It is said that Agni is the mouth of the gods.
Agni is Vishnu, the Creator. Within all creatures, he sustains the breath of life.
— The Mahabharata, Santi Parva
The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
My first vivid memory of fire. I was five years old in Korea, living in a house that was once owned by a Japanese Colonel (whose ghost was said to linger there). My mother and her friends were playing flower cards in the middle of the room. It was a nice late-spring day; from where I sat on the floor, bored, I could see the solid blue sky outside the window.
It is a custom in Korea to bring matches when you first visit someone who has just moved into a new house, and we still had many fresh boxes of matches—large octagonal boxes jammed full of wooden matchsticks all standing with their red heads pointing up. My mother and her friends all chain-smoked, and so there were plenty of matches being lit throughout the afternoon. They didn't notice when I lit a few myself by striking them against one of the eight walls of the matchbox. Everything was quiet, with only the regular slap of flower cards on the mat or the rustle of someone gathering up their winnings. The air was thick with blue-white smoke; a gentle breeze came through the window, letting us breathe
As I lit another match, something came over me. That is the only way I can explain why I casually took the burning match and touched it to the top of the box, igniting the other 250 matches. I can still see how the flames exploded, very slowly—yellow, blue, red, white—releasing a white pillar of smoke straight upward until it hit the breeze from the window and spread, filling the entire room with a thick sulfurous stench that left us all coughing and choking. I don't remember being punished for what I did that day, but I do remember that I felt a sort of awe at the power of that single match magnified 250 times. It made me respect fire even on those inevitable occasions when I played with it later in life.
Of the primordial elements, it is probably fire that remains the most mysterious and fascinating, even today. For the ancient Greeks fire was sacred, a divine substance whose power helped humans distinguish themselves from (and hold dominion over) the animals who had received all of the physical gifts of the gods. For the Greeks the fire god, Hephaestus (Vulcan), was also the god of the forge, the holder of technology; but he, unlike the other gods, was ugly and deformed. The goddess of the hearth, Hestia (Vesta), was essential to each home, and her sacred flame could not be allowed to die. When a Greek colony was established, a burning coal from the mother city would be taken all the way to the colony to light its first hearth and establish a ritual connection to its motherland (this is the little-known origin of the Olympic torch ritual).
But the figure most closely associated with the meaning of fire is Prometheus, and the story of how fire came to humans is a profound narrative more resonant to us than the original cosmological creation myths because it involves the creation of humans. Thomas Bulfinch, in The Age of Fable (1913), writes:
Before earth and sea and heaven were created, all things wore one aspect, to which we give the name of Chaos — a confused and shapeless mass, nothing but dead weight, in which, however, slumbered the seeds of things. Earth, sea, and air were all mixed up together; so the earth was not solid, the sea was not fluid, and the air was not transparent. God and Nature at last interposed, and put an end to this discord, separating earth from sea, and heaven from both. The fiery part, being the lightest, sprang up, and formed the skies; the air was next in weight and place. The earth, being heavier, sank below; and the water took the lowest place, and buoyed up the earth. Prometheus took some of this earth, and kneading it up with water, made man in the image of the gods. He gave him an upright stature, so that while all other animals turn their faces downward, and look to the earth, he raises his to heaven, and gazes on the stars.
Prometheus was one of the Titans, a gigantic race, who inhabited the earth before the creation of man. To him and his brother Epimetheus was committed the office of making man, and providing him and all other animals with the faculties necessary for their preservation. Epimetheus undertook to do this, and Prometheus was to overlook his work, when it was done. Epimetheus accordingly proceeded to bestow upon the different animals the various gifts of courage, strength, swiftness, sagacity; wings to one, claws to another, a shelly covering to a third, etc. But when man came to be provided for, who was to be superior to all other animals, Epimetheus had been so prodigal of his resources that he had nothing left to bestow upon him. In his perplexity he resorted to his brother Prometheus, who, with the aid of Minerva, went up to heaven, and lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun and brought down fire to man. With this gift man was more than a match for all other animals. It enabled him to make weapons wherewith to subdue them; tools with which to cultivate the earth; to warm his dwelling, so as to be comparatively independent of climate; and finally to introduce the arts and to coin money, the means of trade and commerce.*
Humans received from Prometheus, whose name means "forethought," the fundamental thing that distinguishes us from animals. Epimetheus, whom Edith Hamilton calls "a scatterbrained person who invariably followed his first impulse and then changed his mind," bears a name that means "afterthought," suggesting that the bringer of fire also brought with him a special kind of knowledge associated with the gods. (One of the major cognitive faculties that distinguishes us from most animals is the ability to plan ahead.)
