Listen to Arden Henley reading this article (15:45)
In memory of Liam Farrell Sanders, (1964-2023).
And everything changes; the fire of long ago is different from today’s fire. Gaston Bachelard.
Philosopher of poetics Gaston Bachelard wrote in his The Psychoanalysis of Fire, originally published in French in 1938, “Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love…. It is a tutelary and a terrible divinity, both good and bad.” (1964, p. 7).
“Good and bad” indeed. Reporting for the CBC, John Paul Tasker writes “Canadian wildfire officials said Friday that the 2023 wildfire season is easily the worst ever recorded, with millions of hectares already burned – and they’re expecting ‘higher than normal’ activity to continue throughout the late summer and fall”. Tasker further notes “Federal data reveals just how devastating this wildfire season has already been with more than 5,500 reported so far – events that have burned approximately 13.4 million hectares”. While many of these fires are suspected to have been started by the carelessness of human beings, the climate crisis accounts for the hot and dry conditions in which most fires originate. However, I intend to speak of fire in mythopoetic, rather than material terms.
Bachelard considers fire to represent “a problem that no one has managed to approach objectively, one in which the initial charm of the object is so strong that it still has the power to warp the minds of the clearest thinkers and to keep bringing them back to the poetic fold in which dreams replace thought and poems conceal theorems” (1964, p. 5). There can be no doubt fire is an element to be respected. Fire as a symbol is sacred, mysterious, ineffable; “For a long time it was believed that to resolve the enigma of fire was to resolve the central enigma of the Universe” (1964, p. 60), an ancient alchemical desire.
Where I live, throughout the autumn, winter and early spring, we spend much of our time around our wood burning fire, and the hearth. The fire dispels early morning chill from the air, and we warm our hands on mugs of hot coffee, talking, reading, sharing meals, gazing over the deck and through the forest to the Salish Sea beyond. Or, often, sitting in silent contemplation. All the while cultivating the home fire, literally and metaphorically.
At night, fire and candlelight, wine, music. The magic of fire light, candlelight. Gazing into the fire, we become entranced, watching the flames, imagining, remembering, being transported, becoming reacquainted with the language of enchantment that Bachelard claims we have lost.
“We have lost the language of enchantment” (1969, p. 118).
As legend and myth has it, the gods and others did not wish human beings and other sentient beings to possess fire, possess light. Better we remain in darkness. We read in Greek mythology how Prometheus, God of fire, liberated fire from the coveting and possessive gods, introducing light and the warmth of fire to humankind.
Freud (1964) in his essay “The Acquisition and Control of Fire” (written in 1932) proposed that “The obscurity of the Prometheus legend, as of other fire-myths, is increased by the fact that primitive man [sic] was bound to regard fire as something analogous to the passion of love – or, as we should say, as a symbol of the libido…” (p. 190). Freud observed that as punishment for his transgression and theft of fire “Prometheus was chained to a rock, and every day a vulture fed on his liver…” further noting “In ancient times the liver was regarded as the seat of all passions and desires…” (1964, p. 189). In terms of Freud’s ideas regarding repression, human beings become punished for expressing fiery passion, desire. “Man [sic] is a creation of desire, not a creation of need” (Bachelard, 1964, p. 16).
In the Haida legend of how light came into the world, Raven cajoled fire from his grandfather who’d kept it hidden away in a box. In the beginning “…the whole world was dark. Inky, pitchy, all-consuming dark, blacker than a thousand stormy winter nights, blacker than anything anywhere has been since” (Reid & Bringhurst, 1996, p. 19). Raven transformed himself into a hemlock needle and was swallowed by a young woman who lived with the old man, her father, he who “had a box which contained a box which contained an infinite number of boxes each nestled in a box slightly larger than itself until finally there was a box so small all it could contain was all the light in the universe” (Reid & Bringhurst, 1996, p. 19).
The young woman birthed Raven, who “at last emerged triumphantly in the shape of a human boychild”. This child, forever and always, fascinated by the sphere of light in his father’s box took it one day. Having taken possession of fire, the light, Raven flew up into the sky ”…rejoicing in his wonderful new possession, admiring the effect it had on the world below, reveling in the experience of being able to see where he was going, instead of flying blind and hoping for the best. He was having such a good time that he never saw Eagle until the Eagle was almost upon him. In a panic he swerved to escape the savage outstretched claws, and in doing so he dropped a good half of the light he was carrying. It fell to the ground below and there broke into pieces – one large piece and too many small ones to count. They bounced back into the sky and remain there today as the sun, moon and the stars that glorify the night” (Reid and Bringhurst, 1985/1996, p. 23). Star light. Moon light. Sun light. All an illuminating gift of trickster Raven.
In the Raven cycle of legends, there exist many versions of the story of how Raven brought fire and light, sun and moon and stars, into the human realm (Ayre, 1961).
Nevertheless, fire was of the utmost importance, offering light, providing warmth during the cold and rainy winters and allowing for the cooking of meat, the smoking of fish, and other practices situated around the hearth and the smoke hole. “The heart of a place is the home, and the heart of the home is the firepit, the hearth” (Snyder, 1990, p. 26).
We are informed that “In the classical world, for example, fire was of utmost importance in the rites having to do with the city or the house. We must remember that, for both Greeks and Romans, the sacred fire of the city was ‘its prime altar, the origin of its identity and the fount of religious life’. Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth, was ‘the ‘focus’ of the internal space of the city…the ‘home you start from.’” (Fernandez-Galiano & Carino, 2000, p. 11).
Hestia, goddess of the fire burning upon the hearth. In the ancient Orphic Hymn 84 to Hestia we read of “Hestia…who dwellest amidst great fire’s eternal flame; in sacred rites these ministers are thine, mystics much blessed, holy and divine. In thee the Gods have fixed their dwelling place, strong, stable basis of the mortal race”.
In Ireland, legend tells us that in pagan pre-Christian times, Brigid the Exalted One was goddess of the hearth, of passion and of fire, of poetry, spring and fertility, and smithing. Brigid was also associated with birthing and healing. For example, “The ancient Celts also had rituals where an expectant mother would walkover ashes and embers, seeking the protection of Brigid for their unborn children” (Dhar, 2023).
Etymologically, “Brigid has been Anglicized from the Old Irish Brid in multiple ways…Stemming from the Proto-Celtic word Briganti, meaning ‘the high One’ or ‘the Exalted One,’ Brigid is the origin of the popular name Bridget. The name likely refers to the goddesses’ connection to sunlight and fire, but may also be related to dawn goddesses across the Indo-European world” (Wright, 2022, italics in original).
Many believe this pagan goddess became the Catholic St. Brigid of Kildare, patron saint of Ireland. Brigid was a close friend of St Patrick, it is told, and she started a school devoted to metalwork. She is the patron saint of beer! She is reputed to have founded the first nunnery in Ireland. “Holy fire” was perpetually maintained at her abbey until political disputes between Catholic and Protestants resulted in the fire being extinguished. Elizabeth I had the Kildare abbey fire and all other Catholic monastic lights in Ireland extinguished during her reign.
In a narrative found in the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses: “And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually…” (Exodus 27:20-21). In Judaism tradition, the ner tamid, or, eternal light, eternal flame, remains burning above the ark in the synagogue, while in Catholic churches the Sanctuary Lamp, or chancel lamp, usually contained within a red glass holder, burns perpetually signifying the presence of Christ, the “true light which enlighteneth every man [sic]” (John 1:9).
Fire, light, illumination, revelation, epiphany. Fire itself is not a given and is not to be taken for granted. As we have seen with Raven, transgression and trickery is often involved with the coming of fire, the coming of light. In myth and legend, Bachelard observes, “In many cases the fire is stolen. The Prometheus complex is dispersed over all the animals in creation. The one stealing the fire is most often a bird, a wren, a robin, a hummingbird, some small creature. Sometimes it is a rabbit, a badger, or a fox who carries off the fire at the end of its tail” (1964, p. 35). In other myths and legends, as attested to by Frazer’s (1930) Myths of the Origin of Fire, it is Rabbit or Coyote who brings fire to human communities.
Bachelard citing Frazer (1930) in his hermeneutics regarding fire writes “Elsewhere women fight one another: ‘finally one of the women breaks her cudgel and immediately there comes forth from it fire.’ Fire is also produced by an old woman who ‘vented her rage by breaking off two sticks from the trees and rubbing them violently together.’ On several occasions the creation of fire is associated with a similar act of violence: fire is the objective phenomenon of an inner rage, of a hand which has become irritable” (1964, pp. 35-36). Bachelard concludes, “We can distinguish then between many kinds of fire – gentle fire, cunning fire, unruly fire – by characterizing them according to the initial psychology of the desires and passions” (1964, p. 36).
For Paracelsus, as noted by Bachelard (1964) “The equation of fire and life forms the basis of the system of Paracelsus. For Paracelsus, fire is life, and whatever secretes fire bears the seeds of life” (p. 73).
On B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, the acrid smoke from nearby fires assails my nostrils each morning when I prepare coffee and go to sit on the deck overlooking the forest. Recently, we have been visited by one, and on some days two, Steller’s jays. I read only this morning the Steller’s jay was related to Raven (Browne, 2016, p. 99).
In mythology, the Steller’s jay “…is the message of hope in disrepair and the will to live. The jay is willing to teach you fearlessness, adaptability and survival but you must be willing to follow its lead” (Stolen, 2011). A transformed relationship with fire requires that we understand its mythopoetic import to human beings.
These past several weeks my large extended family and I, including our mother, my siblings, their partners, nieces, nephews and others’ – have been mourning the fentanyl poisoning death of Liam, my youngest sibling. While the fire of life was extinguished for Liam, the fire of love remains. We abide now with memories, photographs, images of his smile, the sound of his laughter. I look to the sudden presence of the Steller’s jay as an omen, a sign. “I find my bearings where I become lost” (Helene Cixous).
Ayre, R. (1961). Sketco the Raven. Toronto: MacMillan Company.
Bachelard, G. (1938/1964). The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Boston: Beacon Press.
Bachelard, G. (1960/1964). The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos. Boston: Beacon Press.
Browne, C. (2016). Entering Time: The Fungus Man Platters of Charles Edenshaw. Vancouver: Talonbooks.
Bryan, V. Heraclitus: The Fire and the Flux. Classical Wisdom. January 22, 2014. https://classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/pre-socratics/heraclitus-fire-flux/
Campbell, P. Was Saint Brigid a Pagan Goddess? Catholic Arena, January 31, 2023. https://www.catholicarena.com/latest/saintbridgidpagan
Cixous, H & Calle-Gruber, M. (1994/1997). rootprints: Memory and life writing. Trans. By Eris Prenowitz. London & New York: Routledge.
Dhar, R. Brigid Goddess: Irish deity of Wisdom and Healing. February 6, 2012. https://history cooperative.org/brigid-goddess/
Frazer, J. G. (1930). Myths of the Origin of Fire. London: MacMillan & Co.
Freud, S. (1964). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXII (1932-36). London: The Hogarth Press.
Snyder, G. The Practice of the Wild. New York: North Point Press & Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Reid, B. & Bringhurst, R. (1984/1996). The Raven Steals the Light. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre & Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Stolen, J. Summit Outside. Steller’s Jay: not your ordinary blue bird. February 20, 2011. https://www.summitdaily.com/news/summit-outside-stellers-jay-not-your-ordinary-blue-bird/
Tasker, J. P. Canada reports worst wildfire season on record – and there’s more to come this fall. CBC News. August 11, 2023. https://www.cbc.ca/news/poltics/canada-wildfire-season-worst-evermore-to-come-1.6934284
Wright, G. Celtic Goddess: Brigid. November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/brigit
Colin James Sanders PhD, lives with his partner Gail and their creature companions on unceded traditional lands of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw and the shíshálh Nation on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. In addition to learning from his grandchildren, reading, writing, painting, and travelling, Colin is a member of the Editorial Board of The GTEC Reader.