The Forgotten History of Fire
An interesting article by Stephen Corry
Today, after quite an absence I decided to pick up the Hand Drill again. Since it has been a while (a couple of months), my hands and muscles weren't very conditioned. I decided to use thumb loops. Thumb loops are basically an aid to the hand drill to prevent your hands from moving down the spindle. I use very simple thumb loops by tying a loop in each end of a piece of cordage (this is Jute) and tying the cordage around the top of the spindle. You do want each loop to hang at least 6 inches , otherwise I find it restricts movement of your hands.
You place each thumb through a loop and then rotate the spindle between your hands, as per usual for hand drilling, applying downward pressure as you spin. The thumb loops keep your hands in the same position.
It can take a bit of trial and error to get the knack of it and there have been times when I've found it easier without! It is a much under-used aid within the bushcraft community, I think a lot of people frown on it as cheating but for me it is just another aid, and you still need to learn and understand the principles of the hand drill to succeed with it. I do prefer to be able to Hand Drill without Thumb Loops but at times it can be a useful tool in the box, and can aid learning and aid in conditioning your hands\muscles (as you can usually go for longer as thumb loops are not as tiring as moving your hands up and down the spindle.)
Over the last couple of years I've tried to honour the New Year with a new fire, which is a tradition dating 1000s of years. The Aztec New Fire Ceremony was a ceremony performed once every 52 years, and (apparently) a new fire would be lit through friction by the priest performing hand drill on top of the person being sacrificed! I left that bit out this year :) So on this New Year's Day after a lovely family day out , I declared on the return trip that I was going to honour the New Year with a fire and everyone was welcome to join me. The lure of sofa's and TV was far too tempting for this tired lot (it had been a late New Years Eve), so I ventured out into the back woods feeling a tad tired and nursing a hangover and I started to attempt to tease the embryonic fire out of the wood. I started with the Fire Churn (a traditional Celtic method apparently), but after a while and lots of heavy pulling it collapsed. I was already starting to feel a tad worse for wear (cold sweats etc.) at this point but I then went onto the bow drill and after several attempts and different hearth boards, and me getting more and more tired and the dark coming in, I decided to stop. So this New Year it would be a Dark Hearth. In the Aztec culture this would mean the end of the world was nigh! But nah. For me, it's not doom and gloom, but something can be learnt from this dark hearth, lessons can be learnt from the darkness! Things aren't always easy, you don't always get what you want first time, and sometimes it's just not to be and also I was alone in the wood with my family tucked up in the house, so I thought " nah this is not the way this should be done, it should be more of a communal honouring, time to go in and rest my weary bones with the clan."
It's quite uncommon that I can't light a fire with friction methods so rather than struggle on or revert to modern methods I took it as a sign that this wasn't the right time, and I'm sure the right time for relighting the hearth fire will present itself in due course!
Updated Oct 2018.
As the end of October is approaching, I thought I would share a piece about Samhain (Samhuinn) and the Samhain fires and in particular Force Fire \ Neid Fire \ Tein'-éigin - which was a traditional way of lighting a new sacred pure fire, at this time (and at Beltaine.)
"Samhain is the Gaelic \ Celtic festival seen to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year, celebrated from the very beginning of one Celtic day to its end, or in the modern calendar, from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, this places it about halfway between the Autumn equinox and the Winter solstice" taken from wikipedia.
"The 31st is the modern calendar date for Samhuinn. In old calendar times Samhuinn would be around the 11th of November, now Martinmas. Although in reality, it would have been when the moon was dark or other calendar event such as the first frost or when the harvest was in. The date wouldn’t have been set. Banks suggest that the eve of Samhuinn was moonless and in these northern regions, dark, as befitted the “season of innumerable mystic rites” mentioned by Carmichael (which backs up the idea of a dark moon). " from Cailleachs Herbarium.
Samhain is also seen as a time to remember and honour the ancestors.
"Samhain is believed to have Celtic pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. Some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the time of Samhain. It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was also the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter." taken from wikipedia.
Fires were traditionally lit at Samhain (and Beltane) and it is thought that all other fires were extinguished and people lit their hearth fires from the new “pure” fire . There would be much symbology attached to this - to mark the passing into Winter, to burn the old away and welcome the new etc.
