Home Is Where The Hearth Is

Many concealed objects are found under hearths and within fireplaces, from the cat skeleton at Deanscales, Cumbria, to the vast cache of shoes at Gelli Iago, Gwynedd.

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The hearth in which the Deanscales cat skeleton was found

Their presence there is usually explained as a form of protection: malevolent supernatural beings – be they witches, demons, ghosts, or fairies – can enter a house via the chimney. The hearth is therefore viewed as a vulnerable domestic area; an access point for those dangerous forces. An access point that needed guarding. So were these obscure objects – possibly seen as effective wards against, or traps for malignant intruders – secreted away in hearths and fireplaces because of their structural vulnerability? Was this also why mysterious markings were scratched into fireplaces?

That’s one way of interpreting the evidence, but there is another – and neither have to be mutually exclusive. It’s just as possible that the hearth was a popular place in which to conceal objects not because it was seen as an access point for negative forces, but because it was seen as central to the home and the family – central in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

We’re all familiar with the clichéd image of the family from a bygone era assembled cosily around a roaring hearth, regaling tales and keeping warm during the long, dark winter evenings.

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The Victorian hearth

Well, clichéd it may be, but it’s also true. In a time before central heating and television, families would congregate around the fire, and this led to it becoming symbolically very important. When Robert St George was illustrating how the house metaphorically represents the body in his 1998 Conversing by Signs, he described the windows as the eyes, the timbers as the ribs, and the hearth as the heart. Just look at the two words and the connection is obvious.

So if the hearth is the heart of the household, then it’s no surprise that so many rituals and folkloric practices surround it. The significance of placing the Yule log in the hearth has been written about elsewhere on this blog: kept lit in the hearth until it burnt away completely it was considered good luck, and in Derbyshire they’d pile its ashes in the cellar to keep witches away, while in some parts of Wales they were spread in the fields to deter evil and ensure a good crop.

Barry O’Reilly, in his fascinating 2011 article ‘Hearth and Home’, describes many hearth-related practices in post-medieval Ireland. When relocating, for example, the hearth fire in the new house should be lit by coals taken from the old house. Fire shouldn’t be removed from a house – unless to light the fire in a new house. And it is a note of pride – and evidence of familial continuity – if a family can claim that their hearth fire has been burning continuously for generations, covered in ashes every evening and rekindled every morning. Similar practices can be found worldwide. The Russians, for example, had the Domovoi, the house god or spirit, who was believed to live in the ashes of the hearth; when a family move, they took some of the ashes with them, ensuring their Domovoi would accompany them to their new house.

The centrality of the hearth survived into the 20th century, with Lovett observing in his 1925 Magic in Modern London, that ‘in many cases, objects are hung over the mantelpiece for luck’. The examples he gives are of pieces of flint bearing uncanny resemblances to people or animals, used as toys by the children of London but also placed on the mantelpiece ‘“for luck!” In short, a votive offering’. Other examples include horse shoes and horse brasses placed around the fireplace (see blog post here) to ensure the luck of the household. It seems likely, therefore, that objects were secreted away within the fireplace for similar reasons – not just to keep the bad out, but to keep the good in.

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Horse shoes adorning the fireplace in The Royal Oak, Laxfield, Suffolk

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A horse shoe sits atop a hearth in modern-day Zadar, Croatia

But doing this research has got me thinking about the hearths and fireplaces of today. We’re living in a time with central heating and television; a time where radiators are more likely to heat our homes than an open fire, and where sitcoms, soap operas, and cooking shows are more likely to entertain us than a hearthside storytelling session. So is the hearth still the heart of the home? Maybe not, but it’s significant that we still have them. My living room is heated by a radiator; the electric fire which stands in the fireplace is broken and hasn’t been used for years. But I know that I’ll never get rid of it. Why? Because the room would look incomplete without it. Whether for pure aesthetics or something deeper, the lounge needs a fireplace.

Rachel Hurdley, author of ‘Dismantling Mantelpieces’, maintains that even though times have changed, the fireplace is still an important part of the home. While focus may have shifted from the hearth to the television, the mantelpiece is still being used as a (literal) platform for the display of a family’s identity. Christine Finn, writer of ‘Old Junk or Treasure?’, makes similar claims, writing that: ‘The Romans had their lares and penates, the household gods at the hearth; we have an equivalent in the mantel as a fixed place and focal point, even if the “votives” are secular and come in a bag from Ikea. Every object in the home tells a story, but the mantel is a place to perform, a paradise for people-watching’.

