Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fire unbound

Creation: Spring & Easter
The one tending the fire is most likely to be singed. (South Africa)

The earliest human beings could see fire when the sun burned dry leaves, when lightning struck a tree or when two rocks hit each other. People might have carried out their own experiments - like rubbing two pieces of flint - or they may have started out with pieces of burning wood from spontaneous fires.

Because fire brings joy as well as danger, legends suggest that the gods were reluctant to entrust people with fire. Native Americans believe an animal like the coyote, wolf, or woodpecker stole fire and delivered it to people. Africans, like the San of South Africa, also say animals provided people with fire. A Pacific legend says fire came from a trickster who was part god and part mortal. According to the Greeks, the Titan Prometheus lit a torch at the chariot of the sun, and gave people fire so they would be superior to animals. The gods punished him for this act.

People believed that the gods showed themselves through fire, speaking from burning bushes or flashes of lightning. Fire could therefore produce respect or terror. Flames could scare off animals, and create weapons to kill or tame them. People could warm themselves at the fireside and therefore be less subject to climate change. Cooked food (especially meat and fibrous plants) was easier to digest, and gave energy with less work. The extra time and energy may have helped people to be that much smarter than animals. Fire might also have encouraged groups to stay together to get the fire started, keep it going, and sit close to each other and benefit from the warmth and protection of the fire. In addition, fire allowed people to see at night.

In early days, fire was used to clear forests for planting, to heat stone to make more sophisticated tools, and to burn clay to make water containers. Scientists have found burnt objects, about 200,000 years old, at archeological sites in South Africa, Israel, and China.

Today we may take for granted the joy of fire, as almost all of modern industry relies on fire. But we are never allowed to forget that we still have lessons to learn about controlling fire.

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at