Fire worship in history
Posted by Fredsvenn on July 1, 2015
Fire has been an important part of human culture since the Lower Paleolithic. The earliest known traces of controlled fire were found at Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel and dated to an age of 790,000 years, and religious or animist notions connected to fire must be assumed to reach back to such early pre-Homo sapiens times.
In Indo-European languages, there were two concepts regarding fire: that of an animate type called *egni- (cf. Sanskrit agni English ignite from Latin ignis, and Russian ogon), and an inanimate type *paewr- (cf. English – fire, Greek pyr, Sanskrit pu). A similar distinction existed for water.
Worship or deification of fire (also pyrodulia, pyrolatry or pyrolatria) is known from various religions. Archaeologically, the earliest evidence for Indo-Iranian fire worship is found at the transition from the Sintashta-Petrovka culture (2100–1800 BCE), a Bronze Age archaeological culture of the northern Eurasian steppe on the borders of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, to the Fedorovo/Andronovo culture (1500–1300 BCE) in southern Siberia, together with first evidence of cremation, the use of high-temperature burning, vaporization, and oxidation to reduce dead animal or human bodies to basic chemical compounds, such as gases and mineral fragments retaining the appearance of dry bone.
Alternative death rituals emphasizing one method of disposal of a body—inhumation (burial), cremation, or exposure—have gone through periods of preference throughout history. Criticism of burial rites is a common form of aspersion by competing religions and cultures, including the association of cremation with fire sacrifice or human sacrifice. Cremation dates from at least 20,000 years ago in the archaeological record, with the Mungo Lady, the remains of a partly cremated body found at Lake Mungo, Australia.
In the Middle East and Europe, both burial and cremation are evident in the archaeological record in the Neolithic era. Cultural groups had their own preferences and prohibitions. The ancient Egyptians developed an intricate transmigration of soul theology, which prohibited cremation, and this was adopted widely among other Semitic peoples. The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead. Phoenicians practiced both cremation and burial. Early Persians practiced cremation, but this became prohibited during the Zoroastrian Period.
From the Cycladic civilisation in 3000 BC until the Sub-Mycenaean era in 1200–1100 BC, Greeks practiced inhumation. Cremation appeared around the 12th century BC, constituting a new practice of burial, probably influenced by Anatolia. Until the Christian era, when inhumation again became the only burial practice, both combustion and inhumation had been practiced, depending on the era and location. Romans practiced both, with cremation generally associated with military honors.
In Europe, there are traces of cremation dating to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000 BC) in the Pannonian Plain and along the middle Danube. The custom becomes dominant throughout Bronze Age Europe with the Urnfield culture (from 1300 BC). In the Iron Age, inhumation again becomes more common, but cremation persisted in the Villanovan culture and elsewhere.
Homer’s account of Patroclus’ burial describes cremation with subsequent burial in a tumulus, similar to Urnfield burials, and qualifying as the earliest description of cremation rites. This may be an anachronism, as during Mycenaean times burial was generally preferred, and Homer may have been reflecting the more common use of cremation at the time the Iliad was written, centuries later.
Hinduism and Jainism are notable for not only allowing but prescribing cremation. Cremation in India is first attested in the Cemetery H culture (from 1900 BC), considered the formative stage of Vedic civilization. The Rigveda contains a reference to the emerging practice, in RV 10.15.14, where the forefathers “both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)” are invoked. While cremation became ubiquitous in Hinduism, it came to be disavowed in Zoroastrianism.
Cremation remained common, but not universal, in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. According to Cicero, in Rome, inhumation was considered the more archaic rite, while the most honoured citizens were most typically cremated—especially upper classes and members of imperial families.
Christianity frowned upon cremation, both influenced by the tenets of Judaism and as an attempt to abolish Graeco-Roman pagan rituals. By the 5th century, the practice of cremation had practically disappeared from Europe.
In early Roman Britain, cremation was usual but diminished by the 4th century. It then reappeared in the 5th and 6th centuries during the migration era, when sacrificed animals were sometimes included with the human bodies on the pyre, and the deceased were dressed in costume and with ornaments for the burning.
