Yining Fei: Tales of Ancient Fires

On the morning of the second or third day after the second full moon following the summer solstice, a solemn procession makes its way through the streets of Altis. Coming from the Altar of Hestia, the participants are judges, priests, diplomatic envoys, athletes, and others who swore an oath in front of the statue of Zeus of the Oaths (Zeus Horkios) the day before. Upon arrival at the Altar of Zeus Horkios, the high priest makes the Sacrifice of One Hundred Oxen, then waves the torch in his hand to signal that the games have begun.1David C. Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 165-169.​ With that, the athletes begin to run. They’re already quite close to the finish line because the track is directly connected to the altar.2Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 95.​ The winner of the race places his torch on the altar and burns sacrificial offerings. Smoke from the roaring flames produced by burning animal fat, mixed with the summer breezes of Elis, floats over the Alpheus River Valley, the tops of the olive trees, the temples, and the gods themselves. These were the Olympics of 400 BCE—if they did indeed happen this way.

However, this is not the origin of the modern Olympic torch relay. In fact, there is no corresponding tradition from the ancient Olympics to warrant the modern ceremony in which women dress in classical garments, playing the part of the priests and lighting a fire in front of the Temple of Hera, a fire that is then carried to its distant destination by countless runners.3The Temple of Zeus was no more than 200 meters from the stadium, so there was no relay component in the Olympic celebrations and sacrifices. See Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games, 167; Tony Perrottet, The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2004.​ The modern collective imagination surrounding the passing of this sacred fire actually comes from the 1936 Olympics held by Nazi Germany. Carl Diem, secretary general of the organizing committee of the Games of the XI Olympiad, had proposed the idea of the torch relay.4“Berlin 1936: The Torch,” IOC, accessed July 16, 2021,​ The event fully reflected the Nazi belief that ancient Greece was an important part of Germany’s Aryan roots and fit into their plan to turn the Olympics into a propaganda platform. In Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia, an athlete carries a torch made by munitions manufacturer Krupp and runs into the setting sun while the waves of the Aegean Sea roar behind him. The tradition of the torch relay did not come from the ancient Olympics; it is a composite ritual whose modern origins have been obscured. The world often works in this manner; as Heraclitus said, “Panta rhei.” Everything flows.

Originally a celebration in honor of Zeus, the sacrifices and processions for the ancient Olympic games began and ended in the prytaneion in Elis. The building housed an eternal fire that would never go out in the common hearth (koinê Hestia), which also served as the Altar of Hestia, goddess of the hearth.5Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought Among the Greeks (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2006), 147-51.​ Hestia was the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus, and with Zeus’s approval, she became the virgin keeper of the hearth in his temple. By extension, she also watched over the hearth and fire of every family and city-state.6Janis Jennings, Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth: Fire at the Center (Ph.D. diss., Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2003), 33. Hom. Hymn. in Ven. 18: “…So Zeus the Father gave her a high honor instead of marriage, and she has her place in the midst of the house and has the richest portion. In all the temples of the gods she has a share of honor, and among all mortal men she is chief of the goddesses…”​ All of the sacrificial fires of Altis came from that source, but if the “eternal fire” went out, Plutarch said that it could not be reilluminated with just any fire; one had to light a “pure and unpolluted” flame from the rays of the sun.7Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, trans. John Dryden and A. H. Clough (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1906), 140. See also: Konstantinos Antonopoulos, “Keep the Sacred Flame Burning: The Eternal Fire and the Cult of Goddess Hestia in Olympia and the Greco-Roman World. Is the Olympic Flame of the Modern Era Well Founded and Linked with Ancient Tradition?” in Sports Education: Antiquity to Modern Times - Proceedings of the 18th International Congress of the European Committee for Sports History, Edessa, Greece, October 16-18, 2014, 56-62; Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games.

Many ancient Greek city-states had a common hearth, from which all residents could use the flame to light their own hearths at home.8See Lewis Richard Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 348-51; Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, 87.​ The hearth, protected by Hestia, was the sacred center of every household. People gathered around it to make offerings to the gods and perform rituals. For example, on the seventh day after their birth, new babies were carried around the hearth at home. Through this ritual, called the Amphidromia, babies received legitimacy and acceptance into the family.9See Barbara Tsakirgis, “Fire and Smoke: Hearths, Braziers and Chimneys in the Greek House,” British School at Athens Studies 15 (2007): 225-231.​ In places such as Argos, whenever somebody died, the fire had to be extinguished in their house so that a “new” fire could be taken from the state hearth, the domestic hearth later rekindled with a sacrifice.10Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 61.​ Heidegger once retold the story of Heraclitus warming himself by the oven at home when a guest arrived. Noticing the visitor’s hesitation, Heraclitus invited him in and said, “The gods are here, too.”11See Pavel Gregoric, “The Heraclitus Anecdote,” Ancient Philosophy 21, no. 1 (2001): 73-85;Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 270.​ Heraclitus believed that the cosmos was an “ever-living fire”:  “The totality of things is an exchange for fire, and fire an exchange for all things.” The essence of fire is divine, and wisdom is a unique quality of divinity (fire). Fire is the universal reason that permeates all things.12T. M. Robinson, Heraclitus: Fragments (London: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 55. Samuel Enoch Stumpf and James Fieser, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003),13-15; T. M. Robinson, Heraclitus: Fragments (University of Toronto Press, 1987), 55.

