We are living in terrible times. Every passing day brings more violent racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and classist attacks and incidents at every level of society, from local street violence to “Alt-Right” rallies to State and Federal governmental attempts to (and occasional successes in) passing oppressive legislation to the stripping away of protections for vulnerable communities. The regime we are currently living under is one that attempts to strip us of both individual and group identity, shames us for interdependence, and seeks to destroy our connection to ancestors and descendants, and to the land upon which we live (as complex as these relationships can be). The dominant paradigm is one that endorses survival of the most privileged, at the expense of nondominant communities and vulnerable people. And we are handed the lie that we can rise above the oppression of our people by disavowing ourselves of our cultures, that by leaving behind our community identities, ancestors, and folk ways we can have a shot at achieving privilege through individuated assimilation. But without the support, direction, and accountability of our communities and cultural identities, we have no center, we have no soul. That fire that burns in the center of collective identity and lineage and culture is the mythic hearth, and those who protect, embody, and maintain that center for the community are our hearth-keepers.
Hearth-keeping is the heart of my spiritual practice. It is part of my priest dedication to the Matronae, and a major part of my oaths to and daily practices with the goddess Hreda. Hearth-keeping is the foundation of how I perform my duties as clergy and community leader as well, because of the essential role hearth plays in community. My personal communities include a large number of folks who identify as warriors, people who have committed to protecting our communities and who fight for a more inclusive, accessible, egalitarian, and safe world for our community members. Due in part to the number of warrior-oriented folks in my personal circles, I’ve witnessed and participated in fantastic and empowering discussions of how to make warriorship and warrior status accessible to folks of all genders and how to recognize different ways of standing in warriorship, and I have seen ongoing dialogue around the true nature of warriorship and warrior deities. I love that the Morrigan and other female warrior deities have gotten so much deserved love and attention in the broader Polytheist community as well, and the Morrigan herself is a deity to whom I carry a deep and personal oath. And yet I continue to notice that, even as the ideals of warriorship and warrior status have come a long way in breaking gender and other barriers, deities and practices related to the tending of hearth and home, community building and caretaking, and those who perform these functions continue to be ignored, disrespected, and taken for granted. Which is a shame, because the magic, the love, the wisdom, and all the precious resources that I understand as being under the domain of the hearth, hearth-keepers, and hearth deities are required for the maintenance of individual, community, and ancestral identity and connection. We simply wouldn’t have a sense of identity or belonging without the essential work of hearth-keepers, the essential mysteries of the hearth itself, and the love and oversight of those deities whose central mysteries are the hearth.
In order to understand hearth deities, we need to first look to the nature of the hearth, the nature of the home, and the hearth fire itself. The Home, as an idealized or mythic concept, is where you find the heart and soul and center of a family, a lineage, a tribe, a tradition. The individual family or personal hearth is the heart of the home, and the collective, mythic hearth of a community is the heart of a people. Many different types of homes are and were organized around a central fire. The fire pit or fireplace or stove contains the fire, and the heat and light and safety offered by that contained fire are held within the walls of the home. The presence of safely contained fire means the home can provide a warm safe place to sleep; a central place for family or community members to gather; a place to store, consume, and share food; a bounded and protected space to take care of your individual, family, and community needs; a place to heal, relax, replenish, regroup and rejuvenate. A home can provide us a place to store our valuables, whether those valuables are sentimentally valuable or economically valuable or both. Home used to be (and still is in many places) the place where people primarily conceived and birthed babies, took care of the injured, tended the sick and dying, and prepared bodies for funerary rites.
During times of chosen or forced displacement due to traveling, invasion, colonization, governmental policies, natural disasters, or other reasons why individuals or groups may find themselves needing to move, or for those communities and tribes that are nomadic, it is the traveling campfire that provides many of the same essential functions as the hearth fire found inside the home: it is the same fire, just found in a temporary dwelling or outside rather than contained within a permanent structure. That same fire still holds the central heart of the family, tribe or community. Even if we lose or are driven out of our physical homes, we can light a fire and our people can gather around it for warmth, food, kinship and safety. As my wise friend Jackie says, as long as we have a fire around which we can gather (or even the idea of a fire), we are still a people with a shared identity and a place to gather together. We can still rest into a sense of home and belonging, even if it is temporary, even if we are physically alone. We can light this fire anywhere in the world, however far away from our home and community, and know that this fire is the Hearth fire, the same fire that warms our people. We can warm ourselves by this fire no matter where we are.
