A burned finger, the salmon of knowledge, & the heart of Fafnir.
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
Have noticed that if you cut a finger or burn your hand, your first reaction is to suck your fingers or suck you hand? Not only is this an instinctive behavior, it's effective and science is behind it. But is there a mystical side effect to sucking a burned finger? Maybe.
First, sucking on your burned finger and the gate control theory of pain. Two researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed in 1965, what they called the gate control theory of pain, which, for the most part, holds up to this day. Additional research showed that feeling pain is more about a balance of stimuli on the different types of nerve fibers. The idea was that certain fibers that increased the input were ones that opened the gate, and the ones that reduced the input closed the gate.
The gate control theory was fleshed out in 1996 when neurophysiologist Edward Perl discovered that cells contain nociceptors, which are neurons that signal the presence of tissue-damaging stimuli or the existence of tissue damage. Of the two main types of nerve fibers, large and small, the large fibers carry non-nociceptive information (no pain), while small fibers transmit nociceptive information (pain).
Studies where electric stimulation was applied to nerves, as the current was raised, the first fibers to be stimulated were the largest ones. As the intensity of the stimulus increased, smaller and smaller fibers get recruited in. At low intensity, the patient recognized the stimulus, but it was not be painful. But when the intensity of the stimulus was increased, eventually a threshold was reached where suddenly it was painful. Thus, the idea was that shutting the gate was something that the large fibers produced, and opening the gate was something that the small fibers produced.
After you have burned or cut your finger and you suck on it you are countering the large fibers with "counter irritation." This produces a decrease in the magnitude of the of the barrage of signals being driven across the incoming fiber activation. You are shutting the gate and reducing your pain.
Thinking about how we suck a finger that is burned or cut to reduce pain, I remembered some ancient mythology/folklore that relates two heroes gaining mystic powers by sucking a burned thumb or finger. I was intrigued and grabbed my books on mythology to verify my memory.
In a series of Irish legends known as the Fionn Cycle, comes Finn, also known as Finn MacCumhail. He was the son of Cumhail, who led a band of warriors called the Fianna. Members of this group were chosen for their bravery and strength and took an oath to fight for the king and defend Ireland from attack. In time, Finn became the leader of the Fianna and was their greatest warrior of all.
Finn was not just a hunter-warrior but also a poet and seer. The legend goes that as a boy, Finn became the pupil of a druid. This mentor had been told that he would gain all the world's knowledge if he caught and ate a certain salmon. The druid caught the fish and instructed Finn to cook but not to eat it. While preparing the fish, Finn touched it and burned his thumb. When he sucked his thumb to ease the pain, Finn received the knowledge that was meant for the druid. Even though he briefly touched the salmon, Finn's moment of clarity came and he understood nature and gained psychic abilities. Thus, that day forward he became a prophet of the future and a powerful mystic as well as a warrior.
A similar story can be found in Norse mythology with the hero Sigurd. His father was a hero of Odin and was armed with a mighty sword. When his father died, Odin smashed the sword, however, his mother kept the sword fragments. As Sigurd grew up, the fragments were taken to Regin, a devious blacksmith, who forged them into an invincible sword. He trained Sigurd in many skills and when he was ready, Regin manipulated Sigurd to seek out a treasure that contained a magical gold ring that multiplied wealth. Regin, however, did not tell Sigurd that the gold ring was cursed and would kill its possessor.
With his sword and a magical horse, Sigurd set out to get the treasure protected by Fafnir the dragon. With the assistance of Odin, Sigurd developed a ruse based on his strength and invincible sword that allowed him to kill Fafnir without drowning in the blood of the dragon.
After the battle was over, Sigurd was instructed by Regin cut out the dragon's heart, roast it and eat it. However, while roasting the hear of Fafnir, Sigurd burned his finger and instinctively began sucking it. Then came the moment of clarity for Sigurd and he gained the ability to understand animals, specifically birds. The birds told Sigurd that Regin had a plan to double cross him, murder him and take possession of the magic gold ring. Sigurd taking heed from the birds, beheaded Regin and made off with the treasure. Ultimately, Sigurd's death was caused by the curse of the magic gold ring.
After pondering the gate control of pain theory and the stories of Finn and Sigurd, something occurred to me. Not only does the gate control of pain theory explain why we suck a burned digit, but for Finn and Sigurd it was the gate to obtaining magical or mystic powers. I thought to myself, "Self, if Finn and Sigurd obtained powers by sucking a burned finger, maybe I should test this theory of a gateway to magical or mystical powers."
I went into the kitchen and checked the refrigerator. I was sadden to discover we did not have a salmon of knowledge or a dragon's heart to test this theory. However, we did have bacon and I am pretty sure that everyone would agree that bacon has magical qualities. I grabbed the pound of thick sliced applewood-smoked bacon, a skillet, and got to cooking.
As the pan grew hotter and the bacon grease was popping, I strengthen my resolve. I knew if I wanted to test my theory, I needed to plunge my thumb into hot bacon grease, suck my thumb, and have my moment of clarity and mystic powers. Then it happened, before I intentionally burned my self with bacon grease, a voice was calling to me, from the distance and it grew closer. As I stood there enthralled by the hypnotic power of frying bacon, I looked up and saw...my wife. It was then I realized I was holding my right hand in the air and giving a "thumbs up". She asked, looking at me in disbelief, "Why are you making bacon at 10 o'clock at night and what the hell are you doing with your hand in the air?"
Deciding not to explain my theory on obtaining mystical powers through burning my hand in bacon grease, I uttered, "Do I need a reason to have bacon and to show my love for it by celebrating with a big thumbs up?" Her gaze was steady and she responded, "Clean up your damn mess when you are done!" As she walked away shaking her head and murmuring something, I was pretty sure she bought my explanation. Then it happened, my moment of clarity had arrived to deliver unto me the most obvious truth..."I am an idiot!" Needless to say I did not carry through my plan to obtain powers through bacon grease. However, as I sat there eating the entire pound of bacon myself, I had another moment of clarity, "Bacon does have magical qualities!"