1902 Encyclopedia > Fire


FIRE. So general is the knowledge of fire and its uses that it is a question whether we have any authentic instance on record of a tribe altogether ignorant of them. A few notices indeed are to be found in the voluminous literature of travel which would decide the question in the affirmative ; but when they are carefully investigated, their evidence is found to be far from conclusive. The missionary Krapf was told by a slave of a tribe in the southern part of Shoa who lived like monkeys in the bamboo jungles, and were totally ignorant of fire ; but no better authority has been found for the statement, and the story, which seems to be current in Eastern Africa, may be nothing else than the propagation of fables about the Pygmies whom the ancients located around the sources of the Nile. Commodore Wilkes, commander of the United States exploring expedition, says that in Fakaafo or Bowditah Island "there was no sign of places for places for cooking nor any appearance of fire," and that the natives felt evident alarm at the sparks produced by flint and steel and the smoke emitted by those with cigars in their mouths. The presence of the word afi, fire, in the Fakaafo vocabulary supplied by Hales the ethnographer of the expedition, thought it might perhaps be explained as equivalent only to solar light and heat, undoubtedly invalidates the commodore’s supposition ; and the Rev. George Turner, in an account of a missionary voyage in 1859, not only repeats the word afi in his list for Fakaafo, but relates the native legend about the origin of fire, and describes some peculiar customs connected with its use. Alvaro de Saavedra, an old Spanish traveller, informs us that the inhabitants of Los Jardines, an island of the Pacific, showed great fear when they saw fire,—which they did not know before. But that island has not been identified with certainty by modern explorers. It belongs, perhaps, to the Ladrones or Marianas Archipelago, where fire was unknown, says Padre Gobien, "till Magellan, wroth at the pilferings of the inhabitants, burnt one of the villages. When they saw their wooden huts ablaze, their first thought was that fire was a beast which eats up wood. Some of them having approached the fire too near were burnt, and the others kept aloof, fearing to be torn or poisoned by the powerful breath of that terrible animal." To this Freycinet objects that these Ladrone islanders made pottery before the arrival of Europeans, that they had words expressing the ideas of flame, fire, oven, coals, roasting, and cooking. Let us add that in their country numerous graves and ruins have been found, which seem to be remnants of a former culture. Thus the question remains in uncertainty : though there is nothing impossible in the supposition of the existence of the fireless tribe, it cannto be said that such a tribe been discovered.

It is useless to inquire in what way man first discovered that fire was subject to his control, and could even be called into being by appropriate means. With the natural phenomenon and its various aspects he must soon have become familiar. The volcano lit up the darkness of night and sent its ashes or its lava down into the plains ; the lightning or the meteor struck the tree, an the forest was ablaze ; ignition. For a time it is possible that the grand manifestations of nature aroused no feelings save awe and terror ; but man is quite as much endowed with curiosity as with reverence or caution, and familiarity must ere long have bred confidence if not contempt. It is by no means necessary to suppose that the practical discovery of fire was made only at one given spot and in one given way ; it is much more probably indeed different tribes and races obtained the knowledge in a variety of ways. We still find in different parts of the world the natives taking advantages of hot springs, naphtha or petroleum wells, and accessible craters. In the island of Tanna, for instance, there is a mountain to the west of Port Resolution which abounds in evidence of its volcanic character—in fissures, steam-jets, hot-springs, &c. The inhabitants, says the Reve. George Turner, have not the slightest apprehension of danger ; their settlements are arranged so that their murum or public square occupies one of the "hot places of the mountain ; and there they lounge and enjoy the subterranean heat. Some of the springs reach the boiling point. Every day women may be seen cooking vegetables in artificial pits which form a series of never failing boiling pots. In some places the men or boys have only to stand on the rocks, spear their fish, and pitch them behind into the hot springs." Similar accounts are given of the Maories in New Zealand, and the Negritos in the New Hebrides.

It has been asserted of many tribes that they would be unable to rekindle their fires if they were all allowed to die out. Travellers in Australia and Tasmania depict the typical native woman bearing always about with her a burning brand, which it is one of her principal duties to protect and foster ; and it has been supposed that it was only ignorance which imposed on her the endless task. This, however, is not so certain ; for Mr Miklucho Maclav remarks of the Papuans, whom he has closely studied, that though they know how to produce fire, they prefer to carry it about. IT was one of the distinguishing marks of the Samoan noble that his fire was never permitted to go out ; and his attendants had a special name from their business of watching it while he slept. In Corea the preservation of the ancestral fire is still regarded as of the first importance for the happiness of a family, and the same belief has had a very extensive sway in other parts of the world.

