Fire Gods

We observed in an earlier chapter that PIE had both an animate and an inanimate word for fire, *hngwni- and *peh2üf The first was applicable to fire

88 Flateyjarbok i. 219 (Fundinn Noregr), Orkneyinga saga 1; cf. Skaldsk. 27.

90 Matthaeus Waissel, Paul Einhorn, Matthaeus Praetorius, in Mannhardt (1936), 243, 468 f., 472, 481, 542. We saw in Chapter 3 that Lithuanian gods' names are often made with -patis = IE *-potis, and that Latvian tends to turn them into Mothers.

91 Jonval (1929), 16 and nos. 464-98. There is also a Mother of the North Wind, Ziemela mamulina, LD 31724 = Jonval no. 500.

92 Carmichael (1928-59), iii. 271.

considered as an active principle. This suggests, at least as a potentiality, the treatment of fire as a divinity.

In India he does indeed appear as a divinity, an important one, under the name Agni, which is the direct continuation of *hngwni-. Elsewhere—even in lands where reflexes of *hngwni- served as the ordinary word for fire—we find fire-gods under a variety of other names. The diversity makes it harder to argue for their original identity. But fire has always played a major role in cult and must always have retained its sacral character in that context. And in the case of such a dangerous entity it is only to be expected that its primary name should often have become taboo and alternative names substituted. So we should keep an open mind, and be alert for points of contact that go beyond the simple association with fire.

Agni is fire of all kinds, terrestrial and celestial: the fire of the sun and lightning, a forest fire, the fire of the domestic hearth and the sacrificial altar. Two of his attributes, 'seen from afar' and 'untiring', correspond in sense, though not etymologically, to epithets applied in Greek to the impersonal 'fire'.93 It is the sacrificial fire that is of central importance for religion, and this is why Agni is celebrated in over two hundred hymns in the Rigveda. Lit anew every morning, this fire carries the oblation to the gods and also brings them to the sacrifice, thus linking heaven and earth. In looking for cognate fire-gods in other traditions we must keep the fires of altar and hearth, regulated as they are by ceremony and ritual, as a central point of reference.

Herodotus in the passage quoted above includes fire among the Persians' objects of worship. The Avestan word for it is atar- (masculine). In its scope it is entirely comparable to Vedic agni-. It denotes fire generally, and especially the sacral and hearth fire, often personified and honoured as a god. Atar is closely associated with Ahura Mazda as his ally and agent; he is indeed constantly called his son (Y. 1. 12, 3. 2, 22. 3, etc.). It may be that this filiation was adapted from an Indo-Iranian tradition that Agni was the son of Dyaus, as he is in the Rigveda (4. 15. 6; 6. 49. 2; son of Dyaus and Prthivi, 3. 2. 2, 3. 11, al.).

In Yt. 19. 46-51 a mythical account is given of the contest for the sovereign glory (xvaronah-) between Spanta Mainyu and Agra Mainyu, the Bounteous Will and the Hostile Will. It is fought for by their respective champions Atar and Azi Dahaka, the three-headed dragon. The latter threatens that he will extinguish Atar, and Atar is deterred. But then he counter-attacks, threatening to shoot a jet of flame through the monster from his rear end to his mouths,

93 RV 7. 1. 1 doredrSa, cf. TS 4. 1. 3. 4 ~ Hes. Th. 566 nvpo; r-qXeoKonov avy^v; RV 2. 35. 8; 3. 1. 21, 54. 1, al. ajasra— Il. 5. 4, al. aKiiparov nvp. The latter parallel is noted by Durante (1976), 93.

and faced with this prospect AZi prudently withdraws. The story is set in a framework of Zoroastrian theology, but it is evidently a version of the old myth in which the many-headed enemy of the storm-god was overcome with the help of fire.

Chief among the Scythian gods, according to Herodotus (4. 59, 127. 4), was Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, called in the Scythian language Tabiti. It is a natural conjecture that this contains the Indo-European root *tep 'be hot, burn'.94 Our Greek source perhaps gives us the name in a slightly distorted guise, but it might represent a feminine participial form corresponding to an Indo-Iranian *Tapatf, 'the Burning one'.

