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Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture

Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture

by Shepherd Siegel
Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture

Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture

by Shepherd Siegel


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Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture journeys from ancient folkloric appearances of Tricksters such as Raven and Èṣù-Elegba, to their confined role in Western civilization, and then on to Trickster’s 20th century jailbreak as led by dada and the hippies. Disruptive Play bears witness to how this spirit informs social progress today, whether by Anonymous, Banksy, Bugs Bunny, or unrevealed mischief-makers and culture jammers. Such play is revolutionary and lights the path to a transformed society.

Original Play is the frolic and noncompetitive play that animals and human babies do in order to have fun and to keep on playing...not to win or to lose. It is a substance of the universe that occurs in all life. It is the behavior by which love and belonging are expressed, given, and received.

When play moves into contest or other roles and rules, with winners and losers, it becomes Cultural Play. Issues of ego and narcissism are issues for Cultural Play, not for Original Play.

Disruptive Play occurs in the rare times when the rhythms of Original Play suddenly appear in a political or cultural setting, settings conventionally fraught with Cultural Play. Like driving a clown car across the field during an official NFL game. Or Raven tricking Chief into releasing the sun, the moon, and the stars into the sky. Or a surreptitious Banksy graffiti that invades a museum or the public commons. Tricking power into performing an act of love.

Disruptive Play: The Trickster In Politics and Culture connects knowledge from mythology, folklore, popular culture, art, politics, and play theory to make its casethatto be playful means not taking power seriously. At critical mass, power collapses and leaves us swimming about in the waters of the amoral Trickster.New values emerge and could lead to some version of the dystopia that currently drenches popular culture. Or, if people can discern between the authentic contact and exhilaration of play, and branded, mediated, alienated pleasure, then we just might stumble and frolic our way to the Play Society.

Disurptive Play is ideal for enthusiasts of the human condition and those who hold out for the vision, however slim, of the Play Society.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781732294844
Publisher: Wakdjunkaga Press
Publication date: 09/10/2018
Pages: 358
Product dimensions: 5.83(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Dr. Shepherd Siegel grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the midst of that whole utopian Sixties thing. He was a professional rock and jazz musician who switched it out for his career as an educator (in music, career + technical, and special education). His first teaching assignment was with youth in lockup in the County Juvenile Detention Center (the only un-mellow job in bucolic Santa Cruz).

Striving to make the greatest positive impact, he earned his doctorate from the UC Berkeley while inventing innovative internship programs for troubled and troubling youth (with and without disabilities). He has over thirty publications in the education field. He and his book-Career Ladders: Transition from School to Adult Life-have received numerous awards, including one from the US Department of Labor. From 1996-2012 he led Career + Technical Education for Seattle Public Schools, and then worked with the STEM-education organization Project Lead the Way until 2015. The KAPPAN published his article about a meaningful high school diploma. Somewhere in there he played with the jazz trio Swingmatism and the power pop rock band Thin Ice.

While more active as a writer, Dr. Siegel sustains an wide-ranging knowledge of music and can show you how to have fun with that. He has returned to his countercultural roots to write "Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture," and to spread its message of playfulness and progressive change. Shepherd Siegel is gonna work pretty hard to make you laugh, gonna make you wonder. His favorite hobby is to be with groups of people large and small, suss out the energy and, if it is to be found, find the funny bone, and see if he can't help get the group rhythm to swing. Learn more at

Read an Excerpt


Tricksters and Fools

Myths ... known by the name of The Trickster ... belong to the oldest expressions of mankind. Few other myths have persisted with their fundamental content unchanged. The Trickster myth is found ... among the simplest aboriginal tribes and among the complex. We encounter it among the ancient Greeks, the Chinese, the Japanese and in the Semitic world. Many of the Trickster's traits were perpetuated in the figure of the mediaeval jester, and have survived right up to the present day. ... In what must be regarded as its earliest and most archaic form, as found among the North American Indians, Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. ... 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. But not only he, so our myth tells us, possesses these traits. So, likewise, do ... the animals, the various supernatural beings and monsters, and man.

— Paul Radin

VIRTUALLY ALL FOLKLORES feature a trickster, and there are at least sixty-nine documented oral traditions. A full list would be endless, and Lewis Hyde states, "If trickster is the boundary-crossing figure, then there will be some sort of representative wherever humans invent boundaries, which is to say, everywhere." The status of such a character may range from The Fool who unlocks the ability to transform the social order only to renounce it to the master storyteller and powerful deity. In all cases, the disruptive nature of this character who personifies play calls the rational order of society into question and presents opportunities to transcend it. The more we learn, understand, and accept the Trickster into our collective psyche and our political reality, the more we can embrace such irrationality, the more our society can develop and grow.

