By Jeff Magnus McBride and Abigail Spinner McBride
“Alchemy is the gentle acceleration of growth through the use of the fire of nature.”
Since the dawn of time, human beings have gathered around the fire to make music, to dance, and to weave magic in the firelight. Alchemy is a paradigm of transformation, using the “fire of nature” to accelerate growth and change on interior levels. The Alchemical Fire Circle, grounded in this paradigm, is an evolving ritual form that has been in a
state of refinement for the past sixteen years. The fundamental components of Fire Circle Alchemy are comprised of voice, music, movement, and service, which correspond to the magical elements of air, fire, water and earth, respectively. The rationale for these correspondences proceeds in a fairly logical fashion. Hence, voice corresponds with air for the reason that breath is essential to the production of human sound; similarly, music corresponds with fire, as it is the music that supplies the circle with its energy. The correspondence of movement with water is an external reflection of the constant motion of the fluids held within; and service corresponds with earth, given that service is the ever-present foundation upon which all of the other work rests.
Fire Circle Alchemy rituals include:
- A Beginning: this is a time when the entire group of
celebrants unites in a collaborative effort to ensure the mindful creation of the ritual/alchemical container in which the ensuing magical Work will soon transpire. Most often, this is a task with multiple layers, accomplished in part by asking community members to create “Prayer Flags,” strips of fabric which they have the opportunity to adorn with their intentions or invocations in whichever way they find most appropriate (e.g. language, symbols, etc.). These prayer flags are then tied onto a cord that has been affixed to long torches secured to stakes, encircling the ritual area, and thereby forming the boundary of the vessel.
- A Middle: this period is defined by an amalgam of multi-faceted symbiotic relationships, in the midst of which there is a collective awareness of the planetary influences on the actions and reactions of the people in the circle-a veritable embodiment of the alchemical metals in solution.
- An Ending: as the solar disk begins to rise, there is a concomitant raising of the energetic vibration of the group, followed by an interlude of stillness, an intimate pause for reflection, internal and external, juxtaposed with reverence. It is in this space of conscious group connection that the ascendance of the sun is celebrated, a cosmological mirroring of the Gold that has been created during the ritual process, and a symbolic ending of the ceremony.
Fire Circle Alchemy is a ritual of transformation derived from a mystical tradition. Availing ourselves of imagery and processes cognate to those pioneered in early alchemy laboratories, we embark upon a mythic journey of re-creation, an adaptation of the alchemist’s Great Work, or Magnum Opus: the Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Quest is a pilgrimage from the prima materia to the quintessence-to that which transforms all it touches to gold. When we realize that we ourselves are the prima materia, or primal matter, we can willfully endeavor to proceed through the stages of refinement that empower us to become living, breathing forms of the Philosopher’s Stone– vessels of Divinity, with the re-collected capacity to transmute all that we touch to gold. Alchemy is a formula for the spiritualization of matter, effecting all of our actions and interactions to exist as spiritual acts. We consider each of the operations involved in bringing forth this ritual to be a meditation, essentially imbued with the potential to deliver countless spiritual lessons. There are no mundane undertakings. Every stone that is set in the fire circle, and every torch that is filled and placed, can be approached with sincere mindfulness.
Fire Circle Alchemy is a ritual composition conducted with fluidity copious enough to embrace, encourage, and inspirit spontaneous expression, and as such it is also an unbounded and eternal experiment, one in which mutual creation is delivered from the celebration and discovery of each other. Emerging from this venture is a ceremonial union of opposites, a melange of formal structure, artful improvisation, and inspired spiritual offerings. Although the lineage of the Alchemical Fire Circle can be traced back to pagan gatherings, it has evolved beyond the conventions of its origin, for it is an approach that welcomes all modes of life-affirming spirituality.
In order to maximize the elegant flow of the experiment, there are a number of fundamental details that must be addressed, starting with set-up of the ritual container and gathering of materials. If the ensuing magic is slated to take place outdoors, this work is comprised of gathering wood for the fire, assembling and positioning benches for the musicians, ensconcing tiki torches for illumination, supplying water bottles to facilitate hydration, preparing a food area for sustenance, constructing a portal or gate to encourage conscious entry to the vessel, and organizing a rattle altar, upon which shakers and other small percussion toys are made available to all celebrants for use throughout the duration of the rite. If you are indoors, it can be as simple as clearing the middle of the room, turning off the phones, lighting a few candles in the center, and cleansing the area with incense or sage.
The ceremony begins with connection, by way of the physical linking of hands, the emotional meeting of eyes, the mental contact of naming, and, periodically, by the spiritual correspondence of invocation through expression of ritual intentions. This initial interlacing of essence is attentively followed by a circle casting (See note #1)
Our magic circle, or alchemical vessel, if you will, is formulated from a conglomeration of hands, hearts, minds and spirits, interwoven through music, chant, spoken word, and movement. There is no pre-scribed liturgy or pre-rehearsed form. By re-solving ourselves to dis-covering each other within the mystery of sustained, mindful engagement, and by consciously choosing to cross the threshold into the collaborative process of introducing, inventing, spinning and galvanizing spontaneously emerging themes, celebrants are empowered to witness and nurture each other’s creativity, beauty, process and art, thus becoming a harmony of communal inspiration, as we dance through the alchemical stages from darkness into light.
Every Alchemical Fire Circle is unique. To be clear, because the process unfolds extemporaneously, it is never exactly the same, although there are apparent similarities in the pattern. A fire-lighting ceremony of some nature occurs, along with an opening ritual that stimulates and fuels a thematically aligned chant… The words to the song could then conceivably evolve into music and movement that echoes the feelings, gradually becoming a dance, which would lead into another chant which would, in all probability, ripen into a related but divergent theme…. and on the circle turns, all the way to illumination. When we consciously observe and attend to what is actually happening in the circle, finding our inspiration and improvisational directions from each other while staying mindfully engaged in the process, we deepen into discovery of ourselves, our relationships, and our community.
We arrive at a juncture of metaphorical and literal portent in our quest when the golden rays from above converge with our golden hearts below. The advent of the sun is frequently celebrated by a period of sustained silence and tranquility, a time set aside for group meditation on the very essence of this life-sustaining orb. Upon consummation of this tacit operation, we customarily conclude with solar adorations and prayers of thanksgiving (See note #4), after which there is a unique opportunity to reconnect as an altered group, hand to hand and heart to heart. In this expanse of intimacy, heartfelt offerings and requests are often decanted and then the circle is opened.
The Alchemical Fire Circle process is commonly repeated for three successive nights, with each amplifying upon the previous, and accordingly giving rise to a morning filled with progressively more gold. Following sunrise on the final morning of the opus, we share in a supreme release of all energies summoned and invoked in service to our working, at which point the process of dismantling the physical container of the Fire Circle and related installations (such as an Ancestors Altar or other distinctive shrines and temples envisioned and manifested by the community) is initiated and completed as a community project. People are encouraged to gather a small quantity of ashes from the ritual fire before their departure, to be used in personal magical efforts as an energy-rich touchstone, as well as a tangible reminder of the procession and recession of all things. Frequently, ashes are taken from one fire and used to seed other fires- a way of symbolically blending and connecting magical workings from around the globe.
The Alchemical Fire Circle Architecture and Orbits
One relatively universal way of understanding the composition of the Alchemical Fire Circle is by correlating the pathways of movement with the planetary orbits and their mythology. This model is an archetypal mirror of our solar system, and our dance is a recreation of the great cosmic dance of life.
The fire in the center of the vessel is representative of the Sun, the source of energy, heat, light, and transformation. The metal that corresponds with Sol is Gold — Attainment. Wisdom. Self-realization. Often seen in perennial members of the community as they channel the energy of the circle, the Sun corresponds with our seventh chakra, the crown, and the foremost connection to Source.
It is common knowledge that numerous planets have moons. In our Fire Circle tradition, the Moon is associated with the Priest/ess current-nurturing, serving, assisting, and maintaining gravitational balance in any of the planetary orbits. The metal of the Moon is silver, and it corresponds with the sixth chakra, inner vision, intuition and dreaming.
The closest dance path circling the fire is the Mercury track. It is the fleet footed inner ring of movement. Dancers in this orbit are generally quite energized and active, like Quicksilver, the planet Mercury’s metallic match. Mercury represents a gas that rises and falls, and in addition, is also the mediator and messenger, related to clear communication, the fifth chakra, and the throat.
