The Sound of One Trickster Clapping

WINGS AT HIS HEELS, the Trickster scoots around the world in the form of Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Mercury is the Trickster of the Western tradition, and you can glimpse him in modern media messengers, such as the Mercury newspaper of Tasmania, Durban, or Portland. Other newspapers doff their caps to his role as herald, from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Herald Tribune.

Mercurial, the Trickster is a volatile opportunist, man of the moment; his attributes are some of the best qualities of the media (think “news flash”). A neither/ nor character whose favorite hours are dusk and dawn (the evening papers and the morning news), the Trickster facilitates commerce of all kinds, as does the media. Motivated, like the Trickster, by powerful appetite, the winged media swoops on the odd, glinting incidental. This is the oldest adage in journalism: “Dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog — that’s news!”

The media has — like any Trickster — an enormous capacity to deceive and to be deceived. The Yes Men, web-activists and Tricksters of magnificence, pretended to be representatives of the World Trade Organization, and then famously duped the international media into reporting that the WTO was closing itself down for ethical reasons. Describing their superb heist, the Yes Men called themselves Robin Hoods, stealing the truth, to broadcast the vicious effects of WTO policy on the world’s poorest people. Although it was itself the victim of the dupe, the media forgave the Yes Men, as if recognizing deep down that they shared the Trickster nature, for the media adores those characteristics whenever it finds them.

Some thirty years ago, and celebrated in the 2008 film Man On Wire, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit set up a line between the Twin Towers and crossed eight times, teasing the police. The Trickster is a boundary-crosser (newspapers are a fixture at every travel node, station, or border), and Petit crossed the line of the actual tightrope and the line of legality, for the act was illegal even though he had snatched, with very Tricksterish panache, something that belonged to no one. It was a heist of utter ephemeral beauty, and at one point he knelt and saluted the sky itself, conjuring theater out of thin air in a space that is so doubly absent now.

Coming down to Earth, he was the subject of a police incident: the charge sheet read “man on wire.” But it was also a media incident, and his fragile defiant act lit up front pages around the world. The media knew him for one of theirs: in good duping fashion, Petit had pretended to be a journalist in order to gain access to the Twin Towers.

Never a grand god, the Trickster is always little, and Philippe Petit was “Little” in name and slight in figure, walking in the bendy, comic footsteps of Les Funambules, the funny-walkers, the juggling, clowning acrobats who in the French theatrical tradition were regarded as small fry by Le Grand Théâtre, which performed the classics of grandeur. But the boulevard of public life needs both Les Funambules and Le Grand Théâtre, needs what in Latin is called altus, a word meaning both high and low: high as a man on wire, and also low, profound, deep as the spirit under the land. Likewise, the Trickster figure needs the whole pantheon of deeper gods and wiser goddesses for his very meaning. The Tricksterish media needs to be heard against a background of the older, slower voices of the pantheon: storytellers, artists, shamans, call them the poets for short — those who attend the deep pulses of the body politic.

You can’t look to the Trickster for profound truths — it’s not in the job description. And in any case we the public, strolling along the boulevard, will always prick up our ears at the sound of a tin whistle and thrill to the high-wire act. The difficulty is that the steady state, from which these things stand out as eccentric, is easily ignored: the income gaps and engineered poverty, and more than anything the devastation of nature.

Focusing on the incident — the man on wire or the lone gunman killing a child — the mass media ignores a system of corporate peonage which imprisons and executes a million childhoods. The barker on the boulevard of ordinary life is shouting out, “Extra! Extra!” — pointing to the Extra!ordinary and ignoring the ordinary. The media gives a false proximity to the incidental, but a false distance to systemic wrongs. Dangerously, it implies that the system needs little remark: witness the lethal length of time it took for the issue of climate change to finally make it big in the press. It was telling that when the Yes Men pulled off their heist, they created an incident and the media focused (of course) on the dupe itself more than on the systematic behavior of the WTO that the trick alluded to.

In the widest sense, this is about how society tells truths to itself and the sources of truths, which include history, the land, the academy, the poets, and the media. Modern Euro-American society deprives itself of most of these sources. The academy is terrified of taking up a moral position as if that would undermine its authority, although arguably this abnegation is a corruption of its authority. This is an age which forges its history, silences the voices of the land, and ignores the poets, leaving the public susceptible to being duped by the Trickster-media, who might (or might not) tell the truth (or a bit of it) from time to time.

