These are the notes for the talk I gave at Starwood last month, “The Fire Circle: All Kinds Magic Worked Here”. I wrote them up as if I was going to read them word-for-word, but the actual talk was much looser; you can see it in the video below.
Hi! Thank you for coming. If you don’t know me, I’m Tom Swiss. Let me take a second for some self-promotion: I”m the author of the books Why Buddha Touched the Earth and What Does It Mean For The Gods To Exist (which you can find at the ACE book tent), and I blog at Patheos as The Zen Pagan. I’ve been coming to Starwood for, I think, eighteen years now, and I’m also heavily involved in FSG, the Free Spirit Gathering, including several years of coordinating the fire circle there.
So today I’d like to talk about fire and magic, two great tastes that go great together. What I’d like to do is talk for a while about some of my ideas; if there’s two things I’d like to leave you with it’s the idea of the Fire Circle Triangle and the motto “All Kinds Magic Worked Here”. Then we’ll have a part that’s a more open discussion, because I am here to steal your ideas, and then close with a reading of very important text from the fire circle tradition.
So. If you’ve come to Starwood before, or if you’ve been to any similar event, you know about this…this thing, that happens down in Pawpaw, that used to happen in the Roundhouse at Brushwood (I guess still does at copycat events there) and the Grupledome before that (before my time), that happens at the lakeside fire at Ramblewood during FSG. And I’ve seen it done in a field on a farm with a dozen people; I’ve seen it happen in quasi-legal warehouse studio space in Baltimore; and in an interfaith church in the DC suburbs.
Yesterday on this stage, our friend Ian Corrigan talked about how this thing evolved in the early years of Starwood, and similar events. So while it uses some really ancient components, this specific form is a relatively new magical technology — or a recent rediscovery, perhaps.
This thing has three parts. First, there is fire. That’s why we call it a “fire circle”. It might be a huge bonfire or it might be a couple of candles.
And there are some drummers. Now, if you just have these two things, you’ve got a drum circle, with a fire to keep warm or tune drum skins. And that’s fine. I’m not much of a drummer but I’ve done a few of these. But it’s not really what we’re talking about here. And also under drummers we can file other sort of rythym and music, chanting and singing and whistling and sometimes flutes or didjes. We’ve had a brass section at Pawpaw some nights.
The third element, is dancers; people moving clockwise (mostly) in a freeform circular fashion around the fire. And this really is distinct from what came before; people have danced in firelight for a long time, and structured dances (“all hold hands and circle the fire”) we around before, but this freeform circling is something that they hit on in the early years of Starwood.
These three elements form what I call the “fire circle triangle.” You can have other things going on, but those are the essentials, the fundamentals.
Prog and Punk
You know, in every art and in every spiritual discipline, there are two trends that are sort of opposing parts of a cycle. One is to build up and elaborate, the other is to simplify and get back to the fundamentals. Adding on and striping away. We could be fancy and call them metabolic and catabolic processes. I like to think of them as “prog” and “punk”, like we see in rock and roll.
Prog rock adds elaborate production like symphonic orchestration and lots of studio processing. On the other hand, punk rock strips things down to the absolute basics. A famous page in a punk ‘zine back in the 80s (maybe late 70s) showed three guitar chord diagrams and said, “This is a chord. This is another, This is a third. Now go start a band.”
We can apply this idea to spiritual traditions too. Some people talk about “high church” and “low church” in religion. The high magic of the SRIA and the Golden Dawn was prog. Gardner’s low-magic witchcraft was punk by comparison. Vajarana Buddhism — the branch that Tibetan Buddhism is part of — is prog, very elaborate. Zen is punk, stripping away the cruft. As more than one author has noted, it’s basically “sit down and shut up”.
Now, these two trends are relative. It might seem odd to some people to describe Gardnerian witchcraft as “punk”, but in relation to what went before it was. And neither punk nor prog is better than the other, though one’s taste probably leans one way or the other.
