EarthSMLThe Magic of Fire circle
by Jeff Magnus McBride and Abbi Spinner McBride

I. Fire Circle Introduction     II. Alchemical Traditions
III. Community Considerations        IV. The Elements
V. Observing The Great Work        VI. Metals & Planets

I: Introduction

    Since the dawn of time, human beings have gathered around the fire to make music, to dance, and to weave magic in the fire light. In the past fifteen years, there has been a resurgence in our Western culture for this type of ritual, a reawakening of the shamanic spirit. What is happening during the course of an all-night fire? After observing the ritual process for a number of years, and comparing stories and experiences with others, we have found that the alchemical model is a useful tool for understanding the all-night sacred fire circle ritual.

    While fire circles and drum circles range from very informal social gatherings to all-night intentional magical workings, here we will focus on the style of intentionally created magical drum and dance fire circles that have been evolving for the past fifteen years on the East Coast, which have now found their way across the country (to FIREDANCE). One of the main differences in our rituals is the "container" which we create. In the alchemical tradition a container or vessel is often hermetically sealed to outside influences. At our fire circles the participants enter the vessel with the intention of doing their magical work.
    Every fire circle ritual is different, but there are some elements common to all. In alchemy, the Magnum Opus, or "great work," is the creation of the "philosopher's stone," which has many magical qualities. This philosopher's stone has the amazing power to turn all that it touches into gold, or to spiritualize matter. Basically, as we see it, we're using a pattern that we know works to change and grow more fully into our souls. We are turning lead into gold, on many different levels.
    We see the primary goal of staying up all night, drumming, dancing and singing at a fire circle as an alchemical process. Each one of us is involved, on some level, in the great work. We accelerate the processes of personal growth by accelerating the fire of Nature, which transforms the lead of our lives into the gold of Spirit. One of the basic ideas behind many alchemical traditions is that of transmuting or purifying one thing from a "lower" form into a "higher" form. When we consider the history of Alchemy, we find many different traditions.

II: Alchemical Traditions

    Practical Metallurgy -- Alchemy was born at the tribal fires of Paleolithic societies where people discovered that the fire acted on different materials in different ways. This led to the fire workers creating secret societies to protect their knowledge and power over fire and metals.
    Proto-Chemistry -- Medieval alchemists in European and Arab countries sought to find the philosopher’s stone through their chemical experiments on matter and metals. Many of these experiments lead to discoveries in medicine and eventually archaic alchemy transformed into modern chemistry, due to the works of many scientifically inclined, yet spiritually inspired, visionaries such as Paracelsus, and Isaac Newton.
    Spiritual -- In ancient Egypt, the legendary Thoth was the creator of magic, mathematics, language and writing. The Greek aspect of Thoth was the mythic figure of Hermes Trismegistis, whose "Emerald Tablet" was said to contain the secrets of alchemical transmutation. The Emerald Tablet was re-discovered in the West during the renaissance, and led many alchemists of that time to study both Arabic and Western Alchemical texts.
    Sexual Alchemy -- In the East, both Chinese and Indian traditions incorporate sexual imagery into the understanding of alchemy, the union of opposites, yin/yang, yoni/lingam, man/woman, and other dualities are unified into the "one thing," the great mystery. These traditions transmute sexual energy into union with the Divine.
    Psychological Alchemy -- One of the most important psychologists of the 20th century,
C. G. Jung, discovered the wealth of alchemical images that appear in dreams. Jung's work re-popularized the nearly forgotten study of alchemy in the twentieth century.
    Shamanic Alchemy -- Often, in shamanic traditions, we find sacred medicines, or elixirs, used to alter the state of consciousness of the shaman, as he or she enters healing trance. The preparation of this elixir is a further example of the alchemical process, and the dissolution of the individual ego in the shamanic state of consciousness is similar to the dissolution of metals in the alchemist's laboratory. The shaman's journey of death and resurrection mirrors the alchemist's experiments of dissolving and re-combining materials. The very nature of alchemical language is intentionally cryptic, even our modern word gibberish comes from an Arabic alchemist's name, Jabir -- whose cryptic alchemical notes were incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

