Fire in Religions and Myths
The strange properties of fire and the power it rendered to our ancestors made them believe that it must have some “divine” roots. Hereafter, the sun was regarded as the “blazing ball of fire” and the divinity itself, and coupled with the descrying of the constellations overtime gave birth to the cosmic religions we know today.
It was, therefore, inevitable that he who controlled fire would manifest superiority over the rest. This would mean that an esoteric entity had to be formed for managing the flame endowed from the heavens – the ministries of priesthood. For the thousands of years that followed the ministry would cultivate and accrue an understanding of flame far beyond that possessed by a layman. The priests would ultimately be seen as having supernatural powers and delegates of the divine. All the scientific and spiritual erudition that followed over the millennia would be in the possession of the priesthood.
Glorifying the virtues of fire are some of the most ancient texts in the world. The earliest non-hieroglyphic account of fire (called agni in Sanskrit) worship and exaltation is found in the following Sanskrit hymns of the Rig Veda (c.1500 BCE), the oldest of the sacred books in Hinduism
अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं रत्वीजम |
होतारं रत्नधातमम ||
अग्निः पूर्वेभिर्र्षिभिरीड्यो नूतनैरुत |
स देवानेह वक्षति ||
अग्निना रयिमश्नवत पोषमेव दिवे-दिवे |
यशसं वीरवत्तमम ||
अग्ने यं यज्ञमध्वरं विश्वतः परिभूरसि |
स इद्देवेषु गछति ||
अग्निर्होता कविक्रतुः सत्यश्चित्रश्रवस्तमः |
देवो देवेभिरा गमत ||
यदङग दाशुषे तवमग्ने भद्रं करिष्यसि |
तवेत तत सत्यमङगिरः ||
उप तवाग्ने दिवे-दिवे दोषावस्तर्धिया वयम |
नमो भरन्त एमसि ||
राजन्तमध्वराणां गोपां रतस्य दीदिविम |
वर्धमानंस्वे दमे ||
स नः पितेव सूनवे.अग्ने सूपायनो भव |
सचस्वा नः सवस्तये ||
1 I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.
2 Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.
3 Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.
4 Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.
5 May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.
6 Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshipper,
That, Aṅgiras, is indeed thy truth.
7 To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come
8 Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
9 Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our weal.
(tr. by T.H. Griffith, 1896. Souce: sacred-texts.com)
According to a popular account when Edison invented his gramophone in the 19th century he wanted a veteran scholar to record the first piece for which he asked Prof. Max Muller of Germany. Muller, being a scholar of Indian religious studies recorded the fist hymns of the Rig Veda
अग्नि॒म् ई॑ळे पुरो॒हि॑तं
(agni meele purohitam)
much to the surprise of the audience. Later Muller revealed that the words coming out of the gramophone, agni meele purohitam, were the very first words of the Rig Veda, the book of philosophies laid down by the Indians who had attained high civilization and learning at a time the rest of the world was just coming out from its savage past.
The Hindus regarded fire as one of the five elements; the other being earth, water, air and sky (collectively called panchamahabhuta) essential for life and growth of all beings. In the scriptures they regarded agni as the God of fire, ruler over all forms of fire in earth and in heavens and is depicted as being born from the friction between two fire sticks. It is from this word agni that the Latin gets its word for fire – Ignis. The Hindu practice of cremation is a form of worshipping the agni. The Rig Veda extolls agni as a divine messenger between the mortals and Gods, the conduit, the means of communication between Gods and worshippers; the sanctifier, without whom no sacred ritual is consummated; who is ever young and immortal.
In Greek and Roman
In the Greek Pantheon, Prometheus, the Titan first gave the precious fire to mankind having stolen it from Mt. Olympus, home of the gods. He lighted his torch from the chariot of the sun god Phoebus and brought the ‘divine’ flame to earth salvaging the humans from the cold and ferocious predators; an endeavor directly contradicting Zeus’ ideas which sees him penalized to eternity. The Greek god of fire is Hephaestus; his counterpart being Vulcan in Roman. Vesta the Roman goddess of the hearth, equivalent of Hestia in Greek had on her altar a sacred fire brought by Aeneas of Troy burning perpetually, extinguished and renewed only on March 1, the then Roman New Year by the chief priest or Pontifex Maximus and guarded by Vestal Virgins all year round. The Caesars also had sacred fire carried before them, signifying their power and glory.
Outside of their pantheon, The Greeks considered fire as one of the four classical elements (the rest being air, water and earth akin to the Hindus). Heraclitus (c. 535 BCE – c. 435 BCE), famous for his doctrines on universal flux and the unity of opposites, insisted that all the classical elements and thus everything in the physical world is a manifestation of fire which later was disapproved by Empedocles and Aristotle.
In Pre-Christian and Christian tradition
Regarding fire symbolism in pre-Christian/pagan rituals authors Janet and Colin Bord (1972) note,
“Fire always played an important part in the pre-Christian rituals and there are probably more vestiges of our Sun/fire worshipping ancestors in our present calendar and traditional observances than any other aspect of pagan rites.”
The Zoroastrians, for example, though not fire-worshippers, maintained flames in their temples (called Agiaries) symbolizing the light of the god Ahur Mazda and were never extinguished. The Native American tribe worshipped ancestral fire spirits just like the West African tribes. The Aztecs worshipped Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of volcanoes, fire, day and heat. Similarly, the Inca of Peru paid homage to Manco Cápac, their fire and solar deity.
In Christianity, the flames represent the Holy Ghost, as he descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost. Hell is believed to be full of fire. Author Garry R. Varner (2009) comments in his article Fire Symbolism in Myth and Religion,
“Christianity continued many of the ancient pagan rituals and embraced many of their symbols as a way to induce the “heathen” population to convert. Candles, censers and ancient imagery continue to reflect the mysterious nature of fire. Relying on the ancient belief that fire is the ultimate purifier and punisher fire became a tool for the ultimate destruction of evil and witchcraft, and over time the destroyer of contrary thought.”
BBC News. (2009). Religions. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/worship/worship.shtml
Bord, J. & Bord. Colin. (1972). Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of Britain and Ireland. London: Thorsons.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vesta. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/626927/Vesta
Faber, H.B. (1919). Military Pyrotechnics. Washington, USA: Government Printing Office.
Graham, D.W. (2011). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/
Mackenzie, D. A. (1985). India Myths and Legends. London: Bracken Books.
Ward, M. (2011). Breathedreamgo. Retrieved from http://breathedreamgo.com/2011/03/first-recording-sanskrit/
O’Looney, K. (2014). Fire as a symbol in religion. Summer session #2. Gonzaga University, Washington.
Varner, R.G. (2009). Fire Symbolism in Myth and Religion. Circle Magazine: Sacred Flames, Sacred Fires, (105).
Wikipedia The Free Encyclopaedia (2013). Fire (Classical Element). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_(classical_element)