Mine leans to the punk. There are traditions of the fire circle that are very elaborate — like Jeff “Magnus” McBride’s Alchemical Fire Ritual work. Some of you are probably familiar with that, it builds around a whole theory of different phases of alchemical work and astrological correspondences It’s a fine thing, and I love Magnus, he’s a great teacher and a great performer. But he’s a very orderly, structured sort of guy. He once joked about being a Virgo meant that you could torture him by tying him to a chair and moving all the pictures on the walls to be a little tilted.
I was talking with him here at Starwood a few years ago about how we were applying some ideas from the Alchemical fire work to our open Fire Circle. And he said, “Oh, no, you can’t really do that. They run on two different sorts of energy: AC and DC. Apollonian Current and Dionysian Current”. That was clever.
But a few minutes later — after, our conversation, unfortunately — I remember that I have a camping lantern that you can plug into either AC or DC power. You can’t use both types at the same instant in time, but you can switch back and forth. It’s all energy.
Anyway. The Alchemical Fire Ritual thing is very structured. But me, on the other hand — I’m a chosen plaything of Our Lady of Chaos, Eris Discordia. (Hail Eris!) And my interest is stripping it down to the essentials. That’s what I’ve been exploring for some years now.
* * * * *
I came up with this idea of triangle of fire, drummers, and dancers back in 2001. We where having long e-mail debate/argument in the FSG community about how the fire circle should run. If I recall correctly, this was right after some intoxicated dingbat had tried to leap over the fire. He didn’t make it, scorched himself pretty bad, and harshed everybody’s buzz.
We had some people in the community who had a Very Serious Idea Of Sacred Space, that there should be no talking — certainly no *laughing*! — while drumming was going on. At the other extreme we had people who just wanted a bonfire party.
Well, I got a visit from one of the Muses, and a little prose poem popped out. It has appeared in the FSG program most years since.
The Magick of Large Fire Circles
Fire. Drumming. Dancing. All are older than history, older than modern _Homo sapiens_. Putting them together is probably one of our oldest magickal activities.
You may have held fire circles in your own coven, circle, or grove. However, the large circles held at gatherings – bringing together scores, even hundreds, of people of many different paths and traditions – require a bit of extra thought and consideration for everything to go smoothly. Please consider the following guidelines for participating in large fire
_The Fire Circle Triangle_: Physically, fire requires a triangle of elements – oxygen, fuel, and heat – to burn. Fire circles also rely on three elements: fire tenders, drummers, and dancers.
Fire tenders start the fire and keep it fed, and are responsible for fire safety. They often have to maneuver through the circle carrying heavy bits of wood. Give them the right of way and much love, for without them the circle is cold.
Drummers (and chanters, and other makers of joyful noise) take the heat and light of the fire and turn it into sound that reaches our hearts. Do not block them from the fire’s warmth, and give them space and much love, for without them the circle is silent.
Dancers take the energy of the fire and the drums and transmute it into motion that moves our spirits. Do not crowd them into the fire, or block their path around it. Give them space in which to move and much love, for without them the circle is still.
[And then a few practical matters, which we might as well mention…]
Fire and flesh don’t mix: You may have done rituals that involved leaping over fire. THIS FIRE IS NOT SIZED FOR SUCH LEAPING. Don’t do it. Leave a safe distance around the fire at all times. Keep your spirit in the fire, but your flesh out of it.
Respect the space, and those people in it: Please do not throw trash in the fire. (Small offerings to the fire, however – a sprinkle of herbs, a small paper with a prayer written on it, and so on – are generally ok.)
It shouldn’t have to be said, but it does: don’t leave your trash around the fire. If you carry it down to the fire, either carry it back with you or put it in a trash can. Your Mother thanks you.
Respect other people’s way of respecting the space. Gatherings are a time of diversity; you might do thing differently in fire circles held by your group, but festival circles belongs to no one tradition.
You may dance. You may drum. You may chant. You may do whatever magick you are moved to do. You may watch. You may socialize. You may party.
For all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals; and Gatherings are a time of unity and sharing. Therefore let us come together around the fire in love and trust and celebration. Blessed Be!
(May be reproduced free forever.)
What Is Magick?
Now, I used a loaded word right off in the title there: “magick.” What does that mean?
We throw that word around a lot. This being Starwood I’m sure some of you have your own detailed theories about magick. (I gave a workshop about magick here a few years ago and our wizardly friend Oberon Zell showed up…sort of taking coal to Newcastle there, but he was very gracious.) But let me offer some thoughts.
If you’re new to this, I should mention that the sort of “magick” we’re talking about here (often spelled with a with “k” to distinguish it from stage magic and the art of illusion) is something that goes back to the late 1800s, when certain philosophical societies (groups like the Golden Dawn) became interested in the use of ritual as a tool for spiritual growth and personal transformation.
Here’s what a few experts on the subject have said about magick:
- Aleister Crowley: “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will….Every intentional act is a Magical Act.”
- And in another piece, Crowley says “Our Ceremonial Magic fines down, then, to a series of minute, though of course empirical, physiological experiments, and whoso will carry them through intelligently need not fear the result.”
- Dion Fortune: Magic is “the art of changing consciousness at will.”
- Margot Adler: “Magic is convenient word for a whole collection of techniques, all of which involve the mind. In this case, we might conceive of these techniques as including the mobilization of confidence, will, and emotion brought about by the recognition of necessity; the use of imaginative faculties, particularly the ability to visualize, in order to begin to understand how other beings function in nature so we can use this knowledge to achieve necessary ends.”
- Ross Nichols: “Ritual is poetry in the realm of acts.”
- Charles Leland: “And so all was, and is, in sorcery a kind of wild poetry based on symbols, all blending into one another, light and darkness, fire-flies and grain, life and death.”
I would sum up by saying that magick is the intentional use of symbol and imagination to raise and direct psychological energy towards a goal of altering consciousness in a manner conducive to a specific desired change.
Or to sum up the summary: Magic is playing with energy to change your life.
In any magical working, a magician sets their intention, how they want consciousness to change. (The ultimate goal might be an outside change in the world, but it starts with a change within. Change your mind, change the world.) They lay out the form of the ritual to direct energy to accomplish that intention — they set up symbols to build the circuit. Then they plug it in — they raise energy which gets directed by the form of the ritual.
Sometimes you draw a circuit diagram and apply a bunch of theory and have special components constructed — that’s prog. Sometimes you look in your junk box and see what you’ve got and you make something with that. Punk engineering. Very DIY.
So, my friends, what we do around the fire, with all that dancing and drumming, taking place in a closed space naturally bounded by the reach of the firelight, is to Raise Energy.
It’s what a nuclear physicist would call an energy amplifier design: the more energy you put into it, the more you get out of it.
So we have to to keep in mind what our friend the Reverent Ivan Stang has called King “Bob” Solomon’s First Key to Magick: “Get off your ass!”
The fire circle is an audience participation event. In fact, there is no audience. We’re making magic together. If you need permission to participate, then by the power vested in me by whatever I can get you to believe has vested me with power — by the power of Starwood putting me on the speaker’s roster all these times, maybe — I grant you that permission.Congratulations. You are now all magicians.
But the question then is, what will you do with your share of that energy? What change do you want to make? What kind of magic do you want to work?
If you don’t know that, then you can’t use the energy. A lot of folks here will have one heck of a party this week, which is great — but by not being intentional about it they’ll miss out on the magic, which can make things even better.
Sometimes people have different ideas about what sort of magic should be going on in some little fragment of spacetime. That’s why we had that conflict I mentioned, between the Very Serious No Laughing people and the party crowd.
One easy solution is to only allow one type of magic. You start off with a lot of structure already in place, and only allow people to work within that.
But I got a flash one time, a second’s vision, of a sign hanging over the path down to the fire circle.And that sign said “All Kinds Magic Worked Here.” Like the sign behind the house band on Saturday Night Live many years ago, a faux-old-timey thing that said “All Kinds Music Played Here”.
All Kinds Magic Worked Here.
That sort of magic where drummers and dancers trance all night? Sure, we do that.
The sort where you sit off to the side with a friend you haven’t seen in too long and share a bottle of something fine? Absolutely, we do that.
The sort of magic where you smile at a lovely member of the appropriate sex and manage to catch their eye as you both dance around and a little while later are headed up the hill together? Thank goodness, we do that. (I have hopes myself….)
The sort where you’re all confused and hurt over something and someone says, “come walk around the fire with me” and *just* as you do, someone “coincidentally” starts a chart, like it was just for you? Yes, we do that.
The sort of magic where there’s a break in the drumming because everyone is getting tired, and someone steps out into the firelight and tells a beautiful story that stays with you forever? Yep, we do that.
All kinds magic worked here.
* * * * *
Another way to put that idea is what the improv comedy folks call “Yes, and…” If you’ve ever watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, you’ve seen this in action. One player makes a suggestion for a scene: “Hey, let’s go to the circus!” If the other player says “Nah”, well, there’s no where to go . You you learn to say “Yes! And let’s take some peanuts for the elephants!” ‘Yes! And hey, you know what type of peanuts we should bring? Circus Peanuts!” And then we’re on our way to skit about giving candy to elephants and the results of the sugar rush that follows.
*But* for that you work, you have to be listening to each other. And you have to leave space for other people’spart of the creation.
And we’re looking for magic. Intentional behavior. Thoughtlessness is not magic. “All Kinds Magic Worked Here” doesn’t mean anything goes, any more than “All Kinds Music Played Here” means any old noise is what we’re looking for.
The Fire Circle Triangle
So. Fire, drums, dancing. I’d like to go into each of these three elements a little bit, and throw it open for discussion. Remember that when we do magic, we’re operating symbolicly. What can these things symbolize? And what practical tips can we share for working with them?
- Symbolizes life. There is fire in every cell of our bodies, as our might mitochondria burn glucose to charge up ATP molecules.
- We can’t all tend the fire. But we can tend to the space and to each other. Can you offer someone a drink of water? Congratulations, you’re a fire tender.
Drumming (And Other Joyful Noise):
- Symbolizes our voice, speech. Sometimes, since we put chanting under this heading, it’s very direct symbolism.
- Its also the heartbeat, ] the pulse. And if putting both speech and the pulse under one heading sounds weird, consider that in Traditional Chinese Medicine the tongue is rooted in the heart.
- In a large circle, it takes sound time to get across the circle. It works better when drummers all sit together.
- Drummers need to connect to the fire, to see its light and feel its heat. Don’t block them.
- If you don’t know anything else about drumming, or jamming in general, there are two simple rules that help a heck of a lot:
- find the one
- leave space in the rhythm. (A good rule for co-creation in general.) Don”t be a djembe cowboy. The drum circle is not your backing band.
- Can you clap your hands and follow a rythym? Congratulations, you’re a drummer.
- Symbolizes our movement around each other, our relationships. The Dance Of Life.
- The circle, the orbit, the “O”, is important. Repeating cycles are a fundamental magical concept, and you don’t get that if you stand in one place and dance.
- When we get that cycle, we get another bit of symbolism, the most fundamental cycle is our lives: the breath. And breath is also a relationship. We conspire, we breathe together. Our Church of All Worlds friends make a big thing of sharing water, but we are all sharing air right now. Molecules that were in my lungs a few minutes ago are in yours now.
- Dancers carry energy around the circle — both magical energy and physical energy. Collisions are something to avoid.
- Can you walk? Heck, can you move? You’ve been promoted to dancer. Your homework is to do at least three ohs during this festival.
* * * * *
You don’t need a big fire, or a lot of drummers, to make this work. Not from the Punk perspective, anyway. If you’ve got a space, a couple of people, a bit of fire, and a couple things to beat on to make noise, you’ve got the necessities. We’ve done it in a warehouse studio around a couple of candles.
At FSG a few years ago, one night early on the fire circle was cross-scheduled with a trance possession ritual that was attracting most of the power drummers who are were on site. There were a few people hanging around but no one was drumming, so no one was dancing.
