The idea of the biological evolution of our species is now a widely accepted concept.  Similarly, there is a view in depth psychology that human consciousness is evolving (Neumann, 1954; Edinger, 1996; Whitmont, 1997).  An understanding of trickster mythologies and the role of the trickster in the modern psyche necessitate an awareness of this evolution.  In discussing the evolution of the consciousness, Edward Whitmont (1997) described a progression from magical to mythological to mental stages.  In each stage, our species relates to existence in a different way. 

     The magical phase is characterized by unconsciousness.  In this phase, contrasts are merged: there is no inside and outside, past and present or I and thou.  Rather, the individual is contained within the larger collective in a unitary way: “The single person is a herd member, a participant in a group-patterned, non-personal process, beneficiary or victim as the case may be” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 47).  Edward Edinger (1996) similarly described this stage in terms of animism; “an elemental psychology is immersed in its environment and surroundings, and therefore it experiences that immersion as an animistic activation of its surroundings” (p. xvi).  There is no personal responsibility because there is no sense of “I”.  Ego consciousness is not yet born; the ego is still contained within the Self (Edinger, 1996). This stage is amoral; that is, it is the suchness of life without any rule, law or sense of ethics.  Thus, there is no experience of trickster because there are no boundaries to cross and no rules to break.

     Whitmont (1997) described the mythological stage as a bridge between the magical and mental stages.  “As the hot lava of the magical level is touched by the first cold air of the discerning mind, it gels into forms” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 49).  These forms are the mythological images. 

     The early mythological phase is “still dominated by the image and rites of the Great Goddess in her triple aspects as source of life, nourisher and cruel destroyer” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 54).  A primary image of this phase, the son-lover who is born every spring and then dies, reabsorbed by the earth, the great mother, symbolizes a weak ego. The “masculine principle does not yet take on an independent status of its own but still is subordinate to the great-mother earth principle…” (Edinger, 1996, p. xvii).   The trickster has been characterized in the same terms as the great mother, “at one and the same time, creator and destroyer, giver and negator” (Radin, 1956, p. xxxiii).  This depiction relates the trickster to this early part of the mythological phase and shows an emerging human awareness of the cycles inherent in life.

     In the later mythological stage, the masculine sky-god begins to emerge as the head of a plethora of both male and female deities.  These deities, who can be characterized psychologically as dynamisms of the soul, are experienced as living presences.  This experience of finding these soul energies in the outer world is described well by Tarnas (1991):

Here, at the luminous dawn of the Western literary tradition, was captured the primordial mythological sensibility in which the events of human existence were perceived as intimately related to and informed by the eternal realm of gods and goddesses…historical persons lived out a mythic heroism in war and wandering, while Olympian deities watched and intervened over the plain of Troy. ( p. 16-17)



The increasing strength and stability of the ego is symbolized by the emerging dominance of a masculine sky-god.  Edinger (1996) noted, “The polytheism of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece are all examples of this stage, as is the mythology of Norse and Germanic peoples” (p. xviii).  Similarly, the Winnebago believed in a large number of spirits and deities headed by a male, supreme deity known as Earthmaker (Radin, 1956). 

     At some point during the later mythological phase, the masculine element splits into light and dark aspects.  In the Greek pantheon, for example, Apollo took on the light qualities of life, construction and eternity, while Dionysus took on the darker aspects of destruction and death.  This split was initially experienced as polar aspects of natural forces inherent in beinghood; growth followed by decay, night by day.  In some societies, the trickster figure embodied both sides of the split:  “…all antimonies are bound into the ritual cycle…good and evil, creation and destruction, the dual image of the deity…expressed in the trickster” (Diamond, 1972, p.xxi). 

     The beginning of social consciousness emerges in the mythological phase and is “expressed in common rites, dances and magical and religious celebrations…the social structures are of limited size and number: villages or city states in which every member has a direct participatory share” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 52-53).  An important aspect of social order is respect for taboo and peer agreement.  Violating a taboo is thought to incur the disfavor of the gods and thus risk provoking manifestation of the darker aspects of life such as illness, drought, losses in battle or a bad hunt. 

     It is during the mythological phase of consciousness that the trickster emerges.  As Lewis Hyde (1998) noted, “the trickster comes to life in the complex terrain of polytheism” (p. 10).  The telling of trickster tales allowed our species to stay connected to/not lose site of forbidden aspects of life.  “His function in an archaic society or rather the function of his mythology, of the tales told about him, is to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted” (Kerenyi, 1956, p. 185).  Carl Jung (1956) similarly confirmed this important function of trickster tales, “If the enemy disappears from my field of vision, then he may possibly be behind me and even more dangerous” (p.207).  Indeed, the trickster engages the darker aspects of life by repeatedly breaking taboos and engaging whatever is forbidden, ridiculous or dangerous.  The “master of reversal”, he also promotes the constructive aspects of life (Hyde, 1998, P. 118).  For example, Wakdjunkaga’s penis is transformed into edible plants and Raven is responsible for human’s attainment of fruit and fish (Hyde, 1998).

