An article on the mythic symbolism of fire, now reprinted in the Winter 2009 issue of Circle Magazine: Sacred Flames, Sacred Fires Issue #105
Fire represents many things to many people and cultures. It is recognized as a purifier, a destroyer and as the generative power of life, energy and change. It represents illumination and enlightenment, destruction and renewal, spirituality and damnation.
Many of us have witnessed the terror of fire as well as it creates its own weather, outruns modern cars and trucks and destroys everything in its path without care or bias. However, through this destructive act, fire also creates and regenerates. Many native plants and trees in the American west and southwest and elsewhere around the world cannot germinate without the scorching heat of a wild fire.
Fire has been controlled and used, if not created, by the ancestors of modern man for at least one million years. The remains of Homo erectus and Australopithicus robustus are both found in association with the charred remains of hearths. Fire became important to these new creatures for several reasons, including cooking, light, warmth and protection from animals on the hunt. It also became a focus for social gatherings and an early symbol of religious thought and ritual. Oral traditions of myth, history and folk medicine more than likely began around the campfire, spreading from one group to another.
Fire being of such strange substance, ability and power it was believed to have divine origin, which contributed to its use in ritual and religion into contemporary times. In ancient Egypt, scribes wrote in the Papyrus of Ani that the Flame of the Sun was an individual, showing that the mystical nature of fire was viewed as a divine entity rather than a chemical reaction. Sacred fire was carried before the Caesars as a symbol of their perpetual power, indicating that fire was forever in existence and would never dim—as it was believed that the might of the Roman empire would forever blaze across the world.
Fire has long been an instrument used against those accused of witchcraft. While we are all aware of the atrocities committed during the Middle Ages similar acts have been used by people the world over. Anthropologist Morris Opler recorded that the Chiricahua Apache, in the 1940s, used fire and ashes against witches and ghosts. “Objects of sorcery extracted from the body of the patient by the shaman are always consigned to the flames, where they explode noisily, giving assurance of the destruction of the witchcraft principle.” (1) People perceived to be witches were often executed by fire; the fire was believed to destroy the witch’s power although the spells and hexes put on others were left. When the bodies of the perceived witches burned they too would “pop” like a gunshot indicating that the witchcraft had been destroyed. The belief that fire can eliminate sorcery can be found not only in Apache and Christian belief but in the ancient Assyrian incantations of the “Maqlu” and the “Shurpu.” “Boil, boil, burn, burn!” the incantations go, “I tie you up. I bind you, I give you over to Gila, who singes, burns, and binds, who lays hold of sorceresses…”
The meaning of fire in dreams was also an important consideration, and was important to the Apache. According to one of Opler’s informants, “To dream of fire is bad. If you dream of fire, the only thing to do to prevent something bad from happening is to get up right away and start a fire. It rubs it out.
“I got sick a few years ago. Before this happened I dreamed of my house. There was a big fire near it. It came close to the house and blackened one side of it. Now my one side is no good. If I had dreamed that the whole house burned, I’d be gone today.” (2)
Similar meanings were attached to dreams of fire in Maryland in the 1920s. To dream of a house on fire was regarded as a portent that the head of the house would die.
Fire has been religiously symbolic for thousands of years. The flaming swords of the Bible were wielded by angles to guard the Garden of Eden and in the Old Testament book of Daniel, flaming wheels appear around God’s head. Fire was also representative of God’s presence as illustrated in the burning bush where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The symbolic nature of fire as being both creator and destroyer, purifier and defiler, quickly resulted in the concept of a perpetual fire. This concept is found from the Native American cultures to those of the Mediterranean, Eurasia, Africa and India.
John Mbiti reported that the Herero of Africa “have sacred fires on the village altars, with which the whole welfare of the people is intimately connected. They mention God as being responsible for this fire, which symbolizes national life, prosperity and contact with the unseen world.” (3)
In India, vows are spoken before a fire embodied by Agni, god of fire and high priest of sacrificial offerings. Agni receives the majority of Hindu hymns of praise. Agni was born in the Sami tree which is sacrosanct and used only for sacrificial fires. The Hindu practice of cremation is due to their worship of Agni who may have originated in the distant past from fire-worshippers. Agni, Mackenzie tells us, “is the messenger between gods and men; he conducts the deities to the sacrifice and the souls of the cremated dead to Paradise…” (4)
According to Hazel Rossotti, Agni “was depicted with two faces, one malignant and one beneficient, and with three limbs representing his three manifestations: as the sun, promoting the growth and fertililty of crops; as lightening, bringing vengeance; and as earthly fire, providing humanity both with warmth and with rising smoke which bore its prayers to the other Vedic gods.” (5)
Other fire cults, which are still in existence, include those in the Zoroastrian religion. Fire-temples were associated with three classes of society, the priests, the warrior-nobility and the farmers. The actual use of fire-temples is probably younger than the Zoroastrian religion as Herodotus noted that in the mid fifth century BCE the faithful worshipped to the open sky and lit their fires in the open. Over time enclosed but open to the sky fire-sanctuaries were modified to the fire-temples we now associate with the Zoroastrian religion. With the rise and dominance of Islam in the 7th century CE most fire-temples were either destroyed or converted to mosques. In some of the temples, a fire was continuously kept alight and in others, they were only annually lit. As Islam pushed followers of Zoroastrianism out many of them took the sacred flames with them as a reminder of their faith and to start new ritual fires elsewhere.
