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Primitive Human Institutions

6. Fire in Relation to Civilization


Primitive society with its four divisions—industrial, regulative, religious, and military—rose through the instrumentality of fire, animals, slaves, and property.


Fire building, by a single bound, forever separated man from animal; it is the basic human invention, or discovery. Fire enabled man to stay on the ground at night as all animals are afraid of it. Fire encouraged eventide social intercourse; it not only protected against cold and wild beasts but was also employed as security against ghosts. It was at first used more for light than heat; many backward tribes refuse to sleep unless a flame burns all night.


Fire was a great civilizer, providing man with his first means of being altruistic without loss by enabling him to give live coals to a neighbor without depriving himself. The household fire, which was attended by the mother or eldest daughter, was the first educator, requiring watchfulness and dependability. The early home was not a building but the family gathered about the fire, the family hearth. When a son founded a new home, he carried a firebrand from the family hearth.


Though Andon, the discoverer of fire, avoided treating it as an object of worship, many of his descendants regarded the flame as a fetish or as a spirit. They failed to reap the sanitary benefits of fire because they would not burn refuse. Primitive man feared fire and always sought to keep it in good humor, hence the sprinkling of incense. Under no circumstances would the ancients spit in a fire, nor would they ever pass between anyone and a burning fire. Even the iron pyrites and flints used in striking fire were held sacred by early mankind.


It was a sin to extinguish a flame; if a hut caught fire, it was allowed to burn. The fires of the temples and shrines were sacred and were never permitted to go out except that it was the custom to kindle new flames annually or after some calamity. Women were selected as priests because they were custodians of the home fires.


The early myths about how fire came down from the gods grew out of the observations of fire caused by lightning. These ideas of supernatural origin led directly to fire worship, and fire worship led to the custom of “passing through fire,” a practice carried on up to the times of Moses. And there still persists the idea of passing through fire after death. The fire myth was a great bond in early times and still persists in the symbolism of the Parsees.


Fire led to cooking, and “raw eaters” became a term of derision. And cooking lessened the expenditure of vital energy necessary for the digestion of food and so left early man some strength for social culture, while animal husbandry, by reducing the effort necessary to secure food, provided time for social activities.


It should be remembered that fire opened the doors to metalwork and led to the subsequent discovery of steam power and the present-day uses of electricity.

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