Since this knowledge, and the technology of fire, was not initially meant for people, Prometheus had a high price to pay for his transgression and the anger he aroused in the gods. Zeus (Jupiter/Jove) has Prometheus chained to a rock on Mount Caucas to suffer eternal torment: an eagle comes down to rip out his liver and devour it — again and again throughout time because Prometheus' wound is magically healed after each incident. (In some versions of the story, it is a vulture that tears out his liver, and in later myths, Hercules releases him.)
Bulfinch says, "This state of torment might have been brought to an end at any time by Prometheus, if he had been willing, to submit to his oppressor; for he possessed a secret which involved the stability of Jove's (Zeus') throne, and if he would have revealed it, he might have been at once taken into favour. But that he disdained to do. He has therefore become the symbol of magnanimous endurance of unmerited suffering, and strength of will resisting oppression." Hamilton notes that Prometheus' punishment is especially cruel because he had also swindled the gods of the good part of animal sacrifices by convincing them to take the fat and entrails of the burnt offerings, leaving the meat to the humans. (This is Hesiod's explanation for why the gods initially took fire from humans and why Prometheus stole it back.)
Prometheus is a tragic figure, a trickster, and a kind of savior figure who sacrifices himself for the good of humans. This makes him a Christ figure, and perhaps that is why he was a favorite subject of the Romantic poets and even appears in Milton's Paradise Lost. The full title of Mary Shelley's timeless novel of science and hubris is Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus; she updates the technology from fire to electricity, but the theme is the same: men are not equipped to hold power over divine knowledge and technology.
3. Fire Gods and Fire Bringers
Fire gods and goddesses are deeply-rooted in all ancient cultures, and their manifestations are quite diverse, but they all seem to share the quality of being associated with a form of wisdom beyond human understanding. The Hindu god of fire, Agni, for example, is worshipped as terrestrial fire (flame), heavenly fire (lightning), and divine fire (the sun). He is also an elemental figure along with other personified deities such as Varuna, the embodiment of air, but since Agni is the one linked to the ritual fire sacrifices, he has an especially prominent place in ancient Vedic myth. Indeed, his name is the first word in the ancient Rig Veda, the seminal Vedic text.
Why is Agni so important? He is, of course, immortal, and he has power over both humans and gods. He is reborn each day (like the sun), invoked through the use of the fire drill, which causes flame by the friction of his parental element, wood. The sparks from Agni's fire are the origin of stars. But most importantly, Agni is the embodiment of transformation. It is through him that the gods communicate with humans, and it is through him that humans are able to metabolize the food they eat. Thus, on the one hand, it is Agni's burning of sacrificial meat that transforms it into a message — smoke rising to the gods in heaven; on the other hand, he is what allows humans to digest their food by "burning" calories (a process we know to be literally true).
So important is Agni that other religious traditions refer to him to establish their own power. When the Buddha emerged in the 6th Century B.C., one of his legendary deeds was to convert a group of 1,000 fire worshipping ascetics to his path; the Fire Sermon, delivered in Bodh-gaya, is one of the canonical texts of Buddhism. A well-known symbol appropriated by the Buddhists (and later by the Nazis) is the swastika, which some scholars say originally represented the fire drill associated with Agni. (The image of fire being produced from a stick is reminiscent of the Prometheus myth, in which he is said to have brought the fire in a hollow fennel stalk.)
The Hawaiian goddess of fire is Pele, also known as the "Goddess of a Thousand Names." She is associated with volcanoes, making her both a fundamentally creative and destructive figure. Volcanoes are literally the foundation for all terrestrial life in the Hawaiian Islands (one of Pele's names is "She Who Shapes the Sacred Land"), and yet their power can be terrifying and destructive to humans. Her dual nature also reveals itself in her physical appearance — she can be a beautiful young woman or an old hag, and when her anger is invoked, she becomes a flaming woman or the fire element itself. One of the legends regarding volcanoes under the protection of Pele is that bad fortune will follow anyone who removes so much as a rock from them. Each year, according to the National Park Service in Hawaii, thousands of tourists mail back volcanic rocks they had stolen from the parks, their initial skepticism apparently outweighed by Pele's curse.
