Arguably the single most transformative event in the development of human civilization was man’s discovery, and subsequent mastery of, the element of fire some 200,000 years ago. It gave man a source of heat in cold weather, and it allowed him to cook his food (that raw mastodon meat must have been awfully hard on the teeth!); it provided him with light when the sun dipped beneath the horizon, which allowed him to travel safely by night, and it protected him against predators and the advances of rival tribes. Mostly because it could provide warmth, fire allowed man to live in places that were previously uninhabitable to him, which greatly facilitated his spread around the world.
Because it provides illumination as well as warmth, fire has played a role in the way we see ourselves. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus postulated that fire is the element that causes all other elements to be put in motion, and Aristotle also ascribed special powers to fire because, to his mind, what we refer to as fire is actually a type of “air transformed.” Heraclitus saw the soul of man as a kind of yin-yang arrangement of “fire above, water below”; fire, which coarses upward, was the nobler essence, and water, which flows downward, the baser.
The concept of “fire” implies creativity and passion. Think of the ways we describe a person who we think is enthusiastic about life—he’s “on fire,” he’s “fired up” or has “a fire in his belly.” Because the flames of fire can be shaped by man and reshaped by the winds, fire also connotes conversion: “Trial by fire,” “Feet to the fire.” Of course, fire also implies destruction and devastation, as summed up in the two words no one ever wants to hear—“You’re fired!”
Fire also implies aspiration, for in its natural state it only travels upward, and perhaps this helps to explain the integral role that fire has played in man’s many mystical and religious rites. The burning of candles and incense has been a part of ceremonial magic for millennia, and “burnt offerings” were among the most consecrated expressions of faith that the ancients could offer to the Divine. Less flatteringly, we have also employed fire to burn witches and heretics. Hey, nobody’s perfect.
Above all, fire stands for creation and transformation. A piece of base metal is placed over a flame, as at a foundry, and once heated to the proper temperature, it can be hammered into any shape the forger desire—a cooking vessel to feed the hungry, or a sword of war and slaughter. In our personal lives, we can think of fire as that primal spark of Divine energy that commingles with the watery element of our unconscious mind, which in turn creates the air (steam) that evaporates into the realm of consciousness, and which re-forms as a kind of “spiritual rain”—the living waters of Scripture—which enters the everyday realm of earth as “formulated” thought: That is, outward speech.
We have advanced in many ways from the days of early man, but there is still a special wonder—and respect—we feel when we behold the presence of fire. Sitting in front of a fireplace with a loved one on a cold winter’s night, your only other companions a burning log and a glass of wine—this can be one of our sublimest earthly pleasures. By contrast, the incessant burning of hydrocarbons that is slowly overheating our world may soon be the cause of our most regrettable earthly nightmares. As the Zohar reminds us, “Fear of the Almighty is the key to everything.” We would be well advised to begin paying His Creation a bit more respect, and consider being more judicious in our use of His gift of Fire. We’ll begin our review of the individual cards tomorrow.