     For many of our species, the mythological phase of consciousness spanned from the Neolithic period through the Bronze Age and ended in the “heroic, war-torn Iron Age” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 50).  However, the evolution of consciousness does not appear to occur at the same pace among all cultures: “even to the present day many strata of peasantry, European and South American, still function mythologically, and part of the indigenous population of Africa, Asia and Australia, magically” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 261).  This ‘uneven evolution’ can have an effect on how trickster tales are viewed.  For example, in his paper, Toward a theory of the Trickster, Pelton (1980) criticized Jung for viewing the trickster as a “remnant of an earlier level of consciousness” (p. 232).  He felt that Jung failed to appreciate the trickster quality of timeless two-wayness or “irreducible ambivalence” (Pelton, 1980, p. 230).  But, in fact, Jung (1956) explicitly stated, “for [the Winnebago], the myth is not in any sense a remnant…for them it still ‘functions’, provided that they have not been spoiled by civilization” [italics added] (p. 201-202).   It seems that the misunderstanding is Pelton’s; unlike Jung, he does not appear to appreciate the idea that the trickster could be apprehended and function differently in a consciousness still in the mythological as opposed to the mental phase (discussed below).

     Whitmont (1997) has termed the mental phase of conscious that of the “patriarchal superego conditioned ego” (p. 86).  He stated, “The transition from the mythological to the mental stage of consciousness involves a transition from animism and soul to the three-dimensionality of the outer spatial world, of things perceived by the five senses” (p. 70).  Reality is now limited to what is sense perceptible; the perceptions of the psyche are no longer given any value.  The opposites, formerly experienced as polarities that manifest cyclically in the mythological phase, have become dualities.  Thus, aspects of life that had once been perceived as two poles with a single source are now apprehended as deriving from separate sources, one light and one dark.  That which is light, constructive, pain-free and orderly is now seen as coming from a merciful sky-god and that, which is dark, destructive and chaotic, is seen as sourced by the devil in hell.    “The chronic scandeleuse of the philandering Greek gods [gave] way to the grim dictatorship of [Yahweh]” (Whitmont, 1997, p.87).  Obedience to absolute external law is now demanded, the Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots.

     The external rules and taboos characteristic of this stage, albeit rigid and often even arbitrary, initially promote ego development because disciplined responses (adherence to the law) are engendered rather than thoughtless, spontaneous eruptions and reactions (Whitmont, 1997).  This self-control is attained by repressing certain forces and values: “Spirit is set against nature in a heroic effort to subdue man’s animal nature…[man] is made a heroic conqueror of the devil” (Whitmont, 1997, p.86).     Because the patriarchal ego perceives the world in terms of separate dualities rather than cyclical polarities, the darker aspects of life are banished as evil.  They are now apprehended as injustices or sins rather than as integral parts of the rhythm of being.   “Goodness…is synonymous with obedience to the communal law” (Whitmont, 1997, p. 91).  There is no room for ambiguity.   Diamond (1972) addressed this point when he stated that the Book of Job and Plato’s Republic, both written after the transition into the mental phase, are “bent upon denying human ambivalence and social ambiguity” (p.xiii).  But, the trickster is “the personification of ambivalence” (Diamond, 1972, p. xiii).   For this reason, in the modern psyche, the trickster may be identified with the devil when he enacts the darker aspects of life that have been associated with the devil.  Thus, for the patriarchal superego conditioned ego, there is not the two - wayness that Pelton (1980) was insisting upon.   Rather, something is either good or evil: “…the concrete image of the trickster is suppressed, and simultaneously transformed into the problem of injustice”  (Diamond, 1972, p. xiii).  However, as Hyde (1998) noted, the trickster is forever finding a pore or opening in whatever we take to be the order of things.  The talent of the trickster to shape-shift seems to bode well for his continued presence and relevance in the human psyche.  Edinger’s (1972) model of psychological development may give a glimpse into the trickster’s role in our specie’s further development.

