According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans for our use and benefit. It surely must have seemed like nothing less than supernatural forces at play when our ancient ancestors observed lightning crashing down from the heavens and scorching the earth in ways nothing else came even close to doing. Remarkably, opportunistic uses of Prometheus’ gift probably date back more than a million years, and evidence seems to suggest that the habitual, controlled use of fire probably became part of the human suite of behaviors even as far back as 300,000 to 500,000 years ago, still firmly within the parameters of the Stone Age. It is truly astounding to fathom that this fundamental element of human experience dates back so amazingly far, and that it still remains part of our lives to this day. There are very few similarly consistent through-lines in the human experience.
This begins to inform why, even after all of these millennia, sitting around a fire remains nothing less than mesmerizing — watching the movement of the flames, feeling the warming effect of its heat, basking in the soft glow of its light. And, as anyone who has gone camping or sat around a fireplace will tell you, it is especially pleasurable to share this experience with friends and family. Whether you are talking, singing, or just listening to the crackle of the fire, this activity feels comforting and natural in a very deep way. We have been doing this, as a species, for nearly half a million years. It is surely one of the earliest social rituals of human life.
There are also other reasons this experience still resonates so deeply with us, even in our modern world of mass media, smart phones and stimulus overload. All the way back to the earliest era, this activity would have most commonly taken place at the end of the day, so the main work and/or dangers of the day would have been passed. All of the members of the tribe who had gone out of sight during the daylight hours would be back at the village, now, and accounted for, so there would be a feeling of togetherness and closure. Also, the fire-side ritual would have happened after dark, which is a mystical time, and a part of the day which would not have been dependably habitable prior to the light and heat provided by the controlled use of fire. Throughout the night, a fire would have kept predators away from the camp, and so the mere sight of contained flames would have quickly become associated with feelings of security and peace. The evening fire-side ritual would also almost surely have been accompanied by the smell and flavor of cooked meat, which provided nourishment and a feeling of contentment, a partaking of the spoils of the day. In addition to all of these things, sitting around the fire would have been the most natural time and place to share and re-live the events of the day through conversation, stories, shared contemplation and even, eventually, song, developing our language skills and strengthening intra-community bonds.
And so we can see how this simple act of gathering around the fire — this ritual, this experience — is layered with hundreds of thousands of years of human memories of pleasure, security, community and nourishment. The next time you are sitting around a fire with friends or family, then, take a silent moment to feel just how deeply ingrained this human experience is within your being. And then kick back, relax, put a steak on the grill, and tell a story from your day. In this moment, you are truly human.