A specific kind of organizing energy or pattern may be called “archetypal” when it appears in multiple cultures, however differently disguised, appareled, or enacted. One such recurrent energy is what Jung called “the trickster” archetype. On the personal level, we all know about Die Schelm at work in our daily lives, the little devil that moves our keys from where we know we left them, which causes us to forget what we intended to remember, that disrupts the flow of daily life as we would have it.
We might say that the “trickster” is the personification of the absolute autonomy of nature. We gain a provisional recognition of trickster energy when we personify it as coyote, fox, hare, imp, devil, Kokopelli, “Murphy’s Law,” and the like. If we can image it, we can then begin to establish some conscious relationship to it. It is most autonomous, most likely disruptive to the expected order of things, when it operates unconsciously in our lives.
A personal example of the trickster at work occurred to me, decades ago, when I was teaching at a university. In a course on myth, we had been examining Buddhist perspectives on the relationship of the ego, with its various management scripts, to the autonomy of nature, noting how we are so often invested in micro-managing what we cannot control, and then being frustrated at reminders of our existential limitations. That particular class, to save time, I carried my car keys in my pocket rather than return to the office to retrieve them. When I rushed to my car, en route to several patient appointments in a distant city, my keys were missing. To make this long story very short, I had left them in the classroom, a passing administrator picked them up and forgetfully carried them in his coat pocket the rest of the day. After hours of frustration, having blown all those appointments, I finally had my keys returned by the “Lost and Found” department. The next class I began by recalling our discussion of hyper-control and its estranging effects in our live. I had to confess to the class how to save five minutes, I had lost a day. The trickster had done his reminding, humbling work in me.
On the collective level, the trickster appears in our public pathologies just as well. In his essay on the trickster, Jung writes, “As soon as people get together in masses and submerge the individual, the shadow is mobilized and, as history shows, may even be personified and incarnated.”
The classic example of how the trickster can take hold of a group’s psyche is found in the Austrian corporal who 1) found simplistic “reasons” for the nation’s distress, 2) identified scapegoats, those who must be excluded from the society, and 3) offered grandiose promises of full employment, restoration of the old values, and a return to national greatness. This Know-Nothing, ignorant, and deeply troubled man mobilized a nation, gained millions of votes, and led them to ruin. In seeking to account for this troubled figure’s capacity to reach within the souls of so many individuals, the trickster energy is evident. We do not fall for public tricksters unless and until our inner trickster has already over-thrown our good sense, our reason, and our grounding.
The health of the commonwealth is never any better than the health of its individuals. Where we are unconscious, or unaccountable, the trickster has free rein. This is why Jung concluded, “In the history of the collective, everything depends on the development of consciousness.”
James Hollis, Ph.D. is a Zurich-trained Jungian analyst in practice in Washington, D. C. where he is also Executive Director of the Jung Society of Washington. He is also author of fourteen books translated into nineteen languages.