Trickster

In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior. The term was probably first used in this context by American ethnologist Daniel G. Brinton in 1885.

The trickster deity breaks the rules of the gods or nature, sometimes maliciously (for example, Loki) but usually with ultimately positive effects (though the trickster’s initial intentions may have been either positive or negative). Often, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks (e.g. Eris, Greek goddess of chaos) or thievery. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both; they are often funny even when considered sacred or performing important cultural tasks. An example of this is the sacred Iktomi of the Lakota, whose role is to play tricks and games and by doing so raises awareness and acts as an equalizer.

In much of the world’s lore, including Greek, Norse, Slavic, and  Native American, the trickster and the culture hero (a legendary person, who is believed to be the first one to do something) are often combined. To illustrate: Prometheus, in Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods to give to humans. He is more of a culture hero than a trickster. In many Native American mythologies, the coyote (Southwestern US) or raven (Pacific Northwest, coastal British Columbia, Alaska and Russian Far East) stole fire from the gods (stars, moon, and/or sun) and are more tricksters than culture heroes. This is primarily because of other stories involving these spirits: Prometheus was a Titan (a powerful giant), whereas the Coyote spirit and Raven spirit are usually seen as jokesters and pranksters. Other examples of tricksters include Mercury in Roman mythology, Hermes in Greek mythology, Eshu in Yoruba mythology, and Wakdjunga in Winnebago mythology.

The trickster is nearly always a male figure, but often exhibits gender and form variability, changing gender roles and even occasionally engaging in same-sex practices. Such figures appear in Native American, where they are said to have a ‘two-spirit’ nature. Loki, the Norse trickster, also exhibits gender variability, in one case even becoming pregnant. He shares the ability to change genders with Odin, the chief Norse deity who also possesses many characteristics of the Trickster. In the case of Loki’s pregnancy, he was forced by the Gods to stop a giant from erecting a wall for them before 7 days passed; he solved the problem by transforming into a mare and drawing the giant’s magical horse away from its work. He returned some time later with a child he had given birth to—the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, who served as Odin’s steed.

In some cultures, there are dualistic myths, featuring two demiurges (artisan-like figures responsible for the fashioning and maintenance of the physical universe) creating the world, or two culture heroes arranging the world — in a complementary manner. Dualistic cosmologies are present in all inhabited continents and show great diversity: they may feature culture heroes, but also demiurges (exemplifying a dualistic creation myth in the latter case), or other beings; the two heroes may compete or collaborate; they may be conceived as neutral or contrasted as good versus evil; be of the same importance or distinguished as powerful versus weak; be brothers (even twins) or be not relatives at all.

The Coyote mythos is one of the most popular western Native American cultures, especially among indigenous peoples of California and Great Basin. Coyote can be categorized in many types. In creation myths, Coyote appears as the Creator himself; but he may at the same time be the messenger, the culture hero, the trickster, the fool, the clown. He has also the ability of the transformer: in some stories he is a handsome young man; in others he is an animal; yet others present him as just a power, a sacred one. According to Crow (and other Plains) tradition, Old Man Coyote impersonates the Creator: ‘Old Man Coyote took up a handful of mud and out of it made people.’ And, ‘Old Man Coyote named buffalo, deer, elk, antelopes, and bear. And all these came into being.’

In such myths Coyote-Creator is never mentioned as an animal; more, he can meet his animal counterpart, the coyote: they address each other as ‘elder brother’ and ‘younger brother,’ and walk and talk together. According to anthropologist A. Hultkranz, the impersonation of Coyote as Creator is a result of a taboo, a mythic substitute to the religious notion of the Great Spirit whose name was too dangerous and/or sacred to use apart from at special ceremonies. In other stories, the Coyote is purely a clown that entertains; however, he usually ends up tricking people and stealing.

In Chelan myths, Coyote belongs to the animal people but he is at the same time ‘a power just like the Creator, the head of all the creatures.’ Yet his being ‘just like the Creator’ does not really mean being ‘the Creator’: it is not seldom that Coyote-Just-Like-Creator is subject to the Creator, Great Chief Above, who can punish him, send him away, take powers away from him, etc. In the Pacific Northwest tradition, Coyote is mostly mentioned as a messenger, or minor power, ‘Coyote was sent to the camp of the chief of the Cold Wind tribe to deliver a challenge; Coyote traveled around to tell all the people in both tribes about the contest.’ As such, Coyote ‘was cruelly treated, and his work was never done.’

As the culture hero, Coyote appears in various mythic traditions, but generally with the same magical powers of transformation, resurrection, and then Coyote’s ‘medicine.’ He is engaged in changing the ways of rivers, standing of mountains, creating new landscapes and getting sacred things for people. Of mention is the tradition of Coyote fighting against monsters. According to Wasco tradition, Coyote was the hero sent to fight and kill Thunderbird (a mythological eagle that made thunder by beating its wings), the killer of people. More often than not Coyote is a trickster, but he is always different. In some stories, he is a noble trickster, ‘Coyote takes water from the Frog people… because it is not right that one people have all the water.’ In others, he is mean, ‘Coyote determined to bring harm to Duck. He took Duck’s wife and children, whom he treated badly.’

The Trickster or Clown, is an example of a Jungian archetype. In modern literature the trickster survives as a character archetype, not necessarily supernatural or divine, sometimes no more than a stock character. Often too, the Trickster is distinct in a story by acting as a sort of catalyst; his antics are the cause of other characters’ discomfiture, but he himself is left untouched. In later folklore, the trickster/clown is incarnated as a clever, mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the dangers and challenges of the world using trickery and deceit as a defense. He also is known for entertaining people as a clown does.

For example many typical fairy tales have the King who wants to find the best groom for his daughter by ordering several trials. No brave and valiant prince or knight manages to win them, until a poor and simple peasant comes. With the help of his wits and cleverness, instead of fighting, he evades or fools monsters and villains and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. More modern and obvious examples of that type are Bugs Bunny, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) and Pippi Longstocking. The trickster is an enduring archetype that crosses many cultures and appears in a wide variety of popular media.

Modern African American literary criticism sees the trickster figure as an example of overcoming a system of oppression from within. For years, African American literature was discounted by the greater community of American literary criticism while its authors were still obligated to use the language and the rhetoric of the very system that relegated African Americans and other minorities to the ostracized position of the cultural ‘other.’ The central question became one of how to overcome this system when the only words available were created and defined by the oppressors. As Caribbean-American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde explained, the problem was that ‘the master’s tools [would] never dismantle the master’s house.’

In his writings of the late 1980s, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents the concept of ‘Signifyin” (a verbal strategy of indirection that exploits the gap between the denotative and figurative meanings of words.). Wound up in this theory is the idea that the ‘master’s house’ can be ‘dismantled’ using his ‘tools’ if the tools are used in a new or unconventional way. To demonstrate this process, Gates cites the interactions found in African American narrative poetry between the trickster, the Signifying Monkey, and his oppressor, the Lion. According to Gates, the ‘Signifying Monkey’ is the ‘New World figuration’ and ‘functional equivalent’ of the Eshu trickster figure of African Yoruba mythology. The Lion functions as the authoritative figure in his classical role of ‘King of the Jungle.’ He is the one who commands the Signifying Monkey’s movements.

Yet the Monkey is able to outwit the Lion continually in these narratives through his usage of figurative language. According to Gates, ‘[T]he Signifying Monkey is able to signify upon the Lion because the Lion does not understand the Monkey’s discourse…The monkey speaks figuratively, in a symbolic code; the lion interprets or reads literally and suffers the consequences of his folly…’ In this way, the Monkey uses the same language as the Lion, but he uses it on a level that the Lion cannot comprehend. This usually leads to the Lion’s ‘trounc[ing]’ at the hands of a third-party, the Elephant. The net effect of all of this is ‘the reversal of [the Lion’s] status as the King of the Jungle.’ In this way, the ‘master’s house’ is dismantled when his own tools are turned against him by the trickster Monkey.

Following in this tradition, critics since Gates have come to assert that another popular African American folk trickster, ‘Brer Rabbit,’ uses clever language to perform the same kind of rebellious societal deconstruction as the Signifying Monkey. Brer Rabbit is the ‘creative way that the slave community responded to the oppressor’s failure to address them as human beings created in the image of God.’ The figurative representative of this slave community, Brer Rabbit is the hero with a ‘fragile body but a deceptively strong mind’ that allows him to ‘create [his] own symbols in defiance of the perverted logic of the oppressor.’ By twisting language to create these symbols, Brer Rabbit not only was the ‘personification of the ethic of self-preservation’ for the slave community, but also ‘an alternative response to their oppressor’s false doctrine of anthropology.’ Through his language of trickery, Brer Rabbit outwits his oppressors, deconstructing, in small ways, the hierarchy of subjugation to which his weak body forces him to physically conform.

Before Gates, there was some precedent for the analysis of African American folk heroes as destructive agents of an oppressive hierarchical system. In the 1920s and 1930s, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound engaged in frequent correspondence. Both writers signed letters with pseudonyms adopted from the ‘Uncle Remus’ tales; Eliot was ‘Possum’; Pound was ‘Tar Baby.’ Pound and Eliot wrote in the same ‘African slave’ dialect of the tales. Pound, writing later of the series of letters, distinguished the language from ‘the Queen’s English, the language of public propriety.’ This rebellion against proper language came as part of ‘collaboration’ between Pound and Eliot ‘against the London literary establishment and the language that it used.’ Although Pound and Eliot were not attempting to overthrow an establishment as expansive as the one oppressing the African American slave community, they were actively trying to establish for themselves a new kind of literary freedom. In their usage of the ‘Uncle Remus’ trickster figures’ names and dialects, they display an early understanding of the way in which cleverly manipulated language can dismantle a restrictive hierarchy.

African American literary criticism and folktales are not the only place in the American literary tradition that tricksters are to be found combating subjugation from within an oppressive system. In ‘When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote,’ the argument is posited that the Brer Rabbit stories were derived from a mixture of African and Native American mythology, thus attributing part of the credit for the formation of the tales and wiles of Brer Rabbit to ‘Indian captivity narratives’ and the rabbit trickster found in Cherokee mythology. In arguing for a merged ‘African-Native American folklore,’ the idea is forwarded that certain shared ‘cultural affinities’ between African Americans and Native Americans allowed both groups ‘through the trickster tales…survive[d] European American cultural and political domination.’

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 tradition: ‘Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.’

Native American tricksters should not be confused with the European fictional ‘picaro’ (‘rascal’ or ‘rogoue). One of the most important distinctions is that ‘we can see in the Native American trickster an openness to life’s multiplicity and paradoxes largely missing in the modern Euro-American moral tradition.’ In some stories the Native American trickster is foolish and other times wise. He can be a hero in one tale and a villain in the next. In 2010, a collection of Native American trickster tales were retold in comic form in a graphic novel anthology called ‘Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection,’ edited by Matt Dembicki. The diverse tales in this collection depict the trickster in various forms including a raccoon, raven, coyote, rabbit, and man.

In some fiction, villains come in the form of physically unintimidating characters who seek to defeat the protagonist using cerebral, yet whimsical methods. They are typically non-deadly in their intents and may only seek to humiliate or outwit the protagonist. Often such villains lean towards comedy, and conflicts with them are generally resolved non-violently. They may be recurring characters, such as members of the Q Continuum in several ‘Star Trek’ series. In comics, ‘The Riddler’ is often presented as one of the less violent members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Others, like ‘The Joker’ and ‘Loki,’ can qualify as trickster villains, but can also lean more towards malice than clever whimsy.

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