I want to argue a paradox…that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. – Lewis Hyde
It has always made sense to me that the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when times were hard for so many, gave birth to our great movie tricksters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges. Their send ups of the 1%, among other things, are still hilarious. Where are their equivalents today?
My self-imposed moratorium on negative blog themes has passed. As I caught up on news I had kept at arms length, I found myself thinking often of trickster stories. In part because they are funny, and most of the news is not. And partly because the folly of tricksters has a sacred dimension while the folly of our headline makers is often just foolish. If you invite the Three Stooges to lunch and serve pie, the outcome is fairly certain. I read that the Georgia legislature voted to allow patrons to carry guns into bars; the result is likely to be just as predictable, but without the catharsis of laughter.
In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World (1998), Lewis Hyde emphasized several key points:
1) Tricksters both make and violate boundaries and live in relationship to them. Where there are no boundaries, trickster creates them, as in several Native American creation myths where Coyote makes the land and separates it from the sea. Where there are cultural boundaries, tricksters blur or invert the distinctions: right and wrong, friend or foe, male or female, living or dead.
2) Tricksters are usually on the road, and this makes them outsiders.
Through most of human history, solitary travelers have been rare. Until the last century, most people lived and died close to the area where they were born. Nomadic people travelled as tribes or clans, but Hyde says trickster is “the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road of dusk,” who may pass through city and town but only to “enliven it with his mischief.”
Hyde points out that although there is an abundance of clever women who know how to be deceptive in world mythology, they are seldom full-time tricksters. Once the evil is vanquished, the curse lifted, they tend to settle down. Coyote and Loki do not domesticate, and the older cultures who gave us these stories would have had trouble imagining a woman who opted for a solo life on the road.
3) Tricksters are liars and thieves, but they are not petty criminals.
Tricksters steal things like fire and cattle, and according to Hyde, are often honored as creators of civilization. “They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.”
We cannot be too doctrinaire about these things, for there is a distinction between “large” stories, like creation myths, and “small” folktales, where trickster sometimes steals cattle for himself. When he does so, however, in tales like “The Little Peasant” from Grimm, it is usually a case of swindling a swindler, or people who are dishonest and greedy to start with.
For obvious reasons, trickster isn’t welcome in corporate boardrooms. Like Robin Hood, he is into redistribution of wealth. He’s the patron of whistle blowers everywhere, and will gladly gum up the machine when it is no longer serving the greater good.
Perhaps that is why we need him now more than ever. We don’t even have to do anything. Hermes travels as fast as thought. For good and for ill, trickster is already here.