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The Hearth

Since ancient times, the hearth has primarily been the center of the house, its dominant backbone. In fact, one could say it was the center of every human gathering and keeping company, regardless of the fact if it was under the roof or on the lawn, at the court or on the clearing during the ceremonial Midsummer-Day bonfire, when people skip the fire from collected immortelle while halves of potatoes bake under the ashes in their crust. One might even be as bold to say that there was a time when it was more important to determine the right place to raise the hearth, and then build walls around it, arrange the seating area and place it all under a roof, along with the adjoining rooms.

Fire was given to man by the lightning wielder’s thunder and he “tamed” it rather early, he approached it with caution increasingly feeling its benefits, especially the warmth and light, along with the defense against all kinds of beasts and ghosts. Of course, the Neanderthal thought it had divine origin and it will remain that way for the human race long after him, even in Anno Domini. Also, since the beginning of alliance with it human experience has taught and warned that fire, the resident of the hearth, is two-faced; it gives, but also painfully takes away. On the one hand it is a great, perhaps the best man’s friend, and on another a bitter, the worst of all enemies. It has given us a lot, and at the same time insatiably swallowed without choosing meals!

Black Lucifer

Certainly, fire is one of the greatest and oldest comforts that man received. And yet, when he learned to use tinder, and light fire on his own, his life in the dark cave got a completely different dimension – it was a victory over the nighttime darkness, the nest of all primordial fears. Thus, in the light of flames the Altamira cave was revived with fantastic drawings of animals, the hearth became a cult meeting place, the ritual place for paying gratitude to the deities, including the sacrifice of animals, even people in the religious and racial moment and madness.

And those later home and garden hearths, especially in rural areas, with a tripod, hood, pot-hanger, prosciutto and smoked lamb are so small, charming and full of latent memories that we are not aware of, but they awake within us just like primal instincts as we listen to the fire crackling. And today, in the era of full electrification, we can see open flame at the click of a cigarette lighter, or at rare occasions when friends play cards and grill some meat on live coals.

In time, fire has become man’s main aid in life, with its help he creates new goods, melts ore, forges iron, gets fuel for his metal pets… And its help with household chores… Man has even raised it on a kind of an altar and built a fireplace, open on all sides or only on one side. But eventually, fire found its home in the stove, heater, air heater and other similar devices that are used for producing and storing heat. Still, nothing can happen without the good old flame, the one which Prometheus brought people, so the gods punished him by riveting him to the wall and the church recognized Black Lucifer in him! In any case, man has profited from transforming wood into firewood, he has been able to produce heat and prepare dishes that he previously did not know. My God, if something has to burn, it is better that it burns in a beneficial way, and there is nothing more useful than the thing that helps us prepare food and protects us from the cold.

Familiar Creatures

Fire is organized in the hearth; it becomes not only an integral, but also an important part of the house, at least equal to all its inhabitants. If you did not know, a kitchen with a hearth used to be upstairs in the attic in our Dalmatian cities, above all the other rooms. The fire was sacred, “honored” like ancient Lars and Penates, therefore, something holy and primitive at the same time, in the service of man to be secure and more complete in his everyday life.

Maybe the brownies lively emerge from the hearth, the fiery tongues hide the most wonderful stories about the past so you do not have to be Ivana Brlić Mažuranić to imagine the naughty Familiar creatures and to be tapped, burnt on the nose by Malik Tintilinić. How many stories were told, how many songs sung by the hearth, in an inspiring circle of home get-togethers while all around there was darkness, black opaque darkness! And you do not necessarily need to be the magician Hans Christian Andersen to be moved by the story of a poor and frozen through Little Match Girl.

Astral and Mythical Hearths

The cult of fire in today’s civilized world is still best felt with the ancient feasts associated with the awakening of nature, awakening of a new day, new beginning, which cannot function without light and one of its major sources – fire, lit up hearths, fireplaces, red hot brands… Easter and Christmas nights are illuminated by the mystical light since after the wood is lit on Christmas Eve there has to be fire in the hearth all through the night till Christmas morning, so that the next day new fire can be ignited after the longest night. The hearth is the setting of mythic action, and the comet, the shepherds’ guide and companion in the holy night, can resemble a large space fire, just like the July astral phenomenon Tears of St. Lawrence, a kind of moving, rushing hearths.

Fire in the hearth should be kept. But if all of our physical fires, large and small, get extinguished, we will always find the strength to reach for the good old hearths within us, preserved as memories and announcement of new ones, no matter how they were expressed and named.

Jakša Fiamengo, www.livingstone-magazine.com