Stepping out, you are hit by a torpid wave of heat. It’s getting harder to breathe and beads of sweat run down your forehead. If that weren’t enough, there’s a wet spot under your armpit. Damn right attractive, isn’t it? You would never think about it as “sweet summer sweat”, least of all as reminiscent of sensuality or passion. One thing’s clear: unlike Leon Tallis from Ian McEwan’s Atonement, you do not love England in a heatwave. So then, you might wonder why this sluggish sensation has come to be so ardently associated with sordidness, or why Sean Paul thinks this is “the right temperature to shelter you from the storm.”

Picture this: you’re on the porch, a glass of wine in your hand, as the sun sets after an oppressively hot summer day. Alannah Myles’ ‘Black Velvet’ is carried along by a soft evening breeze, proclaiming that “music’s like a heatwave.” You might then imagine warm bodies pressing against each other to a soundtrack of slow, sensual jazz. Heat is languorous. A hot, slow breath, fogging up the glass. Then coldness is all a-tremble, shivering, making your blood run cold…well, not so fast

Heat may be stifling and oppressive, but it is also sizzling, bursting with a sense of freedom. It is Brownian motion, a state of increased entropy, of disorder. It gives the sensation that something is about to happen, that there is tension about to be released in full force. In The Great Gatsby, heat signals the oncoming climax, as tempers rise, “it’s so hot, and everything’s so confused.” Meanwhile, “cold” is Gatsby’s attitude — aloof, apparently unfeeling.  

Heat, then, is both torpid and trepid, stifling and enraging. And somehow, sensuality and passion can be linked to all of these states without contradiction, as if, to return to the world of Atonement, “all the rules change” when spirits run hot.

It boils down to this: love’s fire can be tender, pure in the way flames can be purifying, a symbol of rebirth, rising from the ashes. It can even be sacred, like the fire of Vesta in antiquity, tended by the Vestal Virgins. But at the same time, it can be a disastrous force, the “heat of passion”: ravaging, burning. We have a long tradition of associating love with either the soul or the carnal (this being lust, for which, hot damn, you’ll probably burn in Hell anyway). The ancient Greeks had different names for different types of love, of which perhaps Eros is the one most closely associated with flaming passion. 

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You might say it depends on the era you have in mind. After all, in the “Age of Steam”, heat was dynamism—progress setting things in motion, rather than languor. Thermodynamics, rather than a sexy poem. But it seems as if the link between passion and flames has been here for longer than we can say. From Ovid to Shakespeare, there is always “fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes”, and even the word ardour, used in English to suggest passion since Medieval Times, comes from the Latin ardere, “to burn”. 

It seems natural to associate the physical side of things with bodies ‘in heat’, and old ideas about medicine and physiology might have also helped perpetuate the symbolism. Interestingly, the theory of the bodily humours associated blood with an enthusiastic, friendly temper (from which we derive sanguine), while impulsive, aggressive behaviour was associated with an excess of yellow bile. But old physiology also had a theory proposing that, in fits of passion, our blood starts rising in temperature. Thus, we talk about being hot-blooded, and blood itself is tangled up with images of heat and desire: “Oh hot blood, love is gonna get ‘ya.”

The association between heat and illness doesn’t stop here, though: how many times have we heard of the ‘fever’ of desire? Even disease is associated with a frenzied sort of love (or a cramped, hot dance floor in Oxford…) In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the passions and vices at a tuberculosis sanatorium are presented against a backdrop of sweltering temperatures and fevers. Even though the action is set in the Swiss Alps, the atmosphere makes you think of the excesses of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ more than anything else. Hans, the protagonist, associates his feverous palpitations with his obsession for a Russian patient, Clavdia Chauchat. This lustful heat is an intoxication, both boosting your spirits and making you feel dizzy and lethargic. 

Fire is passion, but it can be passionate love or hate. So, when ‘[s]ome say the world will end in fire’, they might be right. Because “from what they’ve tasted of desire” and what they know of hate, they might reach the same conclusion that, be it through love or hate, the world will indeed end not in ice, but fire.

In the end, the same heatwave can inspire lewd lyrics or thoughts of doom and global warming. More realistically, perhaps, your only cravings could be a cold shower and some ice in your drink. How hot weather might capture your imagination could be as varied as our symbolism for love and fertility: some as cliché as roses, others as obscure as glass sponge skeletons. For now, though, Donna Summer will continue to demand ‘hot stuff’, and Italian cities in the summer will continue to be the chosen setting for pretentious love stories.

Still, our hottest hits might do well to use different symbols to suggest sensuality, since we have so many, like, you know, fig trees and oysters. Which, I admit, sound at least a little bit cooler.