The Venus track is an intermediate path. This is an orbit of relationship in motion, with self and others. It is not uncommon for people engaging in this ring of planetary dance to be in light trance, attuned to the sensuality of movement, song and rhythm. The metal of Venus is Copper, which is dynamic and volatile. In our paradigm, Venus relates to the fourth chakra and the energies of the heart.
The Earth track, demarcated by corn-meal or flour, is a slow and deliberate moving orbit, for those in deep trance, doing rattle work, or personal grounding.
Defined by the interior ring of torches, the Mars track is a place to witness and consciously contribute to the creation of the transformational container. People regularly stand in this area with small rattles, providing sonic guardianship and energetic support for others who are active within the inner orbits. The metal of Mars is iron, and the energetic correspondence is one of warrior energy, martial and protective. Disciplined will and third chakra are connected to Mars.
Between the two torch rings is the Jupiter track, an area for interactions with others that are not suited to take place within the ever-moving circles of dance. In contrast to participating in idle chatter, people here can be seen feeding or watering each other, breathing together, hugging or rubbing shoulders. Not really a “social” zone, it is rather a place for conscious encounters of a stationary nature. The metal of Jupiter is Tin, which is a malleable metal, related to blending and balancing of energies as well as to the second chakra.
The ring of Saturn is delineated by the internal perimeter of the circle, including the prayer flags on the outer torch ring, the woodpile, and, occasionally, altars or shrines. The metal of Saturn is Lead, representing “heavy,” intense energy; power that needs to be purified, first chakra, survival instinct, and fight-or-flight response all connect here.
On the exterior side of the fire circle perimeter is the “comet’s trail,” a path for walking meditation which allows those individuals seeking solitude to stay engaged and involved in the energy of the fire circle if it is their will.
By conscientious consideration of this majestic cosmic dance, we can awaken into greater and greater awareness of the diverse elements and archetypes interacting within the vessel, and ultimately within the universe.
Inner Alchemy at the Fire Circle
At the Fire Circle as in life, we each carry around our own quandaries and calamities, material that often nurtures impediments or “blocks” that perpetuate unsavory patterns of stagnation. These internal obstructions can be visualized as literal blocks of salt, a substance that is not only alchemically symbolic, but also long recognized for its ability to preserve. This being said, on a more cerebral level, salt can be linked to the preservation of memories, while on the affective plain it is appropriately associated with the preservation of feelings. These languished memories and feelings, whether we are conscious of them or not, become a platform for the emergence, reappearance, recurrence, and re-enactment of dramas with analogous mythopoetic foundations. Thus salt is in fact a metonymy for that which sustains us in futile and ineffective cognitive and behavioral processes.
Enveloped in the pervasive intensity of the alchemical vessel, immersed in the inter-activity of drum, dance, chant, and creative play, absorbed in the profundity of trance, blocks get stimulated and dislodged organically. When a particular threshold is attained, the sulfur, or energetic heat released by the Fire, together with the fervor of drumming and movement, triggers a symbolic liquefaction of the salt within. This natural element of the alchemical progression is embodied through perspiration and tears, a corporeal expression of the mental and spiritual liberation it signifies. The emotional overflowing and experience of soul-stirring sensation that accompanies this literal brimming over of the personal vessel has been referred to as “popping,” but we a render a perceptual distinction by considering it more incisively, as a release, which leads to real ease. Real ease in life is what truly empowers our connections to Spirit, to ourselves, and to each other to flourish and thrive.
By accepting the challenge of navigating through these processes and committing to the ordeal, we are inherently provided with the blueprint for illumination in the truest sense…. not guru-sitting-on-a-pillow illumination, but shedding-new-light-on-our-lives illumination.
