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Tricksters and Mystics: Undermining the Age of Progress

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

by Julian Langer

My imagination is drawn towards tales of rebellion and ruin, to the revenge of primordial gods against Leviathan

One of the oldest written myths of our culture, if not the oldest, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you are not aware of this Ancient Mesopotamian tale, here is my sped up (disrespectful) version.

Gilgamesh, a rapey king, has an existential crisis, wants to become a god, and deforests the Cedar Forests of the Fertile Crescent, in order to use the timber to build walls for his city. Kind of like ancient Donald Trump figure (whose actual existence is equally questionable), just without the reality TV shows or Twitter account.

Homer’s Iliad tells the mythic tale of the Trojan War. In this tale, Troy falls to the imperialist might of a united Greek army - a proto-UN type centralised unification. The myth is in many ways a testament to militaristic politics, one we know all too well from the wars of recent years: a bunch of states ganging up on another for total domination. 

In the Torah, God parts a sea so Moses can bring God’s chosen people into the desert and eventually to the promised land. It’s a mythic tale of salvation from slavery, and cultural-supremacism. Like most deus ex machina narratives, the machine God saves humanity from near certain oblivion - similar to the promises of green technologies, that offer human salvation through the manipulation of wild processes. 

Many, if not most, of the myths of our culture denote the notion of human and civilisational exceptionalism. Gilgamesh’s authority allows him the privilege of claiming cedar trees as his, to use to satisfy his anxiety. The Greek’s military might grants them the authority to slaughter Trojans in their sleep. God’s authority privileges Jews as his chosen people, over the will of the sea. 

All the stories are testaments to civilisation, to God, to Man’s (supposed) authority over the world. Myths that normalize the idea that this culture is in control of everything.

Mythic Tricks

The philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes describes a myth as a second order of signs, structured on top of a first order. A myth is a narrative within a narrative, a story imposed onto the space of another story. As the foreground of the first order of signs fades in to the background of the second order the mythology becomes natural.

In the Uncivilisation Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth argues that the “myth of progress” is a narrative that has led to the ecological collapse we are living in. The myth that constant “development” can improve the world for civilised-humans: that this culture can successfully control the world through violation and manipulation.

This is something that reflects my perspective and experience. Civilisation moves from the background of the narrative, as progress takes the foreground, and becomes naturalised semiotically. Questioning this process is ridiculous in conversation, because civilisation is seen as natural, as the background of contemporary discourse - there is no other story/narrative than this. 

The Trickster is a strange and uncanny, yet familiar figure within many myths. Their myths are less common within the stories actively embraced by this culture, save for when they are included in tellings of blasphemous paganism, as a warning. As agents of primordial forces and primal animal desires, figures such as Coyotes, Dionysus, Eris, Pan and others are typically viewed from a judgemental distance.

They are not part of our story, but part of those stories that can only be looked at from a position of non-inclusion. Tricksters embody the image of chaos that civilisation splits from its “order”.

The blasphemous stature of the trickster goes further than this. In The Avengers film collection, Loki, the Norse trickster god, embodies an almost Satanic stature: the fallen angel who unleashes hell upon earth. 

Laughing at Ourselves

There is an obvious contradiction between the progressive narrative and the trickster narrative. Progression requires perfection: machines are always serious, never laughing. Man-made-machines can know no absurdity, as everything must be logical. Machine-made-man must be serious and logical – only ever laughing in spaces designated fit for use.

The trickster is a comedian, who makes an open mockery of civilisation, gods and anyone else who tries to control the world. But what would a genuine trickster myth in an era of techno-industrial civilisation at the end of the anthropocene world be like?

There is something of the trickster’s laughter in the dark laughter of Timothy Morton’s Dark-ecology. Dark-ecology can be thought of as an ecology of weirdness, rejecting anthropocentrism and progress, in embrace of the mystical beauty and horror of ecological aesthetic-consciousness.