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  • Writer's pictureSt Georges Milton

Lessons from the Trickster - 2023 Sermon for National Indigenous Day of Prayer

Updated: Jun 20

Readings: Genesis 25:24-34; Luke 2:41-52

On this Sunday where we celebrate Indigenous peoples, I’d like to talk a little about what the ‘Trickster’ character found in many Indigenous cultures might have to say to us today. In much the same way that Indigenous people did not refer to themselves as Indians prior to Columbus, the term ‘trickster’ does not appear in native culture until the nineteenth century. The term is attributed to anthropologist Daniel Brinton, who used the word to describe the category of characters found within Indigenous myths and legends. These characters go by various names and appear in differing forms depending on the tradition. The Anishinaabeg told stories about Nanabush, the Cree about Wesakechak, the Blackfoot about Napi, and the Stolo, Coyote. Trickster stories are not limited to North American indigenous peoples. West Africa has the mythical hero Anansi the Spider, the ancient Greeks and Romans had Hermes or Mercury, Scandinavians have Loki, and some suggest that perhaps even Bugs Bunny could be considered a Trickster.

Br’er Rabbit as Trickster?

One of the most common Trickster stories that you might be aware of is the story about Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. In this story, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it in clothes. Br’er Rabbit comes along and tries talking to it. When he gets no response, he is offended and starts to punch and kick the Tar Baby. The sticky tar easily entraps him until Br’er Fox returns and considers how he might dispose of Br’er Rabbit. The helpless but cunning Rabbit pleads, “Do anything you want with me – roas’ me, hang me, skin me, drown me – but please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch”, prompting the sadistic Br’er Fox to do exactly that because he believes it will inflict maximum pain on Br’er Rabbit. However, as rabbits are at home in thickets like the brier-patch, the resourceful Br’er Rabbit escapes.[1] In this story the Br’er Rabbit represents many Trickster qualities: he is lazy, a thief, has a talent for escape, is cunning and defies expectations.

But Tricksters are much more than this. They can represent freedom from all restraint and can amaze with their creativity and ingenuity. They are mischief makers, living ‘on the road’[1] or in the in-between places. Tricksters tend to embody what Carl Jung would call the shadow side of human nature, frequently engaging in taboo behaviour. They deceive and steal, often overcoming much stronger adversaries. While the Trickster is most often male, he can easily switch gender or simply dress in female attire. He has an insatiable appetite, both for food and for sexual satisfaction. He will seduce anything that moves, male or female. A Trickster will make trouble for everyone, including himself. Though he often succeeds in deceiving others for his own ends, the Trickster just as often comes to a bad end himself. Jace Weaver writes,

[1] This expression is used by Lewis Hyde to describe tricksters. See: Kidwell, Clara Sue; Noley, Homer; Tinker, George E. “Tink”. A Native American Theology. Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. P. 114

“Trickster stories teach what happens as a result of stupidity, gluttony, lust, and arrogance. Listeners laugh at his exploits, but they also learn societal values and mores through humor.”[1]

These lessons were extremely important for North American indigenous societies pre-European contact. Winifred Morgan notes that these folks’ lives were characterized by cycles of abundance and starvation with the environment their most dangerous opponent. The good of the community was valued far more than an individual’s striving to meet their own needs. Often, Trickster tales from this period, transmitted orally, featured “self-focused tricksters as object lessons demonstrating foolish or dangerously antisocial behaviour.”[2]

[1] Weaver, Jace. From A Native American Theology by Kidwell et al. p. 114

[2] Morgan, Winifred. The Trickster Figure in American Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, New York. 2013. P. 46

Tricksters often possess what we might call positive qualities as well. Sometimes tricksters steal good things from the divine realm that humanity needs to survive in the world. For example, Raven, trickster of the Northwest Coast, steals light from the divine world and returns to earth with it. While his motivations were self-serving (he needed light to feed by), this story is an example of the Trickster’s role as a culture-hero to humanity. He is a creative figure, though he is not himself the Creator. Among the Haida, Raven is credited for bringing the first humans into the world by cooing and coaxing them out of a clam shell. He also goes on to teach them how to hunt, fish, and cook. For the Crow Indians, it is Coyote who teaches them how to hunt Buffalo. Coyote teaches the Nez Perce how to catch salmon. Iktomi, the Spider trickster of the Lakota, created time and space, language, and named the animals. Glooskap, the Algonkian culture-hero, shaped the rocky coast of New England. The Hawaiian Maui pulls the islands up from the bottom of the ocean. Wolverine, from the Innu of the Arctic lore, calls the sea beasts together to bring the earth up from below the primordial waters. Trickster stories are even used sometimes in healing rituals where they are told to the community to promote moral and physical well-being.