The methods employed for producing fire very considerably in detail, but are for the most part merely modified applications of concussion or friction. Sir John Lubbock has remarked that the working up of stone into implements mush have been followed sooner or later by the discovery of fire ; for in the process of chipping sparks were elicited, of fire ; for it the process of chipping sparks were elicited, and in the process of polishing heat was generated. The first or concussion method is still familiar in the flint in the flint and steel, which has hardly passed out of use even in the most civilized countries. Its modifications are comparatively few and unimportant. The Alaskans and Aleutians take two piece of quartz, rub them well with native sulphur, strike them together till the sulphur catches fire, and then transfer the flame to a heap of dry grass over which a few feathers have been scattered. Instead of two pieces of quartz the Eskimos use a piece of quarts and a piece of iron pyrites. Mr Frederick Boyles saw fire produced by striking broken china violently against a bamboo, and Bastian observed the same process in Burmah, and Wallace in Ternate. In Cochin China two pieces of bamboo are considered sufficient, the silicious character of the outside layer rendering it as good as native flint. The friction methods are more various. One of the simplest is what Mr Tylor calls the stick and groove—"a blunt pointed stick being rune along a groove of its own making in a piece of wood lying on the ground." Much, of course, depends on the quality of the woods and the expertness of the manipulator. In Tahiti Mr Darwin saw a native produce fire in a few seconds, but only succeeded himself after much labour. The same device was employed in New Zealand, the Sandwich islands, Tonga, Samoa, and the islands. Instead of rubbing the movable stick backwards and forwards other tribes make it rotate rapidly in a round hole in the stationary piece of wood—thus making what Mr Tylor has happily designated a fire-drill. This device has been observed in Australia, Kamchatka, Sumatra, and the Carolines, among the Veddahs of Ceylon, throughout a great part of Southern Africa, among the Eskimo and Indian tribes of North America, in the West Indies, in Central America, and as far south as the Straits of Magellan. It was also employed by the ancient Mexicans, and Mr Tylor gives a quaint picture of the operation from a Mexian MS.,—a man half kneeling on the ground is causing the stick to rotate between the palms of his hands. This simple method of rotation seems to be very generally in use ; but various devices have been resorted to for the purpose of diminishing the labour and hastening the result. The Gaucho of the Pamapas takes "an elastic stick about 18 inches long, presses one end to his breast and the other in a hole in a piece of wood, and then rapidly turns the curved part like a carpenter’s centre-bit." In other cases the rotations is effected by means of a cord of thong wound round the drill an pulled alternately by this end and that. In order to steady the drill the Eskimo and others put the upper end in a socket of ivory or bone which they hold firmly in their mouth. A further advance was made by some of the North American Indians, who appear to have applied the principle of the bow-drill ; and the still more ingenious pump-drill was used by the Iroquois Indians. For full descriptions of these instruments and a rich variety of details connected with fire-making we must refer the reader to Mr Tylor’s valuable chapter in his Researches. These methods of producing fire are but rarely used in Europe, and only in connexion with superstitious observances. We read in Wuttke that some time ago the authorities of a Mecklenburg village ordered a "wild fire" to be lit against a murrain amongst the cattle. For two hours the men strove vainly to obtain a spark, but the fault was not to be ascribed to the quality of the wood, or to the dampness of the atmosphere, but to the stubborness of an old lady, who, objecting to the superstition, would not put out her night lamp ; such a fire, to be efficient, must burn alone. At last the strong-minded female was compelled to give in; fire was obtained,—but of bad quality, for it did not stop the murrain.

