Playing with Tricksters

There are several distinct patterns that continually come up in my spiritual life, certain things that all or at least most of the beings that come into my life have in common. One of those commonalities is that of falling under the modern archetypal classification of Trickster god.

My divine boss, Hermes, is a trickster. One of the deities he introduced me to, Loki, would be another very notorious trickster. Odin has more than a few trickster traits, and while I wouldn’t say Dionysos is a trickster his intensity and complete dissolution of boundaries can make people uncomfortable with him in some of the same ways. The two animal spirits that have emerged so far, Spider and Raccoon, both likewise have trickster qualities.

My divine line up makes some people nervous, and many have commented that they are glad they are not me. I frankly do not blame them. Tricksters represent that which is foreign, they stand outside of the normal social order, can open doors that let that which is outside into the center and create fires that destroy everything in their path. They represent sudden, massive, sometimes violent and destructive change, something that humans in general have a pathological fear of. They are chaotic and unpredictable, and play by no one’s rules but their own. Naturally, this and the roller coaster like existence that comes from serving them, is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

I have been known to argue with those who insist tricksters, or any chaotic being at all, are just simply evil and not to be worshiped. Leaving aside for a moment my personal dislike of terms of moral absolutism such as “good” and “evil” I am not certain that such terms can be rightly applied to such ambiguous beings. Human being are not the center of the universe, merely one part of an overall whole; the world is not here to cater to you and the gods aren’t either. Something making you uncomfortable does not mean that something is evil, or that it has no place or purpose (which is not to say I believe every being out there was meant to be worshiped by humanity, there are many beings which stand too far outside and should not be approached, but this takes us far from the purpose of this article).

Tricksters are threshold beings, and as such serve a very clear and very necessary function in the maintenance of the social order; they exist in all pantheons in all cultures for a reason, because their existence is necessary to keep the whole intact (for an excellent study of tricksters and their relationship with society, please check out this wonderful and highly recommended book). I would be willing to bet most people will at some point in their lives need the interference of a trickster in order to instigate a needed change. Change is something people are afraid of, and I have known many that remain willingly in the same toxic and empty circumstances, however miserable they may be there, because these circumstances are at least familiar and they don’t know what else to do. Those that are most frightened of the tricksters and what they represent are sometimes the ones that need their influence the most.

The modern Hellenic community, in my own opinion, tends to minimize and water down Hermes’ trickster aspect, turning him into the equivalent of a divine dancing monkey. He is here to do cartwheels, inspire all sorts of random goofy shit, and make you laugh, and that is the full extent of his trickster side. On this I must violently, and irritatedly, disagree. Hermes is not a harmless sprite or a bumbling clown, everything I said above in regards to trickster gods applies to him as well.

This tendency I think is fueled both by Hermes’ overall positive treatment in surviving lore and ancient culture (as opposed to other tricksters like Loki, who is sometimes spoken of as though he were the Norse version of Satan, which is of course ridiculous), and a certain resistance in much of the community to see the gods as anything other than glowy balls of serene perfection, embodiments of pure morality (which usually translates into something like the gods would never do anything I personally do not like, the assumption being once again that humans’ sense of morality governs all things). This is not a world view that I agree with or one which is supported by anything that I see in the workings of the universe as I know it (indeed, often this is argued as I wouldn’t want to worship gods that are anything less than moral perfection, therefore gods that are not morally perfect do not exist, which of course is proof of nothing; I won’t say that a more reasoned argument can not be made, only that I haven’t heard one and I doubt my mind will ever be changed on the matter anyway so please, don’t attempt it). I do not hold the gods up to human moral standards, nor do I think morality is solely, or even mostly, what they are all concerned with. The gods are not always nice, some less so than others, and they don’t always do things that you would consider to be nice. Seeing them as flawed both makes sense to me and represents no conflict in worshiping them, actually I find that idea somewhat offensive; the gods deal with you in all your flaws after all, where do you get off being so high and mighty?

