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In the world I am developing, a group called the Garotakor Kobark base their belief system on a fire that has burned consistently for hundreds of years. It has been contained within a step pyramid-like structure. How would this group continue to feed this fire without the general population being aware that it is being fed?

I'm not absolutely locked in on the idea of it being fed by people, so any way it could maintain itself naturally could also work. The main idea is it needs to be mysterious and impressive enough to convince a society of its "divine nature".

Final Verdict: The flame is from some sort of natural gas fire like the ones suggested. This fits the story well, and the secretive part will be more about how it is not from a divine source.

Some other problems brought up, such as the temple being invaded or going out due to natural events are actually a major part of the story. Thanks for the assistance!

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    $\begingroup$ A assume the missing word from your question is "secretly", because keeping a fire burning is a pretty straightforward process. Maybe a clarifying edit is in order. $\endgroup$ Apr 8 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure why this is a difficult question. Inside the stone structure they need candles, isn't it? It is perfectly normal to bring candles into the structure. One of the candlesticks is designated the "eternal fire", and the High Gamer McClout makes sure that there is always a candle burning on it, lit from the previous candle. Lo and behold, a fire burning for hundreds of years. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 8 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ Related: How Long Could an "Eternal" Fire Last? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Apr 8 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ Oil is a liquid, it will always flow downhill. You simply go behind the curtain pour it into a channel that goes under the floor to the base of the brazier. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ A natural gas fire would work perfectly. You could also add that at some point the elders found out about it and hid the fact. When the gas source ran out, they started feeding it gas from another deposit to hide the fact. $\endgroup$
    – Tvde1
    Apr 11 at 11:24

10 Answers 10

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How would this group continue to feed this fire without the general population being aware that it is being fed?

Not all fires need to be fed. Natural gas fires are very much a thing, and some have been burning for a very long time indeed:

At Yanartaş in the Olympos National Park in Turkey, natural gas burns from many vents on the side of the mountain. It is thought to be the location of ancient Mount Chimaera. This is the largest venting of possibly abiogenic methane on Earth's terrestrial surface, and has been burning for over 2500 years.

Fires of Chimera, Çıralı, Turkey

(image credit: Jyri Leskinen)

Presumably though you want your eternal flame to be continuously fed by humans running a fake fire cult, and presumably you want the flame to continue burning without the average denizen of the area knowing that it has an entirely mundane source, rather than a supernatural one.

Well, imagine a natural gas "eternal" flame that one day just... went out. The gas reservoir below these places isn't infinite after all, and won't necessarily get replenished at a high enough rate or even at all.

What you can do though is mine into the rocks underneath where the sacred flame is, and construct a wood gasifier. You can imagine this as a sort of oven that uses wood (or charcoal) to "cook" more wood (or charcoal) generating a combustible gas. This gas can be ducted out through the fissures in the rock that fed the original "eternal" flame, which can then be relit.

The temple might consume an awful lot of wood or charcoal, and it might produce a lot of toxic tar, and a lot of people working there might die of carbon monoxide poisoning, but the business of burning can be done quite some way away from the flame, potentially far enough to remain deniable.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, if a fire just keeps burning for centuries without needing humans to keep it fueled, it is even more likely that people will take it as a sign of something divine. $\endgroup$ Apr 9 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ This might make more sense within the context of the story. Thanks for the help! $\endgroup$ Apr 9 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ Abiotic methane is thought to be formed by chemical reactions deep underground. nature.com/news/2005/050531/full/… Another source is methane trapped within frozen rocks that give it up as they warm up. Thus, methane could be released for thousands of years. pnas.org/doi/10.1073/… $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Apr 9 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ those natural gas vents are called petroleum seeps and can range from tar seeps to propane rich methane seeps perfect for a fire en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_seep There is one in NY that is actually behind a waterfall if you want something that would inspire magic. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_Flame_Falls $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 10 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ @John I was going to mention that. The thing with that one is it's recommended to bring a lighter in case it's gone out. So if the priests need something to do, they could be on watch to make sure it stays lit. $\endgroup$
    – JimmyJames
    Apr 11 at 19:39
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They have other fires

"Of course the pyramid gets a delivery of wood every day. We need something to feed the fires. No not the Sacred Fire, the other ones. The smaller ones for cooking and heating and that sort of thing. None of the wood goes on the Sacred Fire. No you cannot come in and see for yourself. We are too busy."

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    $\begingroup$ You forgot the most important part: "Oh, and don't forget that spreading misinformation about the Sacred Fire will get you jailed for 15 years". $\endgroup$ Apr 9 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ You joke, but there are recorded instances of this sort of thing in texts like the Book of Daniel, where a bunch of priests habitually snuck back into a temple to eat the food laid out for their god through secret doors, and IIRC there were instances where the priests of the ancient Greeks carried out similar deceptions. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Apr 9 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 Not a joke, just a very clever answer. The Eternal Flame is hidden in plain sight. Right next to the non-eternal flame. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 9 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ re. the last part, just say that only priests are allowed near The Fire. It's sacred after all... $\endgroup$
    – ilkkachu
    Apr 10 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @ilkkachu Yes the priests would say something more sanctimonious that "we are all busy". I have translated it into the common tongue. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 10 at 14:37
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Build your pyramid on a coal deposit

There are actually quite a few fires in coal deposits that have been burning for a very long time without human assistance.

