The gift of fire! How did humanity come to obtain it? In the following three myths, we learn how the gods interceded to gave us fire so we could live more comfortably – but at a cost.
The Jicarilla-Apache tribe of Colorado and New Mexico tell a story about the origin of fire. Fox, a very clever animal, wanted to bring fire to the world. While pondering this, he went to the Geese and asked if they could teach him to make the cry they all make. They agreed under the condition that Fox fly with them. Now of course, foxes cannot fly, so they figured out a way to attach wings to him. This magic would only work however, if he kept his eyes closed while flying. So Fox flew with the Geese and learned their ways.
One day they flew over the village of the fireflies. The area was so dark but the glare from the fireflies’ light was so bright that it caused Fox to open his eyes. When he did he plummeted uncontrollably until he landed in the walled village of the fireflies, which always kept a fire burning.
Fox met two fireflies who explained how he could leave the village. They took him to a special cedar tree whose limbs would bend and catapult him over whenever he wished to depart. Since Fox had never been in the firefly village, he decided to have a look around first. That evening, Fox found where the spring was and discovered colored earth. When mixed with the water from the spring, it turned into paint.
This is when Fox hatched a clever plan to bring fire to the rest of the world. He covered himself in white paint made from the earth and spring water and returned to the village. He suggested to the fireflies that they all have a festival where they could dance and he would provide the music. The fireflies fancied the idea and set to work gathering wood to make their fire greater. While they did this, Fox secretly tied a piece of cedar bark to his tail. Then he made a drum, the first one ever, and when night fell he used to it to produce lively rhythmic music.
As the fireflies danced, Fox inched closer and closer to the fire. When he got close enough, he feigned that he was tired of banging the drum and passed it to the fireflies who wanted to take a turn. At that moment, he lit the cedar bark on his tail, and stated that he was too warm and needed to find a cooler place. Then he dashed over to the cedar tree, and ordered the tree limbs to bend down. Before the fireflies could stop him, Fox was catapulted over the walls of the village.
Fox ran and ran and all the while sparks of fire flickered off of the tree bark – igniting the bushes and leaves along the path. Fox ran until he became too tired and his friend the Hawk took the burning bark. Hawk carried it to brown Crane, and as the bark passed over the land it sparked fires everywhere.
This is how fire spread to all the animals and the Apache people. But as punishment for Fox’s deception, the fireflies declared that he would never get to make use of fire for himself. (Edmonds and Clark 105-106)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, we learn about the clever Titan trickster, Prometheus. One day in Mecone, the gods and mortal men were trying to resolve a dispute. It was decided that the mortals would make offerings to appease the gods, and in particular Zeus.
Prometheus had an affinity for man and wanted to help them, so when it came time to decide which parts of the animal sacrifice the humans would keep and which parts would be offered to Zeus, he hatched a plan. He took the good fleshy juicy pieces and stuffed them into the stomach, and then took the bones and covered them with fat. The intention was to trick Zeus into selecting the offering that looked like it was all fat, but really he would be getting bones and the humans would have food to nourish themselves.
But Zeus was on to Prometheus. He decided to play along and select the offering with bones in it. But still, he was angry with Prometheus for seeking to deceive him. He said “Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!” And in retribution he kept fire from humanity.
However, Prometheus took pity on the humans and stole the fire by hiding it in a hollow fennel stalk (this is also the inspiration for the Olympic torch).
Zeus was so angered by this that he chained Prometheus to a rock and drove a shaft into him. Then every day a large winged eagle would eat his liver, but being immortal, it would grow back overnight and the whole ordeal would repeat itself. This cursed existence is how Prometheus remained for a very long time until Zeus allowed Heracles to free him. (Hesiod and Evelyn-White)
Maui is a hero-god from Polynesian mythology. In the Hawaiian version of the story, Maui is in the town of Hilo. There were three small craters known as the Halae Hills, and in one of these craters there were two brother mud-hens of the Alae family. These gods were busy making their favorite food – baked bananas.