In view of the difference of gender we cannot say that this Scythian goddess is just Agni or Atar under another name. But she must have had some of their most important functions. In Greece and Italy we again find the sacral or domestic hearth under the tutelage of a female deity, Hestia or Vesta; and these names too, as we saw in Chapter 3, may originally have meant 'Burning'. In cult terms they are the Greek and Roman counterparts of Agni. According to Ovid (Fasti 6. 291) the living flame was itself Vesta. Her shrine in the Forum, with its perpetual fire, was the civic hearth of Rome and its oldest temple. Its distinctive circular form recalls the use of round altars for the domestic fire in the Agni cult.95 If the fire ever went out, a new flame had to be kindled by the same ancient ritual method as was employed in India for the regeneration of Agni, drilling with wood in wood.96

Both Greeks and Romans also had a male god of fire, though he appears somewhat marginalized. The Greek Hephaestus (a son of Zeus, as Agni is of Dyaus) has in the epic and mythological tradition the specialized role of divine smith and artificer. He has clearly been to some extent assimilated to the Canaanite smith-god.97 On the other hand r¡j>aioros can also mean fire, especially the fire over which the flesh of sacrificial victims is cooked or in which a body is cremated, as in II. 2. 426, 'they spitted the innards and held them over (the) tffiaioros'; cf. 9. 468 = 23. 33 'in the flame of Hephaestus', Od. 24. 71. In the battle of the gods in Iliad 21 Hephaestus creates a conflagration to counter the river Scamander, burning trees and vegetation and making the water boil (330-82; cf. Hymn. Herm. 115). The etymology of his name is obscure. From its bulk it looks like a compound, and this would point to a periphrastic title that replaced an original proper name. It may perhaps

95 G. Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, i (Chicago 1970), 313-17; A. Della Volpe, JIES 18 (1990), 166-70, who argues that it symbolized the sun; J. P. Mallory in EIEC 203.

96 On the technique and its Indo-European status see Kuhn (1859), 36-47. He notes the use of oak wood attested for this purpose in Greek, Roman, and Germanic sources.

contain the 'burn' root that appears in Greek a'idw, Latin aestus < *aidh-tus. But the first element resists analysis.

The Roman Volcanus looks more perspicuous, to us if not to Cicero (De nat. deorum 3. 62). The -no- suffix is the typical appendage to a word indicating the god's domain. Volca- evidently represents an old word to do with fire, related to Vedic ulktl 'darting flame' (RV 4. 4. 2 of Agni's flames; 10. 68. 4) and/or varcas- 'brilliance, glare'. Wolfgang Meid found a matching theonym in the Ossetic legendary smith Kurd-Ala-Wargon, 'the Alan smith Wargon', and postulated an original *wlka-.98 In literature Volcanus is assimilated to Hephaestus and portrayed as a smith, but in essence he was the god of volcanic and other fire. A connection with the hearth fire is presupposed in the legends of Caeculus, the founder of Praeneste, and Servius Tullius: each of them was conceived as a result of his mother's contact with the hearth fire, and was said to be a son of Volcanus.99

The Germans, according to Caesar (Bell. Gall. 6. 21. 2), recognized as gods only those whom they could see and from whom they received manifest benefits, Sun, Moon, and 'Volcanus'. The reference is clearly not to a divine smith but to fire considered as a (male) deity. In late pre-Conquest England King Canute proscribed worship of 'heathen gods, Sun or Moon, fire or flood, water, wells or stones or trees of any kind'. It was mentioned above that a Nordic genealogy named Sea, Fire, and Wind as the three sons of a primal giant. 'Fire' is Logi, an ordinary word for a blaze, here personified. He makes another appearance in Snorri's story of Thor's adventures in Giantland, where—seen as a person and not recognized for what he is—he defeats his near-namesake Loki in an eating contest.100 He is Wagner's Loge. But he scarcely exists as a mythical figure, let alone as an object of cult. There is more to be said for Loki as a god of the hearth fire and fire more generally, though this is not at all reflected in his mythology, only in certain popular sayings recorded from Scandinavia and Iceland.101 German folklore provides a

98 Kretschmer (1896), 133; Müller (1897), 799 f.; von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 534 n. 1; Meid (1957), 95-7; id., IF 66 (1961), 125-31; Puhvel (1987), 150. Agni is suvärcas-, pavakävarcas-, sukrävarcas-, 'of good/shining/bright brilliance'.

99 Cato, Origines fr. 59 Peter; Serv. Aen. 7. 679; Dion. Hal. Ant. 4. 2. 1-3, cf. Ov. Fast. 6. 627; von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 539.

100 Gylf. 46 f. Agni too is a great eater, RV 4. 2. 7; 10. 79. 1-2; MBh. 1. 215. 5; TS 1. 1. 7. 1; he devours food, however much, in an instant, RV 7. 4. 2; he is omnivorous, 8. 44. 26; he has teeth and jaws, 1. 58. 5, 143. 5; 5. 2. 3; 8. 60. 13 f.; 10. 87. 2. Greek poets too speak of fire eating (Il. 23. 182), having jaws ([Aesch.] Prom. 368), being omnivorous (mi^ayov, Eur. Med. 1187). The eating metaphor is paralleled in Germanic literature: Beowulf 1122, 3014 f., 3114; HelgakviBa HiyrvarBzsonar 10. 5, Alvissmäl 26. 4; Grimm (1883-8), 601. Cf. Durante (1976), 142. It is also at home in Akkadian and Hebrew: West (1997), 254.

101 von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 549, 554; de Vries (1956), ii. 264.

quantity of evidence for prayers being addressed to the stove, and for the solemn provision of food offerings to the fire with the expectation of good will in return.102

In Lithuania, as fifteenth-century sources attest, priests maintained a perpetual holy fire, worshipped as 'Vulcanus', at which they practised divination.103 Eighteenth-century lexica say that the heathens' Vulcanus was called Jagaubis or Ugnis szwenta ('holy Fire').104 Ugnis 'fire', the cognate of agnih, ignis, Slavonic ogoni, is feminine in Lithuanian, and the fire was in fact venerated as a female deity. An archaic, elevated word or name for it/her was gabe or gabija, sventa Gabija. Jan Lasicki (Lasicius) in his De Diis Samagi-tarum (1580) records a prayer to be addressed to the house-fire, 'Gabie Deuaite', that is, 'Fire, daughter of God', if damp weather prevented the harvested grain from drying out. He also mentions a goddess Polengabia or Pelengabia, 'Hearth-fire'.105 Another title by which the fire was addressed was sventa Ponike, 'holy Mistress'.106 In Latvia, predictably, the goddess became Uguns mate, 'the Mother of Fire'.107

A tenth-century Persian geographer states that the Slavs (Saqlab) all venerate fire, and more recent literary sources and ethnographiec evidence attest fire-worship or prayers to the fire among various Slavonic peoples.108 The house fire was especially honoured in Ukraine and Belarus.109

It has often been assumed, and with reason, that the cult of the hearth goes back to Indo-European times.110 The hearth fire was the indispensable centre and defining point of the home. It had to be tended with care and given offerings at appropriate times. If one moved to a new house, one carried fire there from the old one. New members of the household, such as a newborn child or a new bride, had to be introduced to the hearth fire by being led or carried round it. The custom that the bride circles the hearth three times is common to Indians, Ossetes, Slavs, Balts, and Germans.111

102 von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 575-9; de Vries (1956), i. 176 f., 360 f.

103 Enea Silvio Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) and Johannes Dfugosz in Mannhardt (1936), 135, 139 = Clemen (1936), 104, 105.

104 Mannhardt (1936), 610 f., who takes Jagaubis to be a corrupt form of Gabjaujis, a god of crops who also protected against fire (cf. ibid. 572 f.).

105 Mannhardt (1936), 359, cf. 372, 389; 357, 'Polengabia diva est, cui foci lucentis administra-tio creditur'.

107 Ibid. 622.

108 C. H. Meyer (1931), 95. 3; 18. 21 (Cosmas of Prague), 21. 4, 69. 34; von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 579; Unbegaun (1948), 426; Vaiia (1992), 57 f., 69, 117-20, 231 (offerings).

110 Cf. Kretschmer (1896), 91 f.; von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 589-91; de Vries (1956), i. 176 f.; A. Della Volpe, JIES 18 (1990), 157-66.

111 Cf. von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 574 f., 589-91; Mannhardt (1936), 254-6, 296 f., 363; de Vries (1956), i. 177; Biezais-Balys (1973), 410; N. Reiter in Wb. d. Myth. i(2), 180.

The god of the hearth fire is fitly called 'master of the house'. Agni has this title (dâmpati-, RV 5. 22. 4; 8. 84. 7; grhâpati-, 1. 12. 6, 36. 5, etc.), as does Atar (Y. 17. 11 Atrom vïspanqm nmànanqm nmànopaitïm, 'housemaster of all houses'), and a variant of the same compound survived in Lithuania. The Jesuit Relatio for 1604 records the cult there of a deus domesticus named Dimstapatis: some said he was a god of fire, and they would offer a cock to him, eating it themselves and committing the bones to the hearth, while others regarded him as the housewives' god.112 In Chapter 3 we noticed the Mycenaean deity written as do-po-ta, perhaps standing for Dospotas (*doms-). Here is the same title again; unfortunately we cannot tell whether this Housemaster too was a fire-god.

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