Deep down, are we all pyrophiles?

Lewes Bonfire Night (photo by Dan Taylor - CC-BY)

Fire is the one common element of every culture. The use of fire distinguishes humans from other animals, and has enabled humans to become what they are today. In advanced societies, the domestic and industrial use of fire has been largely replaced by electricity and other sources of energy, but we still seek out the experience of fire through barbecues, campfires, festivals and fireworks.

Fire has been central to human existence since it was first controlled, perhaps a million years ago. The ability to create fire on demand made it possible to cook food, killing the pathogens in meat. It also enabled us to cook plant matter, reducing the energy needs of the digestive system and enabling more of the body’s energy to be chanelled to the brain. In this way, fire made humans what we are today.

Although the need for fire has subsided in industrialized societies, we are able to enjoy its social and cultural aspects in many ways.

The campfire

Sitting around the fire chatting has been a way of life for hundreds of thousands of years, and for many people it’s still a special treat to light a campfire. It’s a relaxing and satisfying experience to gather around the fire after a long day’s hike, to sit under a starry sky and socialize.

All that’s needed is a good supply of dry wood, and someone who knows how to make a fire that’s not too smoky. Then add some good company (and perhaps some good red wine).

Culinary fire

What better way to dramatise the presentation of food than with flames? Pouring brandy over the Christmas pudding, and lighting it, highlights that the time has come to share it out. A flambée dessert is presented with a flourish to announce that its preparation is complete. And a flaming cocktail lets us consume, in a symbolic way, the product of the fire.

Many youngsters and adults alike love to toast marshmallows above the coals and embers of the campfire.

The barbecue

A barbecue (or BBQ, or Bar-b-que) is a respite from the modern world of microwaves, induction stovetops, twin ovens with rotisserie attachments and electric woks and steamers.

The barbecue is a way to cook that’s more convenient but not fundamentally different than the way our ancestors cooked thousands of years ago. The sights, sounds and smells of a barbecue make it a richer experience than cooking in the streamlined modern stainless steel and ceramic kitchen.

Ceremonial flames

The Olympic Torch is an enduring and dramatic ceremonial use of fire. And what could have been more dramatic than the archer firing a flaming arrow into the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (Spain)?

On a smaller scale, there are still many festivals around the world where the participants bear flaming torches, including those in Sidmouth and Ottery St Mary (United Kingdom).

The Candle

Let’s not forget the humble candle, that scaled-down and carefully-controlled mini-fire. What could be more romantic than a candle-lit dinner, or a bath with floating candles?

At Halloween, the candle inside the pumpkin is our tiny piece of fire, captured and put on view.

Fireworks and bonfires

What are fireworks if not a chance to combine fire, art and explosions? Who could fail to enjoy that? And if the fireworks are accompanied by a massive bonfire, so much the better!

Bonfire Night in England also brings with it the “burning of the guy”, an intense and powerful reminder of the burning of witches centuries ago.

Performance art

The busker who juggles the flaming skittles is engaging us with the counterplay between the danger of the fire and the skill of the performer. The fire-eaters, fire-breathers and fire-throwers are equally impressive, and a circus act that involves jumping through flaming hoops will not be forgotten quickly.

Fire dance is beautiful and powerful, whether performed with fire sticks or the fire poi.

Throughout the world, people have not forgotten the art of fire. Long may we be able to continue to celebrate it!

An earlier version of this article was posted to Knol, and attracted several comments. David Sarokin wrote:

I think all kids (boys, anyway) go through their magnifying glass stage, where they learn to set things on fire thru the wonders of solar energy (see the movie, Toy Story, if you need help visualizing this). Probably the first introduction most of us have to starting our own recreational fires.

Andrew Czernek wrote:

While I was at Purdue University a popular recreation of dorm students was to take a dry cleaning bag and tape it closed at the top; then build a small platform of cardboard with cotton to tie to the bottom. The cotton would be saturated with Sterno (a napalm-like petroleum jelly), then lit on fire. The heat was sufficient to launch the balloon into the evening sky. This flying fire is quite impressive, particularly when the balloon itself catches fire and begins to drip.

The device that Andy describes is also known as a sky lantern.

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