The Discovery of Fire

The Scripture, although it does notice various important inventions, has no record of the discovery of fire. Yet the  sacred history does afford some facts by which the investigation of the subject might be materially assisted.

There seems a general impression that fire was not known until after the fall. It never seems to have entered any one’s mind that there could be need of fire in Eden. The happy temperature must have prevented the need of fire for warmth; and no one has ever supposed that the first pair had any other food in paradise than fruits in their natural state.

The fire which guarded Eden shows the presence of fire—but does not indicate that man had yet learned how to reduce that fierce element to his service. Nor is this proved even by the existence of sacrifice; for it has already been supposed possible, that accepted offerings were consumed by supernatural fire—perhaps from that which guarded the approach to paradise. All we can say with certainty is, that the use of fire must have been discovered before Tubal-Cain became an “instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.”

We have, however, little doubt that the use of fire was, if not known in Eden, discovered soon after the fall. In this we have both the traditionists and the poets on our side; and on a subject of this kind it is pleasant to listen to their statements.

We notice that the Moslem traditions regard the use of fire as a supernatural revelation—and indeed hold that most of the primary arts of life were taught to Adam by angels. This is the case even with fire. We are told that Gabriel instructed Adam and Eve how to make bread; and when an oven had been made under his direction, he fetched fire from hell with which to heat it. The angel, however, had the precaution to wash this fire seventy times in the sea, as otherwise it would have burnt up the earth and all that it contained.

Old Du Bartas handles this subject with remarkable ingenuity and poetical fancy. He relates that on some occasion, the winds blowing through the grove drove the trees against each other, till two of them caught fire by the concussion. Adam, who witnessed this, fled with terror when he saw the  ruddy flame arise from the copse, which was soon all on fire. The flame pursued him till a naked plain arrested its progress. Recovering his courage, Adam turned back, and observed with interest that cheerful glow which the heat imparted to his frame, and the speed with which it dried his damp clothing. Amid the cold of the ensuing winter, Adam often thought with regret of this, and since this fire was not again kindled among the trees, tried a thousand ways to achieve its reproduction.

“While (elsewhere musing) one day he sate down
Upon a steep rock’s craggy-forked crown,
A foaming beast come toward him he espies,
Within whose head stood burning coals for eyes;
Then suddenly with boisterous arms he throws
A knobby flint that hummeth as it goes;
Hence flies the beast, th’ ill-aimed flint-shaft grounding
Against the rock, and on it oft rebounding
Shivers to cinders, whence there issued
Small sparks of fire, no sooner born than dead.
This happy chance made Adam leap for glee;
And quickly calling his cold company,
In his left hand a shining flint he locks,
With which another in his right he knocks
So up and down, that from the coldest stone
At every stroke small fiery sparkles shone.
Then with the dry leaves of a withered bay,
The which together handsomely they lay,
They take the falling fire, which like a sun
Shines clear and smokeless in the leaf begun.”

Nor is the mother of mankind without some part in the operation. Here is quite a picture—
“Eve, kneeling down, with hand her head sustaining,
And on the low ground with her elbow leaning,
Blows with her mouth; and with her gentle blowing
Stirs up the heat, that from the dry leaves glowing
Kindles the reed, and then that hollow kix
First fires the small, and they the greater sticks.”

Thus the poet, in the exuberance of his imagination, provides us with two modes in which the use of fire might have  been discovered; and yet the two modes are skilfully connected, because if Adam had not experienced the use in the first instance, he would not have cared for the hint which the second afforded.

The friction of dry wood seems to be the mode most usually indicated as the probable source of the discovery. It is thus stated in the Phoenician annals, as preserved by Sanchoniatho, though they refers the invention to the third generation. Genus (Cain), the son of Protogenus (Adam) and Eon (Eve), begets mortal children, whose names are Phos, Phor, and Phlox (light, fire, and flame). “These found out the way of producing fire by rubbing two pieces of wood against each other, and taught men the use thereof.” In fact this mode is that to which the Greeks also and the Chinese ascribed the origin of fire; and the process has been noticed as actually in use among various savage nations.

Nature however offers other processes of combustion which might have suggested the mode of obtaining fire, and perhaps have disclosed some of its uses. Lightning not infrequently kindles fires on earth; and to incidents of this sort the discovery of fire was ascribed by the ancient Egyptians. Spontaneous combustion is often also produced by the fermentation of certain substances, heaped together, as we too often hear is the case with stacks of hay. Then, without speaking of volcanoes, we find natural fires in various places from the ignition of gases, or from some combustible quality of the soil. Woods have also been kindled by the eruption of subterraneous fires.

Yet man might know fire as an element long before he thought that it might be rendered of some use; and the ancient accounts have scarcely exaggerated the importance or difficulty of the discovery. This is indicated by the fact that various nations have been found to whom the use of fire was altogether unknown. This was the case with the inhabitants of the Philippine and the Canary Isles at their first discovery; and also with various tribes in Africa and America, who consequently fed on raw flesh. The inhabitants of the Mariana  Isles, discovered in 1521, had not the least idea of fire. When they first saw it, as introduced by Magellan’s people, they regarded it as a species of animal which fed upon wood. The first who approached were burnt, which inspired great fear of the terrible creature, which could thus painfully wound with its strong breath. A volume—and one of no common interest—might be written of the origin, the history, the traditions, the powers, and the uses of fire, which was of old worshipped in many nations as a god.