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Fire in the Mind

From the Burning Bush to Burning Man, How We Imagine Fire

by Jim Gasperini

Widely ranging across cultures and centuries, this entertaining, eclectic history explores the many ways humankind has imagined fire, the mysterious force that shaped our species and gave us control of the world.

We have imagined fire as a god, as a way to communicate with gods, as a root force underlying the universe, and as one of the elementary substances of the material world. The universal metaphor, fire can symbolize creation and destruction; comfort and cruelty; the eternal and the ephemeral; the power of intense emotion and the illusory nature of all experience; the brilliant light of Heaven and the gruesome torments of Hell. How can a single phenomenon represent so many contradictory concepts?

The human species grew up with fire. Our first technology, fire enabled all the others. Its control set us apart, for better or worse, from all other animals. By enabling us to cook food, it transformed our bodies and supercharged our brains. Fire is essential to us—our servant, our teacher, our tool, at times our nightmare, our engine of ritual, our portal into the great mysteries, and our companion. That we have imaginations at all developed from the challenge of managing fire, the most complex and demanding social undertaking in which early humans engaged.

The natural histories of fire and life are deeply intertwined. Fire is the energy of life, concentrated and unleashed—the tepid juice of our slow internal smolder, squeezed from its watery casement and distilled into blazing high-proof fireshine. Though fire never appears on charts of the “family tree” of life, it lurks there, a non-living relation.

By following the torch of fire as focused by the human imagination, Fire in the Mind, a “single thread, big picture” book, presents a fresh and illuminating vision of human history.

Photo by Peggy McKesson of Embrace by The Pier Group at Burning Man 2014

Table of contents

1 Introduction
2 Fiery Beginnings and the Fires of Heaven
3 Fiery Endings 1: the Fires of Hell
4 Fiery Endings 2: Purgatory and Apocalypse
5 Divinities of Fire 1: the Hearth and the Sun
6 Divinities of Fire 2: Volcanoes, Light, and the Forge
7 Gods Speak through Fire: Theophanies
8 Fiery Omens, Miracles, and Signs: Hierophanies
9 Divination with Fire: Omens on Demand
10 Creatures of Fire
11 Our Domestication of Fire
12 What Is Fire?
13 Fire and the Body
14 Fire Rituals and Play at Burning Man
15 Coda

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