A Man



An interview with Lewis Hyde

Trickster is Welcome Here

Lewis Hyde is a Trickster. I heard it frequently in his laugh when I spoke with him by phone at his office on the campus of Kenyon College in Ohio. And I read it in his book, Trickster Makes This World, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux of New York.

Robert Bly, whom Hyde has known since 1965, calls the author “… the most subtle, thorough, and brilliant mythologist we now have.”

Professor Hyde utilized a wide variety of images and stories in his book to illustrate this mysterious Trickster energy, including the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the Chinese tale about the Monkey King, the stories of Prometheus, Krishna, Loki, Eshu, the Native American Coyote, and the real life story of Frederick Douglass -- the Civil-War era slave who wrought his own freedom.

Not only did I more thoroughly discover the secrets of the Trickster, I was educated in the anthropological and literary traditions of the Greeks, the Gnostics, the Hindus, and the Winnebago Indians. I have never read a more detailed description of the Trickster in such a comprehensive format.

So, as men, how do we view the essence of the Trickster? In my experience, being seen as a shaman or a magician is good, while identification with the Trickster is bad.

If, in our efforts to build sacred containers for men we exclude that which might challenge those boundaries, how then do we view this wild dark Trickster in relation to the Warrior?

“One of the things that interested me about the Trickster figure is that he is a character who gets involved in conflicts and fights but does so in a cunning style, distinct from the traditional Warrior,” Hyde explained. “Often the trickster is a companion of someone, someone like the Warrior.”

Hyde related the story of Loki who had a companion in the famed Thor, the Norse god with the hammer. So it goes that Thor's hammer was stolen and in order to get it back Loki dressed up as a woman and sneaked into the enemy's camp to retrieve the powerful weapon.

“Thor wouldn't do it that way,” Hyde remarked. “He would be too ashamed. But Loki says 'why not?' There's a lack of identification with whatever the ego position might make of the Warrior, whereas Loki, and the Trickster in general, is willing to be debased, ashamed, or get dirty. It turns out that this is a useful skill for certain kinds of conflict. The character whose dignity is so important to him that he can't move in that direction has immobility as a result. The Trickster is light-bodied and doesn't end up suffering the way a more dignified masculine figure like the Warrior might suffer.”

Another example of the Trickster is in Prometheus who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals in their dark caves and thus unleashed a flood of inventiveness and productivity.

“Prometheus is a curious case. Many times the Trickster is simultaneously a hero and a fool, smart and dumb,” the professor continued. “Sometime in the history of religion we see where the character splits in two, whereupon we get one being who is more the fool and another more the hero. In Greek stories, Prometheus had a brother named Epimethius - meaning 'hindsight.' Prometheus represented 'foresight.' There was probably a period when both were unified as a single character, the hero-fool. We see Prometheus’s one-sidedness at the end of the story in which he steals fire. Zeus punishes him; he gets chained to a rock and has an eagle eating at his liver for the rest of eternity. The torn flesh mends each night and the eagle begins anew the next day. A true Trickster would not end up trapped and suffering that way; Trickster is the consummate escape artist who manages to elude that kind of torture.”

Hyde mentioned the Greek word “temenos” which is defined as a circle or a plot of ground that is marked off to conduct sacred ceremonies.

“An important part of any sacred activity is marking a boundary between the sacred and non-sacred. It's important to build a container so the action is conducted inside sacred space,” he noted. “So, when you get to a character like the Trickster, you now have somebody who is the critic of the boundary, whose position is that all boundaries can be become too rigid and too impermeable, causing the life to dry up inside the container. So you need, both … some way to make the container and some function that is smart about how and where to break it. The Trickster is the sacred boundary crosser. And it's not just that he crosses boundaries, he does it as a needed sacred function. If all you have is sacred forces who are maintaining their fiefdoms then you can end up with a fragmented heaven. Trickster gets a commerce going among the various sacred powers.”

Speaking of “heaven” - Hyde related in his book the story of C.G.Jung when he was a twelve-year-old schoolboy in Basel, Switzerland, admiring the glorious cathedral in the town square.

Said Jung, “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sight, and thought: 'The world is beautiful and the church is beautiful and God made all this and sits above it far away in the blue sky on a golden throne and … Here came a great hole in my thoughts, and a choking sensation. I felt numbed, and knew only: 'Don't go on thinking now! Something terrible is coming …'”

For several days Jung struggled with the thought of whether or not God, who controls all things, could allow him to think a thought he shouldn't think. Finally, having worked himself around to believing that God wanted him to have the forbidden thought, he relented: “I gathered all my courage, as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come. I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky. God sits on His golden throne, high above the world - and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder ... I felt an enormous, an indescribable relief. Instead of the expected damnation, grace had come upon me. I wept for happiness and gratitude.”

Hyde said he was indebted to C.G. Jung, particularly one of his students, Marie-Louise von Franz, and their work with the idea of Mercurius. To the medieval alchemists, Mercury was the metal symbolizing duality - metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery. Mercury was the metal uniting all the opposites. This Trickster energy was known to the Greeks by way of Hermes, the messenger god; in the Roman pantheon, Hermes becomes Mercury.

“C.G. Jung was a fabulously smart guide,” Hyde continued. “The Jungian insight is that the psyche is a community of forces and you need that whole community of forces working together. The pathology is when one member of the community begins to dominate in an individual, so some other part - your Warrior, say, or your sense of justice - gets muted. Or if we’re speaking of a group rather than one psyche, it's when somebody begins to take over through display of one singular force. In a healthy community, every force will have a counter force. For example, Hermes steals the cattle from Apollo, but at the end of the story, Hermes and Apollo are friends. They find a way to relate. They need each other. You can't have a boundary crosser unless you have someone who cares about the boundary. Hermes needs Apollo to be able to play with the rules and Apollo needs Hermes to keep things lively.”

