The meaning of the dream symbol: Fire

In each case of intense emotion, we seem to find a reference concerning Fire. In another sense, fire may refer to highest civilization in the form of protection from a cold, wild and decidedly inhuman, landscape. Capturing and utilizing this fire demonstrates power over our own fears and subsequently opens a door to our own creative potential. In a rather peculiar, yet poetic twist, much of the creative invention which hones our modem existence was forged by fire itself: (laser, electric etc.) Hence we see a combination of our deepest emotions and most potent creative faculties. Figuratively, both our heart and our mind can bum and their unique fire can either create or destroy our complete sense of Self.

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1. Fire may symbolize libido, passion. Poking a fire may therefore mean arousing passion.

2. It may symbolize a fever, and the dream may actually have been caused by a feverish bodily condition.

3. If the fire is destroying or threatening to destroy a house, the house will almost certainly represent yourself (or, in the case of 2, above, your body). The dream will usually mean there is some (repressed) emotion that is liable to burst out destructively if it is not given your conscious attention. The same would apply if the fire was a conflagration - for example, a forest fire - threatening you.

4. Fire - which can change liquids and even some minerals into air - may symbolize purification and transformation. (The Hindu custom of burning the dead is a symbolic purging.) If, therefore, what is being burned in the dream can be seen as a symbol of yourself, the message will be about getting rid of whatever has been blocking the way to a fuller realization of your true self.

What we think we are is usually all those habitual responses that have been conditioned by past events and experiences. What we really are is eternal - that is, not conditioned by the past. So, to find our true self we have to 'burn' the past. Fire, like floods, is a fertilizer, making new things possible by destroying the old.

5. In some contexts fire may be equivalent to light and may symbolize spirituality, truth, (self-)knowledge. (This is the opposite of hell-fire, which has been described as burning without giving any light. For the fires of purgatory see 4 above.)

Hindu religious teaching, which gave it fundamental importance, contains most of the symbolical aspects of fire. Agni, Indra and Siirya are, respectively, the fires of the terrestrial, intermediate and celestial worlds, in other words ordinary fire, lightning and the Sun. In addition, there are two other fires, Vaishvanara, which penetrates and absorbs, and the fire -another aspect of Agni - which destroys. Ritual fire itself - a further aspect of Agni - was conceived as having five aspects.

According to the I Ching, fire corresponds to south, the colour red, Summer and the heart. This last correspondence is constant, perhaps because fire symbolizes the passions (and especially those of love and hate), perhaps because it symbolizes the spirit (the ‘spiritual fire’ which is also the breath and the trigram li) or that intuitive knowledge mentioned by the Bhagavad Gita (4: 10, 27). The supernatural significance of fire embraces both lost souls - represented by will-o’-the-wisps - and the Divine Spirit. The Bhagavad Gita (4: 25) says that Brahman and fire are identical.

Fire is the essential symbol of the godhead in Zoroastrianism. Guardianship of the sacred fire stretches from Ancient Rome to Angkor: the symbol of purifying and regenerating fire is common from the Americas to Japan. On Easter Eve the Roman Catholic liturgy celebrates the ‘new fire’: in Shinto ritual this falls at the New Year. ТЪе Holy Spirit came down as ‘tongues of fire’ at Pentecost. Some legends tell how Christ - and his saints - brought the dead to life by passing their bodies through the fires of a blacksmith’s furnace. From the part played by the latter, it is a natural step to that of his relative the alchemist who ‘forges’ immortality in the fire of his furnace or, in China, in the inner crucible, located perhaps in the solar plexus or the manipura-chakra, to which Yoga assigns the sign of fire. Furthermore, Taoists enter the fire to free themselves from the burdens of the flesh, an apotheosis which may well remind us of that of Elijah in the chariot of fire. They enter the fire ‘without being burned’ and within it, we are assured, they are able to call down heavenly blessings in the shape of rain, reminiscent of the ‘fire which burns not’ of Western hermeticism, which is an ablution or alchemical purification symbolized by the salamander. Among these instances of fire as a purifier should be numbered its use in Ancient China, along with bathing and fumigation, in ritual enthronements. And, of course, fire has been used as an ordeal worldwide.

