Fire. It’s essential for life and it brings death. Many a story revolves around fire, think of Shere Khan’s fear of fire in the Jungle Book, for example. But is there a deeper meaning in our desire to talk of fire and whether in books, films, dreams or real life does fire offer symbols that allow us to understand the world around us in a deeper and more fulfilling way?
Fire may symbolize passion, birth, death, rebirth, forever, hope, destruction, purging, purification, and much more. Its meaning will vary based on culture, religion, and history.
To fully understand humanity’s relationship with fire in all its forms, we went deep into the literature, and this is what we found.
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What Does Fire Symbolize? Definitions
1. Feelings and Displays of Passion
They say fire has active energy and it is a complex element. A common meaning for this element, in many traditions, is that of passion.
John Wesley, the Christian Theologian said;
“When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn.”
He wasn’t, of course, speaking of literal self-immolation but rather of passion.
Passion is often represented by fire due to the all-consuming nature of both fire and passion.
And of course, passion often overlaps with love, as Rumi said,
“The time has come to turn your heart into a temple of fire. Your essence is gold hidden in dust. To reveal its splendor, you need to burn in the fire of love.”
2. Resurrection and Rebirth
Fire is seen as a classical symbol of rebirth. The most obvious example of fire and rebirth’s marriage in symbolism is the phoenix.
The bird dies in the flames in which it lives and is reborn from its own ashes. The energy never is lost but changes form.
Albert Schweitzer offers a milder form of this in his quote,
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
3. Forever and Eternity
As a symbolic flame burns, it can represent eternity (eternal life) as the fire continues to burn.
Karel Capek offers,
“You will stand watch, O human star, burning without a flicker, perfect flame, bright and resourceful spirit. Each of your rays a great idea – O torch which passes from hand to hand, from age to age, world without end.”
If you prefer something more modern and accessible you only need look to at the pop song from The Bangles “Eternal Flame” which speaks of never-ending love.
Fire has often been used to symbolize the ideas of “forever” and “eternity”.
How does fire symbolize hope? John Berger says,
“The point about hope is that it is something that comes in very dark moments. It is like a flame in the darkness, it isn’t like a confidence and a promise.”
And Jane Porter offers,
“Imparting knowledge is only lighting other men’s candles at our lamp without depriving ourselves of any flame.”
Hope is a bright force in the darkness of the spirit, and it is easy to liken it to fire and flame.
Is there anything more hopeful than a world of wise people brimming full of the knowledge of ages and making better decisions than humanity does today?
5. Destruction and Death
Though it seems counterintuitive, fire can be a symbol of purity or a symbol of destruction.
Janet Fitch in White Oleander opines,
“The phoenix must burn to emerge.”
And Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet says,
“These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder. Which, as they kiss, consume.”
Fire’s ability to consume and destroy in real life is naturally mirrored in the symbolism of literature and day-to-day life.
Who hasn’t remarked at some point, when their emotional reserves are exhausted, “I’m burned out”?
Burnout is the fire consuming our inner resources.
This is, perhaps, the most obvious symbolism of fire.
6. The Fires of Hell
It is important to note that Hell is not a Christian concept and many of the world’s religions and even some of its philosophies, such as Buddhism, have a concept of hell.
And not all of these religions see Hell as a fiery pit, for example, the Norse hell is said to be a place of eternally frozen damnation.
But many do see Hell as a place of burning and it’s natural that the idea of fire and Hell have seeped into the world, particularly, in our Judeo-Christian culture where the threat of “burning in Hell” looms over us all, even for the agnostic and atheists among us.
Muhammad Ali, the boxer, said,
“I don’t smoke but I keep a matchbox in my pocket. When my heart slips towards a sin, I burn a matchstick and heat my palm. Then I say to myself, ‘Ali, you can’t bear this heat, how would you bear the unbearable heat of Hell?”
And Omar Khayyam offered,
“Heaven is but the vision of fulfilled desire, and Hell the shadow from a soul on fire.”
7. Purification and Pain
On the other side of the same coin, fire is often seen as a purifying influence but not one that works without inflicting some pain.
Eckhart Tolle said,
“The fires of suffering become the light of consciousness.”
And Richard M Nixon, in one of his better moments, said,
“The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire.”
It’s something that most of us know instinctually – to get rid of something unpleasant may require us to burn it out but there is a reward for doing so, in the end.
Spiritual Symbolism and Fire
One of the most complex areas of symbolism is spirituality and I’d like to preface this section by noting that I am a firefighter, not a religious or spiritual expert, so please, forgive me, if there’s something here that doesn’t quite match with your own experiences.
In spiritual terms, fire can consume, it can warm, and it can bring light but as the other side of the coin, it is also capable of bringing both pain and death.
This video talks about a sacred fire ceremony and the spiritual significance it holds:
That means, it can be used as a symbol in many different ways and the most obvious are those used in religious texts.
Religious Significance of Fire
Many early religions such as those practiced by the Greeks and Romans saw fire as one of the “four elements” (the others being water, earth, and sky) and a fundamental building block of the universe.
Fire was unique among the elements in that it was the only element that humanity could make for themselves and thus, it was seen as a way of bridging the gap between the mortal world and the world of the Gods.
You can find fire in many spiritual and religious rituals too and the “eternal flame” (in a less poppy context than The Bangles) is often invoked for protection and the act of building a fire is often associated with the impending birth of a child or the hoped-for resurrection of a loved one.
Fire is also present in human sexuality which can be equivocated, by some, to the idea of spiritual enlightenment. The Doors said, “C’mon baby light my fire” but nobody thinks this was an invitation to head to Jim Morrison’s house and stoke the hearth.
One of the most obvious cycles of rebirth in nature is the burning of forests and agricultural land. The land lays dormant for a while after being cleared by fire and then, slowly, life returns and reinvigorates that which has gone before.
You can find references to this cycle throughout the religious practices of humanity and particularly in the new, reformed, pagan religions practiced by many spiritual seekers of today.
The Hebrews, on the other hand, said that fire was a symbol of divinity and may explain why God appears to Moses in the burning bush.
They weren’t alone in this interpretation of fire, either and the Confucians and Zoroastrians also saw the flame as an aspect of the divine.
To the Egyptians, on the other hand, the flame is a fist, and it is there to show others a sense of superiority and even control over them.
You will also find traces of fire as knowledge and wisdom throughout many spiritual traditions.
Fire In The Bible
The first mention of fire and its relationship to the divine in the bible is in Exodus when the Lord comes to Moses in the burning bush.
And later in the same book, in Exodus 13:21, you have
“By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light so that they could travel by day or night.”
In Luke 3:16 John the Baptist uses fire to denote the power of Christ.
“John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worth to unite. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Thus, fire represents the new baptism, an internal and eternal baptism, promised to those who put their faith in Christ.
You can also find fire in a negative context as it says in Matthew 5:41,
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”
There is also an illusion of the destructive power of fire as a metaphor for the harm that can be caused by speaking out of turn. In James 3:5 it reads,
“So, also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire.”
And then there is the blunt advice of Deuteronomy 4:24,
“the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
You can also find an allusion to the purifying power of fire. In Zechariah 13:9 you will find,
“And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
Fire Symbolism In Dreams
Fire is also said to be significant in dreams and some of the symbolism that is found there includes:
- Dreaming of being burned in a fire is said to mean you have a bad temper
- Dreaming of your house burning means that you should undergo some kind of personal transformation
- Dreaming of extinguishing a fire means that you will overcome obstacles in your path
- Dreaming of starting a fire represents anger that you are bottling up insider
- Dreaming of bending fire means you can control your anger
- Dreaming of invisible fires mean that you are about to undergo some form of cleansing or purification
- Dreaming of birds singing near fire shows that you are consumed by your own passions
- Dreaming of fire and water together means that you are being pulled in two opposite directions
Please note: this is not an endorsement of dream reading, it’s simply a reflection of what dream interpreters say that dreams mean.
Does Fire Represent Life?
Fire may also, simply, represent life in many spiritual cultures.
After all, think of the flame as it grows and breeds, does it not appear truly alive?
Is Fire a “Good Omen”?
In some cultures, fire may be seen as a good omen. The Hindustan Times reports of a fire at Rao’s “yagam”.