Musing on the Trickster

In the days before Facebook and twitter, as a teen office worker, I would see countless Xerox ‘memes’ make their way around the building. These were funny little pictures, sayings, and stories that people would copy and post to their cubicle walls (think, bosses are like diapers because . . . ).

One was a pseudo fable about a little bird who fails to fly south for the winter in a timely fashion. By the time he leaves, it is too late. His little wings freeze and he falls to the earth. Lying there, on the edge of death, he thinks that life could get no worse when a passing cow drops a hot and fresh load of shit on him. Soon, the little bird’s misery is turned to joy when the warm shit thaws his wings and brings him back from the edge of death. In his joy, he begins to sing loudly and attracts the attention of the farm cat who promptly plucks him out of the shit and eats him.

The moral of the story: just because someone gets you into shit, it doesn’t mean they are your enemy. Just because someone gets you out of shit, it doesn’t mean they are your friend. The kicker, if you are warm and happy in a pile of shit, keep your mouth shut.

I tried to get an origin for this little ‘gem’ of knowledge, but found only countless versions of the story with no author. This story struck me because it defies traditional plots and yet makes sense. This is no tragedy – the bird was foolish and his demise, be it from cold or cat, seemed inevitable from the start of the tale. It is not a traditional moral tale either, even though the bird is punished for his laziness. The intervention of the cow averts the usual natural consequence of the boy crying wolf, or the lazy grasshopper starving as in a fable plot. Unlike an epic, there was no hero here, and there is no true villain. The paradigm of good and evil was absent in the story.

This is trickster. Like the cow and the cat, who act without benevolence or malice, the mythical trickster acts with no concern for humanity. Kindness and victimization are a matter of the bird’s perspective. Like the oblivious cow or the lucky cat, trickster gives humanity fire or steals all of their food as a careless consequence of his personal motivations.

When Iktomi, acting only on his hunger, tricks ducks into dancing with their eyes closed, the surviving ducks are those who broke the rules and dared to peek. They escaped wiser than before and have essentially been rewarded for seeing through the false sacred. Trickster teaches and his is a harsh lesson.

When Anansi tries to steal all the wisdom of the world for himself, he inadvertently spreads it out to humanity.

Trickster tests physical limits and social conventions. When it is time for change, trickster leads the way. When it is time for stability, trickster is punished for his transgressions. He is no god, rather he representative of human nature and the natural world around us.

Perhaps, ironically, he is the god of atheists – nature carelessly doing humanity ill and good in random turns and leaving them wiser and more autonomous as an intention-less consequence.

just something to ponder

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