Trickster Times

What I love about working with myth is that it always offers insights, not just into the patterns of our individual lives, but into the larger patterns which underlie the times we’re living in. We are mythic animals, and so in some sense we’re always living in mythic times – but sometimes those underlying patterns really start to stand out and become impossible to ignore. Right now, we’re living in Trickster Times. Because when civilisations start to become moribund; when social, economic and political systems stagnate, and empires become degenerate and unresponsive to the needs of the people, in walks Trickster to shake it all up. Trickster is the catalyst, the disruptor who sparks off the tearing down of the old order. In the story we’re living through today, Trickster is the one who undermines the élitist establishment which refuses to be held accountable to the people it’s supposed to serve. Lewis Hyde, in his wonderful book Trickster Makes the World, argued that Trickster is the archetypal disruptive intelligence which all cultures need if they are to remain lively, flexible, and open to change. But that change is always an alarming process, and one in which there are no guarantees: what follows might not be better.

What follows depends on many things – among them, the specific qualities of the Trickster who happens along in the story you’re living through right now. Because here’s the problem: you don’t always get the Trickster you think you want. (Though mostly, you get the Trickster you deserve.) It gets even more complicated when more than one Trickster shows up. Let’s take as an example this week’s ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK. You’d maybe think the Trickster character in this particular story was Boris Johnson. Boris as Coyote: bumbling, often foolish, usually harmless, and above all a prankster. It’s hard not to love Coyote Tricksters, even when they’re driving you mad. But Trickster isn’t always a clown, there in the story to make us laugh; and neither is he always the clever one, like Brer Rabbit in the African-American tradition, outwitting his oppressors. There are Tricksters who are noble, and those who are ignoble. Think of Loki, the amoral, often malevolent Trickster of Norse mythology, who wants nothing less than Ragnarök, the downfall of the gods and the end of the world as we know it. Think then of Nigel Farrage, all hail-fellow-well-met joviality, a message of hate lurking behind the painted-on benign grin and the promise of victory for ‘ordinary, decent people’.

LokiMostly, we get the Trickster we deserve; this time, we got two of them for the price of one.

I believe that the Trickster we get is often, in Jungian terms, a reflection of the cultural Shadow. ‘The shadow is anything we are sure we are not; it is part of us we do not know, sometimes do not want to know, most times do not want to know. We can hardly bear to look.’ So writes Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, in a collection of her reflections called Coming Home to Myself. But look at what she goes on to say next: ‘Look. It may carry the best of the life we have not lived.’ The Shadow doesn’t just represent the dark side of our unconscious, all that we do not want to face: it represents opportunity as well. Facing and integrating the Shadow is a necessary part of what Jung called individuation: the lifelong process of psychological integration, as the individual strives to become whole.

As for the person, so for the culture. Identify the contemporary Trickster(s), and you’ll discover the nature of the contemporary cultural Shadow. It’s anger, hate, alienation, xenophobia, a retreat into insularity, a buttressing of the barricades. We all see it, and we all fear it. The state of affairs faced now by the people of the UK (and also in the USA, with the emergence of Trickster Trump) is a consequence of generations of politicians refusing to listen to and respond to the concerns of the people they’re supposed to represent. What isn’t acknowledged goes underground, becomes Shadow. But here’s the thing about the Shadow, and it’s critical to understand this if you want what follows to be better than what came before: it’s no good berating the Shadow, shouting it down, calling it names, telling it it’s bad. The cultural Shadow is part of who we are, and we all have to take responsibility for it. You can’t do moral high ground with the Shadow. The Shadow is ourselves. Refuse the Shadow, and you’ll never be whole. The beginning of the long, hard work of integrating the Shadow is listening to it, not abusing it. Lash out at the Shadow, as waves of so-called ‘progressives’ are now doing throughout the UK; refuse its right to have a voice – and it will turn round and bite you in the throat. You can’t kill the Shadow. The Shadow is you.

We might not have chosen these particular Tricksters, but now we have them. What follows from their particular brand of disruption might not be better than what came before – but it might be. It’s all down to us. It’s all down to the way we respond to and integrate that cultural Shadow.

13 thoughts on “Trickster Times

  1. Fascinating application of the Trickster archetype to what’s happening in our world now. As an American, I guess I have to own Trickster Trump as distasteful as that is. It’s so difficult to listen to the man speak much less try to sift the nuggets of truth from the rest of his bombast and crap! Living with Trickster isn’t easy, is it?

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    1. Unfortunately that’s the whole point of Trickster but no, it for sure isn’t! The good news is that you get to own and shape what happens during/after the disruption without having to love Trickster himself 🙂

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    1. Aren’t they the best truths of all, though? The ones that punch you in the gut and remind you that there’s still so much in the world left to be considered and revealed 🙂 I love it when I’m challenged like that, but I guess some would consider that weird. Thanks for reading and assimilating.

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  2. Thank you, Sharon. This piece spoke to me, since I am coming from the point of view that agrees that Boris and Nigel embody my Shadow. I’ve only just come to our blog, so haven’t looked extensively to see whether you’ve also explored or shed light on what this means for those people – and I have met some- who speak from the position which for me is the shadow. People who write ‘Foreigners go home’ on walls, or say, ‘Well, I know I shouldn’t say this, but you’ll find it’s the Jews who are behind this.’ Are they in their own shadow? Or is their, and our, task, to find the wellspring of light which they seem not to be able to see? I’mm afraid this may cme over as arrogant or disrespectful, as though I were making the assumption that what I believe is right, but this is a genuine quest for real understanding.

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    1. Alison, this is a hard one! My answer goes slightly beyond the specific subject of my post and probably your question too, but let me try it out. It is that there are too many subjects in the polite Western world which have become taboo. It goes beyond political correctness. In the UK right now I am told that you cannot express ANY concern about immigration without being called a racist, or ‘unprogressive’, or a fascist, or ignorant … I have spoken to people who mourn the fact, for example, that you cannot say that you treasure your culture, and your ancestry, and your history, and that you are nervous perhaps about the future prospect of living in a country which is dominated by different cultures which disrespect women and practice forced marriage and female genital mutilation … You can’t say any of these things without being excoriated, and publically. (The right-wing extremists have no monopoly on hate speech.) There are no grey areas, there is only black and white. For all and any immigration, or fascist-racist-bigot. You cannot say that while the refugees are welcomed and given housing and schooling, you cannot afford a decent place to live and you can’t get a doctor’s appointment and that you don’t believe that is fair, in the country of your birth which you are still in and are deeply attached to. For many people, it isn’t that they wish all the refugees would die; it’s simply that they cannot understand why their country doesn’t care for them while it cares for others, and that makes them angry. But you can’t say it, and successive governments haven’t listened to the people who have. So on top of the naturally unpleasant racist-fascists which exist in every society, you have a whole bunch of genuinely disenfranchised people who normally wouldn’t be seen as anywhere close to that category. But now, when they start to talk about it, they are shouted down by a bunch of nice middle-class educated types who declare them to be ignorant working-class louts who ought not to have the right to vote (yes, I have seen that on my Facebook page) and bigoted halfway to hell and back.

      That is why I think we have to look at the cultural Shadow. The Shadow becomes the Shadow because someone, somewhere, is not allowing it to be seen. Someone is keeping it in the dark. To integrate the Shadow we have to stop this nonsense and let people tell their truths. Just because it isn’t your truth doesn’t mean that it isn’t theirs and that it isn’t valid. Just because people voted differently from you doesn’t mean you’re clever and they’re stupid. The ‘progressive’ types unfortunately are so often these days just as arrogant and bull-headed as the extremists. (And I have always considered myself among them, the progressive types that is, until this last few days where I am embarrassed by the label and now refuse that association.) So my very personal perspective is that we stop excoriating the people who voted ‘leave’ and encourage the people who will not allow them a voice to look at themselves very carefully. Because they too are among those who are making the Shadow grow.

      Sorry, I ended up on a roll there! I hope that makes some sense.

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      1. But what a tasty roll it is, I so appreciate hearing many of my own thoughts expressed differently! The conversation is being narrowed by the day, but what manages to penetrate is so much of what you bring up here, how old this pattern is, how much there is to be gained from study and introspection on the ancient symbols, myths and archetypes. Trump, I mean, it’s so comical the linguistic cue alone! How can we not laugh? And what are we learning? I think we are learning how far we really are from having a universal model of effective communication while we are being forced to deal with this lack, a sort of “shock and awe” of consciousness, applied quite effectively through folks like me, and you, the educators and journalists and so many others who have not been asking the right questions for a long time. The “progressives” deal their moral high ground in insults, not effective arguments, there are few rational conversations happening anywhere. Trump, thank heavens, paints this truth in neon. Still, he’s a nitwit like all the others.

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  3. It makes perfect sense – I have been becoming more aware of this over the last couple of years, and the rise of campus censorship is another manifestation. It seems as though anyone who doesn’t share those right-on views is an enemy from which students have an absolute right to be protected. It’s as though ha concerted effort being made to keep people in a safe, unadventurous cocoon. Added to this, there’s often a touch of Pharisaical ‘Thank God I am not as other men’ about some ‘progressive’ commentary, and a sense that Guardian readers (of which I am one!) feel it their duty to ‘help’ the working-class people they champion to see things clearly, as they do – just as the British, as representatives of a colonial power was happy to give native rulers limited autonomy as long as they stayed in line with the terms under which they exercised it, terms set by Britain, and that charities which started out as Christian missionary activities, whether in the UK or overseas, are often predicated on the assumption that their beneficiaries don’t have the capacity to make their own choices, and to choose their own solutions even where they don’t conform to generally accepted norms, as you said yourself. Cambridge graduates fighting in the Spanish Civil War are perceived as having been heroes; Muslim guerilla fighters are terrorists.

    Again I’m so grateful to you for articulating these realisations so helpfully. I do see signs that this Shadow is now being perceived more clearly, and I do hope that the current turmoil may be the confusion from which greater understanding will arise … but there will surely be more merry tricks to come!

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  4. The Trickster also represents wisdom and innovation and the presenting position or individual is rarely what they seem to be.

    We live in a time, which can be explained astrologically, which is no doubt needed as we explore myriad options of mindset, belief and life. It is a time where at least in the Western world, and even more so in the less developed world, people have a greater capacity to act as individuals. It is in that fluid mix of less social cohesion and censorship, that we confront the very mixed palette of human nature.

    Instinctively, most people fear the process of change, no matter how much they desire change in general and when fear enters the equation, emotions rise, reason diminishes, and the ‘pot’ brews even faster.

    Finding meaning in a changing and changeable world is a gift from the Trickster.

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  5. Great post – you’ve just gained a new blog follower!

    We’ve become quite polarized – the ‘us versus them’ mentality seems to be prevalent everywhere one looks. I think this is one of the great values of the Trickster: when everyone else can only see black or white, the Trickster likes to live in the gray areas (here, I also can’t help but think of the Heyoka, among the Lakota). Also, while on the topic, I think a lot of people forget that ‘light’ can blind just as surely as ‘dark.’ Thus I have no problems understanding the notion that the Shadow is not necessarily darkness, it’s just that which we cannot (or will not) see.

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