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Old 09-08-2019
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253
CHAPTER XVII
THE ORIGIN OF PERPETUAL FIRES

The custom of maintaining a perpetual fire probably originated in the difficulty of making fire by friction. Whatever superstitions may have gathered about it in the course of ages, the custom of maintaining a perpetual fire probably sprang from a simple consideration of practical convenience. The primitive mode of making fire by the friction of wood is laborious at all times, and it is especially so in wet weather. Hence the savage finds it convenient to keep a fire constantly burning or smouldering in order to spare himself the troubling of kindling it. This convenience becomes a necessity with people who do not know how to make fire. That there have been such tribes down to our own time is affirmed by witnesses whose evidence we have no reason to doubt. Thus Mr. E. H. Man, who resided eleven years in the Andaman Islands and was intimately acquainted with the natives, tells us that, being ignorant of Some races said to be ignorant of the means of making fire. the art of making fire, they take the utmost pains to prevent its extinction. When they leave a camp intending to return in a few days, they not only take with them one or more smouldering logs, wrapped in leaves if the weather be wet, but they also place a large burning log or faggot of suitable wood in some sheltered spot, where it smoulders for several days and can be easily rekindled when it is needed. While it is the business of the women to gather the wood, the duty of keeping up the fires both at home and in travelling by land or sea is not confined to them, but is undertaken by persons of either sex who have most leisure or are least burdened.[816] The Russian traveller, Baron 254Miklucho-Maclay, who lived among the natives of the Maclay coast of northern New Guinea at a time when they had hardly come into contact with Europeans, writes: “It is remarkable that here almost all the inhabitants of the coast possess no means whatever of making fire, hence they always and everywhere carry burning or glowing brands about with them. If they go in the morning to the plantation they carry a half-burnt brand from their hearth in order to kindle a fire at the corner of the plantation. If they go on a longer journey into the mountains, they again take fire with them for the purpose of smoking, since their cigars, wrapped in green leaves, continually go out. On sea voyages they usually keep glowing coals in a half-broken pot partly filled with earth. The people who remain behind in the village never forget to keep up the fire.” They repeatedly told him that they had often to go to other villages to fetch fire when the fires in all the huts of their own village had chanced to go out. Yet the same traveller tells us that the mountain tribes of this part of New Guinea, such as the Englam-Mana and Tiengum-Mana, know how to make fire by friction. They partially cleave a log of dry wood with a stone axe and then draw a stout cord, formed of a split creeper, rapidly to and fro in the cleft, till sparks fly out and set fire to a tinder of dry coco-nut fibres.[817] It is 255odd that the people of the coast should not have learned this mode of producing fire from their neighbours in the mountains. The Russian explorer’s observations, however, have been confirmed by German writers. One of them, a Mr. Hoffmann, says of these people: “In every house care is taken that fire burns day and night on the hearth. For this purpose they choose a kind of wood which burns slowly, but glimmers for a long time and retains its glow. When a man sets out on a journey or goes to the field he has always a glimmering brand with him. If he wishes to make fire, he waves the smouldering wood to and fro till it bursts into a glow.” On frequented paths, crossways, and so forth, you may often see trunks of trees lying which have been felled for the purpose of being ignited and furnishing fire to passers-by. Such trees continue to smoulder for weeks.[818] Similarly the dwarf tribes of Central Africa “do not know how to kindle a fire quickly, and in order to get one readily at any moment they keep the burning trunks of fallen trees in suitable spots, and watch over their preservation like the Vestals of old.”[819] It seems to be at least doubtful whether these dwarfs of the vast and gloomy equatorial forests are acquainted with the art of making fire at all. A German traveller observes that the care which they take to preserve fire is extremely remarkable. “It appears,” he says, “that the pygmies, as other travellers have reported, do not know how to kindle fire by rubbing sticks against each other. Like the Wambuba of the forest, in leaving a camp, they take with them a thick glowing brand, and carry it, often for hours, in order to light a fire at their next halting place.”[820]

Fire kindled by natural causes was probably used by men long before they learned to make it for themselves. Whether or not tribes ignorant of the means of making fire have survived to modern times, it seems likely that mankind possessed and used fire long before they learned how to 256kindle it. In the violent thunderstorms which accompany the end of the dry season in Central and Eastern Africa, it is not uncommon for the lightning to strike and ignite a tree, from which the fire soon spreads to the withered herbage, till a great conflagration is started. From a source of this sort a savage tribe may have first obtained fire, and the same thing may have happened independently in many parts of the world.[821] Other people, perhaps, procured fire from volcanoes, the lava of which will, under favourable circumstances, remain hot enough to kindle shavings of wood years after an eruption has taken place.[822] Others again may have lit their first fire at the jets of inflammable gas which spring from the ground in various parts of the world, notably at Baku on the Caspian, where the flames burn day and night, summer and winter, to a height of fifteen or twenty feet.[823] It is harder to conjecture how man first learned the great secret of making fire by friction. The discovery was perhaps made by jungle or forest races, who saw dry bamboos or branches thus ignited by rubbing against each other in a high wind. Fires are sometimes started in this way in the forests of New Zealand.[824] It has also been suggested that 257savages may have accidentally elicited a flame for the first time in the process of chipping flints over dry moss, or boring holes with hard sticks in soft wood.[825]
