A Crafty Unlocking: Covid-19 and Other Shapeshifters

“Hermes, son of Zeus, who brings luck, slid in sideways through the keyhole and passed into the hall like a breeze…like a mist…”

Homeric Hymn To Hermes 146 ff

Locks and Dreams

On the eve of the first lockdown I was locking the front door when the key jammed. Try as I might, I couldn’t get it out. It was stubbornly stuck. The locksmith was duly called and fitted a replacement lock, which failed almost immediately. This meant, rather ironically, that during the first few days of lockdown I couldn’t lock the door. Was I the target of some sort of cosmic jester with a penchant for irony? It certainly seemed that way.

Shortly after the second replacement lock was fitted the dreams started: odd, extremely vivid episodes, unlike any dreams I’d ever had before. In one, I saw my mother – who died in 2007 – standing in an arched doorway. To reassure myself that she was really there I put my hands out to cup her face and I could even feel the softness of her skin on my palms. These odd nocturnal episodes continued for a while and a brief internet search revealed that lots of people were having dreams with the same overwhelming sense of vividness and reality. The phrase ‘Covid dreams’ was duly born.

These were odd times indeed: not just for me, but for millions and millions of others. Lock fixed and safely locked down once more, I began to wonder about apparent ‘synchronicities’ such as the door event and the oddness of the dreams of so many. Was a bigger picture being disclosed by such things? If so, what was it? The key thing, in particular, nagged. Later, I learned that in ancient Greece the image of Hermes was stamped onto housekeys. Why Hermes? In essence, because this slippery, deceiving trickster god was the ‘master’ of the border; never more at home than in the betwixt and between state of a boundary or a doorway. As shapeshifter, thief and liar, it was Hermes who, as the Homeric Hymn To Hermes attests, stole Apollon’s cattle, transformed himself into mist, and slipped back home through the keyhole so he could claim in deceitful self-defence that he’d never so much as stepped over the threshold. I began to wonder: is there anything to be gained by seeking to view the Covid-19 pandemic through such a keyhole? To peek in and to see it, in essence, as some sort of ‘trickster phenomenon’?

In Search Of The Trickster

An internet search revealed that I wasn’t the first person to push open this particular door: although I might have been the second. In an entertaining blog post written on April 7th 2020, Nancy Charley pondered over the question of where the Trickster might be found within the unfolding pandemic. ‘[W]here would I find him?’ she pondered. Urging people to panic buy? Twisting the story in the media until the question of what to believe about Covid-19 was one that received only murky and confusing answers? Or leading the clapping on doorsteps throughout the land? Remember, she cautioned: tricksters are amoral. They don’t look to take sides, but when they do they might take both – or neither.[1]

Reading this, I thought of the well-known West African Yoruba trickster story featuring the god Eshu and what he did to two friends who started off on the same side and ended up somewhere else entirely. It’s a classic trickster tale, and helpful in considering the characteristics of tricksters per se:

Once upon a time two friends took a vow of eternal friendship, completely forgetting Eshu in the process. So at the right time, he made a cloth cap: black on the right side and white on the left. Then he rode along the boundary separating the two friends’ fields, just as they were tilling their land. Later, the two friends took a break. One said: ‘Did you see that fellow in the cap who greeted us as we worked, earlier? The one in the black cap?’

The other said, ‘Yes. He was a charming fellow indeed. But you are mistaken about one thing. It was a white cap he was wearing; not a black one.’

‘No’, said the other. ‘It was a black cap, for sure. You’re the one who’s mistaken.’

Back and forth the argument raged until the two friends came to blows. The neighbours came running and tried to separate them but were forced to retreat, such was the savagery of the fight. In the midst of it all, Eshu returned. He said, ‘What on earth is the cause of all this trouble?!’

One of the neighbours said, ‘Two dear friends have fallen out and are fighting. We tried to break it up but the violence was too intense. They won’t even tell us what they’re fighting about.’

Eshu dragged the two fighting friends apart. He said, ‘Why are the two of you brawling in front of all and sundry like this?’

The first friend said, ‘A man rode between our farms, greeting us as he went. He was wearing a black cap for sure, but my friend swears blind it was a white cap. And he has the nerve to accuse me of being blind.’

The second friend said, ‘You’re the one who’s blind, for sure. It was a white cap, absolutely, not a black one.’

The friends raised their fists to each other again, at which point Eshu said, ‘Both of you are right.’

They stood there stunned, and then said, in chorus, ‘How can this be?’

Eshu said, ‘I am the man who rode between the two of you. And here is the cap that brought you to blows.’ He held up the cap, and sure enough there were the two sides: one black, the other white. He added, ‘As you can clearly see, one side is black and the other is white. You each saw one side only and hence each of you is correct. When you vowed eternal friendship, did you consider Eshu? Don’t you know that those who do not put Eshu first in all they do are bound to fail?’

And so it is said:

‘Eshu, do not undo me, do not falsify the words of my mouth, do not misguide the movements of my feet. You who translates yesterday’s words into novel utterances, do not undo me, I bear you sacrifices.’[2]

It seems absurd to think that something as trivial as a cloth covering part of the head could be the cause of such strife, but, of course, this is one of the things that has characterised the Covid-19 pandemic. Friendships – even families – have been disrupted; divided by diametrically opposed views concerning the wearing of cloth face masks together with other pandemic-specific things such as the acceptance (or refusal) of new vaccines. And there is a sense, as Eshu avers to the two fighting friends, that both sides are right: from their own perspectives, at least.

Ambiguities and Anomalies

In the story, Eshu’s role as trickster reveals several typically trickster characteristics. In moving along the boundary between the two farms, he inhabits the ‘betwixt and between’ area in which he is typically most at home. In revealing two contrasting ‘aspects’ to left and right, he demonstrates an ability at once ambiguous and anomalous, the presentation of himself under two radically different guises: a form of ‘shape-shifting’ typical of tricksters generally. In playing the prank that he does, he disrupts an established ‘order’: a friendship between two neighbours who had thought their friendship to be eternal and undying. And yet the division he creates is neither wholly negative nor an end in itself, for out of it come essentially positive things: the discovery that the friendship was not as eternal as the two friends had previously thought, together with a timely admonition not to forget Eshu when undertaking any important decision or making any crucial vow. In upsetting the established order, he comes not simply to destroy but to create and to remind: you are both right. But you were both wrong to forget me.

As is well-known, trickster tales such as that involving Eshu and the two friends are universal and cross-cultural, as are tricksters in general. In a Cuban version of the story, Eshu shaves one side of his head whilst keeping his beard and coiffure intact on the other side. In a wider sense, however, the figure of Eshu has distinct similarities to other mythological trickster figures both historical and cross-cultural: from Wakdjunkaga, the trickster of the Winnebago, through to Mercurius and Hermes himself. Eshu’s penchant for trick-playing and creative disruption is typical of others of the ‘type’, together with his association with boundaries – and transition along and across them – along with his links to divination, synchronicity, mediation and trouble.

Shapeshifting And The Trickster

As I pondered on, this all seemed a million miles from Covid-19 – or any other virally-caused pandemic for that matter. And yet…and yet…

Attempting any kind of list or overview of trickster characteristics is fraught with dangers and difficulties. After all, a large part of his slipperiness – and the trickster is almost invariably a ‘he’ – consists of his ability to change his form at will, the better to pull his pranks. Nonetheless, in a seminal essay in which he seeks to produce a ‘heuristic guide’ to such pranksters, mythologically-encountered, William J. Hynes considers several features, starting with an anomalousness which includes the ability to shapeshift. [3]

As Hynes avers, shapeshifting allows the trickster to do many things. In a somewhat ameliorated form, it enables Eshu to divide two hitherto devoted friends as a means of teaching them both a lesson. Shapeshifting can also be used as a trap, as when the Navajo Coyote trickster becomes a tree in order to capture birds. Shapeshifting also enables the trickster to pass across thresholds and borders, as in Hermes’ transformation into mist in order to slip through the keyhole. Hilariously, it also enables the Tibetan trickster Agu Tompa to invade a cloister in order to make love to the nuns (a trick only discovered when they all fall pregnant). Agu Tompa’s shapeshifting involves nothing more than the putting on of nuns’ robes, but the pattern is already clear: shapeshifting confers upon the trickster a distinct advantage when it comes to crossing otherwise impermeable boundaries in order to cause havoc.

Crafty Unlocking

This is, of course, exactly what Covid-19 does too, for this virus appears adept at adopting all manner of guises in order to slip between the boundaries of individual cells and bodies. Borders mean nothing to it: whether they separate individuals, countries or whole continents. Mutation and variance seem key to its success, calling forth the need for ever-varying vaccines in a bid to stem its spread. Indeed, on 17th June 2021, in calling for the urgent need for polyvalent vaccines – ‘multifaceted’ inoculations based on multiple variants of the virus instead of just one – Chris Whitty unwittingly echoed William Hynes’ definition of the trickster as ‘fundamentally ambiguous, anomalous and polyvalent. (Emphasis mine).’[4] It seems that in the case of this particular virus, fighting fire with fire equates to producing a vaccine that can shapeshift in time with the disease itself, for Covid-19 thrives in a situation of mutation and transit. Indeed, even the symptomology of this virus appears to have a remarkable degree of plasticity. As I write, the ‘founding’ symptoms of a high temperature, new continuous cough, anosmia and dysgeusia have given way to a set of ever more complex physical effects including – but not limited to – a runny nose, sneezing, a skin rash, red/sore fingers, chest pains, a hoarse voice, and abdominal discomfort. It is still unclear why this might be, but mutation and variance within the virus itself are again being suggested as causative factors.

Crafty unlocking, then, seems to be the order of the day. But we’re not done yet. At the start of the pandemic I found myself pondering about the difference between the earlier SARS epidemic from 2002-4 (SARS-Cov) and the current Covid-19 pandemic (SARS-Cov-2). The earlier outbreak accounted for, in total, 8,098 infections and 774 deaths worldwide. At the beginning of 2022, just over two years from the beginning of the current pandemic, there had been approximately 300 million Covid-19 infections and getting on for 5.5 million deaths. Put bluntly: what is Covid-19 getting ‘right’ that SARS got ‘wrong’? What is the overall key to its dreadful success?

We’ve all seen many – perhaps too many – pictures of a Covid-19 coronavirus. Massively magnified, it’s ball-shaped with spikes on it. At the end of each spike is a little crown shape (which is why it’s called a coronavirus). The spikes are partly key to Covid-19’s success, because they allow it to latch on to a protein on the surface of our cells called ACE2: very much like putting a key in a lock. Back in 2002-4, the SARS coronavirus could do it too, but the crown on the end of the spikes on the current Covid-19 coronavirus is a better fit for the ACE2 protein than SARS was. How this happened is massively complex and yet to be understood, currently spawning all manner of theories involving a range of ‘conspiracies’ and none at all. The upshot, however, is clear: the key is now a better fit, so it unlocks us more easily.

But there’s more. When a coronavirus ‘opens the lock’, it has to split into two halves in order for the infection to continue. Back in 2002-4, with SARS, that didn’t happen very easily. Hence only a few thousand cases and a few hundred deaths world-wide. But with the current coronavirus, it happens very easily indeed, because Covid-19 uses an enzyme to enable it to split called Furin which it gets from the human body: the ‘something more’ that contributes to its massive and deadly ability to spread, relative to the 2002-4 outbreak.

