Chapter 1 – Introduction
To gaze into a fire is a hypnotized form of observation. This slightly hypnotized condition is surprisingly constant in all who watch a fire…. Fire suggests the desire to change, to speed up the passage of time, to bring all of life to its conclusion, to its hereafter … it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano, the life of a log to the life of a world. The fascinated individual hears the call of the funeral pyre.
–Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire
In his monumental study of ancient Vedic fire rituals, the eminent Dutch scholar Frits Staal wrote: “The realm of ritual interpretation and speculation is a labyrinth, and if we do not want to get lost, we shall have to follow a thread.” The thread we will follow in this book is fire as conceived in the human imagination—in myth, religion, philosophy, and science.
Following the thread of fire will cast light on many wild, strange, amusing, even absurd ways in which our species has imagined how the world works. “The imagination is a madwoman who delights in acting mad,” wrote the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche. “Her thrusts, her unexpected movements amuse you, and me as well. But please, in our conversations reason must always prevail.” The amusement we find in mad thrusts of the imagination could be compared to our fascination with the flickering movements of fire. Assuming though that we agree with Malebranche about the primacy of reason, why examine the strange, often unreasonable pathways once taken by human thought?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein once remarked. “Knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Our evolution as a species took a radical turn when we became the animal that can control fire. Our early efforts to master fire, as we will see, likely sparked our ability to have imaginations at all. Tracing how fire stimulated our imaginations in the past may help us imagine a brighter future, or at least see that our present may not be as dark as we might gloomily perceive it to be.
An appealing, familiar mystery
“Hot hot, don’t touch!” my mother warned. Four years old, fascinated by the mysterious flicker on the kitchen stove, I ignored her. Fire quickly seared both its appeal and its danger into my earliest lasting memory.
Years later, my father allowed me to add a stick to the fieldstone fireplace in our old farmhouse in upstate New York. His gesture of trust marked a step in my progress toward full membership in my community. Later still, after I helped him rake vibrantly colored autumn leaves into piles, he rewarded me with another milestone in the transition to adulthood: yes, I could strike the match that set the leaves ablaze (we had no awareness of “carbon footprint” at the time. Burning leaves was standard practice.) Though it took a few fumbling tries before I got it right, I felt great pride in my accomplishment. Standing guard afterward, ready with my child-sized rake lest the fire try to escape the bounds we human masters set for it, savoring the complex, spicy aroma of burning maple and catalpa leaves, I inwardly glowed with the awareness of having been entrusted with one of the keys to the kingdom.
My first memory of pondering the question “what is fire?” came a few years later, sitting around a campfire with Boy Scout Troop 43. At that age, I devoted much of my leisure time to tales of intrepid space voyagers who roamed the galaxy, boldly leapt through mysterious time warps, and encountered strange creatures on alien worlds. What if, my fourteen-year-old imagination speculated, fire is actually an alien life form? Think of it: fires are born, take in food, grow, give off heat, move about when they can, then eventually die—just like living creatures! I can’t remember what my fellow Scouts thought of my idea. I thought it brilliant.
That fire might be alive in some sense is not a new idea. “Nothing bears such a resemblance to an animal as fire,” observed the Roman essayist Plutarch. Fire moves and finds its own food, can die either by forced quenching or natural decay, and when quenched “makes a noise and resists, like an animal dying.” From the animist perspective—the oldest human conception of how the world works—everything is alive. The one exceptional thing about fire is how obviously it makes its living status apparent, compared to the subtler lives of wind, rivers, and rocks. Fire can seem to have a capricious mind of its own. Sometimes difficult to light, once lit it can be difficult to put out.
The natural histories of fire and life are deeply intertwined. Most living creatures get energy from cellular respiration. At the core of respiration lies a slow combustion reaction, much akin to the rapid, harder to control form of combustion known as fire.
Of the four traditional elements, fire is by far the youngest. Earth, air, and water existed for four billion years before fire even became possible. Before us—we carbon-based life forms—there was no fire of combustion (the forces that heat volcanoes and the sun are very different). Why not? There was nothing to burn.