Brigit, the Celtic goddess of fire, like Agni, is associated with three different and yet parallel aspects of fire: the hearth, the forge, and inspiration. She seems to combine the aspects of Hestia's hearth and Hephaestus' forge with Prometheus' connection to divine knowledge. Although she is a Pagan goddess, Brigit did not disappear when the Celts were converted to Christianity. She became St. Brigit, Jesus' foster mother.
In North America the story of the fire bringer often serves to explain the origins of other natural phenomena as well. According to the Choctaw, Grandmother Spider brought fire after the opossum, the buzzard, and the crow had failed. The story also explains why the opossum, once known for his bushy tail, has a bare one; why the buzzard, once proud of its beautiful neck feathers, has a red and blistered head; and why the crow, once pure white with the most beautiful singing voice is now black and has a hoarse caw for a call — all because they were each burned as they failed in their attempts to bring fire. Grandmother Spider also taught people how to weave and how to make pottery out of clay.
In one variant of the Shasta story of how fire was stolen from the Fire Beings and brought to humans, the trickster, Coyote, disguises himself in an old blanket. He is found out by the Fire Beings when his blanket catches fire, and he runs away. The fire from the blanket is handed off from Coyote to Sparrow, to Cardinal, to Blue Jay, to Hawk, to Eagle, and then finally to Turtle, who takes the fire in his shell and submerges himself to escape the Fire Beings. Coyote chastises Turtle when he emerges from the river, telling him that water kills fire, but Turtle then produces the fire, which was safe in his shell, and he gives it to Wood so that it will be available to anyone who wants it. This story accounts for the origin of Turtle's tail as the remnant of the arrow the Fire Beings shot at him; it also explains (as in the Greek, Hindu, and Polynesian myths) why fire comes from wood.
In another variant, Coyote fools the Fire Beings who believe him merely to be a normal coyote. He steals the fire from the three Fire Beings while they are changing their watch over fire, and he hands the fire off to a series of small mammals until it eventually ends up with Frog. In this version of the story, Frog keeps the fire from the Fire Beings by giving it to Wood, from whom they do not know how to retrieve it. But Coyote, being the clever trickster that he is, knows a way to get fire back from Wood by rubbing two sticks together, and that is how humans got fire to keep them warm in winter.
In Polynesian mythology, it is the trickster figure Maui who brings fire to humans. According to W. D. Westervelt, the sun had sent a gift down to earth with his own son, Auahi-turoa, in the form of a falling comet. Auahi-turoa married Mahuika, a sister of the Dawn Maiden, and had five children with her — the Fire Children — whose names correspond to the five fingers of the hand. To get fire for humans, Maui appealed to Mahuika time and again until she relented and gave him one of the Fire Children by plucking it from her hand. Maui took it, but he destroyed it and came back to beg for another. He did this four times until Mahuika finally pulled off her last finger and hurled it at him in a fit of anger and it burst into flames that chased him. Maui called on Te Ihorangi, the Rain, to help him escape Fire, and a rainstorm came and doused the great flames. What remained of the fire escaped into the woods and found shelter in the kaikomako tree, whose wood the Maori use in their fire-making. So , for the Maori, the seed of fire is always in the sacred Fire Preserver, Hine-kaikomako.
The Maui story is particularly interesting because it includes elements of both the North American and the South Asian fire tales. On the one hand, Maui's role is nearly identical to that of Coyote in the Shasta and stories; but the detail of the Fire Children being the fingers of Mahuika recalls the origin of the Vedic fire god Agni, who "had ten mothers, who were the ten fingers of the hands." Westervelt also notes that the figure of Maui,
is assuredly the personified form of some phase of light, and so is connected with, or represents, life; for, in Polynesian concepts, light and life are closely connected. Apparently maui has, in the past, been a vernacular term for "life," or some similar meaning. . . . Moui is but a variant form of maui, and at Niue and Tonga has the meaning of "life alive, to live." It is quite possible that there is connection between maui and mauri in this sense, for at Rotuma the latter term means "to live," while at Futuna tamauri means "life." One of the gods of Egypt representing light was Moui.
