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Prometheus and Coyote: The Theft of Fire


In many ancient cultures, there are stories about how fire came into existence. The most well-known myth about the origin of fire is the Greek myth featuring Prometheus.

When Prometheus decides to descend from Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods, to live among men, he is surprised to find that men are living in brutally cold conditions and starving because they don't have fire. Because Prometheus wants to ease their suffering, he goes to Zeus and begs him to give men fire. Zeus refuses, so Prometheus sneaks around behind Zeus's back and steals a spark of fire from one of Zeus's lightning bolt. He gives the gift of fire to men, and when Zeus finds out, he is so angered by Prometheus's actions that he chains him to a mountain for eternity.

Like Prometheus, the Native American trickster deity, Coyote, stole fire. Minding his own business, he passed through a human village and overhead them wishing that they could keep a part of the sun with them. Like Prometheus, Coyote felt sorry for humans, and he knew where fire was kept. He knew that there were three beings who zealously guarded the secrets of fire, and he knew that he would have to steal it. Coyote watched the three beings closely, learning their patterns of behavior to figure out the most opportune time to strike.

After watching the beings, he went down and talked to the other animals, telling them about humans and asking for their aid in the theft of fire, to which the other animals agreed. So Coyote went back up the mountain while the other animals waited at the base, and he found a perfect moment to snatch the fire. When he did so, the three beings chased him. One managed to grab his tail, which turned it white and is said to be the reason coyotes have white tails now. On the way down the mountain, Coyote passed the fire to squirrel, who then passed it to a chipmunk, who then passed it to a frog, who then dropped it on wood. The squirrel's back was burnt to the point it forced the squirrel's tail to curl up, while the chipmunk was burnt to the point three stripes were left on its back, and the frog lost its tail when one of the three beings grabbed it and the frog jumped away. The three beings who guarded fire had to give up after frog dropped the fire on wood because they couldn't figure out how to get the fire out of the wood. But Coyote knew the trick, and he taught humans how to use fire and how to get it out of wood.

While Prometheus and Coyote both stole fire from beings more powerful than them, there are some noticeable differences. Prometheus committed his theft alone - Coyote made others implicit in his theft. Prometheus was punished by being chained to a mountain to suffer eternal torment. The only punishment Coyote suffered was to have his tail turn white. Those who were implicit in his theft - the squirrel, chipmunk, and frog - all suffered as well. Prometheus bore his punishment alone, while Coyote shared the pain of his crime with others, perhaps to reduce its impact.

In summary, both Prometheus and Coyote stole fire in order to reduce the suffering of humans, and each of them paid a price for the crime. While their methods and punishments were different, the result was the same - they both managed to acquire fire for human use.
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Content copyright © 2015 by Ky Greene. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Ky Greene. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Ky Greene for details.

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