The trickster is the one who denies duality. He or she is both light and dark, both good and bad, both the hero and the villain, both a benign force and a malicious one. He ruptures the status quo and causes transformation, in himself, in community, or/and in society. The trickster archetype is a mythological figure I find endlessly fascinating. I’ve spoken about the trickster figures several times before. Many moons ago I spoke about the Brer Rabbit who is an African American folklore tradition example. I’ve spoken about Ted Hughes’ crow poems a couple of times; the crow or raven is a classic trickster symbol. And there are the examples we find in the Bible of Yahweh expressing trickster-like characteristics, like in the Book of Job, when he does his wager with the devil.
The trickster archetype is an endlessly recurring mythological and literary character. Loki the shape-shifting God from Norse mythology is a trickster figure, the Joker in Batman is a trickster figure, the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a trickster figure. You can probably think of more examples. The trickster archetype is, broadly speaking, someone who is unpredictable, unorthodox, creative, and living out from a deep sense of their own intuitive self. The wisdom of the trickster doesn’t follow conventional logic - he might manipulate a situation to his own end, but he does so accidently. He is not like a Machiavellian-type figure, who is calculating, and orchestrates the ends he desires by emotionally manipulating the right people and pushing the right buttons, rather his end arises out of from the chaos he generates. Although in mythology or fiction the trickster archetype is a being of some kind - an animal (like the Crow or the Brer Rabbit), or a God (Like Yahweh, or Pan, or Loki), or a person (like the Joker, or the Mad Hatter) within us, the trickster archetype is a mostly dormant part of our psyche, but nonetheless part of us all, rearing up to disrupt the status quo, within ourselves, or within community, or within society or nations. When one of these three things has calcified in some way, is no longer actualising its destiny in some sense, no longer flourishing, or no longer bringing forth the kind of reality it is supposed to be manifesting, then, the trickster must liberate us.
In Genesis, the fable of the Tower of Babel follows the Trickster motif. All the people of the world were speaking one language, they were all of one mind, they all agreed on what had to be done. But the Trickster, who was God, Yahweh in this case, had other ideas. Before the trickster, they would have been baffled by his obstinance, his resistance to their resolve would have seemed illogical. They were self-assured in their own purpose and objective, and why would anyone want to disrupt that? The Tower of Babel had to be destroyed, not because it didn’t work for the people - it clearly did - but because the Tower of Babel represented the direction humanity was taking, a direction which was contrary to their God-ordained destiny, at odds with the reality they were supposed to be manifesting together. They sought to build a tower that reached heaven. As such, they sought to make themselves like God. Now making ourselves like God is in one sense idolatry. Would we dare to play God? But in another sense, becoming more like God, or becoming God, is the narrative arc of the Bible.
Christ reflected God in some sense, he lived as God’s exemplar, and then he died, and his resurrection happens through us in as far as we inculcate the spirit of Christ amongst us. We make Christ alive in as far as we are Christ-like. Living fully into our Christ identity is ultimately to cast off any sense or belief that there is a moral arbiter above to determine what is good and bad. We must embrace our own radical freedom, and thus, in effect, become God. But it’s a process. There is a slow journey of becoming which needs to unfold psychologically for ourselves, but also in mythology we see it unfold across the narrative arc of the Bible, across the Bible’s 66 books from Genesis to Revelation. And yet, at the very beginning of this story, in book 1 chapter 11, we have humanity essentially trying to skip ahead to the end of the book. They’re trying to cheat, they’re trying to jump to something they’re wholly unprepared for. And so, the Trickster archetype emerges, and disrupts the status quo. And he does so in an almost comical fashion. They all wake up one morning to find that they can no longer all speak the same language. Dazed and confused, they disperse, and spread themselves out across the globe.
So that obviously would have been catastrophic: working towards a grand project, and suddenly their efforts were completely thwarted. But in the wake of the chaos the fertile ground was set, from which everything we know emerged. So, the trickster archetype is pushing back, not in a calculated way, but intuitively pushing back, because it can discern that there is something off. Something off that the trickster may not even be able to put into words, he just knows intuitively. And in this instance that works out, and Yahweh’s waggish behaviour ultimately has an edifying effect upon humanity. But because it is instinctual, and just a reaction against the way the world is showing up in that moment, it is inherently risky. It doesn’t always unfold positively or constructively in the short term. And the story that was read out is an example of that (‘Trickster mimics man pointing’ in Paul Radin’s ‘The Trickster: A study in American Indian Mythology’). The trickster sees someone pointing, and his immediate reacting is to think ‘what’s he pointing at? I know what I’ll do, I’ll point back…’ Genius! And it takes him ages to realise he is actually pointing at a tree. This story is just one of many similar stories collected together by the anthropologist, the late Paul Radin, of the Trickster character in Native American Winnebago culture, passed down orally from generation to generation. These stories are arranged in a particular order; there’s an arc, a trajectory.
In some of the stories the Trickster’s ways have negative consequences, and in some positive. In the one we heard, the negative consequences are pretty benign - just the trickster alone, thinking how foolish he has been. But in other stories the negative consequences are far more extreme, including children dying, or some animals dying, or (and this is a strongly recurring theme) some kind of genitalia mishap. Losing certain vital organs. But despite these extreme negatives, the trajectory is towards the positive. The Trickster archetype is a psychological inevitability, arising to combat a system’s rigidity. And ultimately, the effects of the Trickster are a net good. The result at a personal psychological level of rejecting the insights of the Trickster is to become increasingly rigid, arrogant, narrow-minded, and dour. And it ultimately cannot be resisted. The pressure will just rise unconsciously until it manifests in one way or another, probably in some explosive way. In the story we heard, the Trickster refers to himself as a fool, and the fool and the trickster archetype are synonymous.
So, we’ve had the example of the trickster archetype in Native American culture, we’ve had the example from ancient Israelite culture, so now, we can think about the Trickster archetype in our own culture, in European culture. So we come to ‘The Fool’, or the jester of the king’s court. And it’s from that tradition that the tarot fool arises (which you have on the front of your order of service). The tarot fool holds to life loosely. The impression you get is someone stepping lightly, almost flying, and carrying a small knapsack with all he owns, which amounts to very little. He is not weighted down by the demands of a stressful life, he is innocent, and led by whim, and thus quite probably about to topple off an edge which he does not perceive. But will he topple, and be destroyed, or will his fall prepare him for new possibilities, and strengthen his resolve to face the far broader unfolding journey across the mountains before him? From tarot fool all other emotional states and possibilities follow. Thus, that trajectory towards greater wholeness is furthered. The tarot fool emerged from the jester of the king’s court, the one who knows that the well-timed joke can sometimes influence the grim-faced tyrant and cause him to act with benevolence. The jester is the natural enemy of the overinflated ego, he who is convinced by his own rightness. The grim-faced tyrant endures the fool’s clowning, even though it is the tyrant himself who is often the butt of the joke. Thus the tyrant is forced to take himself a little less seriously, to loosen up, and lighten up.
When no one else can, the jester can speak words to power, the jester can subvert the status quo. After all, many truths have been spoken in jest, and many lies have been spoken in emotional earnest. The Jester knows that good cheer can bring healing, when more words just go on and on and achieve nothing. Since the dawn of the Civilization, the trickster archetype has arisen independently in every culture of the world. We can find his influence in religion, in mythology, in fiction old and new, and most evidently within ourselves, as an unconscious force welling up and disrupting the normative state of affairs. Thus the Trickster has spoken. Look around you. Do you not perceive it? The soil at our feet is fertile, new doors are opening before us. Let us journey on, for the journey has only just begun.