There’s something about fire that fascinates us as a species.
It’s unlike anything else on Earth – a visible force that can be controlled and tamed for good, yet when unleashed, destructive beyond imagining. It’s the foundation of civilization, a source of light in the darkness, so precious that ancient stories say that it came from the gods, and yet also a symbol of wildness that threatens to engulf mankind. It can be seen and its heat felt, yet no one can hold it or explain its shape. It is red, yellow, blue, white – a myriad of colors that can be expanded even further depending on what is being burned.
Fire has been part of ritual and ceremony for millennia. The ancient Jewish leader Moses saw God in a bush that was on fire yet was not consumed. When the Hebrew people constructed their tabernacle for God, they were commanded to keep candles lit in the holy place at all times. Sacrifices were burned, consumed in flames whose smoke rose to heaven. Other cultures also viewed fire as holy. Ancient Hindu ceremonies name Fire as the mediator between men and the gods, and some ancient Indo-European cultures worshiped fire itself as divine.
In modern America, while few people actually worship fire, we still make heavy symbolic use of it. If you think back to this past Friday evening – the 4th of July – I’m sure one instance will come immediately to mind.
You guessed it. Fireworks. From little crackers that pop and flash, to gigantic balls of colored flame that turn different colors in the sky, to golden showers of sparks that gently rain down from the heavens to vanish before they reach Earth, fireworks are the most obvious way in which Americans celebrate their independence.
But there are other types of modern rituals and art forms that make use of fire. For instance:
Light painting with fire. In this art form, individuals use long-exposure photography to create “lines of light” by moving sparklers or other small, controlled fire sources.
Taking this concept a step further, fire-twirling involves taking long exposure photography of sparking flame-sources that get twirled at the end of a rope. For instance:
Given these real-life examples, the ritualistic use of fire practically begs to be incorporated into whatever fantasy world you’re writing. For instance, the deaths of famous warriors or kings might be marked with a series of controlled explosions to ensure that the gods take note of the individual’s passing. Alternatively, fires might be lit and kept burning before the night of a great battle, so that darkness cannot touch the camp and bring evil luck. Perhaps individuals worry that the evil fire-spirits will inhabit their hearths, and the only way to keep them from being attracted to one’s fire is to light every new fire from the established fire of the temple, which has been lit in a certain way and blessed to keep other spirits away.
Fire-dancers could also be given a prominent place in a society’s hierarchy. Perhaps fire-dancing with lit torches, or fire-spinning as pictured above, is a show of valor, or of control, or of faithful perseverance. Perhaps only one or two children every year are selected to be raised as fire-dancers, and their skill with their flaming instruments is linked to their people’s victories or defeats in battle. Or perhaps the fire-dance is performed by every young warrior upon his/her first victory, in thanks to the powers of light that helped him/her overcome the foe. There are a thousand more options, each depending on the specific world and culture that an author has created. (Perhaps different cultures in a single world have slightly different fire-rituals, and each is amazed and shocked at what the others do!)
In sum, next time you think about fire’s role in a fantasy world, think beyond traditional “fireball” weapons that mages throw at each other. Instead, imagine a world more like our own, where controlled fire is a mystical and powerful force to be incorporated into the stories and ceremonies of the people – and see where your “spark” of creativity takes you.