Those who tend the hearth fire (literally or metaphorically) are the ones who make sure the community has a maintained identity and take care of the continuity of the tribe. Hearth-keepers feed their families, light and maintain the fires, and keep the house itself clean, stocked with supplies, and in good repair. The hearth-keepers are the ones who take care of the physical and emotional needs of the family and tribe, remember the old stories and the old ways, hold the community knowledge and wisdom, and teach those stories and lessons. The hearth-keepers tend to the injured and the sick, maintain the boundaries of the home, and permit or deny access to visitors and outsiders.
Hearth mysteries are the heart of hospitality, and hearth-keepers are the ones responsible for setting, maintaining, and enforcing both guesting and hosting rules. For what is hospitality than the extension of temporary hearth benefits to visitors? The work of the hearth-keepers is often unglamorous, unpopular, taken for granted, looked down on as being less important, and therefore so are the hearth-keepers themselves. It is often but not always women, folks assigned female, and those who take on historically female-categorized roles that hold the job of hearth-keeper, and this disrespect is entirely entangled in and upheld by patriarchy. It is often poor people of color who do many of the jobs needed for the maintenance of the home and family, working unpaid for their own families and communities as well as providing low-waged domestic labor for more privileged or affluent folks in the form of house cleaning, cooking, home and yard maintenance childcare and other domestic labor. And in the US historically a portion of hearth maintenance in wealthy homes was done by enslaved people of color. While slavery in the US was officially abolished in 1865 (only a little over 150 years ago), the legacy of slavery remains in both the racial breakdown of domestic laborers, and in the disrespect shown to those workers and to the work itself. The disrespect of hearth keeping and hearth maintenance is also entangled in and upheld by white supremacy.
Hearth-keepers maintain the identity of the family, tribe, and culture. They remember the stories, they teach children and new community members about the rules and structures and community norms and culture. They remember the songs and the dances of the community and when those songs and dances should be performed. They monitor food and food preparation, remembering the dietary needs of the family. They remember both the holiday and the daily recipes, the flow and progression of how to serve a meal, how to set a table, and who sits where – historically, this was a subtle but important way hearth-keepers shaped and reinforced social hierarchy. They enact, enforce enactment of, and teach others how to enact the culture, and in doing so they preserve and maintain living cultural identity.
Hearth-keepers maintain lineage. They honor and remember the wisdom and cultural ways of the ancestors and they pass that wisdom on to the descendants so that the line continues. They birth babies or welcome and integrate (and sometimes initiate) new community members, and they tend the dead. They pray for those who have passed so the dead can elevate to being organized ancestors, strong and unified and present with the community, guiding their descendants. Hearth-keepers stand at the nexus between past and future; they are the crossroads where ancestors and descendants meet, and they are the heart of living lineage.
Hearth-keepers hold space for initiation mysteries, so an initiate has a stable place from which to fare forth and a warm and welcoming place in which to return. The hearth provides a place to step into post-initiation responsibilities, and a place to be held accountable in a new status and roles. Initiation requires a destruction and rebirth of self; a hearth helps provide a reason to move through the pain of initiation and provides a soft place to land, be cared for, celebrated, and recognized afterwards. Initiation may be required to step into certain types of community level responsibilities and roles. And initiation is required in certain specific communities or traditions in order to be recognized as a member of that group and be counted among the lineage. Sometimes it is the hearth-keepers themselves who are the initiators, and hearth-keepers take care of both initiators and initiates through the process of initiation. If the hearth is the heart of a shared sense of identity, initiation in many cases is the way into that heart.
Hearth-keepers are revolutionary. Hearth-keepers create and maintain community, including for those of us who may have been barred or expelled from more mainstream communities or from our own families of origin. Hearth-keepers weave together and lovingly maintain identity, around all manner of axes. There are mythic (and sometimes literal) hearths at the heart of queer communities, punk communities, pagan and polytheist communities, and all manner of communities of fringe and outcast folks – wherever there is a strong and maintained felt sense of shared identity and belonging, there is a hearth. And hearth-keepers are at the front lines of keeping our people alive. Hearth-keepers check in on friends going through rough times, provide crash space for at-risk community members, organize fundraisers for needed services, and do the emotional labor of a community. Hearth-keepers provide physical, emotional, and spiritual healing for the wounds of living in a world that isn’t always safe for “our kind of folks.” Hearth-keepers keep our loved ones from losing hope; hearth-keepers hold hope for our communities. In pooling resources and holding hope, we keep one another alive.