It has long been known that the rays of the sun might be concentrated by a lens of concave mirror. Aristophanes mentions the burning-lens in The Clouds, and the story of Archimedes using a mirror to fire the ships at Syracuse is familiar to very schoolboy. If Garcillasso de la Vega can be trusted as an authority, the Virgins of the Sun in Peru kindled the sacred fire with a concave cup set in a great bracelet. In China the burning-glass is in common use. To the inquiry how mankind became possessed of fire, the cosmogonies, those records of pristine speculative thought, do not give any reply which would not be found in the relations of travellers and historians. They say in the Tonga Island the god of the earthquakes is likewise the god of fire. At Mangaïa it is told that the great Maul went down to hell, where he surprise the secret of making fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together. The Maoris tell the tale differently. Maui had the fire given to him by his old blind grandmother. Mahuika, who drew it from the nails of her hands. Wishing to have a stronger one, he pretended that it had gone out, and so he obtained fire from her great toe. It was so fiere that every thing melted before the glow ; even Maui and the grandmother herself were already burning when a deluge, sent from heaven, saved the hero and the perishing world ; but before the waters extinguished all the blaze, Mahuika shut a few sparks into some trees, and thence men drew it now. The Maories have also the legend that thunder is the noise of Tawhaki’s footsteps, and that lightnings flash from his armpits. At Western Point. Victoria, the Australians say the good old man Pundyil opened the door of the sun, whose light poured then on earth, and that Karakorok, the good man’s good daughter, seeing the earth to be full of serpents, when everywhere destroying serpents ; but before she had killed them all, her staff, snapped in two, and while it broke, flame burst out of it. Here the serpent-killer is a fire-bringer. In the Persian Shahnamah also fire was discovered by a dragon-fighter. Hushenk, the powerful hero, hurled at the monster a prodigous stone, which, evaded by the snake, struck a rock and was splintered by it. "Light shone from the dark pebble, the heart of the rock flashed out in glory, and fire was seen for the first time in the world." The snake escaped, but the mystery of fire had been revealed.

North America legends narrate how the great buffalo, careering through the plains, makes sparks flit in the night, and sets the prairie ablaze by his hoofs hitting the rocks. We meet the same idea in the Hindu mythology, which conceives thunder to have been, among many other things, the clatter of the solar horses on the Akmon or hard pavement of the sky. The Dakotas claim that their ancestor obtained fire from the sparks which a friendly panther struck with its claws, as it scampered upon a stony hill.

Tohil, who gave the Quiches fire by shaking his sandals, was, like the Mexican Quetzelcoatl, represented by a flint stone. Guamansuri, the father of the Peruvians, produced the thunder and the lightning by hurling stones with his sling. The thunderbolts are his children. Kudai, the great god of the Altaian Tartars, disclosed "the secret of the stone’s edge and the iron’s hardness." The Slavonian god of thunder was depicted with a silex in his hand, or even protruding from his head. The Lapp Tiermes struck with his hammer upon his own head ; the Scandinavian Thor held a mallet in one hand, a flint in the other. Taranis, the Gaul, had upon his head a huge mace surrounded by six little ones. Finnish poems describe how "fire, the child of the sun, came down from heaven, where it was rocked in tub of yellow copper, in a large pail of gold." Ukko, the Esthonian god, sends forth lightnings, as he strikes his stone with his steel. According to the Kalewala, the same mighty Ukko struck his sword against his nail, and from the nail issued the "fiery babe." He gave it to the Wind’s daughter to rock it, but the unwary maiden let it fall in the sea, where it was swallowed by the great pike, and fire would have been lost for ever, if the child of the sun had not come to the rescue. He dragged the great pike form the water, drew out his entrails, and found there the heavenly spark still alive. Hephaestus also, the Greek fire god, fell from heaven into the sea of Lemnos. Prometheus brought to earth the torch he had lighted at the sun’s chariot.

Human culture may be said to have begun with fire of which the uses increased in the same ratio as culture itself. To save the labour expended on the initial process of procuring light, or on carrying it about constantly, primitive men hit on the expedient of a fire which should burn night and day in a public building. The Egyptians had one in every temple, the Greeks, Latins, and Persians in all towns and villages. The Natchez, the Mexicans, the Mayas the Peruvians, had their "national fires" burning upon large pyramids. Of these fires the "eternal lamps" in the synagogues, in the Byzantine and Catholic churches, may be a survival. The "Regia," Rome’s sacred centre, supposed to be the abode of Vesta, stood close to a fountain ; it was convenient to draw from the same spot the two great requisites, fire and water. All civil and political interests grouped themselves around the Prytaneion which was at once a temple, a tribunal, a town-hall, and a gossiping resort ; all public business and most private affairs were transacted by the light and in the warmth of the common fire. No wonder that its flagstones should become sacred. Primitive communites consider as holy everything that ensures their existence and promotes their welfare, material things such as fire and water not less than others. Thus the Prytaneion grew into a religious institution. And if we hear a little more of fire worship than of water worship, it is because fire, being on the whole more difficult to obtain, was esteemed more precious.

