Native American myth and lore is rich with fire and light symbolism. Fire represents living things, the creation of light, and the sun. Creation stories often include fire and flame as generative and destructive forces. The Aztecs recognize fire as the “fundamental catalyst of change” (Miller & Taube, 1993). Myths tell of the acquisition of fire, fire making, and the gift of fire. The Navajo Fire God, haashcheehzhini, represents fire making and the control of fire. In Navajo mythology, he is responsible for creating the stars and the constellations and is depicted as old and slow moving. Fire handlers of the northeast and sub-arctic Ojibwa tribe used fire to interpret dreams.
Associated with fire and essential for life, light is a common motif in Native American myth. The origin of light appears in numerous tales such as the Apache Creation and Emergence (see January 3, 2020 blog post). The myth is complex and includes the underworld, many mythological heroes and characters, and tells of Holy Boy who performs ritual acts to create the sun, the moon, the earth, and humankind. The creation of light is also attributed to the creator of the world, as in the example of Loak-Ishto-hoollo-Aba, the Chickasaw Great-Holy-Fire-Above. “He is responsible for all light and warmth and, therefore, all animal and vegetable life. Connected with the sun, but not the sun, he can live in the sky as well as with people on earth” (Gill & Sullivan, 1992).
Light “is often entrapped or hidden by some malevolent being, it is the task of some culture hero to make the dangerous journey to steal the light and release it to the world” (Gill & Sullivan). Myths tell of tricksters and clever characters who steal light and fire such as: coyote, wolf, woodpecker, and raven.
Central American myth tells of Quetzalcoatl, the creator god and the Aztec cult god Huitzilopochtli, who made fire with the half-sun that shone before the dawn of humankind. Other myths tell of Tezcatlipoca, who was the first to make fire with flint. The Aztec ritual of New Fire was held to celebrate the new calendar and regeneration. During the ritual all terra cotta pots were destroyed and new ones were created for the new year. All fires were extinguished to await the new beginning. The new fire was started with flint in the chest of a sacrificial victim to guarantee the arrival of the morning sun (Miller & Taube).
In ancient Mesoamerica, the heroes, myths, and rituals related to fire evolved over time. Xiuhtecuhtli was the terrestrial fire god, who was surpassed by Huitziloplchtli, the god of the sun and fire. Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, bears the sun through the sky. Carvings depict heroes holding the mankin scepter that symbolizes lightning and fire. The scepter took the form of a deified axe with a fire serpent at one end (see image below). Mayans believed that fire was the way to communicate with gods and ancestors and often burned paper splattered with blood.
This story is condensed from five very detailed stories told by the Jicarilla Apaches. The Jicarilla are one of six tribes of the Apaches of the southwestern U.S., and they have a voluminous folkore. These stories were compiled and translated by Morris Opler in the 1930's. In addition to telling the story of the creation and emergence and explaining the world, the stories reflect the Jicarilla disregard for the shamans found in some other Native American religions, and they reflect the sacredness of fours in every thing and every behavior.
In the beginning there was nothing - no earth, no living beings. There were only darkness, water, and Cyclone, the wind. There were no humans, but only the Hactcin, the Jicarilla supernatural beings. The Hactcin made the earth, the underworld beneath it, and the sky above it. The earth they made as a woman who faces upward, and the sky they made as a man who faces downward. The Hactcin lived in the underworld, where there was no light. There were mountains and plants in the underworld, and each had its own Hactcin. There were as yet no animals or humans, and everything in the underworld existed in a dream-like state and was spiritual and holy.
The most powerful of the Hactcin in the underworld was Black Hactcin. One day Black Hactcin made the first animal with four legs and a tail made of clay. At first he thought it looked peculiar, but when he asked it to walk and saw how gracefully it walked, he decided it was good. Knowing this animal would be lonely, he made many other kinds of animals come from the body of the first. He laughed to see the diversity of the animals he had created. All the animals wanted to know what to eat and where to live, so he divided the foods among them, giving grass to the horse, sheep, and cow, and to others he gave brush, leaves, and pine needles. He sent them out to different places, some to the mountains, some to the deserts, and some to the plains, which is why the animals are found in different places today.