That custom was also very widespread among the Germanic peoples of the northern continental lands from which the Anglo-Saxon migrants are supposed to have been derived, during the same period. These ashes were usually thereafter deposited in a vessel of clay or bronze in an “urn cemetery”. The custom again died out with the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxons or Early English during the 7th century, when inhumation became general.
A fire temple in Zoroastrianism is the place of worship for Zoroastrians, often called dar-e mehr (Persian) or agiyari (Gujarati). In the Zoroastrian religion, fire (Atar) together with clean water (Aban), are agents of ritual purity. Clean, white “ash for the purification ceremonies [is] regarded as the basis of ritual life,” which “are essentially the rites proper to the tending of a domestic fire, for the temple [fire] is that of the hearth fire raised to a new solemnity”.
The oldest remains of what has been identified as a fire temple are those on Mount Khajeh, near Lake Hamun in Sistan. Only traces of the foundation and ground-plan survive and have been tentatively dated to the 3rd or 4th century BCE. The temple was rebuilt during the Parthian era (250 BCE-226 CE), and enlarged during Sassanid times (226–650 CE).
Gonur Tepe (2500-1700 BCE) is an archaeological site that was inhabited by Indo-Iranian peoples until sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE dating back to 2500 BCE. It’s located about 60 km north of Mary, the capital city of Mary Province in Turkmenistan.
The site was discovered by Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi. Sarianidi discovered a palace, a fortified mud-brick enclosure, and temples with fire altars which he believes were dedicated to the Zoroastrian religion.
He also found what appears to be the boiler for the ritual drink soma, which is mentioned in the Rigveda and also in the Avesta as haoma. Sarianidi says he also found dishes with traces of cannabis, poppy and ephedrine. According to Sarianidi, this discovery strengthens the theory that these were the ingredients of soma.
The site was most likely abandoned after the Murghab River’s course moved to the west. Gonur is among the largest ruins in the Morghab’s delta region; over 150 ancient settlements dating to the early Bronze Age have been found there.
However, even earlier evidences of vedic fire altars have been found at the Indus Valley sites of Kalibangan and Lothal, giving rise to speculations towards earlier assumed the geographical location of the early Indo-Iranians.
Kalibangan, a town located on the left or southern banks of the Ghaggar (Ghaggar-Hakra River), identified by some scholars with Sarasvati River in Tehsil Pilibangān, between Suratgarh and Hanumāngarh in Hanumangarh district, Rajasthan, India 205 km. from Bikaner, was a major provincial capital of the Indus Valley Civilization. It is distinguished by its unique fire altars and “world’s earliest attested ploughed field”.
Traces of pre-Harappan culture have been found only at the lower levels of the western mound. According to archaeological evidence, the Indus Valley culture existed at the site from the proto-Harappan age (3500 BC – 2500 BC) to the Harappan age (2500 BC – 1750 BC). This earlier phase is labelled Kalibangan-I (KLB-I) or Period-I.Similarity of pottery relates Kalibangan-I with the Sothi culture because this type of pottery was first discovered at Sothi village in North Western India.
At Kalibangan, fire altars have been discovered similar to those found at Lothal which S.R. Rao thinks could have served no other purpose than a ritualistic one. These altars suggest fire worship or worship of Agni, the Hindu god of fire. It is the only Indus Valley Civilization site where there is no evidence to suggest the worship of the “mother goddess”.
Within the fortified citadel complex at Kalibangan, the southern half contained many (five or six) raised platforms of mud bricks, mutually separated by corridors. Stairs were attached to these platforms.
Vandalism of these platforms by brick robbers makes it difficult to reconstruct the original shape of structures above them but unmistakable remnants of rectangular or oval kuṇḍas or fire-pits of burnt bricks for Vedi (altar)s have been found, with a yūpa or sacrificial post (cylindrical or with rectangular cross-section, sometimes bricks were laid upon each other to construct such a post) in the middle of each kuṇḍa and sacrificial terracotta cakes (piṇḍa) in all these fire-pits.