People would come down to the fire, see that there was nothing going on, and leave. So I grabbed a five gallon bucket and a pair of drumsticks and started banging. I had to keep going by myself for about ten minutes, but eventually just having a beat going got other drummers to stay and got people dancing,
And when you strip it down to it basics, you can see some interesting commonalities. Think about a rave or a night at the club. You’ve got dancers; you’ve got a beat; you’ve got a light show in a delineated space, outside of normal space and time. It’s an attempt to re-create the fire circle. The fire circle is the original rave. (Dancing in a circle adds an important element to the magic, though. Cycles are a fundamental magical form. I think it would be interesting to get a circular dance going in such a space…)
So I’d like to leave you with some words from one of the great Pagan bards, Doktor Billy Bardo (aka William Thorpe). Billy was a Starwood regular back in the day — he devotes more energy to the New York Faerie Festival these days, that’s his event. But he wrote this Fire Circle Rap back in 2001 or so; I’ve heard that it was a spontaneous creation at the fire one night, that he later wrote down and elaborated and recorded with his band The Bardo Brothers. He was kind enough to let me include the lyrics in my book Why Buddha Touched the Earth.
Fire Circle Rap
Brothers and Sisters and Folk of the Tribe,
Can I have your attention a minute?!
For you Alphas and Elders, this stuff is old hat,
But there are some that are just jumpin’ in it.
They’ve got the primal call, but not the protocol
That changes Fire to Fire and Place to Place.
Now I don’t claim to know it all, but my knowledge isn’t small,
And I speak for the common good and face to face.
Egocentric exhibitionist? What can I say?
But don’t forsake this gift by explaining it away,
‘Cause I’m not doing this for pay; I’m not looking for a lay;
I’ve got esoteric knowledge here; I’m giving it away!
It’s cheaper than a workshop and not scheduled for all day,
And if you trust in my intentions and attend to what I say,
If you just listen for a minute you’ll find the magic in it,
That can help your work and really help your play
Still if you’re thinking I’m a bore or you’ve heard it all before,
Some truth could be the kernel of that thought.
But if it’s just redundant lore, then what’cha waitin’ for?
Weave a wonder of your own or wander off and don’t get caught!
‘Cause it just makes sense; don’t get tense!
Cut a gate or jump the fence!
‘Cause I don’t want to give or take offense!
I just want a moment in the light.
It’s only time; I’ll make it rhyme.
You could even get a cosmic sign.
And when I’ve done my job we’ll return to the throb of the Drums,
And everything will be all right.
So settle back and listen; let me tell you of my mission,
‘Cause my mind it was trapped and I freed it!
This is not an intermission; it’s an open invitation.
And it’s a way to give permission to those that think they need it,
‘Cause learning Wicca 101 or introduction to the Drum,
It don’t reveal what we do here after dark.
To the Fire Light we come; it’s a tribal thing say some,
Where intention is the glue and play is the spark…
So some are asking what’s the point? What’s the deal with this thing?
It’s a bunch of crazy drummers and some dancers in a ring.
And every now and then someone will try to chant or sing.
I mean, come on and tell me what’s the point?
I mean I wanna get down, but I don’t know the deal!
I’m groping for guidance, and it’s gettin’ surreal!
I don’t know how to act; I’m not sure how to feel!
C’mon share in the mystery! I need some history!
Make it consistery, ‘cuz we need to know, bro!
Where are these know-it-alls? Share in those protocols!
If this thing’s gonna go at all, we need to know!
As old as human memory and deep within the myth collective,
Gathering around a Fire is like a Pagan prime directive.
A kind of tribal retrospective.
As a path to the past it is most effective,
‘Cuz Fire was first and most likely will be last.
And we who would recall the primal patterns of the past,
Open up our souls to possibilities so vast,
Call the ancient powers and the sacred circles cast,
We all know it takes investment to be more than just half-assed.
So leave behind your preconceptions and get this simple truth at last:
It’s as much about surrender as it is about control.
Well to make the soul whole is just part of the goal.
You gotta rise with the energy, go with the flow;
‘Cuz the moment’s always changin’ on ya dont’cha know
That the moment isn’t still; the circle isn’t static.
