songs, stories, and breathwork. Excess air or "chatter"
can disburse energy. If there is too much hectic energy, retreat for
awhile and clear the picture. Take a break from the energy, breathe
deeply and exhale negativity. This can help to re-focus your thoughts.
Walk away from the fire circle to get the eagle's view, the big picture.
-- Salamander. The element of Fire symbolizes the dynamic aspects
of our ritual. Elements of Fire include drumming, dancing, energy
work, sexual alchemy, breathing and tantra dance, purification through
the flame. It is suggested that drummers playing similar sized instruments
stand close to each other, so they can hear each other, placing the
djuns and other large bass drums near the center of the drummers "V."
Like an alchemist, keep an even feed to the fire. After an energy
crescendo, we keep rattling to maintain the fire's energy, until something
happens -- a prayer, a song, a poem, etc. Then we support whatever
happens next... The only exception is holy silence. We keep an even
flame and remain aware to vent out and shift energy when needed. Preparing
fire wood, feeding the fire, checking on torches are all ways to be
-- Mermaid. The element of Water symbolizes the nurturing and
healing aspects of the ritual. We honor each other's expressions of
emotions and allow ourselves the full range of our feelings. We support
the flow of the evening by taking turns watering drummers and dancers,
monitoring the energetics of the circle, and witnessing. Appropriate
emotion can cleanse and heal and wash away impurities. The element
of water helps us to hold the container, to flow into empty spaces,
to find our fluidity, our flexibility, and deepen our intuition.
-- Lion. The element of Earth symbolizes power and stability.
In the fire circle ritual, this refers to the physical set up of the
space and the preparation of ritual tools, including fire wood, benches,
sage, incense, decorations, water buckets, sand, fire extinguisher,
fire permit posted, first aid kit, fire blanket, food altar preparation
and care, feeding participants, trash cans, litter patrol etc. The
element of Earth helps us to move or ground the energy we create.
-- Quintessence. The fifth element that symbolizes the wisdom
of the group mind. This will influence the solution and interaction
of the elements and the outcome of the work. Divine inspiration, invocation,
ecstatic trance and dance. To fully experience the alchemy of the
fire, work all the aspects -- spend time drumming, dancing, chanting,
smudging, feeding, watering, and tending the fire. Intuition and intelligence
are one. Conscious and unconscious work together.
The Laboratory Process
Observing the Great Work
Observe the heat, do
not worry about the process or the interactions; there is no need
to shake or stir the vessel. Be aware of, and be responsible for,
your own vessel/body. Check in on what's happening inside of you.
Don't be attached to the process, release all expectations, and be
fully present to whatever is actually happening.
the Alchemical Work in the Fire Circle
- Burning away impurities,
ego and agendas.
Peacock's Tail -
Colors, stories, songs, offerings
Albedo - Deep gnostic
Rubedo - Dawn, Sunrise
adorations, Holy silence, Grounding
During the course of
an all-night fire, we find four distinct time periods. The first phase
is called the Nigredo, or the blackening. In the alchemist's laboratory,
this is the part where the "prima materia," or first matter,
is placed into a container and heated until there are only ashes and
then dissolved with liquid until there is a suspension. These first
steps are called Calcination and Dissolution. At the fire circle,
this time period is also called "first shift." This is the
time when we see a lot of activity -- from people arriving and settling
in, to the fire being lit, to highly energized dancing. On a personal
or transformational level, this is time when we "burn away and
dissolve" whatever stands between us and the Divine (whatever
we conceive That to be). Consider, if it is your will, what are you
ready to burn away and dissolve in this time of transformation? What
is the elixir you seek? The final stage of the nigredo corresponds
with the alchemical stage called separation. In the lab, the solution
is broken up into its separate components. At the fire circle, people
begin to let go of whatever lead they've been carrying into the fire
to be transformed. They separate themselves from that which separates
them from others. There is a stage in the alchemical process called
the "peacock's tail." In the laboratory, this is seen as
rainbow colored streaks that appear on the inside of the vessel. At
the fire circle, this is seen when people "show their colors,"
or step out and share a spontaneous moment of creative inspiration
with the group. This stage can go on for hours.
The next part of the evening's fire
circle is the "albedo." This corresponds with the alchemist's
whitening process, where the matter in the flask is softening and
beginning to purify. At the fire circle, this is the time when there
is a palpable shift in the energy; the drumming may grow quieter,
there may be songs or chants. Somehow, there is a shifting, and the
atmosphere begins to feel lighter. Coincidentally, this is often the
time when the sky begins to grow light. The stages of alchemy that
correspond with this period are Conjunction, Fermentation, and Distillation.