For bringing fire to humans, Maui must suffer the vengeance of the gods. In one of his battles, Maui fights with the ex Dawn Maid, the queen of the underworld, to gain eternal life for humans — but he loses. This recalls both the Promethian creation of humans and the fall from divine grace that the Biblical Adam and Eve suffer after they eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. They become like gods, but they also lose the possibility of eternal life when God expels them from paradise and posts a guardian with a sword of fire to keep them out.
Icarus plunges to his death because he flies too close to the flames of the sun. Even Phaethon, the son of Helios (Apollo) is not immune from the curse of fire; when he tries to drive his father's chariot, he burns both the heavens and the earth until Zeus strikes him dead with a thunderbolt (his mother and sisters are so distraught they are turned into poplar trees). In Christianity, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low are associated with fire — both the Holy Spirit and Hell are depicted as flames.
What is it that makes fire so distinct from the other elements? Water is formless and fluid, air is invisible, earth is both solid and malleable. But while the other elements are bound in the three states of matter — solid, liquid, and gas — fire is different. The ancients saw it as mercurial and capricious for its dynamic and ever-changing nature; in modern physics we understand it as plasma — the fourth state of matter, which is an interstitial state, like energy bound in a semi physical form. Fire is all about transformation, and the mystery of how it consumes and purifies lends it a continuing and divine fascination to humans. (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., with his remarkably mundane wit, has one of his characters ruminate on the fact that the role of the fireman is to keep things from combining with oxygen. How logical, and yet how mysterious!)
In the same way that fire is a transitional thing, it keeps humans in that constant and dangerous state of fluctuation between their animal and divine natures. The Hindus called the spiritual force of Kundalini by the name of "serpent fire" as it rose from the base of the spine into the crown of the head, connecting one to the divine. But they understood that if the fire did not rise properly through the chakras, the result could be great suffering or the creation of a monster.
Fire also seems to have a symbolic sense of humor about it. The story of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is that the O'Learys' cow started it when it kicked over a lantern. But according to Richard F. Bales, who researched historical documents and police depositions, the real culprit was probably a man by the name of Daniel Sullivan, whose nickname was "Peg Leg" because he had a wooden leg. It takes us back to the primal understanding that fire comes from wood. "Peg Leg" Sullivan walked on his own fennel stalk, accidentally invoking the fire of the gods.
Fire is always double-edged. One of the great historical ironies is that the Great Fire of London in 1666 not only destroyed a major part of the city, it also brought an end to the Plague. When Emperor Nero "fiddled" while Rome burned in 64 A.D., destroying two thirds of the city over the course of nine days, he wasn't just a madman oblivious to the problem. It was an opportunity for urban reconstruction. While many Christians saw the fire as the Apocalypse ushering in the return of Christ, they did not realize Nero would use them as a convenient scapegoat. The Hindu practice of sutee, or "widow burning" is simultaneously a display of spousal devotion — women who must be restrained from leaping into their husband's funeral pyre — and a convenient way of eliminating widows who prevent the transfer of property to men.
As I was finishing this essay, I called my mother and asked her why she had not punished me for that time when I had ignited the entire box of matches. She recalled the incident, but then she reminded me that it was unnecessary to punish me — we had left one of our previous houses because it had burned to the ground. All they had been able to take with them were my diapers. "You remembered when you were little," she said. "How could you forget now? You're a professor!"
I had no quick reply. But later, I realized that I had actually been recalling other images, namely those tragic ones that remain indelible, even when they do not come from personal experience. The image of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, sitting with such apparent calm as he burned himself to death in June of 1963. The self-immolation of Korean student protesters, appearing in the news again and again in the late '90s. The image of the people leaping from the two Towers that morning on September 11th. Fire has a visceral way of humbling us.
