FIRE is manís most precious possession. Think what would happen if all the fires in the world went out and no one knew how to rekindle them! Our homes would be cold; our food would go uncooked; our trains and our steamboats would stop; our factories would cease to run. Most of the things we eat and drink and wear and handle could no longer be made. We live in what may well be called "The Age of Fire."

The Age of Fire began many, many thousands of years ago. There is no tribe on the face of the earth that does not have a story of how fire first came into manís possession. Because no other living creature can make a fire, and because the ability to make one sets man far above the animals, every story tells how fire came to man from the gods. The Greeks tell how Prometheus went up into Heaven, lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun, and, stealing fire, brought it down to the earth. The gods had never meant that man should have fire, for if he did he would become as one of them. With it he could win from the earth her secrets and make use of her treasures. No! the gods never meant that man should win this miracle-making power to create fire.

No one really knows how man did find out the secret of fire making. Perhaps he saw the lightning come from Heaven and set the dry forests on fire. Perhaps some man, bolder than his fellows, kept the fire that came from Heaven when he found it burning in the woods, and tended his firebrands and fed them with dry wood and warmed himself in their heat. If he did, we may be sure that he was looked upon by his tribe as one who was to be feared and reverenced because he knew the secrets of the gods. In every tribe there were the keepers of the sacred fire. They watched by the fire day and night and fed and tended it, lest it go out and this precious gift of the gods be lost and man perish in the cold.

For many hundreds of years after man knew how to tend and keep fire, he probably did not know how to make it. He could only seek it out where the gods of the lightning or the forest had lighted it, and carry it to his cave and cherish it.

From a painting by Charles R. Knight.
Coutesy of American museum of Natural History, New York.

Then some day, either in rubbing a pointed wood against a hard slab of wood to sharpen the point, or in striking two flints together, man made a fire for himself. That was the greatest moment in the life of early man. With this power in his hand man had the key which should unlock for him the treasure houses of the earth on which he dwelt.

Because there can be no true story of the moment when man first found out the secret of fire making, since it is so far back in the days before history or tradition, let us have the story as the Polynesians tell it of the way a bold and adventurous man won the secret of fire sticks and their use from the Fire God Mauike.

(As it is told in islands of the Pacific Ocean)

Long, long ago, when man had lately come to dwell on the earth, no mortal knew the secret of how to make fire. Only the gods of the underworld knew that, and they guarded it closely lest man should learn it and be as wise as they. Fire dwells in the underworld, as who does not know who sees its smoke coming out of the top of a mountain? But the way to the underworld was hard to find, and the watchers at its gates were many.

Once upon a time there was a youth by the name of Maui who dwelt in the upper world, on the earth where mortals live. He was a mortal, but his father and mother lived in the underworld and came and went on the errands of the gods.

When Mauiís mother, Buaratanga, came to see him, she would never eat with him. Always she took her basket and went off by herself to eat the food which she had brought with her from the underworld. One day while she slept, Maui looked into her basket and took some of the food which was there and tasted it. It was better than anything he had ever eaten. Although it was like his food, still something had been done to it that made it better.

Maui had heard of fire, and of how the gods cooked their food over the fires they made. If fire made food as good as this, he must have it. He made up his mind to follow his mother secretly when she returned, and to brave the dangers of the underworld in order to get this precious gift.

Maui followed behind his mother and slipped past the watchers of the first gates. At some of the inner gates he had to wait a long time until the guards were changed, so that he might get by while they were talking. But after many adventures he came to his motherís house and told her that he would not return to the upper world until he had learned the secret of fire making.

"Ah! but I do not know it myself," said his mother. "None but the Fire God knows that secret, and he will not tell it. When I want a new fire, I go to your father Bu, and he goes to the Fire God and asks him to let him have a bit of burning wood."

"Then I must go to the Fire God and learn the secret from him," said Maui.

Buaratanga did her best to keep her son from going to the Fire God, for she feared lest some harm befall this mortal son of hers in the underworld. But Maui declared he would go. He asked where the Fire God lived and his mother pointed out the way and told him the place was called "The House of the Banana Trees."

As Maui started off, she said to him, "Beware, Maui! Be very careful, for the Fire God is very powerful and he may be very angry."

Maui went to the Fire Godís house, which he knew at once by the smoke which was rising from its roof.

The Fire God was busy cooking his food, but he stopped to ask Maui what he wanted.

"A firebrand," replied Maui.

"No mortal can have a firebrand," replied the Fire God, and went on with his cooking.

Maui told him how mortals needed fire, and how he had come all the long way to get it for them.

"Mortals know too much already. If they had fire, they would think they were gods," replied the Fire God, and turned his back on him.

Maui turned away sorrowful, for he saw the Fire God would never teach him his secret. But he determined to stay secretly near the house and see if he could not find it out for himself. Although he had asked for a firebrand, as his mother told him that his father did, he saw as he watched the fire that a firebrand would not help him, for he could never keep it burning in the long journey to the upper world.

Maui hid himself in a banana tree and waited, watching the Fire God as he fed his fire. Then, when he was weary and hungry and almost ready to give up and go to his motherís house, fortune favored him. Down through the hole in the mountain through which the Fire God sent up the smoke of his fire into the upper world (where all men may see it to this very day), there came a downpour of rain. The Fire God happened to have his fire right under the hole. So quick was the coming of the water that he did not even have a chance to snatch a firebrand. Before he had time to turn around, his fire was gone.

At first the Fire God was too angry to do anything but curse the rain which had put out his fire before his food was half cooked. Then he looked all about him to make sure that no one was in sight. He did not see Maui away up in the tree over his head, looking down into the house. Then the Fire God went into an inner room and shut the door and picked up from a corner a heap of coconut fiber which lay there. From another corner he took a dozen sticks of banana wood. In the center of the room lay a small block of hard wood with a hollow in the center.

While Maui watched eagerly from above, the Fire God took the light banana stick and began to whirl it very fast, keeping its point pressed down hard into the hollow of the block of wood. As he whirled, he sang:

"Give, O give me thy hidden fire,
Thou banana tree!
Kindle a fire for me
From these thy splinters,
Thou banana tree !"

As Maui watched, he saw a light smoke begin to come where the whirling stick rubbed in the hollow. Then the smoke came faster. When the smoke was beginning to rise, the Fire God threw coconut fibers on it, and soon, to Mauiís surprise, there was a bright fire burning there.

Maui lost no time in hurrying back to the upper world. There he took coconut fibers and banana sticks and a block of hard wood and went to work with them, to see if he could make fire. It took him a long time to get the trick of it, for fire making is not easy, as you know if you have tried it; but he learned from many trials just how to hold the dry banana stick and twirl it, and just how hard he must press it into the other wood.

When Maui had proved that fire lived in the banana tree, and that any one could get it with fire sticks, he went and told his secret to the heads of his tribe. They came secretly and watched him make a fire. While some of them feared that the anger of the gods would come on them because they had learned this secret which was not for mortals, the bolder of them rejoiced at this power that had been put into their hands.

So after man learned that the fire dwelt in wood and could be called out at will, he could always make a fire and cook food for himself and warm himself. That was a great day for man when he learned the secret of fire making.

Making fire to-day as Maui did long ago.


In the olden days, while the world was still young, there dwelt in the valley east of Eden a young man by the name of Tubal-cain. He was the grandson of Methuselah, who lived longer on the earth than any other man has ever lived.

Tubal-cain went out on the mountains to be a hunter for his tribe, for he was strong and mighty of stature, so that he could throw a stone spear with a long, swift swing at the wild beast whose life he sought. Also he was keen of sight and quick of movement, so that he could spy a creature lurking in the forest and follow swiftly in pursuit as it fled.

Tubal-cain knew the secret of fire and of fire making. This secret had not been known for many generations in his tribe. A man from the north had taught it to their wise men. He and his tribe had caught the fire which came in lightning from Heaven and kept it until at last they learned to make it for themselves by calling the fire spirit out from the wood in which it dwelt. Tubal-cain played often with the magic of fire. On many a cold night he kept himself warm by coaxing the red flame out of the wood and feeding it with dry brush which he had gathered in the day. He found that prowling beasts were afraid of this spirit and slunk away and did not disturb his slumbers while it stood guard over him.

One very cold day Tubal-cain gathered a huge pile of brushwood and dry logs and set the red spirit to eating it, for he was cold. He had been out in the high mountains all day following a giant tiger. The wind was fierce and cold from the north, and he was chilled to the bone. So he sat long by the fire, and as he gazed into its depths, he saw a sight stranger than any he had ever seen in all his life. A stone which lay in the center of the flame turned red-hot as it lay there, and all of a sudden it began to melt. As it got hotter and hotter there ran out of the fire a stream of melting rock like muddy water that was trying to run away. It lay in a long coil as it ran, turning dark like a black serpent as it escaped from the heat of the fire which had driven this strange substance from out of the stone. Tubal-cain did not know it, but that was the first time any man on earth had ever seen iron, for this stream as of liquid fire which ran away and cooled was a stream of that precious metal which had been hidden in the ore.

For many, many weeks and months after he saw the red stream flow out of the rock, he picked up rocks from the mountain-side and brought them to his fire and tried them out to see if they would melt. Some gave out this stream which was iron; others had bright shining drops, which were of the softer metal that we know as copper. Every bit of stone that looked like those which he had seen first, he tested; and he watched as they cooled to see in what shape they fell.

One day he tried to shape some of the hot metal as it cooled, and it yielded and let him press and pound it into a point like that of his stone spear. The next time a wild beast came near the cave where he lived on the mountain, he threw this new spear at him. It struck him in the forehead and killed him instantly. That was the first weapon that he had made. It suggested to Tubal-cain that he might make other weapons of these new substances which could be pounded to an edge sharper than that of the stones or flints on the shaping of which he had spent so many weary hours.

To the other hunters who came sometimes to his camp in the hills, and to the dwellers in the valley he said nothing of his secret. Yet they marveled at his great prowess and skill as a hunter, for he brought in more game than any other two men of those set on the mountain-side to bring in meat for the valley folk and to protect them from the ravages of the wild beasts.

But to his grandfather Methuselah he told his strange discovery, showing him all the kinds of spearheads and pointed arrows and blunt tools which he had made and shaped by heating and pouring into holes and cracks in the rock the metal as it came hot from the fire and leaving it until it cooled and hardened and could be pounded and beaten.

Methuselah was nearing the end of his days when Tubal came to him. But his wisdom increased with his length of days, and he was as keen and quick in thought as his youngest grandson. He took the queer, heavy pieces of dark iron which Tubal-cain brought him, and the shining pieces of copper, and weighed them in his hand and tried and tested them in every way. He told Tubal that this was a wonderful secret which he had wrested from the earth, and that he must study these rocks and work with them and learn all that he could, so that he should be ready to share his knowledge with his brothers and kinsfolk and pass it on to all the world.

So Tubal-cain went back to the mountain and built for himself a fireplace or furnace in which he could imprison the spirit of fire and keep it as his servant. He set all the hunters to bring him stones of the kind that melted. He learned to make clay molds into which he should pour the hot metals and to let the air in below his fire pot so that he had a rude bellows. There he made weapons for all the hunters and for the men set to guard the valley folk.

Men came from far and near to learn from Tubal-cain the art of working with metals, and he taught them gladly all the secrets he knew and the arts he learned from day to day. Whatever he learned was at the service of all men, for how else could men live and prosper on the earth save as they shared, for the good of all, the finds which any one man or any one tribe might make? He learned how to handle iron cunningly; and he was not satisfied to make only weapons for the fight. He shaped a heavy curved point by which a man could dig into the soft earth before he dropped seeds into it, and a long blade such as we call a plow, so that he could lay lines of seeds straight in furrows. Many were the tools he made, and he was known far beyond his own valley or the valleys that lay just beyond his hills. Even across the rivers and to the edge of the great sea, so far was known the name of Tubal-cain as the forger of every weapon that did cut with an edge or drive with a point, and the teacher of every man who sought to work in copper or iron or any other substance that flowed from the rock; and so it is written in the ancient books, as you may see for yourselves.

So the Age of Fire became also the Age of Metal, and in that age we live to this day. However it was that man first learned to make fire, we know well that he did learn to make it long before the days of written history. And when he learned also the secret of metal as it is hidden in the earth and of how to handle and shape it with the aid of fire, then he was well started on the road to civilization which we shall watch him travel down the long centuries to this very day.


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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman