The first spark
Humankind starts in Greek myth as a lump of clay, shaped together within the dexterous hands of the titan Prometheus; combining clay and the spittle of Zeus to bind us, and awoken by the breath of Athena. Through this artistic act, Prometheus became sympathetic to our nature. To help us thrive he stole fire from the gods, hiding it in a fennel-stalk and secreting it away for humankind. Built on a theft, fire became a foundational technology of humankind.
This theme is also subverting divine power is behind the subtitle of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus. Here it is Dr Victor Frankenstein that steals life (electricity) from the heavens to re-create life. Although, being imperfect, man’s attempt at creation is also inherently flawed.
It was actually 65 years earlier that Benjamin Franklin was the first to harness electricity with great fame and Immanuel Kant described him in 1755 as ‘the Prometheus of modern times’.
A theme that is as common today, entertainingly brought to cinema, through to the continuing story of the Alien films by Ridley Scott; with 2012’s Prometheus with different subtexts of man’s attempt of creating life going awry.
Electricity is extinguishing fire
If we consider the last 100 years, fire has been almost extinguished in our modern lives. Systematically, fire has been replaced by electricity. It’s easy to create a list of supplanted technologies:
- The fireplace has been replaced by the electric heater,
- The gas burner increasingly challenged by the induction top,
- The woodfire oven by the convection oven and microwave,
- The candle and lantern by the light bulb,
- The steam train by the electric,
- The combustion engine car by the electric
- Mobile phones light the way at concerts instead of lighters
What does fire mean to us?
Is fire an elemental part of the human experience? Herodotus the first Historian, expresses our primal awe for fire – it was a supernatural force to be respected.
“the Egyptians, because they believe fire to be a live animal, which eats whatever it can seize, and then, glutted with the food, dies with the matter which it feeds upon” Herodotus, Histories, Book III
It could be our connection with fire has historically been even more instrumental. The Anthropologist Richard Wrangham believes that cooking is how humankind gained the calories to evolve, in his words we are ‘“the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame.”
For many the last day-to-day connection to fire was smoking. A decade ago, there were 25% more adult smokers in America. While it would seem alien to many today, even if you didn’t smoke, it was social to carry about a lighter or matchbox. Many had a daily connection with this elemental force. Now the iconic Zippos have been replaced with USB plasma electric lighters. The heritage and traditions of cigarettes, cigars and pipes replaced by Vaping (recognising that smoking is plain stupid and suicidal, although vaping looks just a stupid and is apparently as bad for you).
In religion and popular culture, fire is the thematic prop the Hell and the underworld. Fire is symbolically associated with the wrath of god and a tool of purification. Without a constructive role in our lives, fire is defaulting to these negative stereotypes.
The light goes out
In our day-to-day experiences fire is more commonly the cause of natural disasters. They are now a bellwether of climate change
‘Large wildfires in the United States burn more than twice the area they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season is 78 days longer’.
Fire is no longer something that cooks our meals, warms our communities, scares away wild animals and brings light to the darkest night. At no other point in human history have we been so removed from the experience of fire.
We have systematically extinguished fire in return for the more controllable relationship with electricity. A less analogue partner for life that can be meticulously and digital controlled.
Prometheus’s theft of fire is also a metaphor for the theft of knowledge (his name means ‘forethought’). Is our shift to electricity reflective our further removal from nature, fear of chaos and increasing need to control as a culture? The flicking unpredictable flame replaced by the monotonous and reliable hum of the LED.