I’ve had this post draft sitting here, with a title and a few notes, for over a month now…I guess I should get on it, then…!?!
I received something of a combined question/statement at PantheaCon 2013 at the Antinoan Dream Incubation Ritual (which I wrote a bit about here), which was so unexpected that it somewhat threw me for a loop…however, I was able to provide an answer that I thought was honest and accurate in the moment, even though I suspect the person asking the question may not have been satisfied with that answer.
The question was more or less the subject line of this post: “Antinous is a sort of trickster figure, isn’t he?”
What follows is an elaboration upon the relatively shorter answers that I gave in that moment, which I think gives a useful summation of the issue, and why such a view of Antinous is not exactly accurate as the evidence currently exists.
The short answer is: no! Or, to be more specific: at least, he’s never been one to me. On the one hand, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a trickster to others, or that he can’t or won’t be one to me as well in the future in the future…but, thus far, in my own experience, he’s kind of the opposite of a trickster. No matter what form he appears in, he is earnest and honest and not at all interested in having the last laugh on anyone (including himself); it isn’t that he doesn’t have any sense of self-irony, or doesn’t enjoy a good laugh (indeed, I suspect that both intelligence and humor would have been prerequisites in any lover of Hadrian–despite that also fitting about 99.9% of modern dating profiles!), but when one deals with actual trickster figures like Coyote, one rarely knows what one is going to get. That may be true of Antinous in terms of his physical appearances, his wide range of divine attributes through syncretism upon which he can draw, or even looking something like one would never expect in a million years (as was the case the time he appeared to me as a very handsome, bald, young black African man). But, there is a way in which his appearances are never something to deceive, but instead are meant to show a range of character, an internal diversity, and a kind of visual reminder that things can be better discerned by their essence and depth rather than their surface.
[There are many stories in Irish myth, for example, when a deity like Midir who is a trickster multiplies the appearances of a given being, and someone has to choose which one is the “real” one out of all the duplicates. They almost always get it wrong, and it’s because they are too stuck with the surface of things, not only in terms of appearances, but also in terms of apparent patterns of action and such. Anyway…]
I suspect that the notion of Antinous being a possible “trickster” arose in this individual from the fact that multiple syncretisms are attributed to Antinous, and therefore Antinous has multiple potential forms, which thus somehow equals shapeshifter status or a great range of disguises outside of who he “really” is…to which I must reply, again: no, not quite! This set of notions and associations isn’t exactly how syncretism works. To use a rather bad set of metaphors, think of it like this: the difference between being a shapeshifter and being a super-syncretistic deity is the difference between an entire line of action figures and a universal remote control. (Yes, I know…very bad!) All of the action figures may be from the same line of toys, they may all be made of the same types of colored plastic, come in similar boxes, and have some of the same markings on each box, even though each one is different. What one often gets in such lines of action figures is several different versions, outfits, or other such variations on one character–“Hoth Han Solo” as opposed to “Endor Han Solo,” and so forth. A universal remote control, however, is able to interface with a wide variety of different televisions, cable boxes, VCRs and DVD players, and so forth, and yet it is the same remote control no matter what system it is interfacing with. Antinous, even though he might be well served by having a line of action figures (in a way, he does, in terms of all his ancient statuary!), is more like a universal remote control, in that he is able to interface with many different deities and work with their individual settings with his own basic set of functions and buttons.
This discussion does prompt a larger one, however: What, for the matter, is a “trickster” anyway? I’ve found that this is an extremely ambiguous term, and one that oftentimes people don’t really bother to define or attempt to understand in a way beyond what approaches archetypalism, which generally doesn’t tell us much about individual deities, and oftentimes doesn’t tell us much about the archetype’s characteristics either. As a few examples, let’s take the Welsh Gwydion, who puts on a variety of magical disguises in Math vab Mathonwy in order to accomplish his ends, including swindling Pryderi out of his pigs, raping Goewin with his brother Gilfaethwy, and getting Lleu his rightful inheritance from Aranrhod. Is that the general character and actions of a “trickster”? Yes, I’d say it probably is. Take the Norse Loki as a further example, though. Is Loki a “trickster”? (I have to admit right off the bat, I’m not as well-versed in Loki’s lore as I am in Gwydion’s, but anyway…) He’s the butt of a lot of jokes, certainly, from the other gods; he is not beyond using deception to get things or to accomplish his ends; but, oftentimes the situations he engineers are not simply to “cause trouble,” they serve a larger purpose, even when it is a rather grim one (e.g. bringing about Baldr’s death). The punishment he gets for this is rather severe, even by divine standards, and in a sense somewhat (as far as the established lore is concerned) puts a bit of a damper on his further “trickster” career. While Gwydion also gets punished, and does cause some major death and harm (starting wars tends to do that!), he ultimately comes out of it much better than Loki does, and that does seem to be a characteristic of the “trickster” archetype as it has been understood for the most part.
But, what about a deity like Hanuman? Certainly, he is able to change form, and size, and does so quite often in the service of Ram; however, he often resumes his regular form as soon as possible during the course of such things, when he realizes who he’s talking to, and sees that there is a need for honesty and clarity in his communications in his capacity as Ramaduta, the messenger of Ram. He assumes the form of a brahman on several occasions, for example, and then finds that Vibishan is a devotee of Ram despite being a rakshasa and a brother of Ravan, the king of the demons of Lanka, and thus he assumes his proper form and reveals all to him immediately. Hanuman gets out of situations with cleverness and often trickery revolving around specific words, and he changes forms and disguises himself. But, is he a “trickster”? I’d say not in the least, because he does all of these things not simply to trick, and certainly never to stir up trouble (if he wants to do that, he never does it in disguised form, he just starts knocking the trees of the Ashok Garden in Lanka down after he’s eaten all the fruit!), but instead as expediencies in executing his duty.
Is Hermes a “trickster”? Yes, and a liar and a thief, in addition to being a messenger of the gods. But, here’s the thing: just because some divine messengers are tricksters, doesn’t mean that “divine messenger” = trickster, or that just because Antinous has a strong Hermes syncretism doesn’t mean he has this particular aspect of Hermes in him. Antinous’ Hermes-based epithets call him Neos Hermes, Argeiphontes, and Propylaios, none of which are particularly trickster-ish or even language-and-words-based (like Logios, etc.).
I suppose this is one of those cases–minor and tangential though it may be–in which I think that there has been a tendency, no matter how limited or singular its manifestation in this case might have been, to see Antinous as fitting into a pre-established archetypal mold rather than encountering him as an individual. This also occurs with people who initially approach Antinous and see him only as a “gay god”–first of all, what does that mean, and second of all, does it really fit Antinous as he is known from the past or as he is known now? (And it’s not just gay people who approach him in this way: in fact, this notion is what prevents a lot of non-gay people, or even some queer women, from wanting to approach him at all, because they think that because they’re non-gay or non-male, that he therefore won’t have any interest in them…nonsense!) It is often far easier to take someone or something, especially a god, as an archetype rather than as an individual on an initial basis; but, I’d say that it is far more rewarding and accurate to try and approach gods (as well as humans) as individuals first and foremost, and not as archetypes or stereotypes or “typical examples of” anything and everything at all. As Jung himself said, “the further we move from the individual…the more likely we are to fall into error.” This is just as much the case for the idea that Antinous is a gay god as it is that he’s a trickster.
[And, in case any of you want to raise the objection: Antinous as “super-syncretistic” is an example of a phenomenon that is relatively limited, and links a few individuals behaviorally or operationally that are as diverse as Isis and Mithras. “Super-syncretistic” is no more an archetype than “citrus fruits” is, therefore. Or, at least I think so!]