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fire

fire, the phenomenon of combustion as seen in light, flame, and heat. One of the basic tools of human culture, its use is extremely ancient, predating the existence of Homo sapiens by several hundred thousand years or more. In ancient Greece and later, fire was considered one of the four basic elements, a substance from which all things were composed. Its great importance to humans, the mystery of its powers, and its seeming capriciousness have made fire divine or sacred to many peoples. Fire as a god is a characteristic feature of Zoroastrianism, in which, as in many sun-worshiping religions, fire is considered the earthly representative or type of the sun. The belief that fire is sacred is widespread in mythology, and such beliefs have survived in some highly developed cultures. The connection between the Greek colony and the metropolis was the fire kindled in the colony from a brand brought from the mother city's fire. The most carefully preserved cult in Rome was that of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, and her virgins guarded the holy fire. One of the greatest Greek myths is the story of Prometheus, the fire bringer. The theft of fire is a common element in the myths of many other cultures. The ramifications of the human ideas about fire are tremendously complex, extending as they do into the concepts about light and the heavens.

See J. G. Frazer, Myths of the Origins of Fire (1930, repr. 1971); G. Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire (tr. 1964).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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