Among the peoples of the world there does not appear to be any race which has not, when the world was young, created a mythology. Echoes of their distant themes are part of the history of literature in every culture. Stories of the myths and legends of ancient Greece belong to the schooldays of the Western nations, and in the words of our everyday language like "herculean" and "titanic" we can discern their influence.
The stories that entertain us in our youth present a problem of definition to the sociologist and anthropologist. No one definition of what makes a story a myth is commonly accepted by those who study them. One authority suggests that the myth is very complex, performing several functions in the life of the society where it originated. At the very least, it may be concerned with beliefs and fears about the dead, with the supernatural, with fertility and the seasons, with occupations and food production, with explanations of natural phenomena and the resolving of apparent contradictions such as old/ young or death/rejuvenation.
An interesting aspect is the appearance of themes that occur in different cultures with only minor variations. Fire myths are remarkably alike in essentials. In the Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, the strongest god in heaven, to give to mankind. A tribe in the Northern Territory of Australia is recorded as saving that only Koimul, the strong and sullen one, had the secret of fire and he would never tell. His secret lay in the two sticks which he held tightly in his armpits. Only the Rainbow bird was able to snatch them away as he flashed and silently swooped upon Koimul. Wirritt-Wirritt, the rainbow bird, gave the fire sticks to an old man who was able to twirl the pointed end of one stick into a notch of the other. This friction caused the wood dust to spark and soon, a fire. In another land, another culture, by the same means, Agni, with wild hair and swift tongue of flame, rises in Vedic India. So these myths go on — some culture hero or kindly animal gains possession of fire in every continent in the Dreamtime of the world.
It is tempting to suggest that these myths are simply stories that relate the origin of fire. However, if we remember that myth is complex it is enlightening to interpret these myths to include another level on which the word "fire" does not mean only physical fire. We tend to think that early man, or man of the myths, had no experience of naturally occurring fire, that he lived in darkness until he invented the fire sticks. This seems unlikely. Lightning strikes are common all over the world — volcanic fires are not unknown. Fires start in other places as they do in Australia: on very hot, dry days when the temperature is in the hundreds, little fires start by the action of the sun's rays on bits of quartz. Fire was not unknown — so on a less material level myths that recognize that fire is a life-bearing element are evidence of a self-reflecting mind and of the awakening of thought and care for others: a fragment of a Tasmanian myth tells of a fire hero who brings two women back to life; Prometheus taught men how to use the medicinal power of plants; Agni will warm the immortal soul of the dead and lead them to the world of the just. On this level the fire myths symbolize the lighting of the fire of the mind.
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1979; copyright © 1979 Theosophical University Press)
Back Issues Menu