Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Trickster and Julian Assange

Tricksters usually live in myth, but occasionally they occur in real life. Timothy Leary was probably the best example of a 20th Century Trickster. Now we have a 21st Century candidate for the role - Julian Assange, the public face of Wikileaks.

A Trickster, such as Loki, Hermes, Prometheus or Coyote, is a transformative spirit who disobeys normal rules and the social order. They steal knowledge from the Gods and give it to man. They are mischievous ‘situation inverters’, fundamentally ambiguous characters who dwell in the boundaries and bend or break the social order. Their sacred side is often balanced by a profane or sexually transgressive reputation, something that Assange has now gained following Interpol’s warrant regarding Swedish rape allegations.


Of course, it helps that he looks like a Trickster. Assange has an otherworldly air, like an Antipodean version of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. He has the sort of hair that wouldn’t look out of place in the Matrix movies. If Tom Hiddleston had dropped out of the role of Loki in Marvel’s forthcoming Thor movie, Assange would make a great replacement.


I didn’t spot Assange’s Trickster role at first. The actions of Tricksters are ambiguous and mischievous, and given my personal set of prejudices and baggage I saw what Assange and Wikileaks do as overwhelmingly positive. This was a mistake on my part, because the outcome of a Trickster’s actions is not the point of their behaviour. They just overturn, and what new scenario this produces is not their concern.

My favourite Trickster story shows this very clearly, I think. It concerns Edshu, a Nigerian Trickster God. One day, Edshu walked down the road in the middle of the village wearing a hat that was blue on one side and red on the other. “Did you see that God in the blue hat?” asked a villager from one side of the road. “Don’t be stupid”, replied his neighbour on the other side of the road, “He wore a red hat.” This difference of opinion soon turned into an argument, which then turned into a fight.

What makes this story so perfectly ambiguous is that there are two different versions, with very different endings. In one, the villagers realise their mistake and learn an important point about their limited perspective. In the other, the fight escalates and the villagers end up killing each other. Neither version can be said to be the ‘correct’ one, just as neither outcome could be said to be the Trickster’s aim. He simply acts as he does for his own amusement, and the responsibility for the outcome falls to the ability of the population to understand what they’ve been shown.

Julian Assange makes, I think, a damn good Trickster.