They Did Not Abandon Us: How Memes Are Fulfilling the Role of Trickster Gods in Late Capitalism, by Jake Buckholz
“How shall we interpret this amazing figure? Are we dealing here with the workings of the mythopoeic imagination, common to all mankind, which, at a certain period in man’s history, gives us his picture of the world and of himself? Is this a speculum mentis wherein is depicted man’s struggle with himself and with a world into which he had been thrust without his volition and consent? Is this the answer, or the adumbration of an answer, to questions forced upon him, consciously or unconsciously, since his appearance on earth?”
As my friend and colleague, Rudy Martinez, wrote in his much-discussed essay, Your DNA is an Abomination, “You are both the dominant apparatus on the planet and the void in which all cultures, upon meeting you, die” (2017). In context, You stands for Whiteness, as in the extremely limiting, extremely violent, and extremely oppressive force that has come to dominate the world, but Whiteness is only the latest mask worn by something nameless that dates back to the agricultural revolution, that is to say, to the dawn of civilization. Behind the mask is whatever spirit drives humanity to conquer itself.
In the past, there were many who wore the mask. It has been animated by untold numbers of empire-builders: Rome, the Aztecs, Egypt, Persia, the Mongol Hordes, the Christian church, and so on. Over time, those numbers have been consolidated. As mask-wearer came up against mask-wearer, one inevitably fell beneath the power of the other and was swallowed by them. In this way, many cultures became few and entire ways of life were forgotten.
However, just as the mask can change form but not be destroyed, there exists a piece of every conquered culture that cannot be digested fully, that changes form endlessly in order to survive, and, if not exactly a friend of mankind, it is at least the age old opponent of the mask and its wearers. It, too, has gone by many names, but is most recognizable as Trickster.
While the pantheon of Trickster Gods is massive, Coyote ranks among the most famous in the zeitgeist of the United States circa 2018. However, it is important to note that the archetype is present in the mythos of most cultures: Hermes in ancient Greece, Lugh in Ireland, the nordic Loki, Anansi from the Akan people in what is now Ghana, Kitsune in Japan, and the list goes on.
As indigenous religions have been eliminated and replaced through the ages, the energies that once manifested in these gods have found avatars in places like folk tales. Anansi, the Spider Trickster of western Africa, came to the New World via the slave trade. In America, Anansi stories were kept alive through oral storytelling. New generations of storytellers changed and adapted the stories handed down to them, bits were lost, new influences bled in, and Anansi transferred himself into Br’er Rabbit, a figure later made famous by American writer Joel Chandler Harris, and who has since been adapted into a Disney movie (“Anansi”, 2018).
In the past, when one’s experience of the world was more geographically specific, particular stories could be chosen, and even modified by the storyteller if necessary, to fit the circumstances called for by their community. If there was no extant story to fulfill the need, a new one could be spun. In that way, storytellers played important psychological roles in their communities, and stories evolved, changed, and died according to their people’s needs.
Today, our experience of the world exists at a much larger scale, and we tend to rely on professional storytellers across many mediums, but the relationship between storyteller and audience is hardly recognizable. Mass-produced media has been undergoing its own self-consumption for decades. In the last few years, Disney bought out two of its biggest competitors and now dominates the film industry. With Hollywood becoming more and more a monoculture, its products increasingly algorithmic and leveled towards the lowest common denominator, made to not offend the largest number of people in order to bring in maximum profits, we have seen Trickster completely squeezed out.
At the same time, thanks to the internet, we have seen a rise in user-created content. Memes are now for everyone, and there exists every imaginable sort of niche, from kiddie and innocent to problematic and hateful, each endlessly churned up and rejuvenated by the restless powers of the internet. It is here, in the world of memes, we find a more analogous relation to that direct person-to-person transition, and it is here that Trickster has come to operate.
