Sunday, June 19, 2011

Never Overfeed the Fire God

Among my fondest childhood memories is roasting marshmallows over a campfire until they were black on the outside and liquid on the inside—pure ambrosia to a child. That was my introduction to the lure of fire. Not only did it yield something yummy to eat, but staring into the undulating flames was mesmerizing and the smell of burning wood created a wonderful, earthy incense.

Fire has been around a long time, so I’m not the only one who has ever been drawn to it. Every ancient culture celebrated it in myth. Here are some of them, thanks to the online Myths Encyclopedia:
  • In Hindu mythology, the god of fire was Agni. As a messenger between the gods and man, he was also in charge of accepting sacrifices to all deities. His flames would claim the sacrifices and carry them to the other world. Agni had a fierce appearance that today's heavy metal bands would admire. He had seven tongues of fire. Occasionally he sprang extra arms and/or legs. Fiery horses pulled Agni's chariot, and he carried a flaming spear. He created the sun and the stars, could bestow worshipers with eternal life and could purify the souls of the dead from sin. One ancient myth about Agni says that he consumed so many offerings from worshipers that he became very tired. To regain his strength, he had to burn an entire forest with all its inhabitants. Moral: Never overfeed the fire god
  • In Chinese mythology, the fire god (and magician) was Hui Lu. He kept 100 firebirds in a gourd. When he released them, he could start a fire across the lands. Just to keep things orderly, there was a hierarchy of gods in charge of fire. Leading them was Lo Hsüan, whose cloak, hair and beard were appropriately red. He had three eyes, and if that wasn’t awesome enough, flames spurted from his horse's nostrils and darted out from its hooves. Despite all the impressive theatrics, he had his vulnerabilities. Once when he attacked a city with swords of fire, a princess appeared in the sky (as sometimes happens) and quenched his flames with her cloak of mist and dew. Ha! Girl power! Take that!
  • Now let’s talk about the Greeks. You may recall from your early Greek myths that Prometheus, the god of forethought and crafty counsel, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. There was a reason for this. He had originally fashioned humans out of clay and felt a sense of ownership for making their lives more comfortable. Zeus, the ruler of all the gods, however, did not share this sentiment and so was a bit ticked off about Prometheus bringing fire to mortals. Zeus expressed his displeasure by doing two things. First, he created Pandora, the first woman, to unleash misfortune on the house of man (here we go again, blaming everything on women). Next, he bound the rebellious god to a stake on Mount Kaukasos and arranged for a large eagle to eat his liver every day. It would grow back daily, only to be noshed on again. There's a happy ending, though. Generations later, the great hero Herakles came along and released Prometheus from his torture
  • According to the Navajo Indians, long ago three evil Fire Beings lived on a mountain and hoarded fire so people could not benefit from it. (I understand that the top 1% of our country’s wealthy descended from those beings.) Coyote felt sorry that babies and old people died from the cold in winter, so he volunteered to steal fire from the three monsters. He sneaked up to their campfire, lit a bundle of sticks tied to his tail and ran down the mountain to deliver the fire to people with the help of several other animals. The Fire Beings angrily chased them. At the bottom of the mountain, the fire was thrown to Wood who swallowed it. The Fire Beings gathered round Wood, but they did not know how to get the fire back from him, so they gave up and returned home. But Coyote knew how. He went to the village of men and showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. So from then on, man was warm and safe through the killing cold of winter
  • The main god of the Bushmen or San tribe of South Africa was the praying mantis. But Mantis was also a trickster. In Bushman myths, Mantis, seeing fire for the first time, realized its advantages and schemed to steal some from Ostrich who was jealously hiding it beneath his wings. 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. I’m not clear on how humans inherited fire at that point, but obviously they did
Source: Jessica Diamond
  • South American Indians of the Amazon River basin in Brazil say that a jaguar rescued a boy and took him to its cave after the young lad was abandoned by a man of his tribe. 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. I hope that boy also stole an insulated potholder
  • According to the legends of the Caroline Islands in the Pacific, fire came from a rebellious boy named Olofat. Olofat was 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. Not appreciating all his father had done for him, Olofat gave fire to human beings by allowing a bird to fly down to earth with fire in its beak. Kids
So there you have it. Originally, humans were not supposed to have the gift of pyromania, but thanks to some rule-breakers, today we can enjoy its crackling goodness in fireplaces, campfires and atop our birthday cakes. So the next time fire makes you feel cozy, inspires you to sing off-key campfire songs or offers you the opportunity to make a wish for the coming year, remember to give thanks to the gods and monsters around the world from which it came.

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting, I love to read these kind of stories or myths.