The contemporary media has too much power — so much power, in fact, that it really should be elected. It has the power to decide what to publicize and what to hide, what to commend by remembering and what to condemn by forgetting. In Greek, truth is alethia where lethe means forgetting, as the souls of the dead drink to forget from the River of Lethe. To tell the truth, then, is to be unforgetting, holding the past in present mind.

For almost all of history, societies have trusted shaman-poets to speak truths, whether that truth is literal or metaphoric, and the poets have had real power. Pace Shelley, poets are the acknowledged legislators of the soul-world, which is why people quote a line from Shakespeare or Whitman for its inherent truth, for its instinct for the altus: an authority both high and deep. Medieval Welsh bards were actual legislators: they were judges as well as poets. Celtic poets were even the judges of kings, who depended on the applause of the bards, and were overthrown if that approval was withdrawn.

Recently, the Mamas, the shaman-seers of the Kogi people from the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, issued a statement on environmental devastation. The “life-essence of the planet is failing,” they said, while their own situation was “as serious as the Conquest itself.” These were voices from altus, speaking at one of their highest sacred places in the mountains, and from altus, the depths of soul, the long-sighted, far-feeling, timbre of truths.

Traditionally, the Kogi have not welcomed outsiders, but they are fundamentally altering their communication. They invited filmmaker Alan Ereira to this recent meeting, and are directly seeking to make their own voices heard in the wider world, in what they believe is a last chance to protect themselves and the balance of the Earth. It is as if they feel forced, finally, to use the Tricksterish media because no other kind of voice can be heard.

There is a direct — inverse — relation between environmental devastation and the respect given to the voice of the shaman-poet. When either one is in ascendance, the other will be in decline, which is why that voice has never been more ignored, never more reviled, and never more needed than now.

Jay Griffiths’s books include A Sideways Look at Time, A Country Called Childhood, and Savage Grace, originally published as Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the Orion Book Award.


  1. Where can i find the Mamas’ statement?

    Wonderful article, thank you. We all need to remember this.

  2. The Elder Brothers’ Warning:

    We work to take care of the world.

    We respect the Mother Earth… We know that the land is our Mother Earth.

    If we plant an orange tree or any type of tree and then dig it up by the roots it will die. Digging out the earth’s gold is the same thing. It could die. We’ve all heard many stories that the world is dying. Why is it dying? It is because they have robbed so many tombs. The world is like a person. Robbing tombs, stealing its gold, it will die. We don’t take out the earth’s gold. We know that it is there but we do not take it. We know from our divinations that the advice of the Mother is not to take the gold. We know where it is but we decide only to make offerings to it.

    How is it that we are able to live? Without blood we cannot live and without bones we cannot walk. Here all the Mamas are in agreement about what it is we are going to say and how to speak. If I cut off my foot I cannot walk. When they dig into the earth and take it’s gold it is the same thing….Gold has it’s own thought and it can speak. It is a living being. They must stop stealing it.

    If they take all the gold the world will end. The Mothers of banana trees, of all the trees and of all the birds, they have all been stolen. They are cutting off the flesh of the Mother’s body. They have taken everything. They have stolen the spirits of all things from the Mother. They are stealing the very spirit and thought of the Mother…

    It is the mountains which make the waters, the rivers and the clouds. If the trees are felled they will not produce any more water. We do not cut down the trees that grow by rivers, we know that they protect the water. We do not cut down huge areas of forest like the Younger Brother does, we cut small clearings for our fields. The Mother told us not to cut down many trees, so we cut very few, tiny patches.

    If the Younger Brother keeps cutting down all the trees, there will be fires because the sun will heat the earth…. We are the Elder Brothers so we have to think clearly….

    Younger Brother, stop doing it. You have already taken so much. We need water to live. The Mother told us how to live properly and how to think well. We’re still here and we haven’t forgotten anything.

    The earth is decaying, it is losing its strength because they have taken away much petrol, coal, many minerals. Younger Brother thinks, Yes! Here I am! I know much about the universe! But this knowing is learning to destroy the world, to destroy everything, all humanity…. The Mother is suffering. They have broken her teeth and taken out her eyes and ears. She vomits, she has diarrhea, she is ill.

    If we cut off our arms, we can’t work, if we cut off our legs, we can’t walk. That is how it is with the Mother. The Mother is suffering. She has nothing.

    Does the Younger Brother understand what he has done? Does he?

    The world doesn’t have to end; it could go on, but unless we stop violating the earth and nature, depleting The Great Mother of her material energy, her organs, her vitality; unless people stop working against the Great Mother, the world will not last.

  3. In this room full of sombre elephants (“corporate peonage, systemic wrongs”) I’m always amazed at how many people let themselves be hypnotized with what’s cool, frilly, entertaining; and generally how they just let their attention be directed by those who have not shown themselves to be trustworthy or responsible.
    Many who appreciate and get the double entendre of the jesters would already be counted among the choir members being “preached to”. Others who don’t get it need to have the hypnotic veils of invisibility removed from the elephants. The jesters have to team up with some straight men, too.

  4. So most of us are attracted to the bright cloth and the glittering stone, if only for a moment, but I am curious – how many of you think that the trickster furthers the cause of returning balance to the earth. Not mentioned here but coming to my mind is Greenpeace, the ultimate long standing tradition of tricksters. I am curious. I might glance at the bright cloth or shiny stone but am really attracted to the subtle hues and deep multilayered stones. Maybe we really need to spend less time trying to woo the media attention and more doing the deeper subtler work.

  5. Sandy Olson suggested, “Maybe we really need to spend less time trying to woo the media attention and more doing the deeper subtler work.”

    I couldn’t agree more. One cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.

    I don’t understand the Trickster’s role as “returning balance to the Earth”. But the Trickster, at its best, does slap us upside the head (like a Zen master or a Koan) when we get too far out of balance.

    The media-as-trickster, however, has assumed the anti-Trickster role of keeping us misinformed and out of balance. No sense pandering to such an institution.

    We suffer from a profound cultural, social, philosophical, political, economic, existential imbalance. The “deeper subtler work” that has to be undertaken is the re-enchantment of the Universe, the re-ensoulment of culture, and the re-spiritualization of life.

    Our malaise, at root, is a spiritual one – and it will be only by a collective rite-of-passage into a new paradigm of human beingness within the Web-of-Life that has any possibility of restoring wholeness and balance.

  6. Ok, I am not sure. I am at present studying environmental journalism. I amreading an account by Mark Dubois who tied himself to a rock above the Stanislaus River protesting the building of a dam. He had been trying for some time to call attention to the issue with news conferences and press releases, talking about the losses but when he tied himself to a rock and threatened to die for the river, then he got attention. On the other hand, The Hudson Riverkeepers have done much more in 40 years to save and revitalize the most threatened river in America with legal actions and negotiations then was saved with one news conference in California. I do like the riverkeepers.

  7. The Trickster is always present where the community is least prepared to honor it. The Trickster has never found more fertile ground to sew its influence than in today’s America which has forgotten its roots in the arcane practices of its founders. The Trickster in its many forms does not take a side, it defies polarity and thrives in contradiction. Neither does it seek conformity. If we can take a lesson from the Trickster it may be that we are free to participate with no rules attached.

  8. Shandrick,

    Perhaps you see yourself as a trickster who “thrives in contradiction”.

    Though you seem to advocate “no rules”, the first thing that pops up on your website is “copyright” (this is mine – the rest of you keep you grubby hands off), and your vocation is “advertising copywriter and public relations specialist”.

    It appears that you are the anti-Trickster who uses soothing and enticing words to bend people to the will of others. That’s exactly the kind of “trickster” that has deceived our culture to walk willingly to the brink while impeaching the voice of the shaman-poet beseeching us to wake up.

  9. At 74, I find it almost mandatory to boycott the trickster media for increasingly long periods, the disheartening effect of so much of it isn’t good for anyone’s health.
    In the USA especially, the media concentrates on an ever-cheapening pop culture, driving out the deeper voices of the poets in all fields.
    Personally, I’m fortunate in being a classical musician, and have available to me the great music of a six-centuries-long tradition created by the best of the poets among us, and there’s nothing like a string quartet(particularly Bartok’s!)to instantly remind us where the depths are. We all need a respite from the dis-
    tractions of shallow commercial-
    ism, in part to remember we are solely responsible for the healthy survival of this earth.

  10. The Trickster cannot be trusted to stick within moral boundaries and has no backbone to engage in civic engagement. That said, the Trickster has a lot of fun, and we are told life is supposed to be fun. I am finding Albert Camus to be as relevant as any line of thinking these days. He isn’t about fun. I also find the author of this piece to have appropriated a lot of the work of James Hillman. Perhaps not, but it sure feels like it. Hillman’s stuff isn’t fun either but it sure helps a reader think clearly. Thank you to all comments, interesting discussion.

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