Next Black Hactcin held out his hand and caught a drop of rain. He mixed this with some earth to make mud and made a bird from the mud. At first he wasn't sure he would like what he had made. He asked the bird to fly, and when it did he liked it. He decided the bird too would be lonely, so he grabbed it and whirled it rapidly clockwise. As the bird became dizzy, it saw images of other birds, and when Black Hactcin stopped whirling it, there were indeed many new kinds of birds, all of which live in the air because they were made from a drop of water that came from the air. Black Hactcin sent the birds out to find places they liked to live, and when they returned he gave each the place that they liked. To feed them, he threw seeds all over the ground. To tease them, however, he turned the seeds into insects, and he watched as they chased after the insects. At a river nearby, he told the birds to drink. Again, however, he couldn't resist teasing them, so he took some moss and made fish, frogs, and the other things that live in water. This frightened the birds as they came to drink, and it is why birds so often hop back in fright as they come down to drink. As some of the birds took off, their feathers fell in the water, and from them came the ducks and other birds that live in the water.
Black Hactcin continued to make more animals and birds. The animals and birds that already existed all spoke the same language, and they held a council. They came to Black Hactcin and asked for a companion. They were concerned that they would be alone when Black Hactcin left them, and Black Hactcin agreed to make something to keep them company. He stood facing the east, and then the south, and then the west, and then the north. He had the animals bring him all sorts of materials from across the land, and he traced his outline on the ground. He then set the things that they brought him in the outline. The turquoise that they brought became veins, the red ochre became blood, the coral became skin, the white rock became bones, the Mexican opal became fingernails and teeth, the jet became the pupil, the abalone became the white of the eyes, and the white clay became the marrow of the bones. Pollen, iron ore, and water scum were used too, and Black Hactcin used a dark cloud to make the hair.
The man they had made was lying face down, and it began to rise as the birds watched with excitement. The man arose from prone, to kneeling, to sitting up, and to standing. Four times Black Hactcin told him to speak, and he did. Four times Black Hactcin told him to laugh, and he did. It was likewise with shouting. Then Black Hactcin taught him to walk, and had him run four times in a clockwise circle.
The birds and animals were afraid the man would be lonely, and they asked Black Hactcin give him company. Black Hactcin asked them for some lice, which he put on the man's head. The man went to sleep scratching, and he dreamed that there was a woman beside him. When he awoke, she was there. They asked Black Hactcin what they would eat, and he told them that the plants and the cloven-hoofed animals would be their food. They asked where they should live. He told them to stay anywhere they liked, which is why the Jicarilla move from place to place.
These two, Ancestral Man and Ancestral Woman, had children, and the people multiplied. In those days no one died, although they all lived in darkness. This lasted for many years. Holy Boy, another Apache spirit, was unhappy with the darkness, and he tried to make a sun. As he worked at it, Cyclone came by and told him that White Hactcin had a sun. Holy Boy went to White Hactcin, who gave him the sun, and he went to Black Hactcin, who gave him the moon. Black Hactcin told Holy Boy how to make a sacred drawing on a buckskin to hold the sun and moon, and Holy Boy, Red Boy, Black Hactcin, and White Hactcin held a ceremony at which White Hactcin released the sun and Black Hactcin released the moon. The light grew stronger as the sun moved from north to south, and eventually it was like daylight is now.
The people didn't know what this was, and the shamans each began to claim that they had power over the sun. On the fourth day, there was an eclipse. After the sun had disappeared, the Hactcins told the shamans to make the sun reappear. The shamans tried all kinds of tricks, but they couldn't make the sun come back. To solve the problem, White Hactcin turned to the animals and had them bring the foods they ate. With the food and some sand and water, they began to grow a mountain. The mountain grew, but it stopped short of the hole in the sky that led from the underworld to the earth. It turned out that two girls had gone up on the mountain and had trampled the sacred plants and even had defecated there. White Hactcin, Black Hactcin, Holy Boy, and Red Boy had to go up the mountain and clean it. When they came down and the people sang, and the mountain grew again. It stopped, however, just short of the hole, and when the four went up again they could only see to the other earth. They sent up Fly and Spider, who took four rays of the sun and built a rope ladder to the upper world. Spider was the first one to climb to the upper world, where the sun was bright.
White Hactcin, Black Hactcin, Holy Boy, and Red Boy climbed up the ladder, and they found much water on the earth. They sent for the four winds to blow the water away, and Beaver came up to build dams to hold the water in rivers. Spider made threads to catch the sun, and they made the sun go from east to west to light the entire world, not just one side. Hactcin called for the people to climb up, and for four days they climbed the mountain. At the top they found four ladders. Ancestral Man and Ancestral Woman were the first people to climb up, and the people climbed up into the upper world that we know today. Thus the earth is our mother, and the people climbed up as from a womb. Then the animals came up, and before long the ladders were worn out. Behind the animals came an old man and an old woman, and they couldn't climb the ladders. No one could get them up, and finally the two realized they had to stay in the underworld. They agreed to stay but told the others they must come back to the underworld eventually, which is why people go to the underworld after death.
