Saturday, August 30, 2008

How's Tricks?

I’d like to say that every assertion I make about mythology and folklore in this blog is meticulously researched. It would be pretty to think so. But not tonight. I want to write about the Trickster, and when I started pulling books of the shelf and looking in indexes, Trickster said, “Screw that. Just follow me.”
“OK,” I said, “This book I have in my hand, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, only has a page and a half approaching transgender issues, and I can’t even find that Jung book on archetypes. Fine. Let’s wing it.”

Bugs Bunny. In drag. My dear friend Ally is an artist who licenses cartoon characters and sculpts them in bronze and clay. Prominently displayed at her studio is a tile of Bugs as Carmen Miranda. Not really surprising considering Ally is a transwoman herself. I’m not making any earth-shattering revelations if I note that Bugs in drag is something of a transgendered icon. I’ve always been fascinated by the way the Warner’s artists could get that 1940’s Barbara Stanwyck smile just right. Something about those teeth meeting the lipsticked bottom lip. And whether it be to bombshell, bobbysoxer, or Brunhilde, the transformation was always fluid, natural, and instantaneous. (Pity about the feet, though. Being of a size that necessitates patronizing the mutant-size shoe stores, I sympathize.)


Bugs’ appeal is the appeal of anarchy, of chaos. In cartoon after cartoon, Bugs torments Elmer Fudd or some other doofus in a position of false authority, piling insult upon injury until the fadeout. Bugs comes from a long line of characters who represent chaos and randomness, some positive, some negative. A Cahuilla storyteller once told me that Coyote is a gambler, a dice thrower, and as such represents randomness and unpredictability. I’ve not come across any stories of Coyote crossdressing or gender-switching, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I did. In the Southwestern states Coyote is perceived as an unpredictable but benevolent smartass. In Mexico, he's seen as an unpredictable and malevolent smartass.

There are some times and some places where anarchy is not a good thing.

For example, if you live in a place where your chances of being frozen to death are equal to being hacked in two by a howling berzerker, you might have ambivalent feelings regarding Loki.

Loki has taken on female shape. He turned into a mare to distract the horse of a giant who built Asgard, the home of the gods. he gave birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. And in the following famous tale, he is quite at home in the role of maid to the not-quite-as-comfortable Thor/Freja:

THE LAY OF THRYM

When Thor awoke, his wrath was grim
To find his hammer gone from him.
He shook his beard, he tossed his hair,
The Son of Earth sought here and there.

And first of all he spake this word:
"Listen, Loki! never was heard
In earth or heaven what now I say---
The Thunderer's hammer is stolen away!"

To Freyja the fair their way they take,
And this is the word that first he spake:
"Lend me thy feather-fell, I pray,
To seek my hammer, that's stolen away."

"Were it of silver, or were it of gold,
That would I give thee, that should'st thou hold."

Loki he flew in the rustling fell
Out of the halls where the Aesir dwell

To Jôtunheim. On a howe sat Thrym,
King o' the giants, a a-twisting trim
Golden bands for his hounds of speed,
And smoothing the mane of his trusty steed;
And this is the word that first he said:
"What of the Aesir? What of the Elves?
Why art thou come to the Giant's door?"

"'Tis ill with the Aesir, ill with the Elves!
Say, hast thou hidden the hammer of Thor?"

"Yea, I have hidden the hammer of thunder
Eight full fathoms the earth down under;
No man shall win it in all his life
Until he shall bring me Freyja to wife."

Loki he flew in the rustling fell
Out of the halls where the Giants dwell,
Until he came to Asgard's bound,
And Thor in the midmost garth he found.
And this is the word that first he said:
"What tidings, toiling, hast thou won?
For a man that sits tells a stumbling tale,
And a man that lies, a lying one."

"News for my toiling do I bring;
Thrym has thine hammer, the Giant's king,
No man may win it in all his life
Until he take him Freyja to wife."

To Freyja the fair their way they take,
And this is the word that first he spake:
"Bind on thy bridal-veil amain,
For to Jôtunheim we must fare, we twain."

Wroth was Freyja! she caught her breath---
The hall of the Aesir shook beneath,
The Brising necklace snapped in three.
"Marriage-mad is the name for me
If to Jôtunheim I fare with thee!"

All the Aesir to council went,
The mighty ones to parliament,
Gods and goddesses, all in wonder
How to win back the hammer of thunder.

It was Heimdall spake amain,
Whitest of gods, the wily Wane:
"Now bind on Thor the veil so fair,
The Brising necklace let him wear;
Hang round him many a clinking key,
Let woman's weeds fall to his knee;
Jewels broad on his breast shall shine,
And neatly shall ye the topknot twine!"

Up spake he, mightiest at need:
"Call me a coward's name indeed
If ever I wear a woman's weed!"

Up spake Loki, Laufey's son:
"Thor, with thy witless words have done!
Soon shall the Giants in Asgard reign
Unless thou win thine hammer again."
On Thor they bound the veil so fair,
The Brising necklace did he wear;
They hung him with many a clinking key,
Let woman's weeds fall to his knee;
Jewels broad on his breast did shine,
And neatly did they the topknot twine.
Then Loki, son of Laufey, said:
"I will go with thee as waiting-maid!"

The goats they harness by two and by one---
To the shafts they are shackled, well can they run!
Valley and hill burst into flame
When Odin's son to the Giants came.

The King o' the Giants did loudly call:
"Up now, Giants! strew the benches all!
See where the bride they bring adown,
Daughter of Niord, from Noa-town!

"Kine go here with gilded horn,
Oxen black my garth adorn;
Gold have I and goods galore---
For Freyja alone I long so sore."

Evening fell on the blithe bridàle;
The Giants sat a-drinking ale.
The greedy spouse of Sif, he ate
Seven salmon, every cate
For the ladies spread, and a goodly steer----
And he drank three tuns, his heart to cheer.

The King o' the Giants, he up and cried:
"Never was known such a hungry bride!
Ne'er saw I lady so full of greed,
Nor maiden drink so deep of mead!"

Sitting apart, the wily maid
Answered what the Giant said:
"This se'nnight past no meat had she,
So fain she was to come to thee!"

He lifted the veil to kiss the bride,
And the hall's full length he sprang aside:
"Why are her eyes so full of ire?
Methinks they are darting sparks of fire!"

Sitting apart, the wily maid
Answered what the Giant said:
"This se'nnight past no sleep had she,
So fain she was to come to thee!"

The Giant's sister entered in,
Greedy a bridal-gift to win:
"Give me thy ring of red, red gold,
If thou my love wouldst have and hold!"

The King o' the Giants, he up and cried:
"Bear in the hammer to hallow the bride!
To the maiden's knees now Miöllni bring,
And Var shall hallow our hand-fasting."

Deep in his breast laughed the heart of Thor,
When his hammer he held once more!
He slew the King o' Giants, Thrym,
And all his race smote after him.
He smote the Giant's sister old,
She who begged a gift of gold---
For pence, a pound was what she won,
And a hammer-blow for a gay guerdòn*!

Thus back to his hammer came Odin's son!
*recompense
Transcribed by Aaron Myer and posted on the Northvegr Foundation website www.northvegr.org

It’s important to note that this same Loki who is so fearful of the giants – or Jotars – is himself of their blood and will be in many ways directly responsible for Ragnorok, the last battle which will destroy Thor and the rest of the Aesir.

And that brings up another and perhaps the most important point about the Trickster. S/he is dangerous. Take this post for instance: Trickster said, "Screw it. Just follow me." I did. That was on Monday. I have been led a merry chase this week. Countless interruptions, writer's block, the nagging feeling that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, and the disappearance of my copy of Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein all lead me to the conclusion that I should never have said, "OK. Let's wing it." The main problem with Trickster is that s/he is just that. And it's as much open season on me as it is on Elmer Fudd or Thyrm.

So, to bring this to a close, get it off my plate, get it over with (with the proviso that I'll get back to it at a more propitious time when I'm better rested and studied, and with the reminder to myself that if anybody is reading this blog, it might start a discussion), I'll say this. Trickster can change gender, but s/he doesn't do it for the same reasons that I (nor I suspect you) do it. Trickster is your friend. Sometimes Trickster is your enemy. Sometimes. I love Trickster stories. And I can identify with Trickster. With reservations. I like Trickster. From a distance.

8 comments:

dr.morbius said...

Bugs Bunny's crossdressing is of great interest to me. I did a seminar on TG imagery in mass media a few years ago at the Southern Comfort Conference, and Bugs was pretty prominent. There are a couple of very interesting things about his TG appearances. First, going against the grain of the usual role of crossdressing in farce, Bugs gains power by crossdressing rather than losing it. This seems vaguely shamanic to me. More than that, though, Bugs's enemies lose power when they crossdress (and, Speedy Gonzales, ever the symbol of latin machismo, is the only major Looney Tunes character who never appears crossdressed at all).

While I can speculate about mythic antecedants to TG imagery in Looney Tunes, there's a more direct one in the pop culture of the early 20th Century. George Herriman's Krazy Kat prefigures the gender confusion in the Warners cartoons. Krazy's gender is indeterminate. Herriman changed it from strip to strip to suit the gag. And in one memorable strip, he sends Krazy into "Madam Kamouflage's Beauty Parlor" as a black male only to have her emerge as a white female, which completely changes Krazy's usual relationship with Ignatz Mouse. Herriman was thought to be a black man passing as a white man, and the strip is loaded with the politics of race and gender in ways that seem radical even today.

Anyway, take care.

Gillian said...

Yup. Bugs is very shamanic in the sense that he gains power. And I've got a feeling that the Warner animators were not necessarily consciously mining myth and archetype as they were drawing these cartoons. I wonder if there isn't a little of Julian Eltinge here - perhaps something hearkening back to burlesque and, earlier, to Commedia del Arte.

Having just started this string of musings, I hadn't thought about Krazy Kat. And I hadn't really equated Krazy with the trickster archetype. S/he seems more of the sacred clown, which of course is a variant. I just looked up the strip you mentioned and was interested to note that Ignatz used the pronoun "he" when he was aware that Krazy was Krazy. Now Herriman, who, I understand was conversant with Southwest Indian culture, might have been aware of the two-spirit tradition -- or he might just have been screwing with our heads. The strip reminded me of a segment from the old Brit comedy show "The Goodies" in which Tim Brooke-Taylor goes to a fat farm and comes out female.

One way or another, I love Herriman's work both on the strip and his illustrations for Archy and Mehitabel.

Abby said...

Trickster has much to teach us but following her (him? somehow, I don't think the gender matters, except to the extent that the variability of gender draws us into the chaos and mystery) is a dangerous path to enlightenment, but one that carries the potential of great learning at great speed. If one wants to take the shortcut to knowledge, follow the Trickster. But be prepared for a wild, and potentially fatal, ride! Knowledge always has its price.

Gillian said...

Dear Abby,

You're certainly right about the danger that surrounds Trickster. My dear friend Melody, who spends a good deal of time with Chumash and Acjachemen people here in California, assures me that Native Americans here in California are not overly fond of Coyote and do their best not to include him/her in their rituals.

Yet without Trickster things stagnate. In many stories it was Trickster who stole the sun.

Maybe that's what we do: stir things up a bit but ultimately bring enlightenment.

I can think of worse tasks.

Abby said...

I spent a couple of years being part of a sweatlodge of a woman whose teacher was heyoka, which is Lakota for "sacred clown." He was a dangerous and demanding man to be around, but also one who had brought much spiritual growth to the waterpourer for the lodge I attended and many others. I and others, however, detected some insincerity and personal motivations in much of what he did, so I declined to "go under tobacco" with him, i.e., become his student or accolyte. When I had my one and only personal meeting with him and told him I was transgender and planning to transition to living as a woman, instead of telling me about the Lakota and Assiniboine (his tribe) tradition of "two-spirits" holding respected and powerful positions, often as shamans, in their communities, he told me that what I really needed was to learn how to "be a man." Needless to say, I never met with him again. I left the lodge a few months later after his advice and that of other supposed Native American elders led the waterpourer to decide that, since there were sometimes children in and around the lodge, I could only attend if I was not "obviously transgendered" around the lodge, whatever that means. No amount of teaching or discussion could get her to change her mind. So, I never returned, much to my sadness. This is one of the few instances of discrimination because I am trans that I have experienced and it still hurts deeply, especially since experiences in that lodge played such a key role in my journey to transition, and because I know that the traditional treatment of transgender people in most Native American communities before the appearance of Christian missionaries was so different.


The moral of this story for me is that the Trickster can be dangerous and can lead us down the wrong path to places that harm, rather than help, us, if we are not careful and discerning in deciding when or whether to follow her.

I hope someday to find another lodge where I am accepted and allowed to be myself. Until then, I follow other practices to continue my spiritual path to wholeness and expression of my true self, whoever Spirit reveals that to be.

Gillian said...

Dear Abby,

I'd read your comment this morning and was turning it over in my head all day. I was wondering if this teacher, in saying that you "must learn to be a man" was pointing out the conundrum we all face: the fact that we are all androgynous - that no person is completely masculine or feminine - that to completely be a woman, you must embrace your manhood. Heavy!

I just reread your comment.

I can't stand in judgment of these people and their denial of their own historic beliefs, but they certainly sounded insensitive to who you are. I would expect a little more depth at least from a sacred clown.

However...

I think Trickster is particularly fond of diddling around with our expectations. Perhaps the safest way to deal with this archetype is to have no expectations.

I hesitate to ask, but could it POSSIBLY be that this heyoka pulled this stuff deliberately because of what he might have perceived as your expectations? Might he have deliberately set these obstacles before you specifically to test you? Obviously, I was not there and I hope you are not offended that I even suggest this. But Zen masters, wonder rabbis, and other such characters can teachers, tricksters and general pains-in-the-ass. Of course, the question we should always ask when faced with the negative is, "What is the lesson?" Could it be that this person had a lesson in mind and the rest were in cahoots - that they were not denying you but testing your resolve? Or am I giving them all more credit than they deserve?

With love and deepest respect.

Abby said...

First, my apologies for taking so long to respond. Like you, life is busy sometimes.

No, I'm pretty certain that this heyoka was not trying to teach me that I needed to acknowledge masculine, and not just the feminine side, of me. Instead, the message was clear that he thought that the only reason I wanted to be a woman was because I didn't know how to be a man. Also, it sounded much more like an ultimatum than a teaching.

Although I, of course, do not know what his, or Spirit's, intentions were in that encounter, for the same reasons, it felt like nothing but a rejection of who I am, not a test to see if I really was committed to this path, with arm's open and welcoming once I completed the challenge. The rejection of my identity (at least, that's how it felt to me) by his student, the waterpourer for the lodge, just a few months later seemed to confirm this impression, since it was, at least in part, based on his advice to her on how to handle my presence in and around the lodge. Basically, what the waterpourer told me all of the elders that she consulted had told her is that "once a man, always a man," to the extent that, according to what she was told, trans women in Hawaii who want to participate in the native dances are only allowed to dance with the men and only barechested like all the other "men." Her "compromise" for me was that I could wear a sarong, but not a skirt, in the lodge and could always sit at the intersection of the men and the women in the lodge. I liked the sitting part; it feels very appropriate as acknowledging my path from man to woman. However, the restrictions on my appearance and, I assume, my behavior, outside the lodge was more than I was willing to bear. So, I never returned.

I have very few resentments in my life, but this rejection, or ejection, from the lodge still pains me deeply. I'm still looking for a spiritual community committed to that kind of deep ceremony to replace it. Sadly, I have yet to find it.

Gillian said...

If we are sprung from the dominant Judeo/Christian Western culture, ours is a tricky problem spiritually. There is no cultural provision made for us. There is no Western equivalent for Hijra, Fa'Fafane, Winkte, etc. And this "nowhere" state sends us off to other traditions. There's a problem inherent in that: many spiritual traditions are both ethnically and geographically oriented. As such, they are closed clubs. I remember being told, when I lived in Japan, that no matter how long I lived there and how enculturated I become, I will always be "gaijiin," a foreigner. And since the Shinto tradition in its purest form is inseparable from Japan itself, I will never be able to completely partake of it. Many Native American traditions are like that - to their own detriment, I think.

For myself, I've found that aspects of the Zen tradition work well, but I tend to lean towards a simpler, less ritualistic spirituality.

I've also been welcomed warmly into certain parts of the Goddess community. Though there are a few women who have been damaged by men to the point that they want no male energy anywhere near them, and there are radical feminists who demand that ceremonies be restricted to "womyn born "womyn" and have gone to the point of trying to conceive through parthenogenesis, there are many in this and other neo-pagan communities who would be quite welcoming.

I used to be somewhat judgmental of neo-paganism - seeing these folks as "wanna-bes," but I've realized that it is a move by many of European ancestry back to their own indigenous roots - lacking the racism and hatred that has accompanied such movements in the past, Nazism, for example. I don't know if there is a Goddess temple in Prescott, but there's got to be one in Sedona.

Anyway, it's just a thought.