    Well, folks, we're breaking tradition here, in lots of ways -- first off, we're disclosing many of the secrets we've learned over the years, and we're putting them in writing, in what is meant to be clear language. We are not trying to transmit the wisdom of the ages or relay all the information that is available on the art of alchemy. We are attempting to describe how the alchemical process can be seen in viewing a fire circle ritual.
    There are three basic components of alchemy which are salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt is fixed or stable, and represents the body, including the physical space and the ritual preparation. Sulfur is volatile, and represents spirit, including drumming, singing, dancing, oratory, music, and prayers. Mercury is mutable or changeable, and represents soul, the inspiration and intention of the ritual, coming from within the individual or group soul.
    We have found that it is extremely helpful to mentally and physically prepare ourselves before entering into an all-night ritual. Before we go to the fire circle, we often bathe and choose our ritual vestments for the evening, to reflect our individual or community intentions. The ritual costume often symbolizes the archetype we are embodying during the ceremony that evening. Magnus tends to run a lot of Mercury energy, so his costume often includes a winged hat and a caduceus wand, along with his shamanic bag of tricks. Spinner often carries Lunar energy, and her costume usually includes head wraps and veils, and she carries a medicine bag containing various enchantments to be administered throughout the journey from dusk to dawn. We've asked many people what they do before they go to the fire circle, and people have a variety of individual practices, ranging from simple cleansing breaths to chakra meditations, to the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, or other preparatory rituals. Often at our fire rituals there is a formal fire lighting ceremony where the members of the community join together and state their intention for the evening's ritual. After a brief opening ceremony, the fire is lit, the drums begin, and the dancing starts.
    Sometimes, there are those who arrive late to the fire circle, while the ritual is already in process. In these cases, we have found it to be very helpful to enter the space gently, to come in slowly, so that we can tune into the energy already in process, without disturbing or distracting from what may already be happening. Often, we will cover ourselves completely with our cloaks and be "invisible" for awhile. We recommend walking three times around the perimeter of the circle before entering. We know what would happen if a piece of hot metal were suddenly submerged into cold water there would be a lot of hissing and steam, and the vessel might crack -- so we're trying to acclimate ourselves before entering, to merge into the circle, rather than to crash in. The integrity of the vessel is of the utmost importance.
III: Community Considerations

    We strongly encourage safety and personal responsibility. We do not support unsafe behavior; this includes jumping the fire.
    Consider drum etiquette. If a drum is covered, or lying on its side, the drum is resting and is not to be played by anyone other than the owner. If a drum is left upright and uncovered, it is considered to be available for anyone to play with proper respect. We avoid playing drums while wearing rings, since this can damage both the drum and the hands of the player.
    Additional space is needed on the outside of the circle for perimeter work, so all resting or "nesting" spaces should be far enough back from the torches so that congestion and noise disruption won't become a problem.
    Benches or hay bales are for drummers that are engaged in playing. If we decide to take a break from the front line of drumming, we take our drums with us, to our nests, so there will be room for other players to sit.
    The intention is to maintain the magical space and to avoid "splodging" (disrupting) the energy of those who are doing deeper work. We strive to maintain magical space and to avoid mundane chit-chat. Please be mindful of the state a drummer or dancer or singer is in before talking to them, touching them, or offering them food or water. If they don't make eye contact with you, leave them be.
    Enter the dance circles at the pace of those already dancing. Be aware of the fire tenders entering with wood and exiting the dance tracks. The dance track closest to the fire moves the fastest. The next ring of dancers moves a little more slowly. The third ring is for rattles and trance dancing and moves even more slowly.
    We honor small voices and softer stories with deep listening and focused attention. This includes checking in with eye contact and empowering others, since "every man and every woman is a star."
    All are empowered to share the honors of smudging and watering and feeding the fire, to be actively involved in holding space, drumming, singing, and dancing.
    Our intention is to keep the energy moving, in a focused, magical way. Keeping the energy moving around the fire will prevent the drummers from getting blocked from the fire.
    "Driving the fire" is the term we use for the people who are circling the fire with small rattles, and antlers. The intention is to keep the dancers entranced during times where the rhythm stops or fluctuates. There is always some sonic stimulus occurring, with the exception of moments of sacred silence.
    After a period of silence, or an energy crescendo, we need to be very mind-full about what the words are that are spoken into this fertile space. Before you speak, consider if what you are about to say is an improvement over silence.
    Avoid making announcements -- sing or speak directions poetically instead of didactically.

"Sacraments," smokable or drinkable, stay outside the torch ring.

