Perhaps a fire blazing in a stone or wooden cottage on a heath in northern Europe during a cold winter, a cauldron of soup on the boil. Or perhaps a blazing fire in a cave with people wrapped up in animal furs. Maybe an image from our childhood days around a fire in the living room listening to mother or father reading a bedtime story.
The hearth is central to our human journey. Until the last half century or so we have probably sat around a hearth, sharing a meal, telling stories, and warming our bodies for millennia. It may be only the last two thousandths of one percent of our human journey that we have not had a hearth to enjoy.
Is it any wonder then that the word hearth is the container for words such as: Heart, Earth, Hear, Ear, Art? Perhaps its simple coincidence. Perhaps its not.
Etymologically the word heart is derived from the Old English word heorte which, alongside the name for our internal organ, also included the sense of memory. Further back, the word derives from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word kerd which also gives us words such as: cordial, courage, credence, creed, and concord.
Intriguingly, we get the word hearth from the PIE word kerta (meaning heat, fire,) very similar to kerd. The two words hearth and heart have been close cousins for millennia.
Dropping the H from the word hearth we get the word Earth. Figuratively we may see that sitting around the hearth brings us closer to the earth, and being mindful of our earthly connection is symbolically signified in our sitting around the hearth.
Our ability to listen is held within the hearth, containing as it does the words hear and ear. This reminds us of listening to stories; fireside stories, campfire stories, stories of our ancestors. It reminds us to listen, listen to Mother Earth, listen to our shared stories of who we are and why we are here. Hear and ear remind us to listen to the stories of elders, those who remember the stories of their grandparents, and their grandparents before them, stretching through many many generations.
And, right in the middle of hearth is art. Again, perhaps coincidental, perhaps not. Whether coincidence or intentional we are reminded of our creativity. Stories are creative means of telling our history, our mythology, our knowledge and wisdom. We might also picture our ancestors sitting around a hearth, fire blazing, in the middle of a cave watching a colleague painting some of the first cave art.
When we trace the word art back linguistically we find that it is derived from a word that meant to fit together and also gives us words such as: arm, army, harmony, order, ordinary, and ornate. Once again, we see (or hear) a recognition that we are part of everything, not separate. Our art speaks to us of this connection.
Hearth suggests fire. For time immemorial we have used fire to warm ourselves, to cook over, and to tell stories around. The phrase “keep the home fires burning” is a reference to the importance of place. We keep fires burning so that we can offer a welcoming place of warmth, comfort, and companionship.
In Aotearoa (New Zealand – my birthplace) Māori have the phrase Ahi Kā, literally meaning burning fire, it means to keep fires alight, signifying continuous occupation and a link to the ancestors.
So, the word hearth reminds and suggests to us just how connected we are, and how we are part of the earth, not separate from it. When we open our heart and our ears and truly hear the voices of elders, of our ancestors, of Mother Earth, then we are able to build a fire that warms us, nourishes us, keeps us connected, and provides a space for us to tell stories.