Ultimately, however, Tricksters represent the dualities of existence. The Hopi trickster, Masau’u, aka the Skeleton Man, “is a creator, a germinator, the protector of travelers, the god of life and death, the peacemaker, and the granter of fertility. But he is also a lecher, a thief, a liar, and sometimes a cross-dresser. Masau’u is probably the strangest and most multifarious of all Native American trickster gods. He can assume any shape—human or animal—to lure a maiden to share his blanket. Ruler of the underworld, he is often shown as a skeleton but can also be depicted as a normal, handsome young man bedecked in turquoise. He is said to live in poverty, but he is lord of the land…. Masau’u is also the boundary maker and the god of planting and agriculture. During Hopi planting ceremonies, Masau’u impersonator is the center of the action.”[1]

[1] Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, as cited by Weaver, p. 117-118

Christianity Encounters the Trickster

The Trickster, as we have discovered, is notoriously ambiguous and impossible to pin down. Those in positions of power, be they representatives of the church, the government, or economic authorities, tend not to tolerate such vagueness. Christian missionaries did not know what to do with the Trickster character’s sexual and moral slipperiness. They were shocked by stories like that of Wakdumkaga, the Winnebago trickster, who appears in stories carrying his enormous penis around in a box. Such frank discussions of the earthiness of human existence and the highly sexualized aspect of Trickster’s personality, contributed to the Church’s denouncement of this central figure to Native cultures. They equated the Trickster with Satan as part of their effort to belittle and undermine traditional Native understandings of the divine. However, as Lewis Hyde points out, “The Devil is an agent of evil, but trickster is amoral, not immoral. He embodies and enacts that large portion of our experience where good and evil are hopelessly intertwined.

He represents the paradoxical category of sacred amorality.”[1]  Or he may be regarded as simultaneously creator and destroyer, giver and negator, one who dupes others and is always duped himself. He can be seen as a being who knows neither good nor evil, and yet is responsible for both. He possesses no social or moral values, yet through his acts all values come into being.[2] Hyde argues that the erasure of trickster figures, or of confusing them with the devil, does not mark growth in a society’s spiritual consciousness. Pretending that our actions are morally neutral when they are not, does not lead to greater clarity about what is right and what is wrong. In fact, pushing the ambiguities of life into the background can lead to devastating consequences. It can lead us to an unconscious cruelty masked by inflated righteousness.[3] Certainly the history of Christianity’s treatment of indigenous people bears this out.

[1] Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. P. 10

[2] Paul Radin, The Trickster. New York: Schocken Books, 1972. P. xxiii

[3] Hyde, p. 10-11.

What Do Tricksters Have to Say to us Today?

So, what do Tricksters have to say to us today, 21st century Jesus-followers in the liberal-progressive stream of Christianity? Firstly, I think it is important for us to recognize Trickster stories in our own sacred Scriptures for approaching them in this way may yield previously hidden insights. Our first reading this morning tells part of the story of Jacob, whose story can be considered as a trickster cycle. While still in the womb, Jacob jockeys for position with his twin Esau, grabbing his brother’s ankle in an attempt to be the firstborn. Several years later, he tricks his hungry brother into selling his inheritance for a simple meal. He also enlists the help of their mother, Rebekah, in a scheme where he poses as Esau to gain their father’s blessing that rightly belonged to his brother. He deceives and cheats his father-in-law Laban out of his flock before running away. Lastly, he stays up all night wrestling with a mysterious stranger who turns out to be God and who leaves Jacob with a lame hip because of their conflict. Jacob was then renamed by God as Israel, meaning “one who struggles with God” and his descendants would be regarded as the chosen people of God.