Unlike some others, Hermes does seem to have a very well developed public face, he does move more freely from fringe to center and does deal in the everyday life of the community more than what seems to be the usual. This is the face that most people will see, and indeed it is one where many of the classic trickster traits are more muted (which is still no excuse for thinking him the god of stupid jokes and inane pranks). Which is still not to say that invoking him will ever be a hundred percent safe or that he will ever necessarily behave in the way you expect he will or even in a way you might approve of; how many times do I see people ask him for some luck and then stand there facing the front door waiting for him to come in, when he has already snuck in the back door and left you a small gift on the table don’t ask where it came from.

Those that more closely work with Hermes, who have been claimed and actively patronized by him, tend to see a different face. It tends to be a darker one, one far more aligned with that classic trickster image. One that is far more foreign, more unpredictable, more chaotic and a little less nice in the normal social sense (although he is still hopelessly likable in a strange sort of way). Zeus’ Hatchet Man, as opposed to his Herald. This is something I have discussed with other Hermes’ people who have noticed much the same thing, the few of us that there actually are.

Because Hermes does not appear to patronize that many people, and this is something I have been noticing since I first met and began my relationship with him. He is friends with many people certainly, widely liked and actively involved with the modern community. Often times I see him appear in a secondary or even tertiary position behind a different deity, very often Apollon or Dionysos, sort of as a support figure to the primary relationship. But very rarely is he the primary relationship, very rarely does he reach out and outright claim someone as his own. One reason for this is the simple fact that trickster deities do not claim that many people as it is. Even if all of us need them some times, or can form casual relationships with them, most people are simply not equipped to stand that close to these beings for very long, not equipped to handle the roller coaster ride that life with them always ends up being.

I did not choose my deities, they all came to me, and it is not an accident that I wound up with the line up that I have. There are many things about me that are different from the norm, things that make me unusually fit to live the trickster lifestyle, to walk with and serve these beings. I can not promise that this will be true of everyone grabbed up by tricksters, but it is true of me and may well explain why I was made into the spiritual specialist that I am, why I have the relationships that I do.

* Along the spectrum between order and chaos, my natural balance point is much closer to the chaotic end than it is for most people. I thrive in chaos in a way that isn’t often seen, I like lots of movement and background noise and clutter, and I like things to change on a very regular basis. Rather than avoid change I embrace it, I encourage it. I have had my whole life torn down and remade more than once (which, by the way, is par for the course in serving tricksters; they will do that to you, they will do it often), and I still need to break routine and go to new places, do new things, change my surroundings (which does involve moving frequently) every so often. I will not pretend that I require no level of stability whatsoever, that is true of no one (anymore than someone can live entirely without chaos), and in some aspects of my life stability is the order of the day such as in romantic relationships (that’s right people, I am a monogamous Pagan *gasp*). But most of the time a little stability goes a very long way with me, and it doesn’t take much for me to become bored and fall into a depressive rut.

So many people make it their goal to settle down somewhere, buy a house and live there forever, find a career and stay there until retirement. Most of my blood relatives all live in the same area, they are born there and never leave, my father held the same job for over thirty years. This is considered a normal part of life, a successful life. I can’t remember a time when the thought of ending up like that didn’t fill me with panic.

* I have been a social outsider my entire life. There is a difference between people that really are outsiders and those that are going through certain phases, rebelling or playing with their identity and will eventually grow out of it and blend back into the crowd; I am one of the former. Some have accused me of deliberately trying to be different, and that might have carried some weight except that this began when I was five years old (and I have the documentation to prove it). A five year old is not trying to be different, a five year old doesn’t even realize that there is a norm for them to differ from. Even if I now live in a place where people consider my various eccentricities to be charming (at a distance) rather than horrifying, what was true of me then is, for the most part, still true of me now.

A person serving a deity who is all about community building will likely find themselves presented with a community to be a part of. Tricksters are more liminal figures, they exist at the boundary, and if you serve one you will likely have to do so from the position they themselves occupy. Although I would never want to be anywhere else in life, I do not pretend that life on the fringe is easy (anyone who tells you it is is a liar), and it must be ten times harder for someone that was not born to it. There is a good reason why those who serve liminal deities were almost always liminal people to begin with.

And of course, Hermes does not exist entirely outside of the social order; there is a degree of interaction, and so there is with me as well (which is not always easy or comfortable for me, frankly, I am naturally anti social). I maintain a fringe involvement with various groups, though never as a full community member and there are always important ways in which I remain not one of them, and after a time I inevitably move on.

* I am a very ambiguous person that doesn’t fit neatly and easily into any category, stereotype or subculture. Perhaps because of this (or maybe this is a symptom of the other)  I am predisposed to see the world in varying shades of gray, believing that, in general, absolutes do not exist (what I like to call a realistic view ;-)). I tend to judge things on a situational basis relative to the circumstances, which is really the only approach when dealing with deities that blur boundaries (they’ll have way too much fun with you otherwise).

* One of the most common accusations against tricksters is that they are not trustworthy. I am not certain that that is really the case (not always, anyway)  but more that, as I said above, they do not play by the same rules that others do. You may come in expecting them to do one thing based on your own usual experiences, but as far as they are concerned they never promised you any such thing. Most of them will keep their word, the letter of it and no more than that, it is up to you to close the loopholes.

I experienced a lot of emotional and physical abuse growing up, and the end result of that is my ability to trust was almost completely destroyed. As a teenager my brain clicked into survival mode and developed a very lone wolf mentality: I look out for myself first and foremost, because there is no one else looking out for me. That was my reality for a very long time, and though things have changed and I have softened to a degree that I am able to trust (though admittedly, I can count the number of people I have ever trusted on one hand), much of that mentality still remains and likely always will. It is not completely necessary that I am able to trust you in order to form a relationship (barring intimate ones) or be willing to deal with you, because I probably don’t, and can’t, trust you out of hand.

For several years, I sought out the company of people that were considerably less than trustworthy, and quite open and proud of that. After years of being stabbed in the back (always by seemingly nice people that smiled to my face and swore up and down they would never do such a thing), there was something almost refreshing about such people, who at the least didn’t pretend that you could trust them. There was a degree to which I felt safer with people willing to lay their darker cards out on the table where I knew they were there, and spending time with such people taught me how relationships with them are negotiated.

One mistake I think many make is expecting that people will behave in the way you prefer they would, instead of paying attention to who they are and how they themselves act. There isn’t always a malicious intent there, just expectation projected on to them that it isn’t in them to fulfill. Never expect someone to behave in a way that is against their nature; if someone tells you they are not reliable, then do not put yourself in a position where you must rely on them. Most people will tell you who they are, the signs are there if you are looking for them, but most aren’t until its too late.

We all have a world view of our own, a list of rules and ethics we live by, and have a habit of assuming that everyone else sees things the same way that you do. That is not a good idea, and that goes triple when dealing with trickster deities who, by their nature, operate under their own rules. You need to be willing to set your own expectations aside, and negotiate on their terms and from within their world view as best you can.

Now, can most people do this easily? Probably not, and that is a good reason for the approach with caution advice. And this is of course not to say that tricksters can never be trusted period, but that is something to be seen over time. I trust Hermes completely, because he has proven over the years to have my best interests at heart (I never took that as a given, and it took a while to get to that point, and it certainly doesn’t save me from getting messed with every now and then); many who are close to Loki report that he is very loyal to those he considers to be friends, though not necessarily to anyone else. And hey, even a normally unreliable person can come through for you every now and then, you just shouldn’t expect it. Never expect more than they have told you, and shown you, that they are willing to give.

I don’t bring up any of these points to suggest that I am special, merely to speculate on why I may have wound up where I have spiritually speaking. There are many different places in the world, many different deities representing those different places, we’re all naturally better suited to some than others; many of the more community oriented deities that are the cornerstone of so many people’s personal practice are unreachable, if not outright barred, to me; you can’t have it all, there is always a trade off, that is just the way it goes. It is interesting for me to see how many ways in which I was suited for this, how much of my life almost seemed to prepare me for it; it lends a certain amount of confirmation to things (for me that is, your mileage may vary).

I also post it to be helpful to others. If you should decide you want to play with a trickster, these are some good points for you to keep in mind during your dealings with them. Maybe you can come out of it, not with the upper hand but at least with a few chips still in your pocket.