The Heyoka


The Heyoka is a Native American character, sometimes also called the “trickster:”

The Trickster, in Amerindian tradition, is the one who, subject to basic instinct, puts upheaval in the all-too rational set-up of life and forces one to stoop and listen to repressed areas of vital impulses which, if not heeded, become destructive. Navaho tradition has it that their people studied all that was right, and became a virtuous people – but incapable of integrating what seemed to be opposite of virtue. They became prey to the energies of ‘wrong’, of their own shadow…so their wise elders devised a member of the clan to become Heyoka: the trickster, the jester, who would at all times represent the fears, weaknesses and disregarded aspects of the humans and of life. With elaborate costume, surprise attacks, and fear-inspiring noises, seemingly senseless discourses and rituals all of his own, the Heyoka is kept in high regard as the unpredictable and untamed aspect of civilization…

So it seems the Heyoka is the messenger of the shadow. In other accounts, I’ve read that Heyokas were used specifically to challenge and mock beliefs and behaviors–to get members of the tribe to question their assumptions. By “pissing on the altars,” so to speak, they would cause people to rethink their premises, or to engage in introspection or vision quests. The role of the Heyoka was to embody the unexpected, the profane, to deliberately cross boundaries and engage in taboo behaviors–to shake people out of their illusions.

I think this tradition is relevant, and we need more of it. People who think it somehow represents an abdication of rationality are missing the point entirely.

In this regard, I’ve been debating on an interesting thread over at Friendly Atheist. The owner of the blog, Hemant Mehta is exactly what he claims, a friendly atheist, with a maximum of tact toward the adherents of religion. His atheist credentials are solid, he’s just a little more patient than most with people of faith. He decried the Rational Response Squad’s Blasphemy Challenge, specifically the one submitted by David Mills, author of Atheist Universe.

David Mills’ stunt involved the desecration of scripture, specifically using his copy of the bible like newspaper to clean up after his dog, and posting the spectacle on YouTube. It’s crude, it’s offensive, and it’s almost intentionally tacky. Mehta and a number of others in the thread are appalled at what they characterize as the “juvenile” and “insecure” actions of Mills.

I’ve been defending Mills on principle. Not because I would necessarily want to duplicate his stunt or that I think everyone should. But because he is graphically illustrating the worthlessness of a text which has for far too long enjoyed a sacred and protected status. Without going too far into the discussion of the bible’s sordid content, suffice it to say that it would be extremely difficult to find a book in any language which contains more falsehood, manipulation, lies, misogyny, and general human foolishness. It supports slavery and a stoning death for minor offenses. It condemns sexuality except as controlled and condoned by the church and state. Equally vicious are the world’s other scriptures, including the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or any other book which claims to have originated from the supernatural. I would also place in this category (with lesser impact) such obscure tomes as “The Book of Urantia” or the enigmatic (incomprehensible) quatrains of Nostradamus.

The defining characteristic of scripture of any kind is that it holds itself immune to argument, and leaves itself open to interpretation. (Both. Now that’s a trick!) It lays out an undocumented history, complete with supernatural agents who conveniently left no evidence of their presence other than the ‘sacred’ words. It predicts dramatic final judgments in which the “faithful” are raised up and the unbelievers destroyed. The very aura of “sacredness” is what makes these books all-purpose bludgeons for the unscrupulous power-brokers who use human gullibility to their advantage. It’s pretty clear that the authors, translators and promoters of these books throughout history had as their goal social and memetic engineering on a grand scale.

Today, we no longer need these trite and erroneous explanations for our existence, nor do we need to fall victim to yesterday’s memes. (Which have as their primary motivation self-protection and self-replication.) We don’t need scripture’s parables and rules as a source for morality, dietary purity, guides on marital and family relations or anything else. We don’t need the institutions which continue to churn copies out by the millions. We don’t need scriptural traditions of any kind. We are free to honor our personal ancestral traditions or create our own rituals and new purposes.

Scientific humanism provides sensible guidance on every level, including the study of our nature, consciousness, origins, and understanding of conflict.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not for book-burning as a way of eliminating scripture–that would be doing what religions do. I got a little carried away in one of my comments over at FA about wanting to see all scriptures made into cat-litter–I meant that metaphorically, as a statement of their worth. In all seriousness, I would not want to see all copies of scripture destroyed, they are valuable historic documents–monuments to man’s folly. We need to keep them around so that in a hundred years everyone can marvel in disbelief at their destructive power. The act of burning or defiling one’s own personal copy of such a book I consider a totally legitimate act of protest–every bit as potent as flag, or bra, or burqua burning.

It’s time to relegate scripture to the category of fantasy and literature where it belongs. But it won’t go easily or quickly. That’s why I support any and every effort to mock, ridicule, defile and generally tear it down. Every time it happens, it also sends the subtle message that the petty gods therein are nothing but paper tigers–no different from Zeus, Thor, or other gods of legend–and wholly impotent to do anything to stop the supposed ‘desecration.’ That defilement even gets a reaction at all is proof we still have a long way to go. I’d like to live in a world where someone would burn or desecrate a bible and people would shrug: no one would get any more upset than if someone burned some old magazines.

But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where millions of parents abuse their children by passing along their baseless and false ideas about creationism and a world that’s 6,000 years old. Who revel in creating a new generation of zombies who will parrot their ideas and claim evolution is false because “their grandmother didn’t look like a monkey.” We should not respect these ridiculous beliefs or indeed beliefs of any kind. We should respect facts, personal achievement and true human heroism.