The above and the below are united in the heart; the energy becomes
stronger and purer.
The final stage of the fire circle
alchemy is called the "rubedo," the reddening, the sunrise
itself. The sunrise can be interpreted on many different individual
levels. We imagine the sun's rays entering our bodies, and filling
each cell with pure gold. Often at sunrise, a long sustained period
of silence is encouraged.
We often close with
written by Katlyn Breene:
lift our hands unto it
to be re-born
golden rays pierce
arrows of light
each cell of our body
into purest gold
as above, so below
sun sees itself in the fire
in each other
Metals, Planets and Archetypes
Over the years of observing
our fire circle rituals we have noticed a pattern that naturally develops.
This pattern is a mirror of our solar system, and our dance is a recreation
of the great cosmic dance of life. The fire is a symbol for the Sun
at the center of our Uni-verse. Outward from the Sun, the planets
dance in elliptical orbits. Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun;
at our fire circle, the Mercurial dancers are the ones dancing closest
to the fire, or tending the fire. Just beyond the orbit of Mercury
is Venus. This second orbit of the fire circle is often where the
sensuous and ecstatic dance takes place. Beyond Venus is Earth. At
our fire circles this represents the rattle track, where the Earth
dancers move in a slower orbit.
Just beyond Earth is Mars. At the fire
circle, this is symbolized by the ring of standing people, who, like
Mars, protect and fortify, and add their energy to those within the
circle. Beyond Mars is Jupiter. At the fire circle this is a free
movement zone, where people blend and move together in freestyle dance.
Beyond Jupiter is Saturn. At the fire circle this planet is represented
by the people sitting and resting. Beyond the orbit of Saturn are
the planets Neptune and Pluto. At the fire circle these are the outlying
areas where food and drink can be had. On the outside of the fire
circle perimeter is the "comet's trail," a path for walking
meditation for those who wish to stay engaged and involved in the
fire circle, yet seek some solitude or time for meditation. By careful
observation of this great cosmic dance we can become more aware of
the different elements and archetypes that are interacting in the
Saturn: Lead --"Heavy"
energy. Power that needs purification, survival work, fight or flight
Jupiter: Tin -- Malleable
metal. Blending, flowing, balancing energy.
Mars: Iron -- Strong
and martial, warrior energy, protecting.
Venus: Copper -- Dynamic
and volatile, sensuality/sexuality.
Mercury -- Orbits closest
to the sun, a gas that rises and falls. Mediator and messenger.
Luna: Silver -- There
are many moons that orbit the planets. This priest/ess energy nurtures
the circle and facilitates growth on personal levels for the participants.
Sol: Gold -- Attainment.
Wisdom. Self-realization. Often seen in the elders as they guide the
energy of the circle.
VII: Fire Circle Layout
of the ritual preparation includes setting up the physical space.
The physical space is consciously created to resemble the alchemist's
alembic, or vessel. There is one main entrance, which resembles the
neck of the bottle. At the point where the neck of the bottle meets
the body of the bottle, we place a gate. The gate creates an entry
point, a delineated beginning of sacred space. It also seals our hermetic
vessel. There is always a greeter at the gate, a person who ritually
welcomes and purifies people entering the vessel. We use sage, cedar,
copal and other incenses to cleanse and prepare participants entering
the ritual space. We are creating a vessel for alchemical transformation.
In our experiments, we have found that a central fire circle, six
feet in diameter is optimum. Around the fire circle, we usually lay
down a mixture of sawdust and topsoil to create an even dancing surface.
All large rocks are removed from the area, or included in the fire
ring. The outer edge of the ritual space is the wall of the vessel,
or the perimeter. We often create this with prayer flags and ribbons
that hang from a long piece of rope, at about chest height, and they
attach to poles (not torches). This perimeter runs from the entrance
of the gate completely around the ritual field and ends back at the
ritual gate. The vessel itself is about fifty feet in diameter. We
bring in benches or hay bales for drummers to sit on, and place them
ten to twelve feet away from the fire, on the side opposite the gate.
We place tall citronella torches about ten feet in from the perimeter
of the circle, which allows for light and minimizes crowding at the
fire. The firewood pile is placed to the right of the drummers, with
ample space around it to facilitate easy access. People are encouraged
to set up their nests or resting spaces outside the circle of torches,
along the inside of the perimeter. On either side of the gate, there
are tables that are well lit with food, water and first aid supplies,
fire extinguishers, buckets of water, buckets of sand, and fire blankets,
just in case.