Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 300-301
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In Fire and Civilization, Dutch scholar Johan Goudsblom has written what he intended to be "a cool book about fire." He has succeeded in producing a perfect vehicle for those interested in the larger issues of world history: How did civilization begin? Which institutions can be found in all human societies? Besides the domestication of animals and birds, what other "domestications" shaped human history?
Goudsblom makes a strong case that the control of fire, even before the development of speech or the making of tools, differentiated human beings from all their ancestors—indeed, from all other creatures. Just as our common mythology—for example, the Greek myth of Prometheus—equates fire with the beginnings of human intellect, en-lightenment, and power, so do anthropologists recognize the widening gap between humans and other animals when fire was domesticated.
Goudsblom traces the consequences of the learned control over fire into clearing land for agriculture, cooking food, using fire for warmth and safety (enabling human beings to live in climates otherwise im-possible for them as naked apes), lighting the night, and making tools. Fire can be seen as the major factor in the agrarian revolution, which all historians recognize as the beginning of civilization—the accumulation of wealth. From slash-and-burn agriculture, we progress to the era of fire specialists: potters, smiths, and warriors. The book then explores the role of fire in religion, calling upon the wealth of material on ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome.
Fire and technology occupy the next chapters of the book, from pre-industrial Europe through the industrial age. A chilling note connecting the beginnings of fire in warfare to the wholesale fire bombings of World War II reminds us of how far we have come technically and short a distance morally.
Goudsblom has pulled together an astonishingly interdisciplinary exploration of fire, using the insights of sociology, anthropology, zoology, and history: exactly the process required for insightful work in the new discipline of world history. As this work stands now, it can become the companion piece of other global explorations of the universal human experience, such as William H. McNeill's Plagues and Peoples (New York, 1976) or the fascinating work of zoologist Jered Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (New York, 1992).
If Goudsblom ever considers expanding this work to include more Asian examples, some welcome additions would be Japanese lanterns floating downstream during the all souls festival; the Persian celebration [End Page 300] from pre-Zoroastrian times involving jumping over bonfires; Chinese fireworks; and also the Chinese mastery of metallurgy. I would like to see some more mythology about blacksmiths, which we see around the world. For example, dwarves and the "black divs" of ancient Persia seem to have some connection with smithies.
Among other areas that invite exploration is the relationship of women to fire. Are women considered as dangerous to fire during their menses as they are to the making of beer and wine? Why is it all right for women to find and carry firewood for miles, but not to handle fire rituals? Why does Judaism, not particularly friendly to femininity in other ways, permit women to be the guardians of the Sabbath candles and their lighting?
This book is so useful and thought-provoking that I hope the author considers a second volume—or a revised edition—to make this study even more global.