Tangling With the Trickster: Myth, Magic and the UFO

David Perkins
Magonia 80, January 2003

Ufologists! Have you been feeling “marginalised” lately? Ever wonder why ufology “can’t get no respect”? In his book, The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001),: George P. Hansen tackles these questions and many, many more. He has done a thorough and timely job of coalescing a number of issues swirling around ufology for several years. In this far-ranging tome, Hansen takes a penetrating look at the state of current UFO, psi and paranormal research.
His observations and descriptions of the various schisms within the research community will no doubt raise the hackles on some and bring nods of approval from others.

Seven years in the writing, The Trickster and the Paranormal is an impressive work of scholarship and a tribute to Hansen’s perseverance. Trickster mythology, laced with unbridled sexuality, outrageous scatology and permeated with the supernatural, has been largely ignored by the academic community. Even many hard-core anthropologists have found the material too embarrassing, irrational and generally weird to ponder seriously. Sensing an untapped goldmine of resources relating to the paranormal (and, potentially, ufology), Hansen dug in and did his homework. Speaking of UFO studies, Hansen says: “It takes several years of relatively intense reading and research to appreciate the field’s complexity. “As John Kennedy said long ago: We are not going to the Moon because it is easy. We are going because it is hard.”

George Hansen is game for the challenge. He is one of a handful of people in America who can actually say that his day job for a significant period of time was parapsychology/psi research. He was employed for three years at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina and five years at the Psychophysical Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. The portions of the book dealing with psi research are both fascinating and authoritative.

The book was begun with the idea of addressing what Hansen saw as some fundamental problems in parapsychology. A magician in his spare time, Hansen was intrigued with the issues of deception, hoaxes and fraud. These elements, which have so frequently plagued parapsychology and ufology, seemed to Hansen to be central, not peripheral, to understanding these phenomena. By and large, the research community has viewed the deception problem as a minor vexation to be shunted aside in its inexorable march toward scientific respectability. While studying the historical precedents of the deception issue, Hansen was soon drawn to that high-spirited mythological master of deception – the trickster.

In his “Acknowledgements” section, Hansen credits Dennis Stillings and their discussions of the trickster and Jungian psychology as the single most important factor that led him to write the book. Under the direction of Stillings and Gail Duke, the Archaeus Project and its flagship publication, Artifex, were a lightning rod for UFO, psi and paranormal researchers for roughly a decade (early 1980s until theearly 1990s). In addition to George Hansen, the Archaeus editorial board included such notables as Berthold Schwarz, Jack Houck, Walter Uphoff and Rhea White.
The Jungian-tinted Archaeus publications attracted contributions from a host of “third wing” researchers eager to explore alternatives to the “nuts and bolts” school of ufology. These included Hilary Evans, Michael Grosso, Alvin Lawson, Michael Persinger, Carl Raschke, Peter Rojcewitz, John Keel and Martin Kottmeyer. Incidentally, Hansen considers Kottmeyer “arguably the premier UFO theorist in the US”. Jacques Vallee, Kenneth Ring, Keith Thompson and Michael Talbot are also generally acknowledged to be members of this third wing or “psychosocial” school of thought.

In The Trickster and the Paranormal, George Hansen argues that science and reason can only go so far toward helping us understand UFOs and the paranormal. According to Hansen, the “correct understanding” of these realms has “massive implications for how we understand the world”. Here’s his thesis in a nutshell.

The supernatural, the paranormal, psi/psychic phenomena and UFOs are all associated with processes of destructuring. For the purposes of his argument, ghosts, Bigfoot, etc. are considered as categories of the paranormal. Animal mutilations and crop circles fall under the UFO rubric. The qualities of destructuring include: change, transition, disorder, marginality, the ephemeral and the blurring of boundaries.

Standing in opposition to these qualities are structure, order, routine, rigidity and clear demarcation. Drawing from the work of sociologist Max Weber, Hansen maintains that “for several thousand years, there has been a slow, progressive implementation of rational thought and organisation of society”. Weber called this “the iron cage of modernity”, and dubbed the process “rationalisation”. In our modern civilisation, academe, economic and political bureaucracies, the scientific establishment and organised religion have been the primary forces for rationalisation. This process necessarily requires the elimination of “magic” from the social structure in what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”.

Enter the trickster! The ultimate destructuring agent, the trickster is a character found in mythology world-wide. Documented far back into humanity’s archaic past, the predominantly male trickster has been called “a powerful life spirit” by mythology scholar Karl Kerenyi. In his classic book The Trickster: A Study in American Mythology (1956), anthropologist Paul Radin says: “Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.”

In Radin’s book, psychologist Carl Jung calls the trickster “God, man and animal all at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being … both superior and inferior to man”. Jung even gives a nod to parapsychology, noting the similarity of trickster antics to the malicious tricks and fatuous “communications” of poltergeists.

In Jungian terms, the trickster is a ‘root’ archetype, a universal image shared by all humanity. In Synchronicity: Science, Myth and the Trickster (1996) by Allan Combs and Mark Holland, the authors refer to the themes carried by archetypes as “neither wholly internal nor wholly external but are woven into the deepest fabric of the cosmos . . . myths as expressions of archetypes might be expected to portray certain aspects of the objective world as well as depicting psychological realities.” Combs and Holland also refer to root archetypes as amorphous “concentrations of psychic energy” which can assume an endless variety of forms.

In Greek mythology, Hermes is the best known and most comprehensive trickster figure. The supreme boundary crosser, Hermes served as the messenger between the lofty gods of Olympus and the mundane world of terrestrials below. In Native American lore, the trickster is often associated with animals, particularly the coyote and raven. In a delicious bit of irony, these are also the creatures most frequently cited by sceptics as the real culprits responsible for animal mutilations. In all these myths, the trickster is a vigorous force for deconstruction, frequently turning established hierarchies upside down. Their style is one of paradox, irrationality, ambiguity, contradiction, deception, stealth and (Hansen’s favourite attribute) destructuring.

Trickster figures have much in common with UFOs and their “occupants”. Tricksters are the definitive shape-shifters. They teleport effortlessly between the earth and the heavens, Their evasions and chicanery are legendary. They have no regard for linear time and have the ability to “dissolve” or alter time (missing time). Trickster communications alternate between profound wisdom and total nonsense. Tricksters abduct people and animals at will. These encounters frequently involve sexual contact and interbreeding. Tricksters taunt humanity’s political, scientific and military hierarchies. They even mock our methods of investigation. Trickster lore is replete with macabre shenanigans like stealing and killing cattle and other livestock, eviscerating animals and coring their rectums. They have also been known to lay down circular patterns or nests in crops and vegetation. Dennis Stillings has noted that the ‘mystery helicopters’ sometimes associated with UFOs and animal mutilations have more in common with the shape-shifting trickster than with human-made technology.

For Hansen, the trickster is the pre-eminent embodiment of all the paranormal, preternatural and anti-structural forces that the rationalisation process is attempting to stamp out. Hansen offers words of warning: “When the supernatural and irrational are banished from consciousness, they are not destroyed, rather they become exceedingly dangerous.” He also has words of caution for UFO and paranormal researchers who might be frivolously tempted to tangle with the trickster and his domain, warning of personal destabilisation, a loss of critical judgement, wrecked careers, ruined marriages and general “trickster-induced irrationality”. Ouch!

Respectable or not, proponents of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) will no doubt argue that UFOs are not paranormal or supernatural. Abduction researcher David Jacobs, for one, adamantly refutes the assertion that abductions are paranormal. Others might contend that extraterrestrials may have such a complete understanding of humans that they can manipulate or “hide behind” our psychology and mythology while they conduct their ‘programmes’.

