Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Acquisition of Fire

Among the Greek, the story of how Prometheus stole Fire from the Gods to bring it to mankind is well-known. For the purpose of this essay, I will be using the retelling of Prometheus’ tale as told by Hesiod in Theogony (l. 535-570). Hesiod tells of Prometheus tricking Zeus into taking the bones and fat instead of the meat of the sacrifice and then stealing the spark of fire for man by hiding it away in a fennel stalk for transport. Zeus punishes Prometheus by having him bound to a rock on the cliffs of Scythia where he shall remain for 10,000 generations, burning by day and freezing by night, with the Eagles of Zeus feasting upon his entrails while he yet lives. Zeus also punishes man by creating what can only be described as unrequited desire. He had Hephaistos create a maiden out of clay, whom Athene adorned with flowers and veils. Zeus then breathed into her all the beauty and wonder of the natural world, making her appearance desirable beyond compare. Then, he made her heart full of selfish desires and gave her a wicked tongue.  (Hesiod, Theogony)

This narrative is decidedly Greek with no evident influence from another religious bias. It is written in third person from a time before time was measured by the human race. The tone of the piece is consistent with other works of both Hesiod, Homer, and Aeschylus, all of whom describe Zeus as an angry, bitter, and vengeful God who sets himself above humans as superior and who treats them with indifference if not annoyance and wrath. The underlying emotions of the piece create a sympathy and gratefulness for Prometheus, without whom the humans would still be wandering in the dark and giving all the edible parts of our livestock to the Gods in sacrifice. Fire was a creation of the God, Hephaistos, and in order for the humans to use it, it had to be stolen from the Gods in trickery and deceit. 

Among the Vedic, the Fire is personified in the God, Agni.* For the purposes of this essay, I will be discussing the tale of Agni’s Hiding as found in the Markandeya Purana and in Mahabharata. Agni has many names and many progeny, depending on the type of fire. Once upon a time, Angi was angry, and so, he went to the forest to perform “austerities,” self-denial and reflection. While he was away, the sage Agniras became Agni, living in his home and bringing heat and light to the world—and he was good. Agni saw his skill and became frustrated, assuming the Brahma had appointed a new fire while he was away. During his time in the forest, his own “fieriness” had disappeared. Slowly, Angi approached Agniras. Before he could speak, Agniras hailed and welcomed him and asked him to return to his duties. Agni refused at first, saying he had lost his place and that Agniras should be fire now with Agni as the second fire. Agniras refused this arrangement and asked that Agni make him his son, and the Gods approved. (Ganguli)

Agni, who is prone to disappearing and hiding, also takes flight in fright during an agnistoma sacrifice. He hides three times: first in the sea, then in the earth where he dissolves, and then in the ocean. Agni’s hiding place is revealed all three times. When he is hidden in the sea and the Gods cannot find him, the fish in the sea betray him. Agni curses the fish, saying, “You shall be the food of the creatures in the various modes of being.” Agni moves on to hide in the earth, producing many metals and precious stones out of the discarded parts of his body. He is roused by the combined works of the Bhrgu, Agniras and the other Seers and bursts into flame. In his fright, he flees once more and hides in the ocean and disappears. He disappears so well, in fact, that the entire world fears for his loss. Atharvan, who had been carrying out Agni’s role in his absence, sees the fire in the ocean and creates the worlds. He churns the ocean and fire reappears from the water and forevermore is the water a carrier of oblations. In further tales, Agni hides once more in the Sami tree. The Gods made this tree the “sacred abode” of fire for all rituals, and the wood of this tree was given to man to kindle and create fire because of the remnants of his essence. (MBh. 13. 84. 42) (Feller 83-87)

The Vedic tale is also told in the third person, and there is no evidence of influence from other cultures. The time frame of this piece is also from a time outside of human reckoning. The tone of this piece, however, is quite different from that of the Greeks. Agni is adored, and his loss is felt with great pain. His work must continue, and so when he is gone, others attempt to fill his shoes, but this is never enough, for he is always sought and restored. The further hymns of Agni speak of him with reverence and adoration—a very different feel than the fear and blatant animosity expressed in the hymns and tales of Zeus.

The mixture of the fire and the water is of interest, and the common thread between the tales is evident when the story of Prometheus is continued as described in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. After his binding, Prometheus is comforted in his lamenting by the Daughters of Ocean and later by Ocean himself.  Also of interest is the aspect of the Fire in the Water as a source of creation, and though not expressly stated, the Fire in both instances is the means by which offering is given to the Gods. 

*It may be more appropriate to relate the tale of Agni to that of Hestia, who gave up her place in Olympus to dwell in the hearth fires of men. The fire was already with man when she sought to join them and is therefore outside the scope of this essay. 

Athanassakis, Apostolos N., trans. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and Shield. MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Print.

Feller, Danielle. The Sanskrit Epics’ Representation of Vedic Myths. Jawahar Nagar, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass: 2004. Print.

Ganguli, Kiseri Mohan. Trans. The Mahabharata. 1883-1896. Web. 25 April 2014

Sargent, Thelma, trans. The Homeric Hymns. NY: W.W. Norman and Company, Inc., 1973. Print.