From earliest times, the ministrations of the priesthood have been concerned, to either a greater or less extent, with fire. Throughout the ritual of all churches from ancient ages to modern, the flames on the altars have been significant of spiritual truth cherished by the faithful. In the burnt offerings, the consuming of the sacrifice on the altar was by fire, which served as the symbol of the god thus propitiated and worshiped. Always, the spectacular value of flame was highly esteemed and consistently cultivated by the priests, for the sake of its effect in arousing the emotions of the devout. Sacred flames played a conspicuous part in the temple worship of all nations throughout the past. The Levitical priesthood made fire the visible interpreter of holy teaching. The prevalence and endurance of fire in connection with religion is well illustrated even to-day by the ceremonial observances of the Roman Catholic Church. The lighting of the candles on the altar, or the extinguishing of them, is a vital part of various services. Sometimes, as in the Tenebra, the contrasting effects of light and darkness are used with powerful effect to sway the mood of the worshipers. And always, in the chancel of every church, the highest or the humblest, shows softly that rosy radiance of a flame which symbolizes the actual presence of God within the Host on the altar.
As we consider the Jewish religion, we are impressed by the fact that the symbolism of fire is carried out, not only in the public worship, but in the ritual observances that still are distinctive of every orthodox Jewish household. There, the burning of candles is an essential part of those ministrations in which the priest, according to the ancient manner, is the head of the family. And it is curious to note that the relation of fire to religion is carried beyond the merely spectacu-26 lar, is made to include also the practical use of fire on the hearth, which is lighted or extinguished in accordance with religious observances.
It was inevitable, from the prominence of fire in the beginnings of religion, that the priests should especially cultivate a knowledge far beyond that of the people. They early learned details in the management of flame that gave a supernatural seeming to many altar fires. Moreover, all the learning thus gathered by the priests was jealously guarded by them. Almost at the outset they took advantage of their station, as ministers of the divine, to claim for themselves abilities beyond those possessed by the ordinary man. The mastery of fire played a very important part in substantiating their claims to supernatural power.
We should do wrong to underestimate the knowledge attained by the priests of olden time. It is not to be doubted that they gathered and held a considerable body of learning, which included no small measure of detailed information in matters concerning fire. It must be remembered that, until modern days, all of the world's learning was in the possession of the priesthood. The physical work of the world, including the waging of war, was left to others, but whatever there was of art and science through the ages was gained and held by the priestly caste of every nation. That such learning was in many respects considerable, even at a most remote period historically, may be understood by a little consideration of the Egyptian priests. From what may be learned in one direction, it is fair to conclude that the Egyptians possessed a variety of knowledge both exact and extensive. As to a single detail in connection with them, we have the testimony of the pyramids. As to their learning in other particulars, we are unable to find a precise record, but the testimony offered by the pyramids has endured through the ages, so that to-day our study of it gives us definite information as to the progress of these ancients in one scientific field. It is fair to conclude that their learning in other directions also was not of a sort to be despised. The special reasons influencing them to a study of fire must undoubtedly have resulted in no mean knowledge. From the nature of the case, we are unable to determine precisely the extent of their learning, but we should err in regarding it as negligible; in fact, we are able to prove their possession of some erudition concerning combustibles by our research in another direction, to which attention will be given further on.
What is thus directly known of the Egyptians, at the time of the building of the Great Pyramid, is known indirectly concerning the priesthood of that age in other places scattered over the earth. For the wisdom of the Egyptians included within itself all that there was of learning in this age. And, too, that same wisdom was diffused throughout the world. The Egyptian culture spread everywhere, and carried broadcast its esoteric teachings.
Thus, the hidden learning was cherished alike by the priesthood in that lost Atlantis of which Plato tells, and by the temple ministers of the Mayas on our own continent. The ruins at Stonehenge, too, are witnesses as to the prevalence of Egyptian culture. These remains were used by the Druids, but their construction long antedated that form of worship. They were the work of Neoliths, who were sun worshipers, using fire as the chief symbol of their deity. It is a significant fact that the ruins, crude as they are, display considerable knowledge of astronomy on the part of the builders; and this, together with other peculiarities of construction, identify the fragments as evidences of the Egyptian cult. There is a circle of earthwork, which has a diameter of 300 feet. Within this earthwork is a circle of trilithons. These consist, each, of two upright stones, one of them being laid across the top ends of the other two. A single circle, having a diameter of 100 feet, includes 30 of these trilithons. And within this circle there is a group of blue stones. It is to be observed that these latter are not of a sort native to the British Isles. The blue stones are carefully arranged in a horseshoe formation, which is made of five huge trilithons. Within the horseshoe stand 10 monoliths. A clue to the prime purpose of this primitive temple is afforded by the horseshoe formation, in the matter of its opening; for this faces exactly to the sunrise at the time of the summer solstice. The Druids found the place ready to their hand, and used it for the purposes of their own sun worship and of their sacrifices by fire.1
In their devotion to the fire used in religious rites, the priests came, little by little, to learn many secrets concerning the nature and operations of the element. The knowledge of such activities was utilized by them for the mystification of the people. In short, the priestly control of fire in various ways was made to serve as justification for a claim to miraculous powers on the part of the ministers of religion. The priests made pretentions to the possession of divine abilities, delegated to them by the god of whom they were the representatives, and the credulous populace readily admitted such claims, supported as they were by inexplicable phenomena. The people saw the altar fire kindled at a mere word spoken by the minister, saw it flash into flames that changed color miraculously, saw it die at another command; and the worshipers reverently gave homage to the priest, who thus displayed his possession of supernatural powers. By varying flames and the narcotic fumes of incense, the priests showed themselves, as it seemed, truly the ambassadors of the god, masters of his symbol and agent, the flame.
From this point, there was needed only a brief progression to the practice of magic in all its forms. It is necessary to appreciate the fact that the art of fire, in its origins, was vitally dependent on the growth and prevalence of magic in the ancient days.
1 Many antiquarians have been reluctant to admit that the Druids offered up human sacrifices in their worship. Nevertheless, the testimony in this regard leaves little room for doubt Roman writers, contemporary with the Druids, give the statement of eyewitnesses to Druidic rites in which human beings were burned alive as offerings to the fire-god.