It is believed that the traditional way of lighting the Samhain\Beltane fires was through a friction fire method known as Force Fire / Neid Fire / Tein'-éigin (as described by 17th,18th and 19th century writers such as Sir James Frazer.) This method was seen to be a sacred and ritual way of lighting fires to produce a new “Pure” fire. It is also written that seasoned Oak was used due to it’s sacredness (Sir James Frazer Golden Bough.)
The auger\spindle would be placed vertically between the cross bar and hearth . The auger needs to be carved as straight as possible and be placed as vertical as possible. A long heavy rope would be tightly wrapped several times around the middle of the auger (it would help to carve a narrower section in the middle so the rope doesn’t move up or down the auger) with an end of the rope on opposite sides and this would be pulled with force and speed in turns by a group at each end of the rope to create friction. The rope would need to be kept tight at all times. The weight of the large auger and heavy cross-bar produce enough downward pressure needed to create the friction, for extra pressure weights could be added to the cross bar. As the auger reduces in height due to friction the cross bar would need to be pulled downwards.
Making a full size Force Fire churn requires much effort and time, and operating a Fire Churn involves many people to pull on the ropes to produce an ember and especially with Oak, but ritual is not about speed or efficiency and theatrics does have it's place in ritual! And actually, these devices work beautifully well.
According to some folklore nine nines of first begotten son’s were required to pull the rope to “churn” the auger into the hearth log!
If you wish to light your fire in a ritual way, I would suggest to try a friction method (e.g. bow drill) and try not using modern lighters\fire lighters (unless necessary) and to try to do it with intention and awareness. See the page Sacred Fire for more information on suggestions of welcoming fire in a sacred and ritual way.
Descriptions I’ve read say that this method, produced fierce sparks and “forced” a fire, but I feel this is an over dramatization (Oak doesn’t have the properties to burst into flame in this way!) but there would have been much smoke ( and in reality it would hopefully have created a very large ember which could then be used to light the new pure fire. Once lit ,the pure fire would be kept going until the end of the ritual. Other fires in prominent places may also have been lit from this fire, and people would then light their home hearth fire from the "pure" fire.
Some people may question whether Oak was used, but I have proved that Oak does work with the bow drill.
The Force Fire apparatus was also used throughout Europe and Russia by the Celts and Slavs. More information can be found on my Fire Churn page here.
Oh this is good... I think this may be the oldest surviving evidence of friction fire. Apparently a 6000 year old wooden Fire Drill was discovered in Canada (Triquet Island , BC) in 2016. Click here for an article in The Vancouver Sun which is showing a photograph of the ancient spindle, but it is lacking information which is surprising as this is quite a find! For me , this is fascinating - the oldest fire drills I am aware of are from China (approx 4500 yo) and Egypt (approx 4000 yo).
There is this paper I have found by Alisha Gauvreau and Dr Duncan McLaren from the Anthropology Department, University of Victoria (B.C) working on the Hakai Ancient Landscapes Archaeology Project - which states that the "Fire Drill" was found in the peat layer which is between 6,726 and 6,674 years old but that's it! I'm surprised there isn't more information on it as it is an amazing find!
I'm trying to find archaeological reports for the Triquet Fire Drill but I've not found any yet .... but I'm enquiring with the Hakai Institute - watch this space!
It also raises more questions, such as:
The Ancient Triquet Village is one of the oldest settlements discovered in North America (approx 14000 years old) and I found this statement fascinating “It appears we had people sitting in one area making stone tools beside evidence of a fire pit, what we are calling a bean-shaped hearth” (Alisha Gauvreau) .. re-affirming the fire being central to human activity.
The other amazing thing about this is that the team based their search on oral stories passed down through generations that this Island had been populated during the Ice Age which alot of people discounted.
Link to the article:
Autumn is here! A great time to get out in nature and harvest materials for friction fire!
A key part of friction fire, is identifying and collecting suitable materials. Some people pride themselves on gathering the materials on the spot in the wild and others prefer to collect their's in advance (or a bit of both.) It does help to learn about what works and identification of species (handy pocket guides are useful.) It's also useful to understand burning qualities of wood - what burns quickly, slowly, smokes etc (see knowing-your-firewood.html.)
