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A Study of the “Trickster” Archetype

February 21, 2012

The Trickster

            From the time I was very young I was enraptured with the archetypal energy of the gods.  It started with superheroes, those otherworldly beings or sometimes ordinary people that showed us the magnificence of the human potential.  It is always fate that puts them in a position where their destiny and god given heightened abilities are inextricably tied to the survival and progress of the entire human race.  As a slightly older youth, I became fascinated with stories of the Greek and Roman gods who reigned on Olympus and were masters of everything in the natural world, including humans.  I’d be fascinated by stories of their great powers, and how they challenged and helped the affairs of the humans they ruled.  I also loved to hear about the mere humans who sometimes successfully and other times unsuccessfully challenged and helped the gods themselves.

As an adult, I am no less interested in mythology.  I know now that my beloved superheroes were just modern day recreations of those ancient stories of the gods.  More importantly, I see now how important these stories are as the manifestations of the conscious and unconscious awareness of every individual and even entire civilizations.  Mythologies give people models by which they can better understand daily life.  But these stories are not given to us, we create them.  We create them from the stories brewing inside of us, from a knowledge hidden within.  In a deep and often unseen way, we know everything about how our world works, including the marvelousness of our potential and the depths of our depravity.  We understand the weather, the animal kingdom, the plant world, and the Earth itself.  Even if we believe we have forgotten these things or never knew them, they’re still there within us.  We all know how the world was meant to be and what it can become.  Through our mythologies, however fantastic and unattainable the stories may seem, we are able to express these inner knowings.

It should come as no surprise then that while reading “Synchronicity: Science, Myth and the Trickster”, by Allan Combs and Mark Holland, I felt especially drawn to the chapter, “Hermes the Trickster”.  While just a few pages into it, I realized that this had to be the topic for my final paper.  What I read was perhaps more strikingly personal to me than any single other bit of information that I have come across during my few quarters here at JFKU.  A bit of personal history is necessary to illustrate my point here.

My favorite superhero as a child was called The Flash.  This was an ordinary man, a scientist, who by being struck by a combination of lightning and chemicals was  given the ability to move faster than the speed of light with absolute molecular control.  He can become almost pure energy as he draws from and is protected by an unlimited supply of energy called the “Speed Force” (think “implicate order“).  And honestly, don’t ask me why I was so attracted to The Flash, I just was (maybe it was the red suit, I love red).

The Flash is obviously patterned after the Roman/Greek god Mercury/Hermes.  Mercury is well known to be the swiftest and most athletic of the gods.  The Encyclopedia Mythica tells us that he is “the messenger of the gods“, the “god of land travel, merchants … and thieves”, the guide to the underworld and other hidden realms, the creator of fire and sacrifice, and of course, the Trickster.  He was also called the most entertaining of the gods and was known for his shrewdness and resourcefulness.  Mercury wears a hat called a petasos or a traveler’s hat.  He has winged shoes called talaria which aid in his speed.  He has a bag of money with him             symbolizing his tie to commerce, good fortune and riches.  In his article, “The Caduceus vs. the Staff of Asclepius”, Dr. Keith Blayney writes that his staff or caduceus was originally a symbol for heralds and commerce, but later became connected to the healing arts and Western medicine when alchemists in their creations of medicines and other transformative endeavors came  to be called “sons of Hermes, as Hermetists

or Hermeticists and as ‘practitioners of the hermetic arts’”, Hermes also being the god of invention and transformation.  Again, it is important to note that all of this information, including each of these god’s symbols are very significant for me personally.

In the last few years I became interested in Yoga.  I had the opportunity to live for a time in some Yogic monasteries, including one in India.  During my time there, I learned that it was customary to take on a spiritual name.  Usually these names were given by one of the senior monks.  But for me there was one name in particular that called to me.  I didn’t know what the name was, what god it went to, or what it meant, but it was a name we chanted everyday during our singing and it stuck in my brain like a catch verse.  Even though it was against protocol, I chose the name for myself.  When asked how I received it, I simply said, “it came to me” or “it chose me”.  Later I learned that the name I chose was one of the names of Krishna, one of the most beloved of the     Hindu deities.  Krishna is a beautiful god, loved by everyone, including his enemies.  He is a supreme lover, an wonderful playmate, the most loyal friend, undefeated in games and the ultimate Trickster.  Stories abound of Krishna’s antics from the time he was young all the way through his adulthood.  There are many stories of Krishna stealing and stealing from cattle as he was born in Vrindivan, a village of herders.  One of the most famous stories of Hermes was of him stealing Apollo’s cattle minutes after he was born.  Krishna, also like Mercury, is also an excellent musician and performer.

How I have been attracted to all of these Trickster archetypes over the years is amazing to me!  When I read this chapter in the Combs and Holland book, I was about bowled over at all of the parallels and appearances of this archetype in my life.  Here’s another example.  A couple of weekends ago, I encountered numerology for the first time.  Through it I found that I have a life path of 5.  5 means transition, change, travel, creativity, fortune, versatility, adventurousness, originality, seeker of knowledge, freedom and independence, ability to communicate and happy-go-lucky, and living in the moment; all qualities that anyone who knows me would say describe me perfectly.

