Tricksters: African Tricksters

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


African tricksters speak and embody a vivid, subtle language of sacred transformation. Through it they strike up absurd conversations between laundresses and goddesses, sex and death, flatulence and spiritual power, breaking the univocal by the anomalous and so opening human lifebodily, daily, definedto its sacramental immensity. Like their counterparts in Amerindian myth and folklore, African tricksters inject bawdiness, rebellion, and wild lying (one might aptly call it polymorphous perversity) into the mythic history and the common experience of divine-human relations wherever they appear. Unlike many tricksters elsewhere, however, these multiform world-shatterers and pathfinders in Africa are woven not only into the fabric of myth but also into the stuff of everyday life, playing a part in economics, rites of passage, and ordinary conversation. This observation may tell more about the history of Western colonialism and ethnography than it does about the tricksters of non-Westerners, but it does suggest that anyone who wants to know the trickster in Africa must study the particular ways and speech of many different African peoples.

Such study is only now passing into its second phase. Travelers, ethnographers, and, more recently, Africans themselves have studied hundreds of African societies. Tricksterlike myths and stories have emerged from many of their reports, but only a few collections of trickster tales have been gathered and examined within the context of their social and religious settings. Rarely do we have the tales in their original languages, or in more than a single version, together with the indigenous commentary that would make deep translation and comparison more reliable. Nevertheless, these barest beginnings have already demonstrated that the transforming power of the tricksterwhat the Yoruba refer to when they say that "Eu turns feces into treasure"works in the present as well as in the primordial past.

In the first place, Africans have delighted in using animal tricksters to shape their children's "moral imagination," as T. O. Beidelman (1980) has put it. He has analyzed the complex ways that the Kaguru use Hare, Hyena, and other animals as metaphors, partly for the surface rules and patterns of their life, but much more for the deeper intuitions and meanings that make them, the Kaguru, who they are. The Kaguru, like the Ashanti in their anansesem ("spider stories") and the Azande in their tales of Tore, the spider, understand that the intricate lies and outrages of their tricksters reveal the social order as sacred in its supple particularity. Too bawdy to be taken as cautionary fables, too confident of the unity between specific and ultimate aims to be reduced to sets of binary opposition, too attuned to animals' lives to use them univocally, these stories provide an education in wit. They insist that the core of human existence, a meeting place of every sort of force, is displayed bynot prior to, withdrawn from, or obliterated bythe twists of disease, the denial of hospitality, the crazed lens of sexual rivalry. Ananse is "wonderful" because he makes all multiplicity a symbol of the Ashanti oneness that exists here and now. Telling the trickster's stories, then, is an anamnesis. In displaying his power to dismember everything, a people celebrates its capacity for remembering its own way of being.

African trickster figures are images of an ironic imagination that yokes together bodiliness and transcendence, society and individuality. Ananse of the Ashanti, Mantis of the San, Ogo-Yurugu of the Dogon, and others contend with animals and gods, spirits and humans; they exploit every liminal space to claim all speech for human language. Thus the differences among these figures are as significant as their similarities. Indeed, the trickster in Africa shows by his witty juggling with meaning and absurdity that he is more accurately understood as a spectrum of commentaries on mythic commentary than as a "category." This epistemological playfulness seems to represent a sophisticated African form of religious thought. It is perhaps a commonplace to insist that in every system the order of the center and the wildness of the periphery are linked. It is a bold piece of spiritual logic to make this insistence a jokeor even more, a joking relationship.

Legba, the trickster god of the Fon, personifies such logic clearly. The youngest of the seven children of the female-male high god, Mawu-Lisa, Legba is her linguist. All who approach her, even the other gods, must first address him. His trickery provoked Mawu into distancing herself from the newly formed earth, and his unpredictable mediation reminds both gods and humans that autonomy requires the perils of relationship. Legba's phallic image stands before all Fon dwellings as a symbol that every passage reshapes the world; like Ananse, he reveals that each transaction releases a sort of anti-entropic energy that turns muteness into conversation, randomness into meaning.

Legba is the master of the Fon dialectic. Fon mythology has kept alive the memory of their historical adaptiveness, which enabled them to borrow liberally from the institutions of their neighbors (especially from the Yoruba, whose Eu-lgba inspired Legba). By grasping their history in mythic terms as well as in secular terms, the Fon have insisted that their assimilation of others' creations is both revelation and ingenuity, and their traditional order has delighted in elaborating the movement from dark, female inside to bright, male outsideand back again. The patterns of kingship and clan, the stages of inner growth, the interweavings of gods and nature, and even the structures of juridical process became images of the dual being of the high god, the bipolar principle of all life. In the intercourse between visible and invisible universes, Legba is the living copula. The Fon say that Legba, or Aflakete (a name meaning "I have tricked you"), "dances everywhere like a man copulating." He infuses cosmic dialectic into social order as the laughter he provokes becomes the sacramental sign that the male-female processes of Fon life are both human and transcendent.

