Prometheus. Nicholas Sebastian-Adam. 1762. Louvre, Paris.

Zeus, chief god of all the gods, had tired of the human race and so he decided to deprive humanity of all blessings until the last mortal had died out. Prometheus, the God of forethought, felt great compassion for humanity. So one day he stole fire from Mount Olympus and brought it to earth so that humanity might have perpetual warmth and light.

On the night following the fire theft Zeus looked down from Mount Olympus and saw the glow of many fires. He was so angry that he chained Prometheus to a mountain where a giant eagle fed on his ever-regenerating liver. Prometheus was an immortal and would have suffered for all eternity had Hercules not rescued him several generations later.


The phoenix lives for 500 years or more. When it sees that it has grown old it builds a pyre for itself from spices and twigs, and facing the rays of the rising sun ignites a fire and fans it with its wings, and rises again from its own ashes.
St. Isidore of Seville (7th Century), archbishop
, scholar and writer

The mythological roots of the phoenix may be found in its Egyptian counterpart, the Bennu, a crane-like bird believed to be the soul of the sun-god Ra. Egyptian myth says that the Bennu burst into being from the heart of Osiris, god of life, death and fertility. This explains its use as a symbol of creation and renewal.

All things, oh priests, are on fire . . . The eye is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire.
Buddha (563-483 BC)

Light of the World

In world religious traditions, fire represents variously spirit, soul and emerging consciousness.

In Celtic tradition, May 1 is Beltane (meaning bright fire) and marks the beginning of summer. On Beltane, the Celts believed that the veil between worlds grew thin and the Otherworld was particularly accessible. Beltane celebrations traditionally centered around the creation of a huge bon-fire and might also include storytelling, fire-leaping and fertility rites.

In Aztec and Mayan mythology, the god of fire Xiutecutli is represented as a butterfly. Fire, like the butterfly, is a symbol of personal transformation.

In some spiritual traditions, salamanders represent the soul which is purified by fire but cannot be destroyed. This metaphor arises from a piece of ancient folklore that asserts: if a salamander is thrown into the fire, it will emerge unharmed. This tradition has its origins in the habits of the salamandra salamandra. A forest native, the salamandra salamandra tends to hide in fallen leaves, rotting limbs and tree trunks. In earlier times, when human beings gathered fuel for their fires and added these materials to the hearth, quite often salamanders would emerge, seeming to arise from the heart of the flames.

[left] Light of the World. William Holman Hunt. 1853-54. Keble College. Oxford, England. Hunt based this painting on Revelation 3:19-21: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.