When Your Altar Catches Fire
Author: Shining Spider
In the woods of California, there are chaparral plants that have evolved to survive incredible fires. A variety has evolved coats that require the heat of fire or the acid of an animal’s digestive tract to break down. There are lessons that humans learn only from experiencing profound loss. With barriers stripped away, we can see the potential – in each one of us – for growth.
Many cultures have a myth of a bird born of fire. In the most cited – the Phoenix story – the bird is born through the death of the old Phoenix in a nest made of cinnamon. The sacrifice of the elder bird to allow the birth of the new provides a perspective many of us need when letting go of old thoughts, patterns, jobs, or relationships.
Jumping through fire has been used in many pagan rites and has a history running through numerous cultures. Animals were driven through fire to rid them of parasites, and in some circles we now leap over flame to rid ourselves of similarly draining psychic elements.
These are not the images or themes that instantly come to mind when your very physical altar catches on fire. Instead, you are panicking and putting out your candles, sighing with relief when your partner runs over with a box of baking soda. When the smoldering is done and everything is cooled, you take everything off of the altar and figure out what must be thrown away, what is salvageable. You have the chance to reflect on what that fire may mean.
Pragmatically, there was too much on my altar. I am sure that I am not the only one who finds, by years end, a rather busy set up. There were the ‘every day’ altar items such as a statue, a plate of seashells, a cauldron, and a few other small items. To this, though, I had added the family menorah. It is lovely and blue and metal, and it conducts heat so well that it melts candles from the bottom up. On the last night of Hanukkah a candle fell onto the altar cloth and the fire spread, charring the altar, some shelving, and deeming the menorah a fire hazard.
The space was too full and on it were items that did not belong to my faith or me. When it came time to inspect the damage, I removed everything from both the top of the altar and the lower shelves. With everything on the floor and nearby table I saw what I had, what was going unused, what was forgotten, and what I missed. How often do we take a mental inventory of what we have collected over the previous year? What is on our altar out of habit – rather than practice – or perhaps more importantly: sincere need?
When we are weighed down with things we are not excited about, we lose that luster and shine. When an altar begins to take on the appearance of the chores needed to maintain it – dusting, cleaning, organizing, etc. – it is something that is a little easier to avoid. I am by no means a neat freak, but I know that if I walk into a clean kitchen, living room, or bedroom I feel calmer and can keep my mind on the task at hand. My altar is no different. When clean and simple I can offer a prayer, an offering, blessing, or state that moment’s need.
Fire has real, destructive power. While some seeds do require their coating to be cooked away, entire forests can be lost from the lethal combination of fire and human neglect. Unchecked, my altar would have burned, my apartment would be gone and those in my building would have lost far more than an altar cloth.
There are goddesses and gods of fire and destruction. Like a forest fire they clear away brush and melt the barriers we keep around our cores. In Vedic Hindu mythology Kali is both a Goddess borne of the sweat from Durga’s brow and the manifestation of the destruction fire creates. She demands sacrifices of blood and animal. She takes wholly and sincerely. You do not casually invoke her or approach her without respect of the force that she carries.
We cannot keep our altars clean out of fear of fire, no more than we can spend our entire life in fear of other forces of destruction. After all, it is fear and inaction that Kali removes. Instead we must be aware, active, and engaged with the world around us. Sometimes devastation will come without reason. It is not a punishment, but a reminder that all moments are doorways and chances to learn. Do we need what was lost? If so can we re-create it, perhaps better than it was before? Or was what we lost something no longer serving our community, our Earth, or ourselves?
We have to keep our eyes open, not just to what is in front of us, but to that which is also to the side and behind us. I realized my altar was on fire from the kitchen, waiting for latkas to cool. I peeked out to see my beautiful beaded altar cloth melting from the heat of too many candles. By luck I did not lose what was most precious – after home, loved ones, and non magickal material goods – to fire. In fact, the top of the altar is now singed, a reminder of what it and I have survived.
Many of the non-Abrahamic faiths hold a deep respect for fire’s literal and metaphorical power. Pagans, Heathens, Wiccans and others invoke it in magickal space and many of us meditate on its nature. Candles, campfires, letters burned, and other sacrifices are common to rituals.
I am not the first witch who has caught her altar on fire and I will not be the last, but the next time we step towards our magickal working space let us reconsider what aspects of fire, ourselves, and our world we are taking for granted, and what we – not fire – can transform. And please, along with having a fire extinguisher and a smoke detector, keep a box of baking soda on hand.