Take away fire and man (stands for both the genders) will revert to
wilderness like any other animal! The greatest discovery made by man alone
on this good earth is the art of making and maintaining fire. He, like any
other animal, had seen fire striking from clouds, devouring bushes and
trees, and devastating large tracts of green land. He had also seen fire
being spewed by a volcano and the molten lava snaking and snarling its way
down the slopes. He also knew it gave heat and scared ferocious animals.
Though still not proven, but most probably he had learned how to keep it
burning. It provided him and his associates with light, warmth, and a
device to keep ferocious animals away. He must have also learned to
control fire which, in the long run, helped him to smelt metal ores.
But man did not know how to kindle it. The day he discovered this art, he
separated for good from the animal kingdom that roamed the earth. He had
discovered the source of light, heat, and energy -- the very basis of
civilization. Fire helped man to reduce nomadism and develop social and
political institutions connected with a fixed abode.
Legends of how man learned to make fire are as numerous as there are
ancient nations. A god brought or stole it down the sky is but an illusion
to lightening striking and starting a fire. It was thrown up by the earth
reminds us of a volcanic eruption. It was brought down a tree by a wise
man indicates that it was obtained from a burning tree. It is a product of
two rubbing branches or a child of ten mothers points to the much later
discovery of creating friction by placing a stick in a wooden groove and
rubbing, rather rotating the stick with two palms, the ten fingers, the
The most striking is the Iranian legend, preserved, among other writings,
in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. Here is a gist of the Shahnameh's story:
Hushang succeeded his grandfather Kayumars, the first of the Pishdadian
Kings. He girdled himself with wisdom and justice.
The Discovery of Fire
Our ancestors worshipped God, had their beliefs, and followed certain
ceremonies. In those days, the blazing fire was the altar just as the
Arabs have stone as their prayer niche. But the discovery of fire was
quite incidental. This happened before iron was discovered.
One cold day, Hushang and his party were returning from a hunting
expedition. They saw a snake coiled in their path. Hushang aimed his flint
axe at it. He missed and the snake slithered away. But the axe hit another
stone, also a flint and produced a bright spark The curious king took hold
of the two flints and struck more sparks. And he learned to produce enough
sparks to ignite a fire. He discovered how to make fire! "This spark," he
proclaimed, "is God's gift. Hold it high in regard." He thanked God for
the gift and made fire his altar. He held a great feast. Every person
sang, danced, drank, and feasted around the bonfire. For the first time,
Hushang and his people could light their dark caves and feel cozy and warm
in their beds. They passed a wonderful winter. Hushang never forgot his
revolutionary discovery. He held a great feast every year on that eventful
day. It is called "Sadeh."
He was the first to separate iron from ore and established the profession
of smithery. He fashioned axes, saws, and adzes. Next, he diverted water
from rivers into plains for cultivation. Prior to this human beings
subsisted on fruits and covered themselves with leaves. Furthermore,
Hushang separated the beasts which were hunted from those that could
easily be domesticated. He introduced soft and comfortable furs as
Hushang's reign introduced peace, prosperity, plenty, and happiness. He
died after ruling for forty years."
To put it in short: Fire was accidentally discovered when a flint-axe,
thrown by King Hushang to kill a snake, missed and struck a rock and threw
a spark. That sparked the idea to kindle fire by striking two pieces of
flint together. This theory is confirmed by archeologists to be the most
probable means of its discovery in the early stone stage.
Hushang, the Iranian legend says, celebrated the discovery by throwing a
feast, a feast that has been kept alive through ages. It is held every
year on 10 Bahman (30 January), almost mid-winter. It is called "Sadeh,"
meaning "century" because according to one popular tradition, it falls on
the hundredth day from 21 October, the beginning of winter among ancient
Iranians. Or, as I see it, it is the contracted form of the Avestan "saredha,"
Persian "sard," meaning "cold, winter."
