"Trickster Makes This World"
by Lewis Hyde
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 20th January 2010This book is a fascinating cultural history about the universal "trickster" figure who appears in various guises in mythologies around the world and across the ages. Hyde focuses on Hermes as one of the tricksters from Greek mythology, but he includes many others including Eshu from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the North American Coyote and Raven, and the Norse God Loki.
In all cases the Trickster is a disruptive figure, and if read rather literally he can appear by turns both incredibly cunning (in the myth of Hermes) and bewilderingly stupid (in the stories about Coyote). Often though his role is to mediate between the eternal world of "the gods" (or maybe of nature) and the more messy world that people inhabit; but also the Trickster's antics seem to be about breaking the current order of things so that something new can appear - whether this is stealing fire from Heaven to give to mankind (in the case of Prometheus), or inventing the fishing net (in the case of Loki).
The Trickster is not necessarily a benign figure (as a child I remember feeling quite disturbed by the perverse motives of Loki, and his lack of interest in the consequences of his rather random and sometimes violent actions), and maybe this reflects the unpredictable nature of change - whether artistic, social or technological. But change is a fundamental part of our Western cultural, the idea that the world has to be constantly remade in order to "progress" (it is worth noting that not all cultures share this view).
The book is full of many other ideas aside from these (for example, considering cultural figures such as Picasso who have played a Trickster role), and it's to Hyde's credit that I found it so enjoyably readable. Like the work of Joseph Campbell, the stories that Hyde quotes are often of themselves quite fascinating and memorable. I still feel like there's more juice to be had out of this book.