Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#125. No Chaos, No Creativity: Trickster Makes the World

ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts: 

Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.

If you have questions and think I might help, you're welcome to send me a note: sam@macspeno.com

Post #125 is a letter I sent to an old friend about the Trickster archetype as this powerful image is described in the book, "Trickster Makes This World," by Lewis Hyde (Ferrar, S&G. 1998).


Dear M,

The author of Trickster Makes This World is a MacArthur Foundation fellow, teaches at Kenyon College and has been director of the creative writing department at Harvard.

The book is so well written! I’d love to be able to write as clearly and smoothly as he does. It’s a delight to read even when he’s dealing with great complexities. There is no way I can do justice to this book.

It’s a study of the Trickster as he appears globally-- Africa, India, Native America, classical Greece, Europe-- illustrated with modern and contemporary people who exhibit various trickster qualities, such as Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and former slave Frederick Douglas.

This is about as far as one can get from a dualistic concern with virgin saints and Angelic Doctors. Trickster’s focus is bodily needs.

The earliest known Greek word for "trick," dolos, means “to bait a hook.”

And catching fish, or more generally obtaining food, especially by deception, is what the Trickster is all about. At least initially.

The author wonders how a country like the USA or a religion like Roman Catholicism can exist without a central trickster figure. He quotes an African proverb: “He who does not put Eshu first in all his doings has himself to blame when things go wrong.”

How does trickster make the world? Somehow, chaos is creative. No chaos, no creativity. Nothing new appears in human society or our personal lives until the Trickster stirs things up.

In essence, it seems he brings opposites together. The trick is that he holds things together while allowing them to remain separate. The things he joins together somehow maintain their distinctiveness, and the world is made new.

As I said, there’s no way I can do justice to this book. I can only point to its implications for everything from the perennial philosophical problem of the one and the many, for example, to the classic doctrine of the Trinity.

And certainly to contemporary relationships between men and women.


I found treasures here. Things like a wonderful distinction between creation and revelation, the profound meaning of votive offerings, and an understanding of shame as an inhibition against doing inappropriate things, which goes along with [is similar but opposite to] feelings of reverence and awe when entering a holy place.

One of the most fascinating things was the author’s interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes.

The hymn begins with the story of baby Hermes stealing Apollo’s cattle, a story which never previously made much sense to me. The author points out that the cattle are in a kind of heavenly state, not real cows that eat and reproduce as they do on earth, and that what Hermes is doing is bringing them down to earth, making them real. [Today we would also say embodying them, incarnating them, actualizing them, real-izing them.]

It’s something like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.

And it is exactly like what I’ve seen in the rock art pictures on the walls of Whoopup Canyon in Wyoming when I was helping with research there a while back. Some of those panels show the game animals being guarded by their Keeper, and it is the shaman's job, by hook or by crook, to entice them down to earth so that the hunters can provide food for the people.

The Keeper of the Game is one of the oldest known religious images. And here, in classical Greece, thousand years later, Hermes the shamanic trickster is still at it. Still making the world.

I keep thinking of what Joseph Campbell said about the hero. That he’s standing right now at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, waiting for the light to change. I think the Trickster’s there, too. But he’s looking around for an opening to stir up trouble and make the world. -Sam


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