By Teresa Luedke
The hearth was in the midst
of the dwelling
that hearth was to each member
of the household
as it were, an umbilicum orbis,
or navel of the earth…
William R. Lethaby (1857–1931),
English architect and architectural historian
In each issue, this column will explore commonplace medicinal/magical foods & tools in our 21st-century kitchens—many of the very same resources found at heathen hearths a thousand years ago. By investigating history, Norse sagas, and other folklore, we hope to rediscover some of the lost ancestral knowledge and power in our own kitchens. This section hopes to deepen our spiritual connections to, and enhance ritual workings of, Heathenry as a folk religion as well. Our premier article introduces three elements found in both cooking and creation lore, with ideas for their use in your spring rituals—fire, water, and salt.
Medicine and Magic
The modern mind may think of medicine and magic as being in opposition to each other, but both share the ability to change reality and alter energy.
Consider this—you find yourself feeling the symptoms of a cold and decide to eat some chicken soup. Like most people, you’ve probably heard it’s good for illnesses such as that. Before long you realize that you’re actually feeling better. You have just changed your reality by altering your energy! Both the medicine from the nutrients and the magic from your intentions (for starters) were in the soup, and your body has utilized both to bring about better health. Nutrients contain energy that we know exist, however intention is also a very real energy and has an influence whether directed or not. We see this demonstrated in the scientifically proven placebo effect. You think you will get better and you do. Imagine the possibilities when consciously using this ‘magic’ with ‘medicine’!
Kitchens—The Heart(h) of the Home
Our kitchen is the place “in the midst of the dwelling” and here is where the stone hearths of old link to stoves of today. In fact, one source claimed Scandinavians introduced the cast-iron stove to the American Colonies in the 18th Century and from this ‘Norse stove’ sprang the American cooking stove of today.(2) So their hearth really is our hearth.
My own kitchen contains objects to keep the household in touch with our ancestors, the Gods and Goddesses, and yes, the wights. Frigga is represented by a string doll I made a few years ago, and she hangs near my sink. I tie objects to her skirt as offerings representing blessings or healings I may be working on. She connects me to our family’s ancestral mothers, the ‘dis’ or ‘idis’ whom I greet each morning with a pat and a plea to look over the family that day. On my stove is a small statue of a cow to represent Audhumla, whom I tip my morning coffee to. A small jar of mixed salt and herbs with the words “Are you worth your salt?,” also has a place. Leftover foods go into a container on the stove. House wights get first pick of their essence, and then land wights work them over in the compost pile.
Sometimes when I’m doing mundane tasks for my family like stirring bread batter or rinsing dishes I feel like my ancestors are there with me, superimposed upon my body, all of us stirring or rinsing together; sharing the same ‘navel.’ I can only describe this as feeling like I am part of an echo, an echo created by a task being repeated countless times over many generations. This echo somehow turns the threads connecting us into a time machine, allowing us to enjoy these mundane tasks of everyday life together.
In this ordinary kitchen is where many of the common tools, supplies, and plants of medicine and magic can be found. In fact, three of these elements reach all the way back to the beginning…
Basic Elements of Cooking and Creation
—Fire, Water, and Salt
By reading (yeah, homework) the Edda of Gylfaginning(1) also called The Tricking of Gylfi, we can learn that these elements, accessed daily in our kitchens, were present at the very dawn of time. Gangleri asked “What was the beginning? And how things start? And what was there before?.”(1)
Briefly the Edda says; Muspelheim was a land of “flaming and burning”(1) and Niflheim the home of “a spring called Hvergelmir.”(1) These two forces begin to interact and over time the frost giant Ymir, along with the cow Audhumla, emerge. Audhumla then begins to lick “the rimestones, which were salty”(1) and uncovers Buri, “a complete man.”(1) Later the descendents of Buri overcome Ymir and drag him into the center of Ginnungagap where they use his body to create the earth, sea, sky, clouds, rocks, and trees—everything that makes up Midgard. So we find from the very beginning of time, fire, water and in its turn, salt, as the building blocks of everything we know in this life.
We can begin to utilize the elements of Ginnungagap, by acknowledging our kitchen sink as a connection to the original spring, Hvergelmir, at the heart of Niflheim; and our stove as a link to the hearth fires of old and the original fires of creation, Muspelheim.
“Fire is needful…”(4) Today the fires at our hearth have been somewhat tamed. With the flip of a switch, electric lights, toasters, coffee pots, water heaters, microwave ovens, and various other kitchen appliances come to life. All of these ‘fires’ could be considered descendents of the primal fires of Muspell. Fire was used by our ancestors in rituals and rites and was often considered an honorable way to see those, who had passed from this life, off to the next one.
Folklore, including charms and rituals from Scotland, show that magic seemed to be evident in wood and fire and that it should certainly be honored and treated with respect. Charms were used for all aspects, from gathering the fuel, to starting the fire in the morning. Women would recite charms and pray in a low tone that the fire may be a blessing to her and to her household.(2) See the charm for “Smooring The Fire”(2) on page 13, that could easily be adopted for today—perhaps at the end of the day when you finish in the kitchen.
