Trickster tales have been told around the world since ancient times. Trickster can be easy to recognize, but hard to reconcile. It’s one slippery archetype that has been said to be at the very foundation of civilization and culture. Tricksters have been teaching us through trickery since the beginning. It’s an archetype we need to get familiar with if we want to attain a semblance of balance in the currently duplicitous cultural and political climate in which we find ourselves.
Archetypes have been described as universal prototypes, or fundamental building blocks, of the psyche (Robertson, 1987). The archetype can be thought of as a blueprint that informs and structures individual and collective human experience and behavior. Archetypes, by nature, generate patterns of behavior based on innate—sometimes dormant—instincts. C. G. Jung believed archetypes are part of all of us, via the collective unconscious, the aspect of the unconscious mind shared by all people though all cultures and time periods. In Murray Stein’s (2009) words, “For Jung the archetype is a primary source of psychic symbols, which attract energy, structure it, and lead ultimately to the creation of civilization and culture” (p. 85). Archetypes appear cross-culturally as images, symbols, and motifs found recurrently in myth, religion, and art throughout history. There are numerous examples of archetypes such as The Great Mother, The Wise Old Man, The Orphan, The Hero, and The Trickster, to name a few.
Archetypes are often brought up from the unconscious and experienced as complexes. A complex can be thought of as a fragmented piece of personality arising from the unconscious mind. It can manifest as a dissociative state that is at odds with a person’s conscious attitudes. Complexes display a sense of authority that remains beyond ego control, until we become aware of them and begin consciously working with them (Jung, 1967; Stein, 2009). Jung proposed that at the core of every complex is an archetype, which, by nature, has both positive and negative aspects. Archetype-centered complexes can take over the conscious personality and motivate behaviors that come seemingly out of the blue and can inspire actions that are at odds with conscious intentions (Jung, 1970). On the negative end of the spectrum, these actions can range in severity, from simple over-indulging to rash acts that have devastating consequences, such as the increasing presence of public violence in places that used to be safe, like schools and churches. We can better understand the implication of complexes in these contemporary situations by considering Jung’s perspective, as follows, “An active complex puts us momentarily under a state of duress, of compulsive thinking and acting, for which under certain conditions the only appropriate term would be the judicial concept of diminished responsibility” (Jung, 1970, [CW 8, para. 200]). He elaborates:
A ‘feeling-toned complex’ … is the image of a certain psychic situation which is strongly accentuated emotionally and is, moreover, incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness. … it has a relatively high degree of autonomy, so that it is subject to the control of the mind to only a limited extent, and therefore behaves like an animated foreign body in the sphere of consciousness. (Jung, 1970, [CW 8, para. 201])
One doesn’t have to look far to see a “fit of passion” overtake a person who then lashes out, sometimes taking lives and creating great destruction in their wake. Destruction, as well as creation fall into Trickster’s terrain. Trickster energy sweeps in and delivers hard knocks in an attempt to wake us up as individuals and as a culture. Sometimes it’s all in play, a jest that jolts us into new perspectives, like the brash tongue of a comedian. The Trickster steps in and points things out, asking a culture to look at its own folly (Christen, 1998; Hyde, 1998). Modern day Tricksters like comedians Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Schumer address hot topics in political and social culture with biting wit and humor that shines a light into shadowy areas and brings public attention to culture’s underbelly. Sometimes, the duality that Trickster juggles can split lives and worlds apart in order to transform them (Hyde, 1998).
Take Edward Snowden, for example. A former contractor for the U.S. government, Snowden has been accused of leaking top secret information on questionable spying and data-collecting practices engaged in by the U.S. National Security Agency. The data leak has stirred national ire as well as international tension and has cast Snowden as Villain on one side and Hero on the other (Reporter, n.d.). Here we see a classic Trickster trait of absence of both loyalty and morality. Trickster answers to no external agenda and is focused on its own amoral schemes and desires (Hyde, 1998).
Trickster is alive and well in the current social and cultural landscape. Not only do we see an increase in destructive impulses, such as public violence and “acts of terrorism,” we also see creation in places where conventions are being turned upside down to make way for more creative, inclusive, and progressive ways of living with each other and on this earth. Proposed innovations in science seek to counteract the effects of global warming; a movement to create sustainable farming solutions has brought us things like rooftop and vertical gardens; and recent efforts to bring living architecture into urban areas is literally changing the modern landscape.
However necessary, Trickster, that shifty, crafty archetypal symbol found across times and cultures is a particularly tricky concept to resolve. Archetypes are, by their nature, hard to define and relegate to fixed, static definitions. Trickster is all the more challenging to describe because it is the embodiment of contradictions. The Trickster archetype represents the dualities and polarities that directly confront our desire for clarity, certainty, and stability. Trickster is unpredictable and has a pluralistic, shape-shifting nature that defies rigid structure. It is a liminal, or transitional archetype associated with boundaries, edges, and places of transition (Hyde, 1998). It serves as a balancing agent, an equalizing force that challenges us to grow, oft times employing discomfort to motivate the process along.
Trickster is the character in myths and lore who “stirs the pot,” mixes things up, and brings a bit of chaos to an otherwise placid story. Trickster is often the catalyst that pushes the storyline along by abruptly shifting the direction and because of this, is frequently the cause of distress. Trickster brings the unexpected and introduces the element of doubt into what was once certain. Trickster pokes holes in rigid boundaries and complicates situations with multiple points of view. It is the archetype that pushes us to question norms and move beyond known limits. Trickster is involved any time we find ourselves examining assumptions or stretching ourselves in previously unexplored directions. It is that which stirs on the edges of thought and belief structures and thrusts us forward, as individuals and societies, into new frontiers.
Because Trickster disrupts convention, it is commonly cast in a negative light. It is neither strictly positive nor negative—it is both and yet it is neither one. Trickster is known to embody divine qualities while at the same time engaging in diabolical acts. It’s hard to come to terms with something that is light and dark, good and bad, in and out, up and down, spirit and matter all at once. As humans, we struggle to grasp the possibility that unity can underlie apparent duality. Trickster is an amoral character who isn’t bound to standards and rules and so can contain and balance the paradoxes that often split and divide us humans – making it all the more tricky to define and apprehend.
In alchemy, the Trickster archetype manifests as the multifaceted and elusive symbol of Mercurius. Mercurius masterfully holds the duality of spirit in matter and is often associated with the Lapis— the Self, or unified whole. According to Jung, it is at once related to the Holy Trinity and paradoxically, to the devil. Jung said the following about Mercurius: “His positive aspect relates him not only to the Holy Spirit, but in the form of the lapis, also to Christ, as a triad, even to the Trinity.” He goes on to further illustrate this seemingly impossible contradiction: “In comparison with the purity and unity of the Christ symbol, Mercurius-lapis is ambiguous, dark, paradoxical and thoroughly pagan.”
He summarizes the conundrum nicely by stating, “The paradoxical nature of Mercurius reflects an important aspect of the self—the fact, namely, that it is essentially a complexion oppositorum, and indeed can be nothing else if it is to represent any kind of totality” (Jung, 1967, [CW 13, para. 289]). In this way, the Trickster, in the form of the alchemical Mercurius, can be said to contain the totality of the psyche—both the unconscious and the conscious mind, the known and the unknown, and the light and dark within us all. Further, any symbol of divinity that attempts to encapsulate the entirety of creation must impartially encompass this dual nature or else fail to be complete and whole—which is itself a tricky concept to grasp.
It is not surprising that the spirit of Mercurius has, to say the least, a great many connections with the dark side. One of his aspects is the female serpent-daemon, Lilith or Melusina, who lives in the philosophical tree. At the same time, he not only partakes of the Holy Spirit but, according to alchemy, is actually identical with it. We have no choice but to accept this shocking paradox after all we have learnt about the ambivalence of the spirit archetype. Our ambiguous Mercurius simply confirms the rule. (Jung, 1967, [CW 13, para. 288])
Jung’s description of the perplexing nature of Mercurius shows up in cross-cultural myths and stories of the Trickster archetype. For example, Ananse the spider is a West African Trickster from the country of Ghana. He is a morally ambiguous character who fools humans and gods alike. His tricks are enhanced by his ability to change form and take whatever shape best suits his escapade.
Yet some stories also cast him as divine creator who spun the entire world into being (Christen 1998; Allen & Phillips, 2000). The Greek god, Hermes is another famous example of a Trickster figure. He is a prankster and thief as well as a beneficent creator who brought fire and music, among other things, to the human realm. Hermes is a border dweller that has the power to bridge the upper and lower worlds, and he is not bound to the laws of gods or men. He moves freely between the underworld, the human world, and the world of the gods (similar to the shamanic upper, middle and lower worlds). Because of this, Hermes serves as messenger between the realms — making him an impeccable diplomat (Christen 1998; Allen & Phillips, 2000).
One of my favorite Trickster characters from childhood is Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character who is forever donning disguises to elude his pursuers. He demonstrates the wit, ingenuity, flexibility, and fluidity characteristic of the Trickster.
Bugs, like the Trickster archetype, is a shape shifter that can take any form. Trickster can cleverly show up in any guise and imitate the form of other archetypes, yet we can identify Trickster energy by the very nature of its changeability and its incendiary actions.
It is not hard to imagine that we currently live in a Trickster world where the opposites do divide into extremes in culture such as the unfortunate global reality of severe poverty and extreme wealth. Polarized political views on critical topics like abortion, guns, fossil fuels, the environment, and so forth, affect us in profound ways now and will continue to for generations to come. We are reaching a tipping point and mercurial Tricksters are still on the scene, attempting to show culture its shadow and wake us up to the inevitable changes that are afoot. In mythological terms, the battle between the forces of creation and destruction, as typified by Trickster polarity, are as alive and well in the modern world as they were for our ancestors. Trickster makes its way to the world stage via the psyche of the individual. It is the duality which resides within the individual that rises up and moves from the interior realms of psyche to the outer, collective sphere. It is my belief that we must come to terms with inner conflicts in order to gain more clarity about the outer conflicts we seem, as a culture, to be mired in.
Internally, the Trickster archetype can be experienced as the inward “split” we have all encountered at one time or another. It is present in those times, situations, and relationships that give us “mixed feelings” in which we simultaneously experience love and hate, attraction and repulsion, joy and sorrow. It can also show up psychologically as doubt, which can be extremely uncomfortable yet growth-promoting at the same time. Doubt is a precursor to change and Trickster is all about change. James Hollis (1996) addresses doubt’s role in transformation in his book, Swamplands of the Soul:
Given the fact that the top priority of the ego is security, doubt is an unwelcome visitor to us…Doubt is the necessary fuel for change, and therefore growth. There is no scientific or theological dogma which does not contain within it the seeds of reification and tyranny. Similarly, the psyche summons us, quite apart from the desires of the ego, to relinquish what seemed clear, what protected us, and thereby what now mires us in yesterday. The problem then is not doubt; the problem is fear of change. Confronting the risk of doubt is necessary for any group or individual to grow. (p. 56)
Certainty is the enemy of growth. Trickster, in the form of doubt, breaks us out of old categories in order to free our energy to flow into a new form. As an agent of change, Trickster triggers our fear of change and is an uneasy yet essential companion on the path of growth. Some would say we live in a time of fear. Certainly, we live in a time of rapid change that links this era with the Trickster.
Trickster has been associated, by Jung and others, with the unconscious mind. Like the unconscious, the Trickster is unpredictable and beyond the conscious control of ego. From my research, and personal experiences with Trickster I would say that it is on the boundary, if there can be said to be one, between the conscious and the unconscious. The Trickster moves between the conscious and unconscious realms and can perhaps be viewed as a third condition – similar to the transcendent function in alchemy which unites the opposites and holds them in balance.
Trickster is a liminal archetype that lurks on the edges of transitional processes like initiation. In his book, Thresholds of Initiation, Joseph Henderson (1967) describes the state of the “uninitiated ego” as existing in an archetypal Trickster cycle, a transitory state between youth and maturity. According to Henderson, identification with the puer aeternus, an ego complex marked by stunted development and an adolescent fixation on the idea of eternal youth, often manifests as the Trickster archetype. It is the adult (or a culture) who has somehow failed to “grow up”—an immature yet tremendously powerful individual.
He may be what the French laughingly call the village rooster, but on another level he becomes the embodiment of a universal trickster because of his extraordinary talent for causing trouble and disrupting the social order in which he lives.Ordinarily, one does not see the worst specimens of tricksterism in psychotherapeutic practice because they do not suffer from their own evil; they merely provide the evil from which others suffer and accordingly comprise part of the sickness from which society suffers. (Henderson, 1967, p. 32)
The Greek god Dionysus, along with being the god of music and of wine, is known to embody Trickster energy and has long been associated with ancient initiatory rites. As a Trickster figure, Dionysus is likened to instinctual forces in the psyche that lie outside the bounds of all things civilized (Kerenyi, 1976). Dionysian forces seek to break conventions and take us into wild, untamed places. Dionysian initiation is aimed at integrating the primal, instinctual forces into conscious personality where they can be balanced with our more civilized tendencies (Fierz-David, 1980).
In contemporary society, dogmatic religious and moral structures discourage and inhibit individualized expression of the human soul. There is a push-pull dynamic between doing what the ego and persona deem to be acceptable and following instinctual impulses that well up from the individual and collective unconscious. It is a natural reaction to turn towards the instinctual depths when confronted with the rigid dogmatization of culture and religion. However, instead of approaching the deeper instincts with a conscious, serious attitude, as was held in the past, the modern plunge into the instinctual depths is often comparable to a self-serving orgy which can be wildly destructive (Fierz-David, 1980).
This is the notorious plunge into the realms of uninhibited sex, indulgence in mind-altering drugs, and ecstatic states brought on by hypnotic music, as was glorified in 1960s counter-culture and has been carried through into contemporary expressions such as raves and festivals. Entering into states of ecstatic self-abandon are often associated with the Trickster side of Dionysus as god of wine, music, and ecstasy. Instead of enhancing life, an unconscious dance with instinctual nature dissipates the deep psychic life force represented by the Trickster.
As a culture in need of soul-enhancing initiatory experiences, we seem to be floundering. Caught in the tension of opposites, we need Tricksters to move us beyond the stalemate of irreconcilable duality. We need to transcend divisions that prevent us from moving forward with finding and enacting sustainable solutions that address the myriad global problems we face. We need to restore balance and wholeness. As individuals, this means consciously engaging in the process of individuation. Individuation is the development of wholeness over a lifetime and leads to the emergence of the Self. Jung described the Self as the totality of the psyche which unites the opposites and holds everything together in balance and unity. He frequently associated the Self with the archetype of God, as an image of totality and undivided wholeness (Stein, 1998). The Self, just as many god figures, is represented as an ambiguous and powerful archetype capable of both creation and destruction—much like Trickster. Wholeness, it would seem, is largely about coming to terms with inner and outer Trickster figures in order to glean the change-inducing, life-enhancing wisdom they hold.
When the lens is focused on Trickster energy, it is easy to see its movements and implications all around. Everywhere there are references to the patterns the Trickster archetype portrays. With devastating acts of destruction and exciting displays of creativity, Trickster attempts to wake us up and in the process, it shake us to the core. Perhaps this is because it embodies fundamental patterns that we fiercely struggle with and desperately need to reconcile within ourselves and our world. Through negotiating and disrupting conventions and boundaries, Trickster broadens the realm of human potential. While Trickster may bring us difficult lessons, it is also the force that allows us to imagine and create entirely new possibilities.
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Tina Azaria is a healing and expressive arts practitioner and educator. She holds a B.A. in Fine Art and an M.A. in Depth Psychology. She is the author of Sprung, Poetry of Emergence, and is the founder of Alembic Arts, a depth- oriented practice offering private sessions, classes and workshops. Her work focuses on psychological initiation and rites of passage and is informed by her work with indigenous healers from around the globe. Learn more at AlembicArts.com