Fire And The Sun

There can be no doubt, as already stated, that, of all physical

phenomena, fire had the most marked effect upon the imagination

of primitive man. He saw that it was utterly unlike anything

else known to him, both in its properties and in its action.

If of anything a divine nature could be predicated, it was

fire--the standing miracle--at once destroying and life-giving--

material and immaterial--pre-eminently an agent
ith strange

and vast powers, known and unknown. For many objects and

institutions a divine origin was sought; it could not fail to be the

case with fire. Even the poor Tasmanian natives felt it could not

be a thing of earth, and told each other how it was thrown down

like a star by two black fellows who are now in the sky, the twin

stars, Castor and Pollux. A great gap separates this simple tale

from the elaborate Prometheus myth, and yet the same essential

features appear in both: and between the two are found a varied

series of stories and legends, belonging to many climes and

ages, which ring the changes on the same fundamental ideas.

The whole of the ancient world believed that the origin of fire

must be divine. And the various steps can be clearly traced by

which the worship, originally accorded to the nature-power

itself, was transferred to a spirit behind the power, and centred

at last on the supreme Deity.

For primitive man, as Max Mueller well points out, the

phenomena of fire would present a dual aspect--on the one hand

as a fatal and destructive element, on the other hand, as a

beneficent and even homely agency. The lightning would be

seen flashing from the one end of heaven to the other, darting

down at times to set ablaze the forests and prairies, at times to

maim and kill both animals and men. Thus experienced, it

would strike terror into the beholders, and impress them with a

vivid sense of the presence of spiritual powers. As a late

product of the emotions and conceptions thus stimulated, we

have the fine myth of the ancient nature goddess, Athene--

sprung from the head of Zeus, the austere virgin, who was to

become the personification of prudence, self-restraint, and

culture, the celestial representative of the loftiest intellectual

and spiritual ideals of the Greek world at its best. Hence, too,

the group of conceptions which make the lightning and

thunderbolts the weapons of the sky, putting them into the

hands of the supreme ruler, and making them at last the symbols

of law and order. "Out of the fire" (says Ezekiel) "went forth

lightning." "Out of the throne" (says the seer of the Apocalypse)

"went forth lightnings."

In strong contrast is the beneficent aspect of fire, which, once

known and "tamed," becomes almost a necessity for human life.

It affords new protection against the cold, makes man peculiarly

the cooking animal, and above all establishes the family hearth

with all that is meant by "home." Of more distinctly utilitarian

import are the uses of fire in fashioning tools and instruments,

and the smelting of metals. And it is significant to note that

man's use of fire almost certainly owed its origin to his

emotional attitude towards it, culminating in worship. As many

anthropologists have pointed out, the fire on the hearth had its

unmistakable religious aspect, the result of the feeling of

veneration for the "element" of fire before its production or use

had been understood. And the kindling of the fire on the hearth

was as much a sacrifice to the gods as a means to the cooking of

food. Each house became a veritable temple of fire.

Wonderfully instructive, as well as fascinating it is to trace the

development of the home idea as based on the emotional

experiences stimulated by the mystic influences of fire. Each

house, as was just stated, was regarded as a temple of the divine

element; but the common house, the tribe house, was specially

singled out for this honour, and became a temple properly

so-called. When bands of citizens set out to found colonies in

strange lands, they took with them glowing embers from the

tribal or national hearth, as AEneas brought with him to Italy

the sacred fire of Troy. Until lately, we are told, the German

peasant just married would take to his new home a burning log

from the family hearth.

The classical instance of the development of this idea is found

in the cult of the Greek Hestia, the Latin Vesta, a goddess who

was the personification of fire, the guardian of the household

altar and of the welfare of cities and nations. She was

worshipped fairly widely in Greece and Asia Minor, but

principally in Rome, where a beautiful circular temple was

dedicated to her service; her ministers, the Vestal virgins, were

held in the greatest honour and were chosen from among the

loveliest and noblest of Roman maidens. In this temple was

kept ever brightly burning the sacred fire supposed to have been

kindled by the rays of the sun, and to have been brought by

AEneas when he founded his kingdom in the new land of Italy.

The extinction of this fire would have been regarded as the

gravest public calamity, foreboding disaster. Its flames were

intended to represent the _purity_ of the goddess, thus

emphasising the mystic aspect of another physical property of

fire--its purifying power. "Our God" (said the writer of the

Epistle to the Hebrews) "is a consuming fire."

Greece had its common hearth at Delphi. It was also supposed

that at the centre of the earth there was a hearth which answered

to that. In the Apocalypse we read of the altar with its sacred

fire as central in heaven. Truly these concepts are persistent!

And why? Because there is more than imagination in them; they

are the products of ideas immanent in the material phenomena

in which they are embodied, and through which they manifest

themselves to the human soul.

There could not fail to be fire-gods many, and a study of their

respective characters, especially in the earlier stages of their

development, often furnishes a key to the intuitional workings

of the primitive mind as prompted by the always arresting, and

often terrorising phenomena of fire and flame. Max Mueller's

detailed study of the development of the Hindu god, Agni, was

mentioned in an earlier chapter. The name originally means the

Mover, and arose, doubtless, from the running, darting, leaping

movement of flame. Beginning his career as a purely physical

god, he advanced through various stages of spiritualisation until

he became the supreme deity. Is not the problem of motion

still one of the most fascinating and profound? Bergson's

"L'Evolution creatrice" is one of the latest attempts to grapple

with it, and those who in early India personified fire as the

Mover were his legitimate predecessors.

