In Our Own Image: Radical Empathy, Trickster Gods, and the Importance of Being Irritating

(an excerpt from the essay by Alexandra Rowland)

In the Beginning, humans created the heavens and the gods.

For the most part, they made those gods in their own image – that is, mostly human-shaped. The ones that were depicted as not being fully human in shape were often still partially so (i.e: having the body of a man and the head of an animal) or at least capable of shifting between many forms. Yet even those who were exclusively imagined as animals or monsters were still, when it gets right down to it, made in their creators’ own image in their most essential part: Their personalities.

Before all else, a god is a mirror on humanity itself. It is an anthropomorphized avatar of some aspect of the human condition, a distillation of human desires and impulses—both the positive and the negative. Some gods have fiery tempers and violent natures; some are scholarly; some are nurturing and kind-hearted. They fall in love, they go to war, they see consequences of their actions. They are humanity’s depiction of itself, dialed up to eleven, and there is no category of god for which all of this is more vividly true than trickster gods.

The archetype of the trickster god shares commonalities across many cultures. This is the god of mischief, pranks, discord, and deception—the personification of the chaos factor. A trickster usually has a short temper and a big sense of humor, and their sense of patience tends towards the mercurial (sometimes almost nonexistent, sometimes very, very, very long), and likewise, their sense of mercy and forgiveness: Either they hold a grudge for a thousand years, or they laugh off a deep personal betrayal as simply the cost of doing business: “Ah, don’t worry about it, no hard feelings, I would have done the same to you if I’d had the chance!” Tricksters are the gods of impulsivity and recklessness and the gods of deep patience; they are the gods of laziness and the gods most willing to hyperfocus on a piece of tedious, backbreaking work in order to accomplish their goals. I don’t know which individual god has jurisdiction over Rube Goldberg machines, but I guarantee you that they are a trickster—that’s just the sort of intricate, meticulously planned, chain-reaction nonsense that this type of god would adore unironically.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about trickster gods is the specificity of the place they occupy in their pantheon—in their community, in other words, because every culture that I know of assumes that the gods of their pantheon associate with each other, at least superficially. It’s like they all live in a really terrible gated community, made more terrible because, while everyone has huge drama all the time, there’s always that one guy who just makes everything worse.

A trickster is, to put it bluntly, the god of fuck-ups.

See, a trickster god doesn’t really have friends in the same way a normal person (or god) might. A trickster god has long-suffering neighbors, occasional allies, and prank targets–and everyone the trickster knows is all three of those things at once. Every other god of their pantheon lives in a state of, at minimum, low-simmering ambient annoyance towards them. After all, the trickster is the squeaky wheel and the stone in everyone’s shoe; the complication to any problem. The trickster’s favorite hobbies include but are not limited to: disrupting the social order, violating boundaries and the laws of etiquette, and sowing general mayhem. When the trickster comes loping down the road, everyone groans and rolls their eyes and says, “Ah, shit, what does this guy want now?” if they don’t chase him off to go bother someone else.

But for all that the trickster is the god of lies, they are also the god of uncomfortable truths. For all that they are the god of unexpected complications, they are also the god of creative problem-solving. The god of fuck-ups is also the god of profound yet subtle cleverness. When they get emotionally carried away, indulge in impulse, or fall victim to temptation, things erupt in chaos and catastrophe. But when they stop and stroke their chins in deep thought, when they use their smarts and their bags of cunning and act with deliberate intent? They work wonders and miracles. Wonders and miracles that even all their fellow gods find impressive—and that makes the trickster just barely valuable enough to tolerate.

And guess what? That’s the true essence of humanity, baby!!!

Gods are a mirror on humanity itself—a projection of humanity. They’re human nature boiled down and divided up into categories of impulse: the god of love and the god of war, the god of glorious power and the god of the humble hearth, the god of life and the god of death. But in the entire pantheon of the divine, in all these mirrors of humanity, the trickster god is the most special of all, because that projection contains humanity’s most affectionately realistic image of itself. See, the creation of a trickster god is the representation….

Read the fully essay in the Trickster issue of the Stellar Beacon!