Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/November 1876/The Early History of Fire


By Professor N. JOLY,


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 to mankind. From Pramanthâ, or Prâmâthyus—"he who hollows out by rubbing," "he who steals fire"—the transition is easy and natural, and there is only one step from the Indian Prâmâthyus to the Prometheus of the Greeks, who stole the heavenly fire to light the spark of life, the soul, in the clay-formed man.

The spindle or pramantha had wound round it a cord of hemp mixed with cow-hair, and with this cord the priest of Brahma gave it an alternating rotary motion from right to left and from left to right. In rotating the spindle, one end of it rested in a depression made at the intersection-point of two crossed pieces of wood, the ends of which were bent to a right angle, and firmly secured with four bronze nails, thus preventing them from moving. The entire apparatus was called swastika.[2] The father of the sacred fire was named Twastri, i. e., the divine carpenter who made the swastika and the pramantha, the mutual rubbing of which together produced the divine babe Agni. Its mother was named Maya. Agni took the name of Akta (i. e., anointed, christos) after the priest had poured on its head the soma, and on its body the purified butter of the sacrifice.

In his interesting work on the "Origin of Fire," Adalbert Kuhn gives to the PSM V10 D028 Hindu swastika 1.png and to this other like sign, PSM V10 D028 Hindu swastika 2.png the name of arani, and both of them he regards as the religious symbols, par excellence, of our old Aryan ancestors—the symbols of sexual reproduction.

This fire-myth occurs also in the Zendavesta, or sacred book of the Persians, and in the Vedic hymns of the Hindoos, under a twofold form, both material and metaphysical. But the authors of these hymns bear witness that this same myth was, long before their time, symbolized in a great national religion, the founder of which, Rhibu, is no other than Orpheus. This tradition, common to Greeks, Hindoos, and Persians, carries us back to those ancient times when the as yet undiscovered branches of this stock wandered upon the banks of the Oxus.

In his "Researches into the Early History of Mankind," Tylor gives interesting details about the discovery of fire, and the various modes of obtaining it in every age. The primitive method of all would seem, according to him, to have consisted in rubbing together two pieces of dry wood, but this process was perfected in the course of time. Thus, friction is produced by means of a stick which is made to slide rapidly to and fro upon a piece of dry, soft wood laid upon the ground (in Tahiti, the Sandwich Islands, New Zealand, Timor, etc.). This process Tylor denominates the stick-and-groove (Fig. 1), but the fire-drill (Figs. 2 and 4) is more generally used. In its simplest form, the fire-drill consists of a stick, one extremity of which is inserted in

PSM V10 D029 Ancient fire making methods.jpg
Fig. 1.—The Stick-and-Groove. (Tylor.) Fig. 2. The Fire-Drill. (Tylor.)

a hole bored in a piece of dry wood, while the stick itself is twirled between the hands and pressed downward (see Fig. 2).

This instrument occurs not only in Australia, Sumatra, the Caroline Islands, and Kamtchatka, but also in China, South Africa, and North and South America. It was employed by the ancient Mexicans, and is still in use among the Yenadis of Southern India, and the Veddas of Ceylon (Fig. 3).

PSM V10 D029 Ancient mexican fire drill.jpg

Fig. 3. Ancient Mexican Fire-Drill. (Tylor.)

It is still further modified by causing the stick to whirl by means of a thong wound round it, the ends of which are pulled in opposite directions alternately. This is the instrument described in the Vedas, and it is still employed by the Brahmans of our own day for lighting the sacred fire. For, as Tylor well observes, we very often see fire obtained for use in religious rites by the ancient processes, rather than by the readier means discovered in later times. Thus, when the vestals permitted the sacred fire to go out, it was rekindled by means of the sun's rays, concentrated by a lens. A similar method was employed by the ancient priests of Peru in kindling the sacrificial fire.

PSM V10 D030 Drill of the gauchos.jpg

Fig. 4—Fire-Drill of the Gauchos. (Tylor.)