In the Zoroastrian tradition, “Great Fires” have existed since creation to propagate the faith, dispel doubt, and to protect all humankind. In contemporary Iran this ancient religion continues to exist and there are many “eternal fires” still burning although the oldest is probably no more than 250 years old. Fire-temples today are located in Iran and India and the most important, called the “Fire of Victory”, is located at Yazd, Iran. Reportedly the fire contained in this temple is gathered from 16 sources including lightening, the fires of creation, fires from hearths and from trades which use foundaries.
It is interesting to note that the ancient mystery religion Mithraism, which almost pushed Christianity into oblivian, was based in Zoroastrianism.
The actual way in which fire is tendered took on religious significance as well. To the Zoroastrians a fire produced from lightening was the holiest, the fire-drill was the sacred kindling tool in other cultures and today’s Olympic fire is actually started by focusing the rays of the sun with a parabolic mirror.
As with most indigenous belief systems, fire rituals were very important to the Celts. Beltane, one of the most important, was observed on the first day of May to encourage the sun to warm the earth after the long cold winter. Flaming wheels were rolled down hillsides and placed in the temples of the sky-god where flames were redistributed to the hearths of each home to keep the fires burning for warmth and cooking. The burning wheels were set on their way in an effort to assist the sun on its course across the heavens. Bonfires dotted the hillsides across the Celtic world. Midsummer bonfires were also lit across Europe. As each person departed, mugwort and vervain were tossed onto the bonfires, saying, “May all my ill-luck depart and be burnt up with these.”
As Janet and Colin Bord wrote, “Fire always played an important part in the pre-Christian rituals and there are probably more vestiges of our Sun/fire-worshipping ancestors in our present calendar and traditional observances than any other aspect of pagan rites.” (6)
Gods of fire were widespread in mankind’s history. Besides Agni, who we have already discussed, we have Hestia and Vesta; goddesses of the hearth originating in ancient Greece and Rome; Girru of Babylon who brought mankind the knowledge of metallurgy as well as sacrificial fires used for the destruction of evil; the Lithuanian god Dinstipan who directed smoke up the home chimney; Sekhet of Egypt who represented destructive heat; Nusku, the Sumeno-Akkadian god of fire-light; the Shinto god, Kagutsuchi who could either protect against or destroy with conflagration; the Roman god Vulcan and the Icelandic god Surtr who were both gods of volcanic fire. Many hundreds of other fire-gods exist and existed throughout time and region.
Fire is also part of our folklore and superstition. Hanging an adder’s skin or an egg laid on Ascension was said to protect one’s home from burning. In Wales, it was said that when a hollow existed in a fire a grave would soon be dug for a family member. Another piece of lore states that if a fire draws badly, evil influences are at work and can only be combated by placing a poker upright against the bars in the sign of the cross.
Different types of fire were also signs of impending weather. Fires that burn brighter and hotter can predict a coming storm and wood that pops while burning may indicate snow.
The curative and protective powers of fire were extolled in the past with torches or candles carried around the mentally ill, “those in need of atonement,” women in labor and newborn children. Likewise, a protective ring of fire was set around a woman, child, cow, house or man in Ireland to keep fairy magic from causing harm. Newborn children and infants were particularly at risk of harm and kidnapping by fairies. In Scotland, fire was carried around the mother and child “sunwise” both in the morning and in the evening as “a powerful means of preserving the mother and child from the ever present forces of evil sprites.” (7)
The southern Slavs would carry fire around their villages during a ceremony called “Olalija, Alalija or Lila” on Ascension, St. John’s Day, St. Peter’s Day or during one of the many feasts around Easter. Torches of dried bark of cherry or birch were believed to counteract epidemics. This ritual continued into the early 1900’s.
Folkloric accounts involving fire are very numerous. Protective charms include one from the American Midwest called a “fire letter.” A charm is written on a piece of paper, which is either carried on the person or kept in the home to protect from fire and lightening. “Be welcome,” the charm reads, “fiery guest, but do not spread farther. This I count thee as a penance, in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The bearer is warned to never sell or barter anything in exchange for the letter or the letter will have no protective powers and the guilty party will be subject to continuous torment. (8)
In the 1960’s in the state of Ohio ethnologists collected bits of folklore that included the warning that to spit in the fire would result in the devil taking your soul. Another was that children who play with fire will wet the bed. We may assume that these warnings were more geared toward the refinement of behavior rather than in true beliefs.
Both the kindling and “smooring”, or extinguishing of hearth fires in Scotland were accomplished with incantations and invocations. This ritual was conducted until relatively recent times and is assumed to date back to Scotland’s pre-Christian pagan times. Failure to both light and extinguish a fire in the proper, sacred manner boded ill for the family over the next year.
Christianity continued many of the ancient pagan rituals and embraced many of their symbols as a way to induce the “heathen” population to convert. Candles, censers and ancient imagery continue to reflect the mysterious nature of fire. Relying on the ancient belief that fire is the ultimate purifier and punisher fire became a tool for the ultimate destruction of evil and witchcraft, and over time the destroyer of contrary thought.
1. Opler, Morris Edward. An Apache Life-Way: The Economic, Social, and Religious Institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1941, 253
2. Ibid., 190
3. Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. Garden City: Anchor Books 1970, 72
4. Mackenzie, Donald A. India Myths & Legends. London: Bracken Books 1985, xxxiii
5. Rossotti, Hazel. Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 2002, 241
6. Bord, Janet and Colin. Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of Britain and Ireland. London: Thorsons 1972, 259
7. Ross, Anne. Folklore of the Scottish Highlands. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Ltd. 2000, 103
8. Richmond, W. Edson and Elva Van Winkle. “Is There a Doctor in the House?” Indiana History Bulletin #35, 1958, pgs. 115-135