I’ve always struggled with Jacob’s story because I grew up in a tradition that upheld Biblical characters as moral exemplars. His story makes more sense to me as a trickster tale for he seems to be a symbol of the ambiguity of good and evil and a bold example of human duplicity. Humans may aspire to be good, but tricksters like Jacob can show us that they are also subject to basic impulses and desires. So maybe it would be more helpful to see in Jacob’s story these themes of moral uncertainty and mystery and how God can use even the most flawed of us to a greater purpose than we can imagine?

Jesus as Trickster?

Some would argue, and I would count myself among them, that Jesus himself exhibited Trickster qualities. In the gospel reading we heard this morning, a young Jesus slips away from his parents while in Jerusalem. They find him three days later in the Temple, listening and questioning the religious teachers. When asked by his mother, Mary, about his behaviour, he responds by saying he “must be in (his) Father’s house.” Using the term ‘Father’ is a play on words for his father was Joseph, and also Yahweh. The fact that he slipped away from his parents and had an ambiguous identity (possibly of divine origin) situates him in a trickster role. In a non-canonical gospel, there is the story of a young Jesus molding birds out of clay. Joseph is furious that he is making ‘idols’ so Jesus calls the birds to life, and they fly away. One can interpret the story as a sign of a young Messiah failing to understand his power. But it is also the behaviour of a Trickster – caught in an illicit activity, Jesus destroys proof of his crime.

Other ways that Jesus is like a Trickster include the often-dramatic ways that he uses his divine powers to meet the needs of others. (Think of him turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana and when he multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the masses).  He is also always on the move, with no place to lay his head. Jace Weaver writes, “Jesus is the antisocial disrupter of religious norms. He subverts expectations about not only what the Messiah is but what a holy person in first-century Palestine should be like. He loved a good party. He exercised his appetites and ate and drank with sinners and publicans. He deigned to have interaction with a despised Samaritan woman and preached of the good Samaritan, scandalizing the pious of his generation.”[1] He confronts and confounds religious authorities time and again – from chasing out the profiteering merchants in the Temple with the aid of a whip, to wisely responding to the Pharisees question about paying taxes to Caesar, to preaching an ‘upside-down kingdom’ expressed in the Sermon on the Mount where the poor, mourning, and meek are blessed and given special prominence.

[1] Weaver, Jace. P. 122

Tricksters Can Change Us

Trickster stories use humour and irony to provoke thought and inspire changed attitudes. Trickster stories also teach us of the sacredness of life, and the naturalness of humanity, including human sexuality. Indigenous worldviews traditionally see humans as part of the created order, not separate from it. This notion is reinforced by the fact that Trickster is usually depicted as an animal: spider, rabbit, coyote, racoon, raven, etc. These are all animals that live in close proximity to humans and have the ability to live both in the wild and alongside human spaces. We are quick to draw distinctions between right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead, and the trickster would cross these lines and confuse these distinctions. “In Jesus, Natives see the ultimate boundary-crosser, erasing the barriers between heaven and earth, life and death. In the resurrection, he becomes…the great bridge builder, building a bridge between life and life. Like Trickster, who is the spirit of the doorway leading out and the road beyond, Jesus is described as the “door” and the “way.””[1]

[1] Weaver, p. 122-123

Trickster stories also create space to ask the painful and impossible questions about colonialism. Trickster’s deceptions and thefts challenge basic ethical premises of ownership, much as Indigenous people question the ways in which settlers took possession of their lands. Howard Norman writes, “(The Trickster’s) presence demands, cries out for, compassion and generosity toward existence itself. Trickster is a celebrator of life, a celebration of life, because by rallying against him a community discovers its own resilience and protective skills.”[1] We Christians are quick to acclaim Christ’s wisdom, acts of compassion, and his life, death, and resurrection. Can we also leave room for, and perhaps even revel in, his humour and his passions? Can we believe in a God as both provider and provoker? As a steady presence and unpredictable entity? Can we come to see God for the trickster that God is?

[1] As cited by Weaver, p. 125

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