From ancient times and even to this day, people consider fire one of the basic elements of the universe. Interpretations of fire in ancient mythologies vary greatly, with fire viewed as a creative and cleansing force as well as a destructive and punishing one. Due to its life-giving qualities, fire is closely associated to the gods in the ancient world. As fire is “divine” and heavily associated with creation (creation of food, creation of warmth and so on), a lot of ancient myths imply that fire was meant for the gods, not mankind, to control. Therefore, the giving of fire or, more often, the theft of fire for the benefit of humanity who were not meant to hold such power, is a theme that recurs in many world mythologies.
Thus we have heroes and divine tricksters in ancient mythologies who would steal fire and cheat death to give mankind a bit of that power of “creation”. The most famous story is easily the story of the titan Prometheus, from Greek mythology, who stole the heavenly fire for humanity, thereby enabling the progress of civilization. In Polynesian mythology, Maui stole fire from the fire goddess Mahuika. In North America there is a myth from the Ojibwa people, of Nanabozho the hare that stole fire and gave it to the humans.
Zeus gave the titan Prometheus a mission to form men from water and earth. While he was working on his creation, Prometheus grew fond of mankind and wished for them to be able to look after and fend for themselves to a degree, although some versions say that Prometheus was so proud of his creations that he wanted them to have the power of the gods themselves. Nevertheless, Prometheus decided to steal one of the great powers of the gods – fire. Prometheus tricked the goddesses by throwing a golden pear with a message: “For the most beautiful goddess of all”. The goddesses, who each thought that the pear was meant for them, started a fight over the fruit while the gods looked on. While they were all distracted, Prometheus stole the fire from the workshop of Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalwork. Prometheus happily took the fire with him in a hollowed reed, brought it down to Earth and gave it to mankind.
This angered Zeus. He told Hephaestus to chain Prometheus on Mount Caucasus where the eagle would eat his liver for all eternity.
Much later, Heracles, on his journey to fulfill his Twelve Labors, passed by Mount Caucasus, killed the eagle, and freed the chained Titan. Zeus agreed to grant Prometheus his freedom provided that Prometheus wore a reminder of his punishment forever in the form of a steel ring taken from the chains that bound him. Since then, it is said mankind started creating rings in order to celebrate Prometheus and show their appreciation of his help.
The famous legend of Prometheus is told at length by Hesiod and pervades ancient literature through Greek and Roman times. In literature, it has been immortalized by Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound. In visual arts, representations of the various parts of the legends survived from Greek and Roman art. Some artworks found include an ivory plaque from the Sanctuary of Artemis and a number of early vase-paintings from the seventh and sixth century BC. There are also a few red-figured vase-paintings of Prometheus and numerous engraved gems, wall-paintings, lamps, sarcophagi, and other reliefs from the Roman period.
An Etruscan scarab acquired by the British Museum in 1966 depicts Prometheus, bearded and nude sitting on a rock with his hands bound, his legs outstretched and propped against the hatched border of the stone. The agony of Prometheus is depicted in the rendering of the face with the half closed eyes and distorted mouth. The date of the engraving is perhaps around 480 BC, not far removed from the possible first performance of the play of ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, which was around 462 BC.
Aeschylus’ version of Prometheus provides a more layered depiction of the titan and it has become one of the more important resources used to study the character of Prometheus in more depth. In the work of Aeschylus, Prometheus is a rich, much-discussed character. Later literature acknowledged his importance and provide various interpretation of the character of Prometheus, such as Prometheus as a defender of humanity or an incarnation of the folly of attempting to help man against the gods’ will, or even a mere living proof of the hostility of divinity toward man.
One evening, Maui lay beside his fire staring into the flames. He watched the flames and wondered where fire came from. In the middle of the night, while everyone was sleeping, Maui went from one village to another, from one end of the world to the next, and extinguished all the fires until not a single fire burned in the world. The next morning there was uproar amongst mankind. No one could cook or keep themselves warm, making them very frightened.
The people in Maui’s village had heard of Mahuika, the fire goddess who lived in a scorching mountain at the end of the world, but none of them were eager to meet her. So Maui offered to set out in search of Mahuika. He walked to the end of the earth and found a mountain glowing red with heat.
Although he entered the mountain confidently, nothing could prepare Maui for what he saw. Mahuika rose up before him, fire burning from every pore of her body, her hair a mass of flames, her arms outstretched, and there were only black holes where her eyes once were.
