Fire and Faith

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Fire is universally understood to be related to the sun and to lightning, but also to the hearth and home, so that its mythology is often concerned with the transfer from one reality to another -- cosmic to domestic.  It is the element that embodies the very nature of the relationship between these states of existence.  

Eternal Flame

The ancient Persians saw fire as the living embodiment of Light, itself a symbol of Good. This belief was later developed by the prophet, Zarathustra whose dates are usually given as ca. 630 - ca. 550 BCE.  Called Zoroaster by the Greeks, he took issue with the cult of Mithras, Vanquisher of the Bull, and promoted the revival of the ancient native religion centering on a conflict between Good and Evil.  Though the original beliefs are encoded in the most ancient of scriptures, the Vedas, and fire rituals in honour of Agni are done by Hindu priests, by yogis and also by certain Buddhists, people who follow the newer faith developed in Persia are known as Zoroastrians. 

Since the rise of Islam and its establishment in Iran, most of their descendants known as the Parsis live in India.  Their temple is built around a sacred fire that is continuously maintained by special priests.

Fire Deities

Apollo is associated with the fire of the Sun as it is he who was considered the driver of the horses of His chariot that makes its way from east to west across the heavens.  Depiction of the Greek god in this role is almost identical with that of the Indian sun god,  Surya.  In China, it is Zhu Rong who is the deity that ensures the sun's regular habits.

In Greek mythology, Hestia, goddess of the hearth or home-fire, is a daughter of Chronos and Rhea, and like Apollo, one of the 12 Olympian deities.  The Romans adopted her as Vesta, but transformed her cult to some degree.  On the 13th of August, Diana the Protectress was worshipped with fires around her sacred pool in the grove at Nemi, and she was honored in similar fashion at people's homes.  

The epithet, Vesta, emphasized her identification with sacred fire.  (The sacred scripture of Zoroastrian (Persian) religion whose most potent symbol is fire, is called the Zend Avesta.)  Noble Roman families were honoured to have a daughter chosen for lifelong service as one of the Vestal virgins whose duty it was to ensure that the sacred flame was eternally maintained at her temple, for the safety of Rome was believed to depend on it.  The uninterrupted flame was, in turn, believed to be dependant upon their scrupulous chastity.

In the Zoroastrian tradition where fire is the ultimate symbol of divinity, there are three fire-types: priestly Farnbag, Gushnasp -- fire of warriors, and Burzen Mir -- fire of workers.  Holy fire is also of three types: Bahram, the king and symbol of righteousness, Adaran, effective against forces of darkness and Dadgah, a lesser, though still effective, kind.

But essential fire, addressed as Son of God, is considered the embodiment of Ahura Mazda (or Ormazd) who is all-good and all-light.

In Japanese myth, Kagutsuchi or Homusubi are names for the Fire-god.  

The Toltec (Mexican) Old God, Xiuhtecuhtli is the creator and he is depicted as a toothless old man carrying a brazier on his back.

Finnish myth says that fire is a child of the sun that is cradled in a copper tub.

Feeding the Fire

Hoppal, at the Hyaldas Folklore web site, includes:

The Samoyeds also believed that fire was a living being, notably an old woman. The licking flames of the fire are her movements, and She is the guardian of the tent, who immediately gets angry if someone throws trash or trodden wood shavings, or spits into the fire, or hits it. When children lost their teeth, they told them to throw the teeth into the fire, so that 'Old Grandmother Fire' could give them new ones instead. They where awed by fire, and respected its power so much that their swore by it, saying "May I be devoured by Old Grandmother Fire if I am guilty!" (Lehtisalo 1924, 103).

Thus the custom of feeding the fire reveals the traits of a good attitude towards the fire spirit. This custom has survived up to the present time. When sitting down to dinner, a senior person, if not all the persons are present at the dinner, is sure to throw a piece of foodstuff, pour some soup, tea or alcohol to the fire.

and

The taboos connected with the cult of fire are aimed not to hurt or pollute fire which gives pure warmth and to life property, so that the people are forbidden to pour water on fire hastily, throw any unclean sweepings to the fire, or to spit into the fire. It used to be forbidden to stir up fire with sharp metal objects, otherwise the hostess of fire might be wounded. Women and girls are forbidden to step over the fire, since they are considered unclean and may pollute the fire." (Barmich 1990, 1-2).

Tricksters

The Greek trickster Prometheus is credited with having stolen fire from the gods to give to humanity to better our condition.  In the lower Congo region of Africa, Spider Anansi performs a similar role, while further south it is Mantis that catches Ostrich using fire to cook a meal.  She tries to hide her fire under her wing, but he tricks her into reaching for a fruit.  Having been humiliated and learning from this mistake, she never again will lift her wings, and so can never fly!  

