The Fire Circle: An Ecumenical Ritual Tradition
I am a member of the Spark Collective, based in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, which holds monthly indoor “fire circle” rituals (around a centerpiece of candles, instead of an actual fire, of course). These are a way of maintaining and building community for fire circle aficionados throughout the course of the year.
But there is nothing like a true outdoor fire circle in Nature. This is a ritual tradition that has been under development at Pagan festivals since the early 1990s and is now the operational structure of multiple festivals held throughout the country. Spark holds a “real” fire circle festival in the summer, and I just got back from Summer Spark IGNITE!
Fire circle is an ecumenical tradition: it has no central ideology of its own beyond the power of the fire circle ritual itself to help us to become our highest vision of ourselves. As such, it is a perfect place for Atheopagans (as well as people of any other tradition save those that view such ritual activities as somehow wrong). The fire circle is a place for personal transformation and for deep, joyful play with one another around the fire. At fire circle festivals (I’ve attended 8 of them, most of them involving three consecutive all-night fire circle rituals), I have circled with an Episcopal minister, a Catholic priest, lots of Pagans, and people of all kinds of alternative beliefs. Like most fire circle events, IGNITE! is a drug and alcohol-free event (except for coffee!)
At root, the fire circle is simple:
- A fire pit in the center (unlit to begin with).
- A series of tall poles topped by oil torches set in a circle around the fire pit, leaving plenty of room for dancing and movement between the fire and the torch circle.
- A second circle of torches set farther out and connected by baling wire to form a “fence”, on which are tied prayer flags made by members of the community. A decorated gateway in the East provides entry to the circle.
- A “drummers’ pit”, a semi-circle of 5-8 chairs set at the edge of the fence. This is where drummers sit and play; large drums such as dunduns are set up on stands for standing players behind this area. There is a small area directly in front of the drummers’ pit which is considered the “gratitude zone”, where dancers can express their appreciation for the musicians through movement or other expression.
- A series of altars set against the inside of the fence to mark the points of the compass, as well as a divination altar which provides tarot cards, oracle cards and runes which participants may use as they wish during the night’s ritual.
- Outside the fence at a slight remove from the circle is the “food altar”, which is kept supplied with snacks, water and coffee to help people take care of themselves throughout the night.
- Also outside the circle is a “Healing station”, where people who are having emotional or physical problems can go for support, bodywork and comfort.
The night begins with the formal declaration of the circle, an invocation to each direction as a Portal to transformation (Voice in the East, Rhythm in the South, Movement in the West, and Service in the North), and whatever ritual and symbolic activities are used to set the theme for the night. At this point, the fire is lit, the drums strike up, and people begin to move around the fire, usually singing an opening chant. From there, the night is unscripted; as one chant fades another may begin, the drums may swell to a thundering beat for wild dancing or fade into silence when participants offer their songs and spoken words. The periods of silence can be holy and fervent, ended sometimes with soft chimes, bells or singing bowls until the drums start up again. Sometimes the chants are deep and meaningful; sometimes we sing funny songs or rock n’ roll favorites. We’re growing, changing, seeing the truth of one another, and playing. Throughout the night, fire tenders keep the fire bright.
The ethic of the fire circle is co-creation: there are no spectators. Even when simply standing at the edge of the circle and watching the dancers, participants will shake a rattle, clap their hands or otherwise engage the broader activity of the circle.
There is no expectation that people will stay in the circle the whole time. Most set up “nests” of blankets and pillows outside the circle so they can rest or nap between stints around the fire. Taking care of ourselves and of one another is a core value, and though doing this for multiple nights usually results in some sleep deprivation, that is a part of the transformational process, the emotional opening brought about by lack of sleep.
Nor is there a “direction” in which people must circle the fire. As one wag puts it, “there is no ‘up’ in space”, and the fire circle is viewed in some ways as like the solar system, with the fire as the Sun in the middle and rings of people dancing around it as “planets”: faster like Mercury when close to the fire, and more slowly when out by the torches.
In the fire circle, we remember our hearts. We honor those who have gone before, and welcome new children to the community. We celebrate with gratitude all the many gifts we are given in this brief, beautiful life.
When the sun peeks above the trees, a closing ritual is conducted, and we go off to nap for a few hours before beginning a day of (optional) workshops on ritual techniques such as drumming and chants. Sunrise can be incredibly moving: faces glowing in the new light, still moving around the fire, the world coming to light after the long darkness.
I have seen people wrestle with their demons in the fire circle, and truly heal from old wounds. I have done so myself. And I have seen people shine as the glorious beings they are, freed from the weight of their psychological burdens, safe and empowered to express the heart of who they are. I have seen the community of participants blossom with mutual love as the golden sun has risen, sweeping away the night.
The fire circle is a profound and beautiful experience, and it can’t really be described, despite my attempt. It must be experienced, and I encourage you to check it out…or, using the ideas described here, to try it out for yourself by organizing your own.
As one well-known fire circle chant by fire circle elder and innovator Spinner has it:
Here, we are held. We are holy. We are Home.