To students of mythology, particular characters in the myths, legends and folktales of the many cultures are often called the gods, sometimes as culture heroes, occasionally deities or higher spirits disguised in animal form. Mankind has learned exceedingly useful lessons and contains generally ascribed that new knowledge to these beings; some noted person or animal, typically a deity in some form or other, because society’s cultural mythology. These mythical benefactors that have brought these practical advantages to men are usually placed among the gods or at least at some level above the great unwashed. They have been the teachers and culture heroes to humanity.
In these cultural mythologies throughout the world it’s often the senior deities on high (sky gods) who bestowed gifts on mankind transforming human society from the nomadic hunter-gatherers to settlers and a more civilized culture. Gifts like agriculture, arts & crafts, the national sciences, trades, technology, etc.. Then there is fire.
In the historical record, all else being equal, probably the human discoverers of passion of the many cultures around the world would be among the best remembered of all those benefactors. This would naturally be the case, for no greater good has touched man’s physical life than passion. The usefulness of fire (heat and light) would have been obvious to Blind Freddy and it should not have been difficult to determine what was fuel (wood, leaves, dry grass, etc.) and what wasn’t fuel (rocks, sand, etc.); the hard bit would have been once coming across flame, or having fire come across 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 create fire.
But that’s not what the mythologies relate. Mythologies do not tell us that people themselves discovered fire; discovered its applications; how to tame fire and how to make fire without direct benefit of Mother Nature. No, mythologies tell us that fire has been given to us directly, not from the senior gods, but by junior deities, in defiance of their seniors.
Mythologies often are suggestive that the senior gods didn’t for various reasons depending on the society/culture and the origin (who is telling the tale) wish to give humans the gift of fire. Oddity number two is what is the big deal about fire anyway? It’s nothing like giving a five-year-old a loaded gun! Were the senior gods worried we were then going to strike them with flaming arrows such as Indians attacking a covered wagon train?
However, lesser deities, middle management from the pantheon of gods, frequently trickster gods, sometimes cultural heroes, occasionally spirits disguised as animals often thought humans should have the present 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 kind, is almost inseparably connected with humans acquiring fire as related from cultures all around the world. Oddity number three is why these lesser deities were of the contrary opinion that humans should have fire (keeping in mind we’d should have naturally had it anyhow ). Anomaly number four is being of the opinion why centre management deities would behave so defiantly against the directive of the betters. When you defy the top brass you know you’re not going to get off lightly. Some, like Prometheus suffered through repeated grievous bodily torture by authority of Zeus for giving us mortals fire, which makes his (and collectively their) mutiny all the odder. Prometheus’s theft of fire is remembered even today via the symbolism of the Olympic Flame or Torch.
However, the fundamental oddity is still the first one. Consider the case of Zeus and Prometheus again. The Greeks, way back before even Methuselah was in diapers, must have known about and employed the use of fire. Zeus had no say in the matter; Prometheus’s contrary opinion and activities were irrelevant.
If the story of the theft and gift of fire via Prometheus were the be-all-and-end-all of the’how humanity acquired fire’ tale, 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 widely known in literature. But while Prometheus is associated with the Mediterranean region, the deity Maui belonged to the length and breadth of the Pacific Ocean.
Of all of the helpful gods of Pacific mythology, Maui, the mischievous Polynesian, is beyond question the hero to the largest numbers of countries scattered over that wide expanse of land, including Hawaii. Maui is of course connected with the theft and present of fire.
But Hawaii is also a society which holds in awe the powerful and somewhat fickle goddess Pele. In Hawaiian mythology Pele controls Hawaii’s volcanoes and volcanic activity (in addition to fire, lightning, and wind) and as we all know, Hawaii is a volcanic hot zone; the islands were formed by volcanic eruptions, eruptions that still occur in the here and now. Hawaiians cannot be ignorant of fire. Molten lava sets fire to things! Does that make Maui immaterial?
It would naturally be supposed that the Hawaiians residing in a volcanic country with ever-flowing fountains of lava would connect their passion myths with some volcano when relating the story of the origin of fire. But like the rest of the Polynesians, Hawaiians discovered fire via Maui rather than naturally in rivers of molten rock.
Polynesians must have brought their passion legends and fire habits with them when they came to the Hawaiian islands of active volcanoes.
Then there’s the Maori narrative of fire’s origin, again starring Maui.
It was from her that Maui got the secret of creating fire. Maui, finding that fire has been lost on the earth, resolves to find Mahuika the Fire-goddess and learn the secret art of getting fire. His tricks of course make her furious and, although he obtains the secret of passion, he barely escapes with his life.