We have curious and concordant testimonies that the principal functions of the state itself great out of the care which was bestowed on the tribal fire. The men who attended it in Hellas were called the Prytanes. They had to eat together, and it would have been considered as a bad omen if they had neglected that duty. They were fed at the public expense ; and well they might be, for having been, probably, general cooks at the outset, they became, when the city was established, Archontes or magistrates, and even Basileis, or a combination of the captain, the priest, and the king. Thus the first guardians of the tribal fire were earliest public servants, who by degrees appropriated all important offices, as the state itself developed into a vast aggregation of interests. And when Augustus unsurped the Roman empire, he assumed all the powers which a pristine board of flamens, or of Prytanes, may have possessed. He made himself Pontifex Maximus, and assumed the charge of the public fire ; and on transporting it to his own palace, he had to convert it into public property. The Hellanic nations, as well as the Aztecs, received ambassadors in their temples of fire where, as at the national hearth, they feasted the foreign guests. The Prytaneion and the state were convertible terms. If by chance the fire in the Roman temple of Vesta was extinguished, all tribunals, all authority, all public or private business, had to stop immediately. The connexion between heaven and earth had been broken, and it had to be restored in some way or other,—either by Jove sending down divine lighting on his altars, or by the priests making a new fire by the old sacred method of rubbing two pieces of wood together, or by catching the rays of the sun in a concave mirror. No Greek or Roman army crossed the frontier without carrying an altar when the fire taken from the Prytaneion burned night and day. When the Greeks sent out colonies the emigrants took with them living coals from the altar of Hestia, and had in their new country a fire as representative of that burning in the mother country. [Footnote 229-1] Not before the three curiae untied their fires into one could Rome become powerful; and Athens became a shining light to the world only, we are told, when the twelve tribes of Attica, led by Theseus, brought each its brand to the altar of Athene Polias. All Greece confederated, making Delphi its central hearth ; and the islands congregated around Delos, whence the new fire was fetched every year.

According to a not impossible theory, all architecture, public and private, sacred and profane, began with the erection of sacred shed to protect the sacred fire, which abodes men dared to inhabit only after a length of time. For it must be borne in mind fire was looked upon as a divinity. We are expressly told that Vesta had no image or statue even in her own temple, the Vessel fire being considered as the very goddess herself. The husbandmen who ate their repast before the hearth believed, as Ovid relates, that they sat in the presence of the gods themselves. The hearth fire was kept holy, flame was to remain bright and pure. The minute and irksome prescriptions of the Zend-Avesta carried this feeling to the extreme : it was and it is still widely spread belief that nothing unclean is to be is still a widely spread belief that nothing unclean is to be thrown in the fire, that no indecent actions are to be committed before it. To split in one’s fire would be now considered in many places, in Albania, for example, as an unpardonable offence. The Galtches of Ferghana, according to M. de Ujfalvy, are so reverential that they would not blow out a light lest they should render the flame impure with their breath ; and similar peculiarity was observed by Wood in Badakshan and by Khanikoff among the Tadjiks of Bokhara. [Footnote 230-1]

In the course of time, the same reasons which made the tribe provide itself with a permanent fire made every family have its hearth. It would even be more accurate to say that the family, as it is called now-a-days, developed itself after the human couple and their children had their own fire-place, and before. It is likely at the outset only the higher aristocracy of chieftains, eumetrides or eupatrides, were allowed to have a fire of their own, which was then equivalent to a private or family god. They kept it burning night and day all the year round. As recently as the last generation, fires of such character were rather numerous in the northern countries. [Footnote 230-2]

