In ancient times, people considered fire one of the basic elements of the universe, along with water, air, and earth. Fire can be a friendly, comforting thing, a source of heat and light, as anyone who has ever sat by a campfire in the dark of night knows. Yet fire can also be dangerous and deadly, racing and leaping like a living thing to consume all in its path. In mythology, fire appears both as a creative, cleansing force and as a destructive, punishing one, although positive aspects of fire generally outweigh negative ones.
Symbols and Themes. People in all parts of the world tell myths and legends about fire. Numerous stories explain how people first acquired fire, either through their own daring or as a gift from an animal, god, or hero.
The ability to make and control fire—which is necessary for cooking, making pottery and glass, and metalworking—sets people apart from the animals. The Admiralty Islanders of the Pacific Ocean have a myth in which a snake asks his human children to cook some fish. The children simply heat the fish in the sun and eat it raw, so the snake gives them fire and teaches them to use it to cook their food.
Because fire warms and gives off light like the sun, it often represents the sun or a sun god in mythology. In some tales, it is linked with the idea of the hearth, the center of a household. Fire can also be a symbol of new life, as in the case of the phoenix, the mythical bird that is periodically destroyed by flames to rise reborn from its own ashes.
apocalypse prediction of a sudden and violent end of the world
Fire's energy is not always a good thing. Flames can bring punishment and suffering, as in the Christian image of hell as a place of fiery torment. Some myths of apocalypse predict that the world will end in fire—but it may be a purifying, cleansing fire that will allow the birth of a fresh new world.
Because fire can be treacherous and destructive, mythical figures associated with it may be tricksters, not always to be trusted. The Norse god Loki's shifty and malicious character may have been based on the characteristics of a forest fire. Another deity associated with fire is the Greek Hephaestus (Vulcan), god of metalworking, who is usually portrayed as deformed and sullen.
Rituals. In many cultures, people practice rituals related to fire. These rituals are often based on myths and legends about fire or fire gods. In ancient Rome, a sacred flame associated with the goddess Vesta represented national well-being. Women called the Vestal Virgins had the holy duty of keeping that flame alive. The Aztecs of ancient Mexico believed that the fire god Huehueteotl kept earth and heaven in place. At the end of each cycle of 52 years, they extinguished all fires, and Huehueteotl's priests lit a new flame for the people to use. In northern Europe, which has long, dark, cold winters, fire was especially honored. Pagan fire festivals such as lighting bonfires on May 1 have continued into modern times in European communities.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
deity god or goddess
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
Many cultures have practiced cremation, the burning of the dead. In cremation, fire represents purification, a clean and wholesome end to earthly life. The Pima people of the southwestern United States say that fire appeared in the world to solve the problem of how people should dispose of the dead.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Fire Myths. Agni, the god of fire in Hindu mythology, represents the essential energy of life in the universe. He consumes things, but only so that other things can live. Fiery horses pull Agni's chariot, and he carries a flaming spear. Agni created the sun and the stars, and his powers are great. He can make worshipers immortal and purify the souls of the dead from sin. One ancient myth about Agni says that he consumed so many offerings from his worshipers that he was tired. To regain his strength, he had to burn an entire forest with all its inhabitants.
Chinese mythology includes stories of Hui Lu, a magician and fire god who kept 100 firebirds in a gourd. By setting them loose, he could start a fire across the whole country. There was also a hierarchy of gods in charge of fire. At its head was Lo Hsüan, whose cloak, hair, and beard were red. Flames spurted from his horse's nostrils. He was not unconquerable, however. Once when he attacked a city with swords of fire, a princess appeared in the sky and quenched his flames with her cloak of mist and dew.
The bringers of fire are legendary heroes in many traditions. Prometheus * of Greek mythology, one of the most famous fire bringers, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Similar figures appear in the tales of other cultures.
Native Americans believe that long ago some evil being hid fire so that people could not benefit from it. A hero had to recover it and make it available to human beings. In many versions of the story Coyote steals fire for people, but sometimes a wolf, woodpecker, or other animal does so. According to the Navajo, Coyote tricked two monsters that guarded the flames on Fire Mountain. Then he lit a bundle of sticks tied to his tail and ran down the mountain to deliver the fire to his people.
African traditions also say that animals gave fire to humans. The San of South Africa believe that Ostrich guarded fire under his wing until a praying mantis stole it. Mantis tricked Ostrich into spreading his wings and made off with the fire. The fire destroyed Mantis, but from the ashes came two new Mantises.
Indians of the Amazon River basin in Brazil say that a jaguar rescued a boy and took him to its cave. There the boy watched the jaguar cooking food over a fire. The boy stole a hot coal from the fire and took it to his people, who then learned to cook.
Legends in the Caroline Islands of the Pacific link fire to Olofat, a mythical trickster hero who was the son of the sky god and a mortal woman. As a youth, Olofat forced his way into heaven to see his father. Later Olofat gave fire to human beings by allowing a bird to fly down to earth with fire in its beak.
Fighting Sorcery with Fire
In Europe and America, individuals accused of being witches were once burned at the stake. Many cultures have held the belief that fire destroys sorcery, or black magic. The Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia * called upon fire to undo the effects of evil witchcraft aimed at them. They used these words:
Boil, boil, burn, burn!... As this goat's skin is torn asunder and cast into the fire, and as the blaze devours it... may the curse, the spell, the pain, the torment, the sickness, the sin, the misdeed, the crime, the suffering, that oppress my body, be torn asunder like this goat's skin! May the blaze consume them today.
immortal able to live forever
hierarchy organization of a group into higher and lower levels
A myth from Assam, in northern India, says that after losing a battle with Water, Fire hid in a bamboo stalk. Grasshopper saw it and told Monkey, who figured out how to use Fire. But a man saw Monkey and decided that he should have Fire, so he stole it from Monkey Like many stories, this myth portrays ownership of fire as a human quality Even partial control over such a powerful force of nature is one of the things that gives human society its identity.