Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Jester (or Eight), the Priest and the She-Goat... (or How to Build a Jester-Trap)

Back in the before of things, when I was both younger and older and wiser and more foolish than now, I put together a one-man show that I performed, twice, in Edinburgh, during the Fringe, at the Big Red Door. It was called Coyote Bardo, and was a two-hour tour of Trickster tales from around the world. Conceived in madness and born into chaos, the show was not an unqualified success, being in unequal parts an act of worship, an embodiment of Trickster Himself and a piece of storytelling-theatre at the same time. One show felt like surfing on the edge of a Trickster-flavoured razor-blade - which counts as success - in the other, I felt like an actor, which was something of a disappointment. There are a few photographs, which is unusual - my habit of performances going completely unrecorded in sound, photograph or audio is, I'm sure, an occasional source of amusement to those strange deities that choose to look in upon my life. Three years of ritual semi-naked combat with sword, shield and quarterstaff on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh at Samhuinn, anyone? This is the only picture I know of... Yes, that's me being carried on a throne through Edinburgh. Marvellous. Everyone should get to be carried on a throne once in their life. The only antidote to the outrageous ego-inflation it engenders is surely the ritual beheading that occurs later in the night. At this point, I'm happily throwing magic mushrooms and blackberries into the crowd and enjoying the last merriments as King of Summer.

But, I digress into the petty complaints of the storyteller's ego and the mysterious humour of the Gods.

However... I tell you about Coyote Bardo only as the flimsiest of introductions to this excellent tale collected by Aleksandr Afanas'ev back in the mid-nineteenth century (he himself was largely working from the collection of the great Vladimir Dal, I hear.) Afanas'ev, in simple terms, was the Grimms of Russia. Most of the Russian folktales we have today are retellings from his books, so thank-you, Mr. Afanas'ev, for your troubles (though it would have been nice if you'd have shared with us when and where the stories were collected, eh?)

This tale is called The Jester. If I had known about it then, I'd have included it in my Coyote Bardo show, but I didn't. Whilst there is, in theory, no reason why I couldn't reprise the show at some later date, I think I'll bide my time lest Loki get the wrong idea and start making impatient midnight skypes to Eshu and whispered conference calls with Anansi and Nasreddin...

I decided to scan it in, rather than type it out. I hope your eyes manage it (if you're struggling, zoom in or click on the pages to make them Big...)

Here we go. See you at the end.

There you are.
Another hilarious Trickster tale that ends with a pile of corpses...
The moral of this story is surely, Don't mess with a jester. Which we all, somehow, know. When we're at the circus, we just know not to piss off the clowns, don't we. Partly because we instinctively understand that they're exempt from the Rules, that they don't have to play fair, but also, I think, because we know that anyone who's allied to Trickster has a Power with which it is Unwise to Tangle. I think you probably ken what I mean. There's a quality shared by jesters and the criminally insane, and it has to do with a willingness, a compulsion, even, to Transgress. See that line over there? It's irresistible to someone in the thrall of Trickster. See that law, that social norm, that sacrasanct boundary... It must be broken. It would be possible, perhaps, to design a Jester-Trap along those lines:

Bluebeard: See that door there? Just don't open it, whatever you do! Das ist verboten!
Bluebeard's Wife (who is really a jester in drag) (to self): must resist... must resist... (Runs to the door and is trapped along with Bluebeard's previous Jester-Wives. Bluebeard, pleased with the workings of his trap, goes for a walk in the forest and is killed by a falling piano. Trickster always wins in the end.)

“They are clever in their mottoes and jokes, that they say to their mayor and judges: if they are too rigorous, ambitious, or greedy, they portray the events that occurred and even what concerns the official’s own duties, these are said in front of him, and at times with a single word.” Spanish description of the early Colonial Yucatec clowns known as baldzam.
The subject of Tricksters, fools and jesters is one close to my heart. Having been allied to an (un)healthy dose of Trickster energy for many years, it has taken time to learn to work with it in ways that don't just leave a trail of devastation. Having cultivated a certain degree of the Mercurial (which is nothing if not Tricksterish - see your Hymn to Hermes if you're in doubt), I now find myself coming to Earth for sustenance more often than to those realms of fertile chaos and constant change that are the more familiar homelands of Trickster. To build a life of relative certainty, rather than one of continual shape-shifting - this is the order of my times now, and it is work I am undertaking with great gladness and delight.
But these are Trickster times, mythologically. We all need to become acquainted with our own Trickster-ish, Puck-ish energies, because it is this part of us that is most agile, most mutable, most able to hold the opposite poles that we are continually being asked to dance between in these crazy times. And, as well you know, it is Loki, that brings about the End of the World in Norse mythology. Now's the time of Earth-building for me; some day - who knows when? - it'll be another time. Fire again, or Water, maybe. How well we navigate the changes - that's a Trickster skill. How willing and able we are to shift with the tide and the times. How like Mercury, like quicksilver, we can be... And these are times of change, of that there is no doubt...
The subject is too huge to do justice to here. I will come back to it again and again, because it's fathomless. But it's Sunday night and it's time to sit with a book in front of the woodburner, not type more words into the Machine. All I can do is recommend these three books:
Trickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde. (For my money, this is a better book than The Gift, but no one I know agrees with me. What do they know? This is a masterpiece. Also a fantastic collection of Coyote tales that formed the backbone of the Coyote Bardo show, so Thank You, Mr. Hyde.)
A Branch From the Lightning Tree, by Martin Shaw. (The whole thing's got Trickster wriggling under its skin. Great writing, poorly edited in parts, but plenty enough flashes of that lightning to keep the wonderment rolling in.)
Deeply into the Bone, by Ronald L. Grimes. (Subtitled Reinventing Rites of Passage, we're especially interested in pages 139-141, concerning the initiation of sacred clowns among the Tewa Pueblos of New Mexico. Hard. Core.)
Now I'm off to have a glass of mead and a rummage in the Afanas'ev archives. I hope you're all enjoying the onset of Autumn as much as I am. Bejesus, it's beautiful! The smells and the colours and the wonder of its turn from Out to In. It's so wholesome, I want to make bread out of it all and wrap it in blankets. What a thing it is!

As for the Coyote Bardo pictures, this is all you'll get until Ragnarok comes knocking more loudly than today:

(Note the black-and-white big toes in the third picture. My finest make-up touch to date, I believe.)

'The Jester' is from 'Russian Fairy Tales' (1945) collected by Aleksandr Afanas'ev and translated by Noerbert Guterman. Pantheon Books: New York
Maya Clown Deity is from 'An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya' (1997) by Mary Miller and Karl Taube. Thames & Hudson: London
Coyote Bardo photos by Aisha Wolfe