It took us living things a billion years to create the conditions necessary for our younger sibling, fire, to be born. First we had to somehow emerge in the seas, and produce enormous amounts of oxygen. The atmosphere, which originally contained next to no oxygen, had to contain 13% before the first smoldering fires could occur. How did that happen? We did it—speaking broadly of us living things—specifically anaerobic bacteria, which give off oxygen as a waste product during photosynthesis. Once the atmosphere contained enough oxygen, aerobic (oxygen-needing) creatures could evolve, basing our metabolism on a slow form of controlled combustion within cells. Finally we had to evolve to the point where we gained a foothold on dry land, then died in sufficient quantities to create fuel from the cell walls we leave behind. Only then did our hotheaded sibling fire have something to consume. Though fire became possible 470 million years ago, during the Middle Ordovician period, the first small, scrubby wetland plants did not offer fire much opportunity. Fire first appears in the fossil record as charcoal 420 million years ago, during the Late Silurian period.
What gives fire its mysterious power? What do we see when we stare, “slightly hypnotized,” into our glowing, crackling fires, or gentler candlelight?
Sometimes we see a god—even the God. Those of us who lived near volcanoes saw a deus ex caldera, fuming and murmuring when in a good mood but capable of erupting into violent fury. Those who witnessed heavenly fire strike the earth as lightning came to what seemed obvious conclusions about fire gods in the sky. The name of the Hindu god of fire, Agni, derives from an ancient Indo-European term for animate fire that lives on in English in such words as ignite, igneous, and ignition. Over millennia Agni took many forms and wore many faces.
Norse, Mayan, and other cosmogonies saw fire as a root force in the universe, older than gods. In other cultures, the powerful, fiery sky god has a friendlier earthly counterpart, the familiar god or goddess of the hearth. The friendly divinities in the kitchen cannot always be trusted, however. They might spy on us, sending reports to the sun about our earthly transgressions.
When not a god itself, fire could still make manifest the divine presence and the divine will. The God of Israel spoke to Moses through a burning bush, and led His people through the wilderness with a nightly column of fire. In ancient Greece, after an annual festival at a temple of Dionysus, the god “made a great fire shoot forth” if he intended to produce a good growing season. If no fire appeared, people prepared for the worst. Through the smoke it sends aloft, fire often serves to communicate the other way: we may ask questions through fire, do penance, attempt to appease, or send appeals.
Guilt or innocence can be tested with fire, it once was thought. Immunity to fire marks someone as saint, or shaman. Creatures of fire wander the planet, we tell ourselves: angels and devils; dragons, bulls and horses that breath fire; jinns, creatures of “smokeless fire” born of the hot desert wind much as we are born of clay; a mysterious bird, the phoenix, which after living for centuries sets itself on fire and emerges reborn from its own ashes. Fire serves as an instrument of magic.
For millennia, philosophers, naturalists, and scientists struggled to answer a basic question: what is fire, actually? Is it one of four or five “elements” composing the universe? Or is it the one universal element out of which all else was born? It seemed obvious that burnable things contain some kind of fire-substance, which escapes when they burn. One early scientist thought he could see tiny worms of fire through his microscope. Others thought it consisted of tiny whirlwinds. A famous alchemist published a recipe for distilling the element of fire from urine. (It actually works—for refining the chemical element phosphorus, which spontaneously ignites when exposed to air.)
Another line of questions pondered how we humans learned to control fire. Every culture has at least one myth explaining how this happened. Very few stick to realistic stories, such as the one about the ancient Persian king who threw a flint at a snake, missed, but noticed sparks flying when it hit another stone. More often, amazing things had to happen: ancestors brought fire back from a trip to the moon; a fire-child of the sky god fell to earth, was eaten by a series of fish, then captured by a diligent hero; a shaman clasped his wife so tightly that a supernatural being had to rub them back and forth to separate them, creating the first pair of fire-making sticks. In many stories, such as that of the Greek myth of Prometheus, fire must be stolen from another animal or a god.
However we managed the trick of controlling fire, it enabled us to come down from African trees and live wherever we chose. Wielding fire, we could chase predators out of caves. We think of “cavemen” as primitive, but in their day wresting control of such useful shelters as caves was an achievement, accomplished through mastery of our first technology. Control of fire enabled us to lose most of our body hair, shrink our gut, spend less time chewing uncooked food, and learn to exercise our expanding brains.
We pass on responsibility for controlling fire from one generation to the next. This chain of knowledge goes back to long before we existed as a species. Scholars differ about which of our hominin predecessors first domesticated fire. Whether homo erectus deserves the honor or some even earlier ancestor, while we domesticated fire it meanwhile domesticated us. Early on, we learned that to keep the fire going requires cooperative behavior: someone must tend it while others collect fuel. Rituals that taught and enforced behaviors about keeping the fire going led to other cooperative behavior. We performed fire rituals long before we invented language.
We still perform rituals with fire, and keep inventing new ones. At the annual Burning Man festival artists of varying levels of ambition perform with fire and ceremonially burn elaborate sculptures in a Nevada desert. The festival culminates in the Dionysian burning of a giant effigy, surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering celebrants. The next night, much of the same multitude watches in solemn silence as an intricate wooden temple laden with personal mementos burns in ritual mourning for lost friends and family. My own longtime participation in this festival led directly to the writing of this book. Asked to lead a service at my Unitarian Universalist church, casting about for a sermon topic, I thought of the strong sense that prevails at Burning Man of the contemplation and manipulation of fire as spiritual practice, and decided to write about fire. To prepare I looked online for books about fire, spirituality, and the human imagination. To my surprise I found none that addressed the subject directly and comprehensively. Toni Morrison once said “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it yourself.” So I did.
A large part of the story of humanity can be told through the history of our long, unique relationship with fire. Storytellers, scientists of many disciplines, philosophers, and historians all have much to say about fire, its relationship with life, and the place of that relationship in the cosmos. Insights from cognitive psychology help explain the mysterious hold fire clearly has on our understanding of the world. More about that later—allow me to hold my fire, as it were, until the groundwork has been laid.
Some useful simplifications
Any book addressing so rich and vast a subject must somehow narrow its scope. I will need to touch lightly on all aspects of this vast and complex story, and will not address at all many important aspects of fire: fire ecology; the practical uses of fire in agriculture, industry, and transportation; fire disasters; issues of fire danger, prevention and control. These rich and complex subjects have been well explored elsewhere.
A book that discusses the relationship between fire, life, and humanity must address in some measure the global catastrophe threatened by the effects on the climate of our indiscriminate use of fire. Here again I will mostly leave these critically important issues to others more qualified to explain them.
This book will also not attempt a scholarly exercise in comparative anthropology or religion. Though it may note similarities in the stories it tells from different cultures, and group them in rough thematic categories, it will not try to trace or catalog cultural influences and borrowings. Though it focuses on the human imagination, it will try to remain sensitive to an observation by scholar of Islam Nerina Rustomji in discussing the Muslim afterworlds: “A history of imagination focuses on the active agency of humans; yet, for believers, the afterlife may be imagined but it is not a figment of their imagination.” Particularly when considering concepts central to active religious traditions, we will avoid making judgments as to which stories have been imagined and which may reveal divinely inspired truth.
Though I will frequently use the terms “god,” “goddess” and “deity,” not all languages include such abstract terms for the divine. People who talk with gods every day do not always think of them as entities on a different plane, removed from everyday human life. When a language does include a term for supernatural beings, that word may cover a broader range of entities than the term “god” usually connotes to those with Western backgrounds. For example the kami of Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan, include such natural phenomena as mountains and seas, gods who live in the heavens, gods who live on earth, the spirits of honored ancestors, and forces such as fire and wind. To truly understand the nature of each culture’s sense of the divine would require deeper exploration within each cultural context. Endnotes point to sources where much more information can be found.
For the sake of simplicity I will write of religious and other practices in the present tense, except for cultures clearly no longer current such as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. Many beliefs long suppressed or subsumed by a dominant religion, such as the pagan fire cult of Lithuania, have seen revival in recent decades. Others, such as shamanist practices in parts of central Asia, long remained hidden from outsiders but never entirely went away. The beliefs and practices of cultures extensively studied by anthropologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may well have changed since the researchers completed their work. In some cases, alas, the cultures they studied may no longer even exist. Some stories and practices that began as fervent expressions of devotion have lost their religious significance, surviving now as folklore and traditional expressions of cultural links to the past. In an exploration of the variety of the human conceptions of fire, it seems more important to note that certain fire deities once had devoted worshipers than to footnote exactly when those devotions flourished, or to attempt to specify what role those deities still play in the lives of people today.
With these caveats out of the way, let’s begin. Put another log on the fire (whether an actual fire or in the mind’s eye) and prepare to have your spirits warmed by the blazing fecundity of the human imagination.
Gaston Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire, 3, 16
Frits Staal et al., Agni, the Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 62
Some useful simplifications
Nerina Rustomji, The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Medieval Islamic Culture, xix
Nicolas Malebranche, Entretiens sur la métaphysique et sur la religion (1690), 3
Albert Einstein. Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, 49