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.