Eshu, The Trickster God

[These are the notes I used during a service I
lead on 1-July-2001 at the First Parish Church of Stow & Acton]

– Table of Contents –
Enki, Explained
Intro to Trickster
Interstitial 1
Eshu’s two color hat
Interstitial 2
Eshu and the four eyed goat
Loki – a lesson in escalation
Interstitial 3
Anthem – by Leonard Cohen
Zomo the Hare

Enki, Explained

When I signed the sheet, volunteering to lead this service … I wrote “Enki, The Trickster God.” Now I must admit I made a mistake. Enki is a sumerian deity credited to bringing wisdom and magic, as well as craftmanship and skills to the earth, from Heaven.

What I meant to write was, “Eshu, The Trickster God.” Eshu is a god of the Yaruba in Africa, and he is the god of language, divination, the crossroads, and the market.

As it would happen, there is a relationship between Enki and Eshu. Enki brings the skills of culture that build up societies. He brings soughing and harvesting of grains. He brings the knowledge of baking bread and fermenting the grain into alcohol. He brings the knowledge for building, and also the rule of law.

Enki’s knowledge, or ‘Me’, allow mankind to build rigid, sustaining structures. Both physically (houses, temples, courts) but also abstractly (harvest cycles, religious ceremony, formality of law).

Eshu (and all Trickster gods) play with these structures. Trickster finds a line delineating this from that, and blurrs it. Trickster finds the divinely pure and clean, and sullies it. Trickster finds the lowly and abandoned and raises them up.

Sometimes Eshu rewards a foolish person with great wealth; but he is not good. Sometimes Eshu confounds the good plans of the rightious; but he is not bad. Eshu is capricious and chaotic.

Intro to Trickster

Trickster tales feature a clever, devious animal or character whose pranks usually cause trouble for another character. In most instances, the trickster goes away gloating and unpunished, though in some tales there is a turnabout, and the trickster falls prey to the mischief he started.

The trickster figure is found all over the world. Sometimes this figure is either creative or subversive. They are mischievous, cunning and humorous and usually have the ability to switch between animal and human form.

Almost all-traditional cultures tell stories featuring specific tricksters. For example, Coyote, Hare, and Raven are the featured tricksters across North America. West African trickster stories star Tortoise, Anansi the Spider, Zomo the Hare (African storytellers brought the latter to America where it was integrated with the native American hare eventually becoming Bre’r Rabbit) or Eshu, the mischievous messenger of the gods in Yoruba mythology. [Yoruba is modern Nigeria.]

In Japan, tricksters are Badger, Tengu. , mischievous trickster spirits, and Kitsune, a shape-shifter. In Europe and South and Central America the trickster can be Fox or Wolf. Norse mythology has Loki as their trickster. Greek mythology has Hermes as theirs. Of course, there are more in other cultures.

By the way, most of us grew up with a Trickster on Saturday morning cartoons. Like Bre’r Rabbit and Zomo the hare – we had Bugs Bunny!

What’s the long-lasting appeal of a mischievous hero who so often gets away with causing trouble? One answer is that trickster stories make people laugh, just as practical jokers amuse some people today. A deeper reason for the popularity of tricksters is the way they combine mischief with creativity.

Interstitial 1

Trickster is the god of this world, as it is; not perfect; not eternally changeless. When anyone, god or man, attempts cause a seperation between the divine and the banal – Trickster intervenes.

When someone claims innate superiorness of their own worldview above all others, Trickster shows their foolishness – such as in this next tale.

Eshu’s two color hat

Perhaps the most famous Yoruba story about Eshu concerns two inseparable friends who swore undying fidelity to one another but neglect to acknowledge Eshu. These two friends work on adjacent fields. One day Eshu walks on the dividing line between their fields, wearing a cap that is black on one side and red (or white) on the other. He saunters between the fields, exchanging pleasantries with both men. Afterwards, the two friends got to talking about the man with the cap, and fall to violent quarreling about the color of the man’s hat, calling each other blind and crazy. The neighbors gather about, and then Eshu arrives and stops the fight. The friends explain their disagreement, an Eshu shows them the two-sided hat—all this to chastise the friends for not putting him first in their doings. The lesson of the tale is obvious, but just as interesting is where it places the god. Moving along the seam between two different worldviews, he confuses communication, reveals the ambiguity of knowledge, and plays with perspective.