On that afternoon, people gather outside their town, make a hill of dry
shrubs, bushes, weeds, and branches. Priests lead the prayers, exalting
fire as the divine light, warmth, and energy, ask God for an
ever-progressing life to eternal happiness, and as the sun sets in the
blazing west, set the hill ablaze. It is a sight to watch huge leaping
flames. Those at home light little bonfires on top of their flat
mud-plastered "fire-safe" roofs -- a tribute to the civilized blessings
given by the discovery of kindling fire.
At a time when man was hunted and haunted, he discovered fire and that
changed his whole pattern of life. No wonder the blazing fire soon became
the object of veneration, especially when his imagination formed for him
many forms of deities. Fire became a deity too, a deity too close and
touching. The sky god was sky high, the earth goddess was earth wide, the
wind god was blowing across, the sun god/goddess was traveling light, the
moon god was waxing to wane, and the water goddess was streaming by.
Fire was the only deity that sat very cozy and close. It held a special
position. It was kindled with care and was kept alive with more care. It
gave light. It gave heat. It gave power. It turned night into day and
winter into spring. It baked clay into pots, and smelted metal into
instruments. It frightened away dangerous animals, and above all, it made
the daily food tender and tasty. It had revolutionized human living. It
required constant attention, and attention means attraction and
affection. It became "special." It had a special seat, the hearth. It
became the center of his activities -- cooking, eating, conversing,
sleeping, and of course, receiving his homage. Moreover, it went up the
sky in a smoke column. The fire god had contact with the gods and
goddesses above and men and women below. He was the intermediary, and the
hearth became the altar, the earliest altar. All the gifts presented to
deity and deities -- animal fat and flesh, grains, food, sweet smelling
herbs and wood -- were put to burn and rise in smoke to reach the
deity/deities. It was a smoky, smelly offer!
Kindling fire by striking flints or rubbing sticks was no easy job.
It was much easier to keep it burning. Man learned that fire can snugly
sleep beneath ashes and arise glowing when blown in flames. The habit of
keeping fire "alive" through sleeping and leaping became a habit. Habit
forms tradition. The hearth fire and later the temple fire became an
ever-burning fire. Tradition becomes sacred. Sacredness demands ritual.
Ritual becomes elaborate. Once sanctified and ritualized, even when well
out-dated and fossilized, a tradition cannot be easily abandoned by
Match sticks and gas and electric lighters have put out the hearth fire,
and yet I know in
there are still old ladies, Zoroastrians and Muslims, whose hearth fire is
never extinguished. My mother and mother-in-law, one from Kerman and the
other from Shiraz, 300 miles apart, had the hearth fire going as long as
they lived. If this could be with homes, what should one expect from
places of worship?
Fire has served as the altar, the illuminating light, for many religions.
Fire, in form of candid candle, lighted lamp, burning incense, and blazing
wood, still adorns prayer niches, rooms and halls all over the world.
Fire Altars and Temples
Hearth fire is venerated in the Atash Nyayesh in the Later Avesta.
This is the earliest form of it and it formed the altar for all domestic
rituals.The Haptanghaiti in the Gathic dialect mentions "fire-enclosure"
as a communal altar. Median and Achaemenian bas-reliefs show persons
standing, with uplifted arms" in the Gathic fashion, in front of fire
altars. Plinths at Pasargadae confirm the "fire-enclosure," the Gathic
communal fire altars. Open fire altars survive at Naqsh-e Rostam from
Sassanian days too. Avestan texts speaks of no fire-temple or fire-house.
It did not exist in those days.
Temple is an Elamite and Babylon gift to Median and Persian Zoroastrians.
Parthians and Sassanians followed with increasing elaborations. Ruins of
Zoroastrian fire-temples of pre-Islamic era are spread from Iraq to the
Pamirs and beyond. I have visited, lit a candle and prayed at many,
including the one on the Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and those in
Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rostam, Pasargadae, Isfahan, Khuzistan, Azerbaijan in
Iran, and Taxila in Pakistan. Various grades of fire-temple are also the
evolution of elaborating the system. Atash Bahram, the Victory Fire, at
present the highest consecrated temple is a Sassanian invovation. When
Ardeshir Babakan, the founder of the dynasty, rose against the Parthian
rule and won a victory against Vologeses V in 224 CE, he had to fight many
a battle to conquer the vast empire. Wherever and whenever, scored a
victory over his enemies, he would erect one "Victory Fire" temple in
History books written by Muslim travelers speak of fire-temples
"miraculously" lit without being fed by any firewood. They were in the
oil-rich regions, from present day Khuzistan in Iran to Azerbaijan in the
former Soviet Union. They were fed by natural gas harnessed by the experts
in those days. The one in Baku has been reconstructed by the authorities
there and has the gas fire on. The gas-fed Azar Goshnasb temple in
Azerbaijan, Iran, was where the Sassanian emperors were crowned. Recent
excavations have revealed the baked clay pipeline to the fire-altar. This
makes the present gas-fed fire altars in North America as no innovation
but following the past in modern times. It is less air polluting and does
not devour firewood and therefore plays no part in deforestation.
Once installed in a temple, it became a tradition. That tradition
continues. I would add that it should continue with modern
modifications. Already a number of "prayer rooms" and "Dar-e Mehrs" in
North America and Europe -- and it includes the Zarathushtrian Assembly
prayer hall -- are lit by natural gas.
The Sassanians had two other major fire-temples. Azar Farnbagh, for the
Priestly class, was in Nishabur, Khorassan, northeast Iran, and Azar
Borzin, for the Agricultural and Industrious class, was in Darab, Pars,
Incidentally, the domed Muslim mosque is the continuation of the Sassanian
architecture of fire-temple. The dome stood above the fire-altar. All
that the Arabs or Iranian converts to Islam had to do is to remove the
altar and prepare the hall for their prayers. Some of the old former
fire-temples, turned into congregational mosques still have the
fire-altars placed in their yars and filled with water. The domed
building is not an Arabian architecture at all.
Fire in the Gathas
Fire has been used eight times in the Gathas. It is mental (Songs 4.3
and 12.6), the radiant light (4.19 and 16.9), the warmth (8.4), and
full-of-energy (7:4), which helps good and evil people to find happiness.
It helps to meditate in quest of righteousness (8.9) and to enlighten
one's mind to find means to ward off danger (11.7).
The Gathic Fire symbolizes the Divine Progressive Mind in human beings. It
is the altar that enlightens a meditating mind of a Zarathushtrian. Facing
it, a Zarathushtrian wishes to forge an ideal society. Here are two brief
prayers, one in the Haptanghaiti and the other from Atash Ny‚yesh (Fire
Prayer) in the Avesta. They explain fire's symbolism and depict the
society a Zarathushtrian wants the world to enjoy:
"In this fire-enclosure, first of all, we approach You and You alone, Wise
God, through the most progressive mentality, symbolized by Fire -- bright,
warm and energetic. Reverence to it, because You have appointed for
Fire, you belong to God Wise. You symbolize the most progressive
mentality. This is the best of your designations. O Fire of Ahura Mazda,
it is because of this that we approach you. (Haptanghaiti, Song 3.1-3)
Grant me, O Fire of Ahura Mazda, prompt welfare, prompt maintenance,
prompt living; full welfare, full maintenance, full living; zeal,
progress, eloquence, discerning intellect; next, comprehensive, great and
lasting knowledge; next, all encompassing courage, steadiness; vigilance,
wakeful even at rest; and self-supporting children, able to govern the
country, outstanding in assembly, harmonious in growth, and gentle in
character, who shall advance our homes, settlements, districts, countries
and the world fellowship. (Atash Ny‚yesh)
May the Fire of Mazda enlighten our minds!