A classic trickster woman

A blogging friend, Calmgrove, commented on my previous post, saying how strange it is that in modern times, despite an abundance of comediennes, there are no female tricksters. Then it struck me – and it’s so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier.

In an era when tricksters come to us on screens rather than stories told around a campfire, we cannot forget Lucille Ball’s role in “I Love Lucy.” The show ran from 1951 to 1957 and was the most watched the American television program during four of those six seasons. It is still in syndication in dozens of countries around the world.

Lucille Ball and Orson Welles.From a 1956 episode. Public domain.

Lucille Ball and Orson Welles.From a 1956 episode. Public domain.

Lucille Ball, with her clowning and physical comedy, set a tone that is still at the core of many sitcoms. Most of the best known women comics who followed cite her as a groundbreaker, an inspiration, a mentor, and often a friend. In terms of our “classic trickster” test, that is what she was, at all times. Never just a funny housewife, Lucy was an outrageous but charming disrupter, whose pioneering humor enlivened the spirits of millions who watched her.

I dare you to get through the chocolate factory scene with a straight face.

Quite a few full episodes of the show are available on YouTube.

Another note on tricksters


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.

stooges pies

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.”

charlie chaplin and dog

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.

Chaplin modern times

Thor: The Dark World


Sometimes the movies surprise you. On Friday, I saw The Muppets Most Wanted and wished I had waited for the DVD. Sunday I watched Thor: The Dark World on DVD, and was sorry I hadn’t caught it on the big screen.

As “the Convergence” approaches, a once every 5000 year alignment of the nine realms of the universe, portals between the worlds start to open at random.  Exploring one near London, Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s mortal honey, is infected with the Aether, an ancient, indestructible weapon of evil that the gods of Asgard had hidden away.  The Dark Elf, Malekith, hopes to use the Aether to plunge the universe into darkness when the worlds align.

At the critical moment, Thor and his half-brother, Loki, the usual suspect in all things nefarious, team up to save the world and avenge the death of Frigga, their mother. Loki’s trickery fools Malekith into withdrawing the Aether from Jane and saving her life.  The movie has lots of explosions, and moments that echo both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (though admittedly without the depth).  The forbidden love of immortal Thor and mortal Jane also parallels Superman and Lois, but for me, the character of Loki made the movie.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Loki the Trickster, has fascinated me since I read a book of Norse mythology as a kid.  Sometimes an ally and sometimes a nemesis of the gods, in the old stories, Loki was finally imprisoned under the earth for killing Baldr, the golden boy of Asgard, where he will remain until the final battle when this world will be destroyed.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

The movie Loki is far more nuanced; he and Thor compliment each other.  Thor is ready to charge ahead, swinging his hammer against an invincible foe, while Loki embodies consummate strategy.

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki, rejected by the Father of the gods and always subordinate to Thor, though he is older and smarter, is more the existential Outsider than any other movie superhero. Peter Parker may pine for Mary Jane, in a malt shop kind of way, and Clark gets tongue-tied near Lois, but Loki portrays the adult experience of not fitting in.

If you know what that’s like (and if not, why are you writing and reading blogs), you’ll enjoy this portrayal of Loki. The next time you’re in the mood for heroes, aided by Natalie Portman, saving the world, with help from a professor who runs around naked at Stonehenge, grab some popcorn and consider renting Thor.  It’s a fun ride.

The North Wind’s Gift: a trickster tale from Italy

If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you read the preceding post, Notes on Trickster stories, which provides a background and context for this article.  Both posts were inspired by “The North Wind’s Gift,” a tale from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, 1956.  The story came to my attention in Allan Chinen’s discussion of tricksters and appealed because of its relative simplicity and relevance to our own times.

Italian Folktales

Here’s a synopsis of the story:

Once there was a farmer named Geppone who toiled in his fields every day of the year but could barely feed his wife and three children.  The North Wind blew at harvest time and ruined his crops.  Finally Geppone had enough and set out to find the North Wind and demand justice.  He reached the North Wind’s castle.  “Every year you ruin my crops,” he said.  “Because of you, my family is starving to death.”

