3. Fire Gods and Fire Bringers
Fire gods and goddesses are deeply-rooted in all ancient cultures, and their manifestations are quite diverse, but they all seem to share the quality of being associated with a form of wisdom beyond human understanding. The Hindu god of fire, Agni, for example, is worshipped as terrestrial fire (flame), heavenly fire (lightning), and divine fire (the sun). He is also an elemental figure along with other personified deities such as Varuna, the embodiment of air, but since Agni is the one linked to the ritual fire sacrifices, he has an especially prominent place in ancient Vedic myth. Indeed, his name is the first word in the ancient Rig Veda, the seminal Vedic text.
Why is Agni so important? He is, of course, immortal, and he has power over both humans and gods. He is reborn each day (like the sun), invoked through the use of the fire drill, which causes flame by the friction of his parental element, wood. The sparks from Agni’s fire are the origin of stars. But most importantly, Agni is the embodiment of transformation. It is through him that the gods communicate with humans, and it is through him that humans are able to metabolize the food they eat. Thus, on the one hand, it is Agni’s burning of sacrificial meat that transforms it into a message — smoke rising to the gods in heaven; on the other hand, he is what allows humans to digest their food by "burning" calories (a process we know to be literally true).
So important is Agni that other religious traditions refer to him to establish their own power. When the Buddha emerged in the 6th Century B.C., one of his legendary deeds was to convert a group of 1,000 fire worshipping ascetics to his path; the Fire Sermon, delivered in Bodh-gaya, is one of the canonical texts of Buddhism. A well-known symbol appropriated by the Buddhists (and later by the Nazis) is the swastika, which some scholars say originally represented the fire drill associated with Agni. (The image of fire being produced from a stick is reminiscent of the Prometheus myth, in which he is said to have brought the fire in a hollow fennel stalk.)
The Hawaiian goddess of fire is Pele, also known as the "Goddess of a Thousand Names." She is associated with volcanoes, making her both a fundamentally creative and destructive figure. Volcanoes are literally the foundation for all terrestrial life in the Hawaiian Islands (one of Pele’s names is "She Who Shapes the Sacred Land"), and yet their power can be terrifying and destructive to humans. Her dual nature also reveals itself in her physical appearance — she can be a beautiful young woman or an old hag, and when her anger is invoked, she becomes a flaming woman or the fire element itself. One of the legends regarding volcanoes under the protection of Pele is that bad fortune will follow anyone who removes so much as a rock from them. Each year, according to the National Park Service in Hawaii, thousands of tourists mail back volcanic rocks they had stolen from the parks, their initial skepticism apparently outweighed by Pele’s curse.
Brigit, the Celtic goddess of fire, like Agni, is associated with three different and yet parallel aspects of fire: the hearth, the forge, and inspiration. She seems to combine the aspects of Hestia’s hearth and Hephaestus’ forge with Prometheus’ connection to divine knowledge. Although she is a Pagan goddess, Brigit did not disappear when the Celts were converted to Christianity. She became St. Brigit, Jesus’ foster mother.
In North America the story of the fire bringer often serves to explain the origins of other natural phenomena as well. According to the Choctaw, Grandmother Spider brought fire after the opossum, the buzzard, and the crow had failed. The story also explains why the opossum, once known for his bushy tail, has a bare one; why the buzzard, once proud of its beautiful neck feathers, has a red and blistered head; and why the crow, once pure white with the most beautiful singing voice is now black and has a hoarse caw for a call — all because they were each burned as they failed in their attempts to bring fire. Grandmother Spider also taught people how to weave and how to make pottery out of clay (which also links her indirectly to the theme of creation out of clay — see "Of Men and Mud" in the Reading Room of the Journal Archives).