Frederick Douglass, the American slave, stole two big things when he was young. He stole himself out of slavery, and he stole his literacy. Forbidden all access to books, the young Douglass acquired his A B C’s from white boys on the streets of Baltimore and from the pages of a Bible he found in the trash.
In the old myths, when a trickster steals something, his theft changes the shape of this world. In fact, most of the good things of this world—fire, water, light, and the art of agriculture, for example—originally came to us because some trickster stole them from the gods. We wouldn’t have the world we now have were it not for these master-thieves who appeared at the beginning of time.
As the Frederick Douglass example makes clear, such dramas have not come to an end. Where cultural patterns are fixed, and the well-behaved know clearly what they can and cannot take at will, only those who are not well behaved will discover how to remake this world.
Frederick Douglass was one of those. When he stole literacy it was as if he took all the books in the Western canon and moved them from the Big House into the slave quarters, where they immediately took on new meanings. Slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery, but Douglass used it to attack slavery, and his reading changed our culture forever. It took an impudent thief to get that change going.
Tricksters always appear where cultures are tying to guard their eternal truths, their sacred cows. New cultures spring up whenever some trickster gets past the guard dogs and steals those cows.