“What can I do?” the North Wind asked.

“I leave that up to you,” Geppone replied.

The North Wind’s heart went out to the little farmer.  He brought out a box.  “This is a magical box which will give you food when you open it, but tell no one else about the magic or you’ll lose it.”

Geppone thanked the Wind and set out for home.  On the way, he opened the box.  Instantly a table appeared, piled with food.  When he got home, Geppone opened the box again and treated his family to a feast.  He told his wife not to tell anyone, and especially to say nothing to the priest, who was their landlord and a greedy man.

The next day, the priest spoke to Geppone’s wife and wrung the story out of her.  He summoned Geppone and  demanded the box on pain of eviction, offering seeds in return, which proved to be worthless.  As bad off as he was before, the farmer returned to the North Wind’s castle to ask for another boon.

At first, the North Wind refused, saying, “You ignored my warning.  Why should I help you again?”  Geppone pleaded, and reminded the Wind that he was still the cause of the family’s ruin.

“Very well,” said the North Wind at last.  He gave Geppone a magnificent gold box, but said, “Open this only when you are starving.”

On his way home, Geppone stopped and opened the new box.  This time a ruffian with a club jumped out and began to beat the farmer, who struggled to close the lid.  When he did, the ruffian vanished.  Geppone limped home, sore and bruised.  When his wife and children clamored to try the golden box, Geppone left the room.  This time two ruffians jumped out and began to beat the family.  Geppone slipped back into the room, closed the box, and the assailants vanished.

“This is what you must do,” he said to his wife.  “Tell the priest I brought home an even finer box, but say nothing else.”

Geppone’s wife understood and did as her husband instructed.  When the priest called the farmer and demanded the golden box, Geppone feigned reluctance, but at last agreed to trade it for the original box.  The priest rubbed his hands.  The bishop was due to join him for Mass the next day; a feast would be just the thing to win the approval of his superior.

The next day, after Mass, the priest, the bishop, and their retinue gathered for supper.  When the priest opened the box, six ruffians jumped out and beat the clerics.  Geppone, who was waiting at the window, took his time in closing the box to save them.

No one objected when he carried this second box home.  The priest never bothered Geppone again.  The farmer was careful to guard the North Wind’s gifts, and his family lived in ease and comfort for the rest of their days.

You can read the story as it appears in Italian Folktales here:  The North Wind’s Gift


It’s clear at the start of the story that we’re in a post-heroic fairytale world.  Geppone is not out to slay a dragon, rescue a princess, or win a kingdom – he just wants to survive.

Allan Chinen speaks of the different life stages that different fairytales address.  While the majority center on young people venturing into the world,  “middle-tales” like this have older protagonists with different kinds of problems.  From a Jungian perspective, Chinen notes that tricksters usually don’t show up in our dreams when we’re 18 and planning to take the world by storm – they visit us when we’re 40, with a mortgage, a couple of kids, and a car that needs an engine overhaul.

Geppone works from dawn until dark but can barely make ends meet.  His wife doesn’t listen to him, and the landlord threatens eviction.  This setup makes his story seem contemporary – if we’re not in this situation ourselves, one of our neighbors probably is.

We get the feeling Geppone has been down on his luck and taking it on the chin for a while.  Something finally awakens within him and spurs him to action.  As a result, he meets the North Wind, a wild spirit who will become his guardian and mentor and teach him the wiles of the trickster.

The North Wind is invoked in the Song of Solomon, in Aesop, and in Greek and Norwegian folklore.  He shows up in George McDonald’s novel, On the Back of the North Wind, in the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, and in Pokemon.  The North Wind is also associated with thunder gods like Zeus and Odin.  It’s not surprising that he is a shadowy trickster in Italy, where invaders and winter both arrive from the north.

