Path of the Sacred Clown

by Peggy Andreas / Written 1995

In my last article, I wrote of the Native American spiritual path of the Sacred Warrior. To Native Americans, the path of the Sacred Clown is ALSO considered a spiritual calling, essential to the smooth functioning of the tribe:

In the days before the invaders came. . .we had clowns. Not clowns like you see now, with round red noses and baggy costumes. Our clowns wore all kinds of stuff. Anythin’ they felt like, they wore. And they didn’t just come out once in a while to act silly and make people laugh, our clowns were with us all the time, as important to the village as the chief, or the shaman, or the dancers, or the poets.1

Most every tribe had their Clowns. The Oglala and Lakota called them Heyoka (“crazy”), the Arapaho called them Ha Hawkan (“holy idiot”), and both peoples considered them religious specialists. The Salish people honor the memory of a Clown who (not so long ago) challenged a missionary. The missionary was enticing people to come to his church by handing out little mirrors to them while urging them to cover their bodies with white folks’ clothes. It is told with a smile that the Clown (a woman!) walked into the church one Sunday wearing nothing but a hat and old shoes! Read the book to find out what happened!2

The Hopis protected their Sacred Clowns by incorporating them into their Katchina (“Cloud spirit”) ceremonies where the Clowns make a hilarious entrance from a roof, descending a rope ladder into the plaza where the Katchinas are dancing. “Look down there!” they exclaim, “Everything is bountiful and beautiful!” Their descent is very precarious, usually head-first, and causes much laughter as they tumble over each other and fall the last few feet. They do not see the Katchinas until they bump into them, and then they say “This is MINE!” or “This many are MINE!” They act silly, childish, greedy, selfish, and lewd. As they pretend to become aware of their surroundings, they mock tourists, anthropologists, neighboring Indians, even themselves! They beg for food. Their guessing games and balancing acts please the crowds. The dancing Clowns sometimes pretend they are invisible, heightening the joke.3

The survival of these ritual clowns gives us a clue as to how important a Clown was to the community-spirit of each Native American tribe. Nothing was sacred to a Sacred Clown. She was a social critic of the highest order. Her funny mimicry and joking exposed hypocrisy and arrogance. Her portrayals of ridiculous behavior showed the people (in a very humorous way) their own foolishness and blind-spots. “A clown was like a newspaper, or a magazine, or one of those people who write an article to tell you if a book or a movie is worth botherin’ with. They made comment on everythin’, every day, all the time. If a clown thought that what the tribal council was gettin’ ready to do was foolish, why the clown would just show up at the council and imitate every move every one of the leaders made. Only the clown would imitate it in such a way every little wart on that person would show, every hole in their idea would suddenly look real big.”

With the arrival of the “invaders”, this sacred office got to be a most dangerous one—maybe more dangerous than that of the Warrior. Perhaps this is why most of the Sacred Clowns disappeared from sight! As the Cree Medicine Woman says in the story, Flight of the Seventh Moon, “No wonder we never got along. . .my people and your people. They were all the time getting peeved at each other and much hatred grew between us. It was unavoidable, because my people had great pride and humor. Yours had the jitters and wanted to shoot those who were laughing at them. Yet I still find you white people very amusing. I have to laugh at you because you never let yourself go. Every word to you is a completeness or else a long way off. You like to bludgeon the meaning of something to fit your own stupidity. It would serve you well to quit being so brittle.”5

The Sacred Clown of the Salish people mentioned earlier made a trip to Hudson Bay, Victoria, to clown about the way her people were trading seal and otter skins for rum. The white company-men soon had enough of her, and when she was later found shot in the head, all her people figured that a white man did it. The Indians themselves strictly forbade doing any kind of violence to a Sacred Clown.

These Clowns were dangerous to tyrants and exploiters because they were so disorganized and so completely honest. They could see with the eyes of a child, and because of this, could spot a phony a mile away. They were sometimes called “destroyer of heroes.” The white invaders hated them, of course, so it was either be killed or find a way to hide. Those who were killed are remembered with much respect by their people. Those who survived did so by learning to be Tricksters, to change their form, to become invisible if necessary.

A negative religious figure (such as the Sacred Clown) seems odd to most non-tribal people. Most Native Americans, however, LOVE the humor of it and tell stories about a mythic Trickster whose pranks and mishaps teach the tribe moral lessons. The Trickster takes many forms, but the favorites seem to be animals who are exceptionally curious, resourceful and adaptable—SURVIVORS, such as spider, raven, rabbit, owl, bat, coyote and crow. The stories are full of funny situations with the Trickster being mischievous, being in turn made a fool of, and even getting involved in obscene affairs. “Mostly, Trickster likes pullin’ antics and tellin’ dirty jokes.”6 Perhaps it is this appreciation for the Trickster that has given the Native American the ability to survive against all odds. The Trickster makes a lot of mistakes, and usually has a hard time learning from them. However, She keeps on keepin’ on. She doesn’t drown Herself in despair, doesn’t kill Herself in frustration. She survives.

Trickster shows us how we trick OURSELVES. Her rampant curiosity backfires, but, then, something NEW is discovered (though usually not what She expected)! This is where creativity comes from—experiment, do something different, maybe even something forbidden, and voila! A breakthrough occurs! Ha! Ha! We are released! The world is created anew! Do something backwards, break your own traditions, the barrier breaks; destroy the world as you know it, let the new in.

Sacred Clowns function as the eyes of the Trickster in this world: mirrors in which we see our folly as well as our resilience. As the Salish clown said to the people who were seduced into the missionary’s church by the pretty, shiny mirrors he handed out, “There are better mirrors—the mirrors in the eyes of the people you love.”7 We’re reflections of each other. When we begin to take ourselves too seriously, there is the Clown to give us a laugh! When we become too heavy with self-importance, there is the Clown to knock some of that load away and lighten us up! The power of the Clown is the power of life itself. Acknowledge the pain, then let it go. Don’t carry it around with you. Focus on the joy, the mystery, the happiness, the cosmic joke. When Clowns delight in eating and in sexual horseplay, they are showing this love of life.

It’s a little more difficult to spot a young clown than it is to spot a young warrior. Those who describe a child as being “too sensitive” need to be aware that the little one may be a Sacred Clown in the making. The child may be shy, or she may be a temperamental show-off, sometimes both in different situations. In any case, a young clown is an explorer in the world of emotions. She tests the limits of her feelings as surely as a young warrior tests the limits of her will. She can amuse herself for hours playing pretend games, exercising her fantastic imagination. She will often mimic animals in her play. Just as often, she will have an ear for music and a talent for drama. Physically, she will have an excellent sense of balance.

The initiation for a Sacred Clown happens as she realizes that even people who love each other can be cruel to each other, or that Life itself can be cruel. Her own intense reaction to a personal experience of abandonment, betrayal of trust, or shattered romance may result in extreme depression, emotional imbalance, a nervous breakdown, or (in extreme cases) a suicide attempt. A Heyoka remembers her initiation thus, “I didn’t care about my life or what happened to me. I didn’t realize it, but there is big medicine in that abandon.”8 If she can somehow find her emotional equilibrium, somehow go THROUGH the pain and come out on the other side, learn to dance on the knife edge of her own Soul, the experience becomes a gateway THROUGH the illusions of life and into the truth of life.

What is truth? This question propels the Clown into the sacred dimension. The Truth the Clown intuits is the interconnectedness of all life. She KNOWS (although she cannot prove) that no part is more important than any other part—no matter how big or how small—and that the tiniest change in one part produces a profound change in the Whole. She SEES (although she cannot explain) that imbalance or blockage of the Life Force is the result of a person or group believing themselves to be more important than another. And she can’t help puncturing that over-blown self-importance with her sharp humor!

A Clown becomes Sacred by opening herself. Like a child, she is vulnerable, fluid, and open to the Life Force. Unlike a child, however, she has learned to shield herself and move safely through an insane world by using masks, disguises, tricks and transformations. In a sane world, she might risk a bit more exposure.

Native Americans say that Sacred Clowns are great lovers of children, healing them and protecting them. In addition, one of their powers is to bring fertility to barren people and situations. If the Sacred Warrior personifies the Sun, the Sacred Clown personifies the Void—that great black openness of space, the great Womb from which we all are born. In the Hopi Katchina ceremony, it is said that long ago the Sun was given the responsibility to people the earth, but that “it failed to lift itself,”9 preferring instead to follow its own personal ambitions and desires without regard to the tribe. For this reason, the responsibility to carry out the plan of Life was shifted to the Clowns. In the Hopi ceremony, the Clowns do not appear until after noon, until “the sun reaches its zenith and is on its down slope.”10 “First here was the Sun, who was young once and is now a grandparent of many powers. But the Sun will one day go into the Void. That’s the power of the Heyoka—the Void.”11

The power of the Void is the power of wombness in us all, the power of true creativity. The power of being open is sometimes regarded as a weakness, but the Sacred Clown gives us this paradox: The weakest can be the most powerful. The dumbest can be the most wise. “In a clown’s craziness, she can be obscene or test any of the existing structures and ideas to see if they are true and real—and she gets away with it. She herself is weak, but her very weakness is her power.”12

In modern times, Clowns sometimes emerge into the public eye as comediennes, actors in guerilla theatre, critics, ritualists/artists/musicians who break the boundaries of “good taste” and aesthetics. But usually, they keep to the guise of normal, everyday people who know how to get other people to laugh at themselves.

If you decide to travel on this Path with a Heart, you’ll be travelling backwards! Remember, though, to look behind you (or in front of you) once in a while. It just could be that another Sacred Clown is clowning YOU up! And that could be worth a good belly laugh for sure!