The Guiness record holder for longest burning fire is in Mt. Wingen (a.k.a. Burning Mountain), Australia, and is believed to be 6000 years old.

Brennender Berg, Germany is called Burning Mountain by the locals, since its coal mine was ignited in the 1600's.

Another interesting case is the mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA, which has been going since the 1960's.

Petrol pipeline

If there is a source of petroleum nearby, you could run pipes underground into the pyramid. Inside concealed fixtures could feed it into the fire. You could even use valves to increase the flow in bursts, to give the appearance of signs from your deity when it is asked questions.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with a natural coal fire is that the actual firey bit moves along the coal seam over time. It makes building a satisfying temple complex above it really awkward. $\endgroup$ Apr 8 at 20:06
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Use an oil-fed flame. The reservoir can be topped up by a buried pipe from another, larger, reservoir hidden in the High Priest's sacristy on the same level. Only (s)he and trusted Senior Priests know about this.

If they use oil lamps else where in the temple, then they should be able hide the amount of oil used for the Eternal Flame in the oil used elsewhere. Bonus points if they receive and give oil as alms for the poor - this makes it harder to track the amount of oil going through the temple.

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Have a mechanism where wood piled up somewhere else is put on a conveyer (that the common folk cannot see), which slowly feeds the fire. A similar apparatus hauls the ashes away and dumps them in the river.

People who claim that the fire is not eternally burning get fed to the fire.

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TL;DR: “Of course it is God and God alone who keeps the flame alive. She imbues the high priest every Tuesday, when he refills the oil reservoir.”

Why you need this

The other answers suggested many mechanisms to secretly feed a flame – be it by natural or artificial means. While maintaining these on a daily basis is probably no big deal, on longer time scales, you need to consider exceptional events. Any given design can be immune to some of these, but I am pretty confident that it’s impossible to ward against all of the following:

  • a war,
  • the entire temple burns down, which is all the more likely for a fire-based religion,
  • some terrorist or fanatic opposed to your religion sabotages the mechanism,
  • natural disasters such as earth quakes, floods, plagues, etc.,
  • whoever is responsible for maintaining the secretly mechanism is unexpectedly incapacitated, runs amok, or commits an error, e.g., due to the boredom arising from performing the same task over decades,
  • the secret mechanism fails due to wear and tear, which is made more likely since every tiny problem can accumulate over centuries.

Also, consider the fire in the Roman temple of Vesta, where no miracle was pretended and thus some of the above causes were less likely or did not apply. Still, there is evidence that the fire went out several times.

Thus, forget about actually keeping the flame burning over centuries.

Solutions

Even if the original intention was to keep the illusion of an eternal flame, sooner or later the religious elite will realise that they cannot uphold this illusion indefinitely and have to introduce contingency plans, adopt their theology, etc. Mind that this does not mean that the elite loses belief, rather they create a version of their religion that is compatible with reality for them. As a result, the religious elite will believe that whatever they do to maintain the flame is a divine act and the eternity of the flame is somewhat symbolical.

Now, I don’t see a problem with making all of this publicly known. I am not aware of any popular religion that maintains a tangible (alleged) miracle to support its legitimacy. People already believe in all kinds of things contrary to evidence. In fact, humans keeping a flame alive over centuries is pretty impressive and can be sold as evidence of divine support. At worst, such a miracle is a burden and risk due to the above problems.

Alternatively, you can make flame maintenance a secret ritual only accessible by elites, who get revealed the true mystic nature of reality. If you do so, layers may help, i.e., there is a gradual shift from the public believing in a miraculous eternal flame to the highest priests believing in some abstract concept of a symbolic flame. This way, people climbing the religious ladder will experience less cognitive dissonance.

Further protection mechanisms include:

  • Strongly restrict access to the flame, either it is only accessible by priests or other religious elites or only on holy days.

  • Make the flame transportable, so when your temple is raided by barbarian hordes, you can claim that some cautious priests hid it in the mountains.

Afterthought: Do you really need this?

Religions don’t get started by some crafty person who found out a way to maintain the illusion of an eternal fire. Some other crafty person would quickly dissect this before you even have enough followers to keep them from doing so. Religions get started by people managing to rally people around them and their (somewhat practical) message. Miracles, holy objects, etc. usually come later.

