Litha – Element of Fire

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Wheel of the Year. This was originally written in 2012.

On Wednesday near 1pm as I darted from one air-conditioned venue to another, I took just a moment to acknowledge the sun standing at its zenith, dead south, pouring out heat of such intensity that even being outside for a few minutes was difficult. In the evening, I stood on the roof of my building and watched the sun set, appreciating the temperatures that were still hot but seemed tremendously cooler by comparison. The Element of Fire had made its presence known on the summer solstice.

This is the next solar festival, or quarter day, in the Wiccan calendar, and in keeping with my theme for this time around the Wheel of the Year, I want to explore the Element of Fire, its connections with the summer solstice, or Litha, as it is called in Wicca, and the symbolic representations of fire used in Wiccan ritual and in Tarot. [1]

On the whole, the correspondence between summer and Fire is a fairly straightforward metaphorical connection: summer is usually when we experience the hottest part of the year, and one of fire’s most obvious characteristics is its intense heat production.[2] Fire also provides light, and this is the climax of the “light” part of the year. The solstice is the peak of the Sun’s energy, the longest days and shortest nights. Concentrating on Fire at this point on the Wheel can help us understand all the changes that have taken place since the year started and begin to prepare ourselves for reaping the results as we move into the waning light and the main harvest season of the year.

These qualities of change and transformation, where Fire represents both destruction and potential renewal, are why the tool I use to represent the Element of Fire is a knife. This is not the attribution that most Wiccans use, although it is not uncommon, either. To understand why most Wiccans associate blades with Air, we have to look at Tarot.

I mentioned back in the Ostara piece on the Element of Air that most Tarot decks based on the Rider-Waite-Smith prototype associate the suit of Swords with the Element of Air, and the suit of Wands with the Element of Fire, but there is evidence that this was a “blind,” or deliberate inaccuracy, inserted in the Tarot decks intended for public consumption by the creators in order to honor those creators’ vows of secrecy to the Golden Dawn. Whether or not it was a blind, the original RWS deck became influential in English-speaking countries, so most Tarot decks continue to use those associations, although a minority use the reversed Swords – Fire and Wands – Air associations.

I don’t follow the Golden Dawn, so for me this is mostly a matter of why most Tarot symbolism differs from what I use in my own rituals. I see wands, or their larger versions, staves or rods, as a way of directing intention that has a lot to do with intellectual choice and reason. The wand’s larger cousin, a staff or rod, can be used to symbolize authority based on knowledge and experience, both parts of the intellectual domain of Air. Personally, my favorite version of a wand is a pen, and since Air is associated with language, that supports my association of wands with Air. I enjoy using fountain pens, whose very design reminds me that historically quill pens were made from feathers, certainly a symbol of Air, and this cements the association.

On the other hand, to me any blade used in ritual – whether a sword or a knife – symbolizes and embodies separating, changing, and transforming in ways that are the essence of Fire. Along the same lines, it is impossible to make metal blades without fire. Not just warmth or heat but the real blazing inferno of a forge is required to render rocks into sharp steel. The product itself is the most dangerous of the Witch’s tools: hurting oneself with a pen is generally unlikely, but simple carelessness with a small blade can easily cause serious injury.[3] Similarly, fire is inherently dangerous: when in balance or being managed, it is useful and even life-giving, but without serious supervision, it will wreak a frighteningly self-perpetuating kind of destruction. Windstorms, floods, and landslides are all dangerous, but they typically represent an unusual behavior of the Element and will exhaust themselves eventually: the landslide has only so much material to move, as the water floods higher areas it loses energy, and whirlwinds are slowed by the obstacles they encounter. On the other hand, the more fire consumes, the more energy it has and the more it spreads itself, growing rather than diminishing.

But when it exhausts itself, the transient heat and light disappear along with the flames. In this way it’s also the most ephemeral of the Elements, another example of its tendency to go to extremes. All of this can make Fire both an attractive Element and one that is hard to relate to. While we depend on it as a tool, we don’t want to experience it ourselves. The kind of transformation that Fire as an Element represents is often frightening and something we do not want to undergo: dramatic transformations are not easy, even when they are less drastic or sudden than that of fuel consumed in a conflagration.

But Fire reminds us that we have to accept these situations as part of life. In every season, life exists in a constant state of rebirth. While some transformations are harder or more sudden than others, nothing is perfectly static. Connecting with and celebrating Fire can help us understand that. In particular, at this turning point of the year it can help us prepare for the transition to autumn and harvest and exemplify the tools to cope with that season and its transformations.

Summer is what connects the seed of life created through interaction to the coming harvest, and the heat and light of summer help bring that to fruition. When those developments are ready, we have to move into reaping, in the way that harvesting transforms what was a growing plant into the very bread of life. This process requires the Element of Fire at each and every step, in both the blade that cuts the stalks and the warmth that helps a loaf rise. The scythe’s blade and the hearthfire are interconnected manifestations of the Element of Fire, and the duality of their symbolisms is a good representation of the Element which goes to extremes but also unifies them.

In this season, as we see the sun at its pinnacle, we experience transformation whether we want it or not. Perhaps the Element of Fire can help us learn to value the transient and the living, to cope with the changes inherent in life, and to gather the results of our earlier work as we go forward. How are you in transition – either slow or speedy – at this solstice?

[1] The solar holidays are the equinoxes and solstices, called the quarter days. The previous one was Ostara. These alternate with the cross-quarter days which are derived from Celtic fire festivals; the last Sabbat was the cross-quarter day of Beltane. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is currently the time of the winter solstice, Yule, which corresponds with the Element of Earth. I’ll contrast these pairings and discuss how they interact in an upcoming piece.↩

[2] [I]t’s also worth pointing out the American tradition of having cook-outs centering on food cooked over (large, often charcoal) open flames. There’s also a broader tradition of serving cool or cold foods as a counter to the season’s climate. The juxtaposition of these points to another feature of the Element of Fire: the tendency to go to extremes, including opposing extremes simultaneously.↩

[3] These are not the only traditional Witch’s tools; more will be discussed with the other Elements, and exactly what is “traditional” depends on which tradition one ascribes to as well.↩

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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