Bricoleur and Situation-Inversion

In his heuristic guide to tricksters already referenced, above, William J. Hynes sets out several defining features of such figures both historically and cross-culturally, drawing liberally from a rich range of comparable mythologies. Of particular interest at this point is the feature of bricoleur. Of this, Hynes says, ‘The bricoleur is a tinker or fix-it person, noted for his ingenuity in transforming anything at hand in order to form a creative solution.’[5] Within the specific context of tricksters, Hynes notes that there are many such examples of novel, whatever-is-at-hand adaptation, utilised by such characters in pursuit of their aims. Thus, the Chippewa trickster and demigod Wenebojo is said to have transformed his intestines into sweet food for his aunts and bloody scabs from his rectum into sweet tobacco for his uncles. Covid-19’s use of Furin in order to more readily split – and thus infect – invites reflection within this context, suggesting, as it does, the same creative ingenuity: pressed, once more, into the service of boundary-crossing. Using what is to hand, Covid-19 is enabled to go beyond SARS: essentially by tricking its host into actually contributing to its own violation. Crafty unlocking, indeed.

Yet, as so often with tricksters, peeling back the layers reveals…yet more layers. Another of Hynes’ trickster-characteristics is a feature he dubs situation-inversion: an ability whereby the trickster is able to subvert – in essence, to overturn – any person, place or set of beliefs, no matter how rooted, sacred, or venerated. Examples of such inversions abound, in which the trickster essentially displaces the sacred and replaces it with the profane, deliberately erasing the boundary that usually separates the one from the other. In the life of the Plains Indians, for example, trickster tales often centre on figures such as Ikotme the Spider whose outrageous antisocial acts go to the heart of everything the community venerates. These include giving false alarms in order to disrupt preparations for war and even, on occasion, inducing blind villagers to attack one another. Hynes traces examples of Saturnalia within western European history back to such trickster ‘roots’, drawing attention to the Feasts of Fools, the Abbeys of Misrule, Charivaris, and the Mass of the Ass. Within this context, we might consider an example from Paris in 1444 in which divine services were disrupted by trickster-masqueraders who mingled with the choir to sing indecent songs and in which greasy food was eaten at the altar while the priest was celebrating mass. Games of dice were also played during such services, together with the burning of stinking incense made of old shoe leather.

In societies where secularisation has increasingly blurred the boundaries between sacred and profane, it is at first difficult to see how such situation-inversion could continue to be carried out, let alone lay the blame for this at Covid-19’s door. But deeper reflection reveals a more complex picture. For one thing, this cunning virus seems to have struck at the heart of some of our most cherished distinctions. Indeed, some of our most fundamental ‘polarities’ such as ‘well’ and ‘unwell’ have been subverted to the extent that those without apparent Covid-19 symptoms often turn out to be sick and a potent source of infection. On a wider scale, however, it is clear that numerous things which many societies now view as sacred and sacrosanct – such as the exercise of democratic freedoms as basic as the freedom to go out or stay in – have been fundamentally disrupted. Even those who have been passionate advocates of various civil liberties agendas – such as the UK’s own Boris Johnson – have been forced to do things which hitherto would have been viewed as simply unthinkable: such as the shutting of pubs and restaurants. In ‘playing with us’ like this, Covid-19 may indeed be seen to be profaning the very things that modern secular societies view as ‘sacred’: upsetting the applecart and rejoicing as the sacred apples roll away down the hill to be replaced by the very things that were once viewed as anathema.

Trickster Or Tricksters?

If we are to view the pandemic as the keyhole through which Hermes enters, we might well find ourselves asking one, final, question: who is the trickster in all of this? Or, rather: who are they? Up to this point, I have been writing as if the trickster is simply the virus itself, in all its manifold, slippery, deceitful, disruptive, boundary-crossing guises. Yet stepping back from events reveals a more complex picture, for there has been much that we might view as tricksteresque at play in various places and at various times over the course of this pandemic. We might think, for example, of those seeking to sell ‘quack’ cures, such as those involving the changing of the spelling of Covid-19 into a form that promises numerological protection.[6] Or of those who have blatantly flouted the very rules which they themselves have imposed. Or of those who have touted ‘treatments’ such as the ingestation of bleach and the shining of ‘internal lights’ as means of effecting cures. Or of those who, dismissing the disease as a ‘little flu’, have encouraged citizens to jump into cow dung as a means of engendering protection.[7] Indeed, given the trickster’s penchant for scatological antics, the latter should not really surprise us. And what if, as some have suggested, the virus, itself a product of Gain of Function research, was deliberately engineered before being set lose on the world? That the disruption caused by Covid-19 was somehow intended?

New Ways Of Being

Of course, disruption is never the final word in trickster tales. As the story of Eshu and the once-friends shows, there is method in the apparent madness. Trickster’s antics frequently disclose new possibilities and fundamentally re-visioned ways of being, which often start with the subversion and consequent deflation of human pomposity, self-deception, and pretention. In this way, tricksters frequently ‘cut us down to size’ only to build us up again in different, re-fashioned, ways. As June Singer remarks, the trickster is always ‘ready to bring us down when we get inflated, or to humanize us when we become pompous. He is the satirist par excellence, whose trenchant wit points out the flaws in our haughty ambitions, and makes us laugh though we feel like crying…’ In essence, she avers, ‘The major psychological function of the trickster figure is to make it possible for us to gain a sense of proportion about ourselves.’[8] Thus, there are positives as well as negatives to be had from the trickster’s disruptions, and ‘cutting down’ or deflation is never the end; merely a frequently-necessary means. That this insight might be applied to the recent pandemic – that it might, in one sense, be viewed as a ‘trickster event’ at once positive and negative – needs no additional comment, although as we emerge from it we may hope that, collectively, we will carry the lessons learned from that event with us.

And lessons there have been. It has been a humbling experience, but one that has taught us much. The beneficial impact of lockdowns on the well-being of the climate was a lesson learned early on, but we have also been reminded of the fragility of all our plans and proposed endeavours, together with the contingency of so much we once took for granted. We have learned much about the nature of viruses, too: including how much we actually don’t know.

In seeking to view Covid-19 through the ‘lens’ of trickster studies, I have in no way sought to belittle – far less to downplay – the tragedy and significance of each individual loss to this cruel and terrible disease. It has been more a heuristic strategy; a shift in the focus of enquiry in search of new ways to discern meaning within – including the meaning of – shared events which remain with us still. Interpretation can be, and often is, a slippery business, one that can be fraught with controversy and the source of sometimes bitter division. ‘Reading’ situations often requires the breaking-down of boundaries in search of fresh ways of discerning meaning. Indeed, there is something almost tricksterish in the endeavour, reminding us, as it does, that ‘hermeneutics’ takes its very name from the fellow whose activities and relevance we examined at the beginning. That the Greeks offered Hermes the last libation before sleep in his role of bringer of dreams might also give us pause for thought: but that is, perhaps, for others to explore.

At the very least, it might be argued that Covid-19 has given trickster myths a new resonance and potency. More than this, though, is the sneaking suspicion that something has been at play in the events of recent months that tells us much about what reality really is: including the awful realities through which many of us have lived. I think I understand, now, why the door locks broke, although I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand the dreams.

Notes

1. https://www.herculeseditions.com/post/trickster-in-covid-19-time

2. Paraphrased from Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, North Point Press, 1998, pp. 238-40

3. William J. Hynes, ‘Mapping The Characteristics Of Mythic Tricksters’ from William J. Hynes and William G. Doty, Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms, University of Alabama Press, 1993, pp. 33-45

4. https:// pharmaceutical-journal.com/article/news/polyvalent-covid-19-vaccines-expected-in-five-years-says-chief-medical-officer

5. Hynes, op cit. p 42

6. On this, see FT 407, p. 8

7. I name no names but the identities in most cases should be obvious and, besides, the list is almost endless.

8. June Singer, Boundaries Of The Soul: The Practice Of Jung’s Psychology, Anchor/Doubleday, 1972, pp. 289-90

An abridged version of this paper appeared in De Numine, No 72, Spring 2022, pp 23-5