Without a hearth, there would be no tribal, community, or cultural identity; there would be no group identity around which to rally, nothing for warriors to defend, nothing for seekers to join. Ancestors themselves, songs and stories, and all manner of cultural ways and wisdom are forgotten, and descendants have no lineage from which to learn and find support and guidance. Without a hearth and hearth-keepers to maintain it, descendants have nothing to be descended from. The old ways are forgotten, knowledge is lost. There is no tribe, no culture, no group: what is a cultural or tribal identity but the collective wisdom of a people over generations, and the deep felt-sense certainty that you are part of that collective that extends backwards and forwards across time?
What differentiates a warrior from a mercenary, a sociopath, or a dictator is that the warrior is accountable, that a warrior is fighting for some greater good or greater ideal and protecting that which they value at the community level. But who determines what those ideals should be? How do you decide what is worth fighting for? Who are you accountable to? Do you answer to a god? To a community? To your own conscience? Who acts as your checks and balances? Who do you come home to after the fight? Who tends to your wounds? Who will remember you if you fall, sing your soul to the ancestors, tell your stories to your descendants? Who benefits from your fighting, and who will celebrate with you when you win?
Warriors are accountable to their hearths. When your answer to the above questions is, “I only answer to myself,” you are simply a person who likes fighting. You are not a warrior. If your answer is, “I know Truth and I am prepared to uphold it,” in the absence of community accountability, this belief can be used to justify dictatorial decision-making and enforcing your will over the will of others. There is incredible hubris and real danger in not having anyone you need to answer to, in thinking you are smarter and wiser and simply “right,” and I would argue that many of the problems we find in modern Western society rise from a belief that each of us shouldn’t have to be accountable to anyone and that we somehow know better than others. This core belief fuels patriarchal, Enlightenment-based Western thinking, and justifies colonization and the disrespect and destruction of other people’s cultural ways.
Simply being accountable to other warriors isn’t necessarily any better either, as a warrior mindset is by necessity a very specific thing and warriors may have a very different perspective than non-combatants around what they think is right and necessary. The skills and perspectives that allow for survival and good decision-making on the battlefield are often neither appropriate nor healthy in civilian society. History has shown us many examples of rule by might, and it doesn’t tend to end well for anyone..
Sometimes the answer to the above questions, if we’re to be honest about it, is, “I haven’t really thought too hard about these questions.” And usually that’s because you assume someone will take care of you, someone will benefit from your fighting, someone will help you relax when you come home from war, someone will hold your center for you while you’re fighting. That someone is probably related to your literal or mythic hearth in some way or another. It may not be a single person, it may be a community or even a concept. But these are all questions for which warriors should have answers.
In order for a warrior to do what needs doing in times of war, a warrior needs to be able to temporarily suspend the usual rules of civil society. The rules that govern fighting are very different than the rules that govern being a civilian, being in the home as member or family or guest. In older societies there were rituals to strip a warrior of their civilian status and the rules that bound them to peace-time society, and rituals to reinstate those rules, boundaries and structures when they returned home from war. Do our modern warriors, folks who have chosen that status, hold to that? Part of the job of the hearth-keepers is to prepare warriors for war, help them transition out of the structures of society, and help them transition back when they return home. Historically the hearth helped to determine whether or not someone needed to go forth and fight, as well. The warriors protected the home and tribe from enemy invasion, or went out to procure needed resources for the home and tribe. The hearth-keepers could also decide not to permit a warrior to come home, to close the doors and forbid entrance if a warrior acted against the well-being of the hearth or behaved in a way that brought shame to the tribe. A warrior is beholden to their hearth, and needs to answer to their people.
The hearth, the mythic fire at the center of the home and tribe is what burns in the heart of a warrior. The hearth is what the warrior fights for, what keeps the warrior fighting. We fight for our land, for our people, for our way of life. This is the core of hearth mysteries. The hearth holds the center, so when we have to leave home we have somewhere to return, the certainty that someone will remember us, will take care of us when we return, welcome us home.
