Fire and The Fire Bringer

by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Chinese Safety Matches

1. Matches

My first vivid memory of fire. I was five years old in Korea, living in a house that was once owned by a Japanese Colonel (whose ghost was said to linger there). My mother and her friends were playing flower cards in the middle of the room. It was a nice late-spring day; from where I sat on the floor, bored, I could see the solid blue sky outside the window.

It is a custom in Korea to bring matches when you first visit someone who has just moved into a new house, and we still had many fresh boxes of matches—large octagonal boxes jammed full of wooden matchsticks all standing with their red heads pointing up. My mother and her friends all chain-smoked, and so there were plenty of matches being lit throughout the afternoon. They didn’t notice when I lit a few myself by striking them against one of the eight walls of the matchbox. Everything was quiet, with only the regular slap of flower cards on the mat or the rustle of someone gathering up their winnings. The air was thick with blue-white smoke; a gentle breeze came through the window, letting us breathe

As I lit another match, something came over me. That is the only way I can explain why I casually took the burning match and touched it to the top of the box, igniting the other 250 matches. I can still see how the flames exploded, very slowly—yellow, blue, red, white—releasing a white pillar of smoke straight upward until it hit the breeze from the window and spread, filling the entire room with a thick sulfurous stench that left us all coughing and choking.I don’t remember being punished for what I did that day, but I do remember that I felt a sort of awe at the power of that single match magnified 250 times. It made me respect fire even on those inevitable occasions when I played with it later in life.

2. Prometheus

Of the primordial elements, it is probably fire that remains the most mysterious and fascinating, even today. For the ancient Greeks fire was sacred, a divine substance whose power helped humans distinguish themselves from (and hold dominion over) the animals who had received all of the physical gifts of the gods. For the Greeks the fire god, Hephaestus (Vulcan), was also the god of the forge, the holder of technology; but he, unlike the other gods, was ugly and deformed. The goddess of the hearth, Hestia (Vesta), was essential to each home, and her sacred flame could not be allowed to die. When a Greek colony was established, a burning coal from the mother city would be taken all the way to the colony to light its first hearth and establish a ritual connection to its motherland (this is the little-known origin of the Olympic torch ritual).

"The Theft of Fire" by Christian Griepenkerl

But the figure most closely associated with the meaning of fire is Prometheus, and the story of how fire came to humans is a profound narrative more resonant to us than the original cosmological creation myths because it involves the creation of humans. Thomas Bulfinch, in The Age of Fable (1913), writes:

Before earth and sea and heaven were created, all things wore one aspect, to which we give the name of Chaos — a confused and shapeless mass, nothing but dead weight, in which, however, slumbered the seeds of things. Earth, sea, and air were all mixed up together; so the earth was not solid, the sea was not fluid, and the air was not transparent. God and Nature at last interposed, and put an end to this discord, separating earth from sea, and heaven from both. The fiery part, being the lightest, sprang up, and formed the skies; the air was next in weight and place. The earth, being heavier, sank below; and the water took the lowest place, and buoyed up the earth.

Prometheus took some of this earth, and kneading it up with water, made man in the image of the gods. He gave him an upright stature, so that while all other animals turn their faces downward, and look to the earth, he raises his to heaven, and gazes on the stars.

Prometheus was one of the Titans, a gigantic race, who inhabited the earth before the creation of man. To him and his brother Epimetheus was committed the office of making man, and providing him and all other animals with the faculties necessary for their preservation. Epimetheus undertook to do this, and Prometheus was to overlook his work, when it was done. Epimetheus accordingly proceeded to bestow upon the different animals the various gifts of courage, strength, swiftness, sagacity; wings to one, claws to another, a shelly covering to a third, etc. But when man came to be provided for, who was to be superior to all other animals, Epimetheus had been so prodigal of his resources that he had nothing left to bestow upon him. In his perplexity he resorted to his brother Prometheus, who, with the aid of Minerva, went up to heaven, and lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun and brought down fire to man. With this gift man was more than a match for all other animals.It enabled him to make weapons wherewith to subdue them; tools with which to cultivate the earth; to warm his dwelling, so as to be comparatively independent of climate; and finally to introduce the arts and to coin money, the means of trade and commerce.*

Humans received from Prometheus, whose name means "forethought," the fundamental thing that distinguishes us from animals. Epimetheus, whom Edith Hamilton calls "a scatterbrained person who invariably followed his first impulse and then changed his mind," bears a name that means "afterthought," suggesting that the bringer of fire also brought with him a special kind of knowledge associated with the gods. (One of the major cognitive faculties that distinguishes us from most animals is the ability to plan ahead.)

"Prometheus being Chained by Vulcan" by Dirk Van Baburen

Since this knowledge, and the technology of fire, was not initially meant for people, Prometheus had a high price to pay for his transgression and the anger he aroused in the gods. Zeus (Jupiter/Jove) has Prometheus chained to a rock on Mount Caucas to suffer eternal torment: an eagle comes down to rip out his liver and devour it — again and again throughout time because Prometheus’ wound is magically healed after each incident. (In some versions of the story, it is a vulture that tears out his liver, and in later myths, Hercules releases him.)

Bulfinch says, "This state of torment might have been brought to an end at any time by Prometheus, if he had been willing, to submit to his oppressor; for he possessed a secret which involved the stability of Jove’s (Zeus’) throne, and if he would have revealed it, he might have been at once taken into favour. But that he disdained to do. He has therefore become the symbol of magnanimous endurance of unmerited suffering, and strength of will resisting oppression." Hamilton notes that Prometheus’ punishment is especially cruel because he had also swindled the gods of the good part of animal sacrifices by convincing them to take the fat and entrails of the burnt offerings, leaving the meat to the humans. (This is Hesiod’s explanation for why the gods initially took fire from humans and why Prometheus stole it back.)

Prometheus is a tragic figure, a trickster, and a kind of savior figure who sacrifices himself for the good of humans. This makes him a Christ figure, and perhaps that is why he was a favorite subject of the Romantic poets and even appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The full title of Mary Shelley’s timeless novel of science and hubris is Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus; she updates the technology from fire to electricity, but the theme is the same: men are not equipped to hold power over divine knowledge and technology.