The most desultory inspection of primitive religions shows that worship of the sun and of fire was universal. The truth is curiously illustrated by the fact that even our word "Devil" literally means the "Shining One" (the sun), from a Sanskrit root.
In its origin, the word "Devil" had no evil significance. It remains to-day the word for god in the Gypsy tongue, which is closely akin to the original Aryan. Deva means god in Sanskrit. When Zoroaster taught, ages ago, he condemned as evil the god then worshiped by the Persians, and thus Deva came to be regarded as a wicked deity. The Sanskrit root-forms are div and dyur each meaning "to shine." From the form div, Deva is derived; from the form dyu, Dyaus is derived. These are the sources of the word for god in many, even most languages. Among such derivations are theos in Greek, diewas in Lithuanian, dens in Latin, dieu in French, dios in Spanish and dio in Italian. The Teutonic variants are similarly derived, such as Teufel, diuval, djofull, djevful, and the like. The Greek Zeus is from the Sanskrit Dyaus, to which the word Jupiter also owes its origin. In the Rigveda, Dyaus is the god whose glory is the brightness of the heavens. He is called also Dyaus Pitri, which signifies God the Great Ancestor of All. It is this latter appellation that is transformed directly into the word Jupiter - literally, Zeus the Father. In old German, Zio is the name given to the god of day, where the significance is precisely that of the original Aryan. We have the form represented in Anglo-Saxon by the word Tuesday, which was first written Tiwsdaeg, the day of Zeus.
It is in truth strange that the God whom we worship and the Devil whom we should shun, both take their names from the same source - that source whence all religions drew their first inspiration. The clear teaching is that there was a universal worship of the sun-god by primitive man, together with a constant employment of fire as the god's sign and instrument. In the infancy of our race, the conception of religion attributed the origin of all good, even of all life, to the sun. This crude and instinctive appreciation of truth has been wholly justified by the findings of modern science.
It was inevitable that the spectacular glory of the lightning should have profoundly impressed primitive man, and should have caused him to regard it as divinely hurled from heaven to earth by the god, for good or for evil, according to his mood. And not lightning alone. Every formation of fire reflected in some measure the splendor and the power of the god, A favorite legend of all peoples had to do with the gift of fire to mortals. The Hindu story is so old that it employs the most ancient method of kindling a flame, by use of the fire stick. This device consisted of two cords attached to a pointed stick in such a manner that, while one was being unwound, the other was being wound up. It was operated with the point of the stick resting on a disk of wood. By alternately pulling on the two cords, the stick was twirled so rapidly that the friction of its point against the disk produced fire. Count Rumford verified the efficacy of the contrivance in his experiments. It is known that it was formerly used in America over the whole extent of the continents, both north and south. It is still employed in South Africa, Australia, Sumatra, and among the Veddahs of Ceylon. According to the Sanskrit, the gods, Devas, and the spirits of evil, Asuras, made a truce in order to work together with the fire drill. They took Mount Mandara for the stick and the Great Serpent, Sasha, for the cord. The Devas pulled at the snake's tail; the Asuras at its head; and from the crest of the mountain first blazed the lightning.
Another form given to the name of the mountain is Man-thara. With a prefix, the word gives pramantha, which is the Sanskrit word for a fire drill. Philologists have traced to this word the name of Prometheus, that Titan who, according to Greek mythology, stole from heaven its sacred fire for the use of man.
Agni, one of the Hindu divinities, was designated the god of gods, and he was specifically the ruler over all fires, whether of earth or of heaven. It is from this name that the Latin gets its word for fire, ignis. The sacred narrative concerning Agni is consistent, for it declares that he himself was born a babe from the friction of two fire sticks.
Indra, who became identified as the sun god, is of particular importance still in the Hindu pantheon, and the holy writings give much space to tales of his battles to overcome Vitra, darkness.
In the north, there was no less worship of fire. The Norse Frodi was a god of fire. The quern, or mill, which is conspicuous among the myths concerning him, was actually his fire drill. His symbol was the sun, and after that the lightning and all other forms of flame. Thor, also, ruled especially over fire. Now, it is a fact that fire, in the symbolism of natural religions, is intimately connected with passion. This truth is indicated in the cases of both Agni and Thor, who were gods, not only of fire, but also of marriage. The popular acceptance of Thor's divinity in this regard is witnessed by the old English superstition that makes Thursday, Thor's day, the luckiest of the week on which to wed. Another example is afforded on our own continent. Catequil was worshiped in Peru as the god of fire. And he it was who, as the god of lightning, threw down to earth the thun-derstones. These were small, round pebbles, which were very highly regarded by the people as fetishes, endowed with magical virtues for inspiring love. Hermes, in one phase, was a fire god, and the Caduceus that distinguished him was in fact a fire wand.