Do Your Will

IV: The Elements

    Air -- Eagle. The element of Air symbolizes the power of breath and all things expansive. This includes chanting and poetic offerings, invocations, songs, stories, and breathwork. Excess air or "chatter" can disburse energy. If there is too much hectic energy, retreat for awhile and clear the picture. Take a break from the energy, breathe deeply and exhale negativity. This can help to re-focus your thoughts. Walk away from the fire circle to get the eagle's view, the big picture.
    Fire -- Salamander. The element of Fire symbolizes the dynamic aspects of our ritual. Elements of Fire include drumming, dancing, energy work, sexual alchemy, breathing and tantra dance, purification through the flame. It is suggested that drummers playing similar sized instruments stand close to each other, so they can hear each other, placing the djuns and other large bass drums near the center of the drummers "V." Like an alchemist, keep an even feed to the fire. After an energy crescendo, we keep rattling to maintain the fire's energy, until something happens -- a prayer, a song, a poem, etc. Then we support whatever happens next... The only exception is holy silence. We keep an even flame and remain aware to vent out and shift energy when needed. Preparing fire wood, feeding the fire, checking on torches are all ways to be of service.
    Water -- Mermaid. The element of Water symbolizes the nurturing and healing aspects of the ritual. We honor each other's expressions of emotions and allow ourselves the full range of our feelings. We support the flow of the evening by taking turns watering drummers and dancers, monitoring the energetics of the circle, and witnessing. Appropriate emotion can cleanse and heal and wash away impurities. The element of water helps us to hold the container, to flow into empty spaces, to find our fluidity, our flexibility, and deepen our intuition.
    Earth -- Lion. The element of Earth symbolizes power and stability. In the fire circle ritual, this refers to the physical set up of the space and the preparation of ritual tools, including fire wood, benches, sage, incense, decorations, water buckets, sand, fire extinguisher, fire permit posted, first aid kit, fire blanket, food altar preparation and care, feeding participants, trash cans, litter patrol etc. The element of Earth helps us to move or ground the energy we create.
    Spirit -- Quintessence. The fifth element that symbolizes the wisdom of the group mind. This will influence the solution and interaction of the elements and the outcome of the work. Divine inspiration, invocation, ecstatic trance and dance. To fully experience the alchemy of the fire, work all the aspects -- spend time drumming, dancing, chanting, smudging, feeding, watering, and tending the fire. Intuition and intelligence are one. Conscious and unconscious work together.

V: The Laboratory Process
    Observing the Great Work

    Observe the heat, do not worry about the process or the interactions; there is no need to shake or stir the vessel. Be aware of, and be responsible for, your own vessel/body. Check in on what's happening inside of you. Don't be attached to the process, release all expectations, and be fully present to whatever is actually happening.

    Stages of the Alchemical Work in the Fire Circle

      Nigredo - Burning away impurities,
         releasing ego and agendas.
      Peacock's Tail - Colors, stories, songs, offerings
      Albedo - Deep gnostic trance, ecstasis
      Rubedo - Dawn, Sunrise and beyond...
         Solar adorations, Holy silence, Grounding

    During the course of an all-night fire, we find four distinct time periods. The first phase is called the Nigredo, or the blackening. In the alchemist's laboratory, this is the part where the "prima materia," or first matter, is placed into a container and heated until there are only ashes and then dissolved with liquid until there is a suspension. These first steps are called Calcination and Dissolution. At the fire circle, this time period is also called "first shift." This is the time when we see a lot of activity -- from people arriving and settling in, to the fire being lit, to highly energized dancing. On a personal or transformational level, this is time when we "burn away and dissolve" whatever stands between us and the Divine (whatever we conceive That to be). Consider, if it is your will, what are you ready to burn away and dissolve in this time of transformation? What is the elixir you seek? The final stage of the nigredo corresponds with the alchemical stage called separation. In the lab, the solution is broken up into its separate components. At the fire circle, people begin to let go of whatever lead they've been carrying into the fire to be transformed. They separate themselves from that which separates them from others. There is a stage in the alchemical process called the "peacock's tail." In the laboratory, this is seen as rainbow colored streaks that appear on the inside of the vessel. At the fire circle, this is seen when people "show their colors," or step out and share a spontaneous moment of creative inspiration with the group. This stage can go on for hours.

    The next part of the evening's fire circle is the "albedo." This corresponds with the alchemist's whitening process, where the matter in the flask is softening and beginning to purify. At the fire circle, this is the time when there is a palpable shift in the energy; the drumming may grow quieter, there may be songs or chants. Somehow, there is a shifting, and the atmosphere begins to feel lighter. Coincidentally, this is often the time when the sky begins to grow light. The stages of alchemy that correspond with this period are Conjunction, Fermentation, and Distillation. The above and the below are united in the heart; the energy becomes stronger and purer.
    The final stage of the fire circle alchemy is called the "rubedo," the reddening, the sunrise itself. The sunrise can be interpreted on many different individual levels. We imagine the sun's rays entering our bodies, and filling each cell with pure gold. Often at sunrise, a long sustained period of silence is encouraged.

