To students of mythology, particular characters from the myths, legends and folktales of the many cultures are often known as the gods, sometimes as culture heroes, sometimes deities or higher spirits disguised in animal form. Mankind has learned exceedingly useful lessons and contains usually ascribed that new knowledge to these beings; some noted person or creature, typically a deity in some form or other, because society’s cultural mythology. These mythical benefactors that have brought these practical benefits to men are usually placed among the gods or at least at some level above the great unwashed. They’ve been the teachers and culture personalities to mankind.
In these cultural mythologies throughout the world it is often the senior deities on high (sky gods) who bestowed gifts on mankind transforming human culture from the nomadic hunter-gatherers to settlers and a more civilized culture. Presents like agriculture, arts & crafts, the domestic sciences, trades, technology, etc.. Then there’s fire.
From the historical record, all else being equal, likely the human discoverers of passion of the many cultures across the world would be among the best remembered of those benefactors. This would naturally be the case, for no greater good has touched person’s physical life than fire. The usefulness of fire (heat and light) would have been obvious to Blind Freddy and it should not have been difficult to figure out what was fuel (wood, leaves, dry grass, etc.) and what was not fuel (stone, sand, etc.); the challenging bit would have been coming across fire, or having flame encounter you, to keep it under control and in continuous supply – not letting it go out. The next step would have been figuring out how to artificially make fire.
But that is not what the mythologies relate. Mythologies don’t tell us that humans themselves discovered fire; found its uses; how to tame fire and how to make fire without immediate benefit of Mother Nature. No, mythologies tell us that fire was given to us directly, not by the senior gods, but by junior deities, in defiance of the seniors.
Mythologies often are suggestive that the senior gods did not for a variety of reasons depending on the society/culture and the source (who’s telling the tale) want to give humans the gift of fire. This brings up anomaly number one – fire is a natural part of our terrestrial environment so it can not be kept from us! Oddity number two is what is the big deal about fire anyway? It’s not like giving a five-year-old a loaded gun! Were the senior gods worried we were then going to attack them with flaming arrows such as Indians attacking a covered wagon train?
However, lesser deities, middle management from the pantheon of gods, often trickster gods, sometimes cultural heroes, sometimes spirits disguised as animals often thought humans should have the gift and benefit of passion. And that means you have many close universal tales of those beings steading fire from their superiors and giving it to us mortals. Theft or trickery, the use of deceit of some sort, is almost inseparably connected with people acquiring fire as related from cultures all over the world. Oddity number three is why these lesser deities were of the contrary opinion that humans should have fire (keeping in mind we would should have obviously had it anyhow ). Anomaly number four is even being of that opinion why centre management deities would act so defiantly against the directive of their betters. When you defy the top brass you know you’re not going to get off lightly. Some, like Prometheus suffered through repeated grievous physical torture by authority of Zeus for giving us mortals fire, which makes his (and together their) mutiny all of the odder. Prometheus’s theft of fire is remembered even now via the symbolism of the Olympic Flame or Torch.
However, the central oddity is still the first one. Consider the case of Zeus and Prometheus again. The Greeks, way back before Methuselah was in diapers, must have known about and used the use of fire.
If the story of the theft and present of fire through Prometheus were the be-all-and-end-all of the’how mankind acquired fire’ narrative, then it could probably be dismissed as pure fiction.
Prometheus is not the only case study of grabbing a hold of fire from senior management. Prometheus, the classical fire giver, is most commonly known in literature. But while Prometheus is associated with the Mediterranean area, the deity Maui belonged to the length and breadth of the Pacific Ocean.
Of all the helpful gods of Pacific mythology, Maui, the mischievous Polynesian, is beyond question that the protagonist into the largest numbers of countries scattered over that broad expanse of land, including Hawaii. Maui is of course connected with the theft and gift of fire.
However, Hawaii is also a society that holds in amazement the strong and somewhat fickle goddess Pele. Hawaiians can’t be ignorant of passion. Molten lava sets fire to things! Does that make Maui immaterial?
It would naturally be supposed that the Hawaiians living in a volcanic country with ever-flowing fountains of lava could connect their fire myths with a few volcano when relating the story of the origin of fire. But like the rest of the Polynesians, Hawaiians discovered fire via Maui instead of naturally in rivers of molten rock.
Polynesians must have brought their fire legends and fire habits with them when they came to the Hawaiian islands of active volcanoes.
Then there is the Maori narrative of fire’s origin, again starring Maui.
Mahuika is a Maori fire deity. It was from her that Maui obtained the secret of creating fire. Maui, discovering that fire was lost on the earth, resolves to find Mahuika the Fire-goddess and learn the secret art of obtaining fire. He visits her, and being a trickster deity, tricks Mahuika into giving out with all the technical information. His tricks of course make her angry and, although he obtains the secret of fire, he barely escapes with his life.
Ditto that of Botoque of the central Brazilian tribe the Kayapo.
It’s worth noting that in many myths not only was firing stolen, but birds indicated by black or red spots one of their feathers were related to the theft. In Brittany the gold or fire-crested wren steals fire and is red-marked while so doing.
