1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fire

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FIRE (in O. Eng. fýr; the word is common to West German languages, cf. Dutch vuur, Ger. Feuer; the pre-Teutonic form is seen in Sanskrit , pāvaka, and Gr. πῦρ; the ultimate origin is usually taken to be a root meaning to purify, cf. Lat. purus), the term commonly used for the visible effect of combustion (see Flame), operating as a heating or lighting agency.

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. Lieut. Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States exploring expedition of 1838–42, says that in Fakaafo or Bowditch Island “there was no sign of 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 Hale the ethnographer of the expedition, though it might perhaps be explained as equivalent only to solar light and heat, undoubtedly invalidates the supposition of Wilkes; 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 their 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 a fireless tribe, it cannot be said that such a tribe has 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, and the forest was ablaze; or some less obvious cause produced some less extensive 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 probable indeed that different tribes and races obtained the knowledge in a variety of ways.

It has been asserted of many tribes that they would be unable to rekindle their fires if they were 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 is absurd. The Australian methods of producing fire by the friction of two pieces of wood are perfectly well known, and are illustrated in Howitt’s Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pp. 771-773. To carry a brand saves a little trouble to the men.

The methods employed for producing fire vary considerably in detail, but are for the most part merely modified applications of concussion or friction. Lord Avebury has remarked that the working up of stone into implements must have been followed sooner or later by the discovery of fire; for in 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 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 pieces 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 quartz and a piece of iron pyrites. Mr Frederick Boyle saw fire produced by striking broken china violently against a bamboo, and Bastian observed the same process in Burma, 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 E. B. Tylor calls the stick and groove—“a blunt pointed stick being run 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 Charles 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 Radak 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 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 Tylor gives a quaint picture of the operation from a Mexican 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 Pampas takes “an elastic stick about 18 in. 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 rotation is effected by means of a cord or thong wound round the drill and 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 the Eskimo and neighbouring tribes, who applied the principle of the bow-drill; and the still more ingenious pump-drill was used by the Onondaga Indians. For full descriptions of these instruments and a rich variety of details connected with fire-making we must refer the reader to 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 stubbornness 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 or 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 every schoolboy. If Garcilasso 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 Islands that the god of the earthquakes is likewise the god of fire. At Mangaïa it is told that the great Maui went down to hell, where he surprised 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 fierce 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 draw it now. The Maoris 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, went everywhere destroying serpents; but before she had killed them all, her staff snapped in two, and while it broke, a flame burst out of it. Here the serpent-killer is a fire-bringer. In the Persian Shahnama also fire was discovered by a dragon-fighter. Hushenk, the powerful hero, hurled at the monster a prodigious 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 American 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 a 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 from the water, drew out his entrails, and found there the heavenly spark still alive. 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 Aztecs, 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 prytaneum 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 communities 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 prytaneum 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. The prytaneum 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 lightning 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 where the fire taken from the prytaneum 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 lit as a representative of that burning in the mother country.[1] Not before the three curiae united 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.

Periodic Fires.—Because the sun loses its force after noon, and after midsummer 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; people bathed, and underwent lustrations and purifications; 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 priests 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 Stoics 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 cruel fire of Loki would destroy itself by destroying everything. The Essenes enlarged 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); Burnouf, Science des religions; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, cap. xx. (1835); Adalbert Kuhn, Die Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks (1859); Steinthal, Über die ursprüngliche Form der 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, ch. ix. (1865); Bachofen, Die Sage von Tanaquil (1870); Lord Avebury, Prehistoric Times (6th ed., 1900); Haug, Religion of the Parsis (1878).  (E. Re.) 

  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 prytaneum, of circular form, like the Roman temple of Vesta, testified to the common origin of the North American Assinais and Maichas. The Mobiles, the Chippewas, 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 had also their perpetual fires. The Redskins 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 Onondaga”—the Delphi of the league—“we shall no longer be a people.”