Did Fire Kill the Night and Birth Storytelling and Religions?

With the flick of a switch and by the glow of a smartphone screen we have finally chased away the lonely, terrifying darkness of night. The portable access to light, to entertain and occupy, like the incandescent light bulb, have changed how we deal with and interact with the night. The night was once communally conquered by a bonfire where food was prepared and stories were exchanged. The fear of the unknown that lurked at the firelight’s edge was chased away by tales whispered by the lips of man.

For the better part of 40 years University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiesner studied the Kalhari Bushmen, specifically their communication habits and content. Wiessner examined the content of conversation between Bushmen during the day and night. What she found was particularly fascinating- daylight conversations were mundane or gossip filled. While when the sun set and flames rose stories became supernatural and deeply personal.

According to the University of Utah press release:

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner says.

“Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where,” she says. “It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes.”

“At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Healers dance and go into trances, “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says.

Wiessner goes on to note:

“firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.”

Wiessner’s idea that civilization and community were born over a roaring fire is both brilliant and complex. The role of fire in ritual and worship is an important and continuing connection to those bonfire communes of pre-history. Viewed through Wiessner’s thesis the role of fire there is renewed and complexity to the birth of faiths and myths. If we look at the fire as deified symbol the Burning Bush perhaps started as a communal spiritual experience and turned into a solitary prophetic action that helped codify a faith. In Zoroastrianism fire takes on sacred complexity, with Atar, or holy fire as the “source force which is the source of all energy and the symbol of truth and righteousness,” according to University of Derby Multifaith Centre. From Hinduism’s Agni to Maori ahi tapu, or sacred fires, the role of fire of faith punctuates every continent and culture. And it starts with tinder and a story.

For the full University of Utah press release, read here.

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