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The Theft Of Fire

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The conquest of fire by man deservedly ranks among the most impressive of all race-memories, for perhaps no one natural agency has done so much to exalt the potency of the human race as has that which gives us heat and light and power. Mythic imagination everywhere ascribes a divine origin to fire; the heaven, or some other remote region over which guardian powers preside, is the source of this great agency, from which — as in the Greek tale of Prometheus — it is "stolen in the pith" and borne among men to alleviate their estate.

In Algonquian myth the Great Hare, here as elsewhere, is "the benefactor of mankind." A Menominee version begins quite naïvely: "Manabush, when he was still a youth, once said to his grandmother Nokomis, `Grandmother, it is cold here and we have no fire; let me go to get some.' Nokomis endeavours to dissuade him, but the young hero, in his canoe, starts eastward across the waters to an island where dwells the old man who has fire. "This old man had two daughters, who, when they emerged from the sacred wigwam, saw a little Rabbit, wet and cold, and carefully taking it up they carried it into the sacred wigwam, where they set it down near the fire to warm." When the watchers are occupied, the Rabbit seizes a burning brand and scurries to his canoe, pursued by the old man and his daughters. "The velocity of the canoe caused such a current of air that the brand began to burn fiercely"; and thus fire is brought to Nokomis. "The Thunderers received the fire from Nokomis, and have had the care of it ever since.

It is not difficult to see in the old man across the Eastern waters a Sun-God, nor in the sacred wigwam with its maiden watchers a temple of fire with its Vestals. "Fire," says De Smet, "is, in all the Indian tribes that I have known, an emblem of happiness or good fortune." It is the emblem of life, too. Said a Chippewa prophet: "The fire must never be suffered to go out in your lodge. Summer and winter, day and night, in storm or when it is calm, you must remember that the life in your body and the fire in your lodge are the same and of the same date. If you suffer your fire to be extinguished, at that moment your life will be at its end." Even in the other world, fire is the source of life; there Chibiabos keeps the sacred fire that lights the dead thither; and, says De Smet, "to see a fire rising mysteriously, in their dreams or otherwise, is the symbol of the passage of a soul into the other world." He narrates, in this connexion, the fine Chippewa legend of a chief, arrow-stricken in the moment of victory, whose body was left, in all its war-panoply, facing the direction of the enemy's retreat. On the long homeward return of the war-party, the chief's spirit accompanies the warriors and tries to assure them that he is not dead, but present with them; even when the home village is reached and he hears his deeds lauded, he is unable to make his presence known; he cannot console his mourning father; his mother will not dress his wounds; and when he shouts in the ear of his wife, "I am thirsty! I am hungry!" she hears only a vague rumbling. Then he remembers having heard how the soul sometimes for-sakes its body, and he retraces the long journey to the field of battle. As he nears it, a fire stands directly in his path. He changes his course, but the fire moves as he does; he goes to the right, to the left, but the spirit-fire still bars his way. At last, in desperate resolution, he cries out: "I also, I am a spirit; I am seeking to return to my body; I will accomplish my design. Thou wilt purify me, but thou shalt not hinder the realization of my project. I have always conquered my enemies, notwithstanding the greatest obstacles. This day I will triumph over thee, Spirit of Fire!" With an intense effort he darts through the mysterious flame, and his body, to which the soul is once more united, awakens from its long trance on the field of battle.

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