The Symbolism of Fire in the Ancient World
The word “fire” is mentioned several hundred times in the King James version of the Bible. The sacrifice of the Lord is made by fire (Exodus 29:18, 25; Leviticus 2:10-11; Leviticus 6:13; Numbers 28:6; Deuteronomy 4:33; Joshua 13:14; I Samuel 2:28; II Chronicles 2:4; Isaiah 24:15; Matthew 3:11; Luke 1:9; Revelations 8:4-5)
Abraham, the father of the Israelite nation, came from Ur which was a city of Ancient Sumer in South Babylonia. For the Babylonians, fire was essential to sacrifice and all oblations were conveyed to the gods by the fire god Girru-Nusku, whose presence as an intermediary between the gods and man was indispensable. Girru-Nusku, as the messenger of the gods, bore the essence of the offerings upward to them in the smoke of sacrificial fire. At Babylon: “The glorious gods smell the incense, noble food of heaven; pure wine which no hand has touched do they enjoy.” (L. Jeremias, in Encyclopedia Biblica, i.v. 4119, quoting Rawlinson, Cuneif. Inscrip. IV, 19 (59).)
The most important of the ancient Indian gods was Agni, the god of fire, who like the Babylonian god Girru-Nusku acted as a messenger between men and the gods. The fire (Agni) upon the altar was regarded as a messenger, their invoker.
“…For thou, O sage, goest wisely between these two creations like a friendly messenger between two hamlets.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the section on “mysticism”:
“The Vedas (Hindu sacred writings) are hymns to the mystic fire and the inner sense of sacrifice, burning forever on the ‘altar Mind’. Hence the abundance of solar and fire images: birds of fire, the fire of the sun, and the isles of fire. The symbol system of the world’s religions and mysticisms are profound illuminations of the human-divine mystery. Be it the cave of the heart or the lotus of the heart, ‘the dwelling place of that which is the Essence of the Universe, “the third eye”, or the eye of wisdom’ – the symbols all refer back to wisdom entering the aspiring soul on its way to progressive self-understanding. ‘I saw the Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I said, “Who art thou?” and he answered, “Thou”‘.”
The ancient Indian mystics said, “…that in the ecstasy of bhang (marijuana) the spark of the Eternal in man turns into light the murkiness of matter or illusion and the self is lost in the central soul fire. Raising man out of himself and above mean individual worries, bhang makes him one with the divine force of nature and the mystery ‘I am he’ grew plain. (Taken from the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report which was written at the turn of the twentieth century.)
The concept of spiritual or inner light was found throughout the ancient world. As we shall see that spiritual light was directly related to the burning of incense. According to Lucie Lamy in “Egyptian Mysteries”, page 24: “The Pharaonic word for light is akh. This word, often translated as ‘transfigured’, designated transcendental light as well as all aspects of physical light; and in the funerary text it denotes the state of ultimate sublimation.
“The word akh, first of all, is written with a glyph showing a crested ibis, ibis comata. This bird – the name of which was also akh — lived in the southern part of the Arabian side of the Red Sea (near Al Qunfidhah) and migrated to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) during the winter. Both these places are near the regions from which sacred incense came, and were called the “Divine Land”. The bird’s crest, together with its dark green plumage shot with glittering metallic specks justifies the meanings ‘to shine’, ‘to be resplendent’, ‘to irradiate’; of the root akh in the hieroglyphic writing. “Akh indeed expresses all notions of light, both literally and figuratively, from the Light which comes forth from Darkness to the transcendental light of transfiguration. It is also used to designate the ‘third eye’, the ureaeus, related in old tradition to the pineal body and to the spirit.”
In the next chapter we will see that the sacred cloud of incense was instrumental in the transfiguration of Christ. Note that Ethiopia was referred to as the “Divine Land” and that it was the source for the sacred incense. The ancients also referred to Ethiopia as the “Land of God”.
The ancient Egyptians believed that they had received their divinities from Ethiopia and have always held to the ancient and honored tradition of their southern origin. Ethiopia is so important in ancient history that it is mentioned as being in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:12).
The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote: “The Ethiopians conceived themselves to be of greater antiquity than any other nation; and it is probable that, born under the sun’s path, its warmth may have ripened them earlier than other men. They supposed themselves to be the inventors of worship, of festivals, of solemn assemblies, of sacrifice, and every religious practice.”