Houses in the lower town also contain similar altars. Burnt charcoals have been found in these fire-pits. The structure of these fire-altars is reminiscent of (Vedic) fire-altars, but the analogy may be coincidental, and these altars are perhaps intended for some specific (perhaps religious) purpose by the community as a whole. In some fire-altars remnants of animals have been found, which suggest a possibility of animal-sacrifice.
The official website of ASI reports : “Besides the above two principle parts of the metropolis there was also a third one-a moderate structure situated upwards of 80 m e. of the lower town containing four to five fire altars. This lonely structure may perhaps have been used for ritual purposes.”
Thus, fire-altars have been found in three groups : public altars in the citadel, household altars in lower town, and public altars in a third separate group. A short distance from fire altars, a well and ramants of a bathing place were found, suggesting ceremonial bath was a part of rituals.
The interpretation of these structures as fire alters is controversial, very similar structures elsewhere from recent excavations have been interpreted as cooking hearths or various styles of crafting and pottery kilns.
Robert Raikes has argued that was abandoned because the river dried up. Prof. B. B. Lal (retd. Director General of Archaeological Survey of India) supports this view by asserting: “Radiocarbon dates indicate that the Mature Harappan settlement at Kalibangan had to be abandoned around 2000–1900 BCE. And, as the hydrological evidence indicates, this abandonment took place on account of the drying up of the Sarasvati (Ghaggar). This latter part is duly established by the work of Raikes, an Italian hydrologist, and of his Indian collaborators”.
Lothal is one of the most prominent cities of the ancient Indus valley civilisation, located in the Bhāl region of the modern state of Gujarāt and dating from 3700 BCE. Lothal’s dock – the world’s earliest known – connected the city to an ancient course of the Sabarmati river on the trade route between Harappan cities in Sindh and the peninsula of Saurashtra when the surrounding Kutch desert of today was a part of the Arabian Sea. It was a vital and thriving trade centre in ancient times, with its trade of beads, gems and valuable ornaments reaching the far corners of West Asia and Africa. The techniques and tools they pioneered for bead-making and in metallurgy have stood the test of time for over 4000 years.
The people of Lothal worshipped a fire god, speculated to be the horned deity depicted on seals, which is also evidenced by the presence of private and public fire-altars where religious ceremonies were apparently conducted. Archaeologists have discovered gold pendants, charred ashes of terra-cotta cakes and pottery, bovine remains, beads and other signs that may indicate the practice of the Gavamayana sacrifice, associated with the ancient Vedic religion.
Animal worship is also evidenced, but not the worship of the Mother Goddess that is evidenced in other Harappan cities—experts consider this a sign of the existence of diversity in religious traditions. However, it is believed that a sea goddess, perhaps cognate with the general Indus-era Mother Goddess, was worshipped. Today, the local villagers likewise worship a sea goddess, Vanuvati Sikotarimata, suggesting a connection with the ancient port’s traditions and historical past as an access to the sea.
But the archaeologists also discovered that the practice had been given up by 2000 BCE (determined by the difference in burial times of the carbon-dated remains). It is suggested that the practice occurred only on occasion. It is also considered that given the small number of graves discovered—only 17 in an estimated population of 15,000—the citizens of Lothal also practised cremation of the dead. Post-cremation burials have been noted in other Indus sites like Harappa, Mehi and Damb-Bhuti.
An eternal flame is a flame, lamp or torch that burns continuously for an indefinite period. Most eternal flames are ignited and tended intentionally, but some are natural phenomena caused by natural gas leaks, peat fires and coal seam fires, all of which can be initially ignited by lightning, piezoelectricity or human activity, and all of which can burn for decades or centuries.
In ancient times, human-tended eternal flames were fueled by wood or olive oil; modern examples usually use a piped supply of propane or natural gas. Eternal flames most often commemorate a person or event of national significance, or serve as a reminder of commitment to a common goal, such as international peace.