Hansen maintains that the extraterrestrial hypothesis in actuality is a misnomer and that the hypothesis is really more of a “foundational premise”. It is essentially an assumption from which ideas are derived accordingly. He says: “US ufologists have conceptualised the phenomena as ET ‘flesh and blood’ humanoids travelling in ‘nuts and bolts’ flying saucers, thereby rationalising them, keeping them in the normal world and apart from the supernatural.” Hansen also argues that researchers who avoid or attempt to downplay “high strangeness” cases, where many classes of phenomena seem to blend, are missing vital clues and thus doing a grave disservice to ufology.
So, are ufologists forever banished to the bottom of the pecking order?

So, are ufologists forever banished to the bottom of the pecking order? Probably. Despite a fervid interest in UFO and paranormal themes as evidenced by a string of blockbuster movies like Ghostbusters, Ghost. ET – The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters and Independence Day, funding for serious research remains minimal. Sceptics twaddle that popular TV shows like The X-Files are fanning the flames of irrationality and leading humanity into “the new Dark Ages”. Hansen makes the point that portraying paranormal topics in a format of fiction and fantasy makes them by definition “unreal” and therefore nonthreatening. Along with the horror genre, these off-beat subjects have great entertainment value, but when the lights go back on, it’s back to reality. Once again the ongoing rationalisation process prevails.

In his chapter on “Govemment Disinformation”, Hansen makes the interesting observation that the only substantial funding for paranormal and psi-related research from the ruling hierarchy has come from government intelligence agencies. Since their job is institutionalised deception, it is logical that they would gravitate to these tricksterish realms. Hansen suggests that these agencies have promoted ‘mythological beliefs’ which are not always healthy for the larger society. Aside from the government’s well-documented remote viewing research, Hansen claims there was more going on.

He quotes from a 1997 article by Gerald Haines, a historian at the National Reconnaissance Office, which suggests that intelligence agencies had a strong interest in the link between UFOs and parapsychology: “During the late 1970s and 1980s … some in the Agency and in the Intelligence Community shifted their interest to studying parapsychology and psychic phenomena associated with UFO sightings.” Hansen questions why so many prominent UFO/ paranormal researchers have links to intelligence services and goes on to paint some less than flattering portraits of these individuals.

Many ufologists will remember Hansen for his controversial role in the Budd Hopkins/Linda Napolitano ‘Brooklyn Bridge UFO Abductions’ case. Along with his colleagues Richard Butler and Joseph Stefula, Hansen did his own investigation and concluded that it was an outright hoax. The case had been considered ‘fragile’ by several other researchers. As a result of Hansen’s critical appraisal, Jerry Clark, of the Hvnek Center for UFO Studies, and other ufologists started referring to Hansen as ‘Torquemada’ (the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition). Hansen absorbed the barbs with tricksteresque glee. “I expect to antagonise people”, he still says.

Lest one picture Hansen as some sort of arch-sceptic, his chapter ‘CSICOP and the Debunkers’ is one of the most blistering critiques of that austere sceptical organisation ever written. He calls CSICOP “aggressive agents for the rationalisation and disenchantment of the world”. The poor marginalised UFO researcher is no match for the gallery of scoffing Nobel laureates at CSICOP. Hansen points out that the ‘scientific investigation’ portion of CSICOP’s name is basically a lie. Rarely has anyone at CSICOP ever published the results of any scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal. To do so, they feel, would only give credence to the ‘nonsense’. Instead, CSICOP relies on “research by proclamation” (as ufologist Stan Friedman calls it) combined with ad hominem attacks and good old-fashioned ridicule.

When all the dust settles, we are still left with the basic question: Is the trickster still alive and vital in the modern world, or has the once mighty archetype been relegated to some sad remnant of his former glory as a run-down clown in a seedy circus at the edge of town? Both George Hansen and Dennis Stillings proclaim: “The trickster is a living thing!” Carl Jung pondered why the trickster continued to make his influence felt “on the highest level of civilisation”. He concluded that it was “like an old river-bed in which the water still flows”. Jung felt that the archetypes which he had spent a lifetime delineating were all still simmering at the deepest levels of the collective unconscious.

In his charming book Trickster Makes This World (1998), Lewis Hyde asserts that, “outside traditional societies there are no modern tricksters because trickster only comes to life in the complex terrain of polytheism”. Christianity has been moderately successful in grafting the trickster’s attributes on to the Devil.

If we assume, as Hansen maintains, that the trickster is still alive and kicking, we are left with some profound questions. Does the synergistic interaction of this “powerful life spirit” and the human collective unconscious somehow have the ability to alter/create physical reality’ Is the trickster an independent objective entity apart from the collective unconscious? Jung speculated that flying saucers were “materialised psychisms ” or what are today called “macro-PK events”. Jung’s psychoids” were the contents of the unconscious mind that spilled out into the material world as physical or semi-physical manifestations.

Theorist Tom Bearden has put forth the idea that UFOs, cattle mutilations, Bigfoot, fairies, Motthman, etc. arise from “exteriorised psychokinetic manifestations of the collective unconscious”. Bearden called these manifestations ‘tulpoids’. Tulpas are reputedly the entities which can be consciously created by Tibetan spiritual masters. Obviously there is a big leap from unconsciously created materialisations to consciously generated entities. Borrowing from Jung, Bearden speculates that the materialised tulpoids have a “metapsychological” or prophetic function. Just as an individual’s dreams reveal his or her unresolved conflicts, tulpoids are thrust up from the unconscious depths to illuminate the unresolved conflicts of humanity. Depending on how skilful we are at interpreting and integrating these prophetic eruptions, this could be construed as a helpful therapeutic process.

Hansen refers to psi and paranormal phenomena as “ideoplastic”, meaning that “they respond to and are shaped by the ideas, beliefs and anxieties of the observers”. He leaves the door open by saying that the phenomena also “display a measure of independent intelligence”. As for UFOs and abductions, Hansen admits that some UFO phenomena have “a physical event-level reality” and that “something exterior is going on” with the abductions.

So what are these wild, psychoidal, ideoplastic, tulpoidal tricksters trying to tell us? Carl Jung mused that the trickster “psychologem” might have some purpose or function in the ‘biological sphere’: “Like many other myths, it was supposed to have a therapeutic effect”. The trickster stories indicate that, although he was a cultural deconstruction agent of major proportions, his actions always brought some benefit to humankind, including new skills and technologies. The quintessential trickster Hermes invented the first musical instrument using a tortoise shell and cow intestines. Native American trickster figures introduced fire, fish traps and fish hooks. Other tricksters invented language. The trickster’s “social inversions” only temporarily subvert established hierarchies. During these reversals of normal patterns, novelty and new forms of thought arise. The social order is reinvigorated, revitalised, enlivened and made more flexible.
"In 100 years this won’t matter.
It barely matters now"

The trickster’s appearance in traditional societies meant that, at least for the moment, people were freed from the onerous obligations of rigid social restrictions. On the day of tribute to the local trickster, the tribal chief might be obligated to wrap himself in deer guts and publicly re-enact his most embarrassing dreams while eating dog excrement. Everyone gets a few beneficial bellylaughs and the chief gets a useful dose of humility. Actually, this might not be a bad idea for our society. All of this would seem to have survival value from a Darwinian, biological point of view.

Researchers Jacques Vallee and Terence McKenna have both toyed with the self-regulation or ‘cultural thermostat’ theory of UFOs. In The Archaic Revival (1991), McKenna says: “Vallee proposed that the flying saucer is an object from the collective unconscious … that appears in order to break, the control of any set of ideas that are gaining dominance in their explanatory power at the expense of ethics.” McKenna takes this to mean the current dominance of ‘scientism’ which has “betrayed human destiny”. According to McKenna, a ‘confounding’ like the UFO seems to appear “whenever history builds to a certain kind of boil”. Sounds suspiciously like the trickster again. Ufologists will recall that Vallee explored the mythological antecedents of the UFO experience in his controversial book Passport to Magonia (1969).