The trickster motif also is prevalent in Polynesia, and in the Gilbert Islands fire was stolen by Bu'e who snared it from the sun.  In the Amazon, it is the human who is the trickster.  The boy is rescued from high in a tree by a benevolent Jaguar, but when he smells the delicious aroma of roast meat in its lair, he steals a coal.

The Salish in what is now British Columbia, like many other native American peoples, tell how fire was stolen by a hero only to be passed from animal to animal until it is bestowed upon mankind.

Transformer

The northern Europeans had the custom of the funeral pyre, to judge by the account of the death of Baldr as retold in the Prose Edda (1220 CE):   " ... his wife Nanna, daughter of Nep, saw that [Baldr's body on the pyre,] her heart broke from grief and she died.  She was carried onto the pyre and it was set alight."

Today burning with fire is still considered a way to convey something to the land of the dead or to the underworld.   Special replicas known as "Hell" money is burnt by some observant Chinese mourners so that it can be sent along for the dead person to use in the afterlife. 

Demeter, goddess of the earth's fertility was using the hearth fire to burn away the mortality of her charge, Demo'ophon, when his mother Queen Metaneira interrupted this act of divine intercession.

Hephaistos god of the earth's fire was also a god of transformative qualities; he could make wondrous items such as the magic metal net to trap his faithless friend, Ares.  In the myth his nature is not in harmony with that of the sun however, for the latter will not reveal what he knows about his wife Aphrodite's adulterous activities.  The Romans equated him with Vulcan, but in fact, his name was used as an epithet for destructive fire and so he is addressed as 'Quietus' and 'Mulciber' and his temple was generally outside the city limits. 

The benevolent aspects of fire were known to the ancient Iranians as the god, Attar.  (The perfumers' attar of roses means 'ashes of roses'.) The Armenians called the fiercer fire, Vahagn [cf. Agni.]  He surged from the sea as lightning to bring fire to humanity's service.  

In Chinese mythology, it was Hoshang ruler of the seven regions, who cast a stone at the fire-surge demon which then caused a spark as it struck another stone and so gave rise to the tamer fire of the hearth. 

The Mongols say that "Iron is the father and stone is the mother of fire" but they also see fire as the deity called Galai Khan or Gali-Edzin, that is Fire-master.  They hold that fire caused by lightning is superior to other fire.  

In Siberia, Ulu-tojun or Ulgen struck together a black and a white stone causing fire to leap as lightning to earth and start a grass fire.  The Ostiaks (near the Yenisei river) describe the milk-white throne of Yryn-ai-tojon the Fire God, with its three sets of silver stairs that lead to it.

Buriat tales recount how Porcupine who was the inventor of fire was about to share this blessing with people when a girl in the crowd laughed.  He therefore only whispered to his wife the trick of striking fire from flint, but the gods sent a hawk to eavesdrop and so the secret got out. 

Tungus-speaking Mongolians say that the Thunderbird brought it down to earth. And in eastern Europe the tradition of a bird as an agent of fire appears in the Russian tale that is the foundation for Stravinsky's music and the ballet Firebird.

~  thanks to Tsai Chang-Hsien, 1998

Keeping the Sacred Fire

In India, there are sadhus (wandering ascetics) today, some living without wearing any clothing (those are known as nagas (serpent spirits), who still exemplify the ancient Indian ascetic tradition.  One of the lineages of sadhus is the Juna Akhara (est. 1106) in which each practitioner keeps his or her own dhuni or sacred fire.  Less than half of the other lineages do so.

The fire pit used may be round or square and is faced with a fresh layer of cow-dung which, being one of the five sacred products of the cow, is considered, as of course are milk and butter, a purifying substance.

The pit is adorned with fresh flowers, usually the golden marigold which is noted for also being purifying since it is a well-known repellent of noxious insects besides being of the noble (Arya) colour of kings.

The surrounding area is sprinkled with water and the practitioner's ritual utensils are arranged near it.  These may include a staff or trident, and a damaru (the two-headed drum which is said to provide the rhythm for Shiva's dance).

The daily fire puja (ritual) is performed at dusk.

The Agnicayana Ritual in India (1975-1976) is an ethnographic film (Smithsonian Institute item AS-76.2.1) by Robert Gardner and anthropologist Frits Staal that records "the world's oldest surviving ritual," the Agnicayana.  This 12-day Vedic sacrifice to Agni was purportedly performed for the last time in its entirety in 1975 in Kerala.   It shows the construction of the sacrificial enclosure, the ritual implements, and the altars as well as the recitation and performance of the Vedic liturgy by the Nambudiri priests and their helpers.  The ritual ends with the destruction of the ceremonial complex by the fire. 

