Fire, Use and Symbolism of
FIRE, USE AND SYMBOLISM OF
From time immemorial, man has observed through experience the ambivalent character of fire. As a gift of the gods, the source of light and heat, it conditions the sphere of well-being, of life, and of the divine and celestial world. At the same time, as a destructive force, it enters organically into the chaotic and infernal aspects of this world and the next. Prometheus in stealing fire from heaven undoubtedly did not think of this destructive side of fire. However, the two forms of fire interpenetrate. The anger of the god of heaven is armed with lightning, his divine majesty is surrounded by an awe-inspiring fire. On the other hand, the violence of devouring fire is not merely negative, for fire can purify, renew, and rejuvenate.
General Use and Symbolism. The Greek and Roman—and general Indo-European—belief in the positive character of fire is revealed in the first place by the religious respect that surrounds the burning fire of the hearth. It is a begetting male power, it promotes the fecundity of women and cattle, and it guarantees the fertility of the fields. It is a magical means (pyromancy) for unveiling the future and of attaining immortality (the story of Demeter and Demophon in Greek mythology). The Spartan kings carry fire from the hearth on their campaigns. From the period of the Antonines, fire is borne before the emperor, probably to attest and honor his numinous character. The destructive force of fire is put into practice in various magical purification rites, such as the fire-walk. By submitting thus to the curative, cathartic, and apotropaic virtues of fire, man frees himself from impurities and contaminations and protects himself against the ascendency of evil powers. This destructive character of fire, moreover, does not exclude a positive result. The use of fire in certain initiations, the "baptism of fire" found among the Gnostics and the role of fire once in vogue in several Oriental Christian liturgies, all tend to bring about, in a real or symbolic fashion, the spiritual renewal of the believer. It is this aspect of fire that gives so marked a typological value to the legend of the phoenix, whose self-destruction on its pyre guarantees an eternal renewal of youth.
When a member of a family died in ancient Rome, the hearth-fire was extinguished as a sign of grief. However, the corpse was not deprived of the presence of fire, since a concentrated, symbolic, and convenient form of light was provided by candelabra, torches, and lamps. Light surrounded the bier; it was carried in the funeral procession; and it kept watch at the tomb. Originally fire performed an apotropaic role, driving away malevolent spirits, or even the practical role of lighting the way or kindling the pyre. In the Christian era, in the eyes of both pagans and Christians, it symbolized remembrance, prayer, and eternal life, or, at least, contact between the world of the living and that of the dead. Cremation, however utilitarian it became, took on, in the first centuries of the Empire, a cathartic and perhaps divinizing character. In the imaginary funeral obsequies connected with imperial apotheosis, the total cremation of the "wax double" furnished assurance that the emperor had rejoined the gods body and soul. The negative aspect of fire is maintained fully only in the mythological conception of the river of fire (Pyriphlegethon) surrounding the infernal abode.
In Religion. The positive aspect of fire is connected more strictly with the domain of the numinous in a twofold way. As the object of cult itself, fire, although not attaining among the Greeks and Romans the veneration that it inspired in India (Agni) and Iran (fire-temples), was personified to some degree in the goddess vesta. Fire is employed as a means in honoring divinity. Divine manifestations, moreover, comprise fiery aspects that seem to be essential elements in all theophanies, as is clear from the Old Testament. Hence, Christianity has not abandoned the use of lighted lamps and candles, which, from the time of St. Jerome, was given a place in the cult of the martyrs. "Eternal fires" were found in Greek and Roman temples in honor of certain gods or, even symbolizing the numinous character of the state or the emperor—or both. "Ever-burning lamps," as that of Athena Polias in the Erechtheum and that in the Temple of Jerusalem, represented the perpetuity of worship. The sanctuary lamp, which, however, was not introduced before the middle of the 13th century, symbolizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Lamps and lights were an indispensable element in pagan festivals, and the flames of candles and lamps flooded the celebrations of Christian worship with such joyous light that from the 5th century, at least, writers believed that the illuminated churches constituted a prefiguration of heaven. This joyous aspect of fire is connected also with a metaphorical meaning whereby the Bible often expresses its conception of the brightness and glory of God and His beneficent illumination of His servants. Likewise on the numinous plane, the destructive character of fire receives an incarnation, so to speak, in the figure of the god Vulcan. As an instrument of worship, the altar fire, both in Greece and Rome, as well as in Jerusalem, is the medium par excellence by which the material offerings of men may make a favorable impression on divinity. Destructive fire, especially in the form of lightning, or shooting stars, or comets, lends itself easily and universally to literal and metaphorical applications. In Israel, especially, fire of this kind is regarded as the instrument and image of God's anger. God punishes, tries, judges, and destroys by fire.
On the cosmological side, fire plays an essential role in the philosophy of heraclitus and in stoicism. In Christian theology, it has a central place in the punishment of the damned and in the traditional teaching on purgatory (see fire of judgment).
Bibliography: a. closs et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 4:106–110. c. m. edsman, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 2:927, with bibliog.; Le Baptême de feu (Leipzig 1940); Ignis divinus (Lund 1949). a. e. crawley, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 6:26–30. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 775. j. g. frazer, Myths of the Origin of Fire (London 1930). f. heiler, Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart 1961). r. mayer, Die biblische Vorstellung vom Weltenbrand (Bonn 1956). l. m. r. simons, Flamma aeterna (Amsterdam 1949). j. morgenstern, The Fire upon the Altar (Leiden 1963).