Fire Symbolism Over the Ages

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Fire has a special place in the history and culture of humankind.  In history, science, and religion, it’s represented as an element that has led to humankind’s progress but can also lead to its destruction. One can even argue that apart from the sun, fire is our source of life, but it can ultimately cause our end too. In this article we’re going to dive deep into the many meanings that surround the concept of fire.

Fire in Mythology and Religion

Religion and mythology prove that fire has been an important part of human development. Here are just some of the popular beliefs about the symbolism of fire and what it represents to various sectors of the world.

1- Transformation and Harmony

Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher Heraclitus believed that fire was the most essential out of the four elements, which included air, earth, and water. Heraclitus claimed that fire brought forth the other elements through a series of transformations called the turnings of fire to create a hidden harmony in nature. These transformations began with the creation of the sea, then the earth, and finally air.

2- Purity

Heraclitus also considered the human soul to be made up of fire and water. The Philosopher taught that the goal of our souls is to rid ourselves of the water aspect of our beings and keep only our internal fire which he believes to be pure.

As part of nature, fire serves as a great purifier by eradicating the old and opens the world to new land and allows for growth.

3- Invention & Knowledge

Greek mythology tells the story of Prometheus, a god that is considered to be a champion of mankind. He shared the knowledge of fire with humans for which he was tortured.

4- Sacrifice

The Hindu and Vedic deity Agni is representative of fire as well as lightning and the sun. He is one of the most important gods for both cultures who is not just a god of fire but of sacrifices. Being the messenger of gods, the sacrifices accepted by Agni are also automatically distributed to other gods. 

5- God

Fire also symbolizes God through the burning bush in the Old Testament. However, fire not only represents the Christian God, but also generic divinity or divine wisdom and knowledge.

6- Balance

Shinto philosophy uses the concept of a fire wheel that represents three flames. These flames symbolize the heavens, earth, and humans in balance.

7- Hell, the Wrath of God and Punishment

The Bible has often referred to hell as a place of fire. Several verses have discussed that evil people will be thrown off to a pit, lake, or eternal and unquenchable fire. Hence, the symbolism of fire is also associated with hell, despite fire also being sometimes referred to as the Divine.

The Bible also connects fire not just to divinity and hell, but also to the wrath of God. God uses fire as means of punishment to mankind. This punishment doesn’t necessarily mean the fires of hell because verses such as Isaiah 9:19 talks about the land burning up by the fury of the Lord. Ezekiel 21:31 also quotes the Lord saying: I will pour out My indignation on you; I will blow on you with the fire of My wrath, and I will give you into the hand of brutal men, skilled in destruction.

8- Suffering

While Buddhists do not believe in a heaven or hell, they also use fire to represent a negative experience which is kind of equal to being in the fiery pits of hell. And that concept is suffering. 

Theravada Buddhism discusses this in detail in its discourse called Adittapariyaya Sutta or Fire Sermon. In these teachings, Buddha says that the mind is constantly burning with different kinds of suffering from birth until death. These kinds of burning include aging, sorrow, pain, grief, and despair.

Therefore, when Buddhists talk about flames, it’s not really associated with the enlightenment, but of the burning of minds brought about by suffering.

Symbolism of fire

Fire in Literature

Aside from religious texts, fire is a popular element that is used in literature to symbolize several conflicting characteristics of humans and nature. Listed below are some of the most popular fire symbolisms in literature.

1- Rebirth and Resurrection

People connect fire to rebirth and resurrection through its association with the mythical beast, the phoenix. At the end of the creature’s life, the phoenix dies in a burst of flame. From its ashes, a baby phoenix emerges which repeats the cycle of life for the legendary animal. This is in the very same way that a forest burned down by fire will always recover, though the process will take a few years to be completed.

2- Love and Passion

In popular culture, fire is always associated with love, passion, and even desire. We always hear the terms flames of passion or lighting my fire with respect to deep desires and romantic relations. Other allusions to fire include the slow burn of love or the burning desire for someone or something.

3- Destruction

Fire as a symbol of destruction is not just evident in religious beliefs. Reality has shown us the destructive power of fire when it’s uncontrolled. Even candlelight left unattended can cause a blaze that wrecks houses and other property. A small spark of fire can cause vast destruction to anyone and anything.

4- Protection

Early humans used the heat of the fire as means of protection against predators. The light emanating from the fire also protected prehistoric people from nocturnal predators lurking in the shadows of the night.

5- Passage of Time

At the beginning of Ray Badbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, the main character Montag says this:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.

Hence, in this context, fire represents the passage of time through the burning of a flame until it dies down in embers. 

6- Light and Warmth

Literally speaking, fire is a common symbol of light and warmth because of the heat it emits from its flames. In this case, light can also be referred to as enlightenment or creativity, a spark of idea that gives inspiration to artists and inventors to innovate and change the world.

7- Eternity

Aside from being a symbolic representation of hell, fire can also symbolize eternity remembrance for humans who are no longer with us in this world. That’s why we light a candle to remember their lives and their legacy and to symbolize that they will never be forgotten.

Fire in Rituals and Magic

Fire is also a common theme of alchemy and all forms of magic. Hence, there are also many interpretations of fire in the field of the mystic arts which include the following:

1- Magic

The Mayans use the symbol of a fire holder to be the bringer of all kinds of magic in their culture. Ancient Mayans also regard the Fire ceremony as their most important ritual that gives life, energy, and strength to its believers.

2- Conversion

In Tarot, Fire represents conversion which signifies that everything touched by fire is bound to change. This change, however, can be good or bad depending on the resulting cards seen. 

3- Renaissance and Energy

The specific fire that represents renaissance and energy is the fire used during the winter solstice ceremony of Freemasons. Freemasons recognize the double nature of fire as a creator and punisher hence the dual meaning of fire for the group.

The Dualism of Fire 

Despite the many representations of fire throughout history and popular culture, the overarching theme of this particular element is its existing duality. Fire can both be the source of life and the harbingers of death and destruction. But the destruction and purification that fire brings is solely dependent on how one uses its flames responsibly, whether it be physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.