It is safe to say that at no time in recorded history has there been such extensive investigation into the workings of the human mind as today. Indeed it has added much to our knowledge. Since science, however, considers the development of human self-awareness as part of physical evolution, its probings mainly have been from a material vantage point. In spite of all the discoveries, therefore, the veil of mystery essentially has not been lifted from the origin and true nature of mind. On the other hand, the sacred traditions as found in myth and legend — those of old and those still living — have never put mind in line with the physical constitution, but have regarded it as the link between spirit and flesh, dormant in early humanity until "fit" or "awakened" by the intervention of divine or semi-divine beings. This process has been described allegorically in different ways, such as stealing the fire from the gods, for instance. And there is a host of type-figures symbolizing human intelligence itself. Thus Prometheus shares the stage with Coyote and Raven, with Hare, Hermes, and Spider, or whatever other personality, cultures through the ages have given to their "tricksters."
In African folklore this theme is well represented, as most of the sub-Saharan nations or tribes have their own store of tales, many containing some version or other of fire myths or myths of a related nature. Tricksters, moreover, are often the center of the action, whether they be wily gods or clever little animals.
The Pygmies of the rain forests have three versions of the Prometheus myth. Each of these mentions that in the beginning people lived in paradise but had no fire. One day a Pygmy lost his way in the bush and came to a place where a fire was burning brightly, and he decided to take some home to his companions. In the more detailed of these three versions the fire belonged to the god Tore, and was watched over only by Tore's old mother Matu. When the old lady had dozed off, the man snatched up one burning brand and made off with it. He was caught by Tore, however, and returned to his camp empty-handed. A second attempt was made by the Pygmy's brother, but this also failed. Then Doru, a great magician, stepped forward. He first stole the feathers of the sacred tawa bird, which he fashioned into wings and fastened to his shoulders. After a period of training himself, he mastered the art of flying and, swooping down on Tore's camp, took the fire. Tore pursued him to the highest heavens and deepest abysses but was outmaneuvered by the magician. Recognizing the superiority of his opponent, he cried out: "Doru, you are my brother! Doru, we were born of the same mother!" Tore then called on his mother to help him but found her frozen to death. In his wrath he swore that man would pay for having killed his mother, for from now on all men would die. Doru, meanwhile, lit other brands from the fire and handed them to the people. As a reward each man gave him one of his daughters and hailed him as a great benefactor . . . until they began to die, first one, then another.
Parallels with other traditions easily present themselves, but first we have to dismiss the frequently held opinion that this type of myth refers merely to the invention of fire. Much as it must have improved people's lives, it is hard to believe that this fact in itself would be commemorated in similar terms the world over.
Early man in the Pygmy story, as did Adam and Eve, initially lived in "paradise," in a state of innocence and dreamlike bliss. The Pygmies say that soon thereafter they got bananas, their staple food, equivalent to the corn of the Americas, the rice of the Orient, or the wheat of the Middle East. The advent of husbandry and agriculture, often referred to as divine gifts or skills taught by gods, is shown in many traditions to follow upon the awakening of mind. Evidently different foods were needed for a humanity that had changed physically as well as mentally, notably acquiring the capacity to procreate.
That death made its entry at this point is also echoed in myth worldwide. Such is a natural development, for it is the strains and stresses of the mental-emotional part of the human constitution that drain, or even destroy, the physical vehicle, as the electric current eventually burns out the light bulb.
Doru was a superhuman being, as the Pygmies indicate when they call him a great magician. Since the bird is a generally recognized symbol of wisdom, Doru by appropriating parts of the sacred tawa acquired divine wisdom. After he had "stolen" the fire of intelligence, Tore had to admit him to be his equal, as did the Elohim of the Old Testament when they looked upon man and found him "as one of us." Tore's exclamation that Doru is "born of the same mother" hints at the duality of human nature in which the higher self can be said to be the luminous twin brother of the lower self that is still struggling for emancipation from the bonds of matter.
A striking feature in the Pygmy myth is the lack of watchfulness on the part of mother Matu. Perhaps, though, the theft was fully intended in the scheme of nature. However, when man's mind is lit, while he may be able to challenge the gods and travel in the highest heavens or deepest hells, the natural flow of intuitive wisdom that was his unconsciously in the days of his innocence has been stemmed; thus Nature, the Great Mother, is "frozen" where he is concerned.
The Yoruba god Eshu is a classical trickster figure. Like Hermes he can be found in the marketplace and along the roadside. But wherever he may be, he is certain to lurk in wait for the unwary going about their business, and he simply delights in confusing them. Because trouble and commotion follow in his wake, he has also been called the god of chance and accident.
Strange as it may seem, Eshu is the trusted assistant of Orunmila, god of wisdom and divination. And while Orunmila is the messenger of Oludumare, the highest god in the Yoruba hierarchy, Eshu is responsible for seeing to it that misfortune befalls those who have not heeded Oludumare's will as proclaimed by Orunmila. In recompense for his help, Orunmila feeds him. Eshu, like Hermes, is the interediary between "heaven" and man: without this link in the human constitution the higher self or spiritual father would not be able to communicate with animal-man. If the promptngs of intuition, which are a reflection of the will of the god in man, are ignored and man deviates from his rightful course, suffering is certain to follow. The "food" Orunmila gives to Eshu for his services is symbolic of the spiritual sustenance each human being receives from his or her higher self.
