Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World

Although not strictly speaking a book on polytheism or divination, one piece of literature that I can never recommend enough is Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: How the Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture. First published in 1998, it discusses the role of archetypal 'Trickster' plays both in mythology, and in the world at large.

Both in ancient stories and modern news reports, the Trickster is represented in both the playful and the disruptive side of human behaviour. They are present in our imagination, our invention, our riots and in our art. Hyde posits that the Trickster 'makes' the world through their necessary role of antagonist. Had Prometheus not stolen fire and given it to us, we might still be hiding in caves. Had Loki not gotten into some of his usual trouble and fled to his cabin by the lake, we would not have the fishing net. In the same way, creation rises from needs both physical and psychological, and it is here that the Trickster puts their thumbprint on our lives.

In Hyde's words:

"They are the consummate boundary-crossers, slipping through keyholes, breaching walls, subverting defense systems. Always out to satisfy their inordinate appetites, lying, cheating, and stealing, tricksters are a great bother to have around, but paradoxically they are also indispensable heroes of culture."

Sometimes, in order to get things done - in the immortal words of Captain Malcolm Reynolds - you need to "aim to misbehave". This book shares some of the stories of deities and spirits and other beings of folklore doing just that; Hermes, Loki, Eshu, Anansi, Coyote and more. One of the things I really appreciate is Hyde's decision to include such a wide range of stories from different cultures - many of which are not so well known by the average reader. While there is some inclusion of stories from 'closed cultures', they are careful to explain both the nature of how these stories were first (erroneously) shared and their importance to their homeland as well as how they can be applied to other cultures.

With the foundation laid, Hyde turns his attention to the real world, applying the lessons that can be learned from these tales to the lives of the creators of modern history. In the same way that the mythological Trickster turns the world on its head, the mortal Trickster shapes the evolution of human future. When Frederick Douglas escaped from slavery and became a proponent of the abolitionist movement, he was breaking the law; but had he been content to settle for the status quo, the world might not have changed for the better with the end of slavery in the United States. Pablo Picasso reportedly skipped the basic art lessons and went straight to the advanced methods at the age of fourteen; breaking convention and eventually influencing the art world with the development of Cubism alongside Georges Braque, changing how the world saw art. They are but two of the examples Hyde makes.

Trickster Makes the World really shaped my practice when I first started calling myself a polytheist. Although it's a work of non-fiction - and covers topics that I thought I “wouldn’t be interested in” - it was the book I woke up early to read before work, sitting in the bathroom so that the light wouldn't wake my flatmate at 6am. It took in its concepts like a sponge in a bucket of water, and the book itself was a Trickster in my life. I put it down with challenged views of who could be a Trickster, and it paved the way for me to accept different entities into my spiritwork. I've shared it with polytheists, monotheists and atheists alike who have all taken something different away from it.

No matter your beliefs, Lewis Hyde has a voice that is both scholarly and approachable, and I would recommend this book to anyone who works with tricksters, as well as anyone with an interest in anthropology and the arts.

Born in 1945, Lewis Hyde is a Sociology Major and retired Professor of English from Cambridge, Massachussets. Active throughout his life in the American Friends Service Committee, black rights and the financial support of struggling artists, he continues to work on his poems and essays during his retirement. You can read more about him and his works on his website here.

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