A review of Lewis Hyde’s work in preparation for his February 20 visit to Pacific Zen Luminaries.

The storehouse of treasures opens of itself. You may take them and use them any way you wish. ~ Eihei Dogen, Fukanzazengi

In his classic work, The Gift; How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, Lewis Hyde asks us to recognize the true value of creative labor ~ the work of artists, poets, teachers ~ which is essentially given in a gift exchange.

A gift exchange establishes connections and cohesion in society; a modern commodity exchange supports a society of divided strangers. But what is the mysterious source of the “gifted state?”

Hyde:  “An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except perhaps by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that “begging bowl” to which the gift is drawn…”

“A gift exchange is an erotic commerce, joining self and other, so the gifted state is an erotic state: in it we are sensible of, and participate in, the underlying unity of things. Readers are usually struck by [Walt] Whitman’s bolder, more abstract assertions of unity ~ ‘I am not the poet of goodness only/I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also’ ~ but the real substance of the state Whitman has entered lies in the range of his attention and affections.”

I … do not call the tortoise unworthy because she
is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet
Trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames stillness out of me.

In Trickster Makes This World; Mischief, Myth and Art, it is the trickster ~ Hermes, Coyote, Raven ~ who is the change master.


“The point of the trickster is to get trade going, to get liveliness and flow going…the coyote loves to steal things, likes bright things, but there is a playfulness about it. It is about play…This figure comes out of polytheistic traditions and has sacred functions, about keeping the cosmos alive and lively…”

“The trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish ~ right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead ~ and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.”

In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, an ancient Greek myth translated by Hyde, Maia gave birth to Hermes, “a wily boy” and the illegitimate son of Zeus. At one day old, Hermes carried out a complex trick on his step-brother, Apollo, stealing 50 of his divine cattle, then slaughtered two-head, offering them in sacrifice to the gods. Apollo found out, and almost killed Hermes, but instead took him before Zeus to arbitrate. The baby Hermes made a bald-faced lie of innocence to Zeus, then “winked and clutched his baby blanket in his arms. Zeus laughed aloud at the sight of this scheming child so smoothly denying the guilt about the cattle,” and ordered Hermes to return the stolen cattle to Apollo. In part, to mend his relationship with Apollo, Hermes began to play the lyre, an instrument he had just invented from a tortoise shell.

On hearing Hermes sing, “Apollo was seized with a longing he could do nothing about: ‘Butcher of cattle, trickster, busy boy, friend of merry-makers, the things you’re interested in are worth fifty cows…For this new sound, a wonder to my ears; I swear, neither men nor Olympian gods have ever heard anything like it, except for you, O thieving son of Zeus and Maia.’” Soon after, Hermes gave Apollo the lyre as a gift. Apollo, in turn, gave Hermes a “shining whip”, making him Keeper of the Herds. Hermes, ever the trickster, promised to never steal from Apollo again.

Art: Mercury, Argus and Io, after Jacob Van Campen, licensed by VAGA