Myth has it that Eshu had no head of his own. But one time he persuaded the mother of Orunmila to let him have a he-goat, which he promptly slaughtered. He took the indestructible head of the animal, put it in a jar, which he put upside down on his shoulders. The goat's head as worn by Eshu was then discovered to be the sun. The explanation of this story on one level might well be that early man had no "head," in the sense that he had no conscious mental faculties. The head of the he-goat was indestructible, and therefore partook of eternal cosmic qualities. Moreover, the fact that the goat had originally belonged to the Great Mother, Oduduwa, indicates that it sprang from the essence of life. That it is discovered to be the sun when "worn" by Eshu is suggestive, for the awakened mind has always been considered to be solar in origin.
How pure intelligence entered into the material world of men, and how Eshu played a key role in this is related as follows: the Creator Obatala wanted to visit his friend Shango in the town of Oyo. The oracles forecast that if he undertook this journey misfortune would await him, but he decided to go anyway. Obatala ("Lord of the White Cloth") is known for his great goodness and his purity, expressing itself in the whiteness of his robes. On his way he found Eshu sitting by the roadside with a big bowl of oil which he asked Obatala to lift to his head so he could carry it. In his goodness Obatala complied, but in doing so drops of oil bespattered his clothing, and owing to his purity he had to go home and change. He set out the second time, only to find Eshu sitting at the same place with the same request. Having soiled his robes again and returned to his palace for fresh clothing, he departed for Oyo the third time — finding Eshu in his usual spot. This time Obatala refused to lift the bowl, whereupon Eshu splashed oil all over him, but now the Creator did not turn back. In Shango's territory, through a false accusation, he landed in prison. He lay there forgotten for a long time, but being a powerful divinity, he stopped the rains from falling. When crops failed and people died, Shango consulted his diviners who said a great personage with soiled white robes was locked in one of his dungeons. Of course, when he discovered it was Obatala, he released him at once, and life returned to the land.
As in the Pygmy myth, three efforts are made, two being more or less automatic and unsuccessful. But the third time, through the use of a ruse the "trickster" succeeds in his effort. As a result, intelligence, now no longer pure, enters the prison of material existence, and only when there has been great lack of spiritual "food" and "water" and humanity has been through endless suffering, intuition points out that thus far intelligence has been eclipsed by matter, but that it should again play the leading role as befits its high origin.
No survey, however brief, of African ways of depicting mind and its evolution is complete without mentioning Ananse, the Spider, the hero of many folktales: of the Ashanti and related peoples. A typical trickster, sometimes he is shown to be wise, but more often merely cunning. Greedy and amoral, he usually succeeds in outwitting gods, men, and animals. The hoe and the human tongue are his invention.
Wulbari, the Skygod, made Ananse Captain of his Host. This made Ananse so conceited that he boasted he was more intelligent than Wulari himself. The Skygod had overheard him, however, and the next day told him to fetch "something" for him, not telling him what it was, for surely Spider, having claimed to be his equal, could find it out for himself. Playing a trick on Wulbari, Ananse discovered that the Skygod wanted nothing less than the sun, the moon, and darkness. Since he was very clever indeed, Spider did catch the desired objects, put them in a bag and returned home. Wulbari asked him whether he had managed to find "something," and in reply Ananse took darkness from his bag. Everything became dark and no one could see anything. Then he took out the moon and everyone could see a little. Finally he took out the sun, and those who happened to be looking at Spider became blind, those who saw only a little were blinded in one eye, while those who had their eyes shut for a second lost none of their eyesight.
Though on the surface a very different story, it too deals with the awakening of intelligence, or the solar aspect, in man. Like Prometheus, Ananse challenged the god, proclaiming himself an equal, and in the end managed to get the better of him. The three objects — the darkness, the moon, and the sun — are representative of the conditions prevailing among early humanity. The darkness indicates there was no intelligence at all initially, while the moonlight signifies the dawning of a certain animal consciousness. The appearance of the sun marks the entry of the solar element or intelligence in man's consciousness.
As mentioned previously, early unconscious man had a natural communication with the higher realms of being, which came to an ending when man became self-aware. Thus "blindness" refers basically to the same phenomenon as the death of Tore's mother. The Pygmy and Yoruba myths hint at the fact that there were apparently three "efforts" made toward the enlightenment of the human race, and the three degrees of "blindness" may well allude to this also.
African traditions, as do those in other parts of the world, show intelligence to be divine in origin but, in man's case, of a dual character. For though it granted him self-awareness and thus elevated him above the beast, when he developed this new aspect of his consciousness he began to stray from Nature's ways and hew out his own path that led him along the rough byways of material existence. Yet the yearning to return to the source is ever alive in his soul. The myths reflect this well, for even if Spider, Doru, or any of their fellow tricksters exhibits weaknesses and failings common to us all, he is the link with the gods, or as Tore had to admit "a son of the same mother." And after aeons, immeasurably enriched by the experience of his earthly wanderngs, this brother will take his rightful place as a self-conscious god.
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)