Heraclitus also claimed that fire is kindled in measures and put out in measures.13Robinson, Heraclitus, 96.​ The inhabitants of ancient Greek city-states gathered around the common hearth of sacred fire to welcome outsiders or envoys from other cities, and when they established new colonies, they carried the sacred fire with them to the common hearth of the new territory.14See Stephen G. Miller, The Prytaneion: Its Function and Architectural Form, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978; Louis Gernet, The Anthropology of Ancient Greece, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.​ When brides, military officers, and the leaders of colonies (oikistês) left home, they had to carry the fires of their hometowns with them.15“..a bride taking fire from the hearth at home to the hearth of her new husband: a military commander taking fire from the hearth at the home city to ignite a sacrificial fire en route: an oikistés taking fire from the koiné estia (common hearth) to initiate the fire in the new collective home, the colony.” Irad Malkin, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 211.​ This transported fire transformed the unpredictable wilderness into the unity of civilization, just like it turned raw food into cooked. Similarly, every time the ancient Romans founded a new colony, a courier would be sent to carry fire from the Temple of Vesta, thereby establishing and maintaining a connection between the colony and the colonizers.16T. C. Worsfold, The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome (London: Rider, 1932), 18.

Another more famous story comes from the aftermath of the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. In order to purify the fires that the Persians had polluted, the Oracle at Delphi pronounced that no sacrifices could be made until fire from the communal hearth in the sacred city of Delphi was used to relight the altars of Plataea. A man called Euchidas ran from Plataea to Delphi and back in a single day before he died of exhaustion.17Antonopoulos, “Keep the Sacred Flame Burning,” 47; Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games, 166.​ I retell this story here not because it is about the marathon, but rather it’s a parable about how to return to “normal.” Hand-carrying a new fire reestablished the connection between a disordered land crushed by disaster and Hestia, rationality, and the previous order of the world; it brought a crumbling future back on track.

If the Oracle at Delphi were to speak once more, what would she say? The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics has experienced many setbacks: first they canceled the section in Greece, then relaunched a year later. They scaled back the program time and again, but the passing of the torch still resulted in several cases of the virus.

Could the Oracle find anything like that single fire, pure and cleansing,  to bring everything back to normal? What time could she send us back to that would count as “normal?” The Economist’s Global Normalcy Index would not be among her considerations; even if the index returns to pre-pandemic levels, the world would still be a train wreck waiting to happen.18“The Global Normalcy Index,” The Economist, July 1, 2021,​ Regardless of whether that fire exists today, we know that she is not wanting for a Euchidas. We already have countless people who have sacrificed their futures for the system, who have provided fodder for the world of a mono-technological culture.

Now the act of passing the sacred fire has been blocked by another kind of transmission: the virus. Ideally, the vaccines should be more like that fire; it’s just that after months of political games, only 0.3% of global vaccination doses have been administered in low-income countries.19Josh Holder, “Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World,” The New York Times, July 8, 2021,​ We know that, once again, the torch is in the hand of an oikistês, not an Euchidas. We must wait until an oikistês founds a new colony for that local hearth to be lit.

Translated from the Chinese by Bridget Noetzel.

Fei Yining is an artist who lives and works in Shanghai. She received her MFA in Design and Technology from the Parsons School of Design, The New School. By building multi-media narratives––spanning from 3D animation, moving-image, and sculpture, Fei explores ambiguous human emotions such as uncertainty, anxiety, and desire against the backdrop of this post-human era. She combines the absurd and the real to present the tangled relationship between the world where digitization has taken over, and the individuals swept along by it. She has exhibited in various group exhibitions, including White Space, Beijing (2021), e-flux Artist Cinema (2021), UCCA Beijing (2020) Spurs Gallery, Beijing (2020), UCCA Dune (2020), Hua Niao Island International Animation Festival, Zhoushan (2020), Qianshao Contemporary Art Center, Shanghai (2019), and Don Gallery, Shanghai (2018).

Bridget Noetzel is a translator, editor, and art consultant based in Hong Kong. She received a BA in both Chinese Language and the History of Art from Yale University. Since 2009, she has worked with galleries and artists in Beijing and Hong Kong, and she has translated and edited for major publications, institutions, and auction houses. In 2017, she co-founded the Asia Photography Project. She was the translator for Yi Ying’s history of modern Chinese art, entitled Art and Artists in China 1949-Present (Cambridge University Press, 2018).


平行奥运 Olympic Reveries

In tandem with the Tokyo Olympics, Heichi Magazine is hosting a parallel assembly of artist essays. Olympic Reveries emphasizes the cultural spaces opened up by sports and the illusion of spatiotemporal unity created by live broadcasts. We invited artists to extend the ideas of athleticism and national culture into their practices and speculate on real or imagined games that present values different from those of mainstream sporting events.

Fei Yining, The New Fire (Film still), 2021

Published: 2021.07.24