Several contemporary authors explore the significance of fire in their books, often attributing a magical and spiritual connection. Author and Germanic Heathen, James Hjuka Coulter, describes the Need-fire as “A Holy cleansing flame; used in ritually clearing a sacred space or in magical functions such as healing. (MoHG Notfeuer).”(5) I particularly like his advice to bring good luck into the home by taking soil from the newly plowed garden, or other land, in the spring, and placing it under the hearth/kitchen stove and in the four corners of the house.(5) Kate Dooley takes a slightly more modern look into ‘hearth-keeping’ and the ‘need-fire’ by sharing insights and ideas for seasonal and daily practices incorporating the hearth, fire and the goddess of the hearth, Frigga.(11) The kindling of a need-fire, and a ritual taking of soil as a sacred connection to our environment, are both practices that could fit well into most spring rituals.
“Water is needful…”(4) Very needful—our bodies are composed of about 70% water. Today water is so simple to access that we forget how central it is to our lives. If we had to haul buckets full daily to the hearth, we’d quickly develop a new appreciation for it. Old recipes and spells often list spring water as an ingredient.
In folklore, strong energy has been associated with water. The Norns certainly have shown us water’s power when they “pour[ed] it up over Yggdrasil so that it does not rot or decay.”(2) The Old English Herbarium #86(4), tells of an interesting use for spring water found under the listing for Wood Chervil: “If any evil man bewitches another through ill will, take this same plant’s roots dried, give to eat with spring water and sprinkle him with that water, he will be unbound [from the spell].”(6)
The veneration of water sources were some of the last strong-holds of old world heathen/pagan beliefs and are still reflected in such traditions as wishing wells. These beliefs were able to exist well into the Christian era, “separate from religion, as a form of nature worship”(12) and certainly incorporated nature spirits and perhaps ancestors. The old world honoring of the water source is certainly something to consider incorporating into our own kitchens.
Salt or sealt is a six-sided cube called ‘sodium chloride’ by chemists and is formed when an acid and a base interact—a lot like when fire and ice react.
Leechcraft lists 29 instances of salt in folklore formulas, with uses ranging from salt scrubs, purgatives, bloating, boil treatments, and heartburn; as a part of salve for warts, stings, bites, and other wounds; for foot problems; and as an ingredient to cure insanity and elf sickness!6 Some folk remedies refer to salt that is white as opposed to the common brown salt. Sometimes the salt is burnt first.
Salt had a lot of influence on Europeans because some areas had access to the mineral, while others had to import it. It is responsible for many ‘salt roads’ where it was sometimes called ‘white gold.’ One such road was called ‘The Old Salt Route’ (German: Alte Salzstraße).
Dried and salted fish such as herring and cod were staples of the European diet by the 12th century, saving much of the population from starvation.(2) Many then developed a taste for this salty food and continue to make it today.
Remember, refined table salt is a poor choice for human consumption. It is heatprocessed and bleached with chemicals to make it white. Then another chemical, aluminum stearate, is added so that the salt flows well without clumping. Instead look for natural salts like sea salts created by evaporation from the sun. See several old world uses for salt in the side bars.
Ideas for Modern Ritual
Since spring is a time of beginnings, perhaps rededicating the kitchen stove/ hearth each year or solstice could become a part of this holy tides festivities. Creating a kitchen altar or incorporating images of your gods and goddesses, as Scandinavian housewives did when coming to their new husband’s hearth, can help build the energy of a heathen kitchen.(2) Use the kitchen hearth-fire (stove), even if electric, to kindle the holy fires of the home. Put some fertile garden soil under the stove for the wights. Leave offerings to honor your water source and use salt in the spring rites. Take the time to read some lore concerning water and wells, fire, salt, and hearths.
I hope this peaks your interest in folklore, and in turning your kitchen into a place that helps a heathen define who they are. This spring, pull out your favorite folklore sources and see what you can find to help cultivate the medicine and magic in your home. Let the idea of the intertwined elements of cooking and creation remind you of the power held in our everyday tasks.
Until Winter Solstice, may the gods and goddesses bless your hearth.
Read a recipe for Gravlox. For more recipes and kitchen tips, read the Spring Issue of HEX magazine. We’d also love to hear if and how you incorporate fire, water, and salt into your Spring rituals, so send in your comments to Hex address:
1.) Everyman Edda (University of Birmingham: Everyman Paperback Classics, re-issue 2004)
2.) Dale Brown and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Foods of the World; The Cooking of Scandinavia, revised edition (1981). Coincidentally while researching this article a trip to the local Goodwill thrift store yielded this new source of lore for our heathen kitchen. Mr. Brown was introduced to Scandinavia while studying literature in Copenhagen, on a Danish government fellowship, in 1953. He returned many times after that. His love of the country, its mythos and its food, is evident in all the pages. Homework sure can be fun.
3.) Alexander Carmichael, Oliver and Boyd, Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations, vol.1 (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1928 )
4.) The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford Paperbacks, 1999)
5.) James Hjuka Coulter, Germanic Heathenry, A Practical Guide (2003)
6.) Steven Pollington, Leechcraft—Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2001)
8.) Elson M. Haas, M.D., Staying Healthy With The Seasons (Celestial Arts, 1981)
10.) Readers Digest; Back to Basics, (Readers Digest Association, Inc., 1981)
11.) D. Kate Dooley, The Spindle Hearth (Yarrow Press, 2006)
12.) Karen L Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England (The University of North Carolina Press, 1996)