A drawing of a need-fire being kindled with a large fire drill.
A drawing of a need-fire being kindled with a large fire drill.
A modern Rodnovery need-fire drill in Russia
A modern Rodnovery need-fire drill in Russia

In European folklore, a need-fire (German: Notfeuer, Old High German: nodfyr, Scottish Gaelic: tein'-éigin, Russian: Живой огонь) is a fire kindled by friction, which is lit in a ritual and used as protective magic against murrain (infectious diseases affecting cattle), plague and witchcraft. It was a tradition in parts of northern, western and eastern Europe until the 19th century, among Germanic, Gaelic and Slavic peoples.[1]

A need-fire would usually be lit when there was an epidemic such as an outbreak of plague or cattle disease. In some regions, a need-fire was lit yearly to prevent such disasters.[1] In the Scottish Highlands they were lit each year at Beltane (1 May),[2] in Poland they were lit on Saint Roch's Day, and in parts of Germany they were also lit yearly.[1]

The need-fire could only be kindled by friction between wood, usually with a large fire drill made from oak.[1] Usually an upright pole would be spun against a level plank until it catches fire. The pole would be spun by pulling a rope wound around it. This would all be held together by a square frame. Both the wooden parts and the rope should be new; if possible, it should be woven of strands taken from a gallows rope.[1]

The need-fire could only be lit after all other fires were doused.[1][2] In one case, the kindling of the need-fire in a village near Quedlinburg, Germany was hindered by a night light burning in the parsonage.[3] In parts of the Scottish Highlands, the rule that all other fires be doused applied only to the land between the two nearest streams.[4]

Only certain people could make the need-fire. In the Scottish Highlands, usually it had to be kindled by nine men, after they had removed all metal.[2] In one account from Caithness, a large need-fire had to be kindled by eighty-one men, divided into nine shifts of nine.[2] In some regions, the rope should always be pulled by two brothers, while in Silesia, the tree used to make the need-fire had to be felled by a pair of twin brothers.[1] In Serbia, the need-fire was sometimes kindled by a boy and girl, between eleven and fourteen years of age, who worked naked in a dark room.[1] In Bulgaria, two naked men would kindle the fire by rubbing dry branches together in the forest, and with the flame they light two fires, one on each side of a crossroad haunted by wolves.[5]

When the need-fire was kindled, a bonfire was lit from it. The flames, smoke and ashes were believed to protect and purify.[1][2] Livestock would be driven around the bonfire, or over its embers once it had died down somewhat.[1][2] The ashes would be scattered over fields to protect crops, and young people would mark eachother with them.[1][2] Torches from the bonfire would be carried home and used to rekindle the hearth fires.[1][2] In the Scottish Highlands, a pot of water was heated with the new fire, mixed with some of the ash, and sprinkled on sick people and cattle.[1] According to Sir James George Frazer, on the Isle of Mull, a sick heifer would be cut up and burned as a sacrifice.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Frazer, James George (1922). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Chapter 62, Section 8: The Need-fire. Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996. pp. 220–225
  3. ^ Heinrich Pröhle, Harzbilder, Leipzig, 1855
  4. ^ Kelly, Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition and Folklore, p. 53 seq.
  5. ^ A Strauss, Die Bulgaren, p. 198

Further reasing

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Need-Fire". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 338.