Fire concerns the anthropologist, because its possession is said to mark off man from the lower animals, since, though they appreciate its warmth, even the' anthropoid apes are incapable of making fire for themselves, or of keeping it up when it has been made. Wilson (Prehistoric Man, i. 136) says that man may be appropriately designated "the fire-using animal." Moreover, man's first acquaintance with fire is the subject of many myths, of which the classic story of Prometheus, a variant of an older Aryan myth, is the best known. Somewhat similar stories are current in Polynesia and in China. The first mention of fire in the Hebrew Scriptures is "the flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life" (Gen. iii. 24). There is nothing about fire in the account of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, though it is stated (Gen. iv. 4) that "the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering." But "answering by fire" is of frequent occurrence in the historical books (1 Kings xviii. 24; 1 Chron. xxi. 26; cf. Matt. iii. 11; Acts ii. 3).
We first meet with stories of tireless tribes in Plutarch, and in moelern times travellers have again and again brought home accounts of peoples among whom the use of fire was unknown. But after patient sifting, authorities have declined to receive their stories - of course, without any imputation of bad faith, believing them to be based on imperfect observation or untrustworthy reports. It seems, however, to be clearly established that down to the middle of the 19th century the Tasmanians and Australians preferred carrying fire about with them to procuring it by artificial means.
The oldest method of fire-making is that by friction, and of this there were three or four ways. The simplest was that called by Dr. Tylor the stick and, groove. Two pieces of wood, one hard and the other soft, were taken, and the former was rubbed up and down upon the latter till sparks were produced and tinder ignited. An advance on this was the fire-drill, which has a much wider range, and has undergone many modifications. The materials were the same, but a rotary motion was substituted for the rubbing backwards and forwards.
In the primitive fire-drill the stick was twirled between the palms, and in other forms string or a bow was employed. This method was used to procure the needfire, probably a survival of some kind of sun-worship, and intended to secure cattle which were driven through it from murrain. To the fire drill probably succeeded flint and pyrites (the fire stone), and Homer and Virgil mention flint as containing the "seeds of fire." Burning-glasses as means of kindling fire were known in classic times, and it is said that the Vestal Virgins procured fire by these means, though one account states that the priest of Vesta used a fire-drill.
Fire has also a religious importance. In many vanished faiths it was the chief means by which sacrifice was offered to the gods, and was - and, indeed, still is in many places - an object of worship either independently, or as an emblem of the Sun god or Supreme Deity. Fire worship seems to have had a wide range among the Aryans, and to have been practised in Mexico and Peru. The Greeks and Romans had special fire-deities; and the cult still lingers in the East, and seems to have left its impress on Christianity itself in the Roman Catholic practice of kindling the new-fire on Holy Saturday.