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