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Old 09-08-2019
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But even when the art of fire-making has been acquired, the process itself is so laborious that many savages keep fire always burning rather than be at the trouble of extracting it by friction. This, for example, was true of the roving Australian aborigines before they obtained matches from the whites. On their wanderings they carried about with them pieces of smouldering bark or cones of the Banksia tree wherewith to kindle their camp fires.[826] The duty of thus transporting fire from one place to another seems commonly to have fallen to the women. “A stick, a piece of decayed wood, or more often the beautiful seed-stem of the Banksia, is lighted at the fire the woman is leaving; and from her bag, which, in damp weather, she would keep filled with dry cones, or from materials collected in the forest, she would easily, during her journey, preserve the fire got at the last encampment.”[827] Another writer tells us that the Australian native always had his fire-stick with him, and if his wife let it go out, so much the worse for her. The dark brown velvety-looking core of the Banksia is very retentive of fire and burns slowly, so that one of these little fire-sticks would last a considerable time, and a bag of them would suffice for a whole day.[828] The Tasmanians knew how to make fire 258by twirling the point of a stick in a piece of soft bark; “but as it was difficult at times to obtain fire by this means, especially in wet weather, they generally, in their peregrinations, carried with them a fire-stick lighted at their last encampment.”[829] With them, as with the Australians, it was the special task of the women to keep the fire-brand alight and to carry it from place to place.[830] When the natives of Materbert, off New Britain, are on a voyage they carry fire with them. For this purpose they press some of the soft fibrous husk of the ripe coco-nut into a coco-nut shell, and then place a red-hot ember in the middle of it. This will smoulder for three or four days, and from it they obtain a light for their fires wherever they may land.[831] The Polynesians made fire by the friction of wood, rubbing a score in a board with a sharp-pointed stick till the dust so produced kindled into sparks, which were caught in a tinder of dry leaves or grass. While they rubbed, they chanted a prayer or hymn till the fire appeared. But in wet weather the task of fire-making was laborious, so at such times the natives usually carried fire about with them in order to avoid the trouble of kindling it.[832] The Fuegians make fire by striking two lumps of iron pyrites together and letting the sparks fall on birds’ down or on dry moss, which serves as tinder. But rather than be at the pains of doing this they carry fire with them everywhere, both by sea and land, taking great care to prevent its extinction.[833] The Caingua Indians of Paraguay make fire in the usual way by the fire-drill, but to save themselves trouble they keep fire 259constantly burning in their huts by means of great blocks of wood.[834] The Indians of Guiana also produce fire by twirling the point of one stick in the hole of another, but they seldom need to resort to this laborious process, for they keep fire burning in every house, and on long journeys they usually carry a large piece of smouldering timber in their canoes. Even in walking across the savannah an Indian will sometimes take a fire-brand with him.[835] The Jaggas, a Bantu tribe in the Kilimanjaro district of East Africa, keep up fire day and night in their huts on account of their cattle. If it goes out, the women fetch glowing brands from a neighbour’s house; these they carry wrapped up in banana leaves. Thus they convey fire for great distances, sometimes the whole day long. Hence they seldom need to kindle fire, though the men can make it readily by means of the fire-drill.[836] The tribes of British Central Africa also know how to produce fire in this fashion, but they do not often put their knowledge in practice. For there is sure to be a burning brand on one or other of the hearths of the village from which a fire can be lit; and when men go on a journey they take smouldering sticks with them and nurse the glowing wood rather than be at the trouble of making fire by friction.[837] In the huts of the Ibos on the lower Niger burning embers are always kept and never allowed to go out.[838] And this is the regular practice among all the tribes of West Africa who have not yet obtained matches. If the fire in a house should go out, a woman will run to a neighbour’s hut and fetch a burning stick from the hearth. Hence in most of their villages fire has probably not needed to be made for years and years. Among domesticated tribes, like the Effiks or Agalwa, when the men are going out to the plantation they will enclose a burning stick in a hollow piece of a certain kind of wood, which has a lining of its pith left in it, and they will carry this “fire-box” with them.[839]

260The theft of fire by Prometheus. Before the introduction of matches Greek peasants used to convey fire from place to place in a stalk of giant fennel. The stalks of the plant are about five feet long by three inches thick, and are encased in a hard bark. The core of the stalk consists of a white pith which, when it is dry, burns slowly like a wick without injury to the bark.[840] Thus when Prometheus, according to the legend, stole the first fire from heaven and brought it down to earth hidden in a stalk of giant fennel,[841] he carried his fire just as every Greek peasant and mariner did on a journey.

