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 An offbeat, interesting view of the rise of civilization in relation to the control of fire. From hearths and hellfire to firearms, fission, and fusion, Dutch sociologist Goudsblom (University of Amsterdam) highlights the significance of fire in the human agenda. His research--tapping sources in anthropology, archaeology, and the history of science, religion, and technology--points up dual aspects: There is fire as a civilizing element--in cooking and chemistry, as a source of heat and light, and as a literal spark to the Industrial Revolution and transportation--and fire as burning, a source of fear, punishment (and sometimes purification), and of destruction by nature, arson, or war, as well as of sickness and death as a result of pollution and disease. Among the more compelling points is Goudsblom's view of the monotheistic religions as sources of diversity and separation in emerging agrarian/urban societies. The Bible, for example, inveighs against sacrifices to ``strange fire'' and fire cults. Otherwise, fire was just one of many natural ordeals until medieval times, when flames were used to punish heretics and witches and to ensure obedience to the faith. In contrast, the hearth was sacred in Greece and Rome, where temples housed fires tended by virgin priestesses (the placement of temples on hills also allowed fire to act as a beacon to ships at sea). Over the course of millennia, fire was increasingly tamed while its power escalated. Early on, ``curfews'' (the curbing of open fires at night) were imposed to protect towns from conflagrations. Ritual bonfires were held to get rid of refuse (and to burn cats). Building codes began to demand stone and brick over wood and thatch. Even as society has grown more ``civilized,'' however, it has become more incendiary. Thus the need for control is as great as ever--which is Goudsblom's final, well-made point.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-713-99077-5
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1993