Exactly how important is the idea of fire in the western mind? That the control of fire is what distinguishes humans from animals? It may seem an academic point to us these days, but in the 19th Century, when the British began to colonize Tasmania, this distinction was what provided the rationale for genocide. According to the settlers, the Tasmanian Aborigines were so incredibly primitive and backward that they had forgotten how to make fire. The Tasmanians were so primitive that they did not wear clothes even during the frigid winters, and yet they wore decorative fur capes and stoles around their necks. Other Aboriginal tribes also went mostly naked, but the Tasmanians had become no better than animals to the white settlers because, to compound their irrational nakedness, they had also apparently lost the ability to make fire. They had regressed so far down the evolutionary scale that they had to keep watch over burning sticks that were initially lit from natural fires. They could hardly be called human, and so they were displaced from their tribal lands and hunted for sport until they were, for all practical purposes, exterminated.
Irony of ironies. The Tasmanians knew how to make fire all along (recent examination of 18th-century exploration journals document that they used fire drills), but it was their religious practice to stay as close to nature as possible; it was in obedience of their most sacred Dreamtime Law that the Tasmanian Aborigines willfully did not make fire. They had, in a sense, given back the gift of Prometheus so as not to pay its heavy price. I think they knew, in practice, that the use of fire was convenient for culture, but that in the end it only contributed to Entropy, what they used to call "The Heat Death of the Universe."
Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes by Thomas Bulfinch (1913)
Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon County by Jerold Ramsey (University of Washinton Press, 1977)
Maui the Mischief Maker by Lilikala Kame'Eleihiwa, illustrated by Dietrich Varez (Bishop Museum Press, 1991)
Mythology by Edith Hamilton (Back Bay Books, 1998)
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt (Random House, 1999)
Fire Logic by Laurie Marks (Tor, 2004, and Small Beer Press, 2013)
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (Little Brown, 2005)
"Charged" by Leanna Renne Hieber (short ficton published in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, Datlow & Windling eds., Tor Books, 2013)
Young Adult and Children's Fiction:
Fire Bringer: A Pauite Indian Legendby Margaret Hodges (Little Brown, 1972)
Birth of the Firebringer (Firebringer Trilogy, V.1.) Meredith Ann Pierce (Firebird, 2003)
The Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne-Jones (Harper Trophy, 2003)
Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies (Firebird, 2004)
How Maui Found the Secret of Fire by Peter Gossage (Reed Publishing, 2005)
"The Salamander Fire" by Marly Youmans (short fiction published in The Beastly Bride, Datlow & Windling eds., Viking, 2010)
Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Peter Dickinson and Robin McKinley (Firebird, 2011)
On the Web:
The Legends of Maui by W. D. Westervelt
The Maui Myths New Zealand Electronic Text Center
The Rig Veda translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith
"Perils of the Quest for Knowledge" and "Coyote Brings Fire" by Kenneth D. Pimple
Buddha's Fire Sermon
About the Author: Heinz Insu Fenkl is a writer, translator, editor, and folklorist. His published works include the novels Memories of My Ghost Brother and Shadows Bend, Kori: The Beacon Anthology of Korean American Short Stories, short fiction, and articles on folklore, myth, language, Asian literature, Korean shamanism, and other subjects. He teaches creative writing at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and is the publisher of Bo-Leaf Books. Raised in Korea, Germany, and the United States, Fenkl now lives in New York with his wife and daughter.
Copyright © 2005 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission. "Further Reading" updated 2014.
The imagery above is: Chinese Safety Matches, "Prometheus Chained by Vulcan" by Dirk Van Baburen (Dutch, 1595-1624); "Prometheus Brings Fire" by Heinrich Friedrich Füger (German, 1751-1818); "Prometheus" by Henry Fuseli (Swiss, 1741-1825); "Jessica" by photographer James Graham; "Pele Mask" by mask-maker Lauren Raine; "Coyote" and "Coyote Steals Fire" by Susan Seddon Boulet (English/Brazilian/American, 1941-1997); "Maui Steals Fire" (Creative Commons, artist uncredited); "The Fall of Icarus" by Giovanni Baglione (Italian, 1566-1643); "Food for Thought" by Mark Wagner; two photographs of The Flam Chen Pyrotechnic Theatre Company in Tucson, Arizona; fire photograph (Creative Commons, artist uncredited); and a "salamander" (fire elemental) decoration.