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

June 3, 2015 Updated: June 3, 2015

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 related to 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. (Wikimedia Commons)
“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 the atmosphere and what amount of gas might remain at a location.

Eternal flames can be found in historical record stretching back several millennia. Pliny the Elder chronicled Chimera, 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. (Wikimedia Commons)
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 on ancient Roman pottery. ca. 350-340 B.C. (Public Domain)
The Chimera illustrated on ancient Roman pottery. ca. 350-340 B.C. (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 15th century, and is still used in ceremonies to this day.

So powerful is the symbolism of the eternal flame that it is 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.

Republished with permission. Read the original at Ancient Origins

*Image of the The Zoroastrian Ateshgah “Fire Temple” by Nick Taylor/Flickr

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