There are a wide range of symbols used around the world in literature and religion, but perhaps none are more recognized and more open to interpretation than fire.
Humans have taken advantage of fire for well over 400,000 years. Controlling it and using it to our advantage when cooking, staying warm, and producing tools has helped us evolve as a species.
Fire has been such a benefit to the human population that for thousands of years and from the earliest forms of literature and religion, fire has been written about, focusing on its ability to provide, protect and kill. It has been used to symbolize deepest desires, passion, rebirth, and resurrection, as well as hope, death, eternity, and many more. It can be interpreted positively and negatively depending on contexts which is why it can be so difficult to understand what you are reading.
Luckily that’s where we come in. Today we want to answer the questions you may have about how fire is used as a symbol and exactly what it means. We will take a look at what fire symbolizes in religion and how it is used in literature. This will then give you a greater understanding and knowledge of what you are looking at or reading.
What Can Fire Symbolize?
The symbolism of fire varies massively depending on its context. In one instance it may symbolize love and passion. In another instance, it may symbolize death and destruction. Two people may even read the same piece of literature and interpret the meaning of fire in two completely different ways.
Having said that, throughout time and history fire has gradually been repeatedly symbolized as a few key things. Improving our knowledge of these symbolic reoccurrences can help us better understand the incredibly complex relationship humans have with fire.
Whether it be in a religious context or a fictional piece of literature, fire can symbolize many things. In our article, we will be looking at some of the most common things fire symbolizes. They are as follows:
- Passion and Desire
- Rebirth and Resurrection
Passion And Desire
One of the most recognized things fire symbolizes is strong desire or passion. A flickering flame can rekindle or create thoughts of desire and passion that cannot be controlled or extinguished. You may have heard of love being described as “fiery passion”.
There is also a key link found between passion and fire in the phrase “light my life” which refers to somebody becoming inspired with a deep passion and desire that can be felt in their soul.
Examples of fire symbolizing passion and desire can be found in abundance. Many of Shakespeare’s plays contain themes relating fire to passion and desire. For example, in Henry VIII you will find lines connecting tears of pain to sparks of fire.
When writing this, Shakespeare was talking about turning sadness and heartache into a passionate action. It is at this moment in the play where Cardinal Wolsey is blamed for causing trouble in the Queen’s relationship.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare also symbolizes passion using fire by referring to the “fire sparkling” in the two lovers’ eyes.
Fire often symbolizes eternity and forever. It is commonly referred to as the ‘eternal flame’ which refers to the symbolic flame that protects life. It is believed that as long as the flame continues to burn, life will remain forever in the world.
Some of you may refer to the ‘eternal flame’ living within your own heart. The eternal flame is regularly used in religion or on memorials to remember people who have passed away. We commonly remember people we have lost through the burning of a flame.
The flames are used to not only respect the memory of someone who has passed but also to respect the memory of a lost loved one.
In some religions, fire or the burning flame is a special symbol that represents the memory of someone important to them living on.
Eternal flames are most commonly found at memorials, especially war memorials where multiple people are being remembered for the service they gave to their country.
A good example of an eternal flame is at the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin in Russia. At this World War II memorial, there is an eternal flame that never goes out. The flame is used as a sign of remembrance and respect for those that have died.
When you think of fire being used to symbolize something, Hell is probably right up there with your first thoughts. Almost all depictions of Hell incorporate fire in one way or another. Hell refers to the everlasting punishment and torment for an individual’s sins.
It is believed that in Hell, fire awaits us if we are sinful. It is here where those deserving of punishment will burn.
Hell is actually the most well-recognized symbolism of fire in the Christian religion. Also referred to as purgatory, fire symbolizes Hell because it is the place the soul goes to be purged of all its sins. Interestingly, as well as fire being a symbol of Hell and the devil in the Christian religion, it is also associated with God and the Holy Spirit.
Many authors have used fire to symbolize destruction and decimation. It isn’t hard to see why when humankind has witnessed firsthand just what fire can do. Fire has the ability to totally destroy anything it comes into contact with.
An example of one novel that used fire as a symbol for decimation and destruction is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In his famous book, Bradbury uses fire as a symbol of destruction. The main character in the book uses fire as a way to physically burn books so that knowledge is burned, keeping people in the dark.
This story of burning books uses the symbol of fire to symbolize the destructive nature of the human race and the power we have to decimate things.
On a lighter note fire can also be a symbol of hope and salvation. There are a few different reasons for this but the most common is its use as a tool for communicating over large distances due to its color, the warmth it provides as a protection from the cold, and how a fire seen on the horizon can be used as a place to rest.
Fire is used to symbolize hope in the film Mulan. In Mulan, fire is effectively used to send messages along the Great Wall of China.
One guard lights a flame. When the next guard sees the flame he lights the next fire. This works continuously until the fire’s message of hope reaches its destination. This resulted in warning messages being sent a lot quicker than if they were sent by foot.
Rebirth Or Resurrection
It is quite interesting to see how in literature and religion fire can symbolize life and death. This is a great way of showing just how unique and versatile the symbol of fire can be. The best story regarding the symbolization of fire and rebirth is through Greek mythology and the phoenix.
The phoenix is a mythical bird that dies as a result of fire and spontaneous combustion. The phoenix bursts into flames before turning into ash. From the new ashes, a reborn phoenix rises again.
In Greek mythology, it is believed that these birds can live to the grand age of 500 years before turning to ash and being reborn as a completely new phoenix. In today’s society, we can see the phoenix in modern writings like Harry Potter where the phoenix burst into flames before being reborn. Later on in the story, the same phoenix helps save the day.
As if there weren’t already enough symbols of fire, fire can also be a symbol of purity or purification. The idea of purification and purity also comes from the Bible and the Christian religion. It is believed that fire is supposed to help in the removal of sin from certain people or the world.
The reason this is a common belief could be related to the fact that fire burns, leaving very little if anything at all behind. This view was also taken hundreds of years ago when witches would be burned on the stake in an attempt to rid them of their evil. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
A good example of purification in the Christian religion is through the fires in Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah fell into sinful ways that weren’t appreciated by God. As punishment, God burns both cities to ash. In this act, fire is shown as a way of purifying the world by ridding the world of sinners.
Purification can also be linked to the possibility of rebirth. The symbol of the phoenix rising from the ashes can perhaps be seen here. Maybe the act of burning the cities to ash represents the beginning of a fresh start.
Fire has a unique ability to symbolize many things at the same time. It might be difficult to interpret fire in literature and religion in the way it was meant because it could mean multiple things. For example, did the author want to symbolize life or death? Rebirth or torment?
More often than not, to understand the intended meaning behind the symbolization we need to do our best to think about the context in which it is being used. When reading literature or religious scriptures for their contextual readings, we have more chances of seeing what the intent behind the writing was.
As you can see from our article there is a wide range of ways in which fire is used as a symbol with each one having lots of different meanings. In all honesty, we have only just scratched the surface on this topic. To fully understand all of the ways fire is used as a symbol more work needs to be done.