I actually first heard about this myth on The Simpsons. There was one episode where Marge saves Homer from a rampaging rhino by setting their car on fire. The rhino immediately abandons its attack and puts out the fire. Day is saved.
Funny joke. Thought it was just random humor.
Actually, though, it’s not just a stupid joke. I mean, it is a stupid joke, but, whatever. I found out later that it was really a spoof of two scenes from the excellent 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy, a comedy set in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. You can watch them below.
But this just creates further questions. If I got it from The Simpsons, and The Simpsons got it from The Gods Must Be Crazy, where did they get it from? It is a myth, right?
Turns out the myth dates back a ways. And it is a myth. Fire can make a rhino panic, but its first instinct is to run from the fire, not try to fight it. Also, in an interesting twist, although the myth always references African rhinos, the myth doesn’t seem to come from Africa! No native cultures in Africa ever had a story about fire-fighting rhinos.
So why is it there?
It’s actually a weird artifact of colonialism. There are myths about fiery rhinos, but they start over 7000 kilometers way in southeast Asia, near the countries of Malaysia and Myanmar. Now, Africa’s black and white rhinoceroses don’t live in Asia, but those two countries do have their own flavor of rhino, the Sumatran rhinocerous. It is smaller than its African cousins and lives in the jungle, instead of the savannah.
It’s also hairy sometimes. Which looks kind of weird.
N. J. Van Strien notes in his study of Sumatran rhinos: “Rhinos… are said to be attracted by campfires or smoke. Whenever it sees a fire it runs up and tramples and devours it, causing a lot of damage and panic in the camp (F. Mason 1882).” The locals even have a specific name for these creatures, Badak Api, literally fire rhinos. It’s not known what they do with the fire after they eat it.
Perhaps they breathe it. That’d be scary. Fire-breathing rhinos. Or their horns could be made of fire. Maybe they’d run on propane.
Either way, the European naturalists heard these myths and brought them back to the Western world, accidentally confusing some of the details along the way. Hence fire-eating Asian rhinos became fire-hating African rhinos. Which stuck around long enough to make it to Hollywood.
And, eventually, The Simpsons.