Since the dawn of time, fire has always been represented as an equilateral triangle… The ultimate alchemical symbol and a dualistic element unlike any other in the sense that it can both give life and wreak havoc, fire is an eternal subject which has always had followers within the tattoo scene.

From ancient China to the Celts, Scandanavian peoples and the Aztecs, the “masculine” product of combustion is redolent of myth. Without forgetting the “feminine” contribution of water which contains and placates fire, making it utterly perfect.

Chia, East Tattoo, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Chia, East Tattoo, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

The word fire derives from the Latin focus (hearth) and refers to the transformation of matter, purification and a power capable of generating life, but also of taking it away. There are indeed few symbols in the world which, like fire, stand for everything and its contrary. From a philosophical point of view, however, fire remains a fundamental and absolutely essential substance in the field of knowledge given that, as the alchemists claimed, it unites and stabilises the entire universe.

Since the dawn of time, fire has always been represented by an equilateral triangle with its high apex (the flame) pointing skyward. A metaphor to symbolise something masculine, dominant and ascendant.

Debora Cherrys, La Mujer Barbuda, Getafe, Spain
Debora Cherrys, La Mujer Barbuda, Getafe, Spain

The symbolic proof is easy enough. If we join the icon of fire (the upward-pointing triangle) and that of water (the downward-pointing triangle) we get the six-pointed star (or hexagram) known as the Seal of Solomon: the definitive representation of energy (fire/man) which fuses with matter (water/woman) giving rise to the sequence of harmony and rhythm of life. Death, of course, tends to extinguish this magical element, and so in the culture of Ancient Rome, rituals of preservation of fire were widespread. The most celebrated was that of the sacred fire kept alight in the temple of Vesta, in Rome, where her priestesses (the Vestal Virgins) had to watch over it day and night, because if the fire ever went out, the life of the city too would be snuffed out in an instant.

Boris, Boristattoo, Vienna, Austria
Boris, Boristattoo, Vienna, Austria

Not only the ancient Romans but also the Celts had a strong belief in the transformational/spiritual powers of fire and liked to represent the flames (or rays) on female statues or others dedicated to their divinities. This symbol, known as the symbol of Arwen, stood for illumination, inspiration and union of the energies of the Cosmos and soon came to stand for good luck. In China, fire was honoured in the famous I-Ching (or ‘Book of Changes’) through the use of the trigram which is a series of three lines, continuous or interrupted, joined in one symbol. One of these trigrams was in fact the symbol of fire which always pointed south (it is also mentioned in the Taoist art of Feng Shui), understood as a sort of existential clarity. It is no coincidence perhaps that in China, fire is symbolised to this day by the pheasant, a bird which represents independence, wisdom, health and vision in every sphere of life.

Benjamin Laukis, The Black Mark, Melbourne, Australia
Benjamin Laukis, The Black Mark, Melbourne, Australia

The ancient peoples of Northern Europe used the rune Ken to represent, among other things, fire in the shape of a flame. It was counted among the positive symbols as it shed light, a rare enough element during the long Scandinavian winters. Ken was also seen as cathartic destruction, human passion, unquenchable fire, a direction to follow without hesitation, and, obviously, sexual vigour. The same rune was also formed by another symbol, K’ak, which, with a little imagination recalls Prometheus of Greek mythology. K’ak, was the ruler of fire, but also of the material action of burning incense, a practice which throughout the ages has always been regarded as a sort of sacred ritual.

Ben Kaye, Ship Shape Tattoo, Orewa, New Zealand
Ben Kaye, Ship Shape Tattoo, Orewa, New Zealand

Burning something therefore, as an act of unification of different elements, an action capable of leading us to an understanding/awareness of the entire universe. Or, as the Aztecs believed, fire in the sense of a solar particle which gives life to peoples and illuminates the Earth with its seven rays of spiritual development. Each ray, in fact, is a spark of light capable of “lighting up” man and consequently illuminating his soul too. The seven-rayed sun was also a symbol dear to the Native American Cherokees, reminding them of the seven sacred rituals to be performed in the course of the solar year. Yet another example of how fire, from China to America and passing through Europe on the way, has always been regarded as utterly crucial to existence.

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