Ode to Fire
Adrián Villaseñor Galarza
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.
Fire is an ancient and most powerful presence. It has a rich history in the mythologies of cultures throughout the world, has a critical role in shaping our natural environment, is crucial for the evolution of the cosmos and life on the planet, and deeply influences our understanding and experience of the divine.
Fire has ignited human evolution to a large extent. It enabled our ancestors to spread to colder climates and expand their activities into the night, offered protection from predators, and facilitated the conversion of forested lands into agricultural fields. Cooking—which is a unique human activity—allowed for a richer diet and stimulated brain growth, directing the course of our human lineage to the point that, for some researchers, we ought to be referred to as “the creatures of the flame.”2
Fire is one of the four or five widely known elements, along with earth, water, air, and space, considered to be the matrix of the universe. In Ayurvedic and Tibetan systems, along with classical Greek, there is the basic belief that for humans to be healthy there must exist a balanced relationship between the body’s basic essences or humors, each related to the elements, and their cosmic manifestation. According to esotericist Rudolf Steiner, fire stands out due to its interiority, a quality of depth not encountered in the rest of the elemental world that allows humans to exercise the ability of self-reflection and matter to make its journey toward Spirit.
Fire and Spirit have an intimate relation evident in the religions and spiritualities of the world. In the Judeo-Christian traditions, there are numerous references that link fire to God. Yahweh manifested as a pillar of fire when guiding the Israelites to Canaan; an angel spoke to Moses through a burning bush; Elijah ascended to the heavens in a chariot of fire; Ezekiel had visions of a fiery cloud with four winged creatures in the sky. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus posits, “I have come to set fire to the earth,” and in Thomas’ gospel: “whoever is near to me is near the fire.” As such, the fiery nature of Yahweh and Christ becomes apparent, making evident warrior-like qualities such as power, intensity, and deep transformation characteristic of other fire figures.
In Buddhism, particularly in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, we find that a kind of enlightened beings known as “wrathful deities” are commonly associated with fire. These beings are known as Herukas (blood drinkers) and Protectors. These deities are mostly benevolent boddhisattvas that manifest in potentiated form to guide beings toward awakening in such an accentuated way that their fierce compassion and kindness turns them red, fiery. The effectiveness and commitment of the wrathful deities to the awakening of all beings is considered essential for the transformation of delusive states and the overcoming of obstacles and challenges, making evident the presence of the Buddha-nature within.
Agni, the god of fire, is one of the main deities of Hinduism. Agni appears prominently in the Rig Veda—one of the most ancient texts known—and is thought to be the eldest son of the Absolute or Brahman. Agni is commonly depicted as a red warrior riding a ram or a chariot pulled by fiery horses, and it is from his sons that the Earth and humans were created. The god of fire is widely revered in the stanzas of the Rig Veda which serve as a stepping stone for Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Agni is the eldest guru, the hidden divinity of the material world, the inner teacher. For some, the whole enterprise of Yoga or the re-union with the Absolute is done through fire.
In most Native American traditions, fire is conceived as synonym of the Great Spirit. The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures paid tribute to Huehueteotl, who was held to overlap or be in close connection with the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli, and the sun god, Tonatiuh. The Incas venerated a deity of Sun and fire known as Manco Capac, son of Inti, the Sun. Manco Capac, sent by Inti, ignited the unfolding of the Inca empire and as such, is considered to be the first Inca. For the Lakotas, fire represents the powers of Wakan Tanka or the Creator. Fire, for the Native Americans, is the eldest family member, their Grandfather and ancient dwelling of Spirit.
From East to West, North and South, fire is understood and experienced as both immanent and transcendent, as material and divine. Time and again, fire’s origins are said to be divine, and its potential for purification, transformation, connection, and evolution are readily found. Was the Big Bang an outburst of creative fire? Is the Ultimate Source and Ground of Being akin to an ever-lasting flame? Is fire still crucial for our flourishing and unfolding?
In many ways, we humans are fire—living flames—and by reconnecting with our burning essence we open up to the mysteries and boundless possibilities of our deep nature.
2 Richard Wrangham. Catching fire: How cooking made us human. (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 14.