The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered. – Paul Shepard
Then our possessions will turn to beasts and devour us whole. – Zuni prophesy
When school or mosque, tower or minaret gets torn down, then Dervishes can begin their community. Not until faithfulness turns into betrayal and betrayal into trust can any human being become part of the truth. – Rumi
In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet. – Winston Churchill
In trying to understand why a third of Americans continue to buy Trumpus’ con – and that another third hate him so completely that they are willing to consume a different con (the heroic CIA riding into town to save us!), and that, as usual, half of us will not vote at all in 2020, we have to acknowledge that rational analysis gets us only so far. At some point we have to open ourselves to the deeper truths that we can only find in mythological thinking.
Ancient myth provides many parables, warnings and teaching stories about the limits of human greed and arrogance. Chapter Four of my book discusses the broad pattern of “the return of the repressed.” It focusses on the House of Atreus and the stories of Dionysus, whose last words in The Bacchae imply that if uninitiated boy-kings were to awaken, they might “have an ally…in the son of Zeus.” Chapter Nine speaks of the necessary death of the Hero and “wake up calls from the Dark Feminine” (Kali in India, Baba Yaga in Russia and Coatlique in Mexico), as well as Medea, La Llorona, Pele and the Tower of Babel:
Yahweh’s response to it was to punish its builders by “confounding their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.” He “scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11: 8-9). James Hillman suggests that this isn’t a bad thing: it prevents mankind from speaking with the single voice of monotheistic literalism. Unity (contrasted with com-unity) leads to inflation and arrogance; the correction to “vertical ascensionism” is diversity. When humans scatter horizontally across the earth they learn to speak in many languages.
Greek myth acknowledged the damage that uninitiated men could do and told cautionary tales of King Midas and golden youths such as Icharus, who flew too close to the sun and perished. Phaethon, child of the sun, borrowed his father’s fiery chariot. Unable to control it, he set the world on fire and died. Perhaps the most relevant story in our time of climate grief is of the grandiose King Erysichthon who cut down a sacred oak. Demeter cursed him with insatiable hunger, throwing him into a frenzy of consumption. He ate everything and everyone in his kingdom. Ultimately, he consumed himself. The king who couldn’t bless ended up destroying the realm.
These are images of what Robert Moore called “boy psychology.” The hero may vanquish the beast. But if he doesn’t enact the necessary third part of the initiation story, returning with a boon for his community, or if that community is limited to a small minority of rich people, then his heroism becomes pathological. Either he turns his violence against others, especially the women and gays who remind him of his own vulnerability, or he condones such violence by others, or he turns it upon himself in depression or suicide. He must serve a transpersonal cause, or his own image, like that of Narcissus, will become that cause. His great towers will become targets, unconsciously provoking the Stranger who will puncture his grandiosity.
Sisyphus was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, repeating this action for eternity. For his crimes, Tantalus was made to stand forever in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. He is the source of the word “tantalize.” Similarly, Buddhism speaks of those souls stuck in the realm of the Hungry Ghosts, constantly hungry yet unable to fit food through their pinhole mouths.
These are mostly traditional, cautionary, moral tales, told from the point of view of the initiated, wise elders who are so lacking in our society. They say, in effect: Watch out! Grow up! Don’t be such a jerk! We translate them into simple if necessary political truths (Have compassion for the poor, care for the Earth, be a good citizen) or psychological insight (interrogate your motives and the early traumas that may have led to them). They tell us plenty about Trumpus, but so what? If we as a nation refuse to turn our lights upon ourselves, other Trumpuses (Trump uses!) will certainly arise in the future. And they will continue to arise until we face what we need to face.
But we Trumpuses, almost by definition, never heed the cautions of our elders, most of whom we have cast into prisons, otherwise known as nursing homes. The moral tales end, almost by definition, in the destruction of those who were too busy conning themselves or consuming the Earth to listen. Perhaps the only hope for the con man (and his marks) is to be conned into self-awareness by the Trickster. The following material comes from my blog on the con man:
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 positive effects. He (most but not all trickster figures are male) can be thieving, lying, cunning, amoral, meddling, deceitful, disruptive, prophetic, 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.
His territory is doorways, portals, thresholds, 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, (“masters 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.
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.”
In his role as messenger of the gods Hermes is the figure who connects the archetypes to each other. Only Hermes (whose grandson is that other great liar, Odysseus) moves between regions of divine experience or human potential that are so perfect and normally distinct from each other. Similarly, Elegba 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. He is 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 out of the darkness. Had Orpheus followed his instructions and not turned around, Hermes would have brought Eurydice out of that world, back to life.
Without Hermes and his tricks, such as farting in Apollo’s face, there is no communication (“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 in others. Understanding him better, we better understand ourselves. 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…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)…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.
Black America evoked African trickster figures to help negotiate its passages between the worlds, including the Middle Passage and the later transitions to freedom and equality. White America, creation of a demythologized world, could only imagine a quasi-Trickster figure with all of the cunning, greed, self-deception and entertainment value as the archetype itself, but with little potential to embody its transformative wisdom. He is there to prevent real change. Native America has Coyote; America has the Con Man.
So what do we do once our grandiosity is punctured and we finally realize that the con has not served us? 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 dis-enchanted. Literally, the song we have been singing is over. Or: the spell that had been cast upon us has been broken. 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 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. Then, whether we know it or not, we encounter Hermes at the crossroads. One road leads toward reconstituting our grandiosity: repression, projection and scapegoating 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. He or she who accepts his invitation willingly may proliferate new structures, symbols, metaphors and 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.”
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 begin. Old stories – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – must fall apart so that new ones may arise from the fragments. But we exist in liminality until we have imagined new stories.
After disillusionment comes the possibility of deliberate, conscious choice, to reframe disaster (“against the stars”) into opportunity (entrance or passage, related to port, harbor, place of refuge). Then we can consider (“with the stars”) a new future. The transgressions of the Trickster deflate our rigid polarities and ideologies. This – potentially – allows an incursion of the chaos from which real creativity and a higher order may emerge.
Perhaps the only way we can understand the gilded age of Trumpus is as an invitation to step out of the myths that no longer serve us, to retrieve and eat our collective shadow, to withdraw the projections and finally face the suppressed grief in the bag that has been trailing behind us. However, writes mythologist Martin Shaw, “We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us…”
Is Trumpus channeling the Trickster archetype? Hell, no. The con man is merely its toxic mimic. But we simply have to be open to the possibility that his presence in our lives has meaning. 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 collaborative than we have been willing to embark upon so far. Watch this: if, after three years of this tragicomedy, prominent evangelicals can still keep a straight face when they proclaim that God sent Trumpus “to uncover the veil of the current political leadership and culture in America,” then so can we.
In Spanish, “con” means “with.” What an irony: the con man, this greedy manipulator, the one who hates communal values, may actually be calling us to community. But being in community – staying in the room when conflict arises, as Michael Meade insists – means doing a lot less watching and a lot more listening. Shaw writes:
The real horn being blown at this moment is one some of us simply cannot hear. Oh, we see — the endless television clips of crashing icebergs, emaciated polar bears…but I don’t think we necessarily hear. Climate change isn’t a case to be made, it’s a sound to be heard.
It’s really hearing something that brings the consequence with it — “I hear you.” We know that sensation; when it happens, the whole world deepens. If we really heard what is happening around us, it’s possible some of it may stop. From a mythic perspective, seeing is often a form of identifying, but hearing is the locating of a much more personal message. Hearing creates growing, uncomfortable discernment.
I worry I have been looking but not hearing. When I hear, I detect what is being disclosed specifically to me at this moment of shudderation and loss. What is being called forth? Whatever it is, I won’t likely appreciate it…We remember that the greatest seers, the great storytellers, the greatest visionaries are so often blind. Listening is the thing.
In ancient Greece, if you needed wisdom greater than human you went to the market square of Pharae in Achaea and created libation for Hermes, god of communication, messages, storytelling. There stood a statue of the bearded god. After burning incense, lighting the oil lamp, and leaving coin on the right of the deity, you whispered your question in its ear. Once complete, you swiftly turned and left the sacred area with your hands over your ears. Once out, you removed your hands, and the very first words you heard were Hermes speaking back to you. You curated these insights into your heart, pondered and then acted on them.
You didn’t see Hermes, you heard Hermes. You listened.
It’s said that in ancient Greece the deaf were shunned through their supposed lack of capacity to hear the gods. That was considered dangerous…Isn’t it interesting that the enquirer to Hermes kept their ears blocked till they were out of the market square, so as not to be assailed by idle, above-world chatter and think it divine? I wonder if we may be asking the question to Hermes but removing our hands too early…As a storyteller I have noticed when an audience is profoundly absorbing the import of a story, they close their eyes to do so. It deepens the encounter.
…Staggering spiritual repair is called for. It is not just those bad white men in power that did this. We all did…I’m not even asking for hope or despair, I’m suggesting responsiveness to wonder. To entertain possibility. And to deepen.
Here are some other relevant essays of mine: