Homage to the trickster

Homage to the trickster

Rich Heffern

Truthteller creates and destroys

Saturday mornings when I was a kid, I never missed “Andy’s Gang” on the tube. Host Andy Devine appeared live every week with a supporting cast of characters: Midnight the Cat, Squeaky the Mouse and — best of all –Froggy the Gremlin. Gravel-voiced Andy would speak the incantation, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!”

In a puff of smoke, Froggy appeared standing on a grandfather clock, laughing, hopping from side to side and teasingly repeating words of any sentence he uttered. His greeting, “Hiya, Kids, Hiya, Hiya!” would be answered by the delighted young audience, “Hiya, Froggy!”

Andy always thought Froggy would stop being the little gremlin that he was and behave. But the kids knew better. Froggy kept playing dirty tricks, he did, he did. He deflated any “guest” who was about to deliver a demonstration or lecture that involved learning something boring.

Kids in the audience howled with delight, as Froggy took on Professor Pasta Fazoole, Uncle Fishface, the poet Algernon Shortfellow, Clancy the Cop or The Gym Teacher. He’d play impish pranks, finish their sentences for them with twisted phrases, causing chaos and hilarity in the audience. When the guest finally lost it and grabbed for his neck, Froggy disappeared in a puff of smoke. But right away he’d pop up somewhere else, he would, he would.

This amphibian poltergeist, dressed in a red jacket, white shirt and black tie, with no pants on, infiltrated our homes nationwide in the 1950s with his humorous disobedience. One critic blamed him for the rebelliousness of the ’60s. Above all, he was a trickster, that sly figure found in many world myths and cultures. Loki, Nasrudin, Coyote, Kokopelli, Raven, Murphy of “Murphy’s Law,” Bugs Bunny, Weird Al Yankovich and David Letterman are all tricksters.

Tricksters are transformers, jokers, truth-tellers and destroyers. The trickster’s pranks create and destroy. With a deep curiosity that led them into trouble, they also had cunning wit to get out of jams. Humans would forgive the trickster, knowing that when the gods were plagued by the trickster’s wit and arrogance, the side effects were often beneficial to humans. Even if Coyote caused the great flood because of a theft, he somehow led the human race to a better world. The Norse trickster Loki stole fire for humans and paid a terrible and eternal price for it. In the heart of the trickster is a savior.

Trickster energy also is there to deflate the pomposity that attaches itself to sacredness and religion. It is also a key ingredient in creativity. The trickster is profoundly inventive, creative by nature.

In our own seemingly ultra-rational culture, that sly trickster grin is found everywhere we look. The god of technology, like the Greek god Hermes, is both trickster and magician. The techno-trickster performs sleight of hand, wondrous marvels, yet also scrambles established codes, overturns truths and constantly hoodwinks us with unintended consequences.

Bill Clinton has been accused of it. He’s part victim, part perpetrator, all trickster. Far more adept than his enemies at slipping and sliding, he’s a shapeshifter, a silver fox in the wolf run.

Modern quantum physics is another place where the trickster can be found deep in the very heart of reality. Particle physicists talk about nonlocal causality, wherein far distant particles instantaneously “know” each other’s status. Or, subatomic particles that appear out of nothing and vanish into nothing. Or, foxy energy everywhere that collapses into matter only when it is observed.

Native American spirituality pays full homage to the trickster in story and practice. Zen Buddhism highly honors this cosmic monkey. Christianity was once as rich as any religion in trickster rites and lore, until the Enlightenment, anyway. St. Simon perched for years on a pillar, a fool for Christ. Francis of Assisi acted the clown, rubbing sticks together to make music, talking to the wolves, shedding his inheritance to embrace Lady Poverty, rebuilding the church.

In the 15th century, if you entered Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on the 1 st of January, in the gloom of the immense stone structure, you would witness the celebration of the Mass of the Asses, Drunkards and Gamblers. The smell of sour incense from burning filthy old shoes would assail your nose, along with strange chants and the sight of a donkey at the altar. Carnival still persists everywhere in Latin cultures. Revelers on parade channel the trickster as long winters come to an end.

Iconographer Robert Lentz points out the similarities between Jesus and the trickster figures. Jesus scribbled cryptically in the dirt, answered questions with sometimes baffling parables, multiplied loaves and fishes, hung out with the wrong types and appeared slightly ridiculous to the majority. In fact, divinity on earth must often be an anomaly, a kind of Zen koan, sign of contradiction.

At the heart of our religion there’s a trickster kind of puzzle: Why does God come here as a dirt-poor Jewish woodbutcher instead of Kubla Khan, Napoleon or even Donald Trump? Well, perhaps because divinity really is in solidarity with us humans, even (and especially) the lowliest. Divinity disappears one place only to reappear somewhere else. God tricks us with unexpected love, forgiveness. God bamboozles us with resurrection, God does, God does.

Rich Heffern is the former editor of Praying magazine and a frequent contributor to NCR.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Catholic Reporter

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning