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Theft of fire

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Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind (1817) by Heinrich Füger

The theft of fire for the benefit of humanity is a theme that recurs in many world mythologies, symbolizing the acquisition of knowledge, or technology, and its transformative impact on civilization.[1] Its recurrent themes include trickster figures as the thief, and supernatural heroic guardians who hoard fire from humanity, often out of mistrust for humans.[2] These myths reflect the profound significance of fire in human history, seen as a pivotal step in the development of human society.

In African mythology, the San peoples tell of ǀKaggen, stealing fire from the ostrich and bringing it to people. In the Americas, Native American and First Nations tribes attribute the gift of fire to animals. In Eurasian cultures, fire theft takes on various forms. The Vedic Rigveda narrates hero Mātariśvan recovering hidden fire. Greek mythology recounts Prometheus stealing heavenly fire for humanity, a deed for which he suffered greatly. In Oceania, Polynesian myths often feature Māui as the fire thief, with diverse variations across regions.

The metaphor of fire theft extends into modern times, particularly in the context of nuclear weapons. The destructive power of atomic bombs is likened to Prometheus's act, symbolizing the dangerous knowledge humanity has gained. This comparison has been drawn in publications and discussions, emphasizing the ethical and moral implications of nuclear technology. Figures like Robert Oppenheimer, and statesmen Henry Kissinger have invoked the metaphor to highlight the responsibility that comes with such power. The narrative highlights the dual nature of technological advancement, capable of advancing society and posing significant threats.



The San peoples, the indigenous Southern African hunter-gatherers, tell how ǀKaggen, in the form of a mantis, brought the first fire to the people by stealing it from the ostrich, who kept the fire beneath its wings.[3][4] In another version of the myth, Piisi|koagu steals fire from the ostrich.[5]

The Americas[edit]

Among various Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and First Nations, fire was stolen and given to humans by Coyote, Beaver or Dog.[6]

In Algonquin myth, Rabbit stole fire from an old man and his two daughters.[7]

In Cherokee myth, after Possum and Buzzard had failed to steal fire, Grandmother Spider used her web to sneak into the land of light. She stole fire, hiding it in a clay pot or a silk net.[8]

According to a Mazatec legend, the opossum spread fire to humanity. Fire fell from a star and an old woman kept it for herself. The opossum took fire from the old woman and carried the flame on its tail, resulting in its hairlessness.[9]

According to the Muscogees/Creeks, Rabbit stole fire from the Weasels.[10]

In Ojibwa myth, Nanabozho the hare stole fire and gave it to humans.[citation needed]

According to some Yukon First Nations people, Crow stole fire from a volcano in the middle of the water.[11]

In a story from the Lengua/Enxet people of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay, a man steals fire from a bird after he notices the bird cooking snails on burning sticks. The bird enacts revenge by creating a thunderstorm that damages the man's village.[12]


According to the vedic Rigveda (3:9.5), the hero Mātariśvan recovered fire, which had been hidden from humanity.[citation needed]

In Greek mythology, according to Hesiod (Theogony, 565-566 and Works & Days, 50) and Pseudo-Apollodorus (Bibliotheca, 1.7.1), the Titan-god Prometheus steals the heavenly fire for humanity, enabling the progress of civilization, for which he was punished by being chained to a mountain and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day until being eventually being freed by the hero Heracles.[13][14]

In one of the versions of Georgian myth, Amirani stole fire from metalsmiths, who refused to share it – and knowledge of creating it – with other humans.[citation needed]

The Vainakh hero Pkharmat brought fire to mankind and was chained to Mount Kazbek as punishment.[citation needed]


In Polynesian myth, Māui is the thief of fire. There are many variations of the myth. In the version told in New Zealand, an ancestress of Maui is the keeper of fire, and she stores it in her fingernails and toenails. Maui nearly tricks her into giving him all of her nails, but she catches onto him and throws her last toenail down, engulfing the ground in flame and nearly killing Maui.[15]

In the mythology of the Wurundjeri people of Australia, it was the Crow who stole the secret of fire from the Karatgurk women.[16]

Nuclear weapons[edit]

Since shortly after the detonation of the first atomic bombs, the destructive power of atomic weapons has been compared to the story of Prometheus and the theft of fire.[17][18]

F. L. Campbell wrote in "Science on the March: Atomic Thunderbolts", in the September 1945 issue of The Scientific Monthly:

Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus.[19]

The biography of Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin is entitled American Prometheus in reference to the myth. Further comparisons to Prometheus have been made in publications by the United Nations,[20] MIT's Technology Review[21] and Harvard's Nuclear Study Group.[22]

The "theft of fire" metaphor has also been used to argue against the proliferation of nuclear weapons by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute[23][24] and repeatedly by statesman Henry Kissinger as early as 1957,[25] at the Munich Security Conference[26] and as part of the Nuclear Threat Initiative with former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of State George Shultz.[27][28][29] Supporters of nuclear power have interpreted the anecdote more favorably.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This narrative is classified in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature as motif A1415. Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale. University of California Press. p. 240. ISBN 0-520-03537-2.
  2. ^ Groon, Gerald Henry (30 May 2020). "Torches, Thieves, and Tinder: Recurring Themes in Mythical Origins of Fire". Carolina Digital Repository. doi:10.17615/1sep-8z59. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  3. ^ Miller, Penny (1979). Myths and Legends of Southern Africa. T. V. Bulpin. ISBN 978-0-949956-16-3.
  4. ^ How the ostrich lost his fire and other stories. Tales By Roohi. ISBN 978-1-4763-8843-4. Retrieved 17 March 2021.
  5. ^ Tanaka, Jiro (December 1996). "The World of Animals Viewed by the San Hunter-Gatherers in Kalahari". African Study Monographs. 22: 26. doi:10.14989/68379.
  6. ^ Judson, Katharine B. Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Chicago, 1912.
  7. ^ Alexander, Hartley Burr. The Mythology of All Races. Vol 10: North American. Boston, 1916.
  8. ^ Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York, 1984.
  9. ^ "La leyenda del tlacuache que trajo el fuego a la humanidad". México Desconocido (in Spanish). 14 December 2018. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  10. ^ Swanton, John. "Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians." Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 88: 1929.
  11. ^ Janke, Daniel (2008). "How People Got Fire (animated short)" (DVD). National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 2010-02-10.
  12. ^ Frazer, James George (1930). Myths of the origin of fire: an essay (PDF). London: Macmillan. pp. 123–124. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  13. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 526-8
  14. ^ Greenberg, Mike; PhD (2020-05-04). "Prometheus: The Complete Guide to the Greek Titan (2021)". Archived from the original on 2021-05-11. Retrieved 2021-05-11.
  15. ^ Bucková, Martina (2009). "Variations of myths concerning the origin of fire in eastern Polynesia" (PDF). Asian and African Studies. 19 (2): 327–330. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  16. ^ Mudrooroo (1994). Aboriginal mythology: An A-Z spanning the history of the Australian Aboriginal people from the earliest legends to the present day. London: Thorsons. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-1-85538-306-7.
  17. ^ Boyer, Paul (2005-10-21). By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture At the Dawn of the Atomic Age. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8078-7570-4.
  18. ^ Fousek, John (2003-06-20). To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. Univ of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-6067-0.
  19. ^ Campbell, F. L. (September 1945). "Atomic Thunderbolts". The Scientific Monthly. 61 (3): 233–234. Bibcode:1945SciMo..61..233C. JSTOR 18583.
  20. ^ Neuneck, Götz (2017). "60 Jahre nuklearer Prometheus oder Sisyphos?". Vereinte Nationen: German Review on the United Nations. 65 (4): 170–176. doi:10.35998/vn-2017-0051. ISSN 0042-384X. JSTOR 48551110. S2CID 257072463.
  21. ^ How Prometheus came to be bound: nuclear regulation in America. Technology Review. June 1980. p. 29.
  22. ^ Albert Carnesale; Paul Doty; Stanley Hoffmann; Samuel P. Huntington; Joseph S. Nye Jr; Scott D. Sagan (1983). Living with Nuclear Weapons. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-53665-4.
  23. ^ "Prometheus-bound: an end to nuclear explosive tests". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 29 August 2016. Retrieved 2021-10-15.
  24. ^ "Extinguishing Prometheus' Nuclear Flame: International Day Against Nuclear Tests". South Asia Journal. 8 October 2020. Retrieved 2021-10-15.
  25. ^ Kissinger, Henry A. (2019-03-13). Nuclear Weapons And Foreign Policy. Routledge. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-429-71636-2.
  26. ^ Kissinger, Henry A. (2009-02-06). "Containing the fire of the gods". Opinion. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-10-15.
  27. ^ "Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Risks". The Wall Street Journal. 2013-03-06. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2021-10-15.
  28. ^ Henry A. Kissinger; Sam Nunn; William J. Perry; George P. Shultz (March 5, 2013). "Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Risks: The Pace of Nonproliferation Work Today Doesn't Match the Urgency of the Threat". Nuclear Threat Initiative. Retrieved 2021-10-15.
  29. ^ Picard, Joe (2013-12-13). "Limiting nuclear weapons: Diplomacy and dialogue". The Hill. Retrieved 2021-10-15.
  30. ^ Watson, David de Caires (2021-08-13). "What Greek Myth Teaches Us About The Morality Of Nuclear Technology". The Kernel. Retrieved 2021-10-15.

Further reading[edit]