The Greek Hephaestus personified the brightness of flame, and

took shape as a god of ripe age, of muscular form, of serious

countenance, but lame. Why lame? Why this physical defect

as a drawback to so much physical beauty and strength? A

Frenchman, Emerie, suggests--"attendu la marche inegale et

vacillante de la flamme." Certainly fire, as compared with water

and air, is dependent on sustenance, as Heracleitus so well

realised, as also its consequent limitations in regard to free and

independent movement: but the sage solved this difficulty by

making the Fire-motion feed, as it were, upon itself. The god

was represented as puny at birth because flame, especially as

kindled artificially, so often starts from a tiny spark. His

marriage to Aphrodite typifies "the association of fire with the

life-giving forces of nature." So, remarks Max Mueller, the

Hindu Agni was the patron of marriage. How many lines of

thought open out before us here, bringing us face to face, by

pre-scientific modes of mental activity, with some of the

deepest mysteries of human life!

Vulcan, the Latin parallel of Hephaestus, suggests to us the

awe-inspiring phenomena of volcanoes, which, though not of

frequent occurrence, are calculated by virtue of their magnitude

and grandeur to stimulate emotion and intuition to an

exceptional degree. Fear would naturally predominate, but, even

for the primitive mind, would be one factor only in a complex

whole. Matthew Arnold has attempted to portray the soul-storm

raised by the sight of the molten crater of AEtna. He makes

Empedocles, the poet-philosopher, climb the summit of the

mountain, gaze for the last time on the realm of nature spread

around, and apostrophise the stars above and the volcanic fires

beneath his feet.

"And thou, fiery world,

That sapp'st the vitals of this terrible mount

Upon whose charred and quaking crust I stand--

Thou, too, brimmest with life."

Note here again the sense of life--of kinship, so fundamental to

Nature Mysticism. And so to the close.

"And therefore, O ye elements! I know--

Ye know it too--it hath been granted me

Not to die wholly, not to be all enslaved.

I feel it in this hour. The numbing cloud

Mounts off my soul; I feel it, I breathe free,

Is it but for a moment?

--Ah, boil up, ye vapours!

Leap and roar, thou sea of fire!

My soul glows to meet you.

Ere it flag, ere the mists

Of despondency and gloom

Rush over it again,

Receive me, save me!

Out of the ancient beliefs and myths concerning subterranean

fires grew up the enormously important beliefs in Hell and

Purgatory, which attained such abnormal proportions in

medieval times, and which are by no means yet extinct. The

most vivid picture of Hell, founded largely on ancient material,

though with a Biblical basis, is found in Milton. In language

which recalls the Titanomachy, the poet tells of Satan and his

myrmidons hurled from heaven.

"Him the almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from th' aetherial sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire."

Confounded for a time by his fall, he lies rolling in the fiery

gulf; but at length, rolling round his baleful eyes, he sees

"A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all; but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed."

What manner of intuitions are embodied here? Perchance we

are beginning to treat them too lightly, as also the Hindu

doctrine of Karma; for the universe, after all, is the scene of the

reign of law. But however this may be, we are glad to emerge,

with Dante, from the regions of punitive flames into the regions

of the fires that purge--into the pure air that surrounds the Isle

of Purgatory.

"Sweet hue of eastern sapphire, that was spread

O'er the serene aspect of the pure air,

High up as the first circle, to mine eyes

Unwonted joy renewed, soon as I 'scaped

Forth from the atmosphere of deadly gloom

That had mine eyes and bosom filled with grief."

Shall we invest with like purgatorial powers the flaming swords

that barred the way to Paradise? Is such the inner meaning of

the appeal:

"do thou my tongue inspire

Who touched Isaiah's hallowed lips with fire"?

The more hostile aspects of fire are most strikingly embodied in

the Teutonic giant Logi (Flame) with his children, who were

supposed to be the authors of every great conflagration, and

who might be seen in the midst of the flames, their heads

crowned with chaplets of fire. They may be taken, like the

Greek giants and Titans, as personifications of the wild brute

forces of nature, which strive to hinder man's work and destroy

what he has made. For, as Schiller says:

"the elements are hostile

To the work of human hand."

For such are but some out of the many forms in which man has

struggled to give expression to his intuitions that there is

something wrong in nature--to his deep sense of division and

conflict in the cosmic process. Heracleitus, as we saw, held that

conflict is an essential condition of existence. At any rate, it is

true, that order is only won by severe conflict with destructive

and irregular powers. An ancient expression of this experience

is found in the long contest waged between Zeus and the other

children of Cronos. A modern expression is found in Huxley's

illustration of the fenced garden that, if untended, speedily

returns to its wild condition. In the framing and moulding of

this experience, the hostile aspects of fire have played no

insignificant part.

In this context it would be natural to treat of the Sun as the

predominant manifestation of fire, of which Shelley, in his

hymn to Apollo, has said:

"I am the eye with which the Universe

Beholds itself and knows itself divine."

The various sun-gods would be passed in review, Ra of the

Egyptians, Apollo of the Greeks, and the various forms of

sun-worship, from the most primitive times down through the

Persian religion, that of the Peruvians, the "children of the sun,"

to that of the modern Parsees--and that of the unnamed

multitudes who in substance have echoed the words which

Moore puts into the mouths of the Hyperboreans:

"To the Sun-god all our hearts and lyres

By day, by night belong;

And the breath we draw from his living fires

We give him back in song."

But the subject is too great and is deserving of special

treatment. Certain of the more essential conceptions involved

will come before us in the chapter on light. Mirabeau on his

death-bed would seem to have put the whole matter in the

briefest space--"Si ce n'est pas la Dieu, c'est du moins son

cousin-german." Turner, on his deathbed, was briefer and

bolder still--"The sun is God." Knowing the man and knowing

his work, we can understand what he meant. Put it the other

way round, we have the same, and yet the fuller truth--"the Lord

God is a Sun."