In other words, Bugs Bunny. Universal and familiar Bugs Bunny is the most direct route to understanding the Trickster personality. The Trickster, like Bugs, is compulsively at play, and the rapid plot shifts, gender-bending, unresolved situations, and moral ambiguities found in Bugs Bunny cartoons and Trickster myths correspond to and define play in its most elemental form, where the ruling principle is the lack of one.

As Radin states in the opening quote and as his seminal study and retelling of the Winnebago Trickster myth reveals, the Trickster can in one episode be the master manipulator with wily schemes; in the very next, be tricked by others; and in the next, the victim of his own self-inflicted wounds. One Trickster tale may read like a fable with a morality lesson, while the next one is unmoored and adrift in the amoral sea of irrationality.

Like play, Trickster tales are without inhibition and venture as deeply into the irrational as our storytelling skills can carry us. We will later see how this Trickster personality shows up in the Western world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but this chapter delves into earlier folk tales and mythologies and makes some initial comparisons to Western notions of the Trickster and Fool archetypes.

Wakdjunkaga, The Winnebago Trickster

The Winnebago, or Ho-Chungra, tribe emerged in northwestern Kentucky in roughly 500 BC. From 500 AD and for about a thousand years, they lived in what is now Wisconsin. They are the stewards of the Wakdjunkaga Cycle, considered the oldest surviving Trickster mythology. The etymology of Wakdjunkaga is unknown and does not appear in any other North American tribes. Some of Wakdjunkaga's stories do show up across the continent, and some are unique to the Winnebago. The story cycle sets the template of all trickster tales, the movement from an undifferentiated and amoral psyche to individuation, self-awareness, and the beginnings of order and values.

It begins with Wakdjunkaga appearing as chief and announcing to the tribe that he is ready to go on the warpath. In the traditional way, a feast is prepared for him and his warriors. He gladly eats, and then breaks with convention and rules and slips away to have sex with a woman while others are left to wonder where he's gone and why he does not gather the tribe and get on the warpath. He is discovered, and everyone goes home, accepting yet confused. He's able to repeat this trick three more times, feasting on deer and bear along the way, frustrating the tribe a little bit more each time. Eating food is a First Pleasure. Wakdjunkaga's ravenous appetite and willingness to deceive in the interest of getting a free feast and forbidden sex is a consistent trickster characteristic, repeated in the Raven tales of the native Northwest tribes and in the Yoruba mythology of West Africa.

By the fourth time, the angry and exasperated tribe still goes along with the customary feast, expecting the same prankster ending. This time, though, Trickster chief does lead many of the tribe on the warpath, but he makes such a mockery of it, flaunting yet more traditions and talking to his arrows, that eventually the rest of the tribe turns back. Wakdjunkaga is left to wander this world alone.

Wakdjunkaga's wily ways continue as he uses figures made of hay to draw a buffalo into a clearing where he is able to kill him. Such a smart guy. But since all of this killing is done with his right arm, his left arm gets jealous and attacks the right, and a brawl of self-mutilation ensues. Such a foolish guy.

He convinces his brother to loan him two of his four children, for companionship. Wakdjunkaga is given specific instructions on the care and feeding of the children, which he ignores and, in his carelessness, kills them, bringing predictable wrath and a long chase — kill the Wabbit! — where Wakdjunkaga of course escapes. So much like a cartoon.

There are more stories of Wakdjunkaga foolishness. Where he is swimming for miles, looking for the shore but unable to see it as he only looks out into the ocean, when all he has to do is look the other way and he would see the shore. Where he is infuriated by a man on another shore who continues to wave at him. No matter the ignoring, reciprocating, commanding, challenging, the pointing man refuses to change his pose; Wakdjunkaga eventually figures out that the 'man' is a tree stump with a protruding branch.

It's of some reassurance to know that fart jokes go as far back as Trickster tales, as there is one where Wakdjunkaga has captured and is roasting some ducks, but leaves his anus to guard the ducks while he sleeps. Initially, his anus is able to ward off a marauding fox with farts, but the fox eventually overcomes the defense and eats the ducks. Wakdjunkaga punishes his own anus, resulting in burning it and somehow cooking and spreading about his own intestines, which he later eats before realizing what that delicious entrée is.

Wakdjunkaga has both shape-shifting and gender-bending powers. Despite his ability to wrap himself in his extraordinarily long penis, Wakdjunkaga can also take a female form and give birth when the story calls for it or the mood suits him. Radin explains:

Trickster himself is, not infrequently, identified with specific animals, such as raven, coyote, hare, spider, but these animals are only secondarily to be equated with concrete animals. Basically he possesses no well-defined and fixed form..... He is primarily an inchoate being of undetermined proportions, a figure foreshadowing the shape of man. In this version he possesses intestines wrapped around his body, and an equally long penis, likewise wrapped around his body with his scrotum on top of it. Yet regarding his specific features we are, significantly enough, told nothing.

In this final set of tales from the cycle, Wakdjunkaga teams up with fox, jaybird, and a hetcgeniga. They find a place to live together but lack enough food to prepare for an anticipated difficult winter. Their scheme is for Wakdjunkaga to take on the form of a woman. He fashions a vulva from an elk's liver and breasts from elk kidneys. Through a parody on the Winnebago mating and courtship rituals — he observes some and blasphemes others — the attractive Wakdjunkaga marries the chief's son and bears him three sons. The purpose of all this is to obtain food, which Wakdjunkaga devours on a regular basis. We then take a tangential turn to a tale of the third son, who against normal Winnebago behavior, cries and cries until he is appeased first by a piece of a cloud, then by blue sky, and finally by green leaves and roasting ears of corn. The very next day, however, Wakdjunkaga's disguise is exposed, and she skedaddles with her companions.

Trickster's Cherokee version signifies an African-Native American literary tradition and bestows supreme divinity upon Br'er Rabbit, the folk character originating in West Africa as Anansi the Spider. This Trickster character, speaking to the oppressed status of the American slave, used his cunning towards survival, outwitting his oppressor, Br'er Fox.


The Yoruba have a vast and rich culture on the West African coast, in Benin, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. One of their core origin stories is that of Èsù-Elegba, or Eshu. This Trickster demigod represents a spirit of playfulness, creativity, and potentiality that lives on today in both Africa and the Americas.

In a contest of the deities before God to see who was most supreme, Eshu outwitted his competitors, by making a sacrifice the day before the contest, and was thus instructed to distinguish himself by wearing a red parrot feather on his forehead, signifying that he was not to carry burdens. As reward for this cleverness, God bestowed on Eshu the personification of àshe.

This central ethos, àshe, is the Yoruba word for spiritual command. àshe, the power-to-make-things-happen, the human capacity for the divine, creativity. This force to make all things happen and to multiply is highly complex, with multiple and contradictory meanings. When possessed by the spirit of àshe, a person takes on the literal form of the mask they are wearing. The mask is the conduit and expression of a pretend reality, playful but with awesome power.

àshe is characterized by generosity, the highest form of Yoruba morality. We might also understand it as embodying play, playfulness expressing generosity of spirit. Play is a form of "be here now" and acceptance of the moment. àshe is also translated as "so be it" and "may it happen." Thus, the meaning of playfulness deepens to include appreciation of the moment and also an openness to potentiality.

Eshu is the "owner-of-the-power," a royal child, a prince, and a monarch. He is the embodiment of àshe, full of contradictions, a great god who represents many myths in one being. He is both a humble maker of sacrifices and a powerful god worthy of them. While he is supremely generous, he is also a great devourer. He is depicted sucking his thumb, smoking a pipe, and in other images of flagrant orality. In one tale, his mother offered him enormous quantities of fish. After eating them, he devoured his mother as well. Then in an act of generosity, he gave his mother back to the world, along with a spreading of his presence through yangi stones and shards. This is one example of Èsù-Elegba's power to endlessly multiply his force. And if we see the Trickster as an adult who still plays like a child, then Eshu quintessentially represents this as the "... fusion of valences that are both childlike (insatiable eating) and mature (restitution of what is right to those who sacrifice)."

Avatars of Eshu always have the protuberance from his head, but the feather is sometimes represented instead as a knife or even a phallus. Eshu is often painted in red and black, red being the color of àshe, black to trick those who do not look closely enough.

Èsù-Elegba's purposes and behaviors are as changeable as the transient nature of play. His elusive and provocative nature was threatening to Westerners, who, when he emerged in early African-American slave culture, branded him as the devil. But he is honored even today in Africa, Brazil, Cuba, New York, Miami, and parts of the southern United States.

He is frequently misunderstood, dismissed as the fool or condemned as the devil, because the imperatives of domination require clear distinction between good and evil and resist empowering a character who is, first of all, at play and, furthermore, amoral. Though one eventually sees the highest Yoruba value, generosity, in Èsù-Elegba, he comes to us with tricks, demands, and evasion.

Eshu is complex. As a child, he was known to tell tales and lie. So when he met up with a pair of glowing eyes emanating from the shell of a coconut, no one believed him. He was left alone in the woods to die beside the strange eyes. When his death and the still shining eyes were not respected or sacrificed to, disasters and death suddenly erupted throughout the world. Divination priests went to the site of the eyes and the boy's death, selected a special stone, and brought the spirit of Eshu back, to live within the stone. Thus was Eshu ultimately honored, and from Africa to Cuba to Brazil, Eshu's spirit is worshipped in the form of laterite cone altars.

Eshu is a god of opportunity and referred to as the God of the Crossroads. Reimagine the common legend where Robert Johnson meets the Devil at the Crossroads, writes a song by that name, and becomes the world's greatest blues singer and guitarist. While such a legend might satisfy Western hunger for exoticism, Robert Johnson's blues are more accurately appreciated as a blessing from Eshu than as a deal with the Devil.

To the Yoruba, attention is fixed upon whether this god has received the proper sacrifices. To Westerners, Eshu represents the potentiality (threat?) of a different social order. The Trickster is always the one who gives up power — the jester, the fool, or prankster who was "only kidding." In French fairy tales, at every opportunity to assume power, the heroic Trickster seeks more modest rewards like food or comfort.

Indeed, original and disruptive play, in contrast to our culture's mammoth obsession with contest, represents a noncompetitive opting out of the power game. The disparity is between the non-Western ideal where play disintegrates power, and Western folklore and literature where play surrenders to power's status quo.

Thus, the Puritan mindset could not accept a player, a prankster, the Trickster — names that strongly infer one who is not to be taken seriously — as one of the most powerful (yet noncompetitive) forces in the universe. Except for God, that is precisely what Eshu represents. So we have a concept of play that reigns, a precedent for the Play Society, and a tradition of play, yet it is so foreign to our conditioned range of possibilities that even when we come in contact with this West African culture, we fail to recognize it.

European imperialism and slave trade wreaked havoc on African culture, and Western ways of war, government, technology, and economics covered the African landscape with their sheath. Yet powerful aspects of African spirituality, dance, music, art, sexuality, and humor survived conquest and made a historic transition to the West, becoming a major influence on popular culture. Such influence was particularly powerful in music and gave birth to some of the greatest rhythms and music of the world: in Cuba, the US, Brazil, and throughout the Western Hemisphere. The spirit of Eshu lives on in the soul of African-American culture. And this generous and powerful Trickster informs North and South American culture.

Besides Wakdjunkaga, what other indigenous Trickster tales met the New World arrival of Europeans and Africans?


Raven tales are just one example of folklore that, through oral tradition and tribal migrations, imparts many different variations. The exaggerations and contradictions of folktales testify to playfulness and to earlier and older cultures that embrace the irrational and the coexistence of multiple versions ... the ephemeral nature of folktales is itself a form of play.

Northwest Raven folklore comes from tribes that lived in what is now Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and extending to Siberia, Manitoba, and northern California. In fact, Raven shows up all over the world. Sometimes the Raven is the one who tricks, and sometimes Raven is the tricked fool. North American tribes also tell stories of Coyote, Blue Jay, Old Man, and Hare as Tricksters.


Excerpted from "Disruptive Play"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Shepherd Siegel.
Excerpted by permission of Wakdjunkaga Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Difference Between Playing and Playing Games

Introduction: Play as Politics...It's not a Game

1 Tricksters and Fools

2 Arturo and Remus, Players Among Us

The Sin of Sins

3 It's Ubique!

4 Trickster Meets the 20th Century

5 Who is to Blame for dada?

6 Eros, That's Life!

History Doesn't Repeat Itself, but It Does Rhyme

7 Hearts' Beat

8 The Counterculture Breaks on Through to the Other Side

9 The Counterculture Breaks

10 Abbie Hoffman, Lone Warrior of Play

11 Andy Kaufman, Holy Fool

Presently in the Past

12 Bart and Lisa, Simpsons Libertas

13 Banksy, Anonymous, and the Yes Men

14 The Fremont Solstice Parade

15 Burning Man

16 The Road Ahead

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