Understanding archetypes: the Trickster

by on July 12th, 2010
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The archetype of the Trickster is found in the gods of the threshold, not the gods of the hearth. We can expect to encounter the Trickster when we’re ‘on the road’ so to speak, in a liminal situation. This applies whatever the landscape we’re travelling through: we can define a journey as any movement away from the familiar.

My personal understanding of the Trickster began when I spent many occasions over several years working with shamans and healers from different cultures. I privately endowed these people with an aura of knowing or embodying some kind of truth that I was looking for, and yet each encounter seemed only to bring me back to facing myself again. I was the one who had to evaluate what happened, what was said to me, what course was recommended.

I took my first trip to South America about eighteen months after I’d had a very severe accident that left me with a paralyzed eye. On that occasion, I was introduced to a curandero, Eduardo Calderon, who asked me if I would like him to work on the eye, and I was pleased to try. I returned to his house by the sea about nine that same evening, and gathered with locals and travelers out on the shore for a healing ceremony. The sea breeze was chilly, the evening clear, the sky filling with stars. Eduardo joined us, spent time setting up his mesa (a traditional arrangement of objects laid out in a pattern designed to help balance energies) and then opened the ceremony by shaking a small rattle, by whistling, and by calling on the powers of the invisible world with a long half-sung invocation.

Then we sat around; people greeted each other, joked and chatted quietly until we were invited to participate in taking a small glass of San Pedro. I drank some of the mild vegetable-flavored liquid, and we waited some more. Between eleven and midnight, Eduardo began working on people who had asked for his attention. Each one in turn went through the same process. A person was called into the center, and a circle of corn meal was drawn around. Each was given a concoction, made mainly of San Pedro and tobacco, to take by pouring from a small shell into a nostril. He or she would stand in front of Eduardo, who would observe for a while and then tell each person what he’d seen. When this was done, Eduardo would use one magical ritual or another to heal the illness or damage that had been done. Three times during this process, a bright light lit up the area, making me scan the clear sky, and wonder about ‘heat lightning’. I could not recognize any effect in myself from the San Pedro, but I realized that others in the group were apparently seeing and hearing things that I wasn’t, and they were seeing and hearing the same things. People around me were welcoming, yet I couldn’t help but feel my foreignness.

When it was my turn, I stood in the center, took the small shell that was handed to me, put my head back as I’d watched others do, and tilted a spur on the shell into my nostril. The theory might have been that the liquid would pass from the nostril into the throat – in my case it made a detour up into my sinuses, burning all the way, and leaving me gagging when it did hit my throat. When I finally got it down, Eduardo told me to take another shellful. I didn’t like this one any better, and by the time I finished, my mind was in an uproar of anger and defense.

Eduardo proceeded to tell me about my life, and everything he said to me was wrong! By this time I was done with experimenting with Peruvian shamanism – I would sit through the rest of the ceremony and never think of it again. And then, after doing the last part of the ritual, to which I hardly paid attention, Eduardo asked me to take off my eye patch. I did, and only very slowly did I realize that my ‘normal’ double vision was gone: I could see clearly directly ahead of me. I could not move my injured eye freely, but I did have a clear field of vision in front of me that I had not had since before my accident.

I sat back down, completely thunderstruck. What had happened? How could Eduardo be so wrong and ‘right’ at the same time? What did all this mean for me? Far from bringing an easy answer, my experiences threw me into a storm of questions.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of a pattern: reach out for direction, get something back, wonder if the answer was right for me, listen within for the resolution to that. I could have skipped the intermediate steps and gone directly to ‘listen more closely within’, but that’s exactly the point: the Trickster is the means by which we learn to do that.

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