The eternal fire is a long-standing tradition in many cultures and religions. In ancient Iran the atar was tended by a dedicated priest and represented the concept of “divine sparks” or amesha spenta, as understood in Zoroastrianism. Period sources indicate that three “great fires” existed in the Achaemenid era of Persian history, which are collectively considered the earliest reference to the practice of creating ever-burning community fires.
The eternal flame was a component of the Jewish religious rituals performed in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, where a commandment required a fire to burn continuously upon the Outer Altar. Modern Judaism continues a similar tradition by having a sanctuary lamp, the ner tamid, always lit above the ark in the synagogue. After World War II, such flames gained meaning as a reminder of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Although the term “fire-worshippers” is primarily associated with Zoroastrians, the idea that Zoroastrians worship fire is originally from anti-Zoroastrian polemic. Instead, fire — even in a Fire temple (the Zoroastrian terms are more prosaic and simply mean “house of fire”) — is considered to be an agent of purity and as a symbol of righteousness and truth.
In the present day this is explained to be because fire burns ever-upwards and cannot itself be polluted. Nonetheless, Sadeh and Chaharshanbe Suri are both fire-related festivals celebrated throughout Greater Iran and date back to when Zoroastrianism was still the predominant religion of the region.
Sadé or Sada, also transliterated as Sadeh, is an ancient Persian festival. Sadeh celebrates 50 days before Nowruz. Sadeh in Persian means “hundred” and refers to one hundred days and nights past the end of summer (or the beginning of long-winter known to start at the end of summer in ancient Persia/Iran). Sadeh is a mid winter festival that was celebrated with grandeur and magnificence in ancient Persia. It was a festivity to honor fire and to defeat the forces of darkness, frost, and cold.
Chahārshanbeh Suri is a fire jumping festival celebrated by Iranian peoples such as Persian people, Azerbaijani people and Kurdish people and some other people in the world. The event takes place on the eve of the last Wednesday before Nowruz.
Loosely translated as Wednesday Light or Red Wednesday, from the word sur which means light/red in Persian, or more plausibly, consider sur to be a variant of sorkh (red) and take it to refer either to the fire itself or to the ruddiness (sorkhi), meaning good health or ripeness, supposedly obtained by jumping over it, is an ancient festival dating back to at least 1700 BCE of the early Zoroastrian era. Also called the Festival of Fire, it is a prelude to Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring.
In Vedic disciplines of Hinduism, fire is a central element in the Yajna ceremony, with Agni, “fire”, playing the role as mediator between the worshipper and the other gods. Related concepts are the Agnihotra ritual, the invocation of the healing properties of fire; the Agnicayana ritual, which is the building of a fire altar to Agni; and Agnistoma, which is one of the seven Somayajnas.
In the Vaishnav branch of Hinduism, Agni or Fire is considered the tongue of the Supreme Lord Narayana, hence all the sacrifices done even to any demigod ultimately is a sacrifice to the Supreme Lord Narayana.
Agni is a Hindu deity, one of the most important of the Vedic gods. He is the god of fire and the acceptor of sacrifices for onwards conveyance to other deities. The sacrifices made to Agni go to the deities because Agni is a messenger from and to the other gods. He is ever-young, because the fire is re-lit every day, and is immortal.
In the Rig Veda (I.95.2), a Rishi prays – for the ten eternal powers to bless Tvashtr (the supreme mind which creates all things, the first born creator of the universe) with the birth of Agni which is a reference to the ten undisclosed powers that nourish Agni.
Yaskacharya explains that the fire-god is called Agni because he is Agrani, the forward leader who is the ever awake disseminator of knowledge and the first principle of thought which manifests as Speech; it is carried at the front in all ritualistic undertakings (yajnas).
Pippalāda, the sage of the Prashna Upanishad, merely highlights the Sole person status of Agni when he tells Kābandhi Katayāna – “That very one, Surya who is Aditya, rises up who is Prana and Agni, who is identified with all creatures and who is possessed of all fame.”
The Vedic Rishis knew knowledge to be the quality of the Atman, a Sanskrit word that means ‘inner-self’ or ‘soul’. Surya, Aditya, Prana and Agni stand for the Atman who reveals itself as knowledge by the all-illuminating bright rays of light and who reveals itself as objects cognized by the mind and described through speech (Rig Veda X.135.7).