The cultural hero Bue of the Gilbert Islands is another in the long list of fiery pickpockets. Ditto that of Botoque of the central Brazilian tribe the Kayapo.
It is worth noting that in many myths not only was fire stolen, but birds indicated by black or red spots among their feathers were associated with the theft. In Brittany the golden or fire-crested wren steals fire and is red-marked while so doing.
Some swiftly-flying bird or fleet-footed coyote would take the stolen fire to the house of the tribe. We have Cherokee mythology say the Spider stole fire; tribes of the Pacific Northwest and First Nations peoples relate that fire was nicked from the Coyote, Beaver or Dog and contributed to humans; according to a Yukon First Nations individuals, 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.
In Africa, the Mason-wasp was the go-between obtaining fire for the Ila people from their version of God. 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 bit of the sun in their smithy.
Oddity number five is that the individual authors of those mythological’theft and gift of fire’ tales – if myths they really be – would have realized, must have realized, that fire was a natural element of their human environment and therefore the’gift of fire’ was an unnecessary gift and therefore the theft from the lesser deities was equally unnecessary as was the restriction by the senior sky gods in the first location. If a modern day writer wrote such illogical claptrap they simply wouldn’t 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 defying them and stealing fire from them and giving it to us terrestrials. It’s an unlikely enough narrative that, fine, may appear once like in Zeus and Prometheus, but not independently over and over again. So, either we have an outstanding anomalous set of unlikely coincidences, or else the story is really real and thus not mythology in any respect.
Now perhaps the’gift of fire’ describes not so much to real fire as to instead the gift of earning fire, as in how to (i.e. – rubbing two sticks together or striking together two rocks to make sparks). While that concept is more philosophically akin to the senior gods giving those other gifts of civilization to mankind, that’s not exactly what the mythologies describe. What’s described is fire in its pure form that is given out, post theft by lesser gods, not how to make fire.
Analysis: The upshot of all of this is that the theft-of-fire mythology isn’t myth but really real. But, the restrictions of the seniors and the defiance of the juniors imply that fire wasn’t the real concern here. Somehow fire has been substituted for something different. That’s a something that is not a natural element of their human environment and that’s something which if given to people may be akin to this five-year-old holding a really real loaded pistol – or worse.
So if fire in the hands of us primitives isn’t really a big deal, and because the’gods’ couldn’t stop us from discovering and using fire under any set of circumstances, what might the true concern be? It has to be something along the nature of fire – bright and hot and hard to control; something that in the hands of humans might prove a threat to the gods. Nuclear power and weapons seem to be just a tad too improbable. We are in need of something between a wonderful campfire and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. What about normal explosives or thermal weapons because the real’fire’ which was stolen and given to humanity?
Explosives per say were probably not what was meant by fire. Explosives, gunpowder, etc. was a Chinese invention somewhere between the ninth and eleventh centuries AD, and from there spread to the Middle East and hence Europe. That’s a bit too late in historic terms for explosives to have been a gift from Prometheus and all those others.
However, the use of heat as a weapon, thermal weapons, can be dated back to at least the ninth century BC. That is historically more like the era we would like. And how can you quickly and easily generate heat? – With fire of course. 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 crops and areas (scorched earth policy), but flame or heat augmented by chemicals and then moved to where it’s needed.
By way of example, a whole variety of heated chemicals, from water to sand to several petroleum-based compounds (oil, pitch, bitumen etc.) could be thrown on enemy personnel or hurled onto different constructions, fortifications, even ships at sea to be able to destroy or serious damage them.
When it comes to ancient naval warfare, locating and utilizing a chemical substance that burns while drifting on the water, well this would be heaven-sent as it had been. Such substances forms what today is commonly called’Greek fire’ though Greek fire proper, however, wasn’t invented until about 672 AD, again a bit too late for Prometheus.
Moreover, various sulphur-based substances and quicklime are useful as toxic/blinding agents. There are always smoke bombs which can be employed as well.
In short, it wasn’t fire that the senior gods wanted to keep from our grubby little paws, but the use of thermal weapons via the use of substances and various chemical properties useful in warfare, incendiary mixtures, the basic ingredient being heat first and foremost, heat usually provided by fire.
The unanswerable question is why the reluctance on the part of the senior gods to provide humanity fire, or way more likely something similar to fire but much more dangerous like thermal weaponry technology, and the counterpart unanswerable question why therefore the seemingly extreme opposition to that policy from other so-called lesser deities and cultural personalities? 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 figured 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 authority gave the powers-that-be some type of control – the child with the loaded pistol was supervised.