These lingering customs take us back to the time when every hearth was an altar. From the national Prytaneion a brand was given to each gens. When gentes grew out of the tribe, and subsequently when families grew out of the gentes, coals from the gentile sacrificial stone were given to every family. These three social organism, the nation, the gens, the family, one merging into the other, had fire for their common symbol, and esteemed it as even the cause of their existence. The hearth was the very centre of the house, as the regia was the sacred centre of Rome and the Roman commonwealth ; around the regia the civic and politic institutions developed themselves, and around the hearth the family grew slowly into shape and power. As already observed, the Prytaneion was an altar to the genius of the commonwealth, the abode of the nation’s heroic ancestors. Its exact counterpart was the gentile hearth owned by the gens at large and its dependent families. When the gentes broke asunder, every family became possessed likewise of an altar to it particular Penates" and "Lares," or sacred fathers. These fathers were not mere ancestors, or grandparents, as we hold them now to be, but the constant progenitors ; not only were they believed to have begotten children in a former age, but also to go on begetting them constantly constantly through succeeding generations. Procreators and protectors as well, they were the source of blessing at the same time as the source of existance. Called gods, "theoi patrooi, genethlioi, engeneis, sunaimoi," they were in fact the gods of the households, but gods of the same kin and blood as their descendants. No oath was held more sacred than the one which a man swore by his own was held more sacred than the one which a man swore by his own hearth,—no prayer more readily granted than that which was coupled with a wish for the welfare of the hearth. The hearth had a recognized right of asylum, which is yet in full vigour in many countries. But it was above all the throne of the paterfamilias," the stronghold of his dominion. The proud saying of the Englishman that his home is his castle is but in an attenuated remnant of the feeling which animated the chiefs of the Vedic, the Greek, and the Italian gentes. Such a man was the king absolute over his household ; he wielded the power of life and death over all his subordinates, cattle, slaves, children, wife or wives ;he was the priest of his altar, the manager and expounder of all divine things, elevated above the standard of common mortals. He alone in his kingdom could, if need were, make a new fire, not with a vulgar flint and iron, but by the solemn mode of rubbing together two sacred twigs. In this way all Greek hearths were provided with new fires when the ancient one had been sullied by the look of the hated Persian invaders. Besides the hearth, the second place, at least, was due to the wife and mother ; and as time went on her influence continued to increase. [Footnote 230-3]

Identity of the Five and Soul in Ancient Belief.—The sun, as the source of heat, gives life to earth, and it was natural to suppose the hearth, "the sun in the house." as the younger Edda calls it, radiated life likewise. Therefore it was made the seat of the Lares and Penates, or ancenstor, a dwelling-place for the decreased, where a stock of souls ready to enter existence by new birth was maintained. The famous Roman legend of Servius Tullius, whom Plutarch and other writers report to have been procreated in the ashes of the hearth by the Lares themselves, is a curious illustration of this belief. A sepulchral picture at Orvieto represents a double phallus protruding from the flame of a hearth, on which a libation is being poured. The Vedas taught that the hearth-fire was cosubstantial with the cause of generation. Hence care was taken to preserve the purity of descent in the kin by preserving the flame of the hearth pure and unmingled with fire taken from another house. On this matter the ancient Persians were particularly punctilious, feeding their fires, and especially to be cleaner than all others, well dried, and well strips of the bark. Eveywhere and in all countries, it was considered a most fatal omen if the fire died out in the hearth. The family whose fire went out had incurred the ire of the Lares, who, if not quickly appeased, would strike the sons with impotence and imbecility. A new fire was to be lit by the friction of two twigs, as to fetch some from a neighbour’s would have been considered an adulterous union of hearths, an undue mingling of two families’ blood. [Footnote 231-1]

Resemblance between Fire-Production and Life Production.—For a long time, throughout all the world, the ancient naturalists who meditated on the greatest wonder of physiology, supposed that the generation of fire by the friction of two woods, one of harder the other of soften substance, was the exact counterpart of human generation. The heat thus evolved in the human organism was held to be of most subtile nature, a flash of the astral light, an intelligent substance. Primary fire impregnated primary water, and the soul was born, Life was compared to a flame, to a torch ; and no comparison is more true. Modern chemistry having proved that animal life is a constant burning of oxygen, the ancient myth was not far from the truth when it said that Prometheus animated the figure of clay by putting into it a spark of fire. "Know ye," said an Ojib-way prophet, "that the fire in your huts and the life in your bodies are one and the same thing." A torch whichwas put out by throwing it violently on the ground symbolized in ecclesiastical rites excommunication, or the condemnation of a soul to eternal death. In classical mythology, Meleager’s life was bound to a log of wood ; when the one was turned, to a heap of ashes, the other was to fall dead. "Corpus est terra, anima est ignis," that old piece of philosophy, becomes inseparable from poetry and language ; and now, as in the days of yore, the soul and the "genius" are always spoken of as if they possessed the nature of flame, and the angels and the peris as if their substances were pure light. According to the pristine physiology, man was likewise a fire, but a fire hidden in clay, diluted in water. If it had not been for water, the flame would have been destroyed by its own force.—it would have blazed up, coruscating violently in dazzling effulgence, and then dying out. In fact, all primitive theories attributed to gaseous water the action which our present science attributes to nitrogen, without which oxidation would go on too rapidly to allow of the formation of oxidizable matter. Hence water was thought to be as necessary as fire itself ; hence ancient law forbade the individuals guilty of offences against the commonwealth to have fire and water given them—a sentence equivalent to death. The mixture of the organic fire and organic water in our bodies was compared to that in vegetable matter, which emits much smoke if burned when in green or wet condition. Nay, by pursuing the analysis of combustion in which the classical world had centred all its philosophy, the ashes or mineral detritus which fell on the hearth found their analogue in the flesh, in the bones, in the solid parts of our organism. Thus man was thought to be an allow of fire, earth, and water in slightly different proportions. Fire as constituent part of the divine intelligence became a soul when it was immersed in organic water ; it became the body when it was put into organic clay. The traditions of the Egyptian priesthood, which were current under the name of Hermes Trismegistus, teach that at the moment of death, "our intelligence, one of God’s subtile thoughts, escapes the body’s dross, puts on its fiery tunic again, and floats henceforth in space," leaving the soul ignoble, according as the material or the spiritual side of their nature predominated. Thus a frequent distinction in the burials, which may have arisen even in prehistoric times, can be explained. Chiefs and kings, priests and noblemen, possessed all of a divine soul, when burned, flame going forth to flame ; but people of the common sunk among the sods, clay going back to clay. [Footnote 231-2]