The link between divination and the trickster represents a still deeper level of meaning that West Africans especially have found in him. The Yoruba, like the Fon (who have adopted much of the Yoruba system of divination, known as Ifa) and the Dogon, see their trickster god as the chief possessor of divination's language. Eu is a disruptive mediator, "the anger of the gods," who stirs up trouble to increase sacrifice, yet his quickness of eye and hand symbolizes a metaphysical slipperiness that makes him both sociotherapist and iconographer. At moments of conflict the meetings that create a world become collisions. Lines of connection break down, intersections turn into dead ends, and, as the myths say, all becomes as fluid as water, as destructive as fire. Divination seeks to transform these dead ends into thresholds of larger meaning; Yoruba divination particularly knows that to give answers to knotted social and spiritual questions is, finally, to redraw an imago mundi, to restore the shattered icon of the Yoruba cosmos. Eu is not the source of most divinatory responses, but he enables divination to run its course. Some depiction of him is carved into every divining tray, and that portion of the tray is always turned to the east, from which both light and darkness come. Eu brings confusion so that order may encompass the unencompassable. In their art and cities the Yoruba image the world that the relationship between sky and earth, lrun and Onile, with all their attendants and rituals, has brought into being. Lord of exchange in the market beginning and ending each Yoruba week, Eu reveals that the meeting of these beings creates human business, truly Yoruba ground. At every kind of crossroads Eu's mastery of interchange ensures that the design of this ground includes all movementeven explosion and decay.

The central figure of the vast spiral of correspondences that is Dogon life and myth is the tricksterlike Ogo-Yurugu. Created by Amma, the high god, to become one of the androgynous semidivine founders and overseers of life on earth, Ogo rebelled against his "father's" plan because he feared he would be deprived of his female twin. He seized part of his primordial matrix and sought to shape the world with its help. After a long struggle, Amma rendered him mute and put him to wander alone on the fringes of human society as Yuru-gu, the "pale fox," but his concupiscent itch, his desire to possess the source of fecundity, led his obedient male twin (Nommo) to offer himself to Amma as a sacrifice that brought the world as it is into being. The Dogon believe that Yurugu still speaks a revelatory, if twisted, word in divination and that his story is embedded in the human personality, especially in males. The navel bears witness to his premature separation from the divine womb; children resemble him in their play; the joking relationship between an adolescent boy and his maternal uncle's wife repeats the pattern of Ogo's quest for twinness; and funeral dances bear the traces of his mistaken celebration of victory over Amma. Ogo-Yurugu is a paradigm of Dogon irony, for his "going and coming" discloses that wholeness is an "achieved gift," one both won and bestowed: as man thrusts outward, he discovers the inner unity of personal individuation, social integration, and cosmic intelligibility.

The Dogon find Ogo-Yurugu within the soul and on the peripheries of life, in the present and in the farthest past, in solitary rebellion and in every relationship. Like Ananse, whose lies defeat Kyiriakyinnyee ("hate to be contradicted") and bring contradiction into Ashanti life, Ogo symbolizes the human imagination reaching everywhere to create worlds as filled with both order and meaning as language itself. The African trickster, then, teaches both dexterity and insight. His dance does not signify abandonment of either worship or intelligence; it signifies delight that the unsayable is quite precisely said in the never-final failures of this world's words. If, then, the realm of the sacred is shaped by human play as well as by divine work, so that the least fragment of life can become an icon of boundlessness, what could be more practical than learning how to imagine? And how could one better celebrate the meeting of transcendence and human wit than with sacred laughter?

See Also

African Religions, article on Mythic Themes.


T. O. Beidelman has made an intensive study of trickster figures and their social meanings in the oral literature of the Kaguru. His important interpretive essay, which argues for a moral rather than an epistemological interpretation of the trickster, is "The Moral Imagination of the Kaguru: Some Thoughts on Tricksters, Translation and Comparative Analysis," American Ethnologist 7 (1980): 2742. It includes a bibliography of his more than twenty-five articles on the Kaguru: collections and translations of tales, analyses of their significance, and other commentaries on Kaguru society. See also Beidelman's "Ambiguous Animals: Two Theriomorphic Metaphors in Kaguru Folklore," Africa 45 (1975): 183200.

Other major collections of trickster stories are E. E. Evans-Pritchard's The Zande Trickster (Oxford, 1967), R. S. Rattray's Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales (Oxford, 1930), Charles van Dyck's "An Analytic Study of the Folktales of Selected Peoples of West Africa" (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 1967), and Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits's Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (Evanston, 1958). Tales, divination verses, and analyses of Eu-lgba can be found in 'Wande Abimbola's Ifa Divination Poetry (New York, 1977); William Bascom's Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 1969); John Pemberton's "Eshu-Elegba: The Yoruba Trickster God," African Arts 9 (1975): 2027, 6670, 9091, and "A Cluster of Sacred Symbols: Orisa Worship among the Igbomina Yoruba of Ila-Orangun," History of Religions 17 (1977): 128; and Joan Wescott's "The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster," Africa 32 (1962): 336354. The major work on Dogon myth and life is that of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen: Le renard pâle, vol. 1, Le mythe cosmogonique, pt. 1, "La création du monde" (Paris, 1965).

For a study of four West African trickster figures in their social and mythic settings, see my book The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight (Berkeley, 1980), which concludes with a discussion of the theory of the trickster. For a comparative study of African and North American tricksters and an analysis of the trickster's role among the Azande