According to the Puranas, the origin of Krittika nakshatra (the Pleiades star-cluster) ruled by Agni, and the birth of Kartikeya (“son of Kṛttikā”), also known as Skanda, Kumaran, Kumara Swami and Subramaniyan, the Hindu god of war, the Commander-in-Chief of the army of the devas and the son of Shiva and Parvati, is associated with Agni.
The Death-conquering Agni-rahasya vidya, which was received by Prajapati from the self-existent Brahman, is detailed in the tenth kanda of the Shatapatha Brahmana. During Vedic times, animal sacrifices to propriate Agni were frequently made. Agni is also referred by the name Chagavahana.
Acquired as a gift from heaven, Agni’s birth at three levels – earth, mid-space and heaven, reflects the ‘domestic fire’, the ‘defensive fire’ and the ‘offering fire’ of the Vedic house-holder; the mid-space is the womb, the source of rain-water. Offended by Agni, Bhrigu had cursed Agni to become the devourer of all things on this earth, but Brahma modified that curse and made Agni the purifier of all things he touched.
The word agni is Sanskrit for “fire” (noun), cognate with Latin ignis (the root of English ignite), Russian ogon, Polish “ogień”, Slovenian “ogenj”, Serbo-Croatian oganj, and Lithuanian ugnis—all with the meaning “fire”, with the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root being h₁égni-. Agni has three forms: ‘fire’, ‘lightning’ and the ‘Sun’.
Sthaulāśthīvi informs us that Agni is the drying agent which neither wets nor moistens anything. Śakapūni tells us that the word Agni is derived from three verbs – from ‘going’, from ‘shining or burning’, and from ‘leading’; the letter “a” is from root “i” which means ‘to go’, the letter “g” is from the root “añj” meaning ‘to shine’ or “dah” meaning ‘to burn’, and the last letter is by itself the root “nī” which means ‘to lead’.
Yaskacharya explains that it is called Agni because it is Agrani, the forward leader who is the ever awake disseminator of knowledge and the first principle of thought which manifests as Speech; it is carried at the front in all ritualistic undertakings (yajnas).
Agni occupies a prominent place in the Vedas and Brahmanas works. The ancient Indians recognized Agni as the power of heat and light and the will-power united with wisdom, they knew the human will-power to be a feeble projection of this power which they believed could be strengthened by the Rig Vedic chants to Agni.
The Vedic people developed the worship of Agni, personified and deified Agni as the sacrificial fire, as the priest of the gods and as the god of the priests, who through yajna carries the oblations to the gods, the celestial controllers of the mysterious and potent forces of nature, to ensure the continuance of conditions favourable to mankind.
In Vedic deities, Agni occupies, after Indra, the most important position. In the Rig Veda there are over 200 hymns addressed to and in praise of Agni. Agni is the Rishi (‘hymn-seer’) of Sukta X.124 of the Rig Veda, and along with Indra and Surya makes up the Vedic triad of deities.
Agni, the Vedic god of fire, is depicted as having two heads, one head marks immortality and the other marks an unknown symbol of life. With Varuna and Indra he is one of the supreme gods in the Rig Veda. Due to the link between heaven and earth, and between deities and humans, he is associated with Vedic sacrifice, taking offerings to the other world in his fire. In Hinduism, his vehicle is the ram.
Fire worship in Graeco-Roman tradition had two separate forms: fire of the hearth and fire of the forge. Hearth worship was maintained in Rome by the Vestal Virgins, Rome’s only college of full-time priests who served the goddess Vesta, protector of the home and family, who had a sacred flame as the symbol of her presence in the city (cf. Sacred fire of Vesta). The Greek equivalent of the goddess was Hestia, whose worship is less well attested.
In Ancient Greek religion Hestia (“hearth, fireplace, altar”, the oikos, the household, house, or family) is a virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, and the state. She was a daughter of the Titans Rhea and Cronus, and sister to Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, and Hades.
