Five-fold systems where Spirit is listed as a special fifth element make sense too. However, if I follow my own instincts, I have to admit the four-fold description in the chant feels most right for me. It’s the most primal. The most elemental. The most obvious based on my own personal experiences.
To me, Spirit is about paradox – seemingly opposite things being united or at least coexisting. Sometimes they appear to battle but from another point of view they are two sides to the same coin. One needs the other to exist. They are the most extreme of extremes brought together, and the spark kindled between them is the shining essence of Spirit.
Fire is the perfect symbol for Spirit. When it burns it transforms things from their original state into a new state. It takes away the excess and leaves the most fundamental core. At the same time it is both the agent of radical transition and also the preserver of that which is always there.
We are all children of the stars, as the same matter that makes up our bodies, our homes, our possessions, indeed everything physical around us comes from the same dust and ashes that coalesce into living stars. Physical elements more complex than hydrogen and helium are believed to be the result of chemical reactions in stars, a process called nucleosynthesis. These more complex forms of matter are then ejected from the stars’ bodies (sometimes when a sun dies and goes supernova) to mingle and solidify as planetary structures. Our world wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the creative force of stellar fire manufacturing our physical matter.
Fire is at the start of life, and it is at the end of life too.
When we die our bodies decompose. Decomposition is a chemical process – essentially the burning up and breaking down of our material substance. Our flesh transforms from complex to simpler components. The heat produced by these reactions, and the reactions themselves, are forms of fire. They might not be as hot or as immediate as the forms of combustion we are used to in daily life: candle flames, wood fires, gas flames. Chemical reactions as living matter breaks down are just another type of fire.
It really means something, then, when we say “Ashes to ashes.” From ashes our material world, our very bodies, were formed. When we die, our physical being reverts back to ash. Fire is part of both birth and death in an unbroken cycle that has been repeating through all time.
Fire might be seen, then, as a key to the cycle of reincarnation.
We honor the Divine, the primal unified forces of creation and destruction, when we show reverence for the element of Fire in our spiritual practice. We light candles to represent Fire. When we want to welcome change into our lives, we might do so by casting a spell or performing a ritual that involves lighting a candle. It’s interesting that even through Christian times we’ve retained the practice of using birthday candles and the release of Fire energy by blowing them out in a single breath.
In my own eclectic Wiccan practice rituals always start with the lighting of a central Spirit candle placed on the center of the altar. It represents the Big Bang, the out-flowing of all that exists from that central starting point of light and heat. As I cast the Circle, anything that needs to be lit such as other candles or incense is ignited from that central Spirit candle. It repeats the symbolism that everything flows from a central Source, even all the Gods and Goddesses, and that All is One. As Above, So Below.
The “Dryghtyn Prayer” first published by Wiccan High Priestess Patricia Crowther in her 1974 autobiography “Witch Blood!” describes this central oneness, which I tend to see in the element Fire symbolized by a ritual Spirit candle:
“In the name of the Dryghtyn,
the Ancient Providence,
Which was from the beginning,
And is for eternity male and female,
the original Source of all things;…”
Scott Cunningham reproduces a version of this prayer in his popular book “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner” where he calls it “The Blessing Chant.”
The Dryghtyn (also spelled Dryghten) Prayer goes on to describe how the Gods and Goddesses, including the Goddess of the Moon and the Lord of Death and Resurrection, emanated from the Source and thus They, as well as us and indeed all of creation, are One. From Fire we were all born… Gods, Goddesses, mortals, trees, rocks, water, air, and all that exists.
Fire and its important place in spiritual practice also show up in the tradition of the need-fire. At key times through the year, mirrored in modern Wiccan sabbats, it was customary to extinguish all the flames in one’s home and then obtain a lit flame from a central blessed fire that was used to relight the home fires. A variation of this is carried on today by devotees of the Irish fire-goddess Brigid: a central eternal flame preserved at Her shrine in Kildare Ireland is used to light candles that are distributed to followers worldwide so that they can take home a direct link to the Goddess’ hearth fire. (From a practical standpoint they allow the candle to be snuffed after it has been lit from the central blessed fire – the holy fire is believed to be preserved in the candle even though its visible flame has been snuffed for a period!) Another famous modern example of the passing on of the need-fire is the carrying of the Olympic torch. In that case it is lit from a blessed fire in Greece at the site of the ancient Olympic games and is then carried to the location for the current Olympic games, no matter where in the world they are being held.
Modern Pagan groups can participate in the need-fire tradition by regularly kindling a central blessed flame during key group rituals, and then share out that flame with all those present by lighting candles for each participant from the central flame. Another layer of meaning can be incorporated in the ritual flame-sharing by the petitioning of requests for specific blessings from Spirit as each participant lights their individual candle. Once all have lit their individual candles from the Spirit flame, a general blessing can be invoked reinforcing the oneness of Spirit with all present and all of existence, and then each candle could be snuffed sequentially or simultaneously – symbolically gathering in the Fire to be preserved inside the physical form of the candle ready to be coaxed out again the next time it is ignited with a match or lighter. Participants then have a tangible way of taking home their spark of the need-fire to relight their home fires or to use in their private rituals and at the same time maintaining a link to the larger group and community.
The element of Fire is with us always. It’s easy to see it in open flames such as lit candles or campfires, but is just as present in gas flames, electricity (especially when converted to light and heat in light bulbs), in chemical reactions, and even locked away in atomic bonds in everything that is part of the physical realm. E=mc² after all, and E is definitely Spirit in the form of elemental Fire. Fire is part of creation just as it is part of destruction, and then part of recreation again. It brings us light, and warmth, protection, and healing. It is at the heart of community. Fire truly is our Spirit, warming our bodies of Earth, quickening our blood of Water, and giving impetus to our breath of Air.
Patricia Crowther, “Witch Blood!”
Scott Cunningham, “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.”
Deborah Lipp, “The Way of Four” and “The Elements of Ritual.”
Seán Ó Duinn, “The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint.”