Fire symbolizes many things, including passion, desire, rebirth, resurrection, eternity, destruction, hope, hell and purification. These symbols have been used in literature, film and religious texts for millennia.
Fire has been used by humans for over 400,000 years.
Our ability to control fire is linked to our ability to evolve as a species. We used fire to cook food, forge tools, and stay warm at night.
Fire has had enormous benefits to humankind.
And from our earliest literature, humans have written about fire. They have written about its ability to nourish and protect, but also harm and even kill.
We can see that fire is one of the most important symbols to us. Perhaps that is why it is considered one of the four elements essential to life (along with water, air and earth).
What does Fire Symbolize?
The symbolism of fire can change depending upon the context. In one book, it may represent passion. In another, it may represent destruction.
Similarly, you and I may read the same book and interpret fire in completely different ways.
But over time and throughout history, fire seems to have repeatedly symbolized a few key things. By understanding these symbolic motifs, we can better understand humans’ complex historical relationship with fires.
1. Passion and Desire
The flicking of a flame evokes thoughts of passion and desire. Fires leap, dance and spread with reckless abandon.
Is there little wonder we see young lovers and remark on their “fiery passion!”
The link between fire and passion is also evident in the expression “light my fire!” This expression indicates someone or something inspired passion within someone’s soul.
Shakespeare often uses fire as a symbol of passion in his plays.
One of his most famous quotes in Henry VIII is:
“My drops of tears I’ll turn to sparks of fire.”
Here, Queen Katherine speaks of turning sadness into action. She then declares Cardinal Wolsey her enemy and blames him for causing trouble between the queen and her husband.
Similarly, fire is used in Romeo and Juliet to symbolize the passion Romeo and Juliet feel for one another. For example, in Act 1 Scene 1, Shakespeare speaks of “a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes.”
2. Rebirth and Resurrection
It is odd that fire can symbolize both death and life.
But it just goes to show how versatile the symbolism of fire is.
The role of fire in the symbol of rebirth is best known through the phoenix. The mythical phoenix dies by spontaneous combustion. It bursts into flames and disintegrates into ashes. Then, from the ashes, a new phoenix is born to live its live again.
Similarly, when a fire burns through a forest, the old growth in the forest burns away to allow space for the new forest to emerge from beneath.
The phoenix comes from ancient Greek mythology. A phoenix is said to live for 500 years before burning and returning to life as a new bird.
A very popular phoenix in modern literature is Dumbledore’s phoenix in Harry Potter. Harry is surprised (and scared) when the phoenix catches flame before his eyes. Dumbledore subsequently explains that the phoenix is immortal but needs to regenerate by catching fire.
Fire represents eternity is through the metaphor of the “eternal flame.” So long as the symbolic flame burns, life and hope remain in this world.
We might say that an eternal flame burns in our hearts. This will indicate that some belief still lives on within us.
Eternal flames are also used in memorium. We remember people’s love and sacrifice by burning the flame. So long as the flame burns, we remember and respect the memory of someone who has died.
In this case, might say that the eternal flame symbolizes that the memory of someone lives on.
The eternal flame is perhaps most common in war memorials. For example, the Australian War Memorial explains the eternal flame that burns within its commemorative courtyard in this way:
“A flame is widely accepted as a symbol of eternal life. An eternal flame at a war memorial symbolizes a nation’s perpetual gratitude towards, and remembrance of, its war dead.”
Fire has the ability to decimate things it comes in touch with. This has helped authors throughout the years use fire as a symbol of destructiveness.
In Fahrenheit 451, fire is used as a literal destructive force. The main character, Montag, burns books for a living. He is literally burning knowledge to keep people in the intellectual dark ages.
But fire is also a symbol of destruction in this book. It symbolises the destructiveness of mankind and the pleasure and power we feel in destroying beauty.
The book opens with an explanation of the destructiveness of fire, which remains as a motif throughout the novel: “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”
Fire is something we look to – sometimes on the horizon – as a symbol that salvation is near.
There are a few reasons for this:
- Fire has long been an excellent form of long-distance communication due to its brightness;
- Fire is warmth, and its sight may signify refuge from the cold outside;
- A fire on the horizon can symbolize an Inn or safehaven in which a traveller may rest.
In the film Mulan, fire is shown as a way to send messages along the Great Wall of China rapidly. Guards would light a fire. Then, guards on the horizon will see it and light their own fire, which would alert the next guard on the next horizon to light his. Thus, warning messages could be sent far more rapidly than by horse or foot.
But the best example is the statue of liberty.
The statue holds a fire above her head. This fire is the first thing people will see of the new world. It is a torch held high to show weary travelers that they have reached freedom and liberty in the new world they seek.
Our modern view of hell almost always involves fire. We might curse about an evil person by saying, “may you burn in the fiery pits of hell!”
This view of hell is closely associated with Dante’s vision of hell in The Inferno. Fire awaits us in hell, and there we will be tortured as it burns us insufferably.
Even before Christian beliefs, hell seemed to be associated with fire. Plato wrote of a lake of fire in which evil spirits burn in Gorgias, written in 380BC. Similarly, the Egyptian Book of the Dead in 1250BC spoke of a lake of fire awaiting sinners.
The clearest example of a fire symbolizing hell is in the Bible itself.
The book of revelation condemns people who worship beasts or false prophets. It proclaims that these sinners will be “cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.”
Matthew also spoke often of a lake of fire awaiting sinners. He writes, for example, of “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
I just spoke of how fire symbolizes hell in the Bible.
It seem that the Bible has another use of fire, too.
Fire is often used to symbolize purification. Fire rids people (or the world) of sin. This is perhaps because fire leaves no trace of the thing it burns besides its ashes.
Thus, to purify a witch, we burn her at the stake.
When the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah fall into their sinful ways, god burns them to ashes. Here, fire is used to purify the earth and rid it of sinners.
It is plausible to see the notion of the phoenix rising in the ashes in this metaphor, too. The burning is the purifying act, which is followed by the rise of something more desirable, new and innocent in its place.
Fire has an incredible ability to symbolize many things all at once. This can make it difficult to interpret literature the way an author had intended it. Did they use fire in a situation to symbolize death or life? Rebirth or punishment?
Often, we have to look for the intended meaning by thinking about the context in which fire was used. When reading a text for its contextual reading, we are more likely to see the author’s original intent.