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
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
"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
"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
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."