Burned: Women and Fire
Opening reception Friday, February 28, from 5-7 pm.
Artwork in the exhibition may be viewed here.
Fire is one of the most potent symbols in human history. It purifies, illuminates, destroys, and transforms. “Mother Earth” has fire in its core. That magma—hot, molten rock—is an igneous rock. The name igneous comes from the word ignis, which means “fire” in Latin. This fire sporadically pushes its way through cracks in the earth’s crust and erupts from volcanoes, burning everything in its path to create a way for new life to emerge from the magma. Wildfires act in the same way, coming by surprise, expanding exponentially, and consuming fuel in its path, while simultaneously opening some types of seed pods for future growth.
The first civilizations in the Near East revered forces of nature and their enormous and only modestly predictable impact on daily life. Later, they would be personified as deities. Many ancient cultures saw fire as a supernatural force: Greeks maintained perpetual fires in front of their temples, Zoroastrians worshiped and regarded fire as pure wisdom that destroys chaos and ignorance, and Buddhist cultures practiced ritual cremation to purify the body upon its release from the physical world.
When early religions began transferring attributes of forces of nature to specific deities, many cultures equated fire rising from “Mother Earth” with archetypes of women. The Sumerian goddess Lilith had a fiery ability to control men. In Egypt, the serpent goddess Wadjet used fire like a snake spitting venom to burn her enemies. In the Philippines, Darago was the warrior goddess associated with volcanoes. Roman goddess Feronia was associated with the energy of reproduction and the fire beneath the earth’s crust. These ancient goddesses were fierce and powerful, and they used fire as their tool.
As male rulers took political, religious, and economic power through organized conflict, the diminution of women’s power was the result. Instead of depicting women as independent forces of nature, biblical authors described them pejoratively as harlots and sinners. These authors used fire to symbolize the guiding presence of God, and Abrahamic religions embraced the destructive power of fire as the wrath of God. In the Torah/Old Testament story of Eve, her bold pursuit of knowledge was as terrifying as a fiery natural disaster. When Eve was in the Garden of Eden she “saw that the tree was good for food…and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her.” “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” Adam said, as he successfully blamed the woman for his choices and actions. The male God then cursed all women for Eve’s independent decision-making and disobedience: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow…and thy husband…he shall rule over thee.”
Those words of condemnation, and words like them in other male-dominated institutions, attempted to change societal perception of women from personification of fire, and its natural ability to create and destroy, into the scorned embodiment of sin. Just as early Roman Christians built churches on top of pagan temples and later placed the orb and cross atop obelisks they looted from ancient Egypt, governments usurped female power by forcing a narrative of male moral, intellectual, and physical superiority. These institutions took archetypically “female” fire as their own symbol, using it as their weapon to control and limit women’s minds, bodies, and potential. Examples of this include doctors in pharaonic Egypt using fire to cure “hysteria” by forcing the uterus (hystera) upwards. Caught between the English and French monarchs, Joan of Arc was burned alive in 1431 despite being credited previously for the French victory at the Siege of Orleans. In early modern England, women were burned at the stake as a legal punishment for a range of activities including coining and mariticide. In 1652 in Smithfield, Prudence Lee confessed to having “been a very lewd liver, and much given to cursing and swearing, for which the Lord being offended with her, had suffered her to be brought to that untimely end.” She admitted to being jealous of and arguing with her husband. For this, she was burned at the stake, as were thousands of other women. In the late 1850s, The Industrial Revolution produced gauzy new fabrics that when made into funnel-shaped dresses, ignited instantly upon being touched by a spark. Their flammability made them death traps for women, preventing them from safely doing ordinary things men could do, such as lighting a match, standing close to a fire, or smoking a cigarette, lest they be burned alive.
Tragically, women are still burned to death by men today. In New Zealand in 2011, a groom doused his bride with flammable liquid, set her on fire, and left her by the side of the road to die so he could obtain a higher dowry from another. In 2015 in New Guinea, four women were tortured and burned for sorcery. Acid-burning is at an all-time high, occurring from the United Kingdom to Southeast Asia. In India and Pakistan, widows are sometimes burned with their deceased husbands in his funeral pyre, and the highly suspect “kitchen fire” is all too common. In contemporary honor killings, families burn their own daughters and sisters for making unapproved decisions about their own marriage. The United Nations estimates that as many as 5000 women are killed annually world-wide in honor killings. Today, this act is not illegal in such modern nations as Jordan.
It is no wonder the element of fire is ingrained in women’s collective memory. Fire represents women’s power and their torture. In women’s own hands, it is their independent creative spark; in the hands of those who want to suppress them it can destroy their very lives. Burned: Women and Fire features artists who—like the alchemical Phoenix who burns and rises from the ashes anew—integrate their collective experience with fire and burning to create their art.
Tonya Turner Carroll