Fire is one of four basic elements in the universe, the others being air, Earth, and water. In many African cosmologies, fire represents the first element because, accordingly, it represents the state in which the world/Earth originated—“a burning planet.” Thus, fire is central to how African people understand the structure and order of the universe. More specifically, the universe is conceptualized as a spiritual force providing for the sustenance of human existence in both physical and spiritual realities. Therefore, fire is an aspect of all African spiritual systems connected via some spiritual essence, suggesting a harmonious relationship between humans and natural phenomena.
This notion of fire as the first element is most prominent in the Dagara cosmology, where fire is believed to exist in everything as well as everything being in need of it because fire collided with water, which gave birth to life on Earth. Ancient Kemetic thought and practice also privilege the element of fire above the others, as conceptualized in the sun god Ra—the creator of everything. Egyptians came to worship Ra for providing and sustaining the life of the people. In turn, fire came to symbolize the sun on the Earth. As representative of the African cosmology, this dictated how their existence was viewed—consistent with balancing nature of Maat—possessing both positive and negative characteristics and consequences.
Fire can sustain life as well as cause much destruction, similar to the Dogon understanding of the oppositional character of the universe: All things in nature are believed to possess a spiritual force that brings either prosperity or hardship.
The element of fire is also representative of particular personalities and cultures. A “fire person” is believed to possess high levels of vision and passion and is active. Additionally, because fire is seen as the doorway to the world of the ancestors, one possessing this characteristic is able to interpret dreams and lives in the future and is often misunderstood. However, a person possessing the negative aspects of fire is filled with restlessness, resulting in eventual death. In many African societies, the culture of fire is believed to be one of destruction.
- Karenga, M. (2006). Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
- Mbiti, J. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Heinemann.
- Some, M. P. (1998). The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.