Almost every successful fairytale character wins the help of a guiding spirit, and the North Wind’s help is just what Geppone needs.  It prompts him first to stand up for himself and ask for what he needs and then to learn enough strategy to overcome his oppressive priest and landlord.  To Jungians, fairytale allies like helpful animals, fairy godmothers, and nature spirits represent parts of the unconscious mind that are older and wiser than ego, which gets us into trouble in the first place.

What this means in practical terms is a vast subject, beyond the scope of a few blog posts.  Jung would suggest to patients who were comfortable in a religious tradition to return to it for guidance.  Much of Jung’s work aimed at helping people estranged from existing traditions who still needed to tap inner sources of wisdom.

In the “Power of Myth,” Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell where ordinary (i.e., busy) people might look to experience the wisdom of myth.  Campbell suggested we take 30 minutes or an hour a day in a quiet place where we can read what inspires us and perhaps keep a journal.

Just like this story, the psyche is home to ruffians and riches, and the old stories are not to be taken literally.  James Hillman, a prominent Jungian thinker, always insisted that literalism is the greatest enemy of inner wisdom.  So how does trickster wisdom manifest  in our world right now?  I don’t think we have to look very far.

A world that’s increasingly dysfunctional serves as a magnet for trickster energy, for good as well as for ill.  A Facebook friend mentioned that he once loaned out a book on trickster mythology and never got it back.  That fits the myths of trickster gods like Hermes who are also patrons of thieves.  Hermes may be the supreme image of the trickster.  As fluid as the metal which bears his Roman name, Mercury, he was the messenger between gods and humans who also conducted souls to the afterlife.  Patron of travelers, herdsmen, poets, orators, athletes, and inventors, his herald’s staff, the caduceus, is the symbol of healing to this day.

I find myself watching for positive manifestations of trickster energy, which usually turn up under the radar of corporate and government organizations which carry a vested interest in the status quo.  When you look, quite a few individuals and groups are trying out new solutions.  I’ll post at least one example in the near future.

In the meantime I would love to hear where you find trickster energy in yourself and in those around you.

Notes on Trickster stories

Many of you will have heard the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  We do, beyond any question.  With a longstanding interest in folklore, I often find myself wondering which, if any, of the old tales can speak to us now and illumine our situation?  I always come back to the trickster stories.

Br’er Rabbit, an Americanized African trickster, from an 1881 book cover by Frederick S. Church. Public domain

Trickster tales are told around the world and may be among our earliest stories; in some traditions, tricksters create the world and bring fire to humans.  Sometimes benefactors and sometimes criminals, tricksters are contrarians, rule breakers, restless beings who disrupt and disturb, who keep creation moving, dealing out life and death in turn.

Groucho Marx, Loki, all of Shakespeare’s fools, and many animals, from Coyote, to Spider, to Br’er Rabbit are tricksters.  We named our first rescue dog Kit, short for Kitsune, which is Japanese for “Fox,” another famous trickster.  The reason should be obvious in this picture:



We have to lock the windows when driving with Kit because she knows how to hit the window button with her paw to roll it down so she can hang her head out, bark at other dogs, and catch the breeze. If Kit had thumbs, we’d be in serious trouble!

Establishments have little use for tricksters, and it’s easy to see why.  We may like them in the movies, but no one wants the Three Stooges to work on their plumbing. Schools are ruthless in their suppression of tricksters.  And yet, in times when the norms break down and the culture looses its rudder, trickster energy may be what we need.  Free of cultural norms and concern for what is polite or even legal, tricksters focus on what will work in the here and now.

After interviews with twin tower survivors, researchers discovered that people waited an average of ten minutes before deciding to exit the buildings.  “Do you think we should leave?”  “Will we have to use vacation time if we go?”  “What about the report I have to finish?”  Once they decided to exit, survivors spent several more precious minutes logging out of their systems and locking their desks and file cabinets.

Researchers concluded from this and other studies, that the human brain is often dangerously slow in reacting to radically different events or disasters.  These are the times when we need trickster energy.  Unbound by convention, the trickster jumps on a desk and yells, “The sky is falling – get the f**k out!”

