The Psychology of The Trickster

There is perhaps no figure in literature more fascinating than the trickster, appearing in various forms in the folklore of many cultures. He is different from the figure of the fool, who is harmless but also naïve, and many times ends up harming himself. The fool walks joyfully dreaming about all his adventures, unaware that if he takes just one more step, he would fall down a cliff.

Trickster is witty and deceitful. He is the timeless root of all the picaresque creations of world literature, and is not reducible to one single literary entity. Trickster tales have existed since ancient times, and has been said to be at the very foundation of civilisation and culture. They belong to the oldest expressions of mankind.

What is The Trickster?

Tricksters are the breakers of rules, agents of mischief, masters of deceit, and boundary crossers.

“[T]he best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found – sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

Tricksters are always “on the road”, they are the lords of in-between. While we endeavour to trace the trickster to his origin, he continues to play his tricks on us, always evasive, always crossing our conceptual boundaries of definition in which we try to confine him. Perhaps here is a first lesson to be learned from the trickster: whatever we do, he is always one step ahead of us.

The victims of people such as con men and snake oil salesmen, are those who are unconscious of trickster – they have been tricked by their own naivety, greed or self-deception. We have to be a little tricky, to guard against being tricked.

There can also be people who really believe that they are helping others, but are in fact tricking them. In this case, both perpetrator and victim are unconscious of trickster. Trickster is disruptive only when it operates unconsciously in our lives as an autonomous entity.

Another way the trickster can appear is as one who is not deceiving but telling you the truth, but we likely won’t believe him.

In medieval times, the jester was known to speak the truth without losing his head. He was the only person who received permission from the king to be allowed to tell it like it is, and was an important figure in the royal courts. To make his special privileges known, he wore a cap ‘n’ bells and a fool’s sceptre, mirroring the king’s crown and sceptre.

Primitive Form of The Trickster

Trickster is present in us as soon as we gain awareness of our ego in our childhood. It is the most primitive progression to the hero myth, but a necessary step towards becoming mature and whole.

“The Trickster cycle corresponds to the earliest and least developed period of life. Trickster is a figure whose physical appetites dominate his behaviour; he has the mentality of an infant. Lacking any purpose beyond the gratification of his primary needs, he is cruel, cynical, and unfeeling… This figure, which at the outset assumes the form of an animal, passes from one mischievous exploit to another. But, as he does so, a change comes over him. At the end of his rogue’s progress he is beginning to take on the physical likeness of a grown man.”

Man and His Symbols Part II, Ancient Myths and Modern Man – Joseph L. Henderson

Trickster rises against the restrictions and authorities. Just like the id, the unconscious instinctual component that is present at birth, the source of instant gratification, of bodily needs and wants, emotional impulses, and drives – that is in constant conflict with the superego, the internalisation of cultural rules, which helps us act in socially acceptable ways. Tricksters usually have an enormous libido, and often present scatological themes.

Trickster and Laughter

An early and innocent form of trickster is parents playing peekaboo with their children to make them laugh.

Trickster comes to us when we are too serious, rigid, when we follow rules and schedules, and when we lack a sense of humour. He causes us to forget what we intended to remember, say things we later regret, or appear in the form of a Freudian slip, and cause laughter.

Perhaps no philosopher has written about the importance of laughter as eloquently as Nietzsche. He writes:

“I would really allow myself to order the ranks of philosophers according to the rank of their laughter – right up to those who are capable of golden laughter. And assuming that the gods also practise philosophy… I don’t doubt that in the process they know how to laugh in a superhuman and new way – and at the expense of all serious things! Gods delight in making fun: even where sacred actions are concerned, it seems they cannot stop laughing.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §294

Laughter mediates between the sacred and the profane, where trickster resides. Laughter represents an attitude toward life and toward oneself, especially, laughing at oneself. To laugh is deep inner work, it breaks through our persona, and opens us up to a profound message.

Trickster pinches us and tells us that life is a play. We are the actors on a vast stage following a predetermined script. However, he also tells us that we don’t necessarily have to follow the script, that we can make our own, improvise and not be afraid of making mistakes, but rather laugh at them. We have the freedom and responsibility to do so. This is a core aspect of existentialist philosophy which teaches us to become authentic and discover who we truly are.

We can deceive others or be deceived, but we can never deceive ourselves. Trickster forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror, and to the persona that we are putting on to impress others, to the detriment of our instinctual needs, our creativity and playfulness that is so vital to give us the energy that we need in our daily life.

Trickster as Agent of Change

Trickster is against any authority, as he wants to do what’s best for him, and he is never going to put someone else before himself. He pokes holes in rigid boundaries and calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organised, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends). It is the figure that pushes us to question those in power, and the limitations, and rules that are imposed on us.

His energy sweeps in and delivers hard knocks in an attempt to wake us up as individuals and as a culture. He steps in and points things out, asking a culture to look at its own folly, addressing hot topics with wit and humour, shining a light into shadowy areas and bring public attention to the underbelly of society.

Comedians help deliver the trickster’s message, which can often be at the cost of their own mental stability. Comedians are important figures and help society as a whole. When comedy is supressed, there are severe consequences – since the trickster will remain unconscious. However, the trickster will find a way out, and if one ignores him, he will appear in the form of a neurosis.

Doubt is a precursor to change and trickster is all about change. The problem then is not doubt; the problem is fear of change. Confronting the risk of doubt is necessary for any individual to grow. As an agent of change, Trickster triggers our fear of change and is an uneasy yet essential companion on the path of growth.

“[T]he origins, liveliness, and durability of culture require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

Trickster as Creator and Destroyer

The totality of life consists of order and chaos, and the spirit of this disorder is the trickster. He is the Dionysian god of wine and music that connects us to instinctual forces that lie outside the bounds of all things civilised, and who seeks to break conventions and take us into wild, untamed places. Nietzsche, who called himself the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus, wrote:

“I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Without chaos, society loses its culture, the system becomes flawed, stale and bureaucratic. Therefore, trickster not only destroys old values, but also creates new values. He reshapes the surrounding world with inner magic, continually weaving old into new.

“[I]n spite of all their disruptive behaviour, tricksters are regularly honoured as the creators of culture. 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.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

Apart from creation, trickster teaches us that we all have the capacity for destruction.

“Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes and who is always duped himself.”

Paul Radin, The Trickster

The person who appears to be too kind, or pure on the outside, and is supressing his true emotions, may suddenly become self-destructive or engage in sinful behaviours. Intuitively, we may feel that there’s something “off” about such a person, and that he is putting on a persona. It is as if trickster is compelling him and insisting that he do the very thing that consciousness prohibits, and also tricking him into revealing that about himself.

One shouldn’t try to live at the extreme end, but rather achieve a balance and make peace with one’s dark aspects. The psyche compensates to achieve equilibrium and wholeness.

Trickster as Amoral

Because trickster disrupts convention, he is commonly cast in a negative light. However, this is wrong, since he knows neither good nor evil, yet he is responsible for both. He has both a light side, and a dark side. Though, he always presents an element of playfulness, that is what defines trickster.

Trickster possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. His creative cleverness amazes us and keeps alive the possibility of transcending the social restrictions we regularly encounter.

Unlike the devil, who is an agent of evil, trickster is amoral, not immoral. Morality is a structure of society and ego-consciousness, the unconscious does not play by our rules. Trickster epitomises the paradox of the human condition. He occupies the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both.

As humans, we struggle to understand paradox, contradiction, and to grasp the possibility that unity can underlie apparent duality.

Trickster Figures

Trickster is often identified with specific animals, taking the form of a fox, raven, monkey, coyote, hare, or spider, among others. He possess no well-defined and fixed form. As a shapeshifter, he is just like liquid, escapable. Trickster can cleverly show up in any guise and imitate the form of other animals, yet we can identify trickster energy by the very nature of its changeability and its incendiary actions. Whatever form he takes, he is a primordial being of the same order as the gods and heroes of mythology.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a trickster who stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind, to the displeasure of the gods, for mankind was not ready to use this principle in a creative, unselfish manner. However, this is precisely what made us human in the first place, as fire was essential for the evolution of man. Here we find a paradox, that which is necessary for the progress of the human species, is also capable of destroying us. One may think here of artificial intelligence or the singularity.