Maui wanted to learn the secret of fire-making, so he began to creep up closer. The older brother saw Maui and shouted to his sibling “Be quick! Here comes the swift son of Hina.”
The birds put out the fire, grabbed their bananas, and flew off.
Maui was determined to know their secret, so he continued following them. But every time he got close, the birds scratched out the fire and fled before he could be successful.
Maui told his mother about his efforts, and she encouraged her son while providing a valuable tip. She informed him that although he might come across many birds baking their bananas and enjoying the fire, only the smallest bird was the guardian and knew how to make it.
Maui tried several times to catch the wily little bird, but each time he failed. Then one day in Waianae, when the little bird tried to snatch his banana from the coals before flying off, Maui captured him. He twisted his neck, but the bird warned him that if he killed him he would never know his fire-making secret. So Maui relented and demanded the bird tell him how it was done.
First the bird told him it was made from a banana stump – the clever bird was buying time and trying to find a way to escape.
Maui tried rubbing two pieces of the banana stump together as directed by the mud-hen, but all that came out was juice.
Maui was very angry and strangled the bird again. This time the mud-hen said to use the taro plant. But when Maui tried it, all that came out was water.
Now Maui was furious, and he rubbed the mud-hen’s head so hard he became bald (thus explaining their appearance today).
Finally the bird-god relented as he was close to death, and told Maui the truth. He shared the different types of trees that would produce fire. One of these trees was the sandalwood, which is why its Hawaiian name is “Ili-ahi”—the “ili” (bark) and “ahi” (fire), the bark in which fire is hidden. (Westervelt)
Common Themes in Fire Theft Stories
So what can we learn from these fire theft myths? One observation is that the gods really didn’t want humanity to have fire. This could potentially be attributed to the power dynamic present in the relationship between gods and mortals. Gods need to be needed. What good is creating mortal beings to worship you if they find out that they can make do on their own? Without the intercession of a benevolent god, humanity would be much more dependent on its makers.
Second, there is often a price to pay for the hero-god’s meddling. In the story of Prometheus, he is tortured by being chained to a rock for the foreseeable future. In the story of the Apache people, Fox is chastised by the fireflies and is told he’ll never being able to make use of fire for himself.
The punishment in these stories may be due to the need to keep that balance mentioned earlier. It could also be included in the stories as a way of comforting humanity. We as humans are often so powerless, but when we have some gods looking out for us and our best interests, we don’t feel so utterly at mercy of the whims of the most powerful deities.
Third, there is usually some trickery or battle of wits involved. In the story of Maui and the mud-hens, Maui has to keep his guard up with the mud-hen as he constantly shares false information for making fire. In the Jicarilla-Apache tale, Fox tricks the fireflies with a clever party ruse and a hidden tree bark tied to his tail. Finally in the story of Prometheus, he steals the fire by concealing it in a hollow fennel stalk. Ingenuity and cleverness are prized in these stories and are perhaps included to inspire audiences to think outside the box and find ways to help themselves.
There are many more fire theft stories that exist in mythology, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the three I’ve recounted to you.
What do you think about these tales? Why do you think the gods hoarded fire to themselves? Do you have a favorite fire theft myth that wasn’t listed here? Let me know in the comments!
Clark, Ella E. “Origin of Fire: Jicarilla-Apache.” Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends, by Margot Edmonds, Facts on File, Inc., 2003, pp. 105–106.
Hesiod. Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by Evelyn-White, H G. Loeb Classical Library Volume 57. London: William Heinemann, 1914. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html#10.
Westervelt, W.D. “LEGENDS OF MA-UI-A DEMI GOD OF POLYNESIA AND OF HIS MOTHER HINA.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Legends of Ma-Ui, a Demi God of Polynesia and of His Mother Hina, by W. D. Westervelt., 30 May 2010, www.gutenberg.org/files/32601/32601-h/32601-h.htm.