Interstitial 2

Trickster teaches with his practical jokes and pranks that (among other things) no ones viewpoint is perfect; no one has perfect knowledge.

This next story is similar, but Eshu’s actions are more extreme. In fact, Trickster escalates his pranks in proportion to the hubris he finds.

Eshu and the four eyed goat

One day Eshu heard that king Metolofi had come into possession of a goat with four eyes; two situated on top of it’s head and two others at the back. Presenting this beast to his people, the king proclaimed that this amazing goat would be able to watch all of the people all of the time. The goat would watch what everyone was doing, and if anyone disobeyed the king or broke the kings laws – the goat would immediately report the event back to the king. Thus, king Metolofi would become revered as the bringer of perfect justice to his realm.

Now Eshu became very indignant at this. He found it unacceptable that anyone should know all of his actions, all of the time – even the king! So, Eshu declared loudly that he would be able to act freely, without any fear of the goat reporting his actions. Eshu had a plan.

Eshu found the spirit Ifa, and made a sacrafice of a hat and four different colored pieces of cloth. Ifa proceeded to remodel the hat and make it into a head covering with four faces; each one a different color. Ifa then equipped Eshu with this head covering and sent him on his way.

Now, wearing the head covering, Eshu found the kings number one wife traveling on the road between the temple and the palace and assaulted her with rude and ribald comments; even throwing horse dung onto her dress. Many people had seen this exchange and were shocked that anyone would be so bold and foolish to assault the kings number one wife, and in public!

The goat saw the exchange and immediately reported it to the king, but could only say that the assailant was wearing a red head covering. The king then called together all of the people who had seen the deed and asked them to report on who had done this – but they each described a different colored head covering. Some said it was blue, others yellow, others white, and still others agreed with the goat that it had been red. No consensus could be reached.

The crowd began to argue heatedly with one another. Those that saw one color called the others liars and traitors. Some claimed the others were mad or had been in on the deed and were now trying to cover it up. The arguing became fighting and chaos erupted in the courtyard of the king.

The king then sent his minister to the people to calm them down, and to find out who was behind all of this trouble. While the minister was in the midst of the crowd, Eshu (again disguised in his four colored head covering) took the opportunity to strike down the minister in front of everyone – then slip out before he could be seized.

Again, the goat saw the deed and reported to the king that the minister had been slain, but this time by someone wearing a blue head covering. When the king ordered that the man wearing a blue head covering be brought forward – again the crowds began arguing and fighting bitterly with one another.

“The murderer was not wearing blue! It was red!” cried one observer.

“No you imbecile, it was neither blue nor read; it was yellow!” cried another. And so it went round and round with each believing his own eyes and disbelieving the report of his neighbor.

Finally, Eshu arrived without his disguise on, and called for the king to settle the matter. Surely with such a remarkable goat the solution would be trivial. But, the king could not and was humbled before his people. So he offered the goat up as a sacrifice to Eshu and hid his face away his angry people and regretted his previous boasting.

Loki – a lesson in escalation

Whenever someone (god or man) tries to arrange for unending structure – perfect, eternal order; that’s when Trickster escalates his mischief.

One example comes from the Norse. The new sun god Baldr was made impervious to all things exept the lowly mistletoe by his mother. Baldr literally became the idealized god. He was handsome and wise and literally, “the shining one.” Now he was impervious and eternal. In a word: perfect.

Loki comes along and schemes to have him killed with a dart made of mistletoe, thus ending this “endless perfection.”

The other gods are so insensed that they drag him below the world and chain him to a great boulder where a venomous serpent drips acid onto his brow. His faithful wife sits at his side and collects the acid in a bowl to shield him, but when the bowl fills she has to leave and empty it; the acid strikes his face and he wreathes and struggles in agony (thus we have earthquakes).