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  • $\begingroup$ I understand why it wouldn't make sense for a church to maintain the existence of a miracle today, but the society this is in is much less advanced than out modern-day human society. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ In addition, some invading force putting it out is a major element in the story. In fact, there is another group entirely devoted to putting out the flame, as they see it as unholy. This causes a lot of conflict, but generally those protecting the fire have a much stronger military force than those attacking it. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @gamermcclout: In that case, you probably go for maintenance being a secret ritual for the religious elite. Still, keep in mind that your religion does not depend on the presumed miracle. Religions were doing fine without tangible miracles throughout history. If some adversary group puts out the flame, the religion will not suffer much from it. The priests may just stage an event of God (or similar) reigniting the flame or they can even employ some ad-hoc theology to justify going on without it. Compare to Judaism surviving the destruction of its temple, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 10 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ regardless of whether or not the fire should be the main thing holding the religion together, it is in this world. The question I was really asking was what could be done to create and maintain this fire. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ @gamermcclout: In that case, you might want to think or ask about how to design the religion such that extinguishing the flame really breaks it (more than a simple schism I presume) – if you haven’t already done so. $\endgroup$
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 11 at 4:57
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Well, if you have any kind of magic system going around, you could make it so that the people's faith in the religion is what fuels the fire.

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Do people actually need to see the fire burning constantly? You could keep the flame contained within the structure, and restrict access to the flame chamber only to the highest ranking priests of the religion. The priests can uphold the myth of thet everlasting flame, while only really needing to keep it up for short periods of time, when the flame is exposed to the general public, e.g. during holidays.

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  • $\begingroup$ I dislike the "no public visit", but I like the idea that the flame is not always big. In other times of the year, instead of no fire at all, they maintain a very small fire. Easier (logistically speaking) to maintain. In holidays, "the fire becomes very big because God likes holy days" $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 15:04
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Maybe you could exploit Pepper's Ghost: the eternal flame isn't eternal, it isn't even there. You would need two sheets of glass, and two non-eternal flames, one of which is hidden behind a screen, so it can be replenished. Now you swap out the dark screen, and screen out the other flame, so you can replenish it.

There will always be the odd skeptic, of course, so, as others have suggested, they will need to be sacrificed from time to time.

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Here's a proposed explanation, and some general thoughts as well, as basing a religion on a natural phenomena has it's share of difficulties since nature is always changing. Mechanisms of control within religious or occult groups go far beyond symbolic totems; it is ingrained in everything from the hierarchy to the rituals, to the teachings themselves. Truly, anything similar to your eternal divine flame in any religion would be auxiliary out of necessity to maintain control. Unless the flame literally speaks to the congregation or reveals images of God, it seems like the flame would be better off being "the gun" on the mantle in Act 1.

Figurative vs. Literal:

Even in the most traditional of religions, anything existing in "eternal perpetuity", like an ever-burning-flame is symbolic. It is generally about what the totem represents than about the actual totem itself.

Since you've established that there are more secrets behind this religious organization, it stands to reason that the congregation can't simply enter the church as they please and explore.

I think in this case, the easiest way to go about this without making the plot overly-convoluted by explaining this "divine flame" is simply that a priest or other religious figure moves the censer/torch into a back room after service, put's the flame out, and simply lights it again before the next service.

Humans have a very intuitive sense when something is figurative, especially in the context of a non-historical/currently-accessible divine totem in an organized religion.

When it needs fuel:

In cases where it has to be on display for quite some time, a fuel source could be used—hidden under a table or something similar. This would allow someone to go underneath to add more fuel, divert the flame, or do other "miraculous tricks". Some real 'Wizard of Oz' stuff.

Alternative Source:

I really like the idea @starfish-prime proposed for the naturally burning fire deposits, because this could even fool the religious elite. However the logistics are tough:

  • Building a church with a natural methane/coal flame at it's centerpiece without disturbing the fragile ground that allows the flame to exist.
  • These do not burn with 100% efficiency. If the area is enclosed, your religion isn't going to last very very long!
  • It's impossible to tell (unless they have modern technology, in which case nobody would believe an eternally burning flame anyway) how long it could last. Sure, they could say it's been burning for 5,000 years, but it could be essentially tapped and the flame could extinguish during the next Sunday service.

Closing Thoughts & Reactions to Deception:

I would definitely give some consideration to the fact that there's really no religion in which everyone isn't aware that an "eternal flame" isn't literally eternal. I only say this because it seems like focusing on this will make the plot flat, especially if this flame is a major plot point. Religions that catch have much deeper, unseen mysteries and traditions that go further back than what the people can see today. It seems like your divine flame is the crux of this story, and I would really recommend reconsidering.

So they find out the flame isn't eternal, then what?

Do the followers revolt? Why? Because they were lied to about something the benefactors of the religion could also claim they were just as surprised as.

The more likely scenario if the flame went out from the general population would probably be: "Oh yeah, it was figurative, but God still loves us!"

The religious elite/priests/those who are keeping the secret could easily explain a divine flame stopping by telling essentially the truth: "Fire, like a river, may look the same every day but it is constantly changing as the medium is burned. For this reason, any fire lit on this torch/at this sight is a continuation of the eternal flame." They could also just get ahead of it by preaching sermons about the figurate nature of eternity to prepare the congregation for that contingency.

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