The Imbolc fire burns low.
It was a small fire this year, although it would be fair to say that the flames I kindle for Lá Fhéile Bríde are always on the smallish side.
Winter still holds us within its chill grip, but beneath the cold, there is that first fleeting hint of Spring. I say ‘hint’ because it is nothing so sure and trustworthy as a particular smell or budding leaves in the naked canopy above, but it is there all the same, stirring at the edges of our perception. Change, as they say, is in the air.
Imbolc, like its counterpart Lughnasadh, is a time of transition, and the energies seem uncertain. These are times of reflection and divination, best done in the warm blush of a simple hearth.
The great roaring, spiraling column of flame will whirl its way into the space between the worlds again come Beltane, but for now, a more sensible blaze will do.
It is a small gesture of devotion to the ‘exalted one’, the sacred flame of Kildare.
The fire has burned down to embers now.
I am no flamekeeper.
The embers will cool and their dull red glow will dissipate.
And that’s okay, because I don’t believe that the flame ever really goes out.
This was the scene in Olympia, Greece, in September of last year. In the ruins of the ancient Temple of Hera, the priestesses called out in benediction to the solar god Apollo, while using the rays of the Sun, focused by a specially polished parabolic mirror, to ignite the sacred Olympic flame. And in only a few days time, that same flame will arrive in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea.
Well, not really.
The flame went out in October. It sputtered and died and then was relit by some Russian official with a Zippo, on camera, for the world to see. And that’s just crazy because they keep multiple spare flames, ignited from the same original flame in Greece, which are toted along in special little lanterns, to restore the “official” flame in just such an emergency.
They go through all this trouble, because the flame is important. It’s sacred.
Well, not really.
I mean, the flame is kindled on the site of the original Olympic Games, but the circle of women calling out to Apollo and Zeus are actresses. The ritual is a show. It’s a fake.
For that matter, while the tradition of burning a flame during the whole of the games, is a tradition that was indeed observed by the ancients, the whole business with the torch relay bringing the flame from Greece to the host city, was concocted by the Nazis for the 1936 Games in Berlin – Hitler’s Olympics. The relay was yet another bit of Aryan propaganda, a symbolic passing of the ‘torch of civilization’ from ancient Greece to the supposed ‘master race’.
So, I ask you: Is the flame that arrives this week in Sochi, the one born from the ‘Flick of a Bic’ any less sacred then the flame which left the Temple of Hera so many months ago?
Is there anything of the divine to be found in a ceremony conducted by paid performers?
Do the Olympics themselves mean anything beyond advertising revenues and jingoistic chest thumping?
I contemplate the embers of my own sacred fire, and I wonder.
It is easy to become discouraged.
In the whole of the world there are only a tiny fraction of people who share beliefs similar to my own. We are a small community. Our neighbors scoff at our efforts, if they deign to notice us at all. Closer to home are the tolerant, the confused, and the sympathetic who quietly pray for our souls. If we are lucky we have people in our lives who love and respect us enough to ‘go through the motions’. Most of us are lucky if we ever meet face-to-face with more than a handful of the truly like minded.
We complain incessantly about the politics, the divisiveness, and corruption (of one sort or another) within our community. In many ways these are the same kinds of arguments I have heard people make against the Olympics.
“It’s all about politics and propaganda,” they say.
“Everyone,” we are told, “is in it seeking money or power or attention, and no one really cares about the sanctity or sport or the high ideals of cooperation and universal brotherhood.”
So which is it?
Are we all just a bunch of misguided frauds?
Or is the idea bigger than the day to day reality in which we find ourselves?
The Berlin Games and the Olympic Torch Relay were used as a platform to express a horrific ideology. And what we got instead was the triumph of Jesse Owens – the perfect expression of the Olympic Ideal.
Don’t tell me that there is no power there.
Certainly the Sochi Games have had controversies of their own, mostly related to the issue of Gay Rights within the Russian Federation. Maybe the power of the Olympic Ideal will overcome Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic agenda.
One may always hope.
And what about those very few of us who choose to honor the gods of our ancient ancestors? When the one public ritual that is performed in their honor, before the eyes of the gathered world, is little more than a choreographed performance…, does that ritual have any true meaning?
If an actress recites a prayer and if I believe in it, am moved by it, does it have power?
The flames of our ancestors burned out long ago.
Others came, and relit them for their own reasons.
But still they burn, and the embers of those old fires have been awakened.
We need only fan the flames.