Today I mean to talk about comic books, trickster gods, and structure.
The trailer for the new Thor sequel came out; I watched it during my lunch break. The explosion in comic book heroes over the last few years caught me by surprise, but it shows no signs of stopping; we’re living in the golden age of comic book movies, when you can expect multiple ones every year.
In Thor, the trickster god Loki, very freely adapted from the Norse pantheon, has been imprisoned for a while; apparently, in the new movie, he is very reluctantly let out, on a sort of work-release program. Without being overly pretentious about it – well, OK, maybe being a little pretentious about it – we can study the implementation of the Norse pantheon, the way it was adapted by our culture, in comic books, to sift for clues about how we stack up against others, what we value and don’t value in the way we’ve imported another culture’s ancient lore. The thing that strikes me about Loki, the rule breaker, is that, in this adaptation, he is pretty unambiguously evil – a villain who could be characterized accurately as a ‘bad guy’ – whereas, in the myths, he’s not so clear-cut.
So let’s talk about trickster gods, then.
Start with this intro from Wikipedia.
The trickster deity breaks the rules of the gods or nature, sometimes maliciously (for example, Loki) but usually with ultimately positive effects (though the trickster’s initial intentions may have been either positive or negative). Often, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks (e.g. Eris) or thievery. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both; they are often funny even when considered sacred or performing important cultural tasks. An example of this is the sacred Iktomi, whose role is to play tricks and games and by doing so raises awareness and acts as an equalizer.
In many cultures, (as may be seen in Greek, Norse, or Slavic folktales, along with Native American/First Nations lore), the trickster and the culture hero are often combined. To illustrate: Prometheus, in Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods to give to humans… Prometheus was a Titan, whereas the Coyote spirit and Raven spirit are usually seen as jokesters and pranksters. Examples of Tricksters in the world mythologies are given by Hansen (2001), who lists Mercurius in Roman mythology, Hermes in Greek mythology, Eshu in Yoruba mythology and Wakdjunga in Winnebago mythology as examples of the Trickster archetype.
Hansen makes the observation that the Trickster is nearly always a male figure. Frequently the Trickster figure exhibits gender and form variability, changing gender roles and even occasionally engaging in same-sex practices. Such figures appear in Native American and First Nations mythologies, where they are said to have a two-spirit nature. Loki, the Norse trickster, also exhibits gender variability, in one case even becoming pregnant…
Tricksters aren’t quite good, aren’t quite bad; in a way, they are beyond good and evil – meaning, in this sense, that ‘evil’ doesn’t really apply as a description. Is tricking someone evil? It could be, in some contrived situation, but usually it isn’t. There’s often the sense that the trickster part is bound up with and inseprable from other qualities, golden qualities, that are tied to this trickiness, and that, in fact, trickiness has its benefits, as shown by those qualities.
You need the trickster, the message goes, even though he’ll never sit comfortably among you, because your social structures and mores inevitably become outmoded and decay, or just limit you, and the trickster is there to break rules that need to be broken, or simply question what your rules are there, even if they’re not wrong – even if they’re right. That’s what the trickster does – it’s in his nature – and he has his place at the table; the question is, does your society have room for him?
There’s a kind of restless, wild energy there, that won’t be disrespected and doesn’t need your rules; you, on the other hand, need it.
Take Hermes – in some ways the Roman god of wisdom. Hermes, in his origin myth, started off by stealing cattle. Stealing cattle! Not auspicious, you might say. And yet Hermes, in the myths, does so much for mankind – teaching writer, commercial savvy, a sort of quick-witted and fluid (i.e., Mercury, mercurial) intelligence. Yet you can’t expect everything in his lore to be ‘on the level’. Because ‘on the level’ is, in a sense, contrary to his nature, and if you wanted to engage Mercury in classical culture, you had to be open to that spirit, and move yourself away from one that is overstructured and hostile to tricksters.
We, as a culture, I would argue, as shown by the Thor movie and countless business conventions, are – outwardly, at least – hostile to tricksters. But we need them. They are the tonic to our excessive rigidity, to our all-figured-out excesses. They break that open and take advantage of loopholes and, in a deep and frightening sense, play, even with dangerous, serious things.
I’ve been trickster-like in my life, in ways that, from a moralistic perspective, may have looked negative. They weren’t. In fact, bringing back those trickster-like elements of my personality are key to having a certain kind of joie de vivre, a resistance to the status quo and to overly heavy modes of organization and routine.
So here’s to tricksters. Because sometimes, breaking the rules really is the best thing you can do.