I often wondered why Agni was the second most important deity, next only to Indra, to the vedic civilization (if importance is measured in terms of the number of hymns in the Rig Veda). After all, fire would have been common place at the time of the vedic people and therefore the mystique would not have been great enough to accord a Godhood to the fire element.
As I research, it has become apparent there are more than one reasons to explain the prominence of Agni.
One of them is the role that Agni played in the Vedic pantheon. To the Vedic people, Agni was their messenger to the Gods. It is Agni who bears to the Gods the prayers, praises and oblations of his worshippers and brings the Gods down to their sacrifices or their homes.
Hymn 2 of Mandala IV has a detailed account of how Agni was the messenger to the Gods for the Vedic people.
THE, Faithful One, Immortal among mortals, a God among the Gods, appointed envoy,
Priest, best at worship, must shine forth in glory . Agni shall be raised high with man’s oblations.
The very first verse acknowledges Agni as the appointed envoy. Agni also has the distinction of being the only God and immortal amongst the mortals.
Born for us here this day, O Son of Vigour, between both races of born beings, Agni,
Thou farest as an envoy, having harnessed, Sublime One! thy strong-muscled radiant stallions.
I laud the ruddy steeds who pour down blessing, dropping oil, fleetest through the thought of Order.
Yoking red horses to and fro thou goest between you Deities and mortal races.
In the mind of Rishi Vamadeva, composer of all the Agni hymns in Mandala IV, the flames of the sacrificial fire transform into strong-muscled radiant stallions that Agni, the envoy harnesses in order to travel to and from the Gods (you Deities) for the sake of the mortal races.
Agni, was born among mortals and amongst those Gods born of Heaven and Earth (hence both races of born beings), for the specific purpose of functioning as a messenger.
So who ordained this role for Agni? We have the answer in verse 12 as well as in verse 1 of Hymn 1
This Sage the Sages, ne’er deceived, commanded, setting him down in dwellings of the living.
Hence mayst thou, friendly God, with rapid footsteps behold the Gods, wonderful, fair to look on.
The Sages, i.e. the other Gods, commanded this Sage, i.e. Agni, and set him down in the dwellings of the living as priest, herald, messenger, envoy…
THEE Agni, have the Gods, ever of one accord, sent hither down, a God, appointed messenger, yea, with their wisdom sent thee down.
The Immortal, O thou Holy One, mid mortal men, the God-devoted God, the wise, have they brought forth, brought forth the omnipresent God-devoted Sage.
This verse is even more explicit than the previous one. The Gods of one accord sent down Agni as appointed messenger.
This role of Agni, is taken to its extreme in Hymn 3 of Mandala IV, verses 5 to 8.
RV 4.003.05 – 08
Why this complaint to Varuna, O Agni? And why to Heaven? for what is our transgression?
How wilt thou speak to Earth and bounteous Mitra? What wilt thou say to Aryaman and Bhaga?
What, when thou blazest on the lesser altars, what to the mighty Wind who comes tobless us,
True, circumambient? what to Earth, O Agni, what wilt thou say to man-destroying Rudra?
How to great Pusan who promotes our welfare,- to honoured Rudra what, who gives oblations?
What sin of ours to the far-striding Visnu, what, Agni, wilt thou tell the Lofty Arrow.
What wilt thou tell the truthful band of Maruts, how answer the great Sun when thou art questioned?
Before the Free, before the Swift, defend us: fulfil heaven’s work, all-knowing Jatavedas.
Agni is treated as an endearing Uncle who happens to be an interlocutor between a child and the child’s parents. Going through these verses, one might concur that the only way the vedic people communicated to the other Gods was via Agni. That however was never the case as is evidence of the praise and hymns to other Gods.
However, it does underscore the messenger function played by Agni and the significance thereof. Agni knows the deep recess of heaven, where we may assume the Gods reside and being a God himself, knows how to guide the other Gods to the homes of the righteous.
RV 4.008.02 – 03
He, Mighty, knows the gift of wealth, he knows the deep recess of heaven:
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.
He knows, a God himself, to guide Gods to the righteous in his home:
He gives e’en treasures that we love.
This view of Agni is well established even a few centuries earlier as evidenced in Mandala VI.
THOU, first inventor of this prayer, O Agni, Worker of Marvels, hast become our Herald.
Thou, Bull, hast made us strength which none may conquer, strength that shall overcome all other prowess.
The very first verse of Mandala VI, acknowledges Agni having become the herald of the vedic people.
As at man’s service of the Gods, Invoker, thou, Son of Strength, dost sacrifice and worship,
So bring for us to-day all Gods together, bring willingly the willing Gods, O Agni.
In Hymn 4, Verse 1, Agni is asked to bring the Gods to the worshippers.
Him, messenger of earth and head of heaven, Agni Vaisvanara, born in holy Order,
The Sage, the King, the guest of men, a vessel fit for their mouths, the Gods have generated.
And in Hymn 7, Verse 1, the word messenger is used explicitly.
A God whose principle role was that of a communicator and conduit between the Gods and their mortal worshippers, had to assume a role larger than the Gods themselves. After all what use would the Gods have been if there was no way to communicate with them? Seen in this context, the important of Agni in the Rig Veda is no surprise at all.