We may not put shoes up chimneybreasts, scratch markings into fireplaces, and adorn our mantelpieces with horse brasses and other lucky talismans anymore, but the hearth does still seem to enjoy a central place in the home. We use our mantelpieces to stage the stories of ‘us’; to display aspects of ourselves that we’re most proud of: wedding photographs, birthday cards, attractive ornaments, curiosities from our travels.

Christine Finn encourages us to excavate our mantelpieces; to reflect on how much we can learn of our own identities by studying the objects we place there. Looking at my own fireplace…

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My fireplace

Six candles bought 12 years ago to decorate my Moroccan-themed 18th birthday party; a Balinese dragon incense-burner; two jewellery boxes from my childhood, one containing rings and the other drawing pins; a vintage-style globe; a Venetian mask bought on my honeymoon; a ‘thank you for your wedding present’ card from my in-laws; and a replica of Hermione Granger’s wand. What does this domestic assemblage say about me?

More importantly, what does your own mantelpiece say about you?

And what do they tell us about where the hearth stands in domestic culture, both past and present? Today, with central heating and televisions the size of cinema screens, is the hearth still the heart of the home?

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Home Is Where The Hearth Is

  1. An aspect of the fireplace that it’s worth considering is that it may be seen as a form of “altar” and as a domestic Axis-Mundi. Cross-culturally the smoke-hole (in a tent, teepee etc) allowed smoke and prayers (or indeed “witches” & “shamans”) to rise up to the overworld above. A chimney is pretty much an analog of this. While on the one hand spirits may come down the chimney (e.g. in modern times Father Christmas), the mantlepiece is also a place where offerings are left (e.g. a mince pie & sherry, and from the other side of things, where a stocking is hung in anticipation of a gift). In parts of Scandinavia, letters to Father Christmas are placed on the hearth fire, the idea being that the burnt letter travels up in the smoke, magically appearing at the North Pole / Santa’s Grotto (etc). The idea of burning offerings to transfer them to another other-world is found around the world e.g. in China (for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_money & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joss_paper ).

    While I’m not suggesting exactly the same motifs appear in say Siberian Shamanism and N. European folk-beliefs, it is interesting to compare aspects of the two e.g.

    “The Yurt, the World Tree & Spirit Flight

    In Siberian and especially Mongolian shamanism the yurt, a traditional dwelling constructed from a framework of wooden poles covered with animal skins and with a central smoke-hole in the roof, was a microcosmic symbol or representation of the universe. For this reason all movement inside the yurt was conducted, if at all possible, in a deosil or sunways direction. This also reflected the traditional direction of movement used in shamanic rituals and dances. The centre of the yurt, where a fire burnt in a hearth and was seldom extinguished, was symbolic of the actual centre of the world or universe. The column of smoke that drifted up from the fire and left the yurt through the central smoke-hole in the roof was symbolic of the axis mundi – the World Mountain, World Pillar or World Tree. This links the underworld below with the heavens above and ends at the North and Pole Star around which all the other stars revolve in the night sky.

    The shamans believed in three worlds of existence connected together by the World Tree or Tree of Life. They were the lower world or underworld inhabited by the dead who are awaiting reincarnation, the middle world or Middle Earth, the material plane of existence in which human spirits are incarnated, and the upper world or Heaven, the dwelling place of the Gods. Numerous non-human spirits also inhabit each of these three worlds. The shaman can access these other worlds in trance by means of spirit travel. His soul body ascends the column of smoke from the fire and passes through the aperture in the roof of the yurt. It is interesting to note that in medieval times European witches were supposed to fly to their Sabbats by ascending the chimney on their broomsticks. It is obvious that this was not done physically so they also were practising a shamanic type of spirit flight.” (quoted from http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/secrets-of-siberian-shamanism and drawing on the works of Mircea Eliade & others)

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    1. Thank you very much, those are really interesting comparisons! You’re absolutely right that the fireplace can be viewed as a kind of altar, even in modern-day Britain where items such as mince pies and stockings are placed at Christmas. It would be really interesting to do a study of families living in modern apartments without fireplaces and asking what they do as an alternative

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