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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a bonfire started by friction, as opposed to matches or combustibles, once supposed to have purificatory powers

If you’re smart enough a woodsman to be able to start a fire by rubbing together sticks and other dry matter, then you’re able to start a needfire.

And lucky for you, you’ll apparently be able to use that fire to carry out all manner of cleansing and purificatory rites.

Also known as a wildfire or force-fire, a needfire is an ancient traditional practice variously believed to purify farmland, dispel hexes or witchcraft, and protect local people or cattle from plague or disease.

Usually, it is demanded that a needfire be lit by the friction of two sticks, or the rubbing action of some timber structure against some tinder or kindling, as opposed to a flint, a match, or some similar sparking agent. Once ablaze, if the needfire were intended to protect grazing land or ensure the health of a farm’s cattle, then it was often demanded that the cattle be driven through the fire as a ceremonial act of purification.

This practice is common to a number of Eurasian cultures, including Russia, the Slavic nations, Germany and the Scottish Highlands. Each has its own spin on the process, intended to ensure the needfire’s effectiveness.

In some areas, those lighting the fire needed to be unclothed. In others, an entire family would need to be involved in the fire-lighting for it to be fully effective. Some versions made a rule that all other fires and lights in the surrounding parish had to be extinguished, so that the needfire was the only fire ablaze; others limited its effectiveness to within the thresholds of the two nearest streams or rivers, between which all other lights and flames had to be put out.

In Scotland in particular, the lighting of a needfire was apparently a parish-wide affair. On a designated day, all other lights and fires would be extinguished locally, and some frictional process would be set in motion: one account has a needfire being sparked by continuously rotating a spinning-wheel and holding flammable tow or some similar kindling against the heated spindle until it began to burn.

Once the fire was ablaze, all the families in the area would then come to light their fires and lanterns from it, so that all the fires nearby were lit from the same flame. This would have the effect of extending the needfire’s purificatory influence throughout the area, and ridding it of whatever curse, blight, plague or murrain it was apparently suffering.

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