Sea Gabriel. Mythic Deviant. Welcome.
Today the archetype of the trickster. You may notice that I’m starting with comparatively dis-ed members of the archetypal family. That is because they are what we need most.
Tricksters are surprising. Devious. Clever. Tricksters are creatures who communicate mythically rather than literally. They are: charade players not mimes; poets, not journalists; storytellers, not scribes. Tricksters are fun.
Tricksters are often the only ones who can get us out of trouble . . . and often the ones who go us in. Because tricksters like little more than to poke at reality. They tend to get bored.
Many traditions see tricksters as our way to access the divine. The oracle speaks a prophecy. It is poetic and either beautiful or scary. In any case, it’s obfuscated. We try to figure it out and act according to our theories on what it might actually mean. We are then surprised by what it means and see the way that the original was true but in a missing-important-information kind of way.
Remember in 2012 there was all the weirdness around the end of the Aztec calendar.
The Aztec calendar did and did not say the world would end. It said the current world would end. The Aztecs believed that a total change in orientation was a different world. They put forth the prediction that in 2012 the world would change from being materialistically to orienting around something immaterial. And that could look like the entire material world being destroyed, which some people believed. (the solstice thing was a completely arbitrary date some people threw in to make it scarier. That is the storyteller, not the trickster. They’re different).
This orientation change could also look like Trader Joe's, Costco, or farming and building technologies that allow us to access the resource we need to survive without orienting our entire lives around that quest. This frees us up for other endeavors. Enter the other world. Right now it looks like we’re orienting around information, but some of us are vying for connection and the votes aren’t all in. We can’t actually change worlds in one night, no matter how powerful the solstice is.
Today I’m going to look at innocuous tricksters. ‘cause they make life interesting.
Our first story is Greek. One of Zeus’s many affairs is with Maia, a beautiful titan. In Greek Myth, titans are the prior set of gods. Prior Gods aren’t old: they’re immortal. But they’re connected to the power of nature. Current Gods, like Zeus himself, are connected to power of humanity.
Maia has a bouncing baby god who she names Hermes. Later that afternoon, when she wakes up from her post-delivery nap, she finds him playing a Lyre, which puts her right back to sleep. Childbirth takes a lot of energy. And largely removes her from the story.
Hermes, finding himself incarnated, is bored. So he goes out to see what he can see. And what he sees is a herd of red cattle. When babies are born, they see only black, white, and red, so the cows are by far the most beautiful thing he has ever encountered. He wants them.
But he does not want to get busted. He surveys the scene and notices that where he treads there are human foot shaped prints, while the cow’s hoof prints are rather different. So he makes them all shoes, straps them on the animals, and walks them out. He found an awesome super secret hiding place on the way to the field.
He takes two of the cows and slaughters them. The real mystery here is who gave the 4 hour old a knife.
He kills the cattle, offers sacrifices, harvests an additional passing turtle, and creates the lyre, before rushing home to sing his napping mom back to sleep. He’s that good.
Meanwhile, his big brother, Apollo, the Sun God, has noticed that his cows seem to have been abducting by aliens. So he inquires, largely asking the satyrs and birds who people tend not to take very seriously, and who, therefore actually know what’s going on. They report that the kid took them, and point him to the cave. Birthing suites were not yet a thing.
Apollo bursts in and glares at the newborn placidly playing the lyre. His anger turns to admiration. What is that? he asks. A lyre, baby Hermes announces. ‘want to play?’ And Apollo does. Making him the world’s first rockstar, and God of Music.
‘Forget the cows, can I have this?’ Apollo asks and Hermes agrees. The next day Apollo stops by with the world’s first drummer and finds Hermes playing another instrument, this one made out of reeds. ‘Hey,’ he says ‘I’ll give you my staff for that. You can be lord of the cows. I’ve moved on.’ he says as he winks at the lovely and talented woman by his side.
“deal’ squeals the infant. Zeus, who’s been watching his sons work it out, steps in to chat with his new son.
“You just stole his stuff and made him love you for it then give you more. I want you on my side. Want to be messenger: God of Communication?”
“Bring it on” the baby announces, and quickly attains his rank as the 12th Olympian: Messenger God who lords over communication, thieves, trade, and travelers herdsman, bards, and other folk who wander when not lost.