Maui asked her for fire and Mahuika pulled a fingernail from one of her burning fingers to give to him. “Take this fire as a gift to your people. Honor it as you honor me.” She said to him kindly. Maui left the mountain taking with him the fingernail of fire. However, Maui’s curiosity was still unsated. As he walked along the side of the road he thought, “What if Mahuika had no fire left, then where would we get our fire?” He quickly threw the fingernail into a stream and headed back to Mahuika’s cave. He told her that he tripped and fell, and asked for another fingernail. Mahuika gave Maui another one of her fingernails. But, a bit further away from the mountain, Maui soon extinguished this fingernail as well and returned to Mahuika with another excuse, so she provided another of her fingernails. This continued until Mahuika had used all her fingernails and had even given up her toenails. When Maui returned to ask for another, Mahuika felt tricked and furiously threw the burning toenail to the ground.
As soon as the toenail hits the ground, Maui was surrounded by a ring of fire and chased away from the cave. He changed himself into a hawk and escaped to the sky, but the flames burned so high that they singed the underside of his wings. He dove towards a river to avoid the flames in the coolness of the water, but the heat of the great fire made the water boil.
Maui became desperate and called on his ancestor Tawhirimatea, the god of the weather, for help. Then, a mass of clouds gathered and a torrent of rain fell to put out the many fires. Mahuika’s mountain of fire no longer burned. Mahuika took her very last toenail and threw it at Maui in anger. The toenail of fire missed Maui and flew into the trees, planting itself in the Kaikomako tree (Pennantia corymbosa).
When Maui returned to his village he brought back dry wood from the Kaikomako tree and showed them how to rub the dry sticks together forming friction which could start a fire. To this day it is said the Kahu, the native hawk of New Zealand, still retains the red and brown singed feathers on the underside of its wings, a reminder of how close Maui was to death because of his curiosity.
In many cultures, people practice rituals related to fire. These rituals are often based on myths and legends about fire gods and beliefs associated with fire. In ancient Rome, a sacred flame associated with the goddess Vesta represented the idea of the hearth, the center of a household, and the national well-being, with the Vestal Virgins keeping that flame alive. The divine origin of fire has very likely been the cause of its being introduced into ritual performances in Polynesian cultures.
In Maori tradition, a special fire was generated by the officiating priest and accompanied by the recital of a karakia (a fire-kindling prayer). In order to endow the fire with the necessary powers the priest would then direct it to the atua (god, or gods) whose aid he seeks, because Ka whakanohoia nga atua ki taua ahi (“The gods were in that fire”). In an echo of Maui’s legend, where one person acts an intermediary between the humans and the divine source of fire, some villages employ a person as taunga atua (medium of the gods), a prized post due to its close relationship to the gods and their favored element, carrying the wide-spread belief of fire being a heavenly quality.
Because fire warms and gives off light like the sun, it often associated with the sun. Agni, the fire god in Hindu mythology is said to have created the sun and the stars, as well as purify the souls of the dead from sin.
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 be reborn from its own ashes. The Aztecs believed that the fire god Huehueteotl kept earth and heaven in place. At the end of each cycle of 52 years, all fires would be extinguished, and the priests of Huehueteotl lit a new flame for the people to use.
Chinese mythology includes stories of Hui Lu, a celebrated magician and fire god said to have lived some time before the reign of Ti K’u (2436 – 2366 BC) who kept one hundred firebirds in a gourd. By setting them loose, he could start a fire across the whole country. There was, in fact, an entire ministry of gods in charge of fire, headed by Lo Hsuan. He is described as having a face the color of ripe fruit of the jujube tree, red hair and red beard. He wore a red cloak, and his horse snorted flames from its nostrils and fire darted from its hoofs.
African traditions believed that animals gave fire to humans, a belief that is also wide-spread in other cultures. A myth from South Africa believes that an ostrich guarded fire under his wing until a praying mantis stole it. The mantis tricked the ostrich into spreading his wings and escaped with the fire. The fire destroyed the mantis, but from the ashes came two new mantises. A myth from Assam, in northern India, says that after losing a battle with water, fire hid in a bamboo stalk. A grasshopper saw it and told a monkey, who experimented on how to use fire. But a man saw the monkey and decided that he was more deserving of fire, so he stole it from the monkey. Like many legends, this myth portrays ownership and control of fire as something that was taken or stolen by humans.
However, despite most of its good interpretations, the energy of fire also has its dangerous side. Fire features in the Christian image of hell as a place of fiery torment, its flames bring punishment and suffering. In Europe and America, individuals accused of being witches were once burned at the stake, following the idea held by ancient cultures of the purifying quality of fire which destroys evil, sorcery or black magic. This practice goes back to the Assyrians, who called upon fire to undo the effects of evil witchcraft aimed at them.