The indigenous natives of North America have near identical tales.
The animals of the North American Indians are represented as stealing fire. Some swiftly-flying bird or fleet-footed coyote would carry the stolen fire to the house of the tribe. We’ve Cherokee mythology say the Spider stole fire; tribes of the Pacific Northwest and First Nations peoples relate that fire has been nicked from the Coyote, Beaver and/or Dog and contributed to humans; according to a Yukon First Nations people, Crow stole fire from a volcano; in accordance with the Creek Indians, Rabbit stole fire; ditto that in Algonquin mythology – firing was stolen by Rabbit; them rabbits or hares also stole fire and gave it to the Ojibwas in accordance with their own myths.
Tore of the Mbuti in Zaire is the local version of Prometheus. The different Bushmen of Africa such as the Pygmies of the Congo stole fire from their God. The Dogons of the Mali have Nummo spirits (heavenly blacksmiths) and one of their first ancestors nicked a piece of the sun in their smithy.
Oddity number five is that the individual writers of those mythological’theft and present of fire’ tales – if myths they really be – could have realized, must have realized, that fire was a natural element of the human environment and for that reason the’gift of fire’ was an unnecessary present and for that reason the theft from the lesser deities was equally unnecessary as was the limitation by the senior sky gods in the first location. If a modern day author wrote such illogical claptrap they simply would not get published.
Anomaly number six is the reason why in mythologies from diverse parts of the world have the seniors deciding to withhold fire from mankind; their juniors or other lesser beings humanised animals beating them and stealing fire from them and giving it to us terrestrials. It is an unlikely enough story that, okay, may appear once like in Zeus and Prometheus, but not independently over and over again. So, either we have an outstanding anomalous set of improbable coincidences, or else the story is truly real and thus not mythology in any respect.
Now perhaps the’gift of fire’ describes not so much to real fire as to rather the gift of making fire, as in how to (i.e. – rubbing two sticks together or striking together two rocks to create sparks). While that idea is more philosophically akin to the gods giving those other gifts of civilization to humanity, that’s not what the mythologies describe. What is described is fire in its pure form that is given out, post theft by lesser gods, not how to create fire.
Analysis: The upshot of all of this is that the theft-of-fire mythology is not myth but really real. However, the restrictions of the seniors and the defiance of the juniors suggest that fire wasn’t the real concern . Somehow fire was substituted for something different. That’s a something that’s not a natural part of the human environment and that is something that if given to humans might be akin to this five-year-old holding a really real loaded pistol – or worse.
So if fire at the hands of us primitives is not really a big deal, and since the’gods’ could not prevent us from discovering and using fire under any set of circumstances, what might the real concern be? It needs to be something along the nature of fire – bright and hot and difficult to control; something which at the hands of people might prove a threat to the gods. Nuclear power and weapons appear to be just a tad too unlikely. We need something between a wonderful campfire and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. What about ordinary explosives or thermal weapons as the real’fire’ which has been stolen and given to humankind?
Explosives per state were probably not what was meant by fire. That’s a bit too late in historical terms for explosives to have been a present from Prometheus and all those others.
However, the use of heat for a weapon, thermal weapons, can be dated back to at least the eighth and ninth century BC. That is historically more like the age we would like. And how do you quickly and easily generate heat? The actual bit here is that it is not just pure fire which is used as in flaming arrows or burning a wooden fort, or burning plants and fields (scorched earth policy), but flame or heat augmented by substances and then moved to where it is needed.
For example, a whole assortment of heated substances, from water to sand to several petroleum-based compounds (oil, pitch, bitumen etc.) could be dumped on enemy personnel or hurled onto various constructions, fortifications, even ships at sea to be able to destroy or serious harm them.
When it comes to ancient naval warfare, finding and utilizing a chemical substance that burns while floating on the water, well this could be heaven-sent as it had been. Such substances forms what today is usually referred to as’Greek fire’ though Greek fire appropriate, however, was not invented until roughly 672 AD, again a bit too late for Prometheus.
In addition, various sulphur-based substances and quicklime are useful as toxic/blinding agents. There are always smoke bombs that may be employed as well.
In short, it was not fire that the senior gods wanted to keep out of our grubby little paws, but the use of thermal weapons via the use of chemicals and various chemical properties useful in warfare, incendiary mixtures, the basic ingredient being heat first and foremost, heat usually supplied by fire.
The unanswerable question is why the reluctance on the part of the senior gods to provide humanity fire, or far more likely something similar to fire but much more dangerous like thermal weaponry technology, and the counterpart unanswerable question why therefore the seemingly intense opposition to this policy from other so-called lesser deities and cultural heroes? The one thing that makes sense is that the seniors were opposed because it was akin to giving a child a loaded pistol. The opposition on the other hand guessed it was probably inevitable we would figure it all out for ourselves anyway, and giving the technology to us sooner rather than later after stealing it in the first place from higher power gave the powers-that-be some type of control – the child with the loaded pistol was supervised.