On Friday at 9:09 p.m., a crowd of roughly 140 people gathered inside the old, rickety Church on York in Highland Park while a 5.1 magnitude earthquake reverberated across L.A. By all appearances, most didn't feel a thing – they were too busy waiting for the Invocation to begin.
The one-night-only public event uncovered the rituals of a secret group dedicated to an enigmatic mythological figure, Trickster Coyote. It was co-hosted by Los Angeles Obscura Society, which is devoted to unearthing the lesser-known gems buried in the City of Angels. The rare occasion introduced ordinary citizens to an anonymous collective that's had several names over the years, but for the purposes of Friday's one-off happening, it was called simply the Invocation. (The Invocation is both the name of the event and the ad-hoc name of the secret society that otherwise has no name.)
The evening included a discussion about trickster folklore and a guest lecture from the reputed White Witch of Los Angeles, Maja D'Aoust. Attendees imbibed a spicy mezcal Aztec-inspired cocktail before witnessing a ceremonial tribute to Trickster Coyote in the form of a primal dance.
Today, the word “trickster” defines a person who cheats or deceives others. But long before the word became a synonym for swindler, con artist, grifter and fraud, it described an intriguing archetype who is an agent of change. Writer, scholar and cultural critic Lewis Hyde's 1998 book Trickster Makes This World paints a portrait of the trickster as a figure who not only alters culture, but also creates it through a sophisticated form of disruption. To anyone who subscribes to normative codes of behavior, this disruption is mostly negative, but for those who yearn to transcend the status quo, the trickster is a god.
Trickster folklore exists in just about every culture on earth, with the central figure taking many forms, though he's almost always male. Sometimes he's a fox, occasionally he's a fool, and he often takes no form at all. In fact, the trickster is essentially characterized by his mutability, which ultimately allows him to occupy liminal spaces where transformation occurs.
In Southern California, the Trickster tends to manifest as a coyote. Trickster Coyote mythology comes from Native American cultures located in the the Midwest and Western U.S., and the myth is prevalent in the stories of Native American Tongva people, who have lived in the L.A. Basin and its surroundings for 8000 years.
Trickster Coyote's characteristic traits are the focus of L.A.'s unnamed covert society. According to the group's leader, who prefers to remain anonymous and was reached via email through Matt Blitz at the L.A. Obscura Society, the organization has been around for an unknown number of years, with the current league's longest active member having joined around ten years ago. The leader wouldn't say how many people are in the group, or how often it meets.
“Our work is rooted in open collaboration between our members and it's not very interesting to us to try define 'it' or say how long 'it' has existed,” the leader says. “There are many aspects of Trickster worth talking about and exploring. For this piece, we were interested specifically in trance, transcendence and the spaces between worlds.”
The Invocation included 90 minutes of lectures and discussions on the Trickster Coyote, followed by a dance intended to “invoke” its spirit. As the leader describes, “The dance itself was a literal invocation in three parts: the summoning, the ritual work and finally, the ecstasy.”
While the Trickster Coyote is a Native American figure, the dance also referenced the fringe religion of Brazilian Candomblé, and the initial song was sung in Portuguese. The stage was a circular symbol on the ground.
“This piece was about putting circles within circles,” the leader explains. “Each, an expanding ring, one inside the other, all conceived and built with an identical three-part structure where each ring literally fed off the energies of the other with the dance at the center of it.”
The leader also says the dancers themselves were not performing for the audience, but were instead trying to occupy the ethereal space favored by the evening's distinguished guest, Trickster Coyote. In fact, maybe the earthquake was just him making his entrance.
But why did initiates open their otherwise closed society to outsiders?
The anonymous leader admits, “Some of our members were less pleased that this event was made public.”
Tanja M. Laden on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: