So there I was lighting the fire, a simple task when you have a lighter and newspaper to help you along, and I took myself to wondering which came first, the fire or the sitting around telling stories?
It didn’t take me long to decide that language would have been necessary for the successful dissemination of fire skills through the population. Therefore, if they had language, they already had stories. The next ponder that ambled in to my mind, as I gently steered my collection of assorted sized bits of wood between smokey extinction and wild, house threatening inferno, was how did our ancestors come by this knowledge?
It’s not an easy business, starting a fire from scratch without any of the modern aids. I have seen a Viking re-enactor strike a flint and catch a spark, with a little blowing and a carefully prepared stack he had a good blaze in about ten seconds. I have only seen people rubbing two sticks together on telly or heard it described and it takes a good deal more effort and time. Both methods require skill and preparation that make them unlikely candidates for accidental discovery, but without a way to make fire we would have remarkably few technologies and be confined to a far smaller area of the earths surface.
It is a surprising thing that nowhere (that I have come across) in the mythological past is there any mention of how the wheel was invented. The acquisition of fire, on the other hand, is a story told in nearly all cultures around the globe. Although the cast of characters may change the essence remains the same: someone had to steal it, usually with a stick. The criminal benefactor may be divine or semi-divine: Maui in Polynesia, Prometheus in Greece; some Australian Aboriginal stories have a man climbing a rope to nab fire from the sun or stealthily stealing it from a neighbours camp fire; assorted animals are credited by the various native tribes of America and elsewhere; from Normandy to Nantucket, the wren, the rat, the fish and the hawk have all turned tea leaf for a flame.
Neither Prometheus, Maui nor any of the other burglars of the blaze are fire gods themselves. In Hawaii the goddess Pele rules fires and volcanic activity, in Greece Hephaestus has the same job. In these unpredictably explosive areas fire must have been rather common, the deities of burning mountains were surely generous enough with their gifts, why do we need a lesser supernatural being to half inch a bit of combustion? My belief is that volcanic eruptions, forest or grass fires, lightening struck trees and any other form of naturally occurring conflagration were very sensibly kept away from by our ancestors as extremely dangerous and uncertain. Only after the first very brave warrior put aside rational fear, risked life and limb to get close to the rage of the gods and poke it with a stick did fire become something safe enough to consider sitting near.
The hero is often punished by the gods for their unselfish act. Prometheus ends up chained to a rock having his immortal liver lunched on by an eagle on a daily basis. I wonder if this element of the story recalls how our bold robber suffered from smoke inhalation or heat damage? So next time we sit warming ourselves around some merrily crackling logs telling each other tales, maybe we should spare a thought for our audacious ancestor who risked the anger of the gods to bring us the gift of fire.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.