Of all the major symbols in literature, art, and religion, perhaps no symbol is more ambiguous and double-edged than fire. Fire symbolism can simultaneously denote illumination and purification and destruction and pain. What are some of the main meanings of fire symbolism in literature and art over the centuries?
Fire-symbolism in classical myth
In Greek mythology, the symbolism of fire is bound up with the myth of Prometheus, the storey which explains how mankind came into possession of fire, thus enabling man to form civilisations. Of the four Aristotelian elements, fire is the only one which man can create, so the gift of fire symbolises kinship between mortals and gods.
However, in Hesiod’s telling of the story (in his Theogeny), the earliest full account of the story of Prometheus, man already had possession of fire, but Zeus withdrew it. Prometheus, then, stole divine fire back from his fellow gods and give it back to man.
Prometheus, being cunning and rebellious, outwitted Zeus, and stole the flare of eternal fire from Mount Olympus in, of all things, a tube of fennel. He then took this flame to Earth, and gave it to men.
We have analysed the Prometheus myth, unpicking some of the misconception surrounding the story, in more detail here.
It’s important to note that these elements – Prometheus as a trickster, and as the one who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man – exist in other cultures and other myths, too. For instance, there are Polynesian figures who stole fire from the gods, and Loki, the Norse trickster god, is associated with fire.
As Hans Biedermann notes in his The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), these trickster-figures are probably associated with fire because of its unstable and ambiguous nature.
Fire symbolism in Christianity
The most famous symbolism of fire in Christian art and scripture is the fires of hell, denoting everlasting torment and punishment for one’s sins. In Purgatory, fire supposedly purges the soul of sin, and this is an important element of Roman Catholic doctrine.
At the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit – part of the Holy Trinity along with God and Jesus Christ – descended upon Christ’s Apostles in the form of ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’. So, once again fire possesses ambiguous symbolism: the element is associated with both the Devil and hell, and with God and the Holy Spirit with its purifying tongues of flame.
The Fire Sermon and Buddhism
In Buddhism, the Fire Sermon (the Ādittapariyāya Sutta) is about liberating oneself from suffering through detaching oneself from one’s senses, including one’s desires: the sensual as well as the sensory, we might say. Everything is burning within us, Buddha tells us: passion, hatred, and delusion. Buddha advises people to teach themselves to become ‘disgusted’ or disenchanted with their senses so they can attain a healthy detachment: through being dispassionate (rather than passionate), he is freed from these senses.
In 1922, T. S. Eliot published his poem The Waste Land, the third section of which is titled ‘The Fire Sermon’. This section ends with references to ‘burning’ and focuses on the sensual passions and the insufficiency of a life lived in pursuit of fulfilment of one’s carnal desires.
In his note, Eliot comments of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon that it ‘corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount’ in Christianity. Another modern poet, William Empson, wrote his own translation of the Buddhist Fire Sermon, which acts as preface to his Collected Poems.
Fire symbolism in literature
Poets have often played on the symbolism of fire: fire denoting the hot passions (lust, rage, or intense desire). In his Sonnet 45, having discussed the other two classical elements in Sonnet 44, Shakespeare considers air and fire:
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide …
In Shakespeare’s time, mainstream scientific belief was that everything was made up of just four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The two elements, air and fire, are both absent from the Bard in this poem, as they have flown to his beloved: air represents his thought, and fire his desire, and they are both present and absent: present because he thinks about his beloved and desires him, but absent because they have flown to be with his beloved. Clever, eh?
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), in his poem ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’, explored the ancient idea attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus that fire created everything:
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair …
One of Hopkins’s most ambitious and innovative poems, this poem begins as a Petrarchan sonnet but is then extended into a longer 24-line poem. Hopkins considers the chaotic world of nature – which seems to bear out Heraclitus’ notion that everything came from fire and will return to it – and then finds comfort in the chaos by recalling his faith in the Christian idea of the Resurrection.
More recently, in his short poem ‘Fire and Ice’, Robert Frost ponders: will the world end in fire or ice? These images suggest various things – fire suggests rage, war, passion; ice suggests cold indifference and passivity – and can be interpreted in a number of ways, which lends this classic short poem an ambiguity and deep symbolic quality. It was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
During the Second World War, the modernist poet T. S. Eliot wrote ‘Little Gidding’. Each of the four poems that make up Eliot’s final great poetic achievement, Four Quartets, is loosely based around one of the four classical elements.
In the last of the four poems, ‘Little Gidding’, that element is fire, which is a symbol of both powerful destruction (such as that emblematised by the German bomber planes during the Blitz, described as a ‘dove descending’, bring terrifying flames but also, peace?) and refinement and salvation (influenced by Dante).