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Fire in the Imagination

From the Burning Bush to Burning Man
A Cultural History

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 draws its energy from life—the tepid residues of our slow internal smolders, dehydrated 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, this “single thread, big picture” book presents a fresh and illuminating vision of human history.

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

Table of contents

Introduction
Part One: The Control of Fire
     1 — Our Ancient Partnership with Fire  
     2 — Creatures of Fire 
Part Two: Fire Myths and Mysteries
     3 — Fire Divinities 1: The Hearth and the Sun
     4 — Fire Divinities 2: Volcanoes, Light, and the Forge
     5 — The Gods Speak Through Fire: Theophanies
     6 — Fiery Omens, Miracles, and Signs
     7 — Divination by Fire
     8 — Fiery Beginnings and the Fires of Heaven
     9 — Fiery Endings 1: The Fires of Hell
    10 — Fiery Endings 2: Purgatory and Apocalypse
Part Three: Fire and Science 
    11 — Fire and the Body
    12 — What Is Fire?
Part Four: Fire Symbols and Metaphors, Rituals and Ceremonies        
    13 — Now We Take Actions with Serious Intent  
    14 — Eternal Flames and New Fire Ceremonies       
    15 — The Rebirth of the Fire Ritual        
Conclusion

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