The Holy Trickster

Featuring The Jester-Fool, Coyote-Jackal, Br’er Rabbit, Homo Ludens, Hermes-Mercury, Prometheus, and the Serpent.

horse thief cayote from www.carpenoctem.tvI first became aware of the Trickster when at some point in my 30’s, when in order to survive, I was forced to wear a Grey Suit. See, I had been a free spirited musician until that point, and “Suits” represented the Recording Industry and Accountants, who were everything we (the chosen ones) despised. So in the aftermath of the collapse of my artistic career, and with it my notions of God – so earnestly had I taken my vocation – I was joining THE ENEMY. I was succumbing to necessity, I was abandoning the “Keeping of the Faith” (To quote the Wayne’s World rendition of Jim Morrison, who was spared all this by his in/glorious early demise).

So I headed off tie and all, into the City of London, to sell my time to the world’s largest bank. And I thought to myself, “This is kind of cool”, because in my heart I knew I was not in fact becoming one of the enemy, but rather to quote Bruce Cockburn “Dancing in the Dragons Jaws”, more like a spy. I might have appeared to be another hi finance techno-drone, but I realise now, I was in fact an incarnation of the trickster.

To quote mythographer Joseph Campbell, in “The Masks of God Vol 1”:

“This ambiguous, curiously fascinating figure of the trickster appears to have been the chief mythological character of the paleolithic world of story. A fool, and a cruel, lecherous cheat, and epitome of the principle of disorder, he is nevertheless the culture-bringer also. And he appeared under many guises : Coyote, Great Hare, Br’er Rabbit, Raven, Jay, Reynard the Fox, but also, on a more serious plane, he appears as the devil.”

At that time I started having dreams. In one I was (to quote my notes directly) “being sucked down with all manner of dogs”, into a vortex of mud or sand, heading for the funnel and ultimately, the darkness of the earth. Towards the bottom, I saw a figure standing watch over the pit, with a Jackals head and a human body. I awoke just as I took in what I thought was my last breath.

In another dream, a crazed knife wielding gypsy near a pool with an incomplete flyover in its midst, threw a knife at my wife, and missed; I reacted with rage at this wild, act of irresponsibility.

With the help of some Jungian “divination”, I found out that the Jackal Headed figure was Anubis, Egyptian guardian of the dead. And via the gypsy, I came to appreciate the presence in my mythical life of Hermes, a primary source of this ethos in Greek mythology.

Now Hermes is pretty multi-faceted. He is at once guardian of boundary stones (herms), communication, sport, music and ultimately a pretty shifty figure. From him we get hermeneutics (translation of ideas across cultural boundaries) and in his Roman guise Mercury, the postal insignia with the winged helmet.

The interesting thing for me was, having grown into adulthood characterised by charismatic evangelical piety and its worldview, how this trickster found a place alongside some very powerful “medicine”: the Evil Snake, and the overconfident, unambiguous “clarion call of truth”.

To be less obscure, I am referring to these 2 characteristics of my early belief system:

  • Monotheism’s dualism: christian theological orthodoxy sees Satan as the serpent in the garden having caused mans original sin via Eve’s temptation. The Jewish view of Satan is slightly less polarised, seeing him as an advocate / adversary to the law, rather than a semi-omnipotent being of dread and the father of all evil. And the third member of monotheism – Islam, doesn’t seem that different to the christian view regarding dualising good and evil.
  • Naive Sincerity:  The importance of being earnest – values such as “truth” and “integrity” were deemed absolutely crucial. In this Newtonian world – a predictable machine presided over by a God of Order –  ambiguity was eschewed and all sorts of logical hoops were jumped though to maintain “consistency”. This is not so much a problem with christianity per se as with Greek reductionist thinking. Is our Greek inheritance a good thing? – thoroughly dualistic, yet richly imbued in myth; and a tricky question.

So I rejoice at the presence of the Trickster in a barren land of closed thought, for quite apart from being the bringer of death and destruction, he in fact is a catalyst for life and salvation. I now look at Jesus as embodying (amongst all things divine) this trickster, as well.

  • “Be as wise/sly as serpents and as harmless a doves”. In this metaphor, the serpent is not an outlaw, but something to be actively embraced.
  • “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”: Conjurers of the world, unite in Christ!
  • “Become as little children”: engage in play, awe, and the space opened up by ambiguity.
  • “I will make myself more foolish in their eyes” – David, shamanic worshipper and “apple of G-d’s eye”.
  • “I become a fool for Christ” – here Paul elevates the Jester role, acknowledging that it is not the highly evolved adult, but those without guile, who will experience G-d.

You may be saying, this is madness; this is exactly what we have come away from – deception and falsehood. I can sympathise with your confusion, because I share it. I too have looked askance at anyone delving into such shadowy arts.

But I am coming to see the Trickster no so much as a threat, but a gift. In fact, I see him as quite central to the core christian truth of incarnation, as well as central to all creativity.