Hansen barely touches on the possible biological aspects of the trickster. He only goes so far as to say that the tricky qualities of deception and pretending might confer some degree of evolutionary usefulness on humans. In conversation, I mentioned to Hansen that I would like to see a good sociobiologist or evolutionary psychologist take the trickster material and run with it. Trickster lore could provide a dynamic ‘tension of opposites’ model of how societies and individuals maintain a robust homeostasis, with the trickster mechanism kicking in as needed to ensure novelty and vitality. Hansen beseeched me to resist this ignoble urge toward “reductionism”. Pursuing such a line of inquiry, he admonished, would only be contributing to the process or driving magic from the world and further disenchanting it.

Far be it from me … But maybe Hanson’s right. As philosopher Karl Popper noted. “Darwinism is a metaphysical research programme” We might end up in the same place, merely using a different set of metaphors. If, however the trickster is a personified (but veiled) biological mechanism whose therapeutic function is to confer survival value on the human species (or even Gaia itself), then logically ‘it’ would not want to be exposed. Revealing nature’s secret wonderworks might negate and disable them. On the other hand, as we gain a more sophisticated understanding and appreciation of nature’s subtle processes, we might enter a new phase in our biological and cultural evolution when we don’t ny. It is hard to see how a deeper knowledge of human nature and the intricacies of our home planet extracts any ‘magic’ from the world. If anything, it makes whole grand grand illusion even more enchanting and awe inspiring. The more you know, the more you don’t know, as they say.

Hansen counsels that ufologists and paranormal researchers must have an extrcmely high tolerance for ambivalence, ambiguity and paradox to avoid disillusionment and personal destabilisation. For starters, some basic assumptions about our ideas of cause and effect should be reconsidered. In his eloquent book Daemonic Reality, Understanding Otherworld Encounters (1994), British writer Patrick Harpur points out that Carl Jung, ever the Western scientist, was never fully able to abandon the idea of causality. Speaking of synchronicity, Jung said that although an archetype might not exactly ’cause’ a coincidence. it at least ‘organises’ it.

Harpur maintains that Jung still divided the world into inner and outer and “had not yet reached the imaginative, unified view of the world in which physical events simply have an inner meaning”. The peculiar parade of other-worldly trickster ‘daimons’ described by Harpur attacks the rational Newtonian/Cartesian world with a vengeance. Examining both crop circles and animal mutilations, he observes that thev seem tailor-made to discredit the very notion of causation itself.

Apparently we could never fully escape the trickster, even if we wanted to. He is embedded or nested in the most minute and basic level of physical reality – the Alice in Wonderland world of quantum physics. Physicist Werner Heisenberg, who formulated the famous uncertainty principle. stated: “We cannot know, as a matter of principle, the present in all its details.” Harpur observes that electrons, for example, are paradoxically both particles and waves at the same time: “They are both there and not there like UFOs they cannot be measured esactlv.”

Maybe the African tribalists knew that paradox was built into the foundations of existence when they named their trickster, Eshu, the god of uncertainty. The particle physicists at CERN refer to the capricious little subatomic particles that dart in and out of reality as ‘manifestations’. They wonder rather plaintibelly, “perhaps we are creating that which we seek to find.”

Author and veteran Fortcan researcher. John Keel, recorded the tale of tricksterism run completely amok in his landmark book The Mothman Prophecies (1975). Driven to the brink of insanity bv the eerie “crew of mischief-makers” he encountered during his investigations of the bizarre goings-on around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Keel concludes: “Once we begin looking beyond the mere manifestations we will finally glimpse the real truth. Belief has always been the enemy of truth, yet ironicaly, if our minds are supple enough, belief can sometimes open the door.”

Lately, Keel is playfully fond of saving: “In 100 years this won’t matter. It barely matters now.” This may or may not be true. Meanwhile, for the serious (or even quasi-serious) researcher, George Hansen has written one of the most relevant and thought provoking books in recent memory.