The Proto-Indo-European Hearth

posted on July 11, 2021
Related: Proto-Indo-European Culture

“Let us pray with a good fire.” (Rig Veda (1.26.9))

The importance of fire in Indo-European (IE) religion is ensured by the IE languages, through such cognates as the Hittite hashsha, “hearth, fireplace,” Latin ara, “altar,” and Sanskrit asa, “ashes” (Polome, 1982, p. 392). An altar, to the IEs, was a fire, and a fire might be used as an altar. The IEs did not see a fire as a single thing, however, distinguishing several types. This article will explore those types, propose and original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) model for them, and make suggestions for applying this information to ADF ritual.

The domestic hearth is the most basic example of fire. It serves numerous practical functions – heat, light, cooking, protection – but it early acquired religious and legal associations. In Welsh law a squatter gained possession of land only when a fire had been lit on his hearth and smoke come from the chimney (Owen, p. 339). The association between ownership and the fire was so strong that the right of a Welsh heir to occupy his father’s land was called “the right to uncover the fire” (Rees & Rees, p. 157).

Archaeological evidence from the Romanian Celts hints at a similar belief. Some of the houses (at Ciumesti and Seica-Mica, for instance) which have been excavated appear to have been abandoned voluntarily. Their hearths, which were in the center of the room, had been deliberately and ritually dismantled (Zirra, pp. 16-17).

At the far eastern end of the IE realm comes more evidence, under Vedic law, new territory was legally incorporated with the construction of an altar to the fire god Agni (Eliade, p. 30). A similar law was observed in Iran as late as the 3rd century CE (Varenne, p. 26). In this case the home-based ritual has been extended into the public realm. The in. The intent is the same, however. A place belongs to the group whose fire burns in it. 

This sheds light on the most famous fire, that of the Vestal Virgins at Rome. In their round temple (the other temples in Rome were rectangular) burned a fire that was not allowed to go out. It was tended by virgins, who were buried alive if they lost their virginity. If the fire went out, they were scourged by the pontifex maximus, and then they relit the fire through friction.

The fire of Vesta was the hearth of Rome. Married women were bound to their husbands. A wife tended her husband’s hearth. This explains the obsession with the virginity of the Vestals. If they were to belong to any man the hearth they tended would no longer be Rome’s; it would be their husband’s. To prevent this, they must instead be “brides of Rome;” they must be married to no man. Similar reasoning was found in Greece, where the eternal fires of Hestia, in her round temple (other Greek temples were rectangular), were tended by widows past the age of marriage (Plutarch, Numa, IX).

Evidence of a variation of this theme comes from Thrace. In the royal palace of 3rd-4th century BCE Seuthopolis was a raised main hall with a raised hearth in its center. The hearth was square, with a circular depression in it. That this was equivalent to the fires of Hestia and Vesta, the common hearth of the people, is shown supported by the presence of another such a hearth altar in another room of the place (the royal family’s domestic hearth), and smaller hearth altars in many of the city’s houses (Maringer, pp. 178-80). The hearth of all the people was in the home of the king, where it was presumably tended by his wife and/or daughters. The king was the embodiment of the people; loyalty to him was loyalty to everyone. There would be no concern about divided loyal-ties.

The famous fire of Brighid at Kildare, described by Gerald of Wales (76-69) in the 12th century, is one more example of a virgin-tended hearth, this time outside but within a hedge-ringed circular enclosure. Kildare is not far from Uisneach and Tara, the religious and political centers of Ireland, forming an equilateral triangle with them. By the time the existence of the fire is recorded the virgins are nuns (“brides of Christ”) and Brighid is a saint, but their Pagan origins are assured by a temple of “Minerva” (like Brighid a craft goddess) in 3rd century Britain which also had an eternal flame (Puhvel, 1987, p.174).

A fire of the god Perkunas in 15th century Lithuania was tended by women who were put to death if the fire went out (Puhvel, 1974, p. 78). We are not told if they were unmarried; based on the Greek, Roman, and Irish parallels (and possibly the British – Minerva is a virgin goddess) it is reasonable to sup-pose that they were.

In the domestic cult there was one hearth. I have shown how this hearth was translatable into a community hearth. In public sacrifices, however, things were more complicated. In Roman and Vedic public rituals there was more than one fire. The Romans made do with two. The main fire was on a square altar, the ara, which stood in front of each temple. This was the one into which the main offerings were made. Next to it was another fire, in a round metal tripod, into which was offered incense and wine at the beginnings of sacrifices. These were the standard offerings in the domestic cult, and this fire may therefore be identified with the domestic hearth (Dumezil, pp. 314-15).

The Vedic ritualists prescribe three fires. The primary one is the garha-patya, the “fire of the master of the house.” This is a round fire, lit from the household fire (which must itself have been lit with friction). It is the representa-tive on the ritual ground of the family of the one for whom the sacrifice is offered. During the ritual his wife stands close to it.

To its east is the ahavaniya, the “fire of offering.” This fire is the connection between the gods and the earth, representing the presence of Agni, god of fire and priest of the gods. The vedi, a cushion of sacred grass for the gods to sit on, is next to it. This fire is square.

The third fire is the dakshinagni, the “southern fire.” Made on the southern edge of the sacrificial area, its purpose is to guard against evil spirits (identified with the dead) which might come from this direction, in Vedic cosmology the most dangerous. It is fan-shaped. (Dumezil, pp. 312-14; Smith, pp. 82-84.)

The question is whether the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) fire, as found in ritual, was single, double, or triple. We can first discount the possibility of it being triple by showing that the third fire of the Vedic ritual, the dakshinagni, is a Vedic innovation. This may be seen on both linguistic grounds and by reason of its shape.

The simplest linguistic justification is the transparent nature of its name. Unlike the other two fires, the dakshinagni is named not by its purpose but by its location. Its name is formed in a different way from those of the others, almost as an afterthought.

More convincing is an analysis based on the PIE words for “fire.” There were in fact two, *p�ur, and *ngwnis). *P�ur was neuter, and probably referred to the household fire. *Ngwnis was masculine, and referred to the personified fire of public worship (Linke, pp. 364-5). (That the household fire is grammatically neuter instead of the expected feminine is no difficulty. Gender arose late in PIE; an earlier system may have broken words into animate and inanimate, with the animate nouns later becoming masculine and the inanimate neuter. Feminine was still later (Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, 1995, p. 242.) Thus there are PIE words for both of the Roman types of fire, and for two of the Vedic, but not for the dakshinagni.

A distinction between the shapes appropriate for different fires has been hinted at already – the round temples of Vesta and Hestia vs. the rectangular temples to other gods, the combination round and square (combined hearth and public fire) at Seuthopolis, the round hedge of Brighid. One last bit of data comes from the cemetery of Tulkar, in South Todzhikistan. These Iranian people buried their males with rectangular hearths and their females with round hearths (Mallory, p. 53).

It is clear that IEs made a distinction between a domestic fire (even when it was the hearth of an empire) and one used in public rituals. The former was connected with the domestic cult, and received offerings to family deities and ancestors. Although the family priest (the *pater) might be male, the fire tender was female. And the fire was round. The public fire was presided over by men. It received offerings to the public deities, the gods of the people as a whole, and was square. The dakshinagni has no place in this system by either shape, name, or function. It is clearly an elaboration. 

This seems to show the PIE system to be two fires. The fact that both are not always present suggests, however, that one may have been primary, perhaps only in relative importance, but perhaps chronologically as well.

The domestic hearth is certainly the primary of the two. The garhapatya is lit from the sacrificer’s own heart. If the other two fires go out, they may be relit from the garhaptya; if it goes out, the entire ahavaniya (including the ashes) must be moved to the garhapatya’s place before the ritual can continue (Aitareya Brahmana 7.5, in Keith,1998, p. 292). In Rome, the hearth fire next to the ara was offered to first. In Greek ritual, Hestia was offered to first as well.

I suggest further that the domestic fire (*p�ur) is chronologically primary to the public fire (*ngwnis). Throughout the IE world, there is a domestic cult, with the *pater making offerings to the family’s guardian spirits through the *p�ur. This seems to be the most basic form of IE ritual, and can reasonably be postulated to be the original PIE one. It is after the semi-nomadic PIE clans began to gather together into tribes that a need for public ritual unconnected with a particular clan’s guardians arose. With it arose the ngwnis.

Aspects of PIE hearth concepts can be absorbed into ADF ritual. Relying on the IE law that the lighting of a fire legalizes possession (and its converse, that the fire’s extinction ends possession), we can be assured that wherever our sacred fires are lit belongs to us, at least for the duration of the fire. Whether we meet on our own land, in a public park, or a VFW hall, so long as the fire is lit we are in our own place.

Because a grove is the ADF equivalent of a family (albeit one voluntarily entered into, and easy to leave), in private grove rituals it might be appropriate to use a *p�ur, and in public rituals both a p�ur and an *ngwnis. After all, a public ritual involves a gathering of families, each with their own hearth; on the ritual ground they need one hearth to hold in common.

The hearth at Seuthopolis provides a model for open rituals; a combined *p�ur and *ngwnis. Both public and private, it is both square and round. A similar combined hearth may be used. A square turf is taken up and used as a base for a cauldron or round portable fire pan. In this way a grove hearth is put on a square altar to serve as a common hearth for others to gather around.

Through this what would ordinarily be an *ngwnis acquires aspects of a *p�ur. And those who gather about it, whether grove members or visitors, are transformed for the duration of the ritual from a congregation into a family. For as Angela Della Volpe writes, “an individual household … can be defined as group worshipping at the same hearth. (p. 83, n. 15)” About our *p�ur, we are one people.


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Page Information:
“The Proto-Indo-European Hearth.” submitted by Ceisiwr Serith

posted on July 11, 2021 | Related: Proto-Indo-European Culture
Citation: "The Proto-Indo-European Hearth", Ár nDraíocht Féin, July 11, 2021,