When people settled in villages, it would be convenient to keep up a perpetual fire in the house of the head man. When a tribe ceased to be nomadic and had settled in more or less permanent villages, it would be a convenient custom to keep a fire perpetually burning in every house. Such a custom, as we have seen, has been observed by various peoples, and it appears to have prevailed universally among all branches of the Aryans.[842] Arnobius implies that it was formerly practised by the Romans, though in his own time the usage had fallen into abeyance.[843] But it would be obviously desirable that there should be some one place in the village where every housewife could be sure of obtaining fire without having to kindle it by friction, if her own should chance to go out. The most natural spot to look for it would be the hearth of the head man of the village, who would come in time to be regarded as responsible for its maintenance. This is what seems to have happened not only among the Herero of South Africa and the Latin peoples of Italy, but also among the ancestors of the Greeks; for in ancient Greece the perpetual fire kept up in the Prytaneum, or town-hall, was at first apparently the fire 261on the king’s hearth.[844] From this simple origin may have sprung the custom which in various parts of the world associates the maintenance of a perpetual fire with chiefly or royal dignity. Thus it was a distinguishing mark of the Hence the maintenance of a perpetual fire came to be associated with chiefly or royal dignity. chieftainship of one of the Samoan nobility, that his fire never went out. His attendants had a particular name, from their special business of keeping his fire ablaze all night long while he slept.[845] Among the Gallas the maintenance of a perpetual fire, even when it serves no practical purpose, is a favourite mode of asserting high rank, and the chiefs often indulge in it.[846] The Chitomé, a grand pontiff in the kingdom of Congo, of whom we shall hear more hereafter, kept up in his hut, day and night, a sacred fire, of which he dispensed brands to such as came to ask for them and could pay for them. He is said to have done a good business in fire, for the infatuated people believed that it preserved them from many accidents.[847] In Uganda a perpetual sacred fire, supposed to have come down to earth with the first man Kintu, is maintained by a chief, who is put to death if he suffers it to be extinguished. From this sacred fire the king’s fire (gombolola) is lighted and kept constantly burning at the gate of the royal enclosure during the whole of his reign. By day it burns in a small hut, but at night it is brought out and set in a little hole in the ground, where it blazes brightly till daybreak, whatever the weather may be. When the king journeys the fire goes with him, and when he dies it is extinguished. The death of a king is indeed announced to the people by the words, “The fire has gone out.” A man who bears a special title is charged with the duty of maintaining the fire, and of looking after all the fuel and torches used in the royal enclosure. When the king dies the guardian of his fire is strangled near the hearth.[848] Similarly in Dageou, a country to the west of Darfur, it is 262said that a custom prevailed of kindling a fire on the inauguration of a king and keeping it alight till his death.[849] Among the Mucelis of Angola, when the king of Amboin or Sanga dies, all fires in the kingdom are extinguished. Afterwards the new king makes new fire by rubbing two sticks against each other.[850] Such a custom is probably nothing more than an extension of the practice of putting out a chief’s own fire at his death. Similarly, when a new Muata Jamwo, a great potentate in the interior of Angola, comes to the throne, one of his first duties is to make a new fire by the friction of wood, for the old fire may not be used.[851] Before the palace gate of the king of Siam there burns, or used to burn, a perpetual fire, which was said to have been lit from heaven with a fiery ball.[852]
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