The Fire Circle is a microcosm for the macrocosm of our aggregate existence, and, therefore, any core issue or challenge we encounter in our daily life will ineluctably be activated and echoed within the vessel. As we encounter and sometimes collide with these issues, it is our ability to negotiate the situation inside the Circle, while remaining engaged in the process, which affords us the prospect and probability of returning to a daily life where these matters no longer activate us. The magic we co-create in the sacred container, through sustained engagement, ripples out exponentially into the rest of our lives, for the highest good. The mightier our ability to remain engaged in the Fire Circle process, the richer and fuller our experience becomes, a truth that is mirrored in the greater mystery of life. Though it can be challenging to stay fully committed to the creative process from midnight, or earlier, until after sunrise, it is specifically this kind of initiatory, inventive ordeal, virtually unheard of in our culture, that furnishes us with the utmost opportunity for personal and collective growth.
Working with Prima Materia
When issues come up, friends often say, “What’s the matter?” So, let us examine the “first matter,” or Prima Materia, of alchemy, which is referred to interchangeably in alchemical texts and literature as darkness, chaos, excrement or lead. It is precisely this material, which many of us speciously dismiss as useless, insignificant, bothersome, and even infuriating, from whence the final golden product is derived. To transform lead into gold, or to spiritualize matter, alchemists, and likewise, we at the Fire, utilize the following formula: “Solve et Coagula,” or “dissolve and recombine.”
The initiation into the Great Work of Alchemy involves first the application of heat, and subsequently the addition of water to catalyze the dissolving, melting, and liquefying of the first matter. In his alchemical writings, Carl Jung characterized this period as “breaking down the boundaries of the ego, and allowing the chaotic material of the unconscious to pour forth where it can be inspected by consciousness.” In this sense, the alchemical expression, “Solve,” quite accurately describes the initial interactions with self and others that take place in the early hours of the Fire Circle-interactions that reflect the softening of personal and group boundaries, and the opening of hearts.
The second half of the alchemical idiom guiding the Fire Circle ritual is “Coagula,” literally “coagulate,” an expression that denotes a re-assimilation with self, others, and refined understanding. In terms of the alchemical process, this is the reunification that occurs after the purifying stage of distillation. In life, we can observe this corollary of the Work through our integration of the lessons and experiences we have had around the fire into our community relations and through our ability to further assimilate them into the orbit of our daily lives, in our much grander circle around the fire of the sun.
The Alchemical Process
During the course of an all-night fire, as well as a fire circle succession, time periods with distinct energetic signatures are clearly discernable; three comprehensive periods, along with their constituent components, are alchemically referenced as follows:
The Latin term for the first phase of the alchemical process is Nigredo, meaning”the blackening.” In the laboratory, this is the phase where the “Prima Materia,” or first matter, is placed into a container and burned to ash, then dissolved to produce a suspension. Within the fire circle, Nigredo is evidenced as a vast expanse of chaotic, often frenetic activity-from the arrival and acclimation of celebrants, to the excitement of the fire-lighting ceremony, to highly energized drumming and dancing. On a personal or transformational level, this is a time when we “burn away and dissolve” whatever stands between us and the Divine. The three stages of alchemy encompassed by the Nigredo phase are:
1. Calcination (root chakra, Saturn, survival): The issue or issues within the physical container are brought up and heated by the Fire of chanting, drumming, dancing, and other creative expression.
2. Dissolution (sacral chakra, Jupiter, blending): The issues are dissolved in the sea of personal and collective emotion. Through sweat and tears, salt is released from the physical body, as blocks begin to dissolve.
3. Separation (solar plexus chakra, Mars, choosing): In the alchemist’s laboratory, this is the stage when the solution is broken up into its separate components. At the Fire Circle, people begin to sacrifice whatever Lead they’ve been carrying into the fire to be transformed. A choice is made to separate or release from the “issue,” (energetic discharge, more tears, or intense physical movement), and in so doing separate from the things which isolate our individual egos from others and Self.
The Albedo phase, which in more orthodox alchemy relates to the whitening process, is a time when the matter in the flask is softening and beginning to purify. Translated to the vernacular of the fire circle, this phase corresponds to a palpable lightening of the energy; perhaps the drumming grows quieter, or the songs and chants move to a place of more richness and depth, or the dancing becomes increasingly lyrical. Coincidentally, this is often the time when the sky begins to grow light. The above and the below are united in the heart, resulting in a vibration of increased purity and strength. The three stages of the alchemical process that comprise the Albedo phase are:
4. Conjunction (heart chakra/Venus, joining together through love): The shift to Albedo, the white, soft stage of the Work. This step represents the coming together of Self and ego, soul and spirit, or the individual and the community. An important step; often it gives us a deeper understanding of our Higher Self in contrast to our ego. At the Fire Circle, deeper connections are forged between the person releasing and the other celebrants who witness, receive or catch the energy and assist gently through the process.
5. Fermentation (throat chakra/Mercury, speaking): In Alchemy, fermentation is the process of refining, skimming the crud that rises to the surface, to find a purer solution. We have had the experience of burning, dissolving, separating, and joining together. Now, we are speaking our truth and separating the subtle from the gross as we continue to refine.
6. Distillation (third eye chakra, Moon, introspective visioning): At this stage of the Work, we have a pure, refined “solution.” We gain insight and understanding by “processing” our issues through the alchemical laboratory that is our body. By contemplating the past, while being engaged in the present, we can now make informed choices about how to move and interact at the Fire, and out in the world in the future.
The culminating phase of the alchemical process is called “Rubedo,” meaning “the reddening,” an expression which, within the confines of a conventional laboratory, indicates the material’s conversion to a red tint, and presages it’s transformation to gold. In the tradition of Fire Circle Alchemy this can be equated with the sunrise itself. Of this mystery, few words can be said. The stage that corresponds with the rubedo is:
7. Coagulation (crown chakra, Sun, illuminating): This begins the phase of Rubedo, the period in which our spiritual gold is realized. This is the stage of consciously connecting with Spirit, releasing the light within matter, and releasing the boundaries between inner and outer experience. We bring our fresh insights and knowledge into the world, moment by moment, remaining in the flow. We connect with our highest selves, connect with Divinity, and with the Earth. Also at this stage, we experience an accelerated rate of synchronicities.
At this point in the alchemical work, we re-enter the fire of our daily lives, with our hearts connected, and our minds set free. As we continue the practice in the circle of life, new issues will inevitably arise within us, and the refining process will begin again.
Both the physical laboratory of the alchemist and the virtual laboratory of the fire circle are very much like the laboratory of the body. Each is in a perpetual state of evolution: processing blocks, pushing boundaries, and, as the Hermetica states, “separating the subtle from the gross, gently and with great ingenuity.”
Fire Circle Alchemy is not inevitably bound by temporal or spatial constraints. This is to say that an Alchemical Fire Circle ritual is by no means obliged to persist until dawn, nor is it requisite that it manifest outdoors. A group of three or more friends gathered together with common intent can converge upon this application for a period of a few hours to generate a genuinely magical experience. In contrast, this ritual format has also proven exceedingly effective for groups of several hundred, drumming, singing and dancing all night long, until sunrise and beyond. We encourage you to experiment, for you are the alchemists!
(For a more elaborate description of the phases and stages of the alchemical process, consult The Emerald Tablet, by D.W. Hauck)
Circle Casting by Abbi Spinner McBride
Behold there is magic all around us (x3)
Awaken, rejoice and sing!
(chorus repeated after each verse)
I am the Air around you
I am the breath of life within you
I am the wind blowing through you
I am all that I am
I am the Fire around you
I am the spark of life within you
I am the flame burning through you
I am all that I am
I am the Water around you
I am the pulse of life within you
I am the ocean flowing through you
I am all that I am
I am the Earth around you
I am the heartbeat within you
I am the ground below you
I am all that I am
I am Spirit around you
I am divinity within you
I am the light shining through you
I am all that I am
From the songs Changing Woman, by Adele Getty, and She Changes Everything She Touches, by Starhawk, Circle of Song, p. 107-109
“Weavers” chant, written by Deirdre Pulgram Arthen
Solar Adoration, by Katlyn Breene
The Sun rises
We lift our hands unto it
To be re-born, like the day
Golden rays pierce our hearts
Like arrows of light,
Dispelling illusion, releasing the night
Solar alchemy, filling each cell of our bodies
Lead into purest Gold
As above, so below,
The Sun sees itself in the Fire
In each other,
We see God.
Special thanks to Nicolle Cristiani for assistance in editing and re-writing. Thanks also to Eugene Burger, Michael Wall and Marthajoy Aft.