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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Weekly
Vol. 24, No. 6 (Nov. 17, 1930), pp43‑45.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p43 The Use and Worship of Fire among the Romans

Fire, like water, is regularly used to remove the harmful effects of contact with persons and things which are, as we say, taboo, and for driving away evils of all sorts, whether spiritual or physical. Thus persons who attended a Roman funeral had to be sprinkled with water and to walk over fire in order to remove the contagion of death — a rite usually called the 'fire-walk'.1 Early man may have believed that he could thus set up a fiery barrier between himself and the spirits of the dead which were likely to harry him. This possibility is suggested by similar rites among other peoples where the avowed purpose is apotropaic. Thus Frazer2 records that

. . . The Tumbuku of Central Africa, on the shores of Lake Nyasa, resembled the Romans in practicing both the barrier by fire and the barrier by water after a funeral; for on returning from a burial all who had taken part in it washed in a river, and after that, on their way home to the village, they were met by a native doctor or wizard, who kindled a great fire on the path, and all the mourners had to pass through the flames. . . .

At the Roman festival of Pales, in April, the farmer, his family, and his flocks jumped through three bonfires of beanstraw;3 the object was to burn away evils, seen and unseen, and, in the case of women, to induce fertility by driving out all interfering influences. Ovid discloses the curious psychology of the worshipper when he says,4 'Consuming fire cleanses all things and refines the impurities from metal; therefore it cleanses sheep and shepherd'. Rites similar to this, in which flocks are driven through bonfires, are common among many peoples. The usual purpose is to ward off witches. Sometimes, however, the object is to assist the growth of crops and flocks. Thus we read,5

. . . at the Beltane fires, formerly kindled in the Highlands of Scotland on May Day (only ten days later than the Parilia), the person who drew the black lot (a piece of oatmeal cake blackened with charcoal) had to leap thrice through the flames for the sake of "rendering the year productive of the sustenance of man and beast. . . ."

I give one more illustration, taken from Italian religion. Every year, at the Festival of Apollo Soranus, at the base of Mount Soracte, certain priests, called Wolves of Soranus, walked barefoot over hot ashes without being burned.6 This miraculous immunity, as Varro suggests,7 was due to the fact that they had first treated their feet with some medicated preparation. We are not concerned here with the various problems in connection with the rite, but with the so‑called 'fire-walk', p44which had many parallels among other peoples, ancient and modern; its purpose was doubtless, as in the case of the Roman 'fire-walk' after funerals, both cathartic and apotropaic. For similar reasons a bride had to touch fire as well as water.8

The Romans employed burning sulphur in magic as well as in religious rites. The reason for its use, in addition to its apotropaic powers as fire, is probably that sulphur possesses disinfectant and medicinal properties — a fact which the Romans themselves recognized. Moreover, sulphur suggested to the Roman mind hot sulphur springs and volcanoes and the fears that these inspired. Again, the Romans believed that thunderbolts received the light from sulphur and the sulphur fumes accompanied a discharge of lightning.

We shall note a few instances of the magic and religious use of sulphur. Tibullus, while a witch recited incantations, purified his sweetheart Delia with burning sulphur, and thus, by performing an assisting magic rite, restored her to health.9 In the rites of the Festival of Pales the shepherds burned sulphur, and the touch of its fumes purified the sheep.10 A similar rite has survived down to modern times in Esthonia, where the people on Saint George's Day — within a few days of the time of the ancient Festival of Pales — purified the cattle with sulphur as a protection against witches.11

Not only sulphur but other combustible substances were used as purifying agents. A witch, for example, purified Tibullus from the harmful effects of magic by using blazing pine torches.12

One of the most frequent conceptions among savages is that love is fire and, more particularly, that fire represents the male principle and water the female principle.13 Hence transition is easy to the belief that maidens may be impregnated by fire. Among the Romans, miraculous impregnation by fire accounted for the birth of Servius Tullius, Romulus and Remus, and the King of Praeneste. Servius has told at length the story of the birth of the king. He writes:14

'. . . There were once two brothers at Praeneste who were called divine. While their sister was sitting by the hearth, a spark, leaping out, pierced through her womb, and by it, as the story goes, she conceived and subsequently bore a child. She cast the boy away at the Temple of Jupiter. Some maidens, however, who were on their way to procure water, found and packed up the child near a fire which was not far away from the spring. From this circumstance he was called the son of Vulcan . . .'

We have noticed the use of fire as a purifying agent in magic and in religious rites and as the male principle in life. We have now to consider fire as a spirit, or, we should rather say, two spirits, for fire in its helpful aspect was known as Vesta, as a destructive force was called Vulcan.

The Romans looked upon fire as a god. Ovid, for example, in a passage in which he seeks to explain the use of fire at the Festival of Pales, calls fire, as well as water, a god.15

The origin of the worship of Vesta — fire in its helpful aspect — goes back to primitive days when it was necessary to keep fire alive for the use of the community. The fire was the care of the unmarried daughters of the family, who were, in reality, the priestesses of the sacred fire in the home. After the main course of the noon meal, silence was commanded, and a portion of the sacred salt-cake, made by the hands of the daughters of the home, was cast from a platter into the fire as a sacrifice to Vesta.16 As many of the religious forms of the Roman family had their counterpart in the State religion, so the worship of the fire in home had its counterpart in the State religion.17 The seat of the worship of Vesta in Rome was the circular 'Temple' of Vesta, shaped like a primitive hut. Here the sacred fire of the State — Vesta — was tended by six maiden priestesses, who renewed it every year, on March 1, from a spark formed by friction.18 There was no statue of Vesta in the 'temple': the fire was the goddess herself. This fact shows the persistence with which Vesta resisted the anthropomorphising influence in Roman religion.

