Modern Contemplation of the Runes: Kenaz


KenazBrand from brand kindles until it's burned,
Spark kindles from spark,
Man becomes wise by speaking to men,
But gets dull, staying dumb.

Continuing our series examining modern pagan practice via the Elder Futhark, we move on to the sixth rune, Kenaz. Although not strictly a rune-poem, the above stanza from Havamal surely captures the proper spirit.

The theme of Kenaz is very clear throughout the literature: torches and fires. There is also a secondary meaning of "sores" of some kind, due to a cognate word in Old Norse, but that seems less important to modern interpretations other than to suggest that one shouldn't get too close to the fire. So instead we are going to focus heavily on the role of fire in modern paganism, because it is really one of the most unifying factors in religion.

The Ubiquitous Festival Bonfire

A cornerstone of the modern pagan festival experience is a bonfire throughout the night. This is so fundamental to the festival scene that it is extremely difficult to find an outdoor festival that doesn't feature one. A festival bonfire is typically accompanied by drumming, dancing, and quiet conversation in the back, although it can also turn into a bardic circle if enough performers show up. It can be jolly good fun, and it is not uncommon for the festival bonfire to continue until daybreak, or even stay lit continuously throughout the festival. For those who are experiencing a festival fire for the first time, there is even a handy festival fire etiquette guide.

But a more interesting question is: Why? Festival organizers, and in particular those charged with managing the fire, spend a great deal of time and effort collecting wood, building the fire, and ensuring nobody gets burned, which all costs valuable cash and volunteer time. So there must be something in the flames that gives great value to the folk of the community, or nobody would bother.

The Ritual Flame

The idea of having a fire at the center of a religious ritual goes back to at least 3500 years ago, when the Vedas hint at sacrificial fires that would be transforming a sacrifice into a form better suited to the gods. Similar concepts reach Europe before its recorded history, as demonstrated by the religious use of fire altars on mountaintops in early Greek religion. Since most interested in the runes focus on Norse religion, you will be pleased to know that the use of a central fire altar is also well-attested to in Norse lore. If you consider the giving of physical sacrifices as a major tool of your religion, and sacrificing is all about removing something from human use, then burning it makes complete sense as a means of transforming it into something the gods and spirits can use. In a world without a modern understanding of gasses, the item in question seems to disappear right before your eyes in a puff of smoke.

Sacred fire would sometimes form not only the center of a particular ritual, but also a ritual space or even an entire community. For instance, the sacred flame at the center of the temple of Vesta in Rome was considered a sign of the gods' continuing favor, and also was used as the source fire if somebody's household flame went out.

The importance of the spiritual use of fire continued as paganism was replaced by what would become the Catholic Church. And it was an important tool in ceremonial magic traditions. So when modern paganism was first coming together, it was completely unsurprising that open flame became one of the standard tools used for spiritual purposes, representing the much larger idea of fire as a primordial force in the universe. And once the various Reconstructionist groups really pulled in the fire traditions mentioned above, there was no real way to do modern pagan ritual without some kind of fire involved.

The Ancient Roots of a Modern Practice

Hanging around a big fire with other humans dates back far further than even the 3500-year known tradition of ritual fires. All available evidence states clearly that having a big fire in the middle of your group of people dates back to before there was such a concept as writing or artwork, when we were just groups of wandering animals. Indeed, people were doing this back when they were not even homo sapiens, which means that sitting around looking at flames connects us with literally every human ancestor that has ever lived.

Because fire is constantly changing, it has regularly operated as a metaphor for inspiring thought and word and creative acts. Again, this goes very far back in time, and is still very much a part of modern terminology (e.g. "a creative spark").

So by all means make full use of the fires you find your life, whether a simple candle, a blazing fireplace, or a festival bonfire. When you do so, you bring light to the darkness, liveliness to a group, and wisdom to your mind!

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