Mind: Trickster, Transformer

By Blair A. Moffett
Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself . . . He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. . . . The Trickster myth is found . . . among the ancient Greeks, the Chinese, the Japanese and in the Semitic world. Many of the Trickster's traits were perpetuated in the . . . mediaeval jester, and have survived . . . in the Punch-and-Judy plays and in the clown. (The Trickster, A Study in American Indian Mythology, Schocken Books, N.Y., 1972; p. xxiii.) -- Paul Radini

Few mythological figures have such a remote origin in time and broad distribution among cultures as the one called Trickster. This character has long puzzled its commentators, largely because Trickster defies any purely rational or intellectual analysis. In fact, anyone who has studied any particular trickster story can testify to its disturbing undertones of perplexity and provocation. For Trickster contains a transcendent nature whose epic qualities are truly awesome. We can think, for example, of when Maui, the Polynesian Trickster, snares nothing less than the sun. Yet with all his enormous power he is enormously stupid, the fool of the ages, the epitome or personification of human absurdity.

Attesting to this essential duality and ambiguity of image are the descriptions of Trickster given us by the scholars. A "bestial, human and divine being," says Stanley Diamond (In Search of the Primitive, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, N.J., 1974; p. xxiii). "A mixture of clown, culture hero and demigod," asserts Weston La Barre (The Ghost Dance, The Origins of Religion, Dell Publishing Company, N.Y., 1972; p. 195). We have already seen portions of Paul Radin's references to this strange and contradictory being. What is clear from it all is that this is a figure and a theme which are primal, and which have exercised a permanent fascination for mankind since civilization's dawn and probably even before. They are omnipresent, ambivalent, tragicomic. By such tokens we know the myth obviously has something of immense importance to tell us. But what?

In world mythologies Trickster's guises are legion; so much so that a well-known commentator, Joseph Campbell, has called him the "Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1973; passim)." He is Krishna as the World Magician, tricking all -- men and gods -- by his playful ruses as an incarnation of Vishnu, Lord of the World. He is Manabozho or Hare of the Algonkian peoples, whose father, Earthmaker, sent Hare to be born of a virgin as a human being in order to destroy evils threatening mankind. He is Eshu, the trickster-divinity of Yorubaland in West Africa; Raven of the Eskimos and Northwest Coast Amerindians; Loki, if not Odin, of Norse tradition; Coyote or Wolf of western North American native peoples; and, as noted, Maui of Polynesian mythoi. He is also Hermes of early Greek mythology; but a young Hermes, seen before he became a hero and benefactor to man. And in this we have a clue.

For under whatever name, Trickster, as some like Campbell and Radin have noted, evolves. This outlandish yet remarkable thing in human form learns, grows in understanding, changes and, at a certain point in his adventuresome blunders, is transformed. Until that moment, however, Trickster keeps changing shape and experimenting with a thousand identities, including shifts in sex, in a seemingly never-ending search for himself. During all this he inflicts great damage on those around him and also suffers innumerable blows, defeats, indignities, and dangers resulting from his thoughtless, reckless forays. On entering upon existence he is first seen as a blurred, chaotic, hardly unified being, having no self-knowledge or life-knowledge, despite his divine parenthood. It is only later on in his peregrinations that Trickster emerges as a culture hero, demigod, and savior of peoples. But this occurs only after his transformation or self-integration takes place, and brings to the fore the great and epic qualities initially given him by his divine progenitor.

Many scholars seem to have missed or ignored the full significance of the paradox that Trickster becomes Hero-Savior, and some separate the two cycles as though they were unrelated. There is some justification for this, because different cultures have emphasized sometimes this and sometimes that part of this particular myth. Unless a scholar is alert the connections can be overlooked, as Campbell notes:

In the later stages of many mythologies, the key images hide like needles in great haystacks of secondary anecdote and rationalization; for when a civilization has passed from a mythological to a secular point of view, the older images are no longer felt . . .
Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. . . . temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved (Ibid., pp. 248-9).

Nevertheless the unity of Trickster with Hero-Benefactor is clear in a great number of the mythoi. The hero must trick the gods of their wealth, steal it, and in some manner make it available to humankind. This heavenly treasure usually is "fire" or is related to it. Raven steals the gods' fire sticks. Maui goes against Mahu-ika, the guardian of fire, to get it and bring it back to the people. In Greek myth it is Prometheus who does this. The many references to the sun-snaring feat of Trickster-turned-Hero extend illustration of this development (Katharine Luomala, Oceanic, American Indian, and African Myths of Snaring the Sun, Bernice P Bishop Museum Bulletin 168, Honolulu, 1940; reprinted by Kraus Reprint Company, N.Y, 1971). The hero who deceives, slays, or by his "wiles" appeases the gods, is honored as a savior of the world.

Trickster's hero qualities were present, then, from the very beginning of his career. But they lay dormant, in seed, until he decided to exercise them, which he did only after a long and painful process of trial and error, growth and metamorphosis. For in all of his manifestations Trickster remains a primordial being of the same order as the gods, despite his prolonged sojourn in the human condition. In a fine study of New World myths, Daniel G. Brinton traced the trickster figures of this hemisphere to an original high god of light (Myths of the Americas, originally published in 1868; reprinted by Multimedia Publishing Corp., Blauvelt, N.Y., 1976; pp. 172-207). For traditional peoples light, fire, and sun are words that have always had a double meaning. While they certainly stand for the physical things named, they also and more importantly stand for the spiritual reality behind these. Fire is the illumination of consciousness or direct knowledge. Light is such interior knowledge. Sun refers to the spirit of the sun: the source of the life and light and fire of knowledge in our system. And it is with such peoples that the poetry and transformative power of Trickster as the "enemy of boundaries" -- adopting Karl Kerenyi's penetrating phrase -- has remained alive and strong.

No matter how often scholars have analyzed this myth in the attempt to reduce it to any strictly rational value, it endures in all of its polyfaceted and multileveled grandeur. To restrict understanding of it merely to one or two of its features would be to rob us of its unusually important meaning. For serious reflection upon the myth in all of its world variety brings a conviction that it can refer only to the evolution of human consciousness and the full range of phases and multiple colorations which this implies. Yes, the evolution of our consciousness, but from a gigantic perspective and nothing less; one which carries us back to the fabulous illo tempore: into the night of time millions of years ago to the magic moment of first creation, that, dawn time "when first the world was born" and we "walked with the gods."

From the initial dimness of a consciousness newly-born, lacking any real integration of its components, and having forgotten his divine mission, we follow Trickster as his awareness steadily comes forth in ever greater measure. We watch as the self-knowledge of this inchoate entity develops, bringing with it strength, remembrance, and a firmer sense of identity -- all this until, at a certain point, by capturing the fire of inner illumination from the gods, he gains a full measure of self-consciousness or self-recollection, and can act to benefit mankind. To use Jungian terms, the Unconscious within himself has been transmuted into the Conscious, bringing lucidity of spiritual vision of self and the universe. It is Radin, again, who asks the question and reaches the conclusion:

Is this a speculum mentis* wherein is depicted man's struggle with himself and with a world into which he had been thrust without his volition and consent *[Speculum mentis, Latin: "mirror of the mind."]? . . .
On the basis of the very extensive data which we have today from aboriginal tribes it is not only a reasonable but, indeed, almost a verifiable hypothesis that we are here actually in the presence of such an archaic speculum mentis.
Our problem is thus basically a psychological one. In fact, only if we view it as primarily such, as an attempt by man to solve his problems inward and outward, does the figure of Trickster become intelligible and meaningful. -- Paul Radin, op. cit., p. xxiv.

Radin's insight emerges from a profound study of years of this mythological phenomenon. It converges remarkably with an unusual injunction or "golden precept" offered in the Orient to beginning seekers of spiritual reality:

The Mind is the great Slayer of the Real.
Let the Disciple slay the Slayer.
-- H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of The Silence, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1957; p 1.

Here is an arresting insight into the nature of our mind. We learn that mind can cause us to misperceive the true nature of things -- first and foremost, of ourselves -- and we are advised to overcome it. For obviously we are not told to destroy the mind, that marvelous instrument of perception and analysis which we possess by virtue of evolution, only to master that power it has which in classical Eastern thought is called maya or "illusion." This is clear when, later, the same source says:

For mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects. It needs the gentle breezes of Soul-Wisdom to brush away the dust of our illusions. Seek O Beginner, to blend thy Mind and Soul. -- Ibid., p. 26.

And here is a further discernment: the mind must be dual in its powers. While it can blur our perception of the real, it is paradoxically the faculty in us that -- properly employed -- can carry our vision beyond the data of the mere brain and the senses. Our mind is not the sum total of our consciousness, then. And it is when we fall into the error of believing this to be so that mind tricks us. Only when we use mind to free ourselves of such limitations can it work the transformation releasing us into the full consciousness of our complete being, allegorized in the sun-snaring episodes of the mythoi, the seizing of the divine fire of knowledge.

Many Amerindian peoples, to say nothing of traditional cultures elsewhere, knew this and were fully aware of the pernicious effects which could result for the community when people thought with the brain alone and forgot the thought arising from the heart. In their mythoi we see Raven and Coyote hilariously doing everything their cultures forbid to its members, and other myths have Trickster doing everything ritually backward. In fact, with the Lakota of the great plains the trickster was made a permanent asset of the community in the person of the medicine-men known as the Thunder Dreamers or heyokas, the "clowns." Only the heyokas were permitted to do all acts in reverse of the usual order. Whenever an ugly situation developed resulting from misunderstandings and misapprehensions among the people, the beyoka would burst upon the scene with his clowning and cavorting. Seeing this strange performance was usually enough to restore good humor and restraint to those embroiled in the matter, allowing a more humane solution to be reached and protecting the community from itself. The heyoka was a living speculum mentis whose contribution was to help transform the trickster in us into the beneficent hero for the good of the whole.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)

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