    We often close with this prayer,
    written by Katlyn Breene:

        the sun rises
            we lift our hands unto it
    to be re-born
        like the day

    golden rays pierce our hearts
        like arrows of light
    dispelling illusion
        releasing night

    solar alchemy
        filling each cell of our body
    transforming, transmuting
        lead into purest gold

    as above, so below
        the sun sees itself in the fire
    in each other
        we see god

VI: Metals, Planets and Archetypes

    Over the years of observing our fire circle rituals we have noticed a pattern that naturally develops. This pattern is a mirror of our solar system, and our dance is a recreation of the great cosmic dance of life. The fire is a symbol for the Sun at the center of our Uni-verse. Outward from the Sun, the planets dance in elliptical orbits. Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun; at our fire circle, the Mercurial dancers are the ones dancing closest to the fire, or tending the fire. Just beyond the orbit of Mercury is Venus. This second orbit of the fire circle is often where the sensuous and ecstatic dance takes place. Beyond Venus is Earth. At our fire circles this represents the rattle track, where the Earth dancers move in a slower orbit.
    Just beyond Earth is Mars. At the fire circle, this is symbolized by the ring of standing people, who, like Mars, protect and fortify, and add their energy to those within the circle. Beyond Mars is Jupiter. At the fire circle this is a free movement zone, where people blend and move together in freestyle dance. Beyond Jupiter is Saturn. At the fire circle this planet is represented by the people sitting and resting. Beyond the orbit of Saturn are the planets Neptune and Pluto. At the fire circle these are the outlying areas where food and drink can be had. On the outside of the fire circle perimeter is the "comet's trail," a path for walking meditation for those who wish to stay engaged and involved in the fire circle, yet seek some solitude or time for meditation. By careful observation of this great cosmic dance we can become more aware of the different elements and archetypes that are interacting in the vessel.

    Saturn: Lead --"Heavy" energy. Power that needs purification, survival work, fight or flight response.

    Jupiter: Tin -- Malleable metal. Blending, flowing, balancing energy.

    Mars: Iron -- Strong and martial, warrior energy, protecting.

    Venus: Copper -- Dynamic and volatile, sensuality/sexuality.

    Mercury -- Orbits closest to the sun, a gas that rises and falls. Mediator and messenger.

    Luna: Silver -- There are many moons that orbit the planets. This priest/ess energy nurtures the circle and facilitates growth on personal levels for the participants.

    Sol: Gold -- Attainment. Wisdom. Self-realization. Often seen in the elders as they guide the energy of the circle.

VII: Fire Circle Layout

    Part of the ritual preparation includes setting up the physical space. The physical space is consciously created to resemble the alchemist's alembic, or vessel. There is one main entrance, which resembles the neck of the bottle. At the point where the neck of the bottle meets the body of the bottle, we place a gate. The gate creates an entry point, a delineated beginning of sacred space. It also seals our hermetic vessel. There is always a greeter at the gate, a person who ritually welcomes and purifies people entering the vessel. We use sage, cedar, copal and other incenses to cleanse and prepare participants entering the ritual space. We are creating a vessel for alchemical transformation.

In our experiments, we have found that a central fire circle, six feet in diameter is optimum. Around the fire circle, we usually lay down a mixture of sawdust and topsoil to create an even dancing surface. All large rocks are removed from the area, or included in the fire ring. The outer edge of the ritual space is the wall of the vessel, or the perimeter. We often create this with prayer flags and ribbons that hang from a long piece of rope, at about chest height, and they attach to poles (not torches). This perimeter runs from the entrance of the gate completely around the ritual field and ends back at the ritual gate. The vessel itself is about fifty feet in diameter. We bring in benches or hay bales for drummers to sit on, and place them ten to twelve feet away from the fire, on the side opposite the gate. We place tall citronella torches about ten feet in from the perimeter of the circle, which allows for light and minimizes crowding at the fire. The firewood pile is placed to the right of the drummers, with ample space around it to facilitate easy access. People are encouraged to set up their nests or resting spaces outside the circle of torches, along the inside of the perimeter. On either side of the gate, there are tables that are well lit with food, water and first aid supplies, fire extinguishers, buckets of water, buckets of sand, and fire blankets, just in case.