Holy fire 


Although the story of the universe emerging from chaos is present in nearly all cultures and mythologies, nowadays we believe in the Bing Bang theory. Natural elements such as fire, water, air and earth, all of them with dualistic opposed characteristics, building and destroying at the same time, underlay the birth of human consciousness, religion and civilisation. In the culture of ancient Europe there were four elements, but some Asian cultures, e.g. in China, believed their number was five. All of them were identified with gods and had symbolic meaning assigned to them.


In the European culture and philosophy fire was embedded as a single, coherent existence with broad significance. Heraclitus of Ephesus, in the 6th and 5th century BCE, was the first Ionian natural philosopher to believe fire gave rise to all things and never remains still. The famous panta rhei (everything flows) made reference to change, dynamics, emergence and disappearance, which, according to Heraclitus, were symbolised by ever-living fire. It was the first cause of all things and reasonably ruled over and created all things. 


In the 5th century BCE Empedocles, a pluralist philosopher presented his arche (ultimate underlying substance). It was formed by four roots, later called elements, that is: water, air, fire and earth. This theory survives till present times and is called the first principle by philosophers. According to this principle matter is formed by continuous aggregation and segregation of passive components, that is, the four elements, built from particles, with two active components: harmony and disharmony – although, as the philosopher emphasised, all of them with ambivalent, symbolic meaning. Ignis – i.e. fire according to Empedocles – was hot and dry and it symbolised Zeus the god of thunder, the most important of the Greek gods. It was contrary to hot and humid air associated with life-giving Hera. Cold and dry earth was symbolised by Zeus’ brother Aidoneus (Hades), the god of the underworld, and cold and damp water was, according to the philosopher, Nestis, that is, Kore (or Persephone), the Queen of the Shades. However, the real god of fire was lame Hephaestus – the blacksmith of the gods. Thus, fire was an attribute of the gods, well-guarded in an underground forge. But because of a temporary lack of attention it was stolen from the Olympus forge by Prometheus, a Titan, and given to man whom – according to ancient Greek belief – he created from clay. Thus, Prometheus contributed to the emergence of civilisation but was severely punished by the gods.



In the Middle East, in the Sasanian Empire, from the 1st century CE the predominant religion was Zoroastrianism named after its founder. According to Zoroas-trianism, Ahura Mazda, the only divine entity identified with time, created the world, all good things and man. However, in this case the god created everything except fire in seven days. The respective elements were perfectly static and unchangeable. The god took some rest and only after that did he create fire and set the Universe in motion, giving rise to a continuous struggle with evil forces, that is, chaos known from other religions. For the followers of Zoroastrianism fire has been a special element of the cult and although befouled with smoke by evil forces it has a healing power and can make human wishes come true.



The origins of the Universe are slightly different in Norse mythology. It tells us of the realm of fire (Muspelheim, Muspel). The realm was home to fire giants whose neighbours in the north were the inhabitants of the realm of ice (Niflheim). One of those giants, called Surtr, was considered the god of fire since he always held a flaming sword to guard Muspelheim. Hitting the rocks in the Ginnungagap abyss dividing the two realms with his sword, Surtr created sparks with his sword stroke. This was the beginning of the Universe. Melting ice turned to water and sparks gave rise to the Universe.


Other polytheistic religions very often perceived fire as the demiurge, the constructor of the world deriving from the sun, a visual symbol of divine light often taking the form of a thunderbolt and lightning. The divine light had to be maintained over time to light up the dark underworld, purify things and emit its vitality. And fire and its flames, perceived as full of life, in many cultures symbolised sexual initiation and rebirth.


Holy fire  infernal fire


Fire from God became the subject of the cult itself. The cult was known and propagated in the ancient Levant and in the Far East where fire was obtained naturally from sources such as natural gases, oil, lightning strikes, spontaneous ignition of certain plants, and volcanic eruptions. The fire was kept alive in special temples as an element of the divine imprint. Strangely enough, it was kept in the dark, since people believed that it would lose its light and power when exposed to sunlight.


In ancient Greece or the Levant natural oddities were found such as geothermal sites with escaping pyrophoric gas. They became places of the cult of gods or the underworld and were also considered the dwellings of demons and sulphur-breathing dragons. Such a place and similar sites on the so-called volcano route near the Lycian Olympos in the mythology of the Greeks and inhabitants of Asia Minor were associated with the divine figure of Hephaestus – the gods’ blacksmith. According to legend, one of his forges was located in Lycia deep inside the mountain on which the ancient city of Olympos was built. A monster called Chimera, created by the gods as a warning to people, lived nearby. Such fire-breathing monsters are also present in Egyptian mythology and in Christianity and even in the mythologies of the Far East. They were primarily identified with the guards of the abode of the dead or hell. In Egyptian myths Duat (realm of the dead) was guarded by upright serpents, called Uraeuses, stinging with fiery venom at the gates of hell. Reference to similar beasts, with multiple lions’ heads breathing fire and sulphur, is also found in Christianity in the Apocalypse of St John. Later, they were omnipresent in medieval bestiaries. The vision of the end of the world anticipates many misfortunes caused by fire and sulphur from erupting volcanoes and earthquakes – after the seventh seal is broken.



As mentioned before, some plants, for example Dictamnus, can spontaneously catch fire. This phenomenon was used in the Old Testament in the parable of the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses. In 337 CE the Roman empress Helena ordered a chapel to be built in the place of the alleged miracle. Egyptians were also familiar with this kind of plants. They carefully guarded the pieces of the „flame tree” as they had to bring it from a remote island in the Red Sea. The tree – a bush on a cone-like base – is depicted in early hieroglyphs. According to hieroglyphic records the temple in Karnak had 60 such lighters at its disposal per month.