Sometimes the hearth-keeper is a single person. Far more often many of us share those responsibilities, including those who may sometimes also hold warrior and other community functions as needed. The memory of home, family, tribe, and community is what drives a warrior to fight, and is what provides the resilience needed to survive a fight. It is the spirit of hearth fire lit in our own heart that warms us through hard times, when we can’t be home, when we’re far from our tribes, our families and communities, when we have work to do. Often it is assumed the hearth-keepers will be female, as many of the responsibilities of maintaining a home have historically been assigned to women, but hearth mysteries are not gendered and folks of any gender can and do hold hearth functions. As long as there are folks to maintain the ways of a people, to care for children and newcomers, to care for community members in need, to remember the ancestors and guide the descendants, there are hearth-keepers. As long as the hearth fire is lit in our hearts, as long as we remember who we are, we cannot be conquered.
The guiding spirit of home, of place, of family and tribe and community, the protector and unifying force of a people, is the tutelary deity. It is she is who sends her warriors off to war and opens her arms to welcome them home again. She is the heart of a people. She holds the lineage itself, nurturing, shaping and protecting the line. She is the personification of the culture, the banner of identity and belonging under which folks gather. Sometimes we call her by a name, sometimes we don’t know her name. Often we don’t know she’s a deity, and often we disrespect and ignore her, take her for granted, assume she’ll be there keeping the hearth fires burning while we go out and win fame and glory. Tutelary deities are those deities who provide a central heart around which to shape a community identity, and it is the hearth-keepers who tend her deepest mysteries. She stretches her wings across a people and says These people are my people, they belong to me and they belong to one another. She receives their dead, she guides the souls of those waiting to be born towards waiting wombs, she guides seekers looking for a home to the community to be embraced and integrated there.
Tutelary deities live in the heart of the hearth fire. Often we assume her to be soft and mothering, like our own stories of the fantasy mother, and like many actual mothers, she is often undervalued and unnoticed. She is the spirit that inspires those who cook our food, her radiance warms our homes, we gather in her living room and don’t bother to notice the work she’s done to make the place comfortable and inviting. But never forget that a hearth fire is still fire, a hearth deity is still a fire deity. And fire is what it is; inherently volatile and dangerous when ignored, taken for granted, or left untended. Hearth fire is fire that has chosen to allow herself to sit peacefully inside a bit of brick or rocks inside your home, but don’t ever forget that she is, at her core essence, still fire. When the fire goes out, we best figure out how to re-light it or we lose the safety, security, stability, and comfort of home. We risk losing our sense of shared identity, forgetting who we are, forgetting who we are accountable to, forgetting our folk ways and wisdom. When fire jumps the hearth, the whole town burns down. Modern homes are no exception; our hearth fires now are often electric or gas ovens, heating systems, the electricity that powers our homes, the light switches we can turn on or off, and all the rest of our modern appliances, wiring, plumbing, and clever bits of architecture. But the essence hasn’t changed. We take our hearths and our tutelary deities for granted at our peril.
I am so very glad so many folks are finding the empowerment to step into warrior identities, especially those to whom that job was historically barred. We are living in terrible times, and we need our warriors. But we also need our warriors to be accountable to their people, their families and tribes and communities, in all the ways we’ve renegotiated and reimagined those webs of consensual and (hopefully) enthusiastically chosen connections to others. Family, tribe, community, culture, we get to decide who we want to be intimately networked with and what descriptive words we’ll use to encapsulate that web of love and connection. But who maintains the norms, rules, and ways of that group? Who remembers the songs, the order of things, the rituals? Who passes that culture along, and to whom is it passed? How is the soul of our family/tribe/community protected and maintained and enacted and embodied by us who are the members? It is the warriors who defend this, but it is the hearth-keepers who preserve, hold, nurture, and teach. And that work is hard and constant work, and is worthy of respect too. Warriors will help us tear broken systems down and will protect us from those who would destroy our homes and lives and ways of being in the world; it is the hearth-keepers that are responsible for maintaining and creating the societies and homes and communities we actually want to live in, who will set and maintain and enforce and teach those ways of being. Hearth-keeping is revolutionary: it is how we will rebuild the world.
