Column: The Fire’s Blessing

Eric O. Scott —  April 10, 2015 — 7 Comments

The Rider-Waite Four of Wands, by Pamela Colman Smith.

The Rider-Waite Four of Wands [Public Domain U.S.]

The infant sleeps in her mother’s arms; she is brown of hair, tiny, only six weeks old. Her father sits next to me on the floor, beating out a rhythm on a hand drum. I am kneeling next to him, matching his beat by slapping my knees and stomach. The baby’s brother, three years old, walks in and out of the circle, anxiously waiting for all the chanting to be over so he can blow out the lone candle sitting on the altar. My heartbeat rises to match the drumming of animal hide and human flesh. I am on the edge of ecstasy, induced by the kind of breathing I only do during ritual. Lorelei stands above us, leading the invocation: she lifts a ceramic liquid incense burner, passing its sweet scent over us, and calls out to the elements. Powers of the south, spirits of fire, she says in a dream-like whisper, we ask you for your blessings…

The term for the ritual, I suppose, is a Wiccaning. I don’t know, really. As far as I know, my coven has never had such a thing. If I had a Wiccaning as an infant, nobody has told me about it. For me, this is uncharted territory. We are calling in the elements to give their blessings to the baby, the invocations beginning with Lorelei and then passing around the circle to the child. Our words are all improvised. When it is my turn to speak, I do so in a slightly archaic, elevated way – We call to thee, spirits of the south, guardians of the watchtower of staves, the powers of fire – language stolen from the hundreds of rituals I have seen in my life, repurposed to this occasion. Others speak in words closer to their normal registers, or in streaming sentences, in phrases full of air and weight.

Again – we are making this up as we go along. The meaning we create is created in the moment; it appears and then vanishes, like smoke from the incense.

My dissertation adviser knows a lot about nonfiction writing, but not much about Paganism. I once brought an essay to her that described a set of rituals from the late 1980s I had found in a box of old materials from the early days of my coven; I speculated as to what those rituals might have meant, the reasons why they might have been written. My adviser didn’t know what to say to my speculations. It had never occurred to her that religion could be a creative act, could be art. For my part, I don’t know that I can really understand practicing a religion without the sense of reinvention and creativity that I have grown up with. Writing about Paganism, but having that writing seen and commented on by a mostly non-Pagan audience, constantly reminds me that the differences between my childhood and many others’ are more than just the appearances of the places we called church. Some of it goes down to the bone.

In this ritual, this Wiccaning, we are weaving together a portrait of hope – everything we think important enough to beseech the numinous. It is a family conversation, a statement of what we value and what we regret. The words come from individuals, but the end result – the tapestry we weave – reflects all of us together, our history and future.

And yet it is ephemeral. It was only a week ago, but I can’t remember exactly what I asked the fire to give the baby or the exact construction of my sentences; I certainly can’t recall the specifics of my coven-mates’ requests, beyond the usual associations of fire, passion and warmth. The baby herself will never know exactly what was said on her behalf, either. Our prayers were formed from the stuff within our hearts that night; its magick is now out in the world, doing whatever it will do, invisible and untraceable.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about inheritance. It’s a concept the Pagan world isn’t really equipped for yet, at least in my estimation. Paganism mostly cares about the new: new rituals, new traditions, new names, new covens, new families, new identities. Even when we look to the past, when we pore over the histories of our founders and our gods, we look to innovate and reconstruct, hoping that whatever discoveries we turn up will add new dimensions to our practice. It feels like something borne in the blood of our enterprise. Paganism is an apostate movement, formed by and large by people spurning an old way of life. We have turned away once, hoping to find something re-enchanted and new; perhaps we are inclined to continue turning away. But what does a person who has left behind a way of life leave behind themselves?

Creativity and tradition, apostasy and inheritance; these are thoughts that swirled around me as I thought through my invocation to the powers of fire. We were giving this baby a gift that she would not understand for years, if then; I know, because it was a gift given to me as well, and if anything, the more I consider it, the less I’m sure I understand it. My religion has, for better or worse, been the cornerstone of my life, the shaper of my perceptions and the sculptor of my ethics; I have been, in turn, ashamed, dazzled, and enmeshed by it. It is a weighty gift.

The baby is sleeping in her mother’s arms, unaware of the magick that surrounds her, all the hope and fear we hold for her. The elements are called in, sweep over her in her slumber, granting whatever blessings they may. We welcome her into our family; all of this is hers now, to keep, to change, to burn away.

Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
  • Lupa

    What an evocative piece! May the little one be well blessed.

  • I found myself fascinated and distracted from the content of the article by TWH’s decision to go with the RWS Tarot illustration to accompany it. A little research seems to show me that most unofficial opinions are that this work has been in the public domain in the United States either a) for many years, as a work published before 1922, or b) since 2012, 70 years from Waite’s death.

    However, I tested my memory by stepping back in time to an earlier article by TWH’s Jason Pitzl-Waters, and I noticed that the earlier write up concluded that “the only way the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is entering the public domain before 2021 is through a long and expensive (and possibly international) lawsuit with U.S. Games.”

    While it looked as if U.S. Games wasn’t interested in going after small fry–and from their perspective, TWH almost certainly counts as small fry–and there’s certainly an argument to be made that this deck is now in the public domain, that earlier article, together with TWH’s April 2 story on copyright issues, made me surprised to see the image used in this way.

    Not that I’m on the side of U.S. Games, here–I’ve often longed to use these images to illustrate my own writings. Speaking as a writer, if there’s been a development in how this copyright issue is being handled, it would be very interesting to see the story revisited.

    • Thanks, Cat. U.S. Games has said that they officially go with the 2012 date in the U.S. and 2021 in the EU/UK etc. We will go with that indicator until otherwise shown that the laws have indeed changed. If that is the case, I will be happy to take it down or use it only with proper approval.

  • Keith Campbell

    I love blessing rituals for kids. They provide an opportunity to distill what we do down to bare essentials — if for no other reason than that keeping the child in question from fussing unduly (or just getting entirely bored, in the case of older children) for more than ten or fifteen minutes is often impossible. I think they are important. I think they are always a custom solution; cookie-cutter rituals for this purpose are rarely the right answer.

    Having said that, I absolutely despise the word “Wiccaning” in this context. It’s an awful choice as a label for this ritual, and I heartily wish it had never caught on. I suspect whomever first used it did so intending it to be parallel with “christening,” and I therefore assume that they had no idea what “christening” means. (Frankly, “christening” would be a better choice on our end than “Wiccaning” — most such rituals involve some sort of anointing, after all.) I don’t think anyone performing such a ritual believes they are initiating an infant witch, and most people don’t even intend to commit their child to a specific path.

    I personally prefer “saining,” the old Scottish term for the rite. (Yes, its root origin is Christian, at least as far back as written documentation goes — but it means simply “blessing,” and that’s what we’re up to, after all.) I’m also good with “blessing,” or “naming,” if that’s going to be a feature, or “welcoming,” or any number of other possible labels.

    But “Wiccaning” makes me cringe every time. :-/

    My personal bonnet-bees about labels aside, the ritual itself was clearly well-executed and effective. Which is the most important thing. I’m just sayin’. 🙂

    • Deborah Bender

      When I was in a coven that had occasion to do a ritual of this type, we called it a saining.

    • I prefer saining, myself. I borrowed an element from ROOTS (movie & book), and we presented our son to the universe under the night sky, and made wishes for his future self. Present were the two grandmothers, a grandfather/Godfather, two Goddess-moms (they were a couple then), my sister, and a friend of ours who hadn’t moved from southern California. He was aabout 10 months old: getting all of us together (FL, NoCA, SoCA) outside a holiday like Thanksgiving was difficult, especially for my post-stroke mom in a chair.

  • I love this view of a child-blessing.

    When a baby born to one of our coven (and her mother) was well enough to come to the coven stead, she was given any number of wishes. I don’t know that we called it anything.