Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/27

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17
THE EARLY HISTORY OF FIRE.

THE EARLY HISTORY OF FIRE.[1]
By Professor N. JOLY,
OF THE FACULTY OF SCIENCES, TOULOUSE.

FIRE, the common source of heat, of light, and of life, and the active principle of a multitude of industries, and of metallurgical industry in particular, is unquestionably one of the greatest conquests achieved by man over Nature.

The discovery of fire was more than a benefit; it was, in fact, a giant stride on the road to civilization. With fire arose sociability, the family, the sacred joys of the domestic hearth, all industries, all arts, together with the wonders they have produced, and still produce from day to day. Hence we can readily understand how it is that fire has ever been and still is, among many nations, the object of a special worship (priests of Baal, Ghebers, Hindoo Brahmans, Roman vestals, priestesses of the sun in Peru, etc.); and that it has often figured in the religious or funereal rites of nations most remote from one another, both in time and space, as the Chaldees, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Peruvians, Mexicans, etc. But how and when was this great discovery made, in the absence of which we can hardly conceive of the possibility of human arts or even of human existence? Did man, as we are told in the myths of India and Greece, steal fire from heaven; or did he, as other legends affirm, take advantage of spontaneous forest-fires, arising from the violent rubbing together of dry branches under the action of the wind; or, finally, was man so ingenious, even from the beginning, as to devise one of those simple and practical contrivances by means of which certain savage and half-civilized tribes in our own time obtain the fire they need for their daily uses?

However far back we may trace man's history, we find him always in possession of fire. The story of Prometheus getting fire from Olympus is nothing but the Vedic myth which tells of the god Agni, or heavenly fire (Latin, ignis), as squatting in a hiding-place whence he is compelled by Matarichvan to come forth in order to be communicated to Manu, the first man, or to Bhrigu (the shining one), the father of the sacerdotal family of the same name.

The very name of Prometheus is of purely Vedic origin, and calls to mind the process employed by the ancient Brahmans in getting the sacred fire. For this they used a spindle called matha or pramatha, the prefix pra adding the idea of taking by force to the signification of the root matha; this latter is from the verb mathnámi, or manthámi—"to bring out by friction." Prometheus, therefore, is the one who discovered fire, brings it forth from is hiding-place, steals it and gives it

  1. Translated from the French by J. Fitzgerald, A.M. vol. x. 2