Fire is one of the four basic elements believed to be composing the universe and necessary to human life and the continuity of human existence. The simple word ‘fire’ has, over the years, acquired a large number of connotative meanings and seems to envelop the whole area of human life ranging from its daily needs like the cooking of meals, and the heating of rooms to emotional and poetical meanings. Fire is required for the purposes of war and peace, for the performance of many religious ceremonies, and for the continuation of civilization. Yet. it is one of the most primitive forces present.
One can only guess how man learnt to ignite a fire. Perhaps the use of fire preceded this knowledge of the method of lighting a fire. Primitive man, when he chanced upon a burning fire, kept it burning for long periods. It gave him light and offered him protection from wild animals. Later he learnt that tools could be hardened, metals melted, and food cooked. Gradually he also learnt that fire could be lit in a number of ways – by knocking two stones together or pieces of broken pottery or bamboo sticks. He was later to learn the use of matchsticks. gas lighters and electric lighters. Fire held him in awe. This was partly due to the mysterious origins of fire. And in most of the ancient. pre-Christian religions, fire had a place of worship. The Hindus worship it and it is necessary for the performance of a “Yagna” or a religious offering of prayers and for the performance of a marriage ceremony. The funeral pyre is also consumed by fire.
The Parsis worship fire and have Fire Temples where they offer their devotion. Coal. oil. wood. gas and electricity are used to keep a fire going. They are all sources of energy and each has its own utility. The steam engine and the early industrial gadgets were dependent on the steam produced from coal. Now oil in the form of diesel and petrol has got an equally important part to play. Central heating and railway services, cold storage and many medical facilities depend upon electricity. But there is nothing to beat a good, warm fire in winter for creating good will and friendly feeling. Civilization has brought in many changes and has almost driven the simple wood fire out. Yet Gypsies and other tribal people still continue to gather around a communal fire and sing songs and dance to their heart’s content. Most camps end in a camp bonfire.
In literature, fire has a dual role to play, as it has in real life. It symbolizes both creation and destruction: it is both a cleansing and an annihilating agent. Robert Burns wrote in a poem “Epistle to John Lapraik’, “Gie me ae spark o’Nature’s Fire. That’s a’ the learning I desire”. He meant by this that he wanted to feel intense passion and ardor and out of this all good is born, all creative activity takes place. Yet fire also destroys. The Great Fire of London burnt away huge sections of the city. a napalm bomb when it explodes causes burns and loss of life and an immense amount of destruction. A forest fire, as dwellers in the tropics know, is disastrous. Fire destroys and when it dies down. it kills something in man and turns him into a cold, callous human being.
It is said that the gods did not wish to share this gift with mankind and Prometheus stole fire from heaven for the use of mankind. Though he was punished for this act, the rest of mankind has benefited from his act. It is a divine quality not to be idled with. A fire accident can be a gruesome affair. There has developed the idiom “He has come through fire” and also the proverb “It is foolish to play with fire”. Man must take it in its proper measure: creation not destruction.