An instrument resembling that employed by the Brahmans of India is to this day in use among the Esquimaux and the Aleuts (Fig. 6). It consists of a rod, one end of which fits into a mouth-piece, and the other into a hole in a piece of dry wood. The rod is twirled by means of a thong wound twice around it, and pulled to the right and left alternately by the hands.

Slight modifications occur in the form of the fire-drill, and various instruments have been devised to serve the same purpose. For instance, there are the bow-drill and the pump-drill, which latter is used both for obtaining fire and for boring holes in wood, stone, and metal (Figs. 5 and 7).

PSM V10 D030 Bow drill used by the sioux.jpg

Fig. 5.—Bow-Drill, used by the Sioux. (Tylor.)

Of other means of procuring fire we will simply mention, in passing, the striking together of flints, or flint and steel, or iron pyrites; striking together two pieces of bamboo (this method peculiar to China); compressing air in a tube of ivory or of wood (a process adopted by the Malays, etc.).

The dried parenchyma of the Boletus igniarius, frayed cedar-bark, dry leaves, carbonized vegetal fibres, and the like, are the combustible materials commonly employed to receive the spark produced by friction or by concussion.

Is there or has there ever been a people absolutely ignorant of the means of producing fire? Many authors answer this question affirmatively. Thus we are told that the natives of Tasmania, though acquainted with fire and making use of it, nevertheless are ignorant of the means of producing it. Hence it is the special duty of their women to carry fire-brands that burn day and night, and by the light of which the tribe make their way through the woods. If the torches or brands go out, it may be necessary to make a long journey in order to have them lighted again from the fire kept up by another tribe. Nearly every family, too, carries about a cone of banksia, which burns slowly like amadou.

PSM V10 D031 Tongue and pump drill.jpg
Fig. 6.—Esquimau Thong-drill. (Tylor.) Fig. 7.—Pump-Drill. (Tylor.

That the Australians are not so ignorant of the uses of fire as they are said to be, is shown by a legend current among them about the origin of fire. This legend we copy from Wilson, who, in his work, "Prehistoric Man," devotes a highly-interesting chapter to the question we are considering: "A long, long time ago, a little bandicoot[3] was the sole owner of a fire-brand, which he cherished with the greatest jealousy. So selfish was he in the use of his prize that he obstinately refused to share it with the other animals. So they held a general council, where it was decided that the fire must be obtained from the bandicoot either by force or strategy. The hawk and the pigeon were deputed to carry out this resolution; and, after trying to induce the fire-owner to share its blessings with his neighbors, the pigeon, seizing, as he thought, an unguarded moment, made a dash to obtain the prize. The bandicoot saw that affairs had come to a crisis, and, in desperation, threw the fire toward the river, there to quench it forever. But, fortunately for the black man, the sharp-eyed hawk was hovering near, and, seeing the fire fall into the water, with a stroke of his wine: he knocked the brand far over the stream into the long, dry grass of the opposite bank, and the flames spread over the face of the country. The black man then felt the fire, and said it was good."[4]

Did prehistoric man possess fire? If we are to believe the Abbé Bourgeois, man was in possession of fire since Miocene times. This assertion rests upon the discovery in the sands of the Orleanais of a fragment of artificial paste[5] mixed with charcoal, and lying in the midst of mastodon and dinotherium bones. It also rests, but not so firmly, upon the discovery by the same savant of cracked flints in the neighborhood of Thenay, not far from the banks of the lake of Beauce. These flints appear to bear plain traces of the action of fire; but may not these be due to lightning? If not, where are the ashes, where the charcoal which naturally would accompany the flints if they had been really brought under the action of fire? Then, where is the fireplace? Hence, the Abbé Bourgeois's deduction is not an impossible one, though in my opinion it is by no means demonstrated.