The Buddha replaced the sacrificial fires of Hinduism with inner fire, which is simultaneously knowledge which penetrates, enlightenment and destruction of the outer shell. T kindle the flame within myself.... My heart is the hearth, the flame is the taming of self’ (Samyutta-nikaya 1:169). Similarly the Upanishads give the assurance that to burn externally is not to burn, hence the Yoga symbol of the burning kundalinl and the ‘inner fire’ of Tibetan Tantrism. This last system, with respect to the five ‘subtle’ centres, makes fire correspond to the heart. Again, in India, taijasa, a state of being corresponding to the dream or ‘subtle’ state, derives from tejas, or fire. It is at least interesting to observe that Abu Ya’qub SejestanI regarded a function of fire to be the transformation of matter to a ‘subtle’ state by destroying its material shell. The apparently childish Chinese alchemical formula, that water married to fire engenders steam, readily expresses symbolism of the same nature. According to a Fulani initiatory tradition ‘fire comes from Heaven, because it goes up; water comes from Earth because it comes down as rain’. Its birth is earthly, but its destiny is heavenly.

The destructive aspect of fire implies a negative aspect and to be ‘Lord of the Fire’ is a function of the Devil. It will be observed that the fire of the blacksmith’s forge is simultaneously the fire of Heaven and the flames of Hell, the instrument both of the Demiurge and of the Devil. The Fall is that of Lucifer, ‘Bearer of the Light’ of Heaven, cast down into the flames of Hell, into a fire which bums without consuming, but can never regenerate.

The only information on Celtic traditions of fire as a ritual element and symbol comes indirectly or via the lives of the saints. In Ireland the only written references are to the Feast of Beltaine (‘Bel Fires’) on 1 May, the beginning of Summer. The druids lit huge bonfires through which the livestock was driven to preserve it from disease. At Uisnech, in the centre of the country, St Patrick replaced the druids’ bonfires with his own, as a sign that Christianity would triumph in the end. In his De bello gallico, Caesar, too, mentions the huge willow manikins into which the Gauls thrust men and animals and which they then set alight. The Gaulish phenomenon is obscure and still awaits full analysis, but in Ireland the symbolism is patently solar. This was a pagan Easter.

A characteristic of countless agrarian cults is purification by fire, generally in rites of passage. In fact they symbolize the burning of the fields ‘which then put on a fresh cloak of living green’.

In the Popol-Vuh, the Hero Twins, the maize-gods, die upon a pyre lit by their enemies, offering no defence, only to be reborn in the green sprouts of maize.

Their myth is perpetuated in the rite of New Fire, still celebrated by the Chorti at the equinox, when the fields are burned for the sowing. At this time, the Chorti ‘light a huge pyre on which they burn the hearts of birds and other creatures’. The Indians thus symbolically repeat the burning of the maize-god Twins, birds’ hearts symbolizing the divine spirit.

In rites of initiation, of death and rebirth, Fire is associated with its chief rival Water. Thus, after their burning, the Twins of the Popol-Vuh were reborn from the river into which their ashes had been thrown. Later, the two Maya-Quiche heroes become the new Sun and the new Moon, achieving a fresh differentiation of the opposing principles of Fire and Water which had presided over their death and rebirth.

Thus purification by fire complements purification by water on both the microcosmic level in rites of initiation and, on the macrocosmic level, in alternating myths of floods and great fires or droughts.

Codices give as emblems for the Aztecs’ ‘old god’ of fire, Huehueteotl, a tuft of feathers surmounted by a blue bird, a pectoral ornament shaped like a butterfly and a dog. On his headband are a pair of interlocking isosceles triangles, one pointing up, the other down. Sahagun says that the god dwells ‘among the water-pools, among the flowers which form walls and battlements, wrapped in clouds of water.’ Thus earthly, chthonian fire stood for the Aztecs for that deep-seated power which allowed the marriage of opposites and the ascension - Sejourne calls it the sublimation - of water into clouds, in other words, the transformation of impure, earthly water, into heavenly water, divine and pure. Fire is, therefore, the prime motive force in the cycle of regeneration. The upward-pointing triangle, the emblem of kingship, is the hieroglyphic of evolutionary power. The down-ward-pointing triangle, according to Sejourne, stands for Tlaloc, the great sky-god, lord of thunder, lightning (fire from the sky) and rain. The ‘burnt water’ hieroglyphic associated with him comprises the marriage of opposites which takes place in the bosom of the Earth.

The Bambara regard chthonian fire as representing human wisdom and ouranian fire, divine. In their society, the religious takes priority over the secular, hence the dependence of the human upon the divine.

Some ritual cremations stemmed from the belief that fire was a vehicle or messenger between the worlds of the living and the dead. Thus the Telyut went in procession to their burial-grounds at certain memorial festivals of the dead and lit two fires, one at the head and one at the foot of the grave. They placed items of food especially kept for the purpose in the first of these fires, the fire undertaking to transmit the offering to the dead person.

The sexual significance of fire is linked worldwide with the first technique of obtaining fire by up and down friction, the image of the sexual act. According to Dieterlen, spiritualization of fire would have arisen from obtaining fire by striking a spark. Mircea Eliade concurs. Fire obtained by friction ‘is either of divine origin or “demoniac” (for, according to certain primitive beliefs, it is engendered magically in the genital organ of the sorceress)’. Durand notes that the sexualization of fire is emphasized by the many legends which locate the natural seat of fire in the tail of an animal.

Like Bachelard, Durand distinguishes two directions or ‘psychic constellations’ in the symbolism of fire depending upon whether, as already noted, it has been obtained by friction or by striking. In the latter case it is related to lightning and arrows and possesses the qualities of purification and enlightenment. It is the igneous extension of light. In Sanskrit the same word means both ‘pure’ and ‘fire’. This spiritualizing fire is associated with cremation ceremonies, the Sun, fire which elevates and sublimates and all fire which communicates ‘an intention to purify and enlighten’. It stands in opposition to the ‘sexual’ fire obtained by friction, just as the purifying flame stands in opposition to ‘the procreative matriarchal hearth’ and, as the exaltation of heavenly light, is distinct from an agrarian fertility rite. From this viewpoint, the symbolism of fire marks ‘the most important stage in the intellectualization’ of the cosmos and ‘distances the human condition further and further from its animal nature.’ By extending the symbol in this direction, ‘fire would become what Bumouf calls that living and thinking god whom the Aryan religions of Asia named Agni and Athor and the Christians, Christ’. Although unrelated, a certain similarity of form brings fire and birds close together as celestial symbols.

It is now easy to understand why fire should be the best and least imperfect image of God.

As the Sun through its rays symbolizes the act of making fertile, or pure, and of enlightenment, so does the fire through its flames. However, it does display a negative aspect. Its smoke blinds and stifles and the fires of love, punishment and war bum, devour and destroy. When Paul Diel interprets fire psychoanalytically, he regards terrestrial fire as symbolizing the intellect, that is to say consciousness in all its ambivalence:

Flames rising skywards depict impulses towards spiritualization. In its developing form, the intellect is subservient to the spirit. But the flame may flicker and thus fire may come to symbolize the intellect oblivious of the spirit. [It should be remembered that in this context ‘spirit’ means ‘super-consciousness’.] Unlike the flame which casts light, the fire which smokes and devours symbolizes an imagination inflamed... the subconscious... the hole in the ground... hell-fire... the intellect in rebellion, in short, all forms of psychic regression.