I remember how, that first night, I laid awake under the covers of my sleeping bag, on the marvellous wooden floor of that dance studio in a tender, delicious ecstasy of sensation, my burning cheek pressed against the familiar faded cotton of the pillow I’d brought with me and how the waves of my breath met the waves of the cool autumn air that drifted in through the open window, carrying me through the night, away from the small, enclosed, narrow corridors of understanding into the unpredictable situation I found myself lying on this marvellous wooden floor, beside twenty quietly breathing bodies, in the south London suburb of Elephant & Castle, in a dance studio. Twenty of us dance-artists had been invited to work, sleep, eat, talk, move and be together, for three nights and four days, to collectively reimagine what a ‘festival’ of dance could look like, feel like, sound like, taste like and what kinds of other things—apart from physical spectacle—dance could produce.

And I remember I tenderly imagined how, at this very moment, just before midnight, the fire in the hearth would be seething and smouldering and that it was on exactly such a moonless night as this that Hestia would wander in to warm herself from the rain, to sit on a plain wooden stool pulled up close to the glowing embers, take up again her sewing of that black silk dress, and sing a cradle song, softly, lightly and just as I was falling to sleep I felt a pang of … of … of … what? Perhaps the steadying touch of a woman who was both first and last, who was at the same time ancient and yet to come.
Now and then, above the hushed roar of London’s city traffic, I could hear the sparks burst and fly. I shifted restlessly in my narrow berth. Now and then flickers of firelight made shadows against the long clean white walls of the dance studio. And there was Hestia, the ancient Greek virgin goddess of the hearth, standing at the foot of the white staircase, wearing a patched woollen coat, hands in her pockets.

If I rose up on my elbow, I would see the dark, smooth head of her hair and smell the scent of bay leaves and smoke that always accompanied her. For it was said that she desired neither change nor adventure, that she was content to simply be at home, to venture only so far as the garden gate.

Traditionally all the homes of the ancient Greeks were organised around the hearth, where the home fire stoked the embers of all activity. And Hestia was this hearth. Hestia is much older than fire. First born child of Cronus, son of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth) and sister of Demeter, whose own daughter Persephone was carried off by Hades into the underworld. At birth Hestia was swallowed by her father and later vomited back up and this was perhaps one of the many reasons that she hated men and swore to be a maiden forever. If a man—or a God—threatened her virginity or endangered her domain, Earth, Hestia simply exhaled a long breath of fire and burnt him to cinders.

More than anything Hestia loved to invent complex rituals for lighting, unlighting and relighting the fire in the hearth. Always start with a circle, to invoke the stellar brilliance of the sun, to demonstrate life cycle. Then throw in a handful of dried herbs, whatever you have growing by the window sill however, if you have bay leaves then that is the best herb for it is a plant governed by fire and has the three most desired magical properties for home making: love, success, protection. The choice of wood is important. Hazel for new beginnings. Ash for patience. Oak for possibilities. Lime for luck. And most importantly, as with any ritual, it’s never about speed or efficiency but more about welcoming the first sparks of light with intention, awareness and breath. Bigger pieces of wood to feed the fire and once the flames are flying then make offerings but never forget that one portion of all blessings must be made to Her, she who understands fire—both its functions and its fictions—better than anyone.

Hestia walks like music and smells of baked apples. She makes a harbour with whatever is at hand and is adept at finding places to sit, always with a view to the hearth. Her basket is full of yarn and thread, her nimble fingers repairing torn table cloths while singing the old songs of friendship between humans and animals, the ultimate divine protection.

She sings,

How is fire as safety?
How is fire as insight?
Powerful as the avenging, incinerating Eye
Of the Sun God—Re’s foresight.
Fire is volume and brightness.
Fire is weapon and rightness.

Photo credit: Amaara Raheem, Hestia, 2014, Asia House by Michelle Outram.

In 2014 I lived in a dance studio for three nights and four days as part of What_Now Festival curated by Independent Dance and there, I met Hestia. It was she who suggested that we think about our time here as continually attending to space, keeping it alive like a fire. It was she who reminded us that fire can continuously transform from roaring flames to tiny embers and that all living things are in some way fertilised, tempered, ripened or destroyed by fire. She picked up an ember and held it close to each of our faces and asked us to feel how something so small could hold so much heat and could burst into life again in a passing gust of wind. She blew and she blew, breaths of fire. And this is how we remembered that to dance is to animate the substance of our moving flesh into something more psychic than physical; to become warm allies with and for one another; to see everything as fuel or oxygen.

This was the year I decided to leave my home in England and return back to another home, in Australia. I had lived in London for fifteen years and it was Hestia who drew the circle around me and said, it is done. When I asked her to teach me to the rituals of unlighting this home fire so that I could relight another, she gave me a small bronze oil lamp and told me to pay attention to transitions. She said, when you’re sitting on the plane and at that moment when you know that you have crossed the invisible line in the sky and the water that divides North from South and South from North, light this lamp in my name and keep this flame alive for as long as you live and breathe on country.

Here, in my home in Australia—like in so many homes in Australia—a television sits in the hearth. When I switch it on to watch the evening news I see that the world is on fire. Scenes of cities in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East are full of smoke, layers of ash on the paved streets, mountains in flames, young men with guns shooting each other and everyone else. A farmer dragging a bewildered cow to safety tells a broadcaster that this is the apocalypse and later he cries, I don’t know how to describe it. As if fire is burning not only his home, his cows, his mountain but also all his memories.

Fire is older than you or I. Hestia is much older than you or I. There are streaks of pure silver in her hot dark mane. But her smooth, heavy, calm face is not lined by experience. Rather, her ability to breathe out tongues of flame seems to have washed her brow perfectly clear. And sometimes Hestia’s face when she sits in front of the fire, with heavy eyelids folded, seems to me like a mask. As if her real face, her true face, the one that breathed all the fires in all the homes in all the cities in all the world, lay underneath this mask. And that her face is not smooth and white like alabaster, but black like coal, like Kali, the Indian Goddess of Time who unveils our illusions of existence by dancing them into ash at the cremation ground strewn with corpses.

As I turn away from the images of wildfires raging in the strong winds of the heating up world and the whirring of helicopters subside into the distance, I can hear Hestia’s song rising up from where it has always been kept, hidden in the old wood and stone. It drifts and curls like the scent of sage, cooling my burning cheeks.

She sings,

How is fire fanned?
How is fire quenched?
You have forgotten the flame
Of hearth and altar, forgotten my name.
For I the Fire, part destroyer, part creation.
For Eye the Fire, your terror and transmutation.