Don’t follow leaders; watch the parking meters. – Bob Dylan
We won’t get fooled again! – The Who
Trickster figures appear in the myths of most indigenous cultures: Coyote, Raven, Iktomi, Elegba, Papa Legba, Hermes, Mercury, Eshu, Loki, Wakdjunga, the Signifying Monkey, Brer Rabbit, Huehuecóyotl, Puck, Maui, Kokopelli, Hanuman, Leprechaun, Nasruddin, Tanuki, Baubo, Sheela-na-gig.
The trickster breaks the rules of the gods or nature, often maliciously but usually with ultimately positive effects. He (most but not all trickster figures are male) can be thieving, lying, cunning, amoral, meddling, deceitful, disruptive, prophetic, gambling, shameless (“impudent” is related to “pudenda”), humorous and/or foolish, and he often changes physical form or gender. He is associated with luck (bad or good) and change. He is there when we sneeze or make slips of the tongue.
The trickster crosses both physical and social boundaries, breaking or blurring connections and distinctions between all of our familiar polarities of right/wrong, sacred/profane, clean/dirty, male/female, pure/impure, young/old and living/dead. In many stories, he steals fire from Heaven and gives it to humans.
His territory is doorways, portals, thresholds (“limen” in Greek, from which we get “liminal” and “preliminary”), tunnels, bridges, elevators, canals (including the birth canal), roads and especially the crossroads: places of heightened uncertainty.
So he is the patron deity of travelers (and travel agents), immigrants, translators, traders, midwives, matchmakers, furniture movers, remodelers, magicians, psychotherapists (and “borderline personalities”), priests, wedding officiants, (“master of ceremonies”), lawyers, merchants and bankers, but also of undertakers, smugglers and thieves – all those who work at the boundaries between social worlds, regardless of society’s moral judgment of them.
Comfortable in the “betwixt and between” spaces, he rules all divinations, transitions (including birth, marriage, divorce and death) and initiations. However, in times of “Mercury retrograde,” plans (and computers) break down when we don’t pay attention to him.
A comprehensive book on the subject is Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (1998). For a briefer read, consider Helen Lock’s essay, Transformations of the Trickster.
Trickster invites us to a necessarily deeper understanding of soul, culture and the soul of a culture. As Hyde writes, he is “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.”
Consider Hermes, best known (along with Coyote) of the Trickster gods. Hermes invented language. A lucky find is a gift from Hermes. In his role as messenger of the gods he is in a sense the archetypal figure that connects the other archetypes to each other. Only Hermes (whose grandson is that other great liar of Greek myth, Odysseus) moves between regions of divine experience or human potential that are so perfect and normally distinct from each other. Similarly, Legba translates among the spheres of the Fon gods of West Africa.
Hermes travels between these worlds and ours, from which he leads the dead into the underworld (psychologically speaking, the unconscious). Thus the Greeks called him the psychopomp, or guide of souls, who delivers them, writes Hyde, “into whatever world or mental state lies across the line…the underworld of sleep, dream, story, myth.” But he is also the “disenchanter or awakening angel” who can lead Persephone and Eurydice back out of the darkness.
Without Hermes and his tricks, such as farting in Apollo’s face, there is no communication (literally “to make common”). There are only individuals, deities or nations so separate from each other, and from themselves, that they can only project their own unconscious darkness upon each other.
Trickster offers us the possibility of seeing the world from a new perspective, challenging our rigidities and privileged perceptions. This boundary-crosser can also create new boundaries and borders, bringing to our awareness new distinctions that were previously unknown, even as he undercuts the fictions by which we have agreed to define ourselves. Among his favorite targets are the academic, religious, media and political gatekeepers whose business is to limit our view of the possible.
Trickster is, in the deepest sense, provocative. The word comes from the Latin root vocare (to call), and it implies a sense of choice. In ritual terms, one can in-voke the gods. Through passive aggression, however, one may pro-voke anger in others. Trickster’s capacity for provocation is directly related to our own inability to e-voke the qualities we’d like to see in ourselves or others.
Understanding him better, we better understand ourselves, including those parts of ourselves that might respond with disappointment to his unsettling and transformative behavior. By disrupting society’s rules and boundaries, he enlarges the sphere of human possibility.
However, writes Lock, Trickster is not playing.
Not just any rogue or anti-hero can properly be termed a trickster. The true trickster’s trickery calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organized, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends)…and his interest in entering the societal game is not to provide the safety-valve that makes it tolerable, but to question, manipulate, and disrupt its rules…the trickster pushes the limits of the unorthodox in order to transform reality—and as such is distinct from, in many respects the opposite of, the fool.
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters embodied the Trickster. Other public figures represent what Caroline Casey has called the “toxic mimic” of this archetype. Herman Cain and Ben Carson are fools or clowns; Obama is a con man.
America (I’m not speaking here of Native America) has no original mythological figures, because invaders from other lands formed the nation and the idea of America within a de-mythologized, monotheistic imagination. So, as Hyde writes, “If the spiritual world is dominated by a single high god opposed by a single embodiment of evil then the ancient trickster disappears.”
But the psyche has a fundamental need to see images of its archetypal nature. If the pagan imagination of the earth itself is no longer capable of offering up these figures – that is, if we can no longer perceive them – then modern culture, in its weakened imagination, will still provide them for us. But these figures (the American Hero, for example) are as diminished, one-dimensional and monolithic as the societies that they are born in.
Black America evolved all kinds of trickster figures to help negotiate its passages between the worlds, including the Middle Passage and the later transitions to freedom and equality.
White America developed at the culmination of a demythologized world. So it could only imagine a quasi-Trickster figure with all of the cunning, greed, self-deception and entertainment value as the archetype itself, but with very little of its potential to embody its transformative wisdom. His psychopathic image is there to prevent real change. Native America has Coyote; America has the Con Man.
So what do we do – where do we go – once we realize that we’ve been conned, and our inflation or grandiosity has been punctured? Disillusion releases anger first, because we have invested much energy in maintaining the illusion of innocence. And then we find ourselves, appropriately, at a crossroads.
We are disenchanted. Literally, the song we have been singing is over – or – the spell that had been cast upon us has been broken. We find ourselves, our world and our myths changing. Hyde writes:
There is no way to suppress change, the story says, not even in Heaven; there is only a choice between a way of living that allows constant, if gradual alterations and a way of living that that combines great control and cataclysmic upheavals. Those who panic and bind the trickster choose the latter path.
This is the dual mystery of soul-making and culture-making. Tragedies occur that puncture our inflation. We are, for a time, psychologically dismembered. Then, whether we see him or not, we encounter Hermes at the crossroads. One road (for the soul or for the soul of a nation) goes in the direction of reconstituting our grandiosity, which involves forgetting, repression, projection, scapegoating and displacement of anger onto the Other.
A second road – the lucky road, the road Odysseus takes – involves the willingness to remain in grief for as long as it takes to move through self-interrogation and ultimately to forgiveness. It is a process of “re-membering” our purpose. Trickster pulls us into this state of liminality. The mind that accepts his invitation willingly may proliferate new structures, new symbols, new metaphors and new forms of community. In another, only slightly different context, Antonio Machado asked, “What was your word, Jesus? Love? Forgiveness? Affection? All your words were one word: Wakeup.”
The same God spoke in a dream to the 12-year-old schoolboy and son of a Protestant minister, Carl Jung:
God sits on his golden throne, high above the world – and from the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder…I felt…indescribable relief. Instead of the expected damnation, grace had come upon me…”
The dream was a fundamental event in his life that led to his eventual breakthrough work in psychology.
This is how sustainable cultures with working mythologies endure: not through rigidly reproducing the same forms every generation, but by imagining mythological figures whose function is to reveal and disrupt what worked in the past so that new growth may establish itself. Old stories – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – must fall apart so that new ones may arise from the fragments.
Trickster, in whatever diminished form he appears, tells us that change is possible; indeed it is necessary. If you once entertained idealistic expectations of Barack Obama, I suspect – let’s be honest, I hope – that you have fallen into a state of disenchantment. This is not a comfortable state, and I have no simple cure.
But clearly, after disillusionment comes the possibility of deliberate choice. For me, the only place to go is to follow Hermes toward reframing disaster or disillusionment into opportunity (from the Latin porta, entrance or passage through, related to port, harbor, place of refuge, asylum and pore).
In myth, and perhaps in reality, the motivation of the main characters is irrelevant. Perhaps at some deeper level, all the con men of our American imagination really are provoking us into a new story that is more humorous, tragic, creative, proactive and realistic than we have been willing to embark upon.
In certain schools of Native American wisdom it is highly recommended to invite trickster into the tent so that he is pissing outward, rather than keeping him outside the tent and pissing inward.
In Spanish, “con” means “with.” What an irony: the con man, this greedy loner and manipulator, the one who hates communal values, may actually be calling us to community.