The Druids worshiped Be-al, the life of all, a deity essentially the same as the Phoenician Ba-al. They looked on the sun and fire as symbols of the god. One of their two great annual festivals, which was celebrated on May 1, was called Beltane, meaning "the fire of god." The other festival was held on November 1. The name of this, Samh-in, signifies the fire of peace. At the time of this second festival, all the fires in the houses were extinguished, to be afterward set burning anew by means of torches kindled at the sacred flame. In their worship of the sun and of fire, the Druids included the offering of human sacrifices, which were burned within curiously contrived inflammable cages.
In Greek mythology, great importance was given to fire as the supreme gift of heaven to man. To Prometheus and Epimetheus, two brothers who were Titans, was entrusted the creation of man and of the animals. Epimetheus did the active work of creation, under the superintendence of Prometheus. But Epimetheus fashioned the animals first, and gave to them all his gifts, so that, when it came to the point of creating man, he had nothing left for a dower. He confessed his plight to Prometheus, who, with the help of Minerva, ascended to heaven, where he lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun, and thence brought down the divine flame to earth. With this gift of fire, man was rendered superior to all animals; for by it he could fashion weapons with which to subdue the fiercest beasts. Moreover, fire gave him the means by which to shape tools for tilling the earth, and for use in all arts. Finally, by the gift of Prometheus, man gained power to overcome the rigors of climate, to bid defiance to cold.
The Greeks gave highest honors to Athena, or Minerva, as queen of the air. She might well be regarded as the patron deity of pyrotechny, since she was not only queen of the air, but also queen of fire. Ruskin points out that Athena was queen of that fire which is in human hearts, and manifests as courage and endurance. Athena was worshiped by the arts of fire, and all flaming devices were fittingly symbols of her. The rocket, had it been known to classical Greece, might have been interpreted, in her behalf, as brave to dare the unknown dark, to mount with all energy until its very life was at an end, and, with its last breath, to set on fire that burden which it has carried aloft, in order that, even after its own passing, a new glory should be spread in the heavens.
Among other distinguished Greek divinities, intimately concerned with this sort of worship, were Hephaestus, lord of fire of the hand, and Apollo, lord of fire of the brain.
From the multiplicity of deities reverenced by the Romans, we may note particularly the goddess Vesta, on the altar of whose temple in the Forum burned perpetually the sacred fire brought by AEneas from Troy. The sanctity of this flame is attested by the fact that it remained constantly attended by 80 virgins, vowed to chastity; among whom, any violation of their trust was punished by the offenders being buried alive. Once extinguished, the fire could be relighted only by the Pontifex Maximus himself, who used for that purpose the ancient fire drill. The esteem in which the worship of Vesta was held is shown by the historical record that the temple of the goddess in the Forum was the last to yield before the rising power of Christianity.
The influence of fire worship crept into most of the heroic legends. Thus, in the tale of the Chimaera slain by Bell-erophon mounted on Pegasus, it is declared that the monster was fashioned after the manner of a lion and a goat in its fore parts, but that it had the form of a dragon in its hinder parts, and that it breathed forth a destroying fire.
Jason, seeking the Golden Fleece, received the promise of it from AEetes, on condition that he should plow with the fire-breathing bulls, which were brazen hoofed. The Latin poet tells that the fire streaming from the bulls' nostrils burned up the herbage as they passed, and that the sound was like the roaring of a furnace, while the smoke ascended in a dense cloud, like that caused by the pouring of water on quicklime.
So of the mystical bird of the Heliopolis priests:
After 500 years of life, the Phoenix, according to Ovid, prepared for death, and at the same time for new life, by building a special nest in an oak tree, or palm. In the nest, he made a funeral pyre, decked with cinnamon, spikenard and myrrh. In the flames of this fire, the bird was consumed; but it presently arose out of the ashes to a new life of 500 years.. According to some writers, there was a difference between the identities of the old bird and the new. In such case, the young bird carried the remains of its parent, inclosed within an egg of myrrh, to Heliopolis, there to receive sacred ministrations from the priests of the sun.
The Cockatrice, or Basilisk, as usually described, had the form of the ordinary barnyard fowl, but wore a crown on its head instead of a comb. The creature was so dreadful that even the serpent fled from its approach, and its glance caused instant death. It was supposed to take its origin from the egg of a cock, hatched by a toad, or serpent, or some form of saurian.