“As old as human memory and deep within the myth collective / Gathering around a Fire is like a Pagan prime directive.” —Doktor Billy Bardo (a.k.a. William J. Thorpe)
We’re moving into summer Festival season, which means the return of one of my favorite things in the Universe — Fire Circles, those late-night bonfire drum and dance circles that are the heart of large Pagan gatherings. (For those of us not living in drought conditions or other fire hazards, that is.)
Or perhaps I should say that when done well, Fire Circles are one of my favorite things, weaving together a brilliant variety of energy into a unique bit of structured improvisational magic. But a bad night at the fire, with a bunch of novice drummers all trying to be louder and faster than each other and people standing around the fire blocking dancers and folks generally behaving in a low-consciousness manner, is a tragedy of wasted potential, a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing but frustration.
So what does it take to have a Fire Circle that doesn’t suck?
There are a lot of ways to do it. I’ve heard from Very Very Serious people who believe that there should be no talking or laughing going on while there is drumming. (I am not making that up.) I’ve heard Billy Bardo deliver his famous Fire Circle Rap and I’ve watched and learned from the Free Spirit Gathering’s Firegoddess for several years. I’ve talked and worked with people who prefer the highly structured yet still fluid “Alchemical Fire Circle” model developed by Jeff “Magnus” McBride and Abigail “Spinner” McBride, and I’ve danced with people who didn’t give a damn about magic but just wanted to get drunk and dance and party — not knowing that this, too, is a form of magic.
I’ve danced to the drums around the Starwood Bonfire — rumored to be large enough to be seen from orbit — and around candles in nightclubs and interfaith churches and warehouse studios.
In those discussions and debates — and sometimes heated arguments! — I’m come to the conclusion that the Fire Circle at a large Pagan gathering should welcome and invite as many types of magic as possible. Not necessarily all at once (that could be a bit of a muddle) but allowing them to arise and dissipate in their own natural flow.
I call this principle “All Kinds Magic Worked Here.” That came from a little mini-vision, a quick flash, I had while in the middle of an extended on-line discussion of the Fire Circle. I saw a ritual gate with a sign across the top with those words on it– probably inspired, somewhere in my brain, by a sign that used to appear on the Saturday Night Live music stage: “All Kinds Music Played Here.”
That sort of magic where drummers and dancers trance all night? 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 mead? We do that. The sort 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? We do that. 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 chant, like it was just for you? We do that. The sort where there’s a lacuna in the drumming, a hiatus, dead air, and someone steps out into the firelight and tells a beautiful story? We do that.
All Kinds Magic Worked HereSo how do you set the stage for that magic? That’s where something I call “The Fire Circle Triangle” comes in.
Physically, fire requires a triangle of elements — oxygen, fuel, and heat — to burn. Take away any one of these, and you don’t have a fire.
Fire Circles also rely on three elements: fire tenders, drummers, and dancers.
- Fire tenders (and water carriers and other caretakers of the space) start the fire and keep it fed, and are responsible for keeping everyone safe and healthy. They often have to maneuver through the circle carrying heavy things. 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 (and flow artists and walking meditators and others who move to the beat) 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.
Put these together and all kinds of magic can happen.
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