How to Steal Power from the Gods: Myths of Trickery, Fire and Divine Paradox
Let’s take a quick step into cultural mythology. One of my favorite myths is the story of sacred thieves or tricksters. Lewis Hyde calls tricksters beings that “violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis.” It’s a really cool trope: most often a being neither man nor God sees the potential to take something, does so, humanity benefits, the gods are enraged and punish the trickster, but humanity is left to enjoy the spoils. Every story has variations, so the ones I’m reviewing are but quick examples of these myths, but there are some really strange underlying premises in most of these stories. Trickster myths often hash out the relationship between cosmos, divinity, humanity, and all that runs in between. Tricksters aren’t unified in identity or symbols but they are the actors of big-time transgression: they’re cosmic plot devices.
The Myth of the Raven
There’s the story of Raven, who stole the sun. Most variations of the the story involve the world being originally dark, sad, and generally inhospitable. Raven makes their way into the household of the gods, where the sun rests in a box. Some tales say Raven uses transformative powers to change its guise to get himself re-birthed as a child of the Gods. At some point Raven catches sight of a box with a brilliant object (the sun), and employs wiles such as throwing tantrums for gifts and gets his hands on the box. Once he gets his hands on the sun, he transforms back to its original form and flies out into the sky with the sun. Some tales say that before the theft of the sun Raven was pure white, and holding it in his beak turned Raven completely dark. From one perspective, this is a story about hubris: a being neither divine nor ordinary steals something extraordinary and is permanently changed for their transgression. What’s curious about is the fact that the creator Gods are portrayed as mankind, and the world’s emissary (Raven) is but an animal.
The Myth of Prometheus
There’s the story of Prometheus. While a Titan, he pitied mankind’s lack of fire, stole from the Gods, was promptly punished to spend the rest of existence having his liver torn out by an eagle each day (only to regrow a new one). Like Raven, each iteration of the myth is told slightly differently with different lessons. What’s unified across each telling is the fact that Prometheus remains a Titan, parent to the rulers of Olympus. Hesiod’s telling begins with Prometheus tricking Zeus on a sacrifice day to take a pile of bones wrapped in fat (because it was pretty) over a pile of meat wrapped in entrails (not so pretty). Some tellings say Zeus deliberately picked the meatless, superficial sacrifice because he was deceived, in other tellings Zeus does this so he has an excuse to confiscate fire from humanity. In all tellings, Prometheus steals fire and gifts it to humanity and is tortured by Zeus. There is some really weird cross-generational stuff here. The titans are effectively the grandparents to humanity (the Olympians created humanity).
The Myth of Chang’e
There’s the myth of Chang’e. In one telling, she was husband to Hou-Yi, legendary archer who shot down 9 of the 10 suns out of the sky, preventing the oceans from boiling. Hou-Yi was awarded an elixir of immortality, decided to not immediately drink it. While out hunting, somebody breaks into their home and attempts to force Chang’e to hand over the elixir. One thing leads to another and Chang’e drinks it herself, flies to the moon and takes residence there, breaking her husband’s heart in the process. In another telling, Hou-Yi is promptly crowned the Emperor (thus a mortal God) after shooting down the suns and grows cruel and corrupt. Hou-Yi, fearing death and loving his power, commissions an elixir of immortality. Chang’e upon hearing this steals the elixir. In some tellings, she does this for fear that Hou-Yi becomes unkillable, thus saving mankind from an evil, immortal king. In some tellings, Chang’e takes the elixir for herself because immortality is a pretty big deal. Also, she doesn’t always willfully take residence on the moon: sometimes a side effect of the elixir is an unbearable lightness that floats her to her domain or the Emperor confines her to the rock. This provides a really weird contrast to the Mid-Autumn (i.e. Moon) festival which is regarded as an important family reunion.
There’s something strange about the fact that in each case, a power is concealed from humanity and is sprung out of the boundaries of the divine. While each thing stolen helped humanity, tricksters can be seldom attributed to deliberate goodwill toward humanity. In some takes, Prometheus takes sympathy upon humanity, or is it just for the hell of it? Chang’e steals the Emperor’s elixir sometimes for herself, in other times, it’s for the sake of stemming the tide of eternal tyranny. In some tellings, after Raven steals the sun the only reason it’s in the sky is because it gets so hot he drops it. Each of these stories exist in extremely different cultural backgrounds with diverse contexts of what purpose is, these characters make choices that cross boundaries and upend what’s supposed to be. As cosmic plot devices, the tricks tricksters turn are ultimately for furthering the plot of the sacred drama the universe has in store of us!
Source 1: Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes World
Source 2:Yang Lemei, China’s Mid-Autumn Day
Source 3: Theft of fire
Source 4: The story of Raven