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The Zoroastrian Ateshgah “Fire Temple” near Baku, Azerbaijan. The temple was built over natural burning vents which no longer provide gas, and so the flame is now artificially fed via a pipe.

Eternal Flames: Geologists Investigate Ancient Myths to Know More about Modern Fuel

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Millennia ago, ancient cultures were astounded by the seeming miracle of natural flames which burned day and night for weeks, decades, or even centuries. The tales of such flames have become a focus of interest for geologists and oil and gas explorers, as the flames not only reveal the spiritual and cultural rituals of the past, but can also give clues in modern geology and current gas seepage.

According to science news website Phys.org, Guiseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy writes in his new book, “ Natural Gas Seepage ” that studying legends of historical eternal flames can reveal to researchers locations and durations of gas seepage fires observed in the ancient past. Knowing certain fires burned and for how long can help determine which ones have not been caused by modern human activity, such as fracking or drilling.

"The Door to Hell" gas deposit, nearby Derweze, Turkmenistan, has been burning since 1971.

"The Door to Hell" gas deposit, nearby Derweze, Turkmenistan, has been burning since 1971. Wikimedia Commons

Determining where an ancient gas fire burned, and for how long, can also allow researchers to estimate how much may have already been vented to atmosphere and what amount of gas might be remaining at a location.

"Knowing present-day gas fluxes from a seep and knowing that a seep was active and vigorous two thousand years ago, we can estimate the total amount of gas that has been released to the atmosphere thus far. What can be measured today is probably also valid, at least in terms of orders of magnitude, for the past," writes Etiope in his chapter “Seeps in the Ancient World: Myths, Religions, and Social Development”.

"Such information may not only be relevant for atmospheric methane budget studies but may also be important for understanding the leaking potential of petroleum systems, whether they are commercial or not."

Eternal flames have come to symbolize many things to various cultures. They have held a religious and cultural significance throughout history, and around the globe. The eternal flame can represent solar light, or a deity’s eternal presence. It can symbolize the possession of knowledge, or play a part in ancestor veneration.

The legendary flames of antiquity were sometimes naturally occurring fires of natural gas leaks or coal vents, and early human-made ones were fueled by wood or oil.

The world’s longest burning fire is attributed to “Burning Mountain” in Australia. It is an eternal fire which feeds off a coal seam, and it is said to have been burning for 6,000 years.

Etiope writes that the oil and gas vents may have influenced the societies and technologies of ancient people, as even then fuel was often a source of war.

The earliest evidence of petroleum use is found in Syria, where 40,000 years ago Neanderthals used natural bitumen on their stone tools. 

Eternal flames can be found in historical record stretching back several millennia. Pliny the Elder chronicled Chimaera, a mountainous location near ancient Lycia (modern Turkey) which “ ...indeed burned with a flame that does not die by day or night" . Methane gas seeps from vents below, and the surface burns with strange fires.

Mount Chimaera was a place or places in ancient Lycia, notable for volcanic phenomena and said by some ancient sources to be the origin of the myth of the Chimera.

Mount Chimaera was a place or places in ancient Lycia, notable for volcanic phenomena and said by some ancient sources to be the origin of the myth of the Chimera. Wikimedia Commons

This geological phenomenon give birth to the myth of the Chimera, a horrible beast that breathed fire and had the body and head of a lion, a goat head on its back, and a serpent tail.

The Chimera illustrated in ancient Roman pottery. ca. 350-340 BC.

The Chimera illustrated in ancient Roman pottery. ca. 350-340 BC. Public Domain

Ever-burning lamps are a mainstay in religious legends which perhaps were inspired by the seemingly inexhaustible fires from gas or oil seepages.

Phys.org writes that Zoroastrians worshiped the eternal “Pillars of Fire”, and a stream of crude oil bubbling from the ground is mentioned in ancient Roman legend from 38 B.C. The location became a meeting spot for the first Roman Christians, and a basilica now is found upon it. The Manggarmas flame, sacred in Indonesia, has reportedly been active since the 15 th century, and is still used in ceremonies to this day.

So powerful is the symbolism of the eternal flame that they are preserved to this day. Modern-day eternal flames usually serve as memorials and are fueled by propane or natural gas. The Olympic flame is a well-recognized, global symbol of an eternal fire, and at many Olympic sites the flame which was lit by the torch remains blazing today.

Once again scientists seek out ancient knowledge and answers to complement their modern research.

Top Image: The Zoroastrian Ateshgah “Fire Temple” near Baku, Azerbaijan. The temple was built over natural burning vents which no longer provide gas, and so the flame is now artificially fed via a pipe. Credit: Guisepe Etiope

By Liz Leafloor

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