Sometimes it’s perfect skill, and sometimes it gets erratic!
Sometimes you get your fill by reaching points ecstatic,
And intrusion on that can seem rude.
But no one means to intrude on your solitude,
As you chance to enhance the trance of your dance, dude.
Cut some slack, don’t cop an attitude,
And don’t look at that sister askance!
Because where perchance is the great romance
In trying to control every circumstance?
Don’t lose your pants if by mischance
Your own agenda don’t advance,
Or someone else’s scene seems like a hindrance.
Just wait with a little bit of tolerance,
And the moment will return to the sweet balance.
And those who seek the chance
To lose themselves in trance
To the rhythm of the drum
And the writhing of the dance,
To transcend beyond the ego,
To become the vast expanse,
We all know there are no limits
To the gifts that spirit grants.
So this is not an Open Mic or a Bardic Circle, true!
But don’t concern yourself with what you may or may not do!
It’s not just about this trancing and the ego to eschew.
We’re also here to celebrate the best of us in you!
I mean to listen to each other that’s an ego lesson too.
And there’ll be time and space for everything before this night is through.
This is a marathon of magic, it’s a dark to dawn to-do,
And there’ll be time and space for everything before this night is through!
Fire is one of the five primal powers,
Transformative tool of the southern watchtowers;
And it’s not wise to work with this stuff for hours
Without protecting yourself from the heat.
So I entreat:
Don’t just run around like slow-roasting meat.
Don’t burn out too fast and become obsolete.
If you just pound the beat you defeat the sweet
Healing power of the circle and the rhythm of the drum beat.
And if you’re gonna work the Fire till 3 or 4 or more,
Pay attention to those other four.
These are primal powers not just metaphor.
Get’em back in your body and feel!
As around and around and around and around
Around and ’round the circle you go.
Around and ’round and around and around and
Around and ’round the circle you go.
Around and ’round, around and ’round
Around and ’round and around and around
Around around and around and around
C’mon you picked it up you got to put it back down.
Put it back where you found it put it back in the ground.
You picked it up, you got to put it down.
Put it back back back in the ground.
Put it back where you found it put it back in the ground.
I’ll say it again, though I said it before,
That grounding isn’t just a metaphor.
As around and around in the dust and the smoke,
You breathe the air and gasp and choke.
After hours and hours of breathing ash,
You’d think you’re under the master’s lash!
But you ain’t no slave! That’s not a yoke!
You gotta breathe! that’s not a joke!
Don’t forget to breathe!
Anywhere but the Fire, mon frere, is where!
And if doing the distance is your destination,
Never underestimate dehydration!
Your body is a temple; pour a deep libation,
‘Cuz Goddess knows your bones could use the lubrication.
I mean, not to drink water, that’s an act insane!
You got no brain; you deserve the pain
Of a predawn crash and a sharp migraine!
I ain’t sayin’ that’cha oughta, it’s watta, ya gotta!
And eye to eye and heart to heart,
Every single one of us a vital part!
You can’t complete this journey unless you start,
And we are starting fresh right now and right here!
So connect the eyes and connect the hearts,
‘Cuz the soul is greater than the sum of the parts.
That’s what puts the magic in the magic arts:
The sharing of magic and the shedding of fear.
Magic is energy; energy moves; energy is moving us all in a circle.
If you get with the synergy go with the groove,
When you dance to the trance you are answering her call.
Magic is energy energy moves; energy is moving us all in a circle.
I don’t want to run this show; I just wanted you to know
These thoughts I had throughout the living year.
Like if magic is an art, worked with will and from heart,
Listen to your inspiration and not your fear.
If magic is an art worked with will and from heart,
Listen to your inspiration and not your fear.
* * * * *
So I thank you for listening and participating, and if you take only one thing from our time together here, I think that’s an excellent note to end on: listen to your inspiration and not to your fear.
I’ll be working with FAM’s Visionary Village at the LoveLight Festival next weekend, to bring the Fire Circle tradition to a new event.
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