Many myths, from all over the world, narrate the tale of an ancestor who stole fire from God’s hearth and gave it to man. Prometheus from Greece, Ilya from Brazil, Anansi from North America, Maui from Oceania, and Lucifer from the Middle East personify this hero. But let us take a closer look at the version of this myth from the Congo — the Africa of the Pygmies.
According to a story collected by Veronica Ions (1999, 72), a Pygmy ancestor is hunting elephants when, by chance, he comes upon God’s house. He sees a large bonfire and steals an ember to give to humankind.
An elephant hunt makes a confrontation with nature a very real possibility. The act would guarantee substantial provisions and protection, but what are the chances that a Pygmy could successfully hunt an elephant? The scale is absurdly off. The difference in size is evident and clearly allegorizes the scarce resources available to humans at the time to deal with their surroundings.
A Pygmy, using only his arms, legs, fingernails, and teeth would barely be able to handle an elephant that had already been slaughtered. But this ancestor, without warning, stole a small part of God’s bonfire. That is, he took for humankind a piece of celestial light, a piece of the cosmic creative illumination.
As a result, the Pygmies could see the elephant, conceptualize it, and anticipate its movements, and then wait until the conditions were right to strike.
The conditions that raw nature provided these combatants did not favour the Pygmies. However, with the fire from God, the Pygmies could alter nature. Humans are capable of transforming a stone into a sharpened knife in order to compensate for a lack of claws or strong, sharp teeth.
We can dig into the earth and use branches and leaves to build traps to make up for our lack of strength and speed. In spite of the inherent weakness of our species, we can refine the raw state of nature so that it serves our interests.
According to Gómes de Silva (1998, 200), in Latin cultus means “to refine.” This word, together with the suffix-ura, which means “action,” gives us the term “culture,” which in turn means “the act of refining.” Thus, in our view, in the previously cited work, Veronica Ions presents the diverse protagonists of the myth of the theft of fire as the “cultural trickster hero,” the hero who founds a culture through a partial and illicit grasping of the creative spirit.
Thus the foundation of the human condition consists of a small theft of a divine attribute that ultimately produces an imaginative species. In order to survive, this species takes refuge in culture, and by imagining, representing, and refining its surroundings, this new species easily loses touch with its original state and the laws that determine its very existence.
It is this condition to which Plato refers in the allegory of the cave: men chained in an underground lair — Mother Earth’s womb, which hides the illicitness of the act that benefited her children in order to protect them —in a setting poorly illuminated by the fire that is a result of the theft.
It is clear that man is made in the image of God since he possessed part of the light that permits the conception of images, including his own. Plato celebrates this fact, as we do. Nevertheless, he was preoccupied with the other part of this theft — namely, the fire.
The fire, while just a tiny bit of the celestial light, manages to project shadows that seem to us to be real things, the truth. The virtual nature of the shadows can be intoxicating and even seductive to the point of making the chains seem like a gift and not a punishment.
As long as the observer in the cave remains trapped within his own mind within the shadows, the shackles that control his perception of the projected shadows only grow stronger.
The term “subjectivity” derives from the Latin subjectum, which means “that which exists below” (Gómes de Silva 1998, 653) — that is, that which corresponds to an individual’s mode of perception and thinking independently of outside objects.
Subjectivity exists as a stage inferior to that of objective reality. As Piaget argues (1990, 28–9), the conscious differentiation of a subject and the objects that surround him gives way to an emotional projection, which serves as the subject’s new internal measure of reality but is nevertheless dependent on a single causality and direction: the self.
Obviously, this self-centred construction of perception imprints on the objective representations characteristic of the form and content corresponding to the appropriate determining sentiments. It is from this centrality of the subject in his construction of the reality that Jung’s “I-complex” (2009, 406) emerges.
“To change a persona, an external attitude, is one of the most difficult aspects of education,” says Jung (391). Here we understand that a persona, a kind of actor’s mask, corresponds to an extral attitude. It is the affective object projection described by Piaget, which only coincides with the possibility of an objective construction of reality.
To educate, in Latin exducere, means “to drive out” (Gómez de Silva 1998, 241), which implies breaking the chains to liberate oneself from the shadows of the cave — trading a persona, the affective object projection, for an objective construction that brings us closer to the real.
According to Joseph Campbell, the first function of myth is “to reconcile consciousness with the preconditions of its own existence,” and evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence (2008, 31–4).
Taking into account that the field of consciousness emerges from the gradual distinction of the constitutive of a state of “primitive non-dissociation” (Piaget 1990, 24), we understand that consciousness opposes a state of primitive unity. This opposition exists between the individual, as an abstract observer, and nature, as the place of concrete organicity.
To rediscover the interdependence between the observer and the observed implies the opening of the conscious I onto “a world beyond objective interests… an unconditional communion, obligatory and indivisible from the world” (Jung 1990, 53–4). Jung designates this process as individuation, a concept that seems utterly interchangeable with education.
The educational undertaking of driving the I to reestablish concrete ties with the objective world shares a structure with the mythical saga of the hero.
From Paul Radin’s publication on North American Indians, Joseph L. Henderson (in Jung 1964, 110–28) highlighted four cycles that are universally present in heroic tales.
The first of these, the Trickster cycle, corresponds to the pre-conscious being that, in his instinctive quest for survival, childishly and inadvertently steals a bit of divine fire.
According to the Hare, Red Horn, and Twin Cycles, these trickster tales symbolise sequential levels of the self’s maturation and its approach to cosmic reconciliation — that is to say, toward the self’s individuation or the completion of its education.