     Edinger (1972) described psychological development both ontogenetically and phylogenetically as a process in which the ego begins to separate from the Self.  Initially,  the ego is  contained in the Self which is defined as “the center and totality of the psyche, which is able to reconcile all opposites [and] can be considered …the organ of acceptance par excellence…able to accept all elements of psychic life no matter how antithetical they may be” (Edinger, 1972, p. 40).  The Self, then, encompasses the ambiguity of being, the fullness of which the trickster engages.  Separation between ego and Self is accomplished by alternating cycles of inflation and alienation.  Inflation involves the ego appropriating some of the transcendent energies of the Self in order to emerge and assert its autonomy.   In other words, becoming conscious involves a theft of transcendent energies, or trickster magic, that gives our species “a measure of human autonomy and independence from God” (Edinger, 1972, p. 24-25).  Some examples of trickster stories that involve a theft of transcendent energies are Hermes theft of Apollo’s cattle, Eshu’s attainment of the nuts for divination by means of guile and Prometheus’ theft of both meat and fire (Hyde, 1998).  Taboos (or boundaries) are ways to check inflation; that is, to prevent an individual or group from being overwhelmed by transcendent forces that it does not have the resources to accommodate.  Thus, the evolving psyche seems to move in and out of trickster territory, at times breaking taboos and at other times, staying within the bounds of what is acceptable (Hyde, 1998).   For example, in describing the Yoruba tale of Eshu and Ajaolele, Hyde (1998) noted that Eshu offered Ajaolele “escape from the rigidity of social laws” (p. 117).  Ajaolele is then able to appropriate resources that he was not destined to obtain.  After this favorable reversal of fortune, Ajaolele “returns to town”; that is, he resumes living within the laws of Ifa.

     Alienation involves an estrangement between the ego and Self.  The experience of alienation is a wounding to the ego because, the disconnection from the Self inherent in alienation, is apprehended as a rejection of one’s beinghood (Edinger, 1972).  The idea is that there is a disconnection from everything that, heretofore, had given one’s life value and meaning.  This extreme detachment is a “necessary prelude to awareness of Self” (Edinger, 1972, p. 48).  Thus, the ego cannot become conscious of the Self/awaken to life so long as it is identified with the Self.  However, prolonged alienation from the source of one’s being can threaten one’s existence.  Reestablishment between the ego and the Self or “restitution of the ego-Self axis” (Edinger, 1972, p. 56) is thus necessary at some point.   Pelton (1980) commented on alienation when he noted that societies that have trickster mythologies “recognize the possibility of repression and denaturing, of coming to be cut off from the deeper sources of being.” (p. 235-236).  He further stated,  “…it is the trickster, above all, who weaves the web of purpose…he is the mediator who spells out cosmic designs in human language, who opens passageways into all that is still wild, and who transforms social boundaries into modes of social intercourse”  (p. 236).  Whitmont (1997) similarly addressed this theme of alienation and the necessity for reconnection.   He noted that the superego (the thou shalt and thou shalt nots, experienced both internally and externally) becomes an encumbrance when further psychological development demands the experience of or reconnection with one’s individual, genuine conscience.  Such development often demands reclamation of aspects of life that do not conform to the conventional code.  It is the trickster energy that can make this reclamation possible for the modern psyche.

     Interestingly, it appears that the ego-Self connection is not only imperative for humans, but for the Divine as well.  As Hyde (1998) noted, “the gods need to be fed by human beings” (p. 111).  Thus, in one trickster tale, it is the gods who seek “sustenance from humankind again” (Hyde, 1998, p. 111).  This tale seems to be addressing the theme of alienation from the perspective of the transcendent.  The gods are bereft because of their disconnection from humans.  They try all sorts of means, from scourging humans with pestilence to killing them, in order to forge a connection.   The trickster, of course, solves the problem.  What eventually ‘works’ is the gift of divination; that is, granting humans the ability to get a glimpse into the divine meaning of the events in their lives.     

     Jung’s (1952/1958) analysis of the book of Job may give some idea of why humans are so essential to the gods.  In his interpretation of the remarkable interaction between the human (Job) and the divine (Yahweh), Jung stated that Job is given a glimpse into the total nature of God including his unconscious or shadow side:

Insight existed along with obtuseness, loving-kindness along with cruelty, creative power along with destructiveness.  Everything was there, and none of these qualities was an obstacle to the other.  Such a condition is only conceivable either when no reflecting consciousness is present at all, or when the capacity for reflection is very feeble and a more or less adventitious phenomenon.  A condition of this sort can only be described as amoral. (Jung, 1952/1958, p. 3)


     It is this awareness of the wholeness of life/God that imbues Job’s great suffering with meaning.   However, Jung (1952/1958) went on to say that the deity is also transformed by this interaction.  Stated another way, the deity needs our species because it is through the vehicle of human consciousness that the deity is evolving and transforming.   Thus, for the modern psyche, it is through the trickster energy that we can begin to connect to and become aware of divine and often amoral forces.  By then living them in less destructive ways; that is, humanizing them, the deity transforms.

    I would like to conclude this paper by relating and discussing a trickster dream I had a number of years ago.  The dream is as follows:


I am standing (off to the side) in a very masculine-looking bedroom. A masculine-looking woman with shoulder length hair is grooming a man’s yellow jacket or sports coat.  The coat gives off a golden glow in the lamp lit room.  She leaves the room and a tramp/bum, not too badly dressed but older and rough looking, enters the room.  He is wearing a dark jacket. He steals money and credit cards from the pocket of the jacket.  He goes into a lighted closet on his right to hide because the woman is coming back.  Before he goes, he says or thinks, “What luck- it’s Friday so I’ll be able to exploit these credit cards over the weekend before anyone can cancel them.”  The woman comes back in, but for some reason, is suspicious and finds the tramp in the closet.  I step forward, wondering if I am in danger.  But the tramp is not hostile and readily gives up the loot.  I put it in my wallet with the thought that I will get it back to the right owner.  The tramp then says, “That’s my money and credit cards you just put in your wallet.”  I say, “You’re right” and I remove them and give them back to the tramp.


Resources from the prevailing guard, the masculine sun god, are first stolen, but then become the “right”ful possession of the tramp.  A tramp is someone who wanders from place to place, just like the trickster.  As with the Hermes/Apollo tale, an old story is reshaped when the tramp claims the resources and I agree that they belong to him.  By allowing the tramp to take these resources, the status quo is shattered and new developments become possible.  As Hyde (1998) noted, “the thieving and lying…give trickster the chance to remake the truth on his own terms” (p. 73).  Hyde (1998) further noted, “…the theft and lie are the crucial first steps” (p. 74).  

Indeed, this dream initiated the beginning of a major shift in my perception of the “order of things” (Hyde, 1998, p. 59).  Ranges of life began to open up that had nothing to do with masculine order or following rules because the tramp had been resourced.  At the same time, the masculine order did not lose its value.  Rather, it was relativized.  Holding the tension between the poles of order and the upset of order and being mindful of the value of both of them continues to be part of my journey.






Diamond, S. (1972). Introductory essay: Job and the trickster. In P. Radin (Ed.), The

trickster: A study in American Indian mythology (pp. xi-xxii). New York: Schocken Books.


Edinger, E. (1972). Ego and archetype. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.


Edinger, E. (1996). The new god-image. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.


Hyde, L. (1998). Trickster makes this world. New York: North Point Press.


Jung, C.G. (1956). On the psychology of the trickster figure. In P. Radin (Ed.), The

trickster: A study in American Indian mythology (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) (pp. 195-211). New York: Schocken Books.


Jung, C.G. (1958). Answer to Job.  In H. Read (Ed.), The collected works of

C.G. Jung (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) (Vol. 11). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (original work published in 1952).


Kerenyi, K. (1956). The trickster in relation to Greek mythology. In P. Radin (Ed.), The

trickster: A study in American Indian mythology (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) (pp. 173- 191). New York: Schocken Books.


Neumann, E. (1954). The origins and history of consciousness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press.


Pelton, R. (1980). Toward a theory of the trickster. In R. Pelton (Ed.), The trickster in

West Africa (pp. 223-284). Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Radin, P. (1956). The trickster: A study in American Indian mythology. New York:

Schocken Books.


Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the western mind. New York: Ballantine Books.


Whitmont, E. (1997). Return of the goddess. New York: The Continuum Publishing





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  • Sharon: What a well-written account. I have not heard this explained better anywhere. The idea of emerging human awareness in transition from a magical age to a mythical stage, and then awareness of the splitting of the masculine element into light and dark aspects late in the mythical phase really resonates with me. I think the hardest part for me—maybe for most of us in this field--is the characteristic of the mental phase in which “reality is now limited to what is sense perceptible”. So many of us in our collective culture simply believe what we see and hear—particularly if it is on the Internet or on CNN. By buying into certain stories without inquiring into them more deeply, our beliefs begin to rigidify into values and finally become more and more narrow, cutting off any alleyway to new thoughts or truths to enter.

    And, regarding the Trickster, while the “adding of disorder to order” may not always be appreciated in the moment, I certainly see the alchemical value of Trickster in creating a new paradigm in which death and rebirth (of ideas, beliefs, or anything else) can occur as needed for the benefit of the individual. Perhaps we need more in all our lives!—though one must always be careful what they invoke in wishing—especially when it comes to this particular archetype!

    Thanks so much for sharing your work. With your permission, I’ll tweet it so others can know about it and benefit from it as well.
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