But, though the discovery of fire in Miocene times may be questioned, it cannot be denied that in the earliest Quaternary times this element was known to man. Several fireplaces, ashes, charcoal, bones, either entire or partly calcined, fragments of coarse pottery blackened by smoke, and similar objects, have been found in caverns belonging to the epoch of the Cave Bear, and of the Reindeer and the Polished Stone age. These things prove that the men who inhabited the caves commonly enough cooked their food, thus making it more readily digestible.

With the aid of fire, prehistoric man cremated his dead, hollowed out his pirogue, and saved from too rapid destruction the lower extremity of the piles on which he built his lake-dwellings. And not only did the troglodyte and the lacustrian know how to cook their food and warm their habitations, but they also were acquainted with various methods of lighting them during the darkness of night. There have been found in the Lake of Geneva carbonized sticks of resinous wood, which, in all probability, once were employed for this latter purpose. Just as the Esquimaux now light their snow huts by means of lamps fed with the oil of the porpoise or the whale, so did the Danes of the kitchen-middens use, for illuminating purposes, a wick made of moss, one end of which was introduced into the stomach of a great penguin (Alca impennis) filled with fat.

The use of flint, quartz, and iron pyrites, in the Lacustrian period, for procuring fire by striking these substances against one another, is proved by the discovery, in the lakes of Switzerland (at Meilen, Moosseedorf, Wangeu, and Robenhausen), of bits of tinder prepared from the Boletus igniarius. And, if we accept the views of Messrs. Ed. Lartet and Christy with regard to certain blocks of granite, hollowed out in the centre, which have been found in the caves of Perigord, these blocks would appear to have been intended for the purpose of procuring fire by rapidly rotating a wooden rod in the central cavity, as is done by the priests of Brahma.

And, indeed, how could it happen that fire should have been unknown even in the earliest periods of Quaternary time, considering the chances of fire being struck from these flints, whether in the workshop or in battle, and of the sparks falling upon combustible materials—for instance, dry leaves? This explanation we hold to be simpler and more natural than the other, which refers the discovery of fire to the spontaneous conflagrations of forests, or to the friction of dry branches of trees.

Fire, we repeat with profound conviction, must have been very early known to man, for we cannot conceive of his living without it. And hence, "who can picture the joy, the gladness, the radiant ecstasy of that one of our unknown forefathers who first triumphantly exhibited to his astonished tribesmen the smoking brand from which he had succeeded in causing flame to burst forth?"[6] Thus we have seen that fire gave rise to nearly all the arts, or at least promoted their development. Metallurgy, architecture, ceramic arts, agriculture, navigation, commerce, industry, all are quickened by its vivifying flame. It has played, and still does play, an important part in the religious ceremonies and the funereal rites of nations, both savage and civilized. But then, in turn, as though by a law of Fate, evil accompanies the good: fire destroys with greater rapidity than it produces by forging those formidable engines, those implements of death, by which in the twinkling of an eye the flower of nations is cut down on the battle-field.—Revue Scientifique.

  1. Translated from the French by J. Fitzgerald, A.M. vol. x. 2
  2. It is well worthy of note that the swastika, PSM V10 D028 Hindu swastika 1.png, of India occurs very frequently in two forms, viz., PSM V10 D028 Hindu swastika 1.png and PSM V10 D028 Hindu swastika 3.png, on the earthen-ware disks found in such great numbers by Dr. Schliemann among the ruins of ancient Ilium. From this it would seem to follow that the Trojans were of Aryan origin. As for the analogies, or even direct resemblances, between certain ceremonies to the worship of Agni and certain rites of the Catholic worship, they, too, may be explained, at least to some extent, by community of origin: Agni, as Akta, would be Christ; Maya, the Virgin Mary; Twastri, Saint Joseph.
  3. A small, sharp-nosed animal, not unlike the Guinea-pig.
  4. Vol. i., p. 139.
  5. Paste, the mineral substance in which other minerals are imbedded.—Webster.
  6. Albert Reville, Revue des Deux Mondes, tome xl.