Fire, the most dramatic of the four elements and arguably the most sublime affects as all. As they rage through our forests and edge ever closer to our homes, due to the undeniable truth of a warming world, we are learning that fire cannot be caged. The symbol of passion, destruction and rebirth, encompassing both hope and hell, reigns supreme.
It heats our hearths, lights our torches, burns our effigies and destroys whatever lies in its path without mercy. It is how we describe a myriad of passions. What fills our hearts with lust, be it love, sex or violence, feelings all as untameable as the orange flames that roar.
We have tried since the dawn of mankind to harness the power of the gods, scraping rocks to create the sparks to keep us warm and like the early cave dwellers, artists for centuries have attempted to capture fire’s furious spirit onto canvas. It is the flickering of a candle that guides our way through the dark and it is the colour of pandemonium where its great fires burn eternally, volcanoes belching, waiting for the damned to fall.
Love and Death, 2000 -David Inshaw
Pandemonium, 1856 - John Martin
From the soothing meditations of a gentle flame and it’s glowing embers, to the savage power of a wildfire, unrelenting and all consuming, we continue to stare, hypnotised in dreadful awe.
How many Gods and deities have we imagined that are masters of fire? In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole it from the heavens to gift humanity with its blessings. The bible wrote of Elijah riding on a burning chariot pulled by horses aflame and Agni, the Sanskrit word for fire, is the Hindu deity of the same name that can be found in the rich Vedic mythology of ancient India. A word now used to describe many of its incarnations, from the heat we feel in our bellies and the stove that cooks our food to the celestial conflagration of the sun.
It is also what the phoenix bursts into and its ashes are from where it rises, surely the greatest mythological symbol of hope and renewal the world has so far created.
Depiction of a Phoenix - Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806
Silueta en Fuego, 1976 - Ana Mendieta
We’ve worshipped fire for as long as we’ve seen the sky and as humans are so want to do, we’ve tried to control and conquer nature, often arrogantly, sometimes foolishly but also magically. We’ve walked over hot coals and swallowed flaming spears. We've built campfires to tell stories around and ward off evil spirits and set pyres alight to celebrate and mourn our loved ones and to give sacrifice to all those deities we’ve created. There are rituals upon rituals, gods upon gods, all bowing to the voice of the fire.
And as climate change continues to evolve and the world continues to blaze, it’s a sobering reminder that we are merely mortal beings rather than the masters we imagined. We are still those Neanderthals hunkering down in caves, trying to control the flames. We’re still marveling and cowering at nature’s power, humbled and stricken in the same breath, and rightly so. There are some things we will never be able to tame, and fire is wild in the truest sense of the word.
Perhaps rather than continuing to steal and utilise nature for our own excessive benefit, now is the time to listen and restore what we have so far destroyed, to hark back to our older ways of worship with a new found appreciation, in the hope that new life will still be able to grow amongst the ashes.
Lesnoi pozhar, 1900 - A. K. Denisov-Uralsky
*Cover photograph - Landscape for Fire, 1972 - Anthony McCall