Fire fascinates me: every Easter I go away with friends for attending big Easter bonfires. I also love a fire in the garden in summertime or a fire in a fireplace in house, alas! my garden is too small and I don’t have a hearth in my house. So far my possibilities to satisfy my pyromaniac desires.
Fire plays an important role in various religions, think for instances of Agni, the Vedic God of fire who carries the oblations and offerings to the gods. The word agni is related to Latin ignis and originally it denoted the sacrificial fire of the Indo-European speakers, from Proto-Indo-European *h₁n̥gʷnis. Normal fire was péh₂ur, hence English fire. The latter form has been lost in Latin, but has been preserved in Greek, which has lost the first form.
In Rome the cult of Vesta – goddess of the domestic hearth – played an important role and Ovid devotes quite some lines to this goddess in his Fasti. The temple of Vesta was a no-go area for men (non adeundo viro), and the eternal fire in her sanctuary had to be attended by virgins. However when in 241 BC the temple of Vesta took fire, the pontifex maximus Metellus saw no other option than enter the temple and save the statue of Vesta, as the Vestal Virgins were terror stricken Fortunately the goddess had no objections!
Ovid, Fasti, vi ,337-354
heu quantum timuere patres, quo tempore Vesta
arsit et est tectis obruta paene suis!
flagrabant sancti sceleratis ignibus ignes,
mixtaque erat flammae flamma profana piae; 440
attonitae flebant demisso crine ministrae:
abstulerat vires corporis ipse timor.
provolat in medium, et magna 'succurrite' voce,
'non est auxilium flere' Metellus ait.
'pignora virgineis fatalia tollite palmis: 445
non ea sunt voto, sed rapienda manu.
me miserum! dubitatis?' ait. dubitare videbat
et pavidas posito procubuisse genu.
haurit aquas, tollensque manus 'ignoscite', dixit
'sacra: vir intrabo non adeunda viro. 450
si scelus est, in me commissi poena redundet:
sit capitis damno Roma soluta mei.'
dixit, et inrupit: factum dea rapta probavit,
patres: the Senate
obruo obrui obrutum: to overwhelm, cover
scelero: to pollute, desecrate
mixta: here with dative instead of ablative
dimisso crino: with loose hair (i.e. the Vestal Virgins had no time to order their hair)
aufero abstuli ablatum: to take away
in medium: i.e. of the Vestal Virgins
succurro succurri succursum: to run away
'non est auxilium flere': what a practical remark!
pignora fatalia: pledges given by fate. What is meant are the sacred items, including the statue of Vesta, by which the Vestal Virgins had pledged to give their life in service of the goddess.
non ea sunt voto: they are not (rescued) by prayer
rapio rapui raptum: to seize, carry and take away
genu pono: to bow the knee
procumbo procubui procubitum: to sink down
haurio hausi haustum: to draw up
ignosco ignovi ignorum: to forgive
sacra: the sacred items
commissi poena: penalty for (the deed - factum) committed
redundo (-are): to overflow
capitis damno mei: by the loss of my head
inrumpo inrupu inruptum: to break in
Translation by A.S. Klyne (2004)
How worried the Senate was, when Vesta’s temple
Caught fire: and she was nearly buried by her own roof!
Holy fires blazed, fed by sinful fires,
Sacred and profane flames were merged.
The priestesses with streaming hair, wept in amazement:
Fear had robbed them of their bodily powers.
Metellus rushed into their midst, crying in a loud voice:
‘Run and help, there’s no use in weeping.
Seize fate’s pledges in your virgin hands:
They won’t survive by prayers, but by action.
Ah me! Do you hesitate?’ he said. He saw them,
Hesitating, sinking in terror to their knees.
He took up water, and holding his hands aloft, cried:
‘Forgive me, holy relics! A man enters where no man should.
If it’s wrong, let the punishment fall on me:
Let my life be the penalty, so Rome is free of harm.’
He spoke and entered. The goddess he carried away
Was saved by her priest’s devotion, and she approved