As I now see it, the very call to incarnation involves the trickster. Incarnation can be described as “being in the world but not of it”. All people having undertaken a spiritual path, especially one involving reorienting oneself in the world, will know the difficulty of staying grounded and yet striving for transcendence. All manner of things get in the way, rationalism, craving, habit, apathy, materialism, fear. To live “in the spirit” can be a very difficult task.

The tendency in the search for “holiness” or “purity” is usually to separate our world into the secular/worldly/carnal and the sacred/heavenly/spiritual. We have immense difficulty being “in the world” when we refocus our inner life on the transcendent beyond.

//www.emblibrary.comI suggest that this is where the trickster comes to assist us. His realm includes ambiguity, irony, and play, incompleteness and chaos, holding in tension and suspending belief, generosity and cruelty, imagination, flexibility and cunning shifting of shape, the boundaries between life and death, and making connections where they are not supposed to be.

Clearly the trickster has the potential to destroy. Engaging him is to take a risk. It is the liminal area between right and wrong that is his playground. We should never say as an excuse “The trickster made me do it.” It is up to us to learn what we can from him but never to naively give him our heart.

There are totemic trickster figures in many of the more animistic cultures; additionally clowns and jesters, comedians and conjurers, and most if not all practitioners of art play this subversive role in society. Not to forget negotiators and peacemakers; even politicians, theirs being the “art of the possible”, despite their common failings.

Joseph Campbell notes

“They represent, from the point of view of the masters of decorum, the chaos principle, the principle of disorder, the force careless of taboos and shattering bounds. But from the point of view of the deeper realms of being from which the energies of life ultimately spring, this principle is not to be despised.”

And maverick Bruce Cockburn, again, in his rambunctious “Maybe The Poet” observes

Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to see

Don’t let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it

What I am concerned with here is the potential of the poet, the prophet, and the shaman, to usher in holiness. To “shatter bounds” and bring us new ways to see.

As we focus on the task of apprehending or worshiping the Divine, wrestle with the complexities or truth, or simply seek to live life more fully, we should imaginatively and openly engage the services of this mythical “holy trickster”.

Published by Nic Paton

Composer of music for film, television and commercials.

21 thoughts on “The Holy Trickster

  1. Nic, i really enjoyed this post. from the “trickster made me do it” title of a future classic something, to the concept of re-embracing the snake, to the dangerous twilight of trickster-space…

    i found it interesting that you found elements of the trickster in both Christ and satan. there exists a strange and taboo area of mystery, namely the commonality between Christ and His supposed nemesis, DIE DUIWEL!. they are both described as the star of the morning/morning star and share the same numerological value in the kabbalistic system – which in their minds, suggests a deep connection.

    i have my doubts that satan and lucifer are the same beings but that’s another story.

    a wonderfully ranging & useful post.


  2. I have never delved into the concept and myth of the trickster and must thank you for creating a fascination for this demigod charlatan. I will be dwelling on this and respond shortly. My mind is going in the direction of ” in a Fool’s Paradise, the trickster/ jester would be king” and the symbiotic relationship between Trickster and Trickstee.

    Thanks for enriching my Imagination.

  3. Maybe not “actively engage” him, but certainly don’t avoid him like the plague. Recognize his existence and even his purpose.

    “All people having undertaken a spiritual path, especially one involving reorienting oneself in the world, will know the difficulty of staying grounded and yet striving for transcendence. All manner of things get in the way, rationalism, craving, habit, apathy, materialism, fear. To live “in the spirit” can be a very difficult task.”

    I fully resonate with your words here. A very nice post! I really enjoyed it..

  4. Nic.

    i think you artfully embody something of the trickster yourself.

    why are we communicating primarily thru the blogsphere, skattie? i take 51.497% of the responsibility for that.


  5. Well I have to take my 48.503 % share of responsibility then.

    I have no doubt that our future is F2F, but at the moment the dynamic is working well … you have curated some awesome threads on LL.

    Besides, being virtual means we don’t have to worry about things like my coffee intake or your rules around spelt bread and not to mention all your pecadillos around heels and thongs…

  6. You flatter me Mr Saner, and THAT is why I count you amongst the trickiest of my friends. On the other hand, why not? Your stock has seemingly risen recently, nudge nudge oink oink, YOU know what I mean.

    I’ll just say this, in order to deal with Zeus’s “gift” of Pandora, men had to become super wiley coyote. Prometheus refused the gift; but his dim bro Epimetheus released all manner of evil into the world.

    all winks, all smiles…

  7. Nic.
    Just a thought.

    I’m investigating the relationship between parallels and the space/tension between parallels. (It will lead to some news paintings)

    My thought is… the trickster exists in the space between parallels.

