Every once in a while, a book comes along at just the right time and provides me with one fresh Eureka moment after another. “The Trickster and the Paranormal” by George P. Hansen is just such a book. It has tied together many concepts that I previously failed to connect. In future posts, I would like to explore the connections between the Trickster archetype and the stories found in the Bible, but first I need to provide a quick summation of the concepts and terms expounded upon in Hansen’s book.
(Also, here is a youtube interview of George P. Hansen)
Introduction of Concepts: The Trickster, Structure/Anti-structure, Liminality, Reflexivity, Boundaries, Marginality, and Meaning
The Trickster is an archetypal character that shows up again and again in mythologies from all cultures around the world. Hermes and Prometheus in Greek mythologies, Loki in Norse mythology, the fox and the coyote in Native American mythologies, the serpent in all kinds of mythologies, Br’er Rabbit in African-American folklore, the jester, the Jack, Jack Sparrow, the clown, gods and devils, superheros and super-villains, Bugs Bunny, Mary Poppins, the Joker and Batman are just a few examples that come to mind. The Trickster is a boundary crosser. The Trickster inhabits the interstitial betwixt and between regions that lie at the fuzzy edges of defined boundaries that separate binary oppositions such as: heaven/earth, upper-class/lower-class, order/chaos, truth/falsehood, good/evil, life/death, human/animal, symbol/meaning, male/female, self/other, subject/object, rational/irrational. As such, the trickster is a marginal character without status and often solitary yet also charismatic. Sometimes the Trickster is profoundly wise and outwits his opponents to make them appear as fools. Sometimes the Trickster is incredibly lucky and outwits his opponents accidentally through comical buffoonery. The Trickster sometimes takes advantage of the inherent ambiguity in language (deconstruction) to deceive or hoax. The Trickster is associated with magic, the supernatural, the paranormal, and irrationality. The trickster is also associated change, humor, and with the reversal of status such as making fools out of the pompous and elevating the simple and humble over them. The Shaman in native tribal communities shares many qualities with the trickster: he is marginalized at the edge of the community, acts humorously foolish, performs magic which is sometimes a combination of hoax and miracle, blurs the boundaries between human and animal, often blurs gender roles, and claims supernatural power. “Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster)
Boundaries create structure. In language, definitions of words create boundaries around concepts which form binary oppositions. Some concepts are considered primitive notions of a logical system which is a form of structure that enables rational or “sane” thought. But the boundaries around concepts are always fuzzy because binary oppositions often bleed into one another in a continuum and the connection between symbol and meaning is not direct, is created through dynamic social convention, and is heavily dependent upon context, memory, and perception. The structures of logical thought are then vulnerable to attack through exploration of inherent ambiguity (deconstructionism or post-structuralism) and also through reflexivity (covered below). The Trickster utilizes blurred boundaries and the limits of perception to deconstruct and deceive. The Trickster promotes communitas and anti-structure instead of hierarchy and promotes the irrational and mystical instead of the rational and mundane. Hermenutics means the theory and methodology of textual interpretation, so it is understandable why the root of the word comes from Hermes, the trickster messenger god, who inhabited the interstitial domain between heaven and earth.
Social boundaries create societal structure, organizations, stratification of labor, class, and hierarchy. For example, the boundary between male and female enables a fundamental stratification of labor and societal functions in the form of gender roles. These then enable the formation of contractual partnership called marriage which is another boundary defining the family unit. The boundary between child and adult establishes the individual’s place and role in society by age. Crossing of societal boundaries or inhabiting the region between societal boundaries is often taboo. Shame and desire for acceptance motivate individuals to avoid taboos and stay within the established societal boundaries. The Trickster mocks the rigidity of socially constructed boundaries and crosses them despising the shame. The dissolution of boundaries is anti-structural and anti-establishment.
Liminality is the status of being without status and being on the boundary or on the threshold between a binary opposition. In structured societies, liminality is often confined to established times and rituals. For example, when a child goes through puberty, he or she enters a liminal status where he or she is still a bit of child and not quite adult and there is confusion about what his or her role should be. Coming-of-age or rites of passage rituals serve to contain and narrow this liminal period within a short well-defined boundary so that prior to the ritual the child knows to act like a child and society knows to treat him or her like a child. After the ritual, the adult knows to act like an adult and society knows to treat him or her like an adult. Often in native cultures, this liminal coming-of-age ritual is accompanied by the supernatural, vision quests, leaving society for a period of solitary trial, and visitations by the trickster either in the form of the shaman or other spirits. In highly structured orderly society, liminality and change is reduced while stability and routine are greatly increased thereby limiting the Trickster’s influence. Periods of travel or other breaks in routine open the door for the Trickster to show up. The Trickster himself is often portrayed as a frequent traveler, a wanderer, gypsy, the travelling fool, and permanently homeless. Many have noted the connection between synchronicity, Psi, and travel. Weird coincidences that happen in meaningful ways seem to increase when we break out of our routines. Meaning and interpretation is once again the domain of the Trickster.
Reflexivity is turning a process or system of rational thought inward upon itself and this can be structural as in the case of self-regulating feedback loops like self-awareness or introspection and self-examination leading to integration of the self, but reflexivity taken to extremes is often paradoxical and anti-structural. One simple example is the Liar’s paradox, “This statement is false,” which undermines Aristotelian logic and the excluded middle. Another example is using language to analyze language: the definition of a word is composed of other words which are composed of still more words such that any attempt to fully define a word can lead to either an infinite regress or a vicious circle. For this reason, deductive logic must be based on axioms or primitive notions which are accepted to be self-evident without the need of a definition. This would seem to lead to axiomatic systems of logical thought floating freely and un-tethered by any chain of deductive logic to some objective reality. This then leads to relativism or solipsism or mystical union. Reflexivity seems to lead to an abyss of mysterious uncertainty and paradox. It makes sense then that the reflexive activity of meditation – awareness of awareness – would lead to mysticism and experiences of “the Void” or “the Abyss” and a sense of the loss of self or blurring of the boundaries between subject and object. The condition of reflexivity and its corresponding tendency towards anti-structure and humor are conducive to the Trickster and the paranormal.
The Paranormal and all of its manifestations from psi to psychics, miracles, synchronicities, answered prayer, prophecy, apparitions of angels and demons, ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot, all seem to operate under the archetype of the Trickster and erupt out of the same conditions that are conducive to or created by the Trickster: anti-structure, marginality, liminality, periods of flux and change and uncertainty, travel, boundary blurring, ambiguity, betwixt and between, irrationality, and low status or status reversal.
For an in-depth history of the paranormal and parapsychology and the links to the Trickster archetype, read Hansen’s book, “The Trickster and the Paranormal”.