Allan Chinen, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry, wrote about tricksters from the Jungian perspective.  In 2012, I discussed his Once Upon a Midlife, an analysis of folklore aimed at that stage of life.  In 1993, Chinen published Beyond the Hero:  Classic Stories of Men in Search of Soul.

beyond the hero

Chinen argues that despite popular concepts and movies like Man of Steel, The Hero is not the core masculine archetype – the Shaman/Trickster is an older, wiser, and more primal energy.

Like most Jungian’s I have read, Chinen regards tricksters as primarily masculine archetypes.  I’m not sure how opinion stands in currently folklore studies; much work has been done with women’s tales in the last 20 years.  It is Gretel, after all, who uses trickery to kill the witch and save her brother.  Only by wiles can Bluebeard be defeated or brothers saved from various enchantments.

I suspect the difference is that full-time tricksters like Coyote are usually male.  You see it in children at play too, and sadly, it is overwhelmingly boys who get dosed with ritalin when they’re not docile enough for the modern classroom.  As Jung and Hillman both observed, what a culture defines as pathology may say more about the culture than the people it labels as defective.

Guardians of the status quo are wary of tricksters and with good reason.  They are almost always subversive – the Stooges only throw pies in the homes of the 1%, and Charlie Chaplin was no friend of the captains of industry.

Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times."  CC-by-SA-2.0

Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” CC-by-SA-2.0

To personify self-preservation; to point out the shadow of a dominant culture; to keep the flame of hope and spirit alive; to demonstrate the power to wit to those who are disenfranchised.  Scholars now believe the Br’er Rabbit tales performed such functions for slaves as the Coyote stories did for Native Americans on the reservations.  In all likelihood, these are the gifts tricksters have given for untold millennia.

Next time I’ll look at a classic trickster story that Allan Chinen told, with an eye to it’s relevance for the 21st century.

Go I Know Not Whither, Bring Back I Know Not What – Part 2

We left Fedot standing outside a tall mountain at the end of the world.  The ancient frog who had been his companion couldn’t carry him further, but she was able to tell him how to proceed.  She advised him to enter a cavern, hide himself, wait for two men to appear, and do exactly what they did.

Everything happened as the frog foretold.  Two old men entered the cavern and called out, “Shmat Razum!  Come and feed us.”  Light blazed from candelabras, a feast appeared at the table, and the two men ate their fill.  When they were done, they cried, “Shmat Razum, take it all away.”  The feast disappeared and the lights went out.

When the men left, Fedot called “Shamat Razum, give me some food.”  Instantly a feast appeared.  Then Fedot did something exceptional.  He said, “Shamat Razum, come, brother, and sit down with me, let us eat and drink together. I can’t stand eating alone.”

The spirit – for that is what he was – thanked the hunter and told him the old men had never once asked him to share a meal in the 30 years he had served them.  Fedot said, “Come and serve me.”  Shamat Razum agreed and they left the cave together.

All along, Fedot has shown two attributes that will save him, qualities that are keys to success in many fairy tales.  Courage and conventional strength are not enough.  First in importance, Fedot is willing to listen to all “the spirits,” all the creatures who offer help and advice.  He also treats them courteously, as welcome guests and friends.  It makes little difference whether we call them spirits or archetypes.   Through his long career, James Hillman, the post-Jungian founder of Archetypal Psychology insisted we treat the figures in our dreams and fantasies with the same respect we would show to any flesh and blood visitor.

In modern terms, Fedot’s journey leads him steadily into the deeper layers of psyche.  His dove-woman wife is closer to the human realm than her mother, and her mother is closer  than the frog.  More distant from everyday life than any of them is Shamat Razum, a spirit whose nature and shape we never know, even though Fedot calls him, “brother.”  These are the critical characters of the story – the only two who are named.  Shamat Razum is the “I know not what” of the story’s title.  Through the rest of the tale, Shamat Razum manifests many qualities.  He is prophetic, he is a spirit of wind and air, and above all, he is a trickster.  The myths of many indigenous groups begins with a trickster who is their world creator.  For some Native American tribes, history begins when Coyote dives into the ocean to bring up the soil to make land.  No spirit is more fundamental.

Fedot and Shamat Razum leave the frog with the mother-in-law and journey on toward Fedot’s home.  When the hunter says he’s too tired to walk, his spirit brother picks him up like a strong wind and carries him through the air.  Shamat Razum finally stops at a small island where he lays out a scam to steal some magical implements.

“Three merchant vessels will sail by and stop at the islet,” he says.  “Thou must invite the merchants hither, hospitably entertain them, and exchange me for three wondrous things which the merchants will bring with them. In due time I will return to thee again.”

The two of them pull off their con job, reminding one of Hermes / Mercury, the classical trickster god, who is also the god of thieves.  We’re not in a world of classical heroes – no knights in shining armor.  Fedot’s life depends on letting go of illusions like that.  Shamat Razum has foreseen that the king will meet him with treachery, so he helps Fedot cheat the merchants out of objects that allow him to raise an army and navy.  In the final battle, Fedot’s kills the king and scatters his troops.  The people choose Fedot and his wife, who was hiding in the forest as a dove, to be their king and queen.  Together they rule the land with “wisdom, peace and grace.”


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James Hillman once said, “If we had more stories when we were young, we’d need fewer therapists as adults.”  In his PBS series on myth, Joseph Campbell showed millions of viewers the treasures of wisdom that hide in old tales.  So what do we make of  Go I know not wither?

I think we have to approach interpretation with something like the courtesy with which Fedot meets the spirits.  In stories that are alive for us, we don’t start by asking what things mean.  We don’t ask what hobbits signify, or what part of the psyche orcs represent.  If someone has written a dissertation on Batman and the Riddler, I’m in no hurry to read it.  Older tales, like this one, are far enough removed in time and space that they’re not alive for us in that sense.  I think it makes sense to ask what it means – carefully.  Everyone has a right to their own answers.  Here are some of mine.

I look at this tale from the point of view of transition points in our lives.  When life and excitement drain from what we are doing, what then?  I believe this story suggests we listen to the small creatures of dreams and fantasy.  That we ponder the little impulse, the little whisper, the voice that says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to…?”  It means not giving in right away to our “rational” voices, the ones that say we have no time for such nonsense.

In speaking of “voices” we’re not talking of taking these things literally.  James Hillman insisted that literalism is the enemy of a soul-centered life, and Fedot does not wind up on a street corner, talking to imaginary friends.  According to St. Paul, the ability to “distinguishing between spirits,” is a gift from God ( 1 Cor 12:10), yet one that people like Campbell suggest we can learn to some degree.  Simply exploring and thinking about old stories, or keeping a dream journal, are ways to begin.

It’s a good bet that the answers we find, the paths we are shown, will not be ones we expect.  Shamat Razum, the way-shower, is a trickster, as hard to pin down as the wind.  If the answers to the turning points in life we’re easy to find, stories like this one would not have told for generations.  Carl Jung once said, “We make all the important decisions in life on the basis of insufficient information.”   Hearing the old tales and listening to imaginal voices may be one more way of getting a clue.

I welcome the comments of anyone who has read this far.  What did you make of this story, and what of you make of old tales in general?  Do you have any favorite collections or authors on the subject?  Please take a moment to post them and leave your impressions.

A Childhood Story I Have Never Forgotten: The Death of Balder

Like many children, I read to be scared witless, to be less lonely, to believe in other possibilities.” – Amy Tan

When I was young, I spent hours devouring a ten volume set of stories and poems called, Journeys Through Bookland:  A New and Original Plan for Reading Applied to the World’s Best Literature for Children , 1939.  

The illustrations alone could transport you to other worlds, and the world I most liked to visit was that of the Norse gods.  Interesting choice for a kid, since this was a world that was destined to end badly.  At Rangarok, the last battle, the forces of chaos and darkness would win the day.  No doubt this mythic cycle influenced Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and just like our mortal lives or a fleeting sunset, the certainty of an ending lends these northern stories a haunting beauty.  Within that canon, there is one story that fascinated me more than others and pops into mind whenever I think of the root stories of my life.

