Trickster, Shaman, Healer

An excerpt from the book, Mercury Rising: Women, Evil, and the Trickster Gods, by Jungian analyst Deldon Anne McNeely, Ph.D.

Dr. McNeely was our guest in Episode 13.

Some maintain that Hermes is the god of shamanistic medicine, although one authority on shamanism, Mircea Eliade, attributes the role to Apollo and says that the figure of Hermes Psychopompos ‘is far too complex to be reduced to a ‘shamanic’ guide to the underworld.’ [Shamanism, p. 392] In African mythologies the Trickster mimics and satirizes even the seriousness of the shaman. He does so, not to overthrow the priesthood, but to show the underbelly of everything, including himself. Even though a shaman may serve the high god rather than the trickster god, both gods are intimately involved in healing, and both carry responsibility for disease, according to the story of Ananse above. In the case of Greek mythology, both Trickster-Hermes and High God-Apollo carry the caduceus. Homer tells us that Hermes’s caduceus, the golden wand, was acquired by Hermes from Apollo in exchange for the tortoise-lyre; later the caduceus changed hands again from Hermes to Apollo’s son, Asclepius. Ginette Paris notes that the passing of the wand from Hermes to Asclepius signified the bridging between the ancient ways of healing through magic, represented by Hermes, to the new scientific attitude and consequently the secularization of medicine, represented by Asclepius.

For both healers the caduceus, with entwined serpents around the staff of life, symbolized the union of opposites, the creation of order out of chaos. Apollo and Hermes share those symbols, Apollo underlying order and Hermes underlying chaos. But for a journey which has no clear destination – the journey of life, the journey to death, and the journey of psychotherapy, for example – Hermes, the non-authoritarian god who enjoys equally the company of the good and the wicked, is our guide.

In the healing arts, the worlds of Hermes, Apollo, Dionysus, and Poseidon overlap and merge at times, bringing common elements to what first seemed to be distinct entities. Magical, shamanic, and healing aspects endow all these shape-shifting gods, and though, strictly speaking, magicians are not shamans are not healers are not psychopomps are not visionaries, the terms are not mutually exclusive, but nebulous. Misty boundaries in these areas do lead to confusion, especially if we try to categorize, pin them down logically, or analyze the efficacy of any one archetype in the matter of healing.

Consider, for example, how suggestion, placebo, transference phenomena, and psychic healing blend medicine and shamanism. How often it happens that we can’t say what agent was crucial in a recovery from illness! An example of ambiguity in medicine is the field of body therapy today; therapists whose focus is on identifying unconscious complexes in the body posture and muscle tension, and those who consider themselves psychic healers, manipulating energy fields which may or may not be tangible, both call themselves body therapists. For the former, the patient actively participates in the therapy in an effort to alter aspects of her physiological expressions of psyche; for the latter the patient is passive, in fact, need not even be physically present, as the healer exercises power over the patient’s energy distribution. No clear identities have been defined by the profession – and what a task it would be to attempt to create such definition when body therapists may combine both methods, and many other methods that fall somewhere between the two I have described.

Most psychotherapists would agree that their work falls under the influence of different archetypes at different times, but, as Jung proposed, the Trickster guides the total process, for the reasons we have been examining here. He is the guide of the therapist who considers therapy an adventure. An experienced therapist once told me that he was burnt out from seeing people hour after hour, day after day. He said he could place every patient into one of six categories and could predict what would happen in each case on the basis of previous experience with the categories. No wonder he was bored! He was not welcoming Mercurius into his office, much less amplifying the mercurial energy when he saw it in patients’ lives. He was missing the spirit of adventure that gives each patient’s story its meaning and uniqueness.

For bored therapists, [Rafael] López-Pedraza’s writing should be required reading. He calls Hermes the therapist’s inner companion in the solitude of his daily practice; through Hermes, therapy is turned into a psychic creative work, where the therapist can begin to love his practice in the same way an artist loves his art [Hermes and His Children, p. 9].

~Deldon Anne McNeely, Mercury Rising: Women, Evil, and the Trickster Gods, pp. 85-87