To students of mythology, particular characters from 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 discovered exceedingly useful lessons and contains generally ascribed that new knowledge to such 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 advantages to men are usually placed among the gods or at least at some level over the great unwashed. They’ve been the teachers and culture personalities to humanity.
In such cultural mythologies throughout the world it is often the senior deities on high (sky gods) who bestowed presents on mankind changing human culture from the nomadic hunter-gatherers to settlers and a more civilized culture. Presents like agriculture, arts & crafts, the national sciences, trades, technology, etc.. Then there is fire.
From the historical record, all else being equal, likely the individual discoverers of passion of the many cultures across the world would be one of the best remembered of those benefactors. This would obviously be the case, for no greater good has touched person’s physical life than passion. The usefulness of fire (light and heat ) would have been evident to Blind Freddy and it shouldn’t have been difficult to determine what was fuel (wood, leaves, dry grass, etc.) and what wasn’t fuel (stone, sand, etc.); the hard bit would have been coming across flame, or having flame encounter you, to keep it under control and in continuous supply – not allowing it to go out. The next step would have been figuring out the way to artificially make fire.
But that is not what the mythologies relate. Mythologies do not tell us that people themselves discovered fire; found its applications; how to tame fire and how to make fire without immediate advantage 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 the seniors.
Mythologies often are suggestive that the senior gods didn’t for a variety of reasons depending on the society/culture and the origin (who is telling the tale) want to give people 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 personalities, 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, using deceit of some sort, is almost inseparably connected with people acquiring fire related from cultures all around the world. Oddity number three is the reason why these lesser deities were of the opposite opinion that people should have fire (keeping in mind we’d should have obviously 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 resist the top brass you know you are not going to get off lightly. Some, such as Prometheus suffered through repeated grievous physical torture by authority of Zeus for giving us mortals fire, making his (and together their) mutiny all of the odder.
However, the fundamental oddity is still the first one. 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 humanity acquired fire’ narrative, then it could probably be dismissed as pure fiction.
Prometheus is not the only case study of grabbing a hold of passion from senior management. Prometheus, the classical fire giver, is most commonly known in literature. But while Prometheus is connected with the Mediterranean area, 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 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 present of fire.
However, Hawaii is also a society which holds in amazement the strong and somewhat fickle goddess Pele. Hawaiians can’t be ignorant of passion. Does that make Maui immaterial?
It would naturally be supposed that the Hawaiians residing in a volcanic country with ever-flowing fountains of lava could connect their passion myths with a few volcano when relating the story of the source of fire. But like the rest of the Polynesians, Hawaiians discovered fire via Maui instead of naturally in rivers of molten rock.
Polynesians should have brought their passion 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.
It was from her that Maui got the secret of creating fire. Maui, discovering that fire was lost on the ground, resolves to find Mahuika the Fire-goddess and learn the secret art of getting fire. His tricks of course make her angry and, although he obtains the secret of passion, he barely escapes with his life.
Ditto that of Botoque of the central Brazilian tribe that 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.
Some swiftly-flying bird or fleet-footed coyote would take 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 or Dog and contributed to humans; based on 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.
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 the first ancestors nicked a bit 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’re – could have realized, must have realized, that fire was a natural element of their human environment and for that reason the’gift of passion’ 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 writer wrote such illogical claptrap they simply would not get published.
Anomaly number six is the reason why in mythologies from diverse areas of the world possess the seniors deciding to withhold fire from humankind; 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 narrative that, fine, may appear once like in Zeus and Prometheus, but not 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 maybe the’gift of fire’ describes not so much to real fire as to rather the gift of earning fire, as in how to (i.e. – rubbing two sticks together or striking together two stones to create sparks). While that idea is more philosophically akin to the gods giving those other gifts of civilization to humanity, that is not exactly 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 this is that the theft-of-fire mythology isn’t myth but really real. However, the limitations of the seniors and the defiance of the juniors imply that fire was not the real concern . Somehow fire was substituted for something different. That’s something that is not a natural element of their human environment and that is something that if given to people may be akin to this five-year-old holding a very real loaded pistol – or worse.
So if fire at the hands of us primitives is not really a big deal, and because the’gods’ could not stop us from discovering and using fire under any set of circumstances, what would the true concern be? It needs to be something along the character of fire – hot and bright 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 only a tad too unlikely. We are in need of something between a wonderful campfire and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. What about normal explosives or thermal weapons because the actual’fire’ which has been stolen and given to humankind?
Explosives per state were probably not what was meant by fire. That is a bit too late in historic terms for explosives to have been a present from Prometheus and all those others.
However, using heat for a weapon, thermal weapons, can be dated back to at least the ninth century BC. That is historically more like the age we would like. And how can 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 areas (scorched earth policy), but flame or warmth augmented by substances and then moved to where it is needed.
By way of example, a whole assortment of heated substances, from water to sand to several petroleum-based compounds (oil, pitch, bitumen etc.) may be thrown on enemy personnel or hurled onto different constructions, fortifications, even boats at sea to be able to destroy or serious harm them.
In regards to early naval warfare, locating and using a chemical substance that burns while drifting on the water, well this could be heaven-sent as it had been. Such compounds forms what today is usually called’Greek fire’ though Greek fire appropriate, however, was not 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 smoke bombs which may be utilized as well.
In a nutshell, it was not fire that the senior gods wanted to keep from our grubby little paws, but using thermal weapons via the use of substances and various chemical properties useful in warfare, incendiary mixtures, the fundamental ingredient being heat first and foremost, warmth usually provided 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 apparently extreme opposition to this policy from other so-called lesser deities and cultural personalities? The resistance on the other hand guessed it was probably inevitable we’d figure it 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.