Tricksters are archetypal, almost always male, characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. As their name suggests, tricksters love to play tricks on other gods (and sometimes on humans and animals). But perhaps the best definition of a trickster is the one given by Lewis Hyde: "trickster is a boundary-crosser" (7). By that, he means that the trickster crosses both physical and social boundaries-- the trickster is often a traveller, and he often breaks societal rules. Tricksters cross lines, breaking or blurring connections and distinctions between "right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead" (Hyde 7). The trickster often changes shape (turning into an animal, for example) to cross between worlds. In his role as boundary-crosser, the trickster sometimes becomes the messenger of the gods.
Lewis Hyde notes that in addition to crossing boundaries, trickster also creates them: "In several mythologies, for example, the gods lived on earth until something trickster did caused them to rise to heaven" (7). Since they are so clever, tricksters often invent new cultural goods or tools (e.g., making fire, musical instruments). Sometimes they are depicted as creators or makers of the world. Often, the deeds of tricksters end up being responsible for the way the world is now.
But there is another side to the trickster. As David Leeming notes, "he is sexually over-active, irresponsible, and amoral. But it is that very phallicism that signifies his essential creativity" (God 24). Tricksters are also creative liars. They lie in order to obtain sex or food, or the means to cook or procure food. Many of their tricks originate in this quest for food or sex. Lewis Hyde writes, "Trickster lies because he has a belly, the stories say; expect truth only from those whose belly is full or those who have escaped the belly altogether" (77).
Although he is clever, trickster's desires sometimes land him in a lot of trouble. Leeming notes that "he is often the butt of his own tricks, and even in his creative acts he is often crude and 'immature'" (God 24). In hunting cultures, the trickster is often depicted as a clever but foolish animal, led by his appetites. For example, in American Indian cultures, the trickster is often called "coyote" or "raven." Paul Radin writes:
. . . as found among the North American Indians, Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others, and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. But not only he, so our myth tells us, possesses these traits. (xxii)
Not all mythologists would agree that tricksters "will nothing consciously" and have "no control." But it is true that the trickster is often the wise fool.
Trickster tales have different functions in various societies. Certainly the stories are told because they are funny and entertaining; but they are also in some sense sacred. Radin reports that the reaction to trickster stories "is prevailingly one of laughter tempered by awe" (xxiv). Hyde notes that tricksters always function within some sort of "sacred context" (13). But in addition, as John Lame Deer said, tricksters "are sacred [because] we Indians also need their laughter to survive" (quoted in Erdoes and Ortiz xxi). Tricksters need the more serious gods to bounce off from and create their mischief. However, Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz point out that even supposedly serious chief gods can share some of the trickster's traits: for example, Zeus is both an philanderer and a shape-shifter--he changed into a swan in order to make love to Leda and into a shower of gold in order to impregnate Danae (xiv-xv). Zeus is also known for his ability to trick and outwit his rivals--remember the stories about Kronos and Metis?
Certainly, trickster stories are told for fun and laughs, and a trickster like Bart Simpson is a great character to get a plot started and entangled. But trickster stories also have something to say about how culture gets created, and about the nature of intelligence. Trickster represents a certain flexibility of mind and spirit, a willingness to defy authority and invent clever solutions that keeps cultures (and stories) from becoming too stagnant.
Generic Trickster Questions
1. Tricksters often show up flaws in the "big gods." Why? (If tricksters threaten order, authority, and hierarchy, then why do you think they appear in stories?) In what ways is the intelligence of the top gods like or unlike that of the tricksters? (Think of Metis.)
2. In what ways do tricksters mediate between gods and men? Why do you think tricksters take the side of humans? (Do they always? In Norse Myths 3 and 10, Loki helps the gods build the wall and gain valuable treasures. Think also of Hermes and Hephaistos.)
3. What do you think these trickster stories say about the uses and character of cunning intelligence? (Can intelligence be both evil and good? When and why?)
4. Tricksters can be both creators and destroyers. When and why?
5. When do tricksters cause trouble and why?
Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Penguin, 1998.
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Leeming, David Adams. The World of Myth: An Anthology. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Leeming, David Adams and Jake Page. God: Myths of the Male Divine. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. 2nd ed. New York: Schocken, 1972.
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