Wolfgang Held

A Farewell to Fire

Wolfgang Held
A Farewell to Fire

We, children of Prometheus, built human culture around fire, using fire: as it is fire that creates metal and synthetic materials in such pure form, and then pours them into a thousand other forms, it is thus fire that gives the modern world its light and speed. But this is now coming to an end Is fire embarking on a new, more human phase?


It was 1.4 million years ago that people gathered around the fire for the first time. In the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, known as the cradle of mankind, the oldest instances of campfires were excavated. Fire has been the servant of human culture for such a long time. Human community grew around fire and with it language developed; one was protected, warmed and illuminated around the fire. Mankind found nourishment with fire, and through fire food was also preserved. With good reason, the Greeks saw Prometheus as the forefather of all human culture, for he brought the flame from heaven to earth. According to French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, this gift from heaven, to guard the fire, can be found in almost all the myths of humanity. And in all these stories it is fire that makes mankind human. Charles Darwin calls it man's greatest invention, after language. Fire has not only shaped and formed the human community but through slash-and-burn clearing it was the first tool to completely change the environment. The first settlers of America found predominantly open park-like lands, and the wide grasslands of the prairie. The reason for this soon became clear: Twice a year the Native Americans started fires in the undergrowth in order to have a clear field for hunting. Cooking also began with fire, and what was previously unpalatable became worth gathering; the division of labour begins, and the community has a centre.

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“Light the fire! Fire is supreme.” Thus Goethe begins his fire hymn entitled the Blacksmith’s Choir. Taming it, restraining its destructive power, turning nature into culture, allowed man to rise above creation. Will the digital age be the beginning of fireless rule?”

Then different human cultures discover that fire can be used to bake clay into stoneware. Later the cultural periods are named after their fire activity because during the Bronze, Copper and Iron Ages it is the metals that are taken out of the stone with fire and then forged by fire. It is not surprising then that fire is—second only to language—the most important medium and tool of human culture and civilization. Civilization means domesticating and controlling these fire spirits. The burning of the temple at Ephesus in 356 BC, the burning of the library of Alexandria in ancient Rome in 64 AD, the great fire of London in 1666 and the burning of the first Goetheanum in 1922: here the unleashed powers of fire also destroyed great cultural treasures. So the mastery of fire was also a great challenge. After 1.4 million years we humans release these fire spirits from their duty. But what will become of this spirit if human culture has now outgrown it?

Fireless Light

Thomas Alva Edison had invited the journalists to a presentation of his latest innovation at his 'Menlo Park' workshop outside of New York City. However, the timing of the unveiling—after sunset—was unusual. The journalists wandered through a forest to Edison's workshop. Lead batteries were hidden behind the trees and his first incandescent light bulbs hung in the branches. When the signal, was given, the gloomy forest was bathed in light. He could not have presented the beginning of the technical light age more spectacularly. The light bulb has become the epitome of the modern era and the technical sovereignty of man: that of fire trapped in a glass bulb that illuminates a table, a room, even an entire football field at the touch of a button. Only a small percentage of the heat collected in the filaments is transformed into light, and yet this invention has illuminated the whole world. As a child, if I didn’t want to go to school, I just held the mercury tip of the thermometer against the light bulb on the bedside table and the temperature rose to feverish heights. Now, however, fire has been freed from glass bulbs. Modern LED lamps provide warm light with the same colour temperature as incandescent lamps (2700 K) and with 97 per cent CRI (Colour Rendering Index) they are no longer distinguishable from incandescent or halogen lamps in terms of colour fidelity.

Even the colour-sensitive shade of the human face can now be illuminated in true-colour by these fireless lights. I will not go into the questions of subtle ethereal effects here, however. One last survivor of the old incandescent light bulbs are the 12-volt halogen lamps, which will also be phased out in the EU beginning in September 2018. Whether candle, oil lamp or gas lamp, in all these lights, fire is domesticated more and more and finally locked inside the incandescent glass light bulb. Only now, with the LED bulb, will fire disappear from lighting altogether. LED lamps can produce 'warm' light, but it does not come from a flame, it is now cold warm light radiating from millions of LED lights everywhere.

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Fireless Engines

It is no different with transportation: First, it was the steam pressure boiler that gave the go-ahead by water and rail for modern mobility and the machine age, then came the internal combustion engine at the beginning of the 20th century. It was small and light and enabled four and two-wheelers to be driven on the road. Now the movement was not only fast but also individual and free. The prosperity and desire for freedom of the 20th century would have been inconceivable without the internal combustion engine. Under increasingly higher pressure using turbochargers and charge air cooling we squeezed more power out of fire. "Nobody wants the last drop of oil anymore," predicted geologist Colin Campbell in his book ‹Oil Change›. The increasingly rapid switch to electric cars seems to prove him right.
In seven years' time, the Netherlands will no longer permit combustion engines, and in Norway half of all new vehicles are already fitted with electric engines. In ten years' time, internal combustion engines will be a minority and in twenty years' time they will have almost disappeared. Fire also bids farewell when it comes to transportation. The first small hydrogen-powered aircraft and the latest projects of the two major commercial aircraft manufacturers indicate that fire has no future in the sky either.

Fireless Factories

First the wild flame that as fire creates new fire, then in a glass a burning without burning up, and now a light without heat, a light that is no longer fire.

In my studies in the Ruhr region in Germany, the sky was often glowing red in the evening. The foundries of Thyssen and Krupp then pushed their steel profiles and shafts through the production lines. But even this era is drawing to a close.
Today, it is not only synthetic materials that can be moulded into the most complicated shapes in 3D printers, even metal can be ‹printed› without heat, without fire. A laser beam passes over a paper-thin layer of metal and fuses the relevant sections. Layer after layer of metal is thus applied and transformed into liquid using a laser. The forms produced in this way are much more complex and economical than solid casting. Thus the factory days for fire seem numbered as well. Even from its ancestral age-old place in the home in heating and stoves, fire is giving way. As a small boy, I sat in front of our oil burner in the cellar and watched the fire in the combustion chamber through the window. First, it clicked rhythmically—that was the spark—then the oil splashed in and the fuel ignited into wild flickering tongues of fire.

Today, the heater is replaced by a thermal pump, which supplies the hot water from the solar collectors or the ground for the floor heating or the faucet.
A journey that begins in the sun flows into and ends with fire. Its warmth and light allow plants to grow.

Whether in wood, gas, coal or oil, solar energy is stored in all these new or old materials of ancient life, and through fire this solar power is released—this solar process that made the plants grow and flourish is reversed. And just as the sun gives the earth light and heat, so every fire is a union of light and heat. Heat prevails in the embers, light in the flames, and yet a fire always contains both. This is why we never get tired of watching fire, because the interplay of light and warmth is at the core of the human soul. Only when the two come together does the soul become the soul. That which is warmth in nature becomes that very power in the soul, which, like warmth, penetrates everything and—if it is real—knows no limit, no end.

In the long run, even the best insulation cannot stop heat's ability to penetrate all things. In the soul this warmth becomes love. If love is to come true, you cannot love one person and not another. Love is universal by nature. In warmth, everything becomes one whole, because warmth and its higher sister, love, connect. Light, however, is different, it isolates and differentiates. Here the world becomes individual and particular. Human thinking, the illuminating organ, creates spiritually what the sun accomplishes in the physical plane. Therefore it is one of the most joyful moments to have the spiritual experience of “seeing the light” when out of the mental darkness of a false and perhaps even dishonest idea, out of an error, gaining insight through cognition. But what does it mean when fire, this great representative of the unity of warmth and light, of love and cognition, completes its mission?

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The Resurrection of Fire

It is one of the basic observations of life, and Rudolf Steiner repeatedly directs our attention in his Study of Mankind to the fact that a force that has exhausted itself, that has completed its work, is then not lost like used-up raw material, but can then realize its full potential on an even higher level. Every flower demonstrates this: first it grows and forms leaf after leaf and with the end of the growing phase when the leaf growth has been fulfilled, colour, scent, and soul are suddenly added with flower and fruit. The plant reaches a new stage. In humans, the change of teeth and sexual maturity are the striking images of this law of energy conservation in nature. Once the solid enamel of the second teeth is formed, this power of hardening is now available for mental chewing. Once sexual maturity has been reached, it is these same powers that can now develop into empathy and idealism at a higher level.

First scorching the heat, then the fire at the stove: nowhere is the home so maternal and now, on sensor or voice command, the heat behind glass.

If fire has now fulfilled its duty and is dismissed as a servant, it is equally true that the ability of fire to unite warmth and light, this integrating power of these opposites could now freely live itself on a higher level. There were times in human history when weight and capability lay on the side of one of the two forces, when the pendulum sometimes swung to the side of empathy and warmth, at other times to the side of light.

Thus it is part of the beginning of Christianity that mercy and the will to love, to care, developed in a new way. Then a millennium later in Arab culture, the ability to analyse and calculate dominated, and it was therefore the Arabs who named the stars Atair and Deneb. In every biography one can likely distinguish these same phases when warmth and light prevail, and sometimes it seems to be precisely the absence of warmth that awakens the intellect. But it seems to belong to the present time, that it is not a succession of warmth and then love, but their coexistence that counts most. Today, it appears to be a matter of combining warmth and light. Once the one dominates, harm is not far behind. Perhaps 'Parzival' is the first great tale of this union of light and warmth. It is not enough that the knight has sympathy for the wound Amfortas suffers, has pity for the wounded Knight of the Grail, no, Parzival must also understand. Love without cognition is as limited as cognition, which lacks love. Arthur Zajonc in his book 'Departure into the Unexpected' describes that the basic experience of meditation is that cognition and love belong to each other, that one can only understand what one wants to learn to love, and that one is only able to love what one also seeks to understand.

When fire now completes its work, no longer illuminating, advancing and warming the human world, then this integrating power, this being of the sun, will rise to a previously unknown level and will be able to resurrect in man as a community of warmth and light, of love and of knowledge.

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Julian's Call of the Spiritual Sun

Often, when mankind took a great step forward in development, at the same time a great song was intoned for the sun. Pharaoh Amenophis IV, who called himself Akhenaton, 'Son of the Sun', sang the praises of the unity and divinity of the Sun in 1350 BC: "You have risen in the eastern horizon and filled every country with your beauty. You are beautiful, tall and radiant, high above all the earth. Your rays cover the lands to the very end of all that you have created." It is the 'one' sun that shines above everything, like the 'one' God. At a time when the shift from the Middle Ages to the modern era was taking place, when human self-consciousness was awakening, Francis of Assisi praised the sun as God's supreme work. And in between: In the 4th century, when antiquity and its mythical foundations faded and Christianity took its place, the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate wrote his hymn to the sun god Helios. It was the time when the oracle of Delphi, after having shaped the fate of Europe for a thousand years, gave the last prophecy to the Emperor Julian as the message of the new era: "Announce to the emperor, the magnificent hall has been overthrown, Apollo no longer has his house. Not even the prophesying laurel nor the speaking spring; the speaking waters are also silenced."

On this threshold of pre-Christian dusk and Christian dawn, Julian wrote his sun song: "It would be better to be silent, but I will speak," Julian reveals in his sun hymn his thoughts on the place and appearance of the sun.

While Plato writes that it is possible to continue talking but he will not, Julian turns it around and now he arrives at the sun. It would be—not in the middle of the planets—but on the other side of the non-planetary realm, and from there a threefold blessing of three graces would pour down to the earth. Julian, as later on Rudolf Steiner, also emphasizes that the visible sun is only the shadow of the actual sun, the spiritual sun, which lies behind the stars. One may also understand Julian as saying that the graces of the primordial sun can be seen in the four seasons. But what are these graces? They are what the seasons on earth give as three solar qualities: in summer the sun bathes the earth in light. In winter, and this is more difficult to understand, the sun brings life to the earth. Just as the exhausted body is renewed and regenerated during sleep every night, endowed with new life, so it is also in winter for the earth. The sun brings life to the earth so that it can blossom in spring and summer. The warmth, as the third gift of the sun, is felt especially in the transition seasons, in spring and autumn. What unfolds in nature as warmth, light and life from the sun, corresponds in the soul as spiritual warmth, spiritual light and spiritual life to love, cognition and freedom.

If fire now is dwindling, if this inverse sun process dies out in our culture, then it is probably a sign that this unity of empathy and knowledge, of love and wisdom, this meditative attitude will gain new life within human individuals. In fire the sun died in the earthly world; in man the sun can become a new sun as the union of love and knowledge and freedom.

What Julian the Apostate refers to in his sun hymn as the spiritual sun beyond the stars finds its mirror, its answer in the rebirth of fire in the human soul.


I owe the core idea for this article to conversations with Georg Hasler.

Translation: Bettina Hindes