Warriors, thank you for fighting for us. I honor and am grateful for your sacrifices and your work. As for me, I’ll be home tending my wounded, feeding my kid, teaching and taking care of my students, venerating my ancestors and tending the hearth. I’ll help make sure you have somewhere to come home to, something to fight for, someone to take care of you when you’re wounded in battle and someone to sing you to the ancestors if you fall, to tell your stories to those who will come later. If you need me I’ll be in the kitchen, singing praise songs to my Lady.
12 thoughts on “The Revolutionary Art of Hearth-Keeping”
Beautiful article. It feels significant, too, that the legal continuation of slavery in the american prison system is characterized by forced separation from hearth and family.
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Very nicely expressed! Not surprisingly, I am quite interested in a great deal of what you’ve written here, and have been involved at various levels (as you know!) with some of these questions and the rituals of transition between some of the social statuses mentioned. I’ve never thought of myself as a “hearth-keeper” proper–you would be appalled at what my kitchen looks like!–but in terms of being a teacher, I suppose I’m in the “second rank” around the central hearth: i.e. not utterly essential to keeping it running, but an intermediary between what goes on around it and what goes on outside of it, and a window-opener for those outside as well as inside, in many respects. 😉
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Thank you so much for writing this! It’s beautiful and inspiring, and so very much needed in our communities.
As a contemplative hermit monastic-in-training who builds shrine rooms and does hosting and hospitality work (and who also ran a solo house cleaning/home organizing business for five years), hearth mysteries are important to my practice. This work is so often invisible, unpaid, disrespected, and taken for granted. Even some of the people who rely on it most don’t recognize it as essential and valuable work – or if they do, it’s still perceived as boring and mundane background work that has to happen before we can get to the fun exciting stuff.
Hearth-keeping may not ever be considered glamorous work, but it’s essential work, and it can even be mystical and meditative, as I’m sure you know. I’ve written on my blog about “the practice of sweeping the temple,” and what it means to me. I sometimes tell people I’m serving the deities by cleaning toilets just as much as I am by building shrines for Them. Usually the response is laughter…but I’m completely serious!
When I first discovered Heathenry in 2004, I searched and searched for some kind of feminist, queer-positive writing about hearth mysteries within a polytheist context, and came up empty-handed. I also remember the first time I saw “The Household Gods,” a painting by John William Waterhouse, and I thought: “Yes. That. That is the heart of my work. I need to find out if there’s some kind of folk tradition of hearth-based mysteries in Norse tradition too, because that’s the direction my work is taking me.”
Thank you for putting this out into the world!
P.S. If I recall correctly, you were involved with the Matronae ritual at the first Many Gods West conference in 2015, right? I regret that I had to miss it, but I do have a good reason: I was hosting a shrine room for Skadi at the time. 🙂
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Wonderful article. I’d like to translate it into Portuguese, so Brazilians and Portuguese pagans can have access to your viewpoint. All copyrights will be maintained and a direct link to your page will be added. Of course, I’ll understand if you can’t give your permission for this translation.
Thank you. That was beautifully written, and gives me words for many things I’ve been thinking about myself and my relationship with my powers. I try to be a hearth-keeper for my gods, giving mortal folks a place to meet them. I try to be a hearth-keeper for my mortal friends and family. Awareness of the spiritual dimension of this is important, and worth cultivating.
That, and “Hearth-Keeper” sounds so much better than “Hufflepuff” in Serious Polytheist Discussion.
Reblogged this on Drinking From the Cup of Life and commented:
Over on riverdecvora.com, River writes beautifully about those who keep the hearth (literal or metaphorical) burning, and gives me words for many things I’ve been thinking about myself and my relationship with my powers. I try to be a hearth-keeper for my gods, giving mortal folks a place to meet them. I try to be a hearth-keeper for my mortal friends and family. Awareness of the spiritual dimension of this is important, and worth cultivating.
That, and “Hearth-Keeper” sounds so much better than “Hufflepuff” in Serious Polytheist Discussion.
Reblogged this on Musings of a Scottish Hearth Druid and commented:
I came across this post by chance or perhaps, more accurately, by divine guidance. I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t even following this blog when I stumbled across this post yesterday evening. It resonates on so many levels though especially as I refer to my path as that of a hearth druid.
(I self-identify as a Hearth-Keeper) This brilliant piece reshaped my explorations, experiences and understandings and took them to a deeper level. It resonated on may levels. It is well thought out and expressed.Thank You!
Reblogged this on Gay Pagan.