Hyde loves the symbolism in the stories of Hermes and comes back to the theme often.

“Hermes is a god of the roads, a traveler going from place to place,” he related. “And as a consequence, he begins to understand that in different countries people speak different languages. In the Greek tradition there's a word 'hermeneus' for someone who has the ability to translate. In our culture, that word becomes ‘hermeneut,’ meaning someone skilled in interpretation, someone who’s smart at understanding the meaning of a story. It's as if any story has layers of meaning. You have to translate one layer then go down to another layer. Like the psyche, one goes deeper and deeper. It's the mythopoetic work of fairy tales. There needs to be a Hermes character like a James Hillman or Michael Meade, or anyone who does dream analysis, to translate. To help people come back to a place where they've been trapped or lost requires them to become a 'Hermeneut' of their own life. They have to be helped to understand that there is an active learnable role to play in relating to the story you tell about your own life, the story you've inherited, the story you're going to create as you live your life. Most Americans are passive recipients of the story that the media wants them to live by and only when you realize it is a story are you able to make different choices. You can interpret the story and be converted - from a passive object of commercial pitchmen into an actor living a life that you yourself create.”

Hyde said he believed a lot of Americans were “numb.” I liked the quote he used from child psychologist Donald Winnicott: “It is a joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found.”

So is the spirit of the Trickster welcome in an initiation process?

“Yes,” said Hyde.

“Remember that this is the character who crosses the boundary, so that in Haitian Voodoo and Santeria ceremonies, if you want to get in touch with any of the spirits in the other realm, your prayer must first go to Legba, the gatekeeper: 'Legba open the gate!' You can't get to other spiritual forces until you enter the spiritual world, and the Trickster is the character that helps you make the transition - both at the beginning and the end of initiation. Between the religious and the secular, you need assistance from a go-between to step outside of your own family mythology. We all have stories about who we are from the family that we grew up with. Part of our maturation is to begin to see that our own story can be changed and we can be more in charge of it than we used to think. We can be the author of our own story.”

So, for a man to be initiated, he must be willing to not play by the rules, not be so attentive to what his parents told him, not keep looking behind him to see if there’s a cop car following …

To explore within ourselves all the limiting behavior we've been taught takes a kind of “imaginative amorality,” the author said. It's not an immorality, but an archetypal motivation in our own psyche to “play with the rules rather than observe them.”

Hyde's work is meaty, like something the Coyote might have stolen from the authorities. The professor shows us that when the Trickster breaks the rules, we see the rules more clearly.

What about those men who are not willing to access their own archetypal Trickster so they can be initiated?

“Trickster shadows are very sophisticated,” the professor admitted. “The Trickster can be the consummate confidence man who is smart enough that no matter what you do he can contain himself and not change. He isolates himself, and the only way he will change is when he begins to suffer from his own actions. You and I cannot get to him. That's part of the genius of the character. Only suffering will pose the question for him.”

Men who are caught in the snare of drugs or alcohol abuse, and who are skilled at defending their addiction, may be stuck in Trickster shadow.

“In this country, such people have to hit bottom,” he declared. “Your addictions can make you suffer so much that you get tired of them, and of your cunning Trickster defenses. Only then can an individual get on his own healing path. The wife of a best friend, or coworker can talk to a man for twenty years and will not get through to him …the motivation must come from inside.”

I asked Hyde how he would see Trickster energy manifesting itself in the crisis in New Orleans.

“First, I would say that Trickster is an archetype, and we should be careful about speaking of particular people as Tricksters; the healthy psyche has some Trickster, and a lot more. Now, when disaster strikes, Trickster may be helpful. Trickster is about fluidity - when circumstances change, you can change with them. You don't necessarily have to be committed to the old image of who you are. Still, if I had had a home in New Orleans for 30 years, and suddenly had to move, I’d be reluctant, no matter how much I respect the Trickster.”

Hyde talked about the generosity of those who were involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and that theme leads into his earlier book, The Gift - Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, published in 1983 by Random House in New York. (What a title!)

“I think there is a function in a mass society for a government to be prudent about the dangers that face communities,” he told me.

Ultimately, however, a kind of “self-taxing” or “tithing” is the best way for a group to empower itself, he added. Robert Moore talks about the ability to consciously sacrifice back to God what is due the archetypal power. If we do not, we end up unconsciously sacrificing in a way that is destructive to ourselves. Hyde said he believed that the old customs of gift-giving are meant to help us convert our egotism into altruism; they make us “think about all the things that contribute to our lives, to feel gratitude for them, and to realize that gratitude can, in turn, call out generosity.”

There might be a message here for men's groups and other charitable organizations. In The Gift, Hyde writes:

“… in a gift society, the increase follows the gift and is itself given away, while in a market society the increase (profit, rent, interest) returns to its 'owner' … gift exchange is connected to faith because both are disinterested. Faith does not look out. No one by himself controls the cycle of gifts he participates in; each, instead, surrenders to the spirit of the gift in order for it to move. Therefore, the person who gives is a person willing to abandon control. If this were not so, if the donor calculated his return, the gift would be pulled out of the whole and into the personal ego, where it loses its power. We say that a man gives faithfully when he participates disinterestedly in a circulation he does not control but which nonetheless supports his life.”

This book is more lyrical, more like reading “The Gift” by Hafiz.

Hyde suspects that a true gift community is only sustainable in smaller numbers of a thousand or so people. In a larger society, however, we can still find places where the spirit of the gift survives.

“Find spaces in your own life, in your family, in your community, or even in solitude where you can practice the spirit of generosity,” he counseled.

Hyde said he keeps his own gifts flowing through his Buddhist practice.

“That's where I find my wisdom these days.”

© 2005 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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