Maybe it’s the beginning of April, but I’ve had tricksters on the brain lately – those gods and heroes that defy clear definitions of good and evil.* The ones you can never quite put a finger on what they’re going to do next. Tricksters push society’s buttons. They are anarchists and lords of chaos, and it took me a long time to wrap my brain around them as a divine concept. Coyote, Kokopelli, Loki, Hermes, Anansi - trickster gods are found all over the globe, unafraid to walk a Left-Hand path,** shaking us out of our stupor, and usually (but not always) changing things for the better.
Everyone is familiar with the trickster archetype (whether they realize it or not!) because writers use him all the time in fiction. In fact, many beloved characters are decidedly tricksters, like Captain Jack Sparrow, Bart Simpson, The Cat in the Hat, Q (from Star Trek), Bugs Bunny, and The Doctor (from Doctor Who). Han Solo and Aladdin (the Disney version) are tricksters who, by the end of the story, have changed to (mostly) conform to societal norms, trading their freedom for stability and love. We have a natural affinity for trickster characters – charismatic people who take on “the man” and delight us with their often hysterically unexpected take on things.
But, at least in Western Society, we seem to have an aversion to them as gods. I think the acceptance of the trickster as a deity, with his mistakes and moral ambiguity, is one of the philosophical concepts that differentiates pagans from many other religious traditions – and one way in which confusion arises when pagans talk to people with a more black and white view of what a god can (or should) be.
Let me try to explain. In polytheism, gods are not omnipotent, omniscient, or “perfectly good.” They make mistakes, they are sometimes unkind, they have goals and dreams, they fall in love, and some lean more towards good and some lean more towards evil. They’re a lot like people, but immortal (or at least they don’t grow old and die; in many mythologies, gods can be killed), and you can call on them for help in times of need. They don’t, however, require us to worship them. When I call something a god, I’m not necessarily saying I worship that entity or think the entity should be worshiped or deserves worship. We pagans connect with gods because they can be helpful and because smart people make contacts in high places…and, more importantly, because these relationships brings us joy and fulfillment. But there is no risk of eternal damnation if we don’t. There’s also nothing morally wrong with “ignoring” a god – just remember the ignored god is unlikely to help you should you ask.
The gods make sure the world runs smoothly (or at least keeps running), and they each have their own jobs that they do, things that they like, and personal histories full of lessons we can learn in the telling. To reiterate, pagans don’t mean the same thing conceptually when we say “god” as most monotheists do when they say “God.”*** Coming from a pagan perspective, the way many Christians view Lucifer/Satan – an über-powerful entity who opposes Jehovah and travels around the world affecting change and accepting the prayers of his followers – is god-like. Just, you know, a scary, kinda sadistic god.
The missionaries when first bringing Christianity to the “pagans, heathens, and savages” sometimes used this parallel to help explain their faith by equating certain pagan gods with Satan – and often those gods were trickster gods, like Pan, Set, and Loki. That’s why Satan is frequent depicted as a satyr (Pan), and the fact that in English, Satan’s “home turf” is named after Loki’s daughter, Hel, who runs the Norse realm of the dead. It is my opinion there was a disconnect between the missionaries’ perception that a “god who did bad things” must be perceived by worshippers as a “bad god,” and the way the pagans actually perceived their trickster gods’ moral ambiguity. In the missionaries’ more dualistic perspective, entities were Hell-bound or Heaven-bound, evil or good.
But this isn’t a pagan way of thinking.
Tricksters are selfish, unreliable, drifters who seduce women**** and drink too much. They also solve problems when the rest of the community is too “in the box” to create a solution. They bring laughter into our lives. They make necessary change happen in a world utterly resistant to change. The Trickster is a god of learning – learning the hard way maybe, but most of life’s most valued lessons have to be acquired through experience, not textbooks. We fear Tricksters because they force us from our comfort zone and challenge our ideas… and then, when they are gone, we can hate them for breaking what we had or love them for showing us something new (and probably better).
So just after April Fool’s I raise a toast to the Tricksters. Life’s harsh teachers who encourage us to laugh at our mistakes and move forward. Who teach us to be flexible and think on our feet. Who hold our hands and help us (drag us) through times of change. Life would be stale without them.
So readers, what are your thoughts on Trickster gods?
* It’s not just my brain! Scott and I rented Doctor Who for the first time (the new series). I just finished the latest Mercy Thompson novel, which involved Coyote. My heathen listserve has been (once again) abuzz with argument over the worship of ettins or jötnar (what some folk consider the “villains” of Norse lore and some folk consider “forces of nature and chaos”). And I’m working on two stories, one involving a trickster hero (Asmodeus, a Jewish demon) and one a trickster heroine (a Latin American Left-Hand witch, called a bruja).
** “Left-Hand Path,” for those unfamiliar, is a term coined by Madame Blavatsky in the Victorian era. She based it on a Sanskrit phrase for people who do not follow socially accepted norms in their religious practice, and she used it to vilify people who practice “black magic.” The problem with that is, of course, who gets to define “black magic?” I’ve seen the label used all too often as a slur to try to bully other practitioners into following the bully’s own moral code.
In modern times, some people have claimed the title of a Left-Hand Path practitioner for themselves. Matthew 25: 32-33 (“And he shall set the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left,”) talks about shepherds separating their sheep – those that follow along easily – from their goats – those that are headstrong – as a “right/left” division. Many 21st century LHPers see left and right hand paths as less about black magic and more about individualism and self-determination versus following the crowd. This modern connotation puts them in line with tricksters.
*** Some versions of paganism have a “creator entity” like a Great Spirit or some sort of undefined “Over-God” figure that is more similar to the Christian conception of deity in its omnipresence. This over-spirit is rarely personal and does not walk among us, although It imbues all of creation. The pagan version is almost always pantheistic, i.e. permeates the universe, as opposed to being an entity in the universe – I can talk to a tree and because the tree has God inside it, I am talking to God through the tree. It created us and has some sort of control over the universe, but Its plans (if It actually has plans) are unknowable and probably incomprehensible to us. It also doesn’t have an opponent, like a Satan figure, because It is all-encompassing, covering both good and evil in Its domain. So we direct most of our prayers and worship and tell stories about the personal gods because the other one is just too… incomprehensible. (For the sake of consistency, I will capitalize all versions of an “Over-God” and lowercase versions of a “regular god.” I am not sure of a standard protocol other than Christians typically like “God” and “He” capitalized and pagans typically don’t care much one way or the other, but I feel kinda weird capitalizing other people’s God and not my own, so… that’s my dividing line. I do not mean it to be offensive.)
As another example, to me, Jehovah as depicted in the Old Testament comes across like a pagan conception of god. He created mankind’s first set of clothes for Adam and Eve, bargained with Lot before setting fire to Sodom, got his followers into a contest with Baal’s followers over which god could light fire to his own sacrifice, let Satan torture Job over a bet, and helped David the shepherd beat a warrior giant with a slingshot. He has emotions and a personality; he does things in a rage or out of love (this is one of the reasons why it’s nice to have multiple gods; when one goes off the deep end and decides to nuke a town and start turning people into salt, you have others to keep him in check ). Whereas the other Christian concept of “God” (which is more prevalent in the New Testament) is more like the “Great Spirit” concept in paganism because He is as an entity that created the universe and is all powerful but, other than a general sense of “goodness” and/or “love” is emotionally detached. I’m making a huge over-generalization of a highly complicated topic, but hopefully this helps get the idea across.
**** Uh, yeah. Seduce women. Tricksters are pretty much always men (although there was that time that Loki turned into a mare and seduced a stallion…). I’d love an example of a trickster goddess if anyone can think of one!
Featured image by Christopher Bruno; used through Creative Commons licensing