I've also found that I'm always on the lookout for materials, and sometimes I find them in unexpected places such as car parks. So even if you live in a city, you'll be surprised at what you can find in often unusual places. I am lucky to live near to amazing open green spaces that have diverse habitats including woodland, meadows, rivers, and ponds, which provide me with everything I need. Unfortunately this year, 2018, Bristol Council have started being more brutal in cutting vegetation back so I'm having to hunt out certain materials including Rosebay!
Where possible I prefer to use materials native and local to where I am.
Please do forage with responsibility and put nature before your needs!
It is best to collect dead standing\fallen wood as this is best for friction fire rather than cut green wood. If you need to cut green wood (e.g. Elder spindles) try to only cut a couple from one tree, use a diagonal clean cut (do not snap) and don't cut flush to the branch it is sprouting from.
For plants (e.g. teasel and mullein) you'll need to wait until Autumn once they have seeded before you can cut (they won't season like wood anyway) and if they still have seeds then shake them to scatter the seeds and cut the seed heads off in situ.
It's always wise to use discretion (especially in public places) and don't take too much at a time.
Here are some materials which work really well for me:
Bow Drill Spindles
It is best to select the straightest possible rather then trying to straighten out. If they are still a little wonky then straighten and tie to a broom handle, using elastic bands etc, while still green and drying.
Tinder - most tinder materials are best collected dead and dry it out.
Store everything away dry and in a dry place.
And keep those eyes peeled, it's amazing where you can find materials!
Caution-Ticks! Also be aware of ticks (which can pass on Lymes disease.) If you are in places frequented by Deer (especially if in long grass \ bracken) then check yourselves thoroughly (and best to wear long socks, long sleeves, trousers etc) and use Tick removal tools to remove any as soon as possible.
Happy responsible foraging!
I am passionate about natural cordage and I feel that too much synthetic cordage is used within modern bushcraft for the bowdrill. Personally, I feel it is a bit of a cheat and you may as well use a lighter! (shock horror!) This clip talks about natural cord alternatives and demonstrates 3 different ways of using 3 different types of natural cordage, and shows that it isn't that difficult at all. I hope this encourages at least 1 person to switch!
The hand drill , is the method I find the most profound , and more akin to a spiritual practice, as it is just you and your hands welcoming in the fire. It's also one I have had a love and hate relationship with, though I do seem to be starting to relax more with it. I decided to pick it up again last week after having a break for a few months and I happily discovered that I was able to welcome an ember using a slightly different technique. I used a longer spindle and knelt rather than sat, and used a piece of wood to weigh down the hearth board to stop it from moving and after only a little while I was blessed with an ember. And a few days later , I was successful again so this way does seem to be better for me - you can apply more downward pressure but it does need a longer spindle. The woods used were Elder spindle and Clematis hearthboard. I also leave the bark on the spindle (except for the bottom) as I find it helps with grip.
My latest fire churn - this one installed in the back garden!
13ish billion years ago The Big Bang created the Universe
4.5ish billion years ago The origin of the Earth
Earth is the only known planet where fire can burn
500-400ish million years ago ish – the origin of wild fire…
The origin of fire is tied to the origin of plants, as fire needs oxygen and fuel. The 3rd factor - heat source, has probably been available throughout the history of the planet through lightning strikes, and volcanoes etc. Before the appearance of photosynthetic organisms, the atmosphere lacked sufficient oxygen, and before the appearance of terrestrial plants, it lacked fuels; thus, fire could not theoretically exist on our planet until the beginning of the Paleozoic Era (540 million years ago ) the oxygenated atmosphere may have been sufficient to support fire, but the lack of terrestrial plant fuels limited the possibility of fire. Though as plant life increased over the millenia so did the occurrence of wild fire…
…and as fire destroyed , it also cleared the way for new growth, and some species actually depend on fire for their survival….
14 million years ago The first great apes appear, our distant distant ancestors
2.5 million years ago the Genus Homo evolves
1 million years ago ish –it is thought our distant ancestor Homo Erectus started to tame the wild fire …
Our distant ancestors lived amongst the wild fires, and over the millennia this connection with fire evolved and deepened. Initially it may have been base instincts and emotions like wild animals but over time as our ancestors evolved so did the connection with fire. I find it hard to imagine what life would be like without fire - we wouldn't have most of what we take for granted today without fire.No one can ever know what happened or over how long a time period, but in some way or other our ancestors realised fire made you warm, it kept wild animals away, and that cooked food tasted a lot better than raw food and so the story of our evolution began!