It is difficult to write about memes, what exactly they are and what purpose they serve because their potentiality is so vast. They are born, evolve, and die at an incredible pace. For that reason, I will refrain from referring to many particular memes in this essay, and instead write of them in the universal with only occasional specific reference.
One thing that is clear is that memes have no one to answer to. They are free to prey on anything and everything in as lighthearted or malicious a fashion as they please, from politics to pop culture, religion and society, animals and food, classic art, fashion, philosophy, history, and the completely nonsensical. Even mental illness, suicide, and depression are popular topics. For both memes and Trickster, there is no such thing as taboo.
To understand the significance of this, one must first have a firm understanding of the role of Trickster. Unfortunately, one of the crushing effects of endless colonization by the mask-wearers has been a nearly worldwide adoption of a dualistic worldview. That understanding of the world in terms of absolutes is not easily compatible with Trickster. It is, unfortunately, through that lens I am forced to write and research this essay, and it is through the same lens that I imagine most of you, dear reader, will be reading it. Therefore, it is difficult to give an adequate definition of Trickster.
Because of the difficulty to grasp Trickster, there are arguments over who exactly can be considered a trickster character. Some scholars even believe that, in the early church, both Jesus and Satan were introduced or understood as trickster characters. Perhaps this was done in order to ease Europe’s transition away from its many pagan religions which would have been rife with tricksters (Rambaran-Olm, 2017).
In the centuries since, each has evolved in opposite directions into the dualistic characters they are today, mirroring the good vs. evil model that dominates our worldview. The ability to see Christ and Satan not in opposition, but as complementary characters marks a significant step towards understanding Trickster, and, therein, understanding a part of ourselves.
Below, I have provided a list of attributes Trickster tends to possess, but it should be considered more of a pooling of common traits than exact science, and, as such, not all trickster characters will fit all, or even any, of the listed features: tricksters take animal form or have animal features, they are divine, magical, and wise, tricksters have phallic associations, they are found at crossroads, they are overtly sexual as well as greedy, mischievous, and selfish, they sometimes trick gods or other supernatural beings in order to help humans, but they are certainly not above tricking humans for their own amusement.
In a culture obsessed with categorizing good vs. evil, many of us may find it difficult to make sense of such a multi-faceted character, but, perhaps at a level beneath language, there is something akin to understanding. Likewise, I would challenge you to describe in words your favorite meme. It disappears, doesn’t it? The shotgun blast meaning so inherent in the mind dissipates like cotton candy beneath the running faucet of language, but, in that place beneath language, you feel it.
Despite Trickster’s wanton nature, or, more likely, because of it, the character’s tales are a favorite among many cultures. In Greek mythology, Hermes appears more often than any other god. In one of his earliest stories, as retold in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, on the day he is born, Hermes steals Apollo’s prized herd of cattle. Apollo, who is sometimes called the most beautiful of gods, who wears a tunic of golden panther skin, who carries the sun across the sky every day in his golden chariot, pulled by four white horses with golden manes and flame-colored eyes—Apollo, God of the sun, patron of poetry, music, mathematics, and medicine, who could bring down the plague, who was revered and feared by the people, Apollo is outwitted by his baby brother on the very day of his birth (2003).
Such a flip of power is a leitmotif in Trickster stories. Much as do today’s memes, Trickster often serves as a vehicle for the disenfranchised to live out their frustrations. For example, in a sacred Sioux story, there is a white man known to be a very astute trader, famous for cheating Indians out of their goods. One day, someone tells the white man “There’s somebody who can outcheat you anytime, anywhere.”
The white man accepts the challenge and tells Coyote to try and outsmart him. Coyote says he’d like to, but he can’t without his cheating medicine. The white man laughs and tells him to go get it, but Coyote says it’s too far away to walk and asks the white man if he can borrow his horse. The man agrees to this, but Coyote then says the horse is afraid of him. He asks to borrow the man’s clothes so that the horse will mistake Coyote for the white man. The man again agrees, so Coyote takes his clothes and his horse and leaves him naked on the side of the road, waiting for Coyote to return with his cheating medicine (Erodes, 2006).