Hestia received the first offering at every sacrifice in the household. In the public domain, the hearth of the prytaneum functioned as her official sanctuary. With the establishment of a new colony, flame from Hestia’s public hearth in the mother city would be carried to the new settlement. She sat on a plain wooden throne with a white woolen cushion and did not trouble to choose an emblem for herself.
Hestia’s name and functions show the hearth’s importance in the social, religious, and political life of ancient Greece. An early form of the temple is the hearth house; the early temples at Dreros and Prinias on Crete are of this type as indeed is the temple of Apollo at Delphi which always had its inner hestia.
A hearth fire might be deliberately, ritually extinguished at need, and its lighting or relighting should be accompanied by rituals of completion, purification and renewal, comparable with the rituals and connotations of an eternal flame and of sanctuary lamps.
At the level of the polis, the hearths of Greek colonies and their mother cities were allied and sanctified through Hestia’s cult. Hestia’s nearest Roman equivalent, Vesta, had similar functions as a divine personification of Rome’s “public”, domestic, and colonial hearths, and bound Romans together within a form of extended family.
Vesta’s presence is symbolized by the sacred fire that burned at her hearth and temples. Vesta was celebrated at the Vestalia which took place from June 7 to June 15. On the first day of the festivities the penus Vestae (the curtained sanctum sanctorum of her temple) was opened, for the only time during the year, at which women offered sacrifices.
Georges Dumézil (1898–1986), a French comparative philologist, surmised that the name of the goddess derives from Indoeuropean root *h₁eu-, via the derivative form *h₁eu-s- which alternates with *h₁w-es-. The former is found in Greek heuein, Latin urit, ustio and Vedic osathi all conveying ‘burning’ and the second is found in Vesta.
Dumézil draws a comparison between Roman religious conceptions and rituals and the relevant aspects of Vedic religion. Ancient Romans as well as other Indoeuropean peoples believed the Earth is a sphere. Every temple though had to have two fires of which one was a hearth (Latin focus), representing the fire (Latin foculus) of Vesta as the Hearth of the city, and the main was the sacrificial ara.
In this conception the function of defensive fire was performed by the temple of the god Vulcanus that was situated to the South of the pomerium, sacred city wall, this location being in accord with what could be expected from the homology with the Vedic situation.
The Aedes Vestae and the Ignis Vestae being the Hearth of the city of Rome guaranteed its connexion to Earth and its permanence in history. It did not need to be inaugurated as other temples since it was an aedes, not a templum, its power and function being limited to Earth exclusively and bearing no relationship to Heaven and its directions, but implying stability and lasting over time for the city.
In the light of this theology it is noteworthy that Vesta is always invoked the last in all ritual formulas concerning one or more gods (Vesta extrema), while Janus, the god of beginnings and passages, associated with Heaven, is always invoked at the beginning. This use is comparable to that concerning Agni in the Rig Veda: Agni is invoked first or last or at both places. In Iranian rituals Atar is always invoked at the end.
Dumézil hints to the significance of fire as the origin and bearer of life in connection to Vesta. Its talismanic value was the reason that caused the accumulation of signa fatalia or pignora harboured in the innermost part of the penus. Servius gives a list of seven, three of which from Troy. The earliest collection was limited and kept secret, though according to Pliny the function of fertility was represented by the image of a male sex organ.
The correspondence of Vesta with Vedic god Agni was noted long ago. Dumézil recalls that in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata the episodes of Karttikeya, god of war and son of Agni and of Agni and the daughters of Nila bear the same theme of the flames as the sex organ of the god.
The fecundating power of sacred fire is testified in Latin mythology in one version of the birth of Romulus, that of the birth of king Servius Tullius (in which his mother Ocresia becomes pregnant after sitting upon a phallus that appeared among the ashes of the ara of god Vulcanus, by order of Tanaquil wife of king Tarquinius Priscus) and that of the birth of Caeculus, the founder of Praeneste.
All these mythical or semilegendary characters show a mystical mastership of fire. E.g. Servius’s hair was kindled by his father without hurting him, his statue in the temple of Fortuna Primigenia was unharmed by fire after his assassination. Caeculus kindled and extinguished fires at will.
In Vedic India the same complex appears as a quality of the divine twins, the Nasatya: they allowed a hero to survive in a basin of fire into which he had been thrown and enjoy the bathing as pleasant.
A much later episode of Roman history has been detected as a revised replication of the same early mythologem. In the fire of the temple of Vesta of the year 241 BC Lucius Caecilius Metellus, and at the time Pontifex Maximus, saved the palladium, to which men were not allowed, and according to tradition was blinded in the incident.
Modern scholars have speculated that it would be impossible to cover offices as pontifex and consul for a blind man for more than twenty years. It has been suggested that this episode should be interpreted in the light of the connexion of the gens Caecilia with Caeculus, the founder of Praeneste. The use of the story of this incident is paradigmatic of how archaic mythologems common to Indo European heritage were reused over time grafted onto history.
The fire of the forge was associated with the Greek god Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes, and the Roman equivalent Vulcan, the god of fire including the fire of volcanoes, also god of metalworking and the forge. Vulcan is often depicted with a blacksmith’s hammer. The Vulcanalia was the annual festival held August 23 in his honor. In Etruscan religion, he is identified with Sethlans.
These two seem to have served both as craft-guild patrons and as protectors against accidental fires in cities. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods. In another version, he was Hera’s parthenogenous child, rejected by his mother because of his deformity and thrown out of heaven and down to earth.
As a smithing god, Hephaestus made all the weapons of the gods in Olympus. He served as the blacksmith of the gods, and was worshipped in the manufacturing and industrial centers of Greece, particularly Athens. The cult of Hephaestus was based in Lemnos. Hephaestus’ symbols are a smith’s hammer, anvil, and a pair of tongs.
Hephaestus is probably associated with the Linear B (Mycenean Greek) inscription A-pa-i-ti-jo, found at Knossos; the inscription indirectly attests his worship at that time because it is believed that it reads the theophoric name Haphaistios or Haphaistion. The name of the god in Greek (Hēphaistos), has a root which can be observed in names of places, of Pre-Greek origin, like Phaistos (Pa-i-to in Linear B).
The origin of the name Vulcan is unclear and debated. Roman tradition maintained that it was related to Latin words connected to lightning (fulgur, fulgere, fulmen), which in turn was thought of as related to flames. This interpretation is supported by Walter William Skeat in his etymological dictionary as meaning lustre.
It has been supposed that his name was not Latin but related to that of the Cretan god Velchanos, a god of nature and the nether world. Wolfgang Meid has refused this identification as phantastic. More recently this etymology has been taken up by Gérard Capdeville who finds a continuity between Cretan Minoan god Velchanos and Etruscan Velchans. The Minoan god’s identity would be that of a young deity, master of fire and companion of the Great Goddess.
Christian Guyonvarc’h has proposed the identification with the Irish name Olcan (Ogamic Ulccagni, in the genitive). Vasily Abaev compares it with the Ossetic Wærgon, a variant of the name of Kurdalægon, the smith of the Nart saga. Since the name in its normal form Kurdalægon is stable and has a clear meaning (kurd smith+ on of the family+ Alaeg name of one of the Nartic families), this hypothesis has been considered unacceptable by Dumezil.
Also associated with fire is the titanic god Prometheus, who stole fire for humans from the gods. Most forms of worship in Graeco-Roman religion involved either cooking or burning completely an animal on a fire made on an altar in front of a temple.
Celtic mythology had Belenus, a Sun God from Celtic Mythology. Called the “Fair Shining One,” (or The Shining God) he was one of the most ancient and most widely worshiped Celtic deities and is associated with the ancient fire festival and modern Sabbat Beltane.
The etymology of the name is unclear. Suggestions are informed by the identification with Apollo, but the wide range of attributes of Apollo as the god of light, knowledge, music and poetry, mantic oracles, healing and medicine, etc. opens a wide field of possible parallels. Apollo Karneios with horns from ram (beran) cognates with qeren (“to shine”, “have horns”) from *qarn.
The historically favoured interpretation of the name is a “bright/shining one,” from a root *bhel “to shine”, interpreting Belenus as solar deity in origin (compare the first element in Beltane, from a *belo-te(p)nia “bright fire”). Alternatively, the name may be from a Proto-Celtic *Guelenos, containing a root for “source, well”, suggesting identification as a god of healing springs.
Yet another suggestion (by Schrijver 1999) suggests a connection with henbane, known as belenuntia, bellinuncium, bellenium in antiquity (surviving in Spanish beleño). Henbane in Latin was known as apollinaris herba (“herb of Apollo”).
Renaissance scholar Pierre Pithou explained the name as deriving from Greek belos “arrow”, here taken to refer to the sun’s rays, but even in early modern scholarship, the simplistic identification of Apollo/Belenus with the Sun was questioned; Bernard de Montfaucon argued that the by the time of the identification of Apollo Belenus, the ancients in their civil worship had long ceased to treat Apollo and Sol as the same deity. Suggestions in early modern scholarship also included comparison with Semitic Bel, Belus.
He was associated with the horse (as shown by the clay horse figurine offerings at Belenos’ Sainte-Sabine shrine in Burgundy) and also the Wheel. Perhaps like Apollo – with whom he became identified in the Augustan History – Belenos was thought to ride the Sun across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. Images of Belenus sometimes show him to be accompanied by a female, thought to be the Gaulish deity Belisama identified with Minerva in the interpretatio romana.
The etymology of her name has been taken to translate to “brightest one”, i.e. containing a superlative suffix -isama attached to the root bel “bright”; based on this she has also been speculatively claimed as companion of Belenus, whose name seems to contain the same root. But the root bel has also (for either deity) been interpreted differently, e.g. as bel “strong”.
In Slavic mythology, Svarog, meaning “bright and clear”, was the spirit of fire and is identified with Hephaestus, the god of the blacksmith in ancient Greek religion. He is the father of Dažbog, a Slavic solar deity identified with Helios.
On the basis of this text, some researchers conclude that Svarog is the Slavic god of celestial fire and of blacksmithing. The best known and dramatic among numerous Slavic Pagan fire rituals is the jumping over the bonfire on the Ivan Kupala Day.
If one assumes that Svarog was believed to be Dažbog’s father, the question arises of his relation with Svarožič, another deity who is mentioned as a god of fire and war in several other medieval documents describing the beliefs of pagan Slavs.
Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov proposed a reconstruction of this mythical genealogy, claiming that Svarog, a deity of fire and the forge similar to the Greek Hephaestus, had two sons: Dažbog, who represented the fire in sky (i.e., the Sun), and Svarožič, who symbolised the flame on earth, in the forge.
Henryk Łowmiański, however, theorised that Svarog was a Slavic sky god and personification of daylight sky itself, possibly a continuation of Proto-Indo-European *Dyēus Ph2ter, while Svarožič and solar Dažbog were one and the same deity, although he concluded that two other aspects of Svarožič also existed: fiery Svarožič, as in the Sun (mentioned in Russian medieval manuscripts), and lunar Svarožič, associated with the Moon. Franjo Ledić, on the other hand, simply assumed that Svarog and Dažbog are one and the same god.
Eastern Slavic sources also mention Svarožič as a deity, there associated with fire. According to Thietmar of Merseburg, Svarožič (Latinized Zuarasici) was worshipped by a tribe of Ratars in the city of Ridegost (Rethra).
Fire is an element of theophany in the Hebrew Bible’s burning bush, pillar of fire, and the flame of the Menorah. The highest form of sacrifice was the Korban Olah, performed twice-daily, which is an animal sacrifice completely consumed by fire. The Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has been consecutively documented since 1106 AD.
Fire continues to be a part of many human religions and cultures. For example, it is used in cremation and bonfires; candles are used in various religious ceremonies; eternal flames are used to remind of notable occasions; and the Olympic Flame burns for the duration of the games.