The development of destructive fire into a god was quite natural. Early man saw that fire not only warmed his body and made his food or palatable, but burned down his hut and brought death and destruction in its wake. Vesta, as we have seen, was fire in its helpful aspect; Vulcan, on the contrary, was destructive fire. There is no reason why Vulcan, as fire, should have been worshipped at the hearth with Vesta, for Vesta was never considered a destructive force, nor was Vulcan ever, in historical times at least, considered beneficent.19 Vergil and Ennius and Roman writers generally gave the name Vulcan to destructive fire.20 Ostia was the seat of an ancient and flourishing cult of Vulcan, a fact due, doubtless, to the danger in the hot season to the granaries located on the Tiber. Here Vulcan had a temple, a pontiff, and a praetor and an aedile for performing the sacrifices.21 At Rome the Temple of Vulcan was appropriately located outside the walls of the city; there by rites and sacrifices the city was protected against fire.22

Vulcan was concerned in two Roman rites. In June, Fishermen's Games, so‑called, were celebrated across the Tiber by the City Praetor on behalf of the Tiber fishermen. The fish caught by the fishermen were taken, and to the market, but to the Square of Vulcan, where they were offered alive on an altar to that god p45'in place of human souls'.23 On August 23 occurred the Festival of Vulcan, at a time when his aid would be necessary to avert fires which were likely to break out. Varro informs us24 that people cast animals (presumably fish) into the fire 'in place of themselves'. In both these rites, the fish were offered as substitutes for human lives, which were thus to be saved miraculously from destructive fire. The fish, having come from the Tiber whose waters were used to extinguish fires, would be magically effective in preventing fires. We gather one additional fact about the festival from one of Pliny's letters,25 in which we read that, on the night of the Festival of Vulcan, Pliny's uncle used to begin studying at night by lamplight not, however, Pliny assures us, for luck. It would seem, from this statement, that the Romans used to light their lamps on this night ceremonially for good luck.

We may now sum up. We have seen that the Romans regularly employed fire in magic and in religious rites in order to remove the harmful effects of contact with objects possessing dangerous powers — a corpse, for instance. Further, like savages of to‑day, they set up a barrier between themselves and the spirits of the dead by the use of bonfires and the 'fire-walk'. This use of fire was both cathartic (it removed evils actually present) and apotropaic (it kept away possible evils, such as the spirits of the dead).

In rites of purification, sulphur was commonly used, because of the purificatory powers possessed by the fire itself. Further, sulphur possesses medicinal and disinfectant properties. Coupled with this in the mind of the worshipper were the association with awesome sulphur springs and volcanoes and the belief that lightning received its light from sulphur.

The Romans, in common with savages of to‑day, believed that fire was the male principle in life. Consistently with this belief, they explained certain miraculous births by impregnation of a virgin by a spark from a hearth.

Fire in its helpful aspect was called Vesta, fire as a destructive force was known as Vulcan. Vesta never outgrew her character as a mere spirit, for the sacred fire was her only representation in the 'Temple' of Vesta. The conception of a god of destructive fire grew quite naturally from the realization that fire not only helped man but also harmed him.

Doubtless, at first, fire was conceived of as a single spirit. Hence it was possible for men to think of a maiden as impregnated by a spark from a hearth, whose fire, in historical times, was conceived of as being feminine. With the growth in knowledge of the uses of fire in cooking and heating, this phase of fire became feminine, because fire for such purposes was employed by women in the house. The fire, however, which destroyed the forest had all the force of man, and was so considered masculine.

Eli Edward Burriss

Washington Square College,
New York University


The Author's Notes:

1 Festus 3 (Mueller) under Aqua et Igni.

2 See note on Ovid, Fasti 4.791, in James G. Frazer, The Fasti of Ovid, 3.371 (London, Macmillan, 1929).

3 Ovid, Fasti 4.727, 781‑782, 805; Tibullus 2.5, 89‑90; Propertius 4.75‑78.

4 Fasti 4.785.

5 In Frazer (as cited in note 2), 3.343.

6 For this rite see Pliny, Naturalis Historia 7.19; Servius on Aeneid 11.784‑785; Silius Italicus 5.175‑181; Strabo 5.2.9; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 3.32. For a full discussion of this rite see especially Lily R. Taylor, Local Cults in Etruria, 83‑91 (Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome, Volume 2, 1923). Compare also Frazer's note on Ovid, Fasti 4.553: he maintains that Feronia, not Apollo Soranus, was concerned in the rite.

7 According to Servius, on Aeneid 11.784.

8 Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae 1.

9 Tibullus 1.5.9‑12.

10 Ovid, Fasti 4.739‑740.

11 See Frazer's note on Ovid, Fasti 4.739.

12 Tibullus 1.2.61.

13 Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae 1; Varro, De Lingua Latina 5.61.

14 On Aeneid 7.678.

15 Fasti 4.788.

16 Servius on Aeneid 1.730. See W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, 73 (London, Macmillan, 1911).

17 Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, 73‑74.

18 See Ovid, Fasti 3.141‑144; Festus, under Ignis Vestae; Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.12.6; Servius on Aeneid 2.296‑297; Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, 35‑36.

19 See H. J. Rose, Primitive Culture in Italy, 43‑44 (London, Methuen and Co., 1926).

20 Aeneid 5.662; Ennius, quoted in Festus 133 (Mueller), under Metonymia; Tibullus 1.9.49‑50; Fronto Ad Marcum Caesarem 4.5.2 (page 68 in the edition of S. A. Naber).

21 See Lily Ross Taylor, The Cults of Ostia, 14‑20 (Bryn Mawr 1912).

22 Vitruvius, De Architectura 1.7.1.

23 Festus 238 (Mueller) under Piscatorii Ludi.

24 De Lingua Latina 6.20.

25 3.5.


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