The Tradition of the "Needs Fire".

Continuing the folklore theme  

The Tradition of the ‘Needs Fire’ was practised until 150 years ago in Cumbria as it was in much of the rural backwaters of the UK. If your cattle were suffering from Murrain  the remedy lay in the ‘need fire’. Each household within the affected village or area extinguished their hearth fire and a communal fire was lit using the traditional methods of striking flints or the rubbing of two sticks together. To make the fire smoke un- seasoned or green wood was used to fuel the fire.  The villagers’ cattle and swine were then driven through the smoke in their order of age before a brand was lit from the ‘need fire’ to re-lit the earlier distinguished domestic hearths in the village.   The last known needs fire in Cumbria took place in Scaleby in 1865/6

In today’s parlance it is thought the cattle and swine’s exposure to heat and smoke may have had an affect upon the bacterial origins of the illness.  Although, it needs to be appreciated that our understanding of bacteria and illness is relevantly recent and the tradition of the ‘needs fire’ we suspect is based upon superstation rather than empirical science and is possibly two thousand years old. The ‘needs fire’ is associated with Baal, this is Bel the Celtic god of fire, after whom Beltane, the Celtic name for May Day is named.  Further evidence that the roots of the ‘needs fire lie in the Celtic tradition is the absence of any mention of sheep being passed through the smoke of the ‘needs fire’ as sheep are a Viking introduction and therefore not associated with Celtic folklore and rituals.

The passing through the smoke of a ‘needs fire’ was not solely reserved for cattle and swine.  There are written records as late as the 1850’s which mention the villagers and particularly sickly children being passed through the smoke for purification.  It is suggested that records taken as either verbal or written histories of such events involving children or indeed adults are muffled as they represented an affront to Christianity with a Papal Synod 1100 years earlier of 747CE banning the practice of ‘needs fires’.

Hearth fires were normally never allowed to go out and if they did in the absence of matches and fire-lighters they were re-lit from somebody else’s hearth.  As a consequence all fires were the off spring of another fire and in these terms not a ‘new’ fire unless started the hard way with the magic spark from friction or fire stone.  Hence, the custom of re-lighting all the village hearths from the remnants of the ‘needs fire’ is thought to symbolise a new beginning leaving the troubles of the past behind.  

The ‘needs fire’ was not just about curing and purifying sick animals and maintaining old traditions but culturally much stronger  signifying a new beginning and the cutting of the woes and ties of a troubled past.

 

By Phil Cleaver  

 

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