And so our distant ancestors learnt to tame the wild fire, it changed EVERYTHING!
And so I like to say that we are forged from fire!
once we had controlled fire, we guarded it, we had to keep it going as once it went out we couldn’t find it again until the next natural lightning bolt or lava flow ….
or we stole it, or fought for it from others ….
Can you imagine the status afforded from having fire….
and this faint ancestral memory is carried on in stories and folklore about how fire is stolen from those who keep it all to themselves….. (such as How Rabbit Stole Fire – Native American , Maui - Polynesian, Chen Sui – China, Prometheus - Greece)
Fire must have been seen as special, precious, magical, revered…
Fire enabled us to thrive, to adapt,…
The wild fire was tamed….
Contained in the hearth fire….
Protected , nurtured….
The hearth fire became central, a focus, offering protection, warmth, light….
Evidence of hearths have been found in caves going back to a million years….and the significance of hearths has survived through the millennia….even today…
And, Over time we would have learnt to transport it , which enabled us to roam more, not be constrained to one place without losing the precious gift of fire….
200 thousand years ago BOOM our species, Homo sapiens evolves and emerges from Africa and slowly spreads over the world
Homo Sapiens would not have evolved without Homo Erectus taming the wild fire.
The use and control of fire has been described as the “single most important innovation in our evolution”. It is thought that eating cooked food had a major impact as cooked food is much more easily digested; and provides additional calories to allow our brains to grow
as we didn't need to process raw food our jaws and teeth became smaller and since we needed less intestines to digest food our torso became thinner.
So our species would not have evolved, and would not have developed and advanced without fire.
Then over time, through trial and error , over thousands of years, and the accidental attempts most likely started by our ape like ancestors……
Our ancestors learnt to “make” fire …..
A huge step forward, no longer constrained by having to protect and keep the fire…
Though they still would have kept the hearth fires going, for warmth, light, protection, only putting them out when they had to , or at auspicious times…
So we learnt to make fire….
By striking flint onto rocks rich in iron deposits … a tiny spark would appear… these sparks are not as hot and don’t travel as far as those struck from flint on steel…..
…. It’s not easy, it takes time, it is difficult to get those tiny sparks to catch tinder, the tinder needs to be bone dry…
they also learnt to make fire by rubbing wood together such as
hand drill (common in Africa, Australian Aborigines, Native America’s, Ancient China, Egypt)
fire plough (Polynesia)
fire saw (Asia)
and eventually bow drill (Alaska, Siberia, Egypt, Northern Hemisphere??)
pump drill (Native America)
no one knows when these methods were first used, or what came first…. A mystery….tho there is evidence throughout the world, of fire by percussion … mostly from the Mesolithic periodic (10,000BC) and earliest evidence of fire by friction is 4000BC ish (due to wood rotting)
though most stories and folklore relate to fire by friction rather than percussion….
fire by friction seems a magical, mythical way, as if the wood contains fire
and so some stories go that fire was hidden in the trees, that wood hid the fire and that the only way to find the fire again was to rub two sticks together (How Rabbit Stole Fire, Maui)
this must have seen to be magical and through the various stories and fragments I get a sense that fire by friction was seen to be more holy and special then fire by percussion… it was also used in ritual to welcome in the fire
so now Zooming forward again through the stone ages to 10,000BC the End of the Last Ice
(during Mesolithic period) my homeland, Britain, started to be settled by people who came across from Europe
then from 4000BCish more settlers came over who brought new ways such as farming and spiritual beliefs,
bringing with them the skills and knowledge of fire
and so saw the transition from hunter gatherer to farmer …the Neolithic period began in Britain…. with the help of fire, trees were cleared to make way for crops… and they honoured fire and worshipped fire….