This was a much more serious affront to the natural order of things then even making Baldr impervious to all harm. This was chaining Trickster away from the worlds of gods and men for all time. This would create a world with no capricious chaos; gods no longer “dirtied” with the affairs of mortals; humans no longer lifted by epiphanous visions of the divine. This would be a world of endless stagnation.

The Norse believed it would be a bitter, cold, lightless winter – that would not end.

Then the story goes, Loki escapes his bonds, travels to Hel, and leads the armies of the dead against the gods. This is Ragnorak, the end of the world.

Interstitial 3

Trickster is not always creating chaos. He is the one who taught mankind to fish with a net, and catch prey with traps. Trickster is cunning, but it is the cunning of the empty belly.

As long as people acknowledge Eshu, he can be their benefactor. They can learn to be clever and creative and flexible – changing as times and environments and needs change.

So we live in the world, as it is. When we want to make something worthwhile, we need to get a little dirty. We acknowledge that our government is not perfect and changeless, but that we will continue to work on adapting and improving it. Finally, we admit that our viewpoint, our worldview, is not a perfect modal of all that is.

Here’s to living in Trickster’s world. Not a perfect place, but a living, vibrant, fascinating, and forever changing place.

(play Leonard Cohen’s, Anthem)

Anthem – by Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

Written by Leonard Cohen

Album: The Future

Zomo the Hare

A Trickster Tale from West Africa

Zomo was not very big or strong, but he was a very clever rabbit. But, Zomo wanted more than cleverness ñ he wanted wisdom! So he went to Sky God and asked for wisdom.

The Sky God told Zomo that to get wisdom, he would have to earn it.” The Sky God told Zomo that he would have to do three impossible things.” They were:

  1. To bring the scales of “Big Fish in the Sea” to him.
  2. To bring the milk of Wild Cow to him.
  3. To bring the tooth of Leopard to him.

Zomo said he would try to do exactly that.

Zomo went to edge of the sea to find Big Fish. He began to play his drum. He played so loud his drumbeats went down to the bottom of the sea. Big Fish heard the music of the drum.

Big Fish then came up out of the water and danced on the sand. Zomo began to beat his drum faster and faster. Then Big Fish danced faster and faster and faster. Big Fish then danced so fast his scales fell off. Big Fish became naked and quickly jumped back into the sea.

Zomo scooped up all the fish scales in his hat and hopped into the forest. While in the forest, Zomo climbed a palm tree and looked all around. That was when he saw Wild Cow.

He goaded Wild Cow by telling Wild Cow that he wasn’t big and strong, which angered Wild Cow. Zomo dared Wild Cow to knock down the little palm tree.

Wild Cow got so angry that she ran at the tree to knock it down. However, the palm tree was soft and her horns got stuck in the tree. While Wild Cow was stuck, Zomo slid down the tree and he turned his drum upside down and filled it with milk.

Zomo then took the path to the top of a high hill. This path led to the hill where Leopard walked every day. Zomo tipped his hat and sprinkled a few fish scales on the path. Then Zomo tipped his drum and spilled a few drops of milk on the path.

Then Zomo went to the bottom of the hill and hid behind a rock. Soon Leopard came walking over the hill. Leopard slipped on the slippery scales and the milk, rolled down the hill and hit the rock. His tooth immediately popped out. Zomo caught that tooth and hopped away.

Zomo took the scales of Big Fish, the milk of Wild Cow, and the tooth of Leopard to Sky God. Sky God smiled upon Zomo. “You are clever enough to do the impossible,” he said. “Now I will give you wisdom.”

Sky God spoke. Zomo listened. “Three things in this world are worth having: courage, good sense, and caution,” said Sky God. “Little rabbit, you have lots of courage, a bit of sense, but no caution. So next time you see Big Fish, or Wild Cow, or Leopard… … better run fast!”

Zomo is not big.

Zomo is not strong.

But now Zomo has wisdom.

And he is very, very fast.

Gerald McDermott (Told & Illustrated), ZOMO The Rabbit. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992.