The Death of Balder:

Balder, the god of light and summer, was the second son of Odin and Frigg and beloved of mortals and gods alike.  Because he was associated with truth, his mother worried when he was plagued with nightmares of his own death.  Frigg travelled the nine worlds, extracting vows from humans, immortals, plants, and metals not to hurt her son.  Because Balder was popular, every creature agreed – except the mistletoe, which Frigg considered too insignificant to ask. ( Oops!!!!! )

Now Loki was the trickster and the most fascinating and multi-faceted character of the lot.  He wasn’t one of the ruling family of gods, though sometimes humans prayed to him and he helped.  As a sower of chaos, he kept things in motion.  Coyote did the same for Native Americans, but Loki was much darker and proved deadly to Balder.

Loki and Rhinemaidens, by Arthur Rackham, 1910

Balder was asking for trouble the day he stood before the gods and challenged them to throw their spears and weapons at him.  “Gimme your best shot!”  In a color plate in Journey’s Through Bookland, there he was, the curly-haired golden boy, strutting his stuff like a star quarter back.  Ten years later, reading the Illiad in college, I would learn the word, hubris, but even without the vocabulary, I knew he was asking for trouble.  I knew I was supposed to like him, but I honestly thought him a moron.  You wanted to slap Balder – and Loki did worse that that.

Balder’s blind brother, Hodr wanted to join the fun, so Loki, in the shape of Thokk, a giantess, offered to help.  Did I mention Loki was a shapeshifter?  Loki/Thokk handed Hodr a dart made of mistletoe and guided his throw so it pierced Balder’s heart.  Thokk also refused to weep at Balder’s funeral, thus preventing him from returning from Hel.

The gods caught Loki and his punishment was terrible:  he was chained beneath the earth with a serpent above him dripping searing venom on his face and there he will stay until the bones of the earth are shattered at Ragnarok.  Sometimes the pain is so fierce, Loki writhes in agony and the earth shakes.  Without the god of light, the final battle draws near, and Fenris the Wolf, strains against the chains he will break at the start of Ragnarok.

Odin battles Fenris at Ragnarok

So why did the story fascinate me so?  When I was younger and imagined myself to be wiser, I might have tried to concoct some plausible explanation, but now I agree with Heraclitus (as quoted by James Hillman) who observed that one can never plumb the depths of the soul or be certain of its shifting landscapes and cast of characters.  But I am certain that one thing that keeps this story alive for me in imagination is mystery:  all the questions I cannot answer.

  • Why was Balder such a jerk?  Well over the years I sort of got a handle on this with the understanding that mythological gods are do not have well-rounded personalities.  It is a function of the god of summer to die – though most often in annual cycles.
  • Why, in spite of my best efforts, did I secretly identify with Loki even as I feared and loathed him?  I have no clear idea, except now I suspect that is a common reaction.  Somehow it is necessary, and we know it in our bones.
  • Why such a cruel and unusual punishment for Loki?  Isn’t it out of proportion to the crime?  I remember I thought so as a kid.
  • Why did I enjoy a story and illustrations that frightened me out of my wits?  That too, I think, is necessary.  That’s why we like Stephen King and Mary Shelley and why I’m betting Bram Stoker will outlive Twilight.  I believe well meaning people who would clean up fairy tales for children have it all wrong – life itself will sometimes be more scary than any story, and the old tales are like inoculations.
Ultimately, “The Death of Balder” just leaves me wondering – wondering about all kinds of things.  About the kind of people who would tell such a story.  About how they found their courage in a cosmology in which their gods were doomed to go down in defeat in the end.  Wondering if they really believed that or if, like the classical Greeks, they told these as beautiful wisdom tales without thinking they were literally true?

My wondering about a story like this could go on forever, which is probably why it still lives and breathes for me all these decades later.

NEXT:  Two ballads that keep me wondering.