The onto 3000 BC ish (only 5000 years ago) to the discovery of smelting metal from rock from ore through extreme heat of fire and wow how things rapidly started to heat up then with the Bronze Age… woodland started to be managed and coppiced so there was a steady supply of charcoal to feed the forges….
then to the Iron Age 1200BC , things really started to hot up, literally, you needed lots of raging heat to smelt Iron! The need and demand for fire was high, and the forges were hungry for fuel, wood (charcoal) had to be burnt in huge quantities..…. the landscape changing…
the fire steel was then invented and the main method was then striking flint on steel (which continued on until 19th century!)… and the deep connection with fire was starting to fade…. but not entirely, not in ritual …. there is old language and old stories about fire by Friction, and it seems it was commonly used within ritual, in many cultures as it was still seen to be magical…..
through the ages the Ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Ancient Greeks, the Romans, Vikings etc etc …. fire still being revered…friction fire used in ritual….. sacred eternal flames were kept alive in Greece, in Rome, in Ireland to name a few, fire deities were worshipped…
on through middle ages
onto the industrial revolution
fire was industrialised
tho the magic of fire and fire by friction clinged on throughout Europe in the form of Neid fire rituals
the church dismayed at this heathen practice tried to ban it several times thru the ages
… and then in the early 19th century ….the last Neid fires burnt out for the last time in the highlands of Scotland and throughout Europe……….
then the invention of the match in the mid 19th century replacing the 2000 year old method of flint and steel
….. and then you had fire in an instant…. BAM…
Did people gasp in amazement, was it magical, was it amazing, or was it just taken as granted….
The connection fading….
and fire was being industrialised and mechanised on through into 20th century … in furnaces, in engines, in boilers, power stations,
fire contained, restrained… hidden….
1930s Ferrocerium invented which saw the invention of the lighter…
and again whoosh we have instant fire…. A commodity even…..
Do we gasp in amazement each time we work a lighter…..
in each flame, do we revere in the million years of ancestral memory ??
The deep connection and mysticism of fire pretty much a distant memory for most…..
and here we are now the digital age, everything in an instant, BAM
our connections with the world, nature, each other, the mysticism of life, diminishing…..
amongst all of this, indigenous peoples cling on, cling on to their ancestral memory, still welcoming fire using the old ways of fire by friction….
In Vedism in India, the Agni Manthan rituals still go on today , where it is believed that Lord Agni is born through the friction of wood, the friction of the Male spindle and female hearth, which
procreates new life, the embryonic fire, the ember, which when fed with breath and tinder bursts into joyous life, Agni
in the Celtic tradition, at Beltaine and Samhain, they would extinguish all fires and light a new pure fire (also Neid Fire) through friction of wood using a fire churn, a fire machine…. They would then walk the livestock through the smoke back into the pastures and all community fires would be relit from this new fire, a new fire symbolising a new phase of the year, new life, new growth….. this all but disappeared in the 19th century, the church banning the Neid fires, however in Russia a similar practice Sacred Live Fire can still be found today used by pagan groups here and there….
The ancestral memory clinging on
and today In our modern world….
There are many eternal flames all around the world mostly to commemorate the fallen
The Olympic flame is still lit several months before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. Eleven women, representing the Vestal Virgins, perform a celebration at the Temple of Hera in which the first torch of the Olympic Torch Relay is kindled by the light of the Sun by a parabolic mirror.
Edinburgh Beltane and Samhain fire festivals since 1989 – re-interpretation of the Celtic fire festival and lighting of the neid fire with bow drill
camp fires still draw us in, people sing, talk, tell stories round the fire, fire still captivates us, fire is within us,
wood stoves have made a come back, people wanting the fire visible in their home….the hearth fire….
the faint ancestral memory is there in us….
And so I welcome the fire, I don’t make the fire
and for me, like many traditions before me , and as can be seen by the many stories, fire by friction is …. holy, special, spiritual, it’s more than just a way to make fire, you could say it’s magical….. and so I am welcoming the fire through the friction of wood…..
it’s not just a method but also a practice, it requires time and patience, knowledge and skills we have lost, and awareness, and respect, respect - for well everything, the earth, nature, our ancestors, existence! - all bundled up into the act of preparing the friction sets and using them to welcome out the fire……
and behind me there is a million years of ancestral memory and billions of years of everything coming together into the one moment of welcoming the fire ….
the ancestral fire, our creator, our ancestral memory, our future, our very survival.