“He is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. He is the character in myth who threatens to take the myth apart. He is the “eternal state of mind” that is suspicious of all eternal, dragging them from their heavenly preserve …” (Hyde 2008: 14)
The trickster is the most ominous figure to grace the mythic narrative. This endless buffoon, the proverbial black sheep, the ever-present, yet never-obvious force, represents the bottomless, childish, naive nature hidden in every one of us. Despite of these unflattering characteristics (or perhaps because them), trickster high relevance and culture hero status in myth may quite easily come as a surprise. While trickster is also a Jungian archetype, the position of this character should be elevated beyond linearly-viewed negative elements, since it represents an essential balancing component of the social sphere rather than merely acting strictly as a personal deceiver.
It is precisely the fringes and the extremes of a society that become the driving force of a given tradition’s (unconscious) need for change. While this change may be both positive and negative, from the perspective of the established culture it comes as a shock. The reshaping of the status-quo and its stasis is as welcomed as the overthrowing of a king or a political party (especially from the position of the ones in charge), yet necessary and “natural” as the flow of a river or the constant flux of the universe (or the Dao, as I’ll talk about in a future post). The trickster thus becomes not the buffoon, not even the Shakespearean wise fool, but a much more elemental, magnetic force that forever remains at odds with what we may think we know. The unwanted, misunderstood fool occupies a high level in a society that is by far more foolish.
Tricksters are traditionally male, reflecting the predominantly patriarchic societies from where they originated and perhaps even the masculine aspect, which the tricksters psychologically exude by their seemingly counter-cultural nature. To a large extent they can in fact be viewed as androgynous or figures beyond the gender. If the fans of Marvel’s Loki only knew of that time, when the original Norse Loki got himself impregnated in the form of a mare … for reasons, of course. We notice similar gender “swapping” and “feminization” in the greatest of heroes as well, such as Heracles and Achilles – to name the two probably most butch bad-boys of the Ancient Greeks. (I wouldn’t say that this gender swapping is the source of the current no-gender/multiple-gender liberal craze, or perhaps nonsense, but some parallels could indeed be drawn.) Androgyny reflects the initial unity of male and female, so the trickster serves as the balancing force between the two sexes/aspects of life. Trickster’s cultural domain represents the microlevel, while the gender issue reflects the macrolevel of his endeavors (and not the other way around, since gender reflects the duality found in nature, while society is nevertheless “merely” a human domain).
Albeit trickster’s methods can be obscene and antiheroic, he essentially lives in a world beyond this one, so he sees things greatly differently. Trickster should not be mistaken for a Batman-like dark hero, a Joker-like antihero or just a deceitful character that makes his way through the world playing tricks on his unsuspecting victims. I mean, trickster can indeed be all of that and can play tricks on himself as well, but his essence lies in his placement between the worlds, which allows his to see everything equally beyond conceptions typical in those respective worlds. Trickster is the god that is neither human nor divine, neither mortal nor immortal; he is the force of (un)wanted chance that swoops the world like the winds or the currents. Similar, yet very different to the hero, the hybrid who links the mortal and the divine realms.
Like the great minds of our times that could conceptualize the world on a higher level, the trickster is rooted in everything that we cannot see or understand. He is the messenger, the guide between the sacred (the world of the gods) and the profane (the human realm), for only he can transcend both forms. As such, the trickster is on a macrolevel much more important than the hero. While the hero saves the world from external forces from without, the trickster saves the world from within and from itself. The reason why the reader of myth for the most part places more importance to the prototypical hero, is because the hero is essentially still a human force, which means the hero is us, while the trickster is the global X-factor and monkey-wrench at the same time. (If this seems too paradoxical for your liking, it’s probably straightforward in hindsight, because explaining Daoism is even iffier.) This is similar to the way all great mythologies of the world begin with cosmogonies … the issue of humanity is strictly secondary. In other words we are not as important as our collective ego would lead us to believe. In the cosmic scheme of things, we are currently still insignificant specs … if and when we reach the “divine” level, we can talk turkey.
The dividing line between hero and trickster is thus (in keeping with the Saussurian model) both clear and unclear. It is undoubtedly clear that the default hero is the epitome of positive attributes and is centered in the mundane reality in order to bring achieve positive change (bearing in mind the morally questionable characteristics of Greek heroes or less grandeur, stock-value characteristics of heroes in folktales). Even if the hero breaks new ground, s/he is nevertheless still within the world or within the status quo, while the trickster’s extreme appetites and need for change in fact place him outside of this world and mark him as a force beyond what is mundane. While tricksters are more often than not “unsuccessful” in what appears to be their intentions as their trickery fails and they are caught, it is their very actions that are productive in the long run and they tend to get their way. (Like the baby Hermes forcing his way into the Olympic pantheon despite being caught stealing Apollo’s sacred cattle or Loki devising a fish trap that essentially enables the Norse tradition to survive, yet is the source of his own undoing and entrapment).
While the heroic model gives us morality and inspiration, the trickster gives us change, pure and simple. This is the very reason why the trickster occupies a higher place than the hero (whether we want to admit it or not). The champion is centrally human and reflects the human concerns and ideals, yet the buffoon is a natural phenomenon (or rather the natural phenomenon) that is part of the cycle of life. We may not like it and even if he brings death into “our” world, the trickster is the eternal force to the heroic mundane ideal.
If mythology has untold secrets and hidden gems to reveal to its readers and listeners, the position of the tricksters is where the focus needs to be placed more often. The emphasis on this shaman-like character reflects a strong psychological element that contradicts the rational and the social life, since what the trickster does, is quite simply in his nature. The trickster is part of our very nature, the child in us: the instinctual, natural and (most importantly) genuine relation we have with this world, beyond the constraints of society and even beyond our own limited worldview. The trickster is quite simply the cure for the disease-ridden existence that fails to comprehend the crux and flow of the Universe. While not God, he radiates divine presence, demands attention and draws the observer in just as he takes center stage within the mythic narrative.
The shock value of a trickster refers back to the basic human nature and upbringing; a child must be faced with a “shock”, otherwise an oedipal complex can plague their future life. Thus, you become aware of the other, darker, colder and harsher side of existence. Even more so, by realizing death, you can perhaps cope with it like the Buddha and you can find the middle way only by experiencing the positive and negative extremes of being. In essence, the trickster figure resonates deeper notions of our psyche and (in)directly affects our conception of where we are, what we are doing and who in fact we are. As the trickster stirs the pot of status-quo and ushers in changes that constantly keep the fire of diversity and progression going. He is the spark that (ideally) opens the eyes of others of the greater reality that encompasses all aspects of being.
A culture which has a trickster acknowledges its own flaws and strives to keep the scales of natural justice and order balanced by implementing this figure as the self-scrutinizing force. This seemingly inconspicuous, controversial, extremist character marks an important change in the conception of humanity, as his actions and consequent veneration point towards our understanding of the universal balance. As the forces in the universe seem to function because of a reciprocal relationship (in a perpetual cause and effect cycle), the trickster is implemented as the “necessary evil” to uproot the ruling king who may have gotten too strong or too greedy. But the trickster does not do it for himself, but for the society which is dependent on him … whether he knows it or not. While the effect is global, the consequent lesson of trickster myths is extremely personal, because this lesson is at the level of the reader (or the listener), where knowledge is to be implemented, so that wisdom can be applied on the grander scale.
Apollodorus. (2008). The Library of Greek Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hyde, L. (2008). Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture. New York: Canongate Books.
Leeming, D. (2009). Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sturluson, S. (2006). The Prose Edda. London: Penguin Classics.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …