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June 2007

June 2007 - Sun

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  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Going Green for Art Show Season
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Yet More Dealing with Art Directors
  • Behind the Art:
    Your Workspace and Work Habits
  • Myths and Symbols:
    Creator and Destroyer
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  • Painting Sunspot - A Watercolor Tutorial

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  • Fiction: The Sun, The Moon, and The Nothing
  • Fiction: Coaxing the Sun
  • Fiction: Globally Dim, or Sultry Afternoon in the Dome
  • Fiction: In The Light of Einstein
  • Comic: Selling to the Sun

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  • Book: Sunshine by Robin McKinley


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  • Creator and Destroyer
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    The sun turns black, | earth sinks in the sea,
    The hot stars down | from heaven are whirled;
    Fierce grows the steam | and the life-feeding flame,
    Till fire leaps high | about heaven itself.
    (...)
    Now do I see | the earth anew
    Rise all green | from the waves again;
    The cataracts fall, | and the eagle flies,
    And fish he catches | beneath the cliffs. (1)

    Among the four elements of the classic Western tradition (2), fire is without a doubt the most ambivalent one. It has strong links to the sun: giver of life, agent of creation and purification, omen of fertility and abundance. It is also an agent of destruction, present in most apocalyptic visions from the Bible to the Voluspa (The Song of the Seeress), the Scandinavian poem I quoted above (3).

    In mythology, fire is often a closely held treasure of the gods.

    In Greek legend, the titan Prometheus, the demiurge who made man from clay, seeing his creatures shiver in the night took pity on them. He stole fire from the gods against Zeus' dictum and taught humanity to use fire to cook food and stay warm. In punishment for his act of defiance, he was chained on Mount Caucasus, where an eagle ate his liver, which would regenerate continuously.

    In a traditional Native American story the one who brings fire to humanity is Raven, the trickster, stealing it from Gray Eagle's lodge together with many other gifts (4), while in some Inuit traditions Raven steals the fire from Sun himself.

    In ancient Rome a perpetual fire burned in the temple of Vesta, goddess of the family, home and (fire)-hearth. In her temple a perpetual fire burned, tended by her priestesses, the virgin Vestales. Every year in March the fire was ritually renewed. It was put out in 391, by order of emperor Theodosius.

    Each Roman city had a public hearth sacred to Vesta. When a colony was to be founded the colonists brought with them live coals from the hearth of the mother-city with which to kindle a new sacred fire in their new place.

    Both in Judaism and Christianity fire has an important role in ritual. In Judaism offerings to God were burned, and a ritual lamp was always burning in the temple. In Roman Catholic churches there is a perpetual lamp burning near the altar (an oil lamp, burning olive oil), and the rituals of the vigil of Easter include the blessing of fire (with the lighting of a special candle) and of water (water that will be used in the year's baptisms). In many Christian branches the faithful lit candles to represent faith and prayer and in the Scriptures flames are one of the representations of the Holy Ghost

    The faith in which fire has the most important role, though, is without doubt Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion preached by Zoroaster (5).

    In the Zoroastrian faith (called by its adherents Mazdayasna, worship of Mazda) the one uncreated creator god, Ahura Mazda, is represented in temples and in the houses of the faithful by a sacred fire. The main temples where communal worship occurs are called fire temples, and in the Zoroastrian myth of creation fire is the final element which gives life to the cosmos.

    On the negative side of fire in worship, often the Phoenicians' sacrifices to Moloch are mentioned, more often than not painting a horrific picture of screaming babies thrown into the flames.

    From archaeological evidence it would seem it's all a fable. In a recent article professor Piero Bartoloni (an Italian archaeologist, professor of Phoenician-Punic archaeology at Sassari University) writes that in the ten Phoenician necropolis where children bones were found there's not a single piece of evidence to support the child-sacrifice theory.

    "Most of the children urns found in Carthage," writes the professor "about 6000, contain bones of foetuses, for all evidence still-born children. The problem of the slightly older children remains, they probably died before the ritual of initiation, a ceremony equivalent to catholic baptism. Flames did play a part in it, since an element of the initiation ritual was the 'fire passage' in which the child and his god-father would jump over burning coals, as mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Kings" (6). Analyses on the bones of Carthage's children have demonstrated all died of natural causes, no trace of violence whatsoever has been found.

    "Passage through fire" is a common folk ritual in all of Europe. On a set day, be it Saint John's day (June 24), the Epiphany (January 6), or different days of local significance, fires would be lit in or near the fields and people would gather to celebrate. Then omens would be taken from different elements (quantity and/or direction of the smoke, vigor of the fire and so on) often the ritual is concluded having the gathered people or some specific category (young couples, unmarried folk, and so on) jump over the fire, in other cases the livestock is gathered and walked through the dying embers (or between two fires) as a way to ward off illnesses and ensure fertility.

    Fire destroys, but also purifies, burning away the dross and leaving only the pure element, a Chinese chengyu says "Pure gold does not fear fire" (7).

    Given the dualistic nature of fire as helper and destroyer and its links with the subterranean (not to mention the widespread notion of fire as punishment for the sinners), in many places people who had a daily contact with this agent of transformation were either kept into high regard or treated with extreme suspicion, which is often the case of smiths.

    A smith is one that changes and creates, taking brute matter and, by strength, fire, and water, through knowledge and means incomprehensible to the un-initiated, transforms it into everyday implements and weapons. Such a power and knowledge makes him a powerful and dangerous man that for his own safety and that of others must be bound with taboos and rituals.

    So it is that the Nordic smiths, the dwarfs, could bargain with the gods as equals, and African smiths are seen either as sacred demiurges or malevolent warlocks.

    I hope this taste of fire has tempted you to know more. Next month EMG-Zine will be dedicated to computers, I will take the topic a bit further, talking about androids.

    As always, questions, suggestions and comments are welcome.

    Notes

    (1) Stanzas 57 and 59 of the Voluspa (here Voluspo) from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm

    (2) In European tradition the elements are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, but this is not universal neither for number nor choice. For instance, in Chinese thought there are five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.

    (3) It is worth mentioning that the theory that saw parts of the Voluspa as derived from, or at least heavily influenced by, biblical texts was always a feeble one and nowadays is given very little credit, if any.

    (4) Namely, sun, moon, stars, and fresh water.

    (5) Common consensus among the scholars is that Zoroaster is a historical, not mythical, figure; prevailing opinion is that he lived sometime between the 1400 BC and the 1000 BC.

    (6) Article published in the Italian archaeological magazine Archeologia viva by Giunti editore as quoted in the newspaper Avvenire. The source for the accusation of child-sacrifice was Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from Sicily. Given the age-old rivalry, if not outright hostility between the Greek and the Phoenicians, Diodorus is a somewhat suspect witness.

    (7)Chengyu are what we usually dub Chinese proverbs or Chinese sayings: very concise expressions (usually composed of four characters) of literary origin, which are used by the Chinese in ordinary conversation. Use of chengyu is one of the elements defining a foreigner’s mastery of Chinese.

    Illustration credits

    Statue of a Vestale by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1787) from http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/actualites/communiq/donnedieu/vestale.htm ,

    Marina Bonomi
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