My life today clearly reflects the presence of the Trickster archetype.  Mercury is the god of creativity, adventure, transition and travel.  The Flash is a master of the divinely awakened (lightening) human potential for speed and transition.  Krishna is an entertainer and never stays still for a second, but is always caught up in some adventure or misadventure.  One might rightly say that this is the dominant archetype of my life or even that I am the living embodiment of this archetype.  I am a intense traveler, often living in the places I visit, whereas most would stay a couple of weeks.  I am constantly challenged by impatience and am always looking for things to be faster and more efficient.  I am a born performer and artist.  I am quite happy and playful.  My life has been one massive change after another, such that sometimes I wish things would just stay still for a second so that I may catch my breath (though secretly I know I’d likely be bored if they did).  I am very involved in business and commerce and have had good fortune in these areas.  I am always looking for adventure (I even have those words written into my personal mission statement) and enjoy taking on new challenges.  However, as clearly as I know these things about myself, I did not put all of them together into this archetype until I read this chapter in “Synchronicity”.

And how is the Trickster viewed in the larger context of our discussion of synchronicity?  The Trickster archetype is the force that brings these coincidental events together and then opens them up to our awareness.  The Trickster is always playing, arranging the world to happen according to his desires.  Combs and Holland say, “Play includes a synchronistic taking hold of whatever materials come to hand in order to break the boundaries of our usual perceptions of reality.  In addition, Trickster stories almost universally emphasize his doing exactly what he pleases regardless of the consequences.”  The Trickster requires us to “lighten up”, to take a more relaxed view of life.  This means we also have to take on a playful spirit, which, as I’ve written before, causes us to become more receptive, ready to follow whatever synchronistic signs the Trickster presents.  If we do not keep an open mind and receptive spirit, the Trickster is eagerly waiting for it, because, as Combs and Holland point out, he “enjoys nothing better than making us play the fool”.  Relaxing is not just about physically loosening up, it is about relaxing our boundaries and limiting beliefs.  If we insist on holding tightly to these, it is the role of the Trickster to unveil our rigidity and stubbornness, often in a way that brings a large bruise to our ego.

The challenge of the Trickster is found in our own selves.  The Trickster reveals nothing other than what is.  When we get caught in a cycle of repression, suppression or appearances, he is there to knock us out of our loop.  Synchronicity reminds us that the world is rarely what it seems and just when we are certain about what we know, the Trickster goes to work.  When we get stuck through unconsciousness, ignorance, or pride, the Trickster through his antics, holds up the mirror and shows us our own foolishness.  To continue blindly would mean a lack of freedom, a lack of playfulness, which he will not allow.  This can often be painful because we go to great lengths to perfectly hide our blind spots, but what incredible energy and life this effort steals away.  The Trickster knows that no matter how painful it may be to see a part of ourselves we’ve longed to keep hidden, the pain of unconsciously acting out the repression daily is much worse.  And the Trickster will put your weakness on a platter for all to see and do so with a smile.  To him it is all a game for his amusement.  Krishna once, while all of the milk maidens were bathing, stole all of their clothes and hid them in a tree.  Once they realized what had happened, they begged for their clothes back and he reprimanded them for breaking a vow about bathing nude.  He then made them come out of the water nude to get their clothes.  In the book “The Play of God” author Vanamali further says, “they were forced to abandon their sense of shame”, meaning their ego and limiting beliefs.  After this Krishna, “who had gone there with the express purpose of filling their desires”, saying “[they] cast off the last traces of [their] ego”, allowed the maidens to realize their ultimate goal of divine union with him.  You cannot predict the Trickster and that is his power.  Although seemingly cruel and random at times, he plays the tricks that are in our best interests.  It is up to us to understand his mysterious ways.

The Encyclopedia Mythica also teaches us about Hermes that “it was his duty to guide the souls of the dead down to the underworld, which is known as a psychopomp.  He was also closely connected with bringing dreams to mortals.”  As such, he is given access to all realms of experience.  He is the ultimate boundary crosser, which will be explained in more detail later.  He plays this role as well with travelers, helping them through foreign territory and sometimes guiding foolish ones into the hands of their enemies.  We experience a boundary crossing every night as we go to sleep.  And as we travel off to sleep, we encounter all manners of synchronistic messages, whether we understand them or not.  These messages are the gifts of the Trickster.  It is our job to try to apply their symbolism in our waking lives.  I personally often notice the space right between waking and sleeping as being the residence of the Trickster.  In those moments where I am just about to fall asleep or just waking up, I am frequently hit with amazing insights or creative ideas.  As a dance instructor, much of my choreography has come during these times.  But also, many problems have been solved for me here, and much direction has been given for the larger challenges of my life.  The Trickster is a messenger, but not just to the gods.  He is the guide of travelers and therefore brings us these messages to guide us as we travel in between realms of the conscious and unconscious.  In addition, as we cross in our waking lives into unknown territory, such as when we take a big risk and quit a comfortable job, or take a chance at pursuing a lifelong calling, the Trickster is there to provide us with signs that we are (or are not) moving in the right direction.

In my life I have seen this happen many times, especially recently, but perhaps none more than when I crossed the boundary of my family’s religion.  It took much courage, stupidity and faith to leave what I was raised to believe and often it was very difficult.  But the Trickster was there perfectly in his dual role.  It was the Trickster who initiated my crossing by painfully challenging me with ideas from deep within my psyche that caused me to rethink my belief system.  When that wasn’t enough, the Trickster manifested in a psychosomatic illness that really pressed the limits of my beliefs.  As I finally decided to go in the direction of my intuitions, the heat from my family grew intense.  But the messages I had been given were too strong, and the Trickster stood by my side helping me to see the realities beyond what I had allowed myself to see as true.  Time and again as I doubted my path, synchronicities were there like signposts guiding the way.  And so, here too we must recognize another attribute of Hermes the Trickster.  Mythologist Dr. Maggie McCrary in her excellent article entitled, “Hermes – Transgression of the Boundaries”, relates to us that a herm stone, from which the name Hermes is derived, was actually a boundary marker, a pile of rocks on the side of the road.  These herm stones were originally just immovable signposts for travelers. In those times, myths sprang up about the dangers of crossing the boundaries into unknown territory and so Hermes came into being as the god of not only boundaries, but boundary crossings.  This pile of rocks eventually got imbued with all of the qualities of a god.  Dr. McCrary says, “The boundary is very important in establishing the world. It separates life into sacred and profane, civilized and wild. It establishes an ordered pattern to life. Being able to break through the boundaries is what creates movement and new ideas. The myths of Hermes are filled with his breaking boundaries, transgressing borders and creating new ideas.”  Just like those ancient rocks, synchronicities today are guides for those engaging new psychic territory.

The Trickster is a master of myth and metaphor.  He is the storyteller, causing his listeners to become enraptured by his tales.  Krishna’s followers were always begging him to tell stories and lead them in song.  His listeners would lose track of time in his presence, even losing sight of the others around and believing that he was only speaking to them.  Metaphors and synchronicities have this effect on people.  Although others may benefit from a synchronicity we experience, we feel inside that the message is most especially meant for our own self.  Metaphors, like dream symbols, are guides to reality.  They are not exactly reality, but they are not false either.  They fall into that “no-zone”, like the place between dreams and wakefulness.  This is the magic of metaphor.  This is exactly why myths are so powerful.  No expects them to be real.  If someone seems to be taking them too seriously, one can simply say, “it’s just a story“.  Myths and metaphor are not bound by factual obligations or historical accuracy.  They are fantastic and playful, just as are the Trickster gods who spawn them.  Myths let people who are unready keep their world, while serving as a compass for those seeking to know more. Myths come from an inner experience of reality seen manifest in the outside world, and here we are again at the boundary.  Hermes is the god of imagination and of the imaginal.  And so these myths are the same as our dream symbols, the same as our synchronicities, for in their ambiguity they’re meaningless to those who do not wish to know.  But, at the same time, they are godsends for we who are calling out for answers and determined to unlock their meaning.  Synchronicities, myths, and metaphors are obvious to those for whom they are meant.

Stories from times past we call myths.  Today, I believe our myths are told through our comic books, fantasy tales and movies.  Like ancient myths, people often do not object to these seriously, for after all, they’re just stories.  But again, those ready to know see more in these tales, they see the world that exists right above and below our accustomed range of sight.  True and fantastic stories bring us face to face with the world as it really is, at the same time limited and unlimited.

Although I have written a lot, I don’t think I can accurately convey in words just how powerful this archetype is for me.  There is an old quote that goes, “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything’s a nail.”  This archetype is my hammer.  It is the pattern of energy through which I process all experience, desire and creativity.  The funny thing is, though I always identified with the playful, clever and impish aspect of this god, I never really thought about how he’s the one who’s been there all along to guide me in this material world.  My mind has changed from feeling identified with the Trickster to actually feeling like I’m channeling his energy while simultaneously being guided and protected by him.  Synchronicity and intuitive experience truly has become by modus operandi.  This has been an amazing discovery, because I see now that the Trickster is and always has been my personal experience of God.

Bibliography

Holland and Combs.  Synchronicity: Science, Myth and the Trickster (1996).  Marlowe and Company, New York

 

Vanamali.  The Play of God (1998).  Blue Dove Press, San Diego, CA.

 

Ron Leadbetter.  Hermes.  Encyclopedia Mythica.  Retrieved February 2005 from http://www.pantheon.org/areas/mythology/europe/greek/articles.html

 

Dr. Keith Blayney.  The Caduceus vs. The Staff of Asclepius.  Retrieved February, 2005 from http://www.drblayney.com/Asclepius.html

 

Dr. Maggie McCrary.  Hermes: Transgression of the Boundaries.  Myth and Culture.com.  Retrieved February, 2005 from http://www.mythandculture.com/weblog/2005/01/hermes-transgression-of-boundaries.html

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