While I was reading a profile of Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s controversial political leader in the UK, in today’s Guardian, I recognised in his profile the classic “trickster” archetype. (Actually, it could be a profile of almost any one of our current political (mis)leaders. It’s a type that is presently quite pronounced and hyper-active). Nuttall’s apparent penchant for self-aggrandising, but untruthful and counter-factual, autobiographical details (– in today’s idiom, for polishing up the “Me Brand”–) has become, rather, part of the “New Normal” of the Great Con — burnishing the public image for mass consumption.
That brought to mind the North American indigenous figure of Trickster — Nanabozho (or Nanabush) amongst the Ojibwe of Eastern Canada or, as he is known in these parts, Wisakedjak amongst the Plain’s Cree or Inktomne (or Iktomi) amongst the Sioux (and whether the name “Bozo” the Clown is derived from Nanabozho is, perhaps, an open question. Also, one of the classic counterparts to the trickster figure in European lore is Baron Munchhausen.)
While I have spoken to some of the attributes of the Trickster archetype earlier, there are some features of Nanabozho that are interesting. One is that Nanabozho is described as a “cocreator” of the world and as an emissary of the Great Spirit in that sense. That means Nanabozho corresponds to the “demiurgos“ in Gnosticism, and in William Blake’s mythology that demiurgos is his false god, the Zoa named “Urizen“, also called “the Ancient of Days”. Blake also calls Urizen, optionally, “Selfhood”, “Satan” and “Nobodaddy”. Urizen is, clearly, Iain McGilchrist’s “Emissary” as described in his book on neurodynamics, The Master and His Emissary.
As “cocreator of the physical world” — as demiurgos — Nanabozho is also Buddhism’s demon “Mara”, described as the “Architect” or “Lord of Illusion” and who Buddha calls also “Lord of mine own Ego”. Clearly, then, Blake’s “Urizen”, in his fallen form, is Mara, and both Urizen and Mara correspond to the “usurpation” of consciousness by McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of perception and functions of the left-hemisphere of the divided brain.
Another interesting attribute of the Trickster figure is that he is a shape-shifter and polymorphous. But that is also characteristic of the Conman as much as the shaman, and just as true of what Algis Mikunas describes as “technocratic shamanism” in his essay on “Magic and Technological Culture”. “Technocratic shamanism” corresponds to what Jean Gebser, in The Ever-Present Origin, calls the “deficient” or degenerative mode of the magical consciousness structure. Trickster also resembles, in those terms, Mephistopheles, especially in the form characterised by Goethe in his Faust.
As Mephistopheles has a dual nature (he describes himself in Faust as “part of that power that would ever evil do, but always does the good”) so, too, has Nanabozho. Whatever good Trickster does is usually inadvertent, however. Nanabozho is a deceiver, but also a teacher, whose arts of deception and trickery also contain what we might call a “dharma teaching” for those with the eyes to see it or the ears to hear it. This double-nature of Trickster is reflected in James Gordon’s recent Guardian article also: “Despite his lies, Donald Trump is a potent truth-teller“, only Trump’s “truths” are inadvertent. Trump is also a Mephistophelian character, and Gordon clearly sees in him the same Trickster archetype in play.
The Trickster archetype is quite paradoxical, as McGilchrist’s “Emissary” is quite paradoxical. Trickster has a demonic aspect (encounters with Trickster can be fatal for the unwary) as well as a benevolent aspect (although this is usually inadvertent). That’s reflected in crediting Trickster with the invention of language and with the founding of the Midewiwin (the Medicine Lodge or “Great Medicine Society” or what we call “shamanism”, “sorcery”, or “magic”). As cocreator of the physical world, Nanabozho is also the inventor of language and hieroglyphics (writing), apparently. And there his ambiguous nature is most pronounced. Language both reveals and conceals. It not only enhances social and evolutionary intelligence, but also facilitates herd mentality and groupthink, which is precisely that which we today call “populism”, which has all the characteristics of what might be called “psychic contagion” similar to the strange “dancing manias” of the Late Middle Ages, which might have some bearing on the present “creepy clown craze” as well.
Trickster assumes many, many forms, in keeping with his shape-shifting ability. Trickster is the classic coincidentia oppositorum. The present “Zeitgeist”, as it were, is presently aligned with the Trickster archetype, and is implicated also in what Gebser refers to as “the double-movement of our times”, just as Blake’s Urizen, one of the four Zoas, has his fallen aspect, which is demonic, and his higher, “eternal form” (corresponding to Gebser’s distinction between mere “rationality” and “Reason” proper). And in that respect it is interesting to note that (as the Wikipedia article on Nanabozho points out): “Nanabozho is one of four sons from what Europeans will interpret as spirits of directions, a human mother, and E-bangishimog (“In the West”), a spirit father.” In other words, Nanabozho, or Trickster, is one of the four sons of the “Guardians of the Four Directions”, or what Blake would call an “emanation”. McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of perception is also such an “emanation”, but which has forgotten that it is only an emanation. That is also Trickster’s spiritual problem, or although he is a “cocreator of the physical world”, and in those terms an emissary of the Great Spirit, he has forgotten that connection and thinks and acts as if he were sui generis or self-made. That is also Urizen’s delusion and short-coming.
And that’s not a minor thing. One of Trickster’s manifestations is as Lord of Misrule and the Buffoon, and this was said of Hitler and Mussolini as well. Trickster’s trickery, deceptions, and cons can be deadly, although he himself eventually suffers humiliation and defeat as “blowback” or unintended consequence from his own hybris and trickery. The double-nature of Trickster as entertaining yet deadly is implied, I think, in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Why Trickster-Mephisto seems to have this double-nature is an interesting question, and one probably connected also with the fact that the alter ego of Dionysus is Hades, and the alter ego of Athena (or Minerva) is the Gorgon (or Medusa). As co-creator of the physical world, as the demiurgos (and for that reason, often held to be wicked and evil) Trickster is a major figure. It’s interesting that the word “trick”, even as it appears in most European languages, has the prefix “tri-“, which may be related to the number three (the number of magic or sorcery according to Gebser). Although I’m still researching this possible aspect of Trickster in mythology, I suspect that Trickster has a hidden “death wish” — a secret thanatic or self-negating, self-annihilating will — that, as the estranged and aliennated emanation or emissary of the Great Spirit (the “godhead”), this emanation has a secret desire to return to the source from which it emanated, which desire tends to overrule and subvert Trickster’s overt motives. One sees this, for example, more explicitly in the mystic’s desire for complete annihilation of the Selfhood.
Mephistopheles and Mara are the same Trickster figure — the same “Prince of Lies”, and is, in that sense, something of a caricature (for the demiurgos as the pretense of being “the creator god” is actually considered a caricature of the godhead, as befitting the saying that “Satan is but the ape of God” and the Anti-Christ a caricature of the Christ, indicating that Trickster is not to be taken lightly, but at the same time by no means seriously).