Cosmic Fire.—The opinions and beliefs which most primitive populations have entertained on the nature of fire in the hearth were applied by them to the great cosmic fire : both were life-givers, one to the family and the other to the universe ; both were parts of the same substance or element. It was taught by Aristotle that Zeus was a name given to the fire of heaven, and by Plato and Euripides that the same Hestia burned in the humblest hut and the highest sky. Ovid went so for as to identify that goddess with the earth itself. According to that doctrine, fire was held to be the very soul of nature, the essence of every thing that had a shape, and even to be the giver of that shape, for philosophers explained that of all elements none but fire having any form by itself cold impart it to other things. From Jupiter to the fly, from the wandering star to the tiniest blade of grass, all being owed existence to the fiery element. This theory, more or less distinctly expressed, obtained among the Aztecs, who invoked in their prayers "fire the most ancient divinity, the father and mother of all gods." Tohil the Quiche, Quetzacoatl the Mexican, Tiermes the Finn, Perkun the Slav, Thor the Scandinavian, Taranis the Gaul, and many other gods, as stated above, were represented as having firestones for head or for bodies ; one of them was said to have flashed up in lightnings as he was dragged along the rocky heavens by some powerful antagonist. Such a god, encase in a shell of flint, fell down from heaven upon, according to an Indian legend ; the shell broke into sixteen hundred fragments, and each of them arose and stood up as a particular god. From such a thunderbolt or meteorite the Dacotas boasted to have originate.

In the Gnostic theory the middle part of the cosmos was taken up by the starry world, emitting the astral light, inferior in sanctity to the mild effulgence of either above it, but superior in vivifying properties to our common fires. These three conditions of the cosmic fire corresponded to the three component parts of man—mind, soul, and body, Prophets and other great and pious men had minds still refulgent with ethereal rays, which were the thoughts of divinity ; while the wicked had souls which had been soaked in a smoky fire, and in stupid people there glimmered but the weakest possible ray of celestial light.

It was not the hottest fire which was supposed to be the most divine. Fierce heat being inimical to organic life, hot fires are said to be hellish ones. Their masters, the demons of drought and sterility, dry up the fountains, scorch the grass, excite pestilence, are the worst fiends to the human race. Pure light was thought to be without any heat at all, and legends tell of "theophanias," of aureoles, of fiery tongues flickering above the cradles of infants predestined to glorious careers. Phallic fire giving out heat but no light, was often considered as of an inferior nature, and therefore represented by secondary or even by tertiary deities, fauns, satyrs, aegipans, and the like.

At the outset the gods and demons alike had some command of fire, but they were distinguishable by the nature of their fire. Among the Scandinavians, Woden was the fire that shines, Thor the lighting, and Loki the fire that burns and shall one day destroy the whole world Brahma, Indra, Siwa, and Osiris, Horus, Typhon, had similar meanings. Zeus, Apollo, and Athene presided over the celestial flame ; Hercules and Dionysus marked the progressive purifications of the terrestrial fire. Besides his influence over generation, Hephaestus had the command of the subteranean fire and of its vast smithies, where earths and stones were fused into metals. It was with a feeling of the most intense awe that the Vedic Aryans contemplated the thunderstorm and the lightning, the fierce struggle in the heavens, the fight between the winds ad the clouds, between fire and water, between the fire-god Indra and Vritra the fire-dragon. So, likewise, the Iranians conceived of our world as the field of the great battle Ormuzd the Increaser, and his twin brother Ahriman the Destroyer.