When trickster is punished, he is replaced by stupidity. Prometheus is punished by the gods and is replaced by his brother Epimetheus. Prometheus is the forethinker, who thinks before he acts, while Epimetheus is the afterthinker, who acts before he thinks. One might almost say that in them a single primitive being, sly and stupid at once, has been split into a duality.

Another trickster figure is Br’er Rabbit, a character from African American folktales who is portrayed as an underdog and is weaker than his opponents, thus gaining the audience’s sympathy. In the stories, he gets himself into trouble through his own mischievous nature, and then must use his cleverness and ability to deceive and outsmart larger and stronger animals, take control of the situation and get himself out of trouble.

Anansi the spider is an African trickster. 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 also cast him as divine creator who spun the entire world into being, bringing stories and wisdom to the world.

Similarly, in Native American culture, Iktomi is a spider-trickster spirit. He was once Wisdom, but was stripped of the title because of his troublemaking ways. His malicious plans often failed, so these tales were usually told as a way to teach lessons to the youth. He gives the dreamcatcher to people for protection. Folk tales unveil how he is respected, feared, and mocked. He can use strings to control humans like puppets, and has the power to make potions that change gods. According to a prophecy, his web would spread over the land. This can be interpreted as the telephone network, and then the Internet – the world-wide web. Iktomi has been considered from time immemorial to be the patron of new technology.

The myth is a way for the psyche to talk about itself. Many of the Native American people consider Iktomi to be the god of the Europeans, who (they claim) seem to readily follow his bizarre behaviour and self-entrapping tricks.

Coyote is another important trickster figure in Native American folklore. The European equivalent is Reynard the Fox.

One of the most popular figures in Norse mythology is Loki, the trickster God. By trickery, and mischief, he causes the death of Baldur, the most beloved of all the gods. Loki is soon found to be guilty and is punished, and the gods knew that this event was the foreshadowing of Ragnarök, the downfall and death of the gods, and of the very cosmos they maintained. In other words, if one ties down the trickster, that will destroy the world.

The Greek deity Hermes is a troublemaker and thief, as well as a beneficent creator who brought fire and music, among other things, to the human realm. His divine status, however, is unclear at his birth. He is born as an outsider, but wants to be an insider. Through his early exploits as a trickster, such as stealing Apollo’s cattle, he wins the admiration of Zeus and an uncontested place on Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. Hermes is a divine trickster, psychopomp, and messenger of the gods, negotiating the boundary between man, and god, matter and spirit. He is the only God who can traverse all three realms: Mount Olympus, earth, and the underworld. And perhaps even, as mediator between the dream world and waking life.

Hermes is a third way of life, besides the Apollonian rational and the Dionysian irrational. He is the God of jokes and journeys, the tricky guide of souls.

When enemies invaded his city, Hermes dressed as a simple shepherd and carried a ram around the city, and wherever he walked he created safety. He showed people that he was their ally in any battle they might encounter, and protector in any danger. This reminds one of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep back to the flock. The trickster god also has a protective energy.

Many tribes wear masks and abandon their personality, becoming possessed by the spirit of the trickster. Rituals are an important element of trickster. If the ritual setting is missing, trickster is missing. The behaviour of the tribes become eccentric, comic, and rude. However, the sacredness connects these traits with fertility, wellness, and joy. In the ambiguous character of the trickster, we can observe the close connection between the realms of the sacred and the profane.

Trickster strikes a deeper human chord. He performs a fundamental cultural work, and in understanding the trickster better, we understand ourselves better, in the unconscious aspects of ourselves that respond to the trickster’s unsettling and transformative behaviour. When we describe trickster phenomena we are always describing aspects of ourselves. He is a speculum mentis, a mirror into the mind – common to all mankind, which at a certain period in our history, gave us a picture of the world and of ourselves. The problem is primarily a psychological one, an attempt by man to solve his problems inward and outward.

The Psychology of The Trickster

Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung calls the figure of the trickster an archetype. It is part of the collective unconscious, the inherited and universal structure present in everyone, which is deeper than the layer of the personal unconscious, that is formed by the experience gathered through life. Archetypes are primordial patterns or imprints of the experience of our ancestors, the primary source of psychic symbols, which attract energy and structure it, and lead ultimately to the creation of civilisation and culture. Trickster is everywhere, he is an eternal state of mind.

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 Wise Old Man, The Great Mother, The Hero, and The Trickster, to name a few. Trickster is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. Jung stated that there are as many archetypes, as typical situations there are in life. We cannot observe them directly, but they have a great impact on our personal activities, and way of thinking. It is the deep and dark place where impulses and instincts emerge. Archetypes are organs of the soul, the tissue of the structure of the unconscious. They are living personalities within us, autonomous, and numinous. If they get enough energy, archetypes can have control over a person.

The unconscious is older than consciousness. It is primordial, from which consciousness arises. Thus, our conscious life “dresses” and guides our actions, but it is impossible for something to appear in consciousness without having roots in the unconscious.

The mythological features of the trickster extend even to the highest regions of man’s spiritual development. In the early Middle ages, strange customs were taking place. Jung writes:

“In the very midst of divine service masquerades with grotesque faces, disguised as women, lions, and mummers, performed their dances, sang indecent songs in the choir, ate their greasy food from a corner of the altar near the priest celebrating mass, got out their games of dice, burned a stinking incense made of old shoe leather, and ran and hopped about all over the church.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

These pagan rituals were uncommonly popular and it required considerable time and effort to free the church from them. The phantom of the trickster, however, continues to haunt the mythology of all ages. Jung writes:

“He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

The trickster myth reflects an earlier, rudimentary stage of consciousness – a collective personification that is the product of an aggregate of individuals, and is welcomed by each individual as something known to him, which would not be the case if it were just an individual outgrowth. If the myth were nothing but a historical remnant, one would have to ask why it has not long since vanished into the great rubbish-heap of the past, and why it continues to make its influence felt on the highest levels of civilisation.

The trickster points back to a primitive stage of consciousness which existed before the birth of the myth. Only when our consciousness reached a higher level could we detach the earlier state of ourselves and say anything about it.

“He [the trickster] is a forerunner of the saviour, and, like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness… He is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, and his two hands fight each other.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

The trickster is a primitive “cosmic” being of divine-animal nature, on the hand superior to man because of his superhuman qualities, and on the other hand inferior to him because of his unconsciousness.

The myth of the trickster, like many other myths, is supposed to have a therapeutic effect. It holds the earlier low intellectual and moral level before the eyes of the more highly developed individual, so that he shall not forget how things looked yesterday.

Trickster and Shadow

“The so-called civilised man has forgotten the trickster. He remembers him only figuratively and metaphorically, when, irritated by his own ineptitude, he speaks of fate playing tricks on him or of things being bewitched. He never suspects that his own hidden and apparently harmless shadow has qualities whose dangerousness exceeds his wildest dreams.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

For Jung, the trickster forms part of the shadow, both of which are dangerous to the extent that we keep them hidden from ourselves and project it onto others. He writes:

“The trickster is a collective shadow figure, a summation of all the inferior traits of character in individuals. And since the individual shadow is never absent as a component of personality, the collective figure can construct itself out of it continually. Not always, of course, as a mythological figure, but, in consequence of the increasing repression and neglect of the original mythologems, as a corresponding projection on other social groups and nations.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

The collective trickster energy is present in someone who looks like a leader, but is really the great pretender, one who convinces the people by promising truths, but delivering lies. This figure appears, disappears, and reappears – throughout all of human history.

We think that the danger is the one who’s trying to break into our house, but little do we know of the dangers of the unknown and repressed part of ourselves, which causes us to lose our own self.

“Ourself, behind ourself concealed, should startle most.”

Emily Dickinson, One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted

The trickster accompanies us into the rabbit hole, to the depths of our unknown self, to the valley of the shadow of death. However scary it is, trickster helps us to find depths in ourselves that we didn’t know were there.

Trickster and Ego Inflation

While the shadow helps us know our morality, the trickster is concerned with helping us reduce the sin of pride. He keeps us from being too confident in ourselves, since hubris forecasts a fall.

Trickster is important in individuation because he helps deflate ego inflation: when we become controlling, arrogant or narcissistic.

The healthy ego is our sense of who we are, serving as a bridge to the inner world.

“The trickster is the ego demolitions expert who helps us become more realistic about our psychological limitations and ultimately our spiritual limitlessness. This is an energy within ourselves and within the universe that humbles us, topples our ego, upsets our plans, demonstrates to us how little our wishes matter, and dissolves the forms that no longer serve us though we may be clinging to them for dear life.”

Dave Richo, The Power of Coincidence

When the ego is at its height, the trickster takes a little pin and bursts our “bubble of greatness”, and as we start to see the reality of things, everything that we thought to be meaningful (power, money, fame, pleasure) becomes meaningless.

Trickster helps to humble us down, and tells us that our power is limited in the vast universe. This surrender is a necessity for self-realisation and a connection with the divine.

Instead of the great helping the lowly, trickster reverses this and disguises himself as someone very lowly, but this lowly person overcomes the so-called great person, one who has an inflated ego. The bible has a passage that expresses this trickster energy clearly:

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-28

No matter how lowly you are, or how utterly useless you might feel in life. There is always something in the higher Self or God that still calls you.

The Trickster in Alchemy

In alchemy, the trickster archetype manifests as the elusive symbol of Mercurius, the Roman equivalent of Hermes, who is fluid like quicksilver. Jung writes:

“A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurius; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and – last but not least – his approximation to the figure of a saviour.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol.9 Part I: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure

Mercurius masterfully holds the duality of spirit and matter, and is associated with the lapis philosophorum (philosophers’ stone) or the Self. He is paradoxically associated to Christ and to Lucifer, the light-bringer.

“In comparison with the purity and unity of the Christ symbol, Mercurius-lapis is ambiguous, dark, paradoxical and thoroughly pagan. It therefore represents a part of the psyche which was certainly not moulded by Christianity and can on no account be expressed by the symbol “Christ”. On the contrary, as we have seen, in many ways it points to the devil, who is known at times to disguise himself as an angel of light.”

Carl Jung. C.W. Vol. 13: Alchemical Studies

The paradoxical nature of Mercurius reflects an important aspect of the Self, the fact that it is essentially a union of opposites, and indeed can be nothing else if it is to represent any kind of totality. The elusive philosophers’ stone, the central symbol of alchemy, which allows one to turn base matter into gold, is a product of a real trickster, Mercurius, who drove the alchemists to despair. For Jung, the philosophers’ stone is not found externally, but in ourselves.

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.

The psyche seeks balance, not staying in extremes, but a combination of opposites. The transcendent function in alchemy is where the psyche finds the midpoint. This occurs when the time is just right, that is, in synchronicity.

In a way, “not enough” or “too much” are the trickster, the extremes are how we get tricked. However, trickster is trying to point us towards the centre, to the path of individuation.

This reminds one of what Aristotle said about virtue, that it is a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. For instance, the golden mean of confidence is between self-deprecation and vanity. As one becomes more balanced in life, one also reaches psychic wholeness.

Conclusion

Tricksters are always on the scene, attempting to show culture its shadow and 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. 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.

The integration of the trickster archetype allows us to go from being ruled by our own self-centred ego to a new way of living, in which one has integrity and relatedness. It allows us to become aware of our true emotions, behaviours, and thoughts, that our unconscious persona is hiding, and without which there is no individuation at all.  In other words, trickster allows us to discover our Self, the totality of the personality which unites the opposites of consciousness and the unconscious and holds everything together in balance and unity.

Trickster attempts to wake us up and in the process, shake us to the core of our being. Perhaps this is because he 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, he is also the force that allows us to imagine and create entirely new possibilities.

“In the history of the collective as in the history of the individual, everything depends on the development of consciousness. This gradually brings liberation from imprisonment in unconsciousness, and [the trickster] is therefore a bringer of light as well as of healing.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol.9 Part I: On The Psychology of the Trickster Figure


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The Psychology of The Trickster

Trickster tales have existed since ancient times, and has been said to be at the very foundation of civilisation and culture. They belong to the oldest expressions of mankind.

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