The story is a clear outlet of frustration, a way to exact a tiny amount of revenge against the people who decimated their culture, against the mask and its wearer. Perhaps that has always been Trickster’s most important purpose. In Trickster tales, anything can happen and the small can always beat the large. That attitude is alive and well in the countless political memes produced hourly and aimed in every direction on the political spectrum. Sioux medicine man, Lame Deer, put it like this, “Coyote, Iktome, and all clowns are sacred. They are a necessary part of us. A people who have so much to cry about as Indians do also need their laughter to survive” (Erodes, 2006).
However, Trickster should not so readily be considered a good guy. Such terms, in dealing with Trickster, must be tossed out. Any attempt to pin him down, to examine him at his core, is in vain. There is no core, only a swirling cloud, its center everywhere, its circumference nowhere.
The Navajo distinguish between “Coyote as a supernatural, sacred being and...Coyote as an obscene jester” (Hultkrantz, 1980). That acceptance of Trickster’s dual nature is not unique to Native Americans. In ancient Greece, Hermes, “in odd contrast to this idea of him [as thief]...was also the solemn guide of the dead, the Divine Herald who led the souls down to their last home” (Hamilton, 2003).
In another Sioux Trickster story, this one about Iktome, Trickster dresses as a woman in order to trick a woman he wants to sleep with. He finds her and invites her to a stream where he exposes himself. She, inexperienced, asks him “What’s that strange thing dangling between your legs?”
Iktome convinces her it is a painful wart, the result of a curse from an evil magician. She suggests that they cut it off, but he says “the only [cure] is to stick it in there, between your legs,” which he proceeds to do.
This, and all Trickster stories, are told in a light-hearted manner, meant to entertain an audience, but the content is obviously quite dark. It is a common theme in Trickster stories, but one not meant to show him as “evil or a devil. He is truly a necessary figure for understanding the sacred...not only does the trickster by his contrary actions illuminate the proper way by indirection, he also reflects an awareness of the nature of the chaotic element” (Williamson, 1989).
On the opposite side of the continent, the Algonquins have their own trickster, Mahtigwess, The Great Rabbit, whose influence on African slaves is thought to have aided in the transformation of Anansi from a spider into Br’er Rabbit (“Anansi”, 2018).
In their telling of how the bobcat lost its tail, Wildcat decides to kill and eat The Great Rabbit. Mahtigwess, being magic, is able to sense that Wildcat is hunting him and flees. Each jump takes him a mile, making his trail difficult to pick up. However, Wildcat has some magic of his own and tracks him for days. He goes so far as to swear on his tail that he will catch Rabbit, but he never even gets close. Any time he thinks he’s gaining on Mahtigwess, Rabbit is only messing with him. At the end of a day of tracking, Rabbit conjures food and shelter for Wildcat to enjoy, which Wildcat does, not knowing its origin. However, when he wakes up, he finds that none of it was real and he is not sleeping in a warm shelter after a fulfilling meal, but is actually alone in a field, freezing and starving. Rabbit does this several times, and, when Wildcat realizes he has been tricked and is greatly outmatched, he gives up and loses his tail, having staked it on catching The Great Rabbit (Erodes, 2006).
Like the Iktome story, this is told in a joking manner, but, when examined, it is easy to see that it is one part slapstick comedy, equal part Kafkaesque horror. Similarly, memes are often presented as lighthearted on the surface, only barely concealing the deathwish burning underneath. In fact, memes are so often dark in content, that differentiation from the norm requires a qualifier, these are demarcated as wholesome memes. Knowyourmeme.com defines them like this: “a subgenre of image macros in which creators subvert audience expectation by taking established meme templates and using them [to express] supportive, caring sentiments rather than making the jokes usually associated with each template” (“Wholesome Memes”, 2018).