  8. There you go again, being mischievously obscure.
    What are parallels? Are they a fence or boundary? Or a grid? Or trajectories that refuse to meet?
    But even if I don’t understand what they are, poetically I can see some sprite-like activity between them, yes indeed.

  9. Getting into trouble:

    Trickster – provocation – prodding sacred cows – prodding the status quo. There was a hysterical round of emails recently calling for the severe chastisement of an artist who took a starving dog off the streets and tied it up in a gallery. In my opinion very clever and loaded with trickster. Successful? I’m sure he could not have asked for a better response. A whole world screaming unfair, unjust, cruel Taking themselves so terribly seriously and oblivious to their own prejudice and blindness that this little transference of reality showed up. All the artist did was take a little reality and shift its context. So tricksters get into trouble do they? Is this an aspect of trickster? I remember in high school we used to pull a thread out of our ties every time we got caned – major status symbol; making a mockery of the Christian National education disciplinary abuse system. Trickster? The trickster has many interesting fringes. Wily trouble maker? When one is shown up as taking one’s self too seriously there is the stamp of the trickster. Not so?

    To be taken in by the trickster is perhaps a terribly valuable experience. Ripped off? Yes! The trickster holds a match to our farts and if we take them too seriously, get too up about their sweetness we may just end up in flames.

    And what of being in trickster territory? Not just subject to / appreciating the trickster but being the trickster – and how does one do it with Love? Ultimately caring for the trickee’s well being. And the overlap between trickster and village idiot (fool) and Puer (Play play play Peter Pan archetype, “joller”) Hmmmaa.

  10. Trouble – dissident – fool – player – subversive love. These as you suggest will all be part of the Trickster/Trickstrix. By definition s/he is tricky to define, with very fuzzy edges.

    So when exactly Trickster is becoming “unloving” is a very hard thing to know. It almost takes a trickster to define these edges. I’m sure Trickster regularly “crosses the line”, I like Ancestor Dobvid Ben Jesse here – how was he the “apple of G-ds eye” and yet always transgressing the law? Was this transgression the cause of his appletude, or was it a symptom of it, or was it a regrettable and unnesessary part of it?

  11. Another Bruce Cockburn for your consideration (and perhaps to your point too):

    ‘It’s time for Harlequin to leap out of the future/And into a world of dancers”

    – “Feast of Fools”, from the album Further Adventures of….

  12. Thanks Rob – that lyric has been sitting in my head for 25 years, but I don’t know the album well enough to hav placed it.

    A tip o’ the Tamoshanta to you…

  13. No problem, Nic.

    I’ve been a Cockburn nut for a long time – any time I can help, let me know. 🙂

    That record and the song too is pretty close to the end of an era for him as an artist, when a lot of his spiritual concerns were very insular and symbolic rather than practical. A few years later, he’d be going out to some pretty oppressed areas to become one of the “dancers” he was singing about in that song. Overall, he’s a pretty interesting guy – one of my heroes, in fact.

    Thanks again for the post.

  14. Rob – your thought has been with me – how the mystic turned activist. This morning this Cockburn lyric came into my head:

    We’re lovers in a dangerous time
    Some times you’re made to feel your love’s a crime
    Nothing worth having comes without a fight
    Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight…

    Thanks again for commenting.

  15. Hi Nic and Friends

    Tying this one into an earlier subject- shamanism and KhoiSan culture, I thought it might be worth mentioning that in KhoiSan belief systems you are unable to access the Supreme Deity except through /Kaggen (The Trickster). /Kaggen is capable of assuming many forms, but one of the most widely transmitted was the form of Mantis. This resulted in the interpretation by whites (particularly Afrikaaners) that the ‘bushmen’ and ‘hotentots’ worshipped the Praying Mantis- and hence the poppular Afrikaans name for a Praying Mantis of ‘hotnotsgod’. I have a very ambivalent realtionship to this word as it is both very derisive and very witty.

    With deeper understanding of the sources (such as Bleek, Orpen etc.) one can surmise that /Kaggen could in fact have the form of any creature, and not only a Mantis. In itself, this explains how the KhoiSan belief system is both animistic and pantheistic. These are two of the “theisms” with which I have the highest sympathy and identification, and may partially explain the attraction for me of KhoiSan history and culture. /Kaggen as the intercessor and proxy for the Ultimate Deity has messianic or “Christ-like” qualities, but as a deceiver has “Satan-like” qualities. As I understand it though, the purpose of the deception is to create an awareness that as any material being may be a proxy for the sacred and divine, that all sentient beings by extension should wisely be treated as though they are sacred and divine. It was thus that the eland was both the highest food source and the supreme spiritual creature.

    Christians may find it bizarre that a group of people should desire to symbolically consume the body of God, but that of course is exactly what the act of communion represents as well.

  16. Ant – thanks for the /Kaggen appendix, for being attentive. It’s very useful.

    Noting too how consuming G-d is a myth predating Catholicism.

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