Fire as Spiritual and Holy Symbol
By Julie Damgaard
The Eternal Fire
The flame is an image of fundamental properties for the living and human existence. – Peer F. Bundgård(1).
Fire: it has been with us ever since mankind first encountered it. It has been an indispensable, if not always trustworthy, partner in our historical development. With fire we keep a stark relationship with a sometimes faithless character: fully restrained one moment, wholly undisciplined the next. It brings us warmth, but also burns. It keeps danger away, but also reveals our presence. Summons to poetic revery, but also hypnotizes and dazzles us. At times it has left us abandoned, only to return again. Of the four elements– earth, fire, water, and air –fire is the ardent brother. Despite its tumultuous temperament, despite the fact that it is composed not only of benevolent, but also malicious powers, of these four elemental “siblings” it is fire that mankind has always been able to identify with best. Like us, fire is one of the living – a living, upright creature. It is born, needs nourishment and oxygen, it ages and dies.
Fire is organic life and has, ever since its original encounter with humans, often shown itself to depend on our “care” in order to survive. In return, it has lent us a bit of its power and served as a vital tool for us, both physically and mentally. Fire has brought us not only protection, edible food, and tools, but also illumination, in the epistemological sense of the word. In observing flames, in seeing our reflection in them, so to speak, humans have achieved a valuable awareness of themselves as a result of a transformation that creates while something else is destroyed at the same time (Bachelard, 1996, p. 15).
Fire has always attracted us and fostered insight and contemplation, made us see as though for the first time. And for the careful observer it has also been the very “illustration” of transcendence: the outgrowth of a shimmering, dynamic, and sublime flame of life able to eradicate or consume an earthly, impure material. A process that is nothing less than the opportunity to grow as a spiritual individual and to create a radically new and different existence. In other words, fire is an illuminator– a source of existential understanding, insight, and identification.
THE HOLY FLAME
The movement of the spirit is like that of the flame– it rises
– Claude de Saint-Martin
That fire is the most “holy” of the four elements was seen early on in mythological narratives and tales of creation from every corner of the world. From African and Indian tribal belief to mystical religion to Greek mythology, it is possible to recognize related archetypal stories of a mystical being that sends humans a cultural boon or tool in the form of fire(2). It was with the rise of the cultural hero and his presentation of the gift of flame that culture came into being and that humans finally assumed their proper character. In Judeo-Christian cultural tradition it is also possible to find examples in the Old Testament of the holy fire’s meaning for the establishment of human order. As stated in Deuteronomy(3), God (Jehovah) manifested as smoke and flames on mount Sinai, and that this descent led to the creation of Israel as a people and a society. In his dissertation on the devouring fire, Hans J. Lundager Jensen, for the same reason, posits the fire on the mountain as the focal point of the Old Testament (Lundager Jensen, 2000, p. 441).
The value of people’s involvement with fire and thereby with holy principles can- and should not be underestimated. As stated above, this plays a major role in human self-understanding and the developmental process. Because for millennia we have strived for– and dreamed of a higher degree of participation in the holy or heavenly aspect of our existence- and the greater knowledge that this participation would bring -it may only be considered natural that we have done everything in our power to maintain fire, both internally and externally.
Fire has burned its way into history, not least because of our constant concern for its survival. The narratives here abound: from the Old Testament’s tale of the devouring sacrificial fire(4), which resided in the Sanctuary and lit the eternal fire of the altar, to the depiction of ancient Rome’s specially selected priesthood of women – the Priestesses of Vesta –who dedicated their lives to looking after the hearth fire in the round Vesta temple; until today, when the eternal fire, in a re-mythologized form, rests on the graves of unknown soldiers as a memory of the victims who were slain in battle, and as a mark of eternal life not only in the hereafter, but also in the memory of subsequent generations(5).
Lastly, we also guard the Olympic Torch, which is lit before every Olympic Games using the rays of the sun in a parabolic mirror and then carried via a torch relay from Greece to the place where the games are to be held. As a mark of the fiery soul and competitive spirit of Olympic athletes, it shines over the place where the games are held, and at the same time evokes the flame that in ancient times burned in honor of Zeus during the major religious festivals of the Greeks.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FIRE AND THE PHYSICS OF THE FLAME OF LIFE(6)
The world is a seed for a better world, just as humankind is a seed for a better humanity, as heavy yellow flames are a seed for a white and lighter flame.
– Gaston Bachelard
Just as people have forever guarded wild fire and cared for its continued existence, so have we also guarded over the flame of the mind and instinctively felt its periodic surging and quelling. We have long known the necessity of not only gathering alongside the dying bonfire to continue having light and warmth throughout the darkness of the night, but also of lighting our inner fires, when the spark of life is low. Only through a purifying fire is it possible to reclaim power, to leave the depths of existence and supply the spirit with the energy that it needs to again rise like a flame in all its upright glory. Only after the spirit has shown itself that the burning down of melancholy’s “black matter” – the transformation of its “physical” qualities into ethereal ones – is there absolute vitality of life; and it may also bring the benefit of lifting the soul to even greater heights, and one matures as a spiritual being. By burning one’s bridges and starting anew, by burning one’s inner demons and “giving oneself over to the fate of the flames” (Bachelard, 1996, p. 77), one can claim to have reached a new degree of fullness of life and wisdom.
By observing and decoding the pulsating of the outer flame have learned many things, and much about the inner flame: about the movements of the mind and soul, and how the inner being – our secret power -can be strengthened and disciplined. Fire has shown itself not only to have the power to improve our daily lives, but also our mental lives. As the most important instrument for any extensive cycle of transformation, it has illuminated the world of mankind.
THE FIRE OF ALCHEMISTS: DEGREES OF FIRE
’Animus ex inflammata anima constat’ – ’The soul is made of burning air’’
We find some of the best examples of fire as both an inner and outer power in the old alchemical tracts from the middle ages. The alchemists were the scientists of ancient times, and their purpose was not only to refine metals such as iron and lead, but also to refine organic materials. Based on the theory that everything contains the four elements in varying proportions, it was the conviction of the alchemists that by changing a given material’s proportional content of, for example, air or water, it was possible to transform it into a more valuable product, such as gold. The alchemist practiced this transformation primarily by exposing the materials to intense heat.
What few of them realized was that this ’business-like’ work would gradually entail a refinement of soul of the learned. The intense observation of the flames in Athanor– the alchemist’s kiln –brought about a dreamlike or philosophical introspection in the alchemist, whereby he came to see the glow of the kiln as reflecting his own inner being. He came to see that his mind must be able to undergo the same transformation that his material went through when exposed to the heat of the fire. In a type of parallel process, the alchemist purified both his physical materials and his soul, creating the conditions for something new and improved to emerge, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Through the four stages of dissolution and reconstitution that characterized opus alchymicum, the alchemist came closer to his final goal: divine consciousness. A goal that was attributed to fire as an element(7). The process was slow, and could in some cases stretch over most of a lifetime. Every time the alchemist managed to advance a step further along the path of transformation, he was again forced to let his material melt or rot away– to let it dissolve into so-called prima materia. From the black, earthly stage (nigredo) he would first go through the white, aqueous and yellow, atmospheric stages (albedo and citrinitas), before finally reaching the red-hot and final stage (rubedo): the transformative stage, where he was at last able to make unsound (impure) metal sound, and thereby attain complete sublimation of the soul. A level that meant spiritual transcendence and ’resurrection,’ and even immortality.
At each of the four stages of transformation, fire’s strength as a portent transformative power doubled. Only the development of the fire – from slow and mild to moderate and temperate to powerful and strong, and finally to burning and violent as a purgatory or ecpyrosis(8) – could make it possible for the alchemist at the last moment to “shine with the tireless light of the sun itself” (Fabricius, p. 15).
Whereas alchemy, because of its philosophical, esoteric, inward–looking and creative qualities –upgraded fire, modern chemistry has downgraded it to an atomic reaction. Nonetheless, fire can still inspire and move us, and as a result of its power of influence and suggestion, it often appears in art. The project City on Fire is a good example of this. Through large-scale video installations, the artist duo Thyra Hilden and Pio Diaz “burn” down a number of western culture’s major monuments and institutions. Working from the basis of a contemporary type of alchemy, the couple unleashes the purifying soul of fire and lets quintessential cultural icons be consumed by the flames in order to revitalize culture and art.
Holy flame, strong in your glare
Everyone fighting for the wreath of the muses!
Knowledge, your stem may flowering stand,
Eternal, but the changes of time go on.
– J. L. Heiberg
1. From the foreword to Lysets Flamme by Gaston Bachelard, Danish translation by Peer F. Bundgård
2. Agni is a central figure in the mystical religions that the Aryan peoples 3.500 years ago brought from Central Asia into northern India. Lik eother vedic gods he represents a natural phenomenon – namely fire. Agni´s movements in heaven, the air, and on earth make him a bridge between gods and humans, while he also plays a significant role as a cosmic principle.
3. Greek for the 5th book of Moses
4. The sacrificial fire is not only the medium of transformation, but also an image of the receiver of the transformed victim, namely Jehova.
5. Fire also has a strong connection with burial rituals in the form of cremation. In religious terms, the burning of a corpse is mainly tied to Buddhism and Hinduism, but as a ritual funeral practice it is also known in the North and large parts of Europe. Cremation was especially widespread during the millennium before Christ (cf. Den Store Danske Encyklopædi).
6. Adapted from Gaston Bachelard (Bachelard, 1996, p. 36)
7. Gold was valued in alchemy because it was thought to contain an elementary fire (Bachelard, 1993, p. 95)
8. In ancient stoic cosmology, ecpyrosis symbolized the burning of the world, where everything is pure fire (energy). According to this way of thinking, the ultimate ecpyrosis is also the beginning of a new world identical to the old. Pure fire, which is also God, forms new material of itself, which God (as a spirit) then directs towards a new ecpyrosis (cf. Den Store Danske Encyklopædi).
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Bachelard, Gaston: Eldens Psykoanalys, translated by Marianne Lindström, Skarabé, Lund, 1993
Blumenthal, P.J.: ”ILDEN skabte det moderne menneske”, i Videnskab for alle, no. 1, 1986, pp. 40-46
Fabricius, Johannes: Alchemy – The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, Rosenkilde og Bagger, Copenhagen, 1976
Geertz, Armin W.: ”Disputats om ’den fortærende ild’. Fra Brasilien til Hellas – bemærkninger til Hans J. Lundager Jensens disputats”, i Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift, no. 39, 2001, pp. 61-70
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Nielsen, Kirsten: ”Den fortærende ild. Religionsvidenskabelig disputats med teologiske perspektiver”, in Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift, 64. årg., no. 3, 2001, pp. 176-189
Nielsen, Kirsten: ”’Gud Herren kaldte på ilden til dom’ – Dommedagsmotivet og dets forskydninger”, in Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift, årg. 58, no. 1, 1995, pp. 3-15
Pyne, Stephen J.: Fire – A Brief History, foreword by William Cronon, The British Museum Press, London, 2001
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