 The film includes interviews with Indian and Western scholars about the significance of the loss of this ancient tradition and whether it is possible to revive it.  An edited version, Altar of Fire, was produced from the scholarly project.

Ashes

Ash from a sacred fire is generally called vibhuti and, besides being used for the body-markings of Shaiva sadhus, is offered to participants in the ritual as prasad (consecrated food considered as ambrosia.) 

Of especial value is the ash of a cremation fire as it is believed to be most powerful in the transmutation of the self and also, in the transformation of karma.

Transmutation

Included in the tradition of asceticism is the idea that food is medicine for the sustaining of the body, and  hence, that it should not  be used unnecessarily.  

It is transmuted into prasad (divine offering) not only by the saying of mantras (prayer formulas) but by offering a bit to the sacred fire.

In fact, special foods such as rice or clarified butter (ghee) were traditionally offered to the fire to seal social contracts such as marriage.

Worship has often been likened to a contract in which there is an exchange of services so that when we request help from a deity we are expected to pay for it in a material fashion.  It also forms a sort of bribe or fee for protection.  

Fire in Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism, red Pandaravasini, the consort of Amitabha, one of the five primordial Buddhas, is associated with the element of fire.  

Also, the triya or plate upon which a mandala is offered is decorated with a rim of stylized flames.  This motif, besides symbolizing the edge of the mythological universe's boundaries, hearkens back to the ancient fire puja.  The flame motif also appears at the outer edge of painted mandalas or those that are appliquéd on tangkas (Tibetan scrolls).

Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche discussing the Buddhist shrine offerings says

"Light . . . signifies the stability and clarity of patience, the beauty which dispels all ignorance. The light offering is made to the eyes of all the enlightened beings, who see clearly without mistake. Some people feel patience is showing weakness or pessimism. But, actually, patience shows the strength and clarity of mind, which are based on wisdom and compassion."

Commemorative Offering of Fire

A contemporary fire puja (Hind. yajna) may be performed by Hindu priests or by Buddhist lamas and qualified practitioners to benefit an individual, to celebrate an event or even to honour local deities.  

There are three kinds of fire or smoke offerings that can be requested/sponsored:

 1. Jinsik < jin (giving/offering) sik (burning), of which there are 5 different types: peaceful, expansive, magnetizing, wrathful and a combination of the four.  The Jinsik fire puja is usually done on a Lama's recommendation or at the end of a long retreat.

 2. Sang (purify) This is an offering done with a view to purifying one's environment or one's physical body and mind.  It is done to help resolve problems with personal health, social standing, and/or business, but it is also performed in times of high winds, drought, floods, insect invasion,  or to alleviate any generally inauspicious circumstance.

 3. Sur.  This is dedicated to "hungry ghosts" or the recently deceased.  It is believed that Pretas can only eat  by means of smell, so by placing scented offerings in the fire those disembodied beings can be satisfied.  A sur puja is done when there is uncomfortable energy in a house or during the 49-day interval after the death of a relative or friend.

As part of the ritual, offerings of flowers, incense, fruit and candles are set out on the shrine.  Depending upon the type of puja, the substances to be offered to the fire differ.

Fire is offered to the teacher

In ancient days, a student approached the guru (teacher) bearing a gift of firewood.  So that we can think of a donation of money as the means for purchasing fuel.

Juniper wood is burned in Tibet both as an expression of generosity to all beings and as an act which is thought to purify the environs for a ritual.  

Butter lamps which are found burning before any Tibetan Buddhist shrine combine a fire offering with one of the precious products of the cow (or its relatives).

Nowadays, in the interests of cleanliness and safety, paraffin or unscented lamp oil is often substituted, since butter burns with a notoriously blackening smoke.

In many traditions, the passions of human beings such as lust and greed are thought of as fires that can burn any aspirations for enlightenment.

In contrast, spiritual attainment itself is thought of as a fire, but one that brings light while extinguishing the self.

From "In the company of monks," 'The work: grain by grain'  about the visit by Drepung monks constructing an Akshobya mandala, Savannah [Georgia] Morning News, Jan. 19, 2003:

On the afternoon of January 6th, firefighters arrived at the Telfair Museum, sirens wailing and hoses drawn, ready to put out a fire. What they found in the rotunda was a room full of monks making a mandala.

"This is a fire that you can't put out," Silver told them.

Experts in energy, he said that the heat generated by the monks during their first day of work is what tripped the alarm.

"These are the modern day ghost busters," Silver said. "These boys know how to move energy around."

                                                          

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