The acquisition of fire

Fire is the most ostentatiously supernatural element in the world around us: spectacular, constantly changing, difficult to control, unstable. Peoples the world over have felt that it must have somehow been brought to earth from heaven, the home of the burning sun and the source of the lightning. There are sundry myths about how it was first obtained.119 On the other hand it can be conjured out of stones and wood. The inference is often drawn that it lies hidden in these, and especially in the trees from which fire-sticks are made, having been lodged there by the god of lightning.

This is probably Indo-European. We saw earlier that Perkunas and Perun were believed to put fire into oaks. Hesiod must have a similar idea in mind when he says that Zeus, to withhold fire from mankind, 'would not give it to the ash-trees'.120 In the Indian tradition, where Agni is treated as a god with a will of his own, he is said to have hidden from the gods, usually in the waters (as above) or in plants, and been sought and found.

Thee, Agni, laid in concealment, the Angirases tracked down, that wert distributed tree by tree. As such thou art born through drilling, a great force; they call thee the son of Force, O Angiras.121

An extended narrative in the Mahabharata tells how, after being betrayed in a series of hiding-places, Agni settled in a saml tree. There the gods found him, 'and so they made that tree the sacred abode of fire, for all rituals. From that

118 W. Krause, NGG 1925, 140; Schmitt (1967), 280 f.; Campanile (1977), 109 f.

119 Cf. J. G. Frazer, Apollodorus. The Library (Cambridge, Mass.-London 1921), ii. 326-50; id., Myths of the Origin of Fire (London 1930).

120 Hes. Th. 563; see West (1966), 323 f., where a reference to Soph. Phil. 296 f. may be added for the idea that fire is latent in stones.

121 RV 5. 11. 6; cf. 3. 9. 4 f.; Bhaddevata 7. 61-7, 73-80; Macdonell (1898), 92; Hillebrandt (1927-9), i. 149-55. The Angirases are prototypical Brahman priests.

time forth, Agni is considered to be within the interiors of sami trees, and men use it as a means of producing fire.'122

The verb for 'drill' in the Vedic verse and elsewhere is manth. In a later Sutra the fire-drill is called a pramantha-. Kuhn proposed to find here the origin of Promatheus, Prometheus, the god who in Greek myth stole fire from heaven and gave it to mankind.123 According to a later construction he actually invented fire-sticks (Diod. 5. 67. 2). The Greeks understood his name to mean 'foresighted', in line with the verb npopyd^opai and noun npopydeia. Kuhn supposed that it had originally meant 'the Fire-driller', and was reinterpreted when the related words fell out of use.

When Kuhn wrote, manth (with zero grade math) had not been distinguished from the similar-looking verb math 'seize', which is used, inter alia, of the eagle seizing the Soma (RV 1. 93. 6; 9. 77. 2) and of Matarisvan's capture of fire from heaven (1. 71. 4 = 148. 1; 141. 3; 3. 9. 5; cf. 1. 93. 6). Unlike manth, this verb is found compounded with pra, meaning then 'forcibly snatch to oneself'. Johanna Narten, who clarified all this, suggested that while Prometheus could not be explained from pra-manth- (Kuhn's idea had long since been abandoned), he might perhaps be related to pra-math-, as the Seizer of fire; the long vowel in his second syllable is somewhat problematic, but not an insuperable obstacle. This has been accepted by Durante and Watkins.124 Snatch-thief seems indeed an apter sobriquet for Prometheus than Fore-sighted, and the lexical link with the Vedic firebringer myth is striking.

It remains to explain how npo^nd^opai/npopyd^ia fit in. Volkmar Schmidt has shown how these can be related to ¡ad, the root of ¡avdavw.125 As words meaning 'grasp, apprehend' are readily transferred to the mental sphere, why should this ¡ad not be the same in origin as the Vedic math? As its meaning changed, the mythical Snatcher might well be reinterpreted as Sharpwit, and his name might influence the formation of npopadiopai etc., even though they bear a rather different sense.

The Matarisvan who brings fire from heaven in the Indian myth is identified as the emissary of Vivasvat.126 Vivasvat was the first sacrificer and, as father of Manu, the ancestor of the human race. It was for Manu as sacrificer

122 MBh. 13. 84. 42 f., trs. W. D. O'Flaherty, Hindu Myths (Harmondsworth 1975), 103. Sometimes the wood from a tree struck by lightning was sought out for generating the ritual fire, cf. Oldenberg (1917), 111 n. 5.

124 J. Narten, IIJ4 (1960), 121-35; on Prometheus, 135 n. 40; Durante (1976), 57 f., who notes that in later Sanskrit there is a noun pramaatha- 'seizing, violent abduction', with the long vowel; Watkins (1995), 256 n. 0.

126 RV 6. 8. 4. On Matarisvan cf. Macdonell (1898), 71 f.; Oldenberg (1917), 121-3; Watkins (as n. 124).

that the gods sent Agni down (RV 1. 36. 10, cf. 10. 63. 7). The bringing of fire is thus connected with the beginnings of sacrificial ritual and of mankind. The Prometheus myth, though dissimilar in detail, likewise associates the theft of fire with the institution of sacrifice, when gods and men were first coming to a settlement and defining their relations (Hes. Th. 535-70). It is further bound up in Hesiod, not with the creation of mankind, but with that of the first woman. In other sources Prometheus is the father of Deucalion who, as the only male survivor of the Flood, became the progenitor of mankind, or at any rate of a major division of it; or Prometheus fashions mankind out of clay. In Argive myth Phoroneus was both the bringer of fire and 'the father of mortal men' (Phoronis fr. 1). So there is a similar nexus in India and Greece. We seem to be dealing with remnants of a Graeco-Aryan fire myth that had its place within a larger construct.127

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