Examples of fire and water/ice as religious symbols?
November 29, 2008 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for examples of fire, water, and/or ice being used as religious symbols or in religious practice in some way shape or form. Help?

I’m not looking for one religion that uses all three, per se, just any example of any of the three being used. They can be historical or current, either will do.

I’d prefer to know the basic details (who uses the symbol, in what religion, what does is symbolize, when is it used, why is it used, how it came to be used, where, etc), but if you don’t know them that’s ok, as long as I have enough information to use to find more.

I’d appreciate any and all details and information you can offer. If you know of any resources that may be helpful, by all means let me know (preferably books and preferably those that aren’t too obscure or hard to find and are likely to be at a public or academic library).

I was interested in the comparisons between fire and ice as religious symbols. Thus far I've only been able to find one example of ice being used as such, so I suppose it isn’t as widespread as I thought. So I moved onto the next best thing: Water, which is probably a lot more popular as a religious symbol (it’s pretty much everywhere people are). And since both are rather important to survival, I think it'd be interesting to see which one has more widespread use in religious contexts.

posted by CitrusFreak12 to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Water is used for baptism/purification rituals in Christianity.

In Roman Catholicism, fire is used to burn candles and incense. On Palm Sunday, palm fronds are burned and turned into ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:09 PM on November 29, 2008

Zoroastrianism is big on fire and water.

Don't know the details, but the Wikipedia article has info.
posted by greenie2600 at 4:11 PM on November 29, 2008

Judaism has immersion in a Mikvah, which is an all-purpose purification device.
posted by mhz at 4:18 PM on November 29, 2008

In the LDS church, the Holy Ghost is representative of fire.

It is believed that at the time of Christ's return, the world will be baptized by fire (meaning with the Holy Ghost).
posted by bradly at 4:22 PM on November 29, 2008

Many pagan paths use fire and water as part of the four elements (air, fire, water, and earth).
posted by All.star at 4:33 PM on November 29, 2008

Many branches of NeoPaganism (especially Wicca) have fire and water as two of the four elements - the other two being earth and air. Chinese astrology has fire, earth, water, wind, and metal (though I might be slightly off).
posted by divabat at 4:34 PM on November 29, 2008

Unitarians have the flaming chalice.
posted by pullayup at 4:34 PM on November 29, 2008

Like I said to you earlier, water - baptism/purification, fire - holy spirit. The Stupa (the tower on the temples, representing the four elements) in Hinduism/Buddhism. Agni=fire=saffron two-tongued flag for Hindus. That's just off the top of my head.

But I was particularly interested in the "ice" issue, as I couldn't think of any instances of this. I did some looking into the Sami religion - basic shamanism - in northern Scandinavia, as well as looking for it in Inuit culture, but didn't find any instance of ice as a religious symbol even there. I'd forget ice for your comparison, focus on water. Good luck!
posted by gemmy at 4:38 PM on November 29, 2008

How arcane do you want to go?

For example, Todaiji Temple in Nara has two important ceremonies connected with both fire and water.

The Shingon "esoteric Buddhist" sect of Japan (kinda sorta similar to Tibetan Buddhism, but not directly related) also makes use of fire in its rituals.

In Japanese Buddhism (I don't know much about other kinds of Buddhism), water is also associated with Naga, or snakes, guardians of the eastern direction. More on Naga.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:42 PM on November 29, 2008

Many christians use the three forms of h2o to explain how the holy
trinity works. God is said to be in three forms; H2o can be in the form
of a liquid, solid or gas.
posted by learninguntilidie at 4:56 PM on November 29, 2008

Many indigenous religions are animist, and hence consider fire and water various forms of sacred. Okinawa, formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom, is a fine example of this.

In Okinawa, the fire deity is venerated through the use of a hinukan, a kitchen altar that hearkens back to the use of three stones for cooking. This veneration of the the fire spirit pre-dates Shinto practice in Okinawa, where Shinto came much later with Japanese colonization.

That second link also talks about water. Water kami (spirits) are also worshipped at sites in nature, like life-sustaining springs. Kami are present everywhere in nature; water spirits are particularly prominent, which is understandable given fresh water's importance to healthy communities. Sacred sites generally are called utaki, and many of the holiest sites in Okinawa contain culturally significant sources of water. The Seifa Utaki is a good example -- sacred water was traditionally thought to come from heaven and was collected by spiritual leaders after it dripped down from stalactites.

There are rich examples to be found throughout the world's indigenous cultures, from Asia to the Americas. There are commonalities, to be sure, but also a rich diversity of story and practice. For an example from American Indian culture, check out the story of Enumclaw and Kapoonis. I think longhouse people also have Fire Spirit traditions, but I'm not as familiar with those.
posted by jeffmshaw at 5:29 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was young and went to a Methodist church, we always had lit candles on the altar during services.
posted by Class Goat at 6:01 PM on November 29, 2008

Several Presbyterian churches use a burning bush as a symbol. This references an episode in the Bible in which God speaks to Moses (in Exodus). The bush burns but does not burn up, and so was adopted as a symbol for everlasting faith. Here's some discussion from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
posted by Tapioca at 6:10 PM on November 29, 2008

By coincidence Im currently reading this book about a tourist in the Russian republic of Mari El where he encounters a priest of the local pagan religion. pg 206 "..he pulled on his conical preiest's hat from the bag & put it on. There were three circles on the white felt hat which, he explained , represented air. earth and water , the three elements without which we cannot live"
posted by canoehead at 6:15 PM on November 29, 2008

Ice and cold are elements involved in creation in Norse mythology.

Are you looking for religiously-tinged fiction as well? C. S. Lewis' White Witch is all about ice, cold, and snow.
posted by CKmtl at 6:33 PM on November 29, 2008

In Norse mythology, before creation there was only a realm of fire (Muspelheim) and a realm of ice (Noflheim). Creation occurred between the two realms. Later, Hel (an afterlife area for people who did not reach Valhalla) was located in the realm of ice.

I always thought it was interesting that a people who live in an icy area would see a non-Heaven place as cold instead of hot.

Side note: I believe it was the Nordic people who first had "outcast" -- that is, cast outside the protection of the community, to fend for yourself in the cold.

For more about Norse mythology, Snorri Sturluson is a popular read.
posted by Houstonian at 6:43 PM on November 29, 2008

My U-U church does a homecoming ceremony in the fall that's generally called a "water communion". People gather stones, shells and water from places they've been over the year and add them to a communal bowl while sharing a story of the places and people they've visited. It's a big deal in this college town since lots of people are gone all summer or take sabbaticals.
posted by saffry at 7:31 PM on November 29, 2008

In the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil ritual, the Easter fire is lit at the back of the church, and from it the flame is passed from candle to candle in the congregation, until the entire church is illuminated. The Paschal candle for the new church year is also dipped in water at the same service (i.e., the non-lit end). Baptism of adult catechumens takes place that night, and those attending are sprinkled with holy water as well. Lots of fire, lots of water. And smoke, too--it's a big night for incense.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 8:41 PM on November 29, 2008

While a very personal religion and each person may vary, in general, Satanism is much bigger on fire than on water. It does traditionally go with the four main 'elements,' if only because the ceremonial aspects were based on ceremonial magic, because why re-invent the wheel totally?

Water is usually just referenced as an elemental force, with emphasis, if anything, on the depths of the ocean. Often it is along the lines of 'the deepest abyss of the sea,' or even just 'the abyss', with no mention of seas or water.

Fire, on the other hand, is, well, face it, associated with Satan anyway. The big two are fire and earth. Standard phraseology calls upon 'the fires of Hell' and 'the Black Flame' which burns within a person. Comparing P. Gilmore's more recent works to Dr. LaVey's originals do show trends in ceremonies, drifting away from the four-element type and moving to a personal and 'dynamic' type, which would necessary incorporate more 'fire' and less stereotypically passive elements. One of the most recent suggestions was the (syncretic) 'mudra of flame'. This first came to most members' attention in 'The Satanic Scriptures,' and is interesting, because it appears to me to be the first ritualized gesture. (Everything prior to this that involves movement uses objects - point X north, etc.) There is no comparable gesture or movement that evokes any other element.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 9:18 PM on November 29, 2008

There's a cave in India that has a large blob of ice that represents Lord Shiva (or rather, His lingham) and is therefore workshipped for its generative properties. Bit of a contrast with the usual Nordic mythology where ice is generally associated with death.
posted by ninazer0 at 2:16 AM on November 30, 2008

I believe the aura is a reflection of the body, as well as our thoughts and emotions, and what some describe with other names: Aura = as above, higherself, godself/soulself; body = so below, lowerself, myself.
i describe about aura in my article about auras and predictions
posted by philleep at 5:00 PM on February 7, 2009

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