“… and from that time Zeus was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian race of mortal men who live on the earth.
But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk.”
Hesiod’s Theogony lines 556- to 571
And so is the earliest Western explanation of humankind acquiring fire. Prometheus stole it from Zeus, who had been withholding it from Man as a punishment.
Fire is so powerful, so completely transformative, that for this transgression Zeus chained the immortal Prometheus to a rock and had an eagle eat his liver every day. And every night it grew back, to be eaten again (until Hercules freed him during another part of the myth).
It was late in the 8th century in Greece when Hesiod’s Theogony appeared. At the same time, on the other side of the world, the Tang dynasty—-generally regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization, a gold age of cosmopolitan culture-—was in power.
And there, during the 8th century, sulphur and saltpeter were first combined with charcoal to create an explosive called huoyao or gunpowder. It was initially used as a fulminate to treat skin disease and kill insects before its use as a weapon became clear. The first gun was made in China in the 10th century as a fire lances, combining a bamboo tube containing gunpowder and projectiles tied to a Chinese spear. And so fire sparked power.
And then, 13 centuries later . . .
Eloise would travel to Chongqing to control fire at the High Tech fair at the Centec (Swedish Embassy Center for Environmental Technology) pavilion.
Her power was neither magic nor mythic: it came from an important product called Eco Flame Protect, an eco-friendly flame retardant that can be used on furniture, clothes, paper goods of all kinds. Most current flame retardants use bromide, a chemical that will be banned by the EU in 2012. EFP is from the next generation of retardants that do not contain bromide. Eloise’s Swedish husband is the CEO of the EFP company, and he is looking to do business in China.
And that’s what brought Eloise to show the fairgoers the power of EFP in a simple, entertaining way. She treated some Mickey Mouse party napkins with EFP, and had a pile of untreated party napkins. She would light the untreated ones, which of course would burn up easily. Then she would ask, in Chinese, for one of the visitors to take the lighter and try to light the treated Mouse napkins. Try as they would, the treated napkin would not catch on fire. Smiles and disbelief all around.
The Mastery of Language: Fire on the Tongue
Eloise studied Chinese in college, and went to live in Taiwan for a year to become fluent. (I wrote about our Taiwan adventures here.) Twenty-five years later she did not know how much of the language would come back. And then her brain reconnected with all those beautiful Mandarin words, as she surprised the good citizens of Chongqing by speaking to them in their own tongue. It was as powerful as wielding fire in the darkness: it set immediate good will with the fairgoers and city folk alike.
Here are videos of Eloise and her demonstration at the fair, and singing with some people at the People’s Great Hall. There were actually 2 groups of singers who had gathered in a strange ‘battle of the folk bands.’ We gravitated toward the guy with the megaphone. You can see the smiles of the singers as the New Yorker sings along with their folk music. Bright sparks of human kindness and kinship all around.