“Everywhere one looks among pre-modern peoples, there are tricky mythical beings alike enough to entice any human mind to create a category for them once it had met two or three. They are beings of the beginning, working in some complex relationship with the High God; transformers, helping to bring the present human world into being; performers of heroic acts on behalf of men, yet in their original form. or in some later form, foolish, obscene, laughable, yet indomitable” – Robert D Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa
The trickster character is an important archetype and his role should never be underestimated. He is a god, yet not. He is the wise-fool who rebels against authority, pokes fun at the overly serious, juggles with the laws of the universe and at times seems to be his own worst enemy. He appears when a specific way of thinking becomes outdated and in need to be rebuilt and he exists to question and to cause us to question and not accept anything blindly – in fact he often does that by hinting at truths he has himself cast into doubt.
The trickster is one who moves between being and action, changing shape and identity in order to redress human follies by challenging the forces of the status quo. But the trickster is foremost the teacher attracting to us life lessons to awaken us, allowing us to explore the true purpose of our spiritual journeys.
Much of the Western world has, however, banished the trickster from their religious and spiritual domains because his lessons are seen to go against rationality, and the trickster embodies contradiction. He creates order out of disorder and disorder out of order and thus defines the two in terms of each other – the trickster uses this principle to teach by “bad example”.
In polytheistic societies, from which the ancient trickster is likely to have emerged, the gods who act as tricksters are not among the “high gods”, but move on the periphery – in fact there is often even doubt as to their divinity. Loki, usually imagined as a trickster god of the Norse sagas, was the son of a giant, admitted to Asgard despite his trouble-making because he was loved by Odin. Hermes’s divine status is unclear at his birth; through his early exploits as a trickster wins the admiration of Zeus. Through trickery he becomes a fully-fledged god, but his career thereafter is no more or less tricky than that of any other god: he becomes messenger of the gods, psycho pomp, and, according to Plato, the creator of language.
In later folklore, the trickster and holy clown is incarnated as a clever, mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the challenges of the world using trickery and deceit as a defence.
While the trickster crosses various cultural traditions, there are significant differences between tricksters in the traditions of many indigenous peoples and those in the European traditions. Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the Sacred, and in many cases clowns were also shamans.
For the Lekota people, Heyoka is a contrarian, jester, satirist and sacred clown. Heyokas are thought of as being backwards-forwards, upside-down, or contrary in nature. A unique example is the famous sacred clown called the Straighten-Outer: “He was always running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy things (soup bowls, eggs, wagon wheels, etc.), thus making them straight.” – John Fire Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions
Principally, the Heyoka functions both as a mirror and a teacher, using extreme behaviours to mirror others, thereby forcing them to examine their own weaknesses, doubts and fears. Heyokas also provoke laughter in distressing situations of despair and provoke fear and chaos when people feel complacent and overly secure, to keep them from taking themselves too seriously.
In addition, sacred clowns serve an important role in shaping tribal codes. Paradoxically, however, it is by violating norms that they help define the accepted boundaries – thus they demonstrate the theory of balance and imbalance.
Like the trickster, the shaman is also a liminal figure, a mediator who stands between the supernatural and the world of the people. The measure of his skill and success is the degree to which he is able to establish harmony between these two worlds. He is a valued and essential member of the tribe, but like the trickster, the shaman will always remain an outsider – powerful, unpredictable and incomprehensible.
In many cultures the trickster appears as an anthropomorphic animal. Placing animals in stories tends to indicate social satire as it makes it easy to reveal the faults and qualities in human behaviour through the use of non-humans. Animals that appear in literature as tricksters include ravens, coyotes, hares, foxes or spiders. The coyote, for example, is characterised as a trickster in Native American folklore whereas the mouse-deer is a trickster figure in Malaysian tales. Some tricksters, however, appear as the same figure across cultures. Brer Rabbit is a trickster in African American folktales; the rabbit trickster also appears in the folktales of other countries, especially in Southeast Asia.
In the Cambodian context, the rabbit figure known as Subha Dansay (Judge Rabbit) is a clever, skilful and witty character. The Cambodian rabbit trickster behaves somewhat differently from his Western counterpart (for examples Fables de la Fontaine) as in the western context, the rabbit figure is really shy and a coward compared to the fox figure who is very cunning – the popular shrewd rabbit figure in Khmer folktales is like the cunning fox.
In Dogon mythology, the pale fox is the trickster god of the desert, who embodies chaos. In Finnish mythology, the fox is depicted usually a cunning trickster, but seldom evil. The fox, while weaker, in the end outsmarts both the evil and voracious wolf and the strong but not-so-cunning bear. It symbolises the victory of intelligence over both malevolence and brute strength.
In France, the figure of Reynard is the ultimate trickster. Interestingly enough, the origin of the name Reynard may come from the Germanic name Reginhard, which came from “regin” meaning “the divine powers” or “council”, and “harti” meaning strong, denoting someone who is wise, clever, or resourceful.
The most common manifestation of the trickster in Native American mythology is, contrary to popular belief, not the fox but the raven. There are many stories attributed to this trickster and he is seen throughout north-western mythology as a figure of great importance. Nearly all of the tribes of the American northwest have an oral tradition about the raven and how his actions have affected human development.
The Inuit of Alaska have a creation story that tells of a great struggle between Raven and a sea creature of indeterminable size and scope. Using his harpoon, Raven captures the creature and it thus became the land. In another story, Raven brings sunlight to the Tsimshian of British Columbia and Alaska.
Another manifestation of the trickster is the coyote, an animal viewed with both fascination and disdain. The Navajo see the coyote figure as responsible for the emergence of mankind. The Miwok of California see Coyote as an essential force in the creation of the earth, but the Chinook tribe sees Coyote as responsible for bringing death to the human world.
In the African tradition the trickster often expresses the invincibility of the weak, and in West Africa, the trickster is the spider Anansi who is also the creator of parts of the world. He often acts as a go-between for humans in their dealings with the sky god Nyame. In most stories, however, Anansi is a crafty and cunning trickster who makes life more enjoyable for himself (or more difficult for others) by fooling humans, other animals and even the gods themselves, often using his cleverness and knowledge of his victims ways of thinking to trick them and achieve his purpose.
Anansi tales are believed to have originated in the Ashanti tribe in Ghana. (The word Anansi is Akan and means spider.) They later spread to other Akan groups and then to the West Indies, Suriname, and the Netherlands Antilles. On Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire he is known as Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria. Anansi is a culture hero, who acts on behalf of Nyame, his father and the sky god. In some beliefs, Anansi is responsible for creating the sun, the stars and the moon, as well as teaching mankind the techniques of agriculture.
In East, central and southern Africa and the western Sudan, the trickster is the hare. In Yoruba mythology, Eshu is an Orisha, and one of the most respected deities of the tradition. He has a wide range of responsibilities: the protector of travellers, god of roads, particularly crossroads, the deity with the power over fortune and misfortune, and the personification of death as a psycho pomp. Eshu is also a trickster-god, and plays frequently tempting choices for the purpose of causing maturation.
Br’er Rabbit is a central figure in the Uncle Remus stories of the Southern United States. He is a trickster character who succeeds through his wits rather than through strength, tweaking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. The origin of Br’er Rabbit is linked to both Cherokee and African cultures. Rabbit/Hare myths abound among Algonkin Indians in Eastern North America, particularly under the name Nanabozho, “Great Hare”, who is generally regarded as supreme deity among tribes in eastern Canada.
In Chinese stories of magic and the supernatural, it is often the fox who is the trickster. He has mysterious powers; he can strike his tail on the ground to start a fire and see into the future. The fox can change his shape (as many tricksters do). He can also hold the spirit of the dead, using it to scare off enemies when necessary or carrying it to a place of rest and safety when the adventure is over – he is a psycho pomp, a guide, whose function is to escort souls to the afterlife – but fox also often serves as a guide through the various transitions of life.
Thus, and perhaps most importantly, tricksters not only inhabit but also embody boundaries such as between life and death, man and woman, man and nature, man and animal, etc. As such, the trickster is not only a creature of the boundary and also a boundary transgressor, and this enables the trickster to slip between states of being.
Tricksters personify marginality. They stand in the “betwixt and between”. Straddling the juncture of two worlds, tricksters belongs to neither and yet to both, and if their behaviour confounds us, it is because we see in the trickster the apparent confusion that characterises the marginal landscape – he inhabits the “realm of pure possibilities”.
The trickster is thus constantly redrawing the confines of what is deemed possible, and it is through this negotiation of boundaries that the trickster opens the gates of consciousness and so enlarges the sphere of the human potential – which is limitless.
- A Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American Literature in Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History, and Spirit, ed. Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994;
- An Analysis of the Trickster Archetype as Represented by the Rabbit Character in Khmer Folktales by Chor Chanthyda.