We Pagans do like our fire. Bonfires are central to festivals like Starwood and the Free Spirit Gathering, and some celebrate the cross-quarter days as bonfire festivals. Even the most modest ritual is likely to involve a candle.
But I had a minor realization around the bonfire at Starwood this year: as much as the Greco-Roman myths provide a common mythic vocabulary for our rituals, as much as we might invoke Dionysus or Athena or the Muses or Demeter, we don’t hear a lot of “Hail, Prometheus!” around the fire. Not a lot of thanks for the deity who brought us one of our favorite things.
(Prometheus is not the only deity said to have stolen fire and brought it to man; others credited include the Indian hero Mātariśvan, the Māori hero Māui, and the Native American trickster Rabbit. There is some universality here, the idea that fre must be acquired by some means outside the usual bounds, by trickery or theft.)
So that’s been on my mind of late. I’ve been thinking of Prometheus, thief and teacher, trickster and benefactor of mankind. I’ve been thinking how he is a natural patron for “Makers”, a subculture that wasn’t really named until the 21st century but whose roots can be seen going back to the 1960s in the Whole Earth Catalog, in the DIY attitude of the punks of the 70s and 80s, and in the computer hobbyists of the 80s and 90s who assembled their own PCs, sometimes wiring up custom solutions. (Somewhere in a drawer I have an RS232 cable I wired up around 1987 or so to connect my first PC to a off-brand 2400 baud modem my dad picked up cheap. Good times, good times.) There’s a large and natural overlap between the prototypical computer hacker and Makers, but one can be a hacker strictly in the software sense and not a Maker; and Makers can be knitters, carpenters, musical instrument makers — even blacksmiths and bakers are entitled to the term, in my humble opinion.
It’s a subculture that’s identified with the recent story of Ahmed Mohammed, and how this 14-year-old Muslim was not only subjected to unwarranted suspicion, not only suspended from school, but actually handcuffed and arrested for bringing a modest electronics project to school to show a teacher. (There is perhaps a bit of irony in citing an incident that happened to a Muslim to make my Pagan point, but please bear with me, and understand that I’m not trying to insult the kid’s faith.)To be sure, Ahmed’s project was no big deal, apparently just an old clock wired in a pencil case, and his use of the word “invention” to describe it was not accurate. On the other hand if you’ve even been a fourteen-year-old geek trying to garner approval from a teacher you know what sort of silly things a kid can do, and the kid does seem to be a genuine tinkerer who might be used to talking with his friends and family about his “inventions” in a generic and loose sense. Let’s please keep in mind that he’s a kid.
(Some Islamophobes — including notoriously poor representative of atheism Richard Dawkins — have suggested that Ahmed deliberately set out to get arrested, in order to embarrass authorities and exaggerate the problem of Islamophobia, that the whole thing was planned out by his father. This is perhaps the stupidest conspiracy theory to come along since someone latched on to the fantasy that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by some kind of magical controlled explosions, and if you are going to raise it in the comments section here my only response is “Please crawl back under your rock.”)
It’s hard to know to what degree Ahmed’s arrest was due to racism or Islamophobia, whether a white kid, or one named Smith or Cohen or Lee, would have been taken away in handcuffs for the same thing. But at least part of it seems to stem from a race- and creed-neutral distrust of the tinkerer. More and more the things around us are meant to be closed to us. Farmers can violate copyright laws if they try to repair their tractors. Apple’s consumer electronics — the whole purpose of which is in part to displace general purpose computers in the hands of the rabble — use a special non-standard screw to keep you from opening up your phone.
Tinkerers are a danger to our corporate masters, the approved gods of our culture.
So maybe then it’s time to bring back a thief and a trickster, then. One who steals from the gods to benefit humankind.