Fire and Water

Is fire a living thing? How about water?

When Bridget’s holiday comes, I always think of bright sunlight on water edged by snowy banks. She is the goddess of fire and water, fire on the water, fire that cracks the ice and brings the frozen world alive again.


The ancient Proto-Europeans apparently had two words for fire — one, paewr, an inanimate noun, for the physical manifestation in the world; and one, egni, animate, for the living force within it. Proto-Europeans would have referred to paewr as “it” and egni as “he/she”.

Paewr has descended into words such as fire, pyre, pyrite, and pyromania. Spiritually, pawer and pyr– indicate a point location of pure, expansive, creation energy. Germanic and English fire are the same, but add a sense of freedom and openness.

Egni was the root of a number of ancient gods and goddesses of fire, such as Vedic Agni; but today it survives only in ignite and derived forms like ignition. Spiritually this word focuses more on the grounding of the energy, the Source power that draws up the strength and directs it, channels it.

The name Bridget (and variants Bride, Brid, Brigid, Brighid, Brigantia) carries many of these same spiritual associations, although it is unrelated (it comes from a root meaning ‘strength’). She is a burst of power, light and tense like a laser, but grounded and guided.


Remarkably, the ancient Proto-Indo-Europeans also had two words for water — animate and inanimate, physical and spiritual.

Wed was in inanimate form, and descends today into water, wet, hydrate, undulation, Spanish aqua, Scottish whiskey, and Russian vodka. It is a word of directed willfulness, of untiring energy along a path, like a river or waterfall.

Ap was the animate form, and is the ultimate source of Latin piscis and English fish. Spiritually it might be likened to a small quiet spring, a simple point source of spirit.

Bridget’s name also echoes these watery words. The burst of power is related to the willfulness of water, and her energy is guided and directed like wed, but rooted like ap.

Some Say the World Will End in…

One thing that is striking about these pairs is how different the four words are. The two words for fire seem completely unrelated, as do the two words for water; it’s as if the spiritual and physical forms are utterly different concepts. If anything, the sounds of the words seem to group the two animate words (groundedness) against the two inanimate words (willfulness, power).

In the usual spiritual symbolism, fire and water are opposites, too. But from where I am standing in the frozen air of late January, fire and water are symbols of fluidity, flexibility, and life, while the earth is hard and dead, and air is a cold void. There is even a link between fire and frost — the words frozen and frost go back to Proto-Indo European preus, which meant both “freeze” and “burn”.


The essence of fire and water is somewhere in the intermix of the elements, not in each alone. This is no simple symbolism, but a web of interlocking words and meanings that reflect and refract each other like light on glass, like fire on ice.

3 responses to “Fire and Water”

  1. Very, very thought provoking.
    In Indian languages, and in Sanskrit, AGNI is the fire, as one of the creative elements that go into the creation of humans… and APA is the water, another of the elements.
    This is wonderful!

    Thank you, Jeff!

    PS- Thank you, also, for your marvellous short stories! I loved them!


  2. Is the root paewr at all related to our current word “power”?

    I find it fascinating that the two mass nouns under discussion both had two roots, ones for the mass of the thing, the other for the fluidity. How many other mass nouns is that true for? Could this be why they are treated differently morphologically?

    Great stuff!


  3. Mohini — Thanks for your kind words! Sanskrit is one of linguists’ primary sources for Proto Indo European; without it, our knowledge of that ancient language would be much poorer. Thanks for letting me know about those words! And I’m really glad you enjoyed my stories! 🙂

    Emily — good guess, but ‘power’ is unrelated. It’s cognate with ‘potent’, and goes back to PIE ‘potis’, meaning ‘able, capable’. …As far as I know, fire and water were the only two elements treated this way. PIE for air was either ‘pneu’ (root of Greek ‘pneuma’) or ‘speis’ (root of ‘spirit’, ‘aspirate’), but I don’t know if there’s any evidence that the two roots had different spiritual connotations. The only PIE root for ‘earth’ I can find is ‘er’, which seems to have been a word for ‘the world’. (In the Silmarillion, the word Tolkien says was used to create the universe was ‘Ea!’, which would be a British pronunciation of ‘er’. Coincidence? 🙂 )

    As for the morphological distinction: if I remember right, the animate / inanimate distinction in PIE seems to have evolved into the masculine / feminine distinction in most of the daughter languages, rather than a mass / count distinction. Which is a shame, considering how bogus the masc / fem distinction is, compared to the animate / inanimate or mass / count. 🙂 What the *&^* were they thinking??


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