A personal viewpoint by Tala Bar
There is one mythological character which is so complex, mystifying and enigmatic that, although much has been written about him (or, rarely, her), especially on the Internet, it is surprising to realize that among all that has been said, one thing is missing, and that is the basic meaning and actual function of that character. This character is known by various names, but its main appellation is Trickster; he is also known as Fool, Jester or Clown.
The language of mythology is basically symbolic, which works along three main lines: using the Forces of Nature as divinities (e.g., the Storm gods in various cultures); telling historical events in the form of family relationships (the wanderings of the Biblical ancestors of Israel); expressing social changes as wars and uprisings among gods and humans (the story of the Babylonian god Mardukh and his killing of Tiamat, Mother of the gods).
Following this theory, it is possible to regard the Trickster as a Nature myth (as the term was used by James Cabell in his book Jurgen) and in my opinion, he is basically a personification of Death. The assumption for this idea is that without the awareness of the existence of Death there would be no human civilization; evidently, the Trickster in his various forms is an integral part of this civilization.
One of the best-known tricksters of the Old World, who could pose as a type for this appellation, is the Scandinavian figure of Loki. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology cites him as a latecomer in mythology, but it is probable that he is a latecomer only as the mischievous character of the trickster. By his various actions, Loki can well be seen as connected with, and many times causing, not just mischief but death. Looking at the way some people die, it is not difficult to see Death as a capricious, mischievous character that can pose as a Trickster, whose actions no one can divine. The translation to this haiku verse I have written in Hebrew demonstrates that idea:
Why do you walk like a thief,
Breaking the safes of Life?”
Loki, like Hermes and many other known tricksters, was famous for being a thief, and this poem was written following the death of my young sister-in-law from cancer, long before I had heard of the Trickster.
Many articles have been written and many words have been said about trickster figures from all over the world, because it seems that their character fascinates many people, and many of these figures are connected with Death. This idea fits a time in prehistory before humans, or perhaps pre-humans, had realized the inevitability and natural function of Death, seeing in it an enemy of the living. Many stories exist in the oral traditions of Africa and America about the various artificial ways in which Death has come into the world, supposedly against the laws of nature. The tricky, convoluted, subtle ways this thing happened work well to identify Death and its inevitability with the character of the Trickster.
One of the most important features of the Trickster is that he is being regarded as a very old figure of ancient myths, and as such he belongs not to the gods but to entities that preceded the gods. In Europe, some such entities are called giants; Loki, for instance, is said to be the son of giants and actually a giant himself. This is a mythic fact, which denies Larousse’s determination of him as a new comer. Loki married a giantess, and their children are three terrors connected with death. One of them was the terrible wolf called Fenrir; the Wolf was involved in the creation of the Scandinavian world. The second was a snake-like monster called Jormungand, whom the Asgard gods threw into the ocean; this story connects that creature with a very ancient Mother figure in the form of a Sea monster. The third child was Hel, who is actually the Underworld Goddess herself, who had given her name to the English Hell. It is quite obvious, then, that these three characters that had sprung from Loki are of great antiquity and, as will be shown below, also strongly connected with Death.
Another so-called trickster is the Greek god Hermes, who is said to be the son of Maia, daughter of the Titan Atlas. The Titans were the children of the Earth goddess Gaia, giants in size who preceded the Olympian gods in the same way that the Norse giants preceded the gods of Asgard. The Larousse Encyclopedia says about Hermes that he belonged to the pre-Greek Pelasgian/Tracian culture, “an older subterranean divinity rather than a celestial one”; Hermes’s well-known function was to lead the souls of dead to the Underworld.
An additional example is that of the English Trickster Puck, who features as such in William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rudyard Kipling said about Puck that he was “the oldest thing in England.” Some people translate Puck’s name as “devil”, and claim he belongs to the Underworld. In some non-European cultures belonging to Amerindians and African tribes, the Trickster is a figure of great importance, as well as great antiquity.
Analyzing the Trickster’s character (as has been done by many writers), it can be demonstrated what made him suitable to personify Death. Here is a story from Melanesia about a certain Trickster and his actions. In the Banks Island, for instance (see link), there are stories about the creator god Qat, who made humans from wood and breathed life into them with the aid of his dance, and his counterpart, the Trickster Marawa, who tried to emulate his actions. Marawa also made humans from wood, but instead of dancing for them he buried them in the earth, until they rotted and died; in this way Death came into the world.
One indication of it can be seen in his connection with the Earth, particularly through the figure of the snake. Many myths indicate that when things die, they go to a place under ground, which is called the Underworld; snakes living in holes in the ground have been mythologically connected with the Earth from time immemorial. Many of the tricksters around the world have been associated with snakes in one way or the other.
In the Trickster Tales website (see link) there is a tale about the Indonesian trickster called Kantjil: in one of his tricks he intends to attack the tiger by using “a very venomous snake”, which he has found in a cave, lying coiled up asleep. The Trickster tells the tiger about a girdle found in that cave, which is supposed to be full of magic power. He then runs off and the tiger, which seizes the supposed girdle, is bitten by the snake. Only owing to his great strength the tiger does not die from the poison; such a war between the snake and the tiger has been described by the Hebrew writer (Nobel Laureate) Agnon as a fight between life and death. It is clear that the snake is not just used here by the Trickster as a weapon to kill the tiger—the Trickster himself is the snake. The meaning of this fight will be explained below.
Cave has always been used as an entrance to the Underworld. Loki also finds himself in such a place, threatened by a venomous snake; he is saved by his giant wife—an action which takes us back to an older world than the Classic Scandinavian Asgard (a parallel to the Greek Olympus), when the females had greater power than the males. The story may be interpreted in two ways: either Loki is identified with the snake and acts against the female as a social revolt of the weaker males against the stronger females—in which case it could be understood why Loki is considered a late comer; or it relates to the cycle of life and death under the charge of the Goddess, as will be explained below.
Hermes was also connected with snakes, and had a couple of them entwined along his staff, with which he led the souls of the dead down to the Underworld. In C. G. Jung’s book Dreams he is portrayed as the Ouroboro snake, coiled in a circle with its tail inside its mouth, as the alchemists saw him. The Ouroboro snake symbolized the cycle of dying and reviving of the God of the Year under the charge of the Nature goddess. The snake here is actually connected both to dying and reviving; on the one side he belongs to the Underworld as has been shown, on the other side he symbolized rebirth by his ability to shed his old skin and appear as young again.
This idea of the cycle of life, death and revival is also connected with Loki. Here are the relevant comments about him according to the Larousse Encyclopedia and the article Loki, Father of Strife from the Gnosis site (see link). It seems that Loki’s two main enemies were Balder and Heimdall; both were gods of light associated with the sun.
About Balder it is told that Loki contrived his death by directing the blind Hodder, Balder’s brother and god of the Underworld, to shoot him; for this purpose he used the wood of the mistletoe, a plant which was used to kill the seasonal fertility King of Diana’s grove at Nemi, as told by Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough. As to Heimdall, he was Loki’s sworn enemy, and they killed each other alternatively (as did the seasonal Canaanite gods Baal and Mot). To strengthen Loki’s character as the enemy of the rising god of the year, he steals the Apples of Youth kept by the Spring goddess Idune, thus causing all the gods to grow old; and in the end of days, it is Loki who causes the destruction of the whole of Asgard and its gods, after which there is a rebirth of a new Earth, its people and its gods.
It may be assumed that these tales of the fertility cycle of death and rebirth came ultimately from the Mediterranean and Middle East areas, where they are quite numerous and from where the Scandinavian people came in the remote past. It is also significant to note that the Hawaiian god Maui, nicknamed “Of the Thousand Tricks”, as we are told in the website of The Riddle of the Trickster, had the audacity to snare the Sun—just as Loki did.
A very typical trickster, who nontheless is not called so, it the Russian figure of Koshchei, as he is described in the Encyclopedia Mythica website by George Hager (see link below). Koshchei the Deathless, as he is often called, is a symbol of death and magic in Russian mythology, a powerful wizard or demigod who gains immortality by keeping his fiery soul hidden inside an egg; the egg, from time immemorial, has been a symbol of revival, eaten as such at Easter. In shape and behavior, Koshchei resembles the Grim Reaper, his dry, bony body reconstitutes over and over after being annihilated by his enemies, and he is credited as the son of Vij, Lord of the Underground. But when the soul-bearing egg is crushed, we are told, a cleansing fire from the egg envelopes the Earth, wiping it clean of all its old evil. Here we can see in Koshchei a parallel figure to the ancient figure of Death as a Trickster as was shown for Loki.
The snake is also associated with the fertility rites, celebrating that cycle of life and death, as a sex symbol because of its phallic shape. Like the snake, the Trickster is known for his sexual activities. Koshchei is notorious for kidnapping mothers, wives and maidens, and this multiple coupling can also belong to the same fertility cycle and its sexual orgies, when the god had to couple with as many females as possible to enhance the fertility of Nature. Koshchei kidnapped Marena—who is also called Mara, Marya or Morevna and was the Russian goddess of death and with whom he has a love-hate relationship; but then he finds that she is his undoing. She coaxes from him the information about his death and the location of his soul, and passes it to young Ivan, the constant hero of these stories. Ivan clearly represents the mythological figure of Balder, or Baal, who fight Death, die and then come back to life in their season of revival.
One of the basic features of the snake is his cunning, which is one form of Wisdom; and according to many myths, Wisdom’s place was in the Underworld. It is said in Genesis: “The snake was more cunning than all the wild animals.” Using his mental skill, the snake tricked Eve into eating the fruit of knowledge, thus determining that humans should die; it also determined that they should become wise—probably to the existence of Death, as well as to the mythological idea of the cycle of dying and reviving, as has been shown above.
A snaky cunning is any trickster’s stock in trade, without which he would be unable to fulfill his function. The Chinese description of the Snake’s Zodiac character, in the Chinese Astrology website (see link) is illuminating in its comparison to the Biblical character, and the connection between the Trickster and the properties of the Underworld: “He is charming, diplomatic and popular, seductive, savvy in business (Hermes’ style) and lucky with money. He is smart and dangerous with keen intelligence, tenacious, and when he is angry his bite is poison.”
Money, and all the riches under the earth, as Roman myths tell us, belongs to the Underworld and to its god Pluto. It is also told that the Sun god Apollo gave Hermes a magic wand, called the caduceus, which bestowed wealth and prosperity and ‘turned everything it touched into gold’.
Another side of wisdom belonging to the Underworld is the ability to prophesy—a quality which is also assigned to snakes. Greek Delphi, the site of the oracle connected with the Earth and the Underworld, was also the dwelling place of the enormous snake Python, from whom the Pythia had got both her name and her prophecies. Such sites and characters have always emitted a sense of awe, even fear, which is ultimately connected with Death and the Underworld, and perhaps also the fear of snakes. In C. G. Jung’s book Dreams, he mentions that the Trickster archetype is connected with the oracle of Earth and the Underworld.
In the website Courophobia (see link), which translates as “fear of clowns”—who, together with the Fool and the Jester, form alternative appellations to Trickster, as mentioned above—there is an enlargement on this idea. In an article by Joseph Durwin it is said that, ‘The Fool is connected to clairvoyance and divination… “I’m not comfortable in any way looking at them…” says Forest York”, expressing real discomfort and a need to get out of that situation; and “I stiffen up, sweat and get goose-bumps,” says Regina McCann.” Clowns are evil and hateful, associated with the supernatural.’ And, in the Wikipedia, Puck also is said to be shrewd and knavish, inspiring night-terror; he is a night creature who is associated with Pan, the wild, goat-footed god of the forest, who had given his legs to Satan and his name to the word “panic”.
The snakes live in two worlds: they crawl on the surface of the earth but live in a hole under it. In this they express another quality of the Trickster, who is connected both with the world of the living and the world of the dead. It has been said that the Trickster is associated with boundaries. Hermes was God of Boundaries, and it is said that his name means “a pile of stones”. Such piles of stones have been used for ever to mark the boundary separating territories; but it is also used to mark graves, i.e., the boundary between this world and the Underworld.
In the same way as the snake knows no boundaries between both worlds, so also Death, of which the World Mythology says, “there was a need for ancient people to explain the humiliating outrage of Death, who is an intruder and knows no boundaries.” In a parallel way it is said in the Couorophobia website: “Clowns are unimpressed with sacred ceremonies or the power of rulers; they are blasphemous and defiant.” And the Wikipedia defines the Trickster by the sort of action, which “breaks the rules of the gods or nature”. In the WWilke website (see link) it is claimed that, “Trickster figures violate taboos… that are within all of us.” Robert S. Ellwood argues that the Japanese god Susa-no-o is a trickster figure who “behaves against all accepted decency.”
There is a need here to differentiate between the symbolic language of myth and the modern psychological attitude, which is unacceptable when dealing with ancient myths. Regarding the mythical attitude, it is thus may be concluded that there is a direct connection between the Trickster, or his analogues the Fool, Jester or Clown, and death and the Underworld, both in character and in function. This must be a very old idea, close to the very first ideas appearing in human minds, which must have been forgotten in time, leaving behind just a mischievous, prank loving entity, but with an underlying, unexplained sense of fear and wrongness.
C. G. Jung—Dreams (Hebrew)
Larousse: Encyclopedia of Mythology
Sir James Frazer: The Golden Bough
Tala Bar is a retired teacher of Hebrew and English language and literature turned writer living in Israel. She holds an M.Phil. degree in literature from the London University, and has had a number of books, stories and articles published in Hebrew and English, both in print and on the Net.
Image: Arthur Rackham, 1910, Loki and the Rhinemaidens