The greatest theft in the history of humankind is probably the one of fire. Before our modern beliefs, before Christianity and Islam, before science and evolution, we believed in a different mythology .
In the Greek mythology, humankind was among the weakest creatures on earth. The world was ruled by the titans and the sky by the gods. Their seat of power was mount Olympus. There were many different conflicts among gods and titans and the creatures of earth suffered under their masters. Sometimes they were rewarded for their suffering though. All the creatures were endowed by talents – gifts – by one of the titans. He gave wings to the birds and the ability to fly, monkeys received the ability to climb and fish the ability to swim. When the titan got to humankind, there were no more talents left to give. This is when Prometheus, one of the titans, seeing the suffering of humankind and their dependency on the gods of mount Olympus, went up there and stole the fire of the gods.
He gave the fire to humankind and endowed them probably with the greatest gift of all because fire meant power, it meant innovation and at some point it meant technology.
Today there is a different version of this story. Historians say that humans learned how to master fire about 400.000 years ago. At that stage the modern human – homo sapiens – did not exist, yet. Our ancestors – homoerectus – first came into contact with fire and learned how to be its master. This did not come naturally though.
For a long time homoerectus knew the importance of fire for their survival. It kept predators away, it prolonged the day-time through light and it made it possible to cook. The problem was that fire could not be created by our ancestors initially. It could only be used when it was discovered. When lightning strikes a tree and it catches fire, homo erectus would collect this fire on pieces of wood. Keeping it alive and nourishing the fire became important for the survival and rain seemed to become the biggest enemy. Keeping the fire alive was one of the most important societal tasks in this time. Among a community of homo erectus only the strongest and most liked were chosen to protect the fire and defend it with their life. Being in charge of the fire was an important honor which demanded an unimaginable amount of respect.
Only once homoerectus learned how to create fire – first by using frictions of stones – he truly did become a master of fire.
Since the mastery of fire, historians say, we can see an increased brain activity amongst our ancestors. Neuron connections grew and homoerectus started developing more towards homo sapiens – us. Fire helped to create tools, it helped to keep a place warm.
The ability to manage fire had several impacts on our development, some scholars argue that it was the most important turning point in our development. Fire has also a metaphorical meaning, as it is often connected to energy. Everything we use today runs on energy. Without fire, none of the technology we use would be imaginable. Without fire there would not have been an industrial revolution, there would not be electricity in our houses and no cars on the street.
However, we cannot forget that there is a downside to the use of fire. It is dangerous when it gets out of control. Our ancestors had to learn this the hard way and apparently, so do we.
All the good examples – warm houses, electricity, cars – have negative counterexamples. The increasing hunger for energy has led to global warming, the hunger for innovation in warfare has lead to the creation of enough nuclear bombs to blow up planet earth more than 40 times and so on.
This is the paradox of fire, we cannot live with it and we cannot live without it.
Let us reflect about the end of the story of Prometheus. After he gave the fire to humankind he was severely punished by the gods for doing so. They send him far away, to an uninhabited land, where he was chained to a rock. Then they send an eagle to eat the Titan’s liver. The liver re-grew every night and the eagle returned to torture the Titan every day for eternity.
Fire is what made us who we are today as a species and we cannot abandon it. Our lives have depended on it for too long for us to now change that. However, we must regain the respect towards fire that our ancestors had. As fire became part of our everyday life – through modern time technologies – we lost control and completely surrendered ourselves. We must be aware of the danger and respect it.
Playing with fire may be in our nature, but let’s not get burnt.