Since Prometheus stole it from the gods and gave it to us, fire has been a paradox, destroying and regenerating as it blazes its trail throughout human history. Man’s contradictory relationship with fickle fire was kindled the moment our ancestors struck two pieces of flint together. On the one hand, fire is merely the visible aspect of combustion, but it also reflects the metaphysical embodiment of our aspirations.
It is the most malleable of symbols – rebirth and purification in the case of the Phoenix, damnation and death in the Christian apocalypse. It is used to explain the spark of creativity that fans the flames of imagination and also to dampen our basest instincts with the threat of the hell that awaits all transgressors. Fire has no moral code of its own – it’s equally adept at toasting marshmallows or heretics.
It cooks our food and warms our homes. It changes the form and relations of things. It is used to smelt and forge. We invoke it when we’re sacked from our jobs or shooting a gun, and our tempers can be as fiery as our relationships, yet it also depicts our inspiration and the eternal flame of love. We kid ourselves that we have power over it, no matter how many times it chooses to remind us who’s really in charge.
For we are not its masters (though surely the first cave dweller to harness it felt himself a god) merely its slaves. The ancients hoped to appease it through worship; from the sun god Ra to the pagan Beltane bonfires, man has paid homage to fire. In life, many choose to believe that Jehovah spoke through bushes and tongues of it; in death many choose to dispose of their dead with it.
Jimi Hendrix wanted to stand next to it, Jim Morrison pleaded for you to light his, Jerry Lee Lewis had great balls of it, whilst the cowardly Billy Joel denied all knowledge of its ignition. In the end, it doesn’t matter if fire is benevolent or malevolent – without it, we would all be just sacks of cold clay.
Stephen McQuiggan liked nothing more than walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, and taunting magpies until he fell into a sudden and inexplicable coma. His first novel, A Pig’s View Of Heaven, is available now from Grinning Skull Press.