Everything in the upper world is alive - the rocks, the trees, the grass, the plants, the fire, the water. Originally they all spoke the Jicarilla Apache language and spoke to the people. The Hactcin, however, decided that it was boring to have all these things speaking the same, so they gave all these things and all the animals different voices.
Eventually the people travelled out clockwise across the land. Different groups would break off and stay behind, and their children would begin to play games in which they used odd languages. The people in these groups began to forget their old languages and use these new ones, which is why now there are many languages. Only one group kept on traveling in the clockwise spiral until they reached the center of the world, and these are the Jicarilla Apaches.
Adi-Buddha – appeared as a flame when he first revealed himself on Mount Sumeru
Agni – Indian personification of fire; the eater of sacrifices on the altar which were consumed by fire; consort of Destroyer Kali; god of fire, sun, and lightning
Aither – Greek deities of light
Allah – illuminates the world; effulgent light; the manifestation of Divine Knowledge
Anchises – Greek light deity, son of Capys and Hieromneme
Angiras – Indian and Hindu descendants of the fire god Agni; celestial bodies who are deities of fire and light, often seen as meteors
Aos – Sumerian god of light, also known as Aa, Hoa, Oannes
Apollo – Greek god of light
Artemis – Greek goddess of light
Aten – Egyptian god of light and the sun; also known as Horace, Ra
Atthar – ancient Arabian Goddess of Enlightenment; also known as Golden Mother, One Born to Gold, The Glory
Brhaspati – Hindu, Indian Lord of Devotion who brought light to the world
Bridgit – Celtic goddess associated with a light festival at the beginning of February, also called Bridgid
Bura-penu – Indian god of light; mate of Tari-penu, the goddess of darkness
Byelobog – Slavic god of light whose name means White God; his evil counterpart is Chernobog, or Black God; Byelobog is a benevolent god who shows travelers the way
Christ – the Light of the World; “the Father of Lights with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning“ (James 1, 17)
Cuchulain – Celtic god of heat and light; son of Lugh, the sun god
Demeter – Greek goddess of corn and the harvest; the torch is her attribute
Devi – Hindu Great Mother; as Uma, the wife of Shiva, her skin is golden and she personifies light and beauty
Fire – Phoenician; child of Genos & Genea from the creation legend; his siblings were Flame and Light
Gerd – Scandinavian frost goddess of the frozen earth and of light; daughter of Gymer and Aurbods, wife of Freyr
Heracles – carried a torch as the weapon against Hydra, Greek mythological monster with nine heads
Hestia – Greek goddess of the hearth; symbol of the religious center of the family; modern Greeks still honor Hestia by pouring oil and wine through the center of a ring-shaped cake onto the hearth fire (Walker, 1998)
Jupiter – brightness, god of the bright sky
Khou – Egyptian god of light; similar to Ka or Ba which is the essence of the soul; depicted as a crested bird
Krishna – light was the manifestation of Krishna, Lord of Light
Leto – Greek goddess of light, daughter of Ceos and Phoebe; mother by Zeus of the twins Apollo and Artemis
Lucina – Mother of the Light; pagan feminine interpretation of the symbol of the lighted candle; she governed the sun, moon, and stars; gave newborn creatures the “light“ of their vision; her festival of light became the Christian feast of St. Lucy (Walker); also known as the Roman Juno
Mihr – Armenia, Iranian god of light; an underworld or fire deity, child of Ormazd
Nusku – Assyro-Babylonian, Sumerian god of light; his symbol is the lamp; a messenger of the gods
Ormazd – Zoroastrianism‘s Lord of the Light, the power of truth; sacred to the Magi
Parvati – Hindu, Indian aspect of Uma as goddess of light
Phanes – Greek; Light or light god from the Orphic Creation Legend; he emerged from the silver egg protected in the womb of darkness to create earth, sky, sun, and moon
Pistis Sophia – Post-Christian Gnostic Virgin of Light
Silik-mulu-khi – Akkadian, Mesopotamian god of light and protector of immortals; son of Ea, a creator deity, god of the earth and waters
Svarog – Slavic sun god, used a torch to represent the rebirth of the sun
Tenshodaijin – Japanese goddess who rules the realm of light on heaven and earth
Vesta – Roman goddess associated with the hearth; at the center of Vesta’s temple, tended by sacred women, the fire was never allowed to go out