That is the neutral trickster in story. And here’s one in life. This is actually a true story that I have performed on stage.
When I was a kid I was a compulsive liar. I lied about absolutely everything. If I’d gone to QFC, I’d say I went to Safeway. If I went to the beach, I’d report the mall. I was protecting myself from my family.
Shortly after I left home, at 15, I did something I didn’t want to admit to. The funny thing is, I can’t actually remember what. In any event, I was quizzed about it and I lied. But over time my lie had to get more and more complex, and I had to remember it over a prolonged period of time and a couple months later I vowed to myself that from that time on I would never again do something I wouldn’t admit to. I was safe from my family and just didn’t want to have to remember pointless crap.
Now, one would think that this would make me stop before doing stupid things. Fear not, I was not so self limiting. Instead, as I did my stupid things, I thought about how I’d spin them. Well, I’d think, I can admit to eating a pint of ice cream if I just explain that I hadn’t eaten in three days because I wanted to lose weight, but then I got so hungry that I thought I’d pass out but that day I had to walk along a ledge with a 12 foot overhang, and I was afraid I’d fall to my death, Obviously, eating a pint of ice cream was the only responsible thing to do.
As I got better at honestly talking about what I did I also got better at honestly seeing why I did things. After a while I saw my mistakes as lessons and learned to see my nasty habit of cussing people out when they woke me up as self protection, which allowed me to actually find ways to protect myself without slandering my friends. I can’t remember a single thing I did not do because of my self-imposed no-lying rule. Instead, I learned to talk about absolutely anything.
One day in college I was sitting at a table with a group of my classmates and we were all asked to take an anonymous survey on our sex lives. We agreed and each sat with our arms out protecting our papers. I got to the question ‘how many times per week do you engage in sexual behaviors?’ ‘5’ I accurately wrote. Then ‘how many partners do you have?’ ‘0’ was my honest reply. And then I just started cracking up. I announced my answers to the table. They all laughed too.
And in the next week everyone else there came to me later, one by one, to talk about their sex lives. They each admitted lying on the survey and confided the differences between what was actually going on and what they wished for. They asked me for guidance. Because I was the person who was willing to talk about humiliating stuff.
And when one of my friends was diagnosed with a mental illness she came to me. Because she knew I could help her spin it. Together we brainstormed how this was helping her: where the gift was in this particular package. Sometimes beautiful gifts are wrapped in ugly paper.
I’ve had a career in communication. And now I clearly see the spins, the ways people find evidence for almost anything they want to believe about the world so that they can feel in control. I love walking down the street and seeing everyone, each wrapped up in their own cacoon of story, each spinning that world in a different way to serve their own purposes: true or false, helpful or destructive. I find our human propensity to harness our world into self-serving stories so awesome: powerful and beautiful.
I only wish we would restrain ourselves to using it for good: keep to the truth and refrain from pretending we can see into other people. The truth is that we are largely blind to their thoughts, their motives, and their actions. As people, we only notice what we understand, and as much as we might wish to tell ourselves otherwise, we don’t actually understand each other.
I once drove a couple of developmentally disabled adults across town. At one point they were each trying to convey their opinion. I could clearly see that neither one had any idea what the other was talking about. After a while I saw them each decide that the other secretly agreed with them. They smiled at each other in an ‘I like you’ kind of way. And I thought that’s exactly what we’re all doing all the time. We don’t really get where the other person’s coming from, but we decide if they are friend or foe and proceed from there. I wish we would pick friend significantly more often.
While understanding breeds compassion, it isn’t actually necessary. Maybe we could be kind because we would all be happier, healthier, and safer and that would be good. Maybe there’s no such thing as ‘deserving something’. Maybe there’s only being someone. And maybe that’s enough.
And that is the trickster in real life: the artist whose base material is truth and final creation is understanding . . . or misunderstanding . . . depending on how deep we are willing to look. Misunderstanding is easy, it allows us to stand in shallow waters and gaze at our own reflection mistaking it for something outside of ourselves. Understanding is difficult, it requires diving into our unknown depths and confronting what we may not want to know about ourselves so that we can subtract our reflections from the pictures we see.
Next time, the Monster Trickster. Author responsibly.