Healing and Purification by Fire.—The principle of life being fiery one, it was supposed that all maladies were only so many defilements of the pure principle which had been darkened by the demons of night, and that all sick people were demoniacs. The traditions of the Finns assert that lightning, the fiery sword of Ukko, slays the domons of illness. But it was discovered that the exhibition of lightning, as a healing method, was attended with grave drawbacks : it was impossible to insure being able to use it, and when it could be obtained, the cure was worse than the disease, as the patient was killed before the imp who had bedeviled him. It became necessary to have recourse to a substitute ; and therefore the healing virtues of the thunderbolt were embodied in the Keraunia or thunderstones. The ‘holy stones" of the Anglo-Saxons, or "holed stones," arrow heads, flint celts and flint knives worked by prehistoric men, were popularly believed to be stones which falling down from heaven possessed heavenly virtues, and where use in all sorts of disease. [Footnote 232-1]

Sickness having become identified with sin, purification became the first and most esteemed of curative agents and of prophylactics. I needed to be undergone when a dead body had been touched or when women had been delivered. The mother walked with her babe through fires lit on her right hand and on her left ; the infants, especially the males, were fumigated with great care. Among some populations none could approach mother and child without stepping over a brazier. Fiery ordeals heralded the attainment of the age of puberty by both sexes. Ambassadors were refused admittance to the presence of the sovereign until they had traversed a flame should singe away the foreign devilries which they might carry about them.

Purification by fire led to the institution of baptism by fire, which in many places was thought vastly superior to baptism by water ; and the idea obtain its furthest develompment in the notion of purgatorial fires, which is not peculiar to one church. Often people ha misgivings about the penance which awaited them in a future state, and reckoned that it would be better for them to undergo it on this side of the grave. [Footnote 232-2]

Periodic Fires.—Because the sun loses its force after noon, and after midsummer day daily shortens the length of its circuit, the ancients inferred, and primitive populations still believe, that, as time goes, on, the energies of fire must necessarily decline. Therefore men set about renewing the fires in the temples and on the hearth on the longest day of summer or at the beginning of the agricultural year. The ceremony was attended with much rejoicing, banqueting, and many religious rites. Houses were thoroughly cleansed ; new clothes were put on ; quarrels were made up ; debts were paid by the debtor or remitted by the creditor ; criminals were released by the civil authorities in imitation of the heavenly judges, who were believed to grant on the same day a general remission of sins. All things were made new ; each man turned over a new page in the book of his existence. Some nations, like the Etruscans in the Old World, and the Peruvians and Mexicans in the New, carried these ideas to a high degree of development, and celebrated with magnificent ceremonies the renewal of the saecula, or astronomic periods, which might be shorter or longer than a century. Some details of the festival among the Aztecs have been preserved. On the last night of every period (52 years) every fire was extinguished, and men proceeded in solemn procession to some sacred spot, where, with awe and trembling, the priest strove to kindle a new fire by friction. It was as if they had a vague idea that the cosmos, with its sun, moon, and stars, had been wound up like a clock for a definite period of time. And had they failed to raise the vital spark, they would have believed that it was because the great fire was being extinguished at the central hearth of the world. The Stoic and many other ancient philosophers thought that the world was doomed to final extinction by fire. The Scandinavian bards sung the end of the world, how at last the wolf Fenrir would get loose, how the crued fire of Loki would destroy itself by destroying everything. The Essenes enlarges upon this doctrine, which is also found in the Sibylline books and appears in the Apocrypha (2 Esdras xvi, 15).

See Dupuis, Origine de tous les Cultes, 1794 ; Bournouf, Science des Réligions ; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, cap. Xx., 1835 ; Adalbert Kuhn, Die Herabkunft des Feduers und des Göttertranks, 1859 ; Steinthal, Ueber die ursprüngliche Form de Sage von Prometheus, 1861 ; Albert Reville, "Le Mythe de Prométhée," in Revue des Deux Mondes, August 1862 ; Michel Bréal, Hercule et Cacus, 1863; Tylor, Researches into the Early History of Mankind, chap. ix., 1865 ; Bachofen, Die Sage von Tanaquil, 1870 Lubbock, Prehistoric Times, 3d edition, 1872 ; Haug, Religion of the Parsis, 1878. (E. RE.)


229-1 Curiously enough we see the same institution obtaining among the Damaras of South Africa, where the chiefs, who sway their people with a sort of priestly authority, commit to their daughters the care of a so-called eternal fire. From its hearth younger scions separating from the parent stock take away a burning brand to their new home. The use of a common Prytaneion, of circular form, like the Roman temple of Vesta, testified to the common origin of the North American Assinais and Maichas. The Mobiles, the Chippeways, the Natchez, had each a corporation of Vestals. If the Natchez let their fire die out, they were bound to renew it from the Mobiles. The Moquis Pueblos, and Comanches has also their perpetual fires. The Red-skins discussed important affairs of state at the "council fires," around which each sachem marched three times, turning to it all the sides of his person. "It was a saying among our ancestors," said an Iroquois chief in 1753, "that when the fire goes out at Onondoga"—the Delphi of the league—"we shall not longer be a people."

230-1 See Bulletin de la Soc.de Géog., Paris, 1878, p. 489 ; Wood’s Journey to Source of Oxus, 1872, p. 177.

230-2 The rich Westphalian farmers have still between their habitation and the stables the so-called Skorestein, where burns a constant fire, for which they have a superstitious regard. On the banks of the Sieg it was the custom, as stump with its roofs, in a niche opposite the pot-hanger. The block smouldered slowly, and was intended to the last whole, year, from Cristrmas to Christmas, when its remains were ground to powder to powder and strewn on the fields to insure their fertility.

230-3 The traveller Pallas was told by the Mongol populations which he visited that a woman indulge in the vilest abuse and insult, and no one would dare to touch her, so long as she stood between the bed and the fire-place. In the Vedas we see that the new wife underwent some sort of consecration by walking thrice around the new hearth-place, and stretching her hand into the flames while she was being sprinkled over with lustral water. In Germany and Slav countries, the bride, as she comes from church and enters her new house, bows to the fire burning on the hearth, walks thrice round it, burns three of her hairs, and binds a red string round her body. What is no more done by the mistress is still done to her servants in Germany, who, as they come in, are made to run round the kitchen fire, are touched with soot, and have their bare feet sprinkled with ashes.

231-1 It is interesting to note that in Bohemia the country people have still a strong prejudice against any fire being taken to or taken from the hearth. Till the babe be forty days old, the Albanians do not allow a brand, not even a coal, from the family fire-place to be given away. As long as the Japanese had castes, people of the higher ranks ate no food except what was cooked in their own home, for fear of "mixing fire," evidently because they thought that fire imparted its nature to food, and by means of food to the bodily powers.

231-2 So among Algonquins and Ottaways those only of the "Great Hare totem," among the Nicaraguans none but the "caciques," among the Caribs no others than the priestly caste, were entitled to the honour of cremation. The tribes of Upper California were even persuaded that such as were not burned were liable to be transformed into brutes. Among certain populations (as, for instance, the Colchians of old, and the Babeens or Chimpseyans of our times) the males had the privilege of the pyre, which was denied to women. The example illustrating the belief of the soul being a fire are so numerous that it is difficult to choose among them. In Voigtland the souls of unchristened babes are believed to be turned into Wills-of-the-Wisp. The souls of dying are believed to be turned into Wills-of-the-Wisp. The souls of dying men or beasts are said to burn sometimes with a heat so intense that their eyes inflame piles of wood. It is a frequent feat of divine horses in Tartar legends to make the rocks glow and melt as pitch by merely looking at them.

232-1 In mild cases the Australian sorcerer applies fire to the injured parts of his patients. The Persians kindle fire on the terraces of their house where the sick man lies. The Patagonians fire off guns and revolvers, and throw burning brands into the air. In Tukestan, sick children are made to leap over burning fires, and are struck seven times on the back. At every stroke remonstrances are addressed to the demon, such as "Begone to the sea! Begone to the desert!" Similar practices are still resorted to in mountainous regions of France when illness smites the flocks. In backward districts of Germany, when the swine sicken and die, the "wild fire," or "Nothfeuer," is kindled, but it would have no virtue if it were kindled by bachelors instead of the married men, or with matches and not by the orthodox process of rubbing wood against wood.

232-2 In the hill ranges of Southern India penitents are made to pass through a row of burning huts and are absolved after having passed to seventh. Before seed is sown it is still passed through the fire in Bavaria and in Basuto land children underwent recently a similar process, being held over the flame of a lighted altar. The earth was freed from the demons of sterility by the lightings huge fires, and the fields became fertile as far as the blaze could be seen distinctly,—a practice which still prevails in many places from Norway to Central America.

The above article was written by Elisée Reclus, Professor of Comparative Geography, New University of Brussels, from 1894; author of La Terre, Géographie Universelle, and Les Primitifs.

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