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The Theft of Fire

"Igne Natura Renovatur Integra" (By fire is nature renewed whole.) ?Alchemical maxim

"The whole idea [of the hero's journey] is that you've got to bring out again that which you went to recover, the unrealized, unutilized potential in yourself. The whole point of this journey is the reintroduction of this potential into the world; that is to say, to you living in the world. You are to bring back this treasure of understanding and integrate it into a rational life?the point is that what you have to bring is something that the world lacks-that is why you went to get it." ? Joseph Campbell (1)

The myths and legends of many cultures include stories of a dark time before there was a sun in the sky and before fire was available to men or animals. Regardless of who did the deed, the acquisition of sunlight and/or of fire itself was often accomplished through guile or outright theft.

Prometheus' theft of fire is widely known; though most abbreviated accounts do not include the fact that mankind first lost fire due to Prometheus' vanity. At a banquet, Prometheus had kept the best cuts of meat for the mortals in attendance after giving the worst cuts of meat-disguised to look good-to the gods. For this, Zeus punished all mankind by taking away fire. Prometheus sets out on a quest to get it back.

He climbs Mt. Olympus and, with Athena's help, steals fire from Helios' sun chariot and brings it back to earth on a slow-burning fennel plant stalk. In retaliation, Zeus sends him a woman of clay named Pandora created by Hephaestus. When Prometheus will have nothing to do with her, Zeus punishes Prometheus by chaining him to Mt. Caucasus where an eagle nibbles at his liver by day. The liver grows back during the night only to be eaten again the following day. This punishment lasts for 30 years until Heracles kills the eagle with an arrow.

In the Cherokee myth called "Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun," the people, who were living in darkness, responded favorably to Fox's claim that light was available on the far side of the world. Possum tried first to bring back the light, thinking to hide it in his bushy tail. Yet when he grabbed off a piece of the sun, it burned his tail and since that time his tail has been without fur. Buzzard tried next to steal a piece of the sun and bring it back on his head, but it burned his feathers making his head forever bald. Finally, Grandmother Spider created a web stretching to the far side of the world and used it to sneak into the land of light unobserved. She took with her a clay pot and hid the sun-and fire as well-and safely brought it back to the Cherokee. (2)

In "The Theft of Light," a Tsimshian myth, the people lived in a world of darkness except for the dim light of the stars. Giant put on his Raven skin and found a hole in the sky into a realm of light. He removed his Raven skin and looks around. Ultimately, he stole the daylight-which was kept in a box in the Chief of Heaven's house-and brought it back to earth. Though he was pursued by the heavenly hosts, he slipped back into his Raven skin and got away. (3)

As Joseph Campbell (4) notes, once the hero has found his trophy (light, fire, a healing elixir), a variety of scenarios may unfold. First, the hero may decide to stay in the otherworld on the far side of the threshold in a state of ethereal happiness rather than return to his own time and place. If he has found the object of his search with the blessings of the gods and goddesses of the realm, then he will be able to return home with their protection and assistance. On the other hand, if s/he has stolen his prize, then he may have to be rescued by others from his home town, s/he may be killed before s/he can escape or-finally-there may be dangerous return trip.

In some traditions, the mystic-after years of study and purification of self-eventually is able to journey to "heaven" and merge with the great light of the Creator. En route, s/he sheds earthly baggage (attitudes, physical body, astral body) so that upon arrival, all that remains is the divine spark. This spark becomes one with the limitless light, communes, absorbs knowledge and advice, and then returns to earth with new knowledge of benefit to himself/herself and others.

How then, do we account for the vast number of myths in which fire, light, and sacred knowledge are taken by theft? Why is theft required? In addition to the benefits of physical light and fire, spiritual light offers enlightenment, divine knowledge, and transformation-exactly that which one might suppose the God of the hero's heart hopes s/he is seeking. Joseph Campbell offers a rationale:

"Once the treasure has been grabbed, there's no reconciliation with the powers of the underworld-no sacred marriage, father atonement, nor apotheosis-so there's a violent reaction of the whole unconscious system against the act, and the hero must escape.

"This is a psychotic condition. You have wrenched some knowledge from the deepest abysses of your unknown self, and now the demons have been loosened to wreak their vengeance." (5)

We might suggest, then, that the hero is typically not a mystic, guru, or avatar who exists in a high state of perfection prior to the quest. Yet, s/he still has a goal in mind, a boon to bring back for the world. Remembering that myths are exoteric stories about inner journeys, we can suggest that the extent to which the hero must steal fire (or any other boon) and the extent to which the hero must fight gods and demons to return is proportional to his or her own imperfections. That is to say, in the dark realm of the unconscious, those imperfections will rise up in various guises and costumes to try and defeat him. The gods do not block the hero's path or return--s/he does.

The hero is undergoing a change for which he or she may not be totally prepared. Crossing the threshold on a quest into the realm of myth is, in a sense, a death, an annihilation of the old ways and the old personality. Returning is, in a sense, a rebirth. But the person, as s/he or she has been, does not approach death or change easily, and this often makes it necessary to steal fire from the gods.


(1) Campbell, Joseph, "Pathways to Bliss," David Kudler, editor, Novato, California, New World Library, 2004

(2) Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, editors, "American Indian Myths and Legends," New York, Pantheon Books, 1984.

(3) "American Indian Myths and Legends."

(4) Campbell, Joseph, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1949, 1968.

(5) "Pathways to Bliss."

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the quest/adventure novel "The Sun Singer" which explores mythic themes. Learn more at

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