The ability to control fire by early humans was one of the biggest steps in our evolution. For our ancient ancestors, warmth meant we could travel through and survive in regions that were previously inaccessible, while the night fires provided protection from wild animals. Most importantly it gave us the ability to cook food, increasing the diversity of food sources available to include more meat and vegetables.
For later humans, it unlocked the secrets of metal, allowing them to shape and mold tools and weapons that were increasingly longer lasting and more efficient. In time, we also learned to burn fuels, powering engines and machines that would allow us to transcend our bodily limitations.
According to the ancient Greeks, fire was a gift to humankind, given to us by the Titan Prometheus. The Protagoras by Plato gives us one version, set in the time just after the gods had crafted humans and all the other creatures out of fire and earth. Before their creations were to see the light of day (life), the gods ordered Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to equip them with the gifts that would ensure their survival in the world. The brothers agreed to divide the task; Epimetheus would assign the gifts, while Prometheus would inspect them, and so Epimetheus went to work.
Epimetheus gave some creatures coverings of warm fur to withstand the cold, and others thick impenetrable hides. Some gained hooves to protect their feet and allow them to run. To each he assigned a food source, and to those animals that would become prey he gave the gift of prolific offspring to ensure the survival of their species. At last, Epimetheus came to mankind (at this point in the story, there were no women), and realized that he had already bestowed all he had to offer, and nothing was left to give. Prometheus was completing his inspections and found Epimetheus puzzled, and before him, naked and unprotected stood the humans. The hour of light was approaching, and Prometheus knew he must do something, or humankind would be cast out in the world with nothing to aid their survival. Desperate to help them, Prometheus stole all the knowledge of Athene and Hephaestus (crafts and mechanical arts) and gave them to humans, alongside fire; the key required to practice these arts.
Hesiod’s version in Theogony differs from this, with Zeus taking fire from humankind as punishment for Prometheus’s trick at Mecone. The trick at Mecone occurred when Prometheus was asked to help settle a dispute over the sacrifice of animals and the division of the beasts between the humans and gods. Prometheus slaughtered a beast and divided it up into two piles. In the first pile Prometheus put all the meat and most of the fat but covered it with the stomach lining to make it seem unappetizing. In the second pile he placed the bones, and covered them in an appetizing layer of fat:
For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat. –Theogony
According to Hesiod, while Zeus saw through the trick, he still chose the pile of bones. Angered at the attempted deception he took fire from humankind, leaving them shivering and unprotected from the elements and wild creatures. Prometheus pitied them, so he stole fire from the gods, hiding it in the stalk of a fennel plant which he returned to the human race.
In both versions, Prometheus is punished for his theft. He was chained to a rock, sentenced to have an eagle tear out his liver each day for eternity. By night, his liver would regenerate, only to be ripped out again the following day.
Is there a happy ending to Prometheus’ eternal punishment by Zeus (the eagle being an emblem of the angry god)? Both Hesiod and Aeschylus (Prometheus Unbound) let Prometheus off the proverbial hook; Heracles (Greek, Latin: Hercules) eventually crosses path with the Titan (as does Io, one of Heracles’ progenitors), slays the eagle, and unchains him.
As for poor old Epimetheus, he gets his own share of woes – a wife by the name of Pandora, the first woman; but we’ll get to her and her box of miseries on another day.
Until then, keep warm, cook heartily, and on the coldest winter nights, remember to thank Prometheus for stealing fire…