In a capitalist society where everything can be bought and sold, memes stand alone. No one owns Trickster just as no one owns memes. To either, nothing is sacred. They each exist outside of any traditional value systems. This very essay could be dismantled by a Trickster’s clever prank, or a poignant meme. They can be turned against power structures, but, just as easily, they can be used against the powerless, or even against themselves. Anyone who believes they have a handle on the chaos is in immediate danger of being consumed by it.
Take Pepe the Frog. Pepe first appeared in a 2005 comic by writer and illustrator Matt Furie, who intended the character to be “a 20-something post-college roommate...an anthropomorphic frog that lives with a party wolf, a bear-like creature, and...a muppety, dog-like creature...[They] kinda just party together and pull pranks on one another and hug each other and that kind of thing." In 2008, Pepe made his way into memehood with the phrase Feels good, man. He spent years as a dank meme, undiscovered by the Facebooking masses. “Like all great art, Pepe was open to endless interpretation, but at the end of the day, he meant whatever you wanted him to mean...But he also embodied existential angst. Pepe, the grimiest but most versatile meme of all, was both hero and antihero—a symbol fit for all of life’s ups and downs and the full spectrum of human emotions, as they played out online.” But by late 2015, the secret was out and Pepe’s popularity bled into the world of normies. He became so widely known that even pop stars were retweeting his image. That was when a subset of 4Chan users decided to take him back, or, in other words, make him unsavory to the general public.
During the 2016 Presidential Election, posters began associating the frog with white nationalism and the alt-right in order to ruin him for normies. Hillary Clinton tried to take back control by attempting to explain the hateful symbol to her confused followers. Eventually, Furie, the original creator, tried to kill Pepe off in his comic, but even he had lost control (Roy, 2016). Pepe was given over to chaos that only seemed to increase with each attempt at containment.
It is that potentiality for darkness that prevents Trickster from occupying any sort of capital. In today’s dominant culture, a watered down hodgepodge of ten thousand years of conquered cultures, held together by market forces and the subduing power of the mask, only the infinities of cyberspace and its lack of an agenda offer the vast room needed for Trickster’s throes of chaos.
It is not that we are divided naturally, and must dawn the mask, despite its profound discomfort, because it is the only thing strong enough to hold us together. That is the mask’s lie. It is the mask that creates artificial divisions in order to stop us from coming together and gathering the strength needed to finally remove it. For as long as we believe that lie, we will be the “cultural zombies aimlessly wandering across a vastly changed landscape” referred to by Martinez in his essay (2017), but, even now, the infection beneath the mask of power lives on. If not for a love of humanity, then for an abhorrence of subjugation. It lives only in opposition to that which seeks to crush, conquer, and control. It is that other part of humanity, that which refuses the conqueror. It knows that as long as one can laugh, can disrespect, can belittle in any way, one is not vanquished, not completely. And in that sliver of uncolonizable chaos, Coyote lives on, Hermes lives on, Anansi lives on.
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Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Edith Hamilton. New York: Spark Pub., 2003.
Hultkrantz, Ake. The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Martinez, Rudy. "Your DNA Is an Abomination." Sybil, November 2017. https://www.sybiljournal.com/yourdnaisanabomination/.
Radin, Paul, Karl Kerényi, C. G. Jung, and Stanley Diamond. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Schocken Books, 1988.
Rambaran-Olm, M.r. "Christ and Satan." The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, 2017, 1-2. doi:10.1002/9781118396957.wbemlb520.
Roy, Jessica. "How Pepe the Frog Went from Harmless to Hate Symbol." LA Times, October 2016. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-pepe-the-frog-hate-symbol-20161011-snap-htmlstory.html.
"Wholesome Memes." Know Your Meme. October 31, 2018. Accessed November 02, 2018. https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/wholesome-memes.
Williamson, Ray A. Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian. Norman: London, 1989.