Mills may suffer some ridicule for his stunt, but he played his role well. As far as the atheist ‘movement’ being set back by this? Who really thinks fundamentalists were less upset with atheists a week ago than they are today. It’s absurd. We should appreciate Mills–not only for his writing and work on atheism, but for his (probably unintentional) acting as a modern Heyoka.

Comments (9 comments)

Morgaine / March 3rd, 2007, 5:05 am / #1

Just as some extra info: Along with the role of shaking people up to challenge their accepted beliefs, the Heyoka was also considered a 'Sacred Clown.' For the Lakota, (and other tirbes), this sacred clown provided relief from suffering (poverty, illness) in the form of humor, as well as the role you describe. They also were considered healers, medicine men (and women).

I think that the role was/is built into the society has some significance in terms of the response it elicits from the people. There is an implicit agreement to be 'disturbed' by the Heyokas backwards wisdom, and I think that changes the way the psyche of members of society open to the challenges they present. Not that an individuals mockery can't serve a similar purpose…it can. But I'm not surprised that those looking to make Atheism more understandable, to give it an association other than an angry, in-your-face philosophy might be upset. The fact that many people (falsely) cling to the perception that Atheism is more about that (which is in large part to avoiding looking at the salient points it presents), makes me see why those trying to strategize a more palatable overall presentation would be alarmed by this kind of action. I can see how it could hinder spreading the meme…and yet, I see the value of the shocking message.

The closest we come to having a Heyoka in our culture…are comedians…especially ones like Lenny Bruce or Sarah Silverman. And I'm glad they're here.

BlackSun / March 4th, 2007, 8:03 am / #2

Morgaine, your points are well-taken. Atheism has to ultimately both persuade and denounce. The people upset about Mills are more on the persuasion side. But the new consciousness cannot arise without destroying the old. This involves a good amount of denunciation of the old hypocrisies and the old ways of thinking. Scripture has made itself such an easy target–because it is non-accountable for its application. If people have acted badly because they are believers, many have justfied this by saying it's the fault of the person, not the scripture. Well, enough of that. People act badly because they are backed up by scripture.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. –Steven Weinberg

We have to distinguish between a morality of "respect" vs. a morality of "actions." Scriptures demand respect regardless of the actions of adherents or human suffering they may cause. A new morality beyond scripture would focus on actions and ignore the undeserved "respect" accorded to scripture. Which is worse: Millions of people in Africa getting infected with HIV because of religious-based policy on condoms, or someone in their house ruining a book they own and making a video of it?

I agree with you about the comedians, they are delightfully subversive to the old order.

Doris Tracey / March 6th, 2007, 7:34 am / #3


I believe scripture will change when consciousness changes and people are in the process of this metomorphosis now, but the change will be gradual and not catoclysmic. I would like to see all minds for and not against anything constructive no matter what it is. I sense undefiled religion is positive and undefiled science is positive and undefiled scientific humanism is positive and all should be respected. Maybe I don’t explain myself properly, but I’m trying. I like all for one and one for all.

say no to christ / March 7th, 2007, 1:06 pm / #4

Ahhh, the words of reason. Thanks sean I can always rely on you for that. I wish more atheists could see that we need both passive and aggressive. We need the ones that will listen and try to reason with theists, but sometimes they need a rude in your face to shock them into the reality that their crazy beliefs are not above questioning and ridicule. especially the beliefs that are so harmful to others.


Black Sun Journal » Archives » Go Sarah! / March 8th, 2007, 12:23 pm / #5

[…] But wouldn’t it be refreshing if someone insulted ‘god’ and nobody cared? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was content to hold their beliefs in private, without expecting everyone else to agree in lock-step? It’s this insistence on according one’s beliefs ’sacred’ status that’s the true intolerance. Like I said in my previous post, how about if we simply give comedians and blasphemers the role of heyoka, tapping us on the shoulder and helping us see when we are being too sensitive or screwed up about a particular subject. […]

Dawn / October 17th, 2008, 7:57 am / #6

There is great responsibility in being Heyoka. (you are chosen by Creator as Heyoka)
One of the biggest responsibilities is fully understanding the difference between being Heyoka and just being disrespectful and rude.
Picking up a dog’s stool with the bible could be seen as disrespectful, but the Heyoka often fart in the smudge bowl and this is accepted and funny. (For those who don’t know…Smudging with sage or cedar is the way that First Nations people purify themselves each morning…before ceremony…etc…and just to make themselves feel good..)
So perhaps your personal reaction to these actions such as wiping up dog poop with a bible makes you think, and that’s what the Heyoka can help you do. Think…..

Being Heyoka is a hard life…people misunderstand me and are always assuming things about me because I am “Backwards” It’s hard to be the one to stand up and point out the things that need to be changed or looked at.

Be well and take care of yourselves.
All my relations,

CINDY / February 12th, 2009, 7:06 am / #7

when "THEY" awaken… they will understand… it's not the bible for there is truth between those lies…but… the paper its written on… all will come to the understanding, the way of the original people, for it was also given to their ancestors of the ancients… "they" are just further removed from the original truth…we are grateful for our ancestors to have never let go of this truth and we will be there to help the "others"…it is the SPOKEN WORD, there is a time all will turn to the higher powers for guidance//// ALL MY RELATIONS

Happy&Free: .) / October 17th, 2008, 1:01 pm / #8

Really loved this piece! Just shows how intelligent & wise people have always been but life keeps moving the way it does.
Thks for the piece Sean & to Dawn for her comments!

Harvey / November 14th, 2011, 11:57 am / #9

heyoka to bring wakan closer to the great spirit,to open mans heart to the creator, to not be stuck in tradition.
They bring down the proud hearted so that we all remain wakan,They walk in the spirit not in the fools heart
who try to destroy man`s heart by rebellion

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