On the other hand, Aztec myths make reference to an eruption of a volcano. This is connected with the cult of Huehueteotl (Xiuhtecuhtli), the god of fire and the underworld who arrived from the city of Cuicuilco covered by lava from a volcano to the city of Teotihuacan, the birthplace of all deities. The sacred fire devoted to him was con-tinuously burning on the altar in the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan. His statues were placed inside graves to ensure he would take care of the dead in the afterlife. And the living would throw every first piece of food into a hearth whose goddess was called Chantico. She could be compared to a household deity in which ancient Greeks and Romans believed.


Small tribal communities considered keeping fire alive extremely important, which was also reflected in the rites and religions of nearly every civilisation. Gradually domestic life became concentrated around a hearth. Fire bonded the community, creating a peculiar family ring, which gave rise to primitive societies. Fires were often anthropomorphized. In Vedic religion, in Hinduism, Agni – the god of fire – accepted sacrifices offered to him on altars – i.e. hearths shaped as, for example, birds or turtles.


Similarly, Zoroastrians built special altars for the fire god where holy fire was re-lit and from where every inhabitant of the settlement could take it home. Until recently four such altars have been recognized by archa-eologists. The fifth and at the same the most important one with regard to the fact that the whole temple of fire was very well preserved was discovered in the late 1990s by Polish archaeologists in Mele Hairam (2nd century CE) in Turkmenistan, right on the border with Iran. The temple was made of eight rooms built from dried brick. The rooms were: a vestibule for the faithful, an ablution area and a dome-covered sanctuary and premises for priests, including the so-called clean place where they had a hallucinatory drink during the Haoma ritual. The faithful would leave their offerings for the god of fire on stucco benches in the hall. On the brick pedestal priests would place a pair of metallic stands each with a crescent-shaped brace at the top (Mah-rui), on which a bundle (barsom) of tamarisk, Cinchona, myrtle, or Punica – plants created by god – was placed; afterwards it was burnt and sprinkled with plenty of water from a pond since it was believed that such a practice would give good crops and divine grace.


Numerous reference to pyres connected with burnt offerings are present in the mythologies of South American cultures and also in the Old Testament. The latter also describes Abraham’s offering of his only son, Isaac, which God refused to accept, taking a lamb instead. From that moment all Israelites made animal offerings.



However, the most famous were the hearth temples in Greek and Rome devoted to Hestia and Vesta respectively. In ancient Greece newborns were ritually carried around the hearth as a sign of their admission into a family.


Domestic hearth as a central point


In the Old Egyptian pyramids archaeologists found clay models of houses. Those finds suggested that kitchens were quite primitive. The most interesting example was a craftsmen settlement discovered by archaeologists near Theban Necropolis, now referred to as Deir el-Medina, with its origins in the times of Thutmose I from the 18th dynasty of Egypt, because it illustrates a household, its spatial arrangement and planning. The houses were groundfloor buildings located near fortified walls and along thoroughfares. They consisted of a vestibule and four rooms, including a bedroom and a small household chapel. 



At the back of the house there was a space covered with a provisional roof, that is, mats made of branches pasted all over with clay. It had access to a deck by means of added stairs. In the provisional kitchen there was a dome-shaped, meagre bread oven also made from clay or portable metal grates placed over the fire on which meals were cooked. Pits in the ground were used as pantries.


In turn, in Babylonia and Asyria, despite their climate being quite moderate, in the colder season residential buildings were heated by means of portable terracotta vessel-shaped stoves into which live wood from an open kitchen hearth was put. Similar portable stoves, not only made from terracotta but also metal, were used in Crete in the period of Minoan culture (2000-1200 BCE) the demise of which could have been caused by an eruption of a volcano on the present-day island of Santorini, which today is associated with the myth of Atlantis. The discoveries of an amateur archaeologist, Arthur Evans, in the early 20th century were interesting finds revealing everyday culture in the realm of the mythological king Minos but from the present-day point of view they seem controversial. For decades a somehow falsified image of that culture was entrenched by fantastic reconstructions. Later archaeologists discovered numerous houses built as a wooden framework filled with dried brick around a cobbled internal porch where traces of open fire were found (Katsamba, Chamaizi, Tylissos, and Kephala). In turn, the discovery of a metallurgy workshop in Chrysokamino-Chomatas, dating back to the Late Minoan period, that is, the Bronze Age, made in the 1990s is a confirmation that Cretans were able to produce bronze utility objects, including portable stoves.


In Greece in the 3rd century BCE the megaron became a model for a rectangular house, with a hearth as its central point, covered with a roof supported on four columns. Carrying off smoke and fire hazard were still problems. In particular this referred to the kitchen where attempts were made to isolate hearths by low walls. Also, small brick or stone ovens (fornacula) were used for cooking with a recess in which the pot could be secured in place, which were a development of a dome-shaped oven (fornax) used for processing purposes in pot-making and construction, or baking oven (furnus).


In ancient Rome, houses, called villas, with an atrium and peristile inside, were most frequently heated by portable metal stoves. In kitchens hearths were lit on brick bases. The various rooms also included bathrooms with hypocaust heating. The best investigated were the houses in Pompeii (House of the Faun, House of the Vetti, and Villa dei Misteri), covered by volcanic ashes after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. In Rome there were also houses called insula, resembling contemporary storeyed tenement houses with an entrance from the street and a staircase inside. Those were heated by portable stoves or mainly torches.


With time central hearths, most often circular, safeguarded by a stone wall or recessed in floors – similar to the Japanse irori in the Kofun period (250-552 CE) – were transferred to corners or gable walls of houses. Exhaust gas was carried off through a special vertical flue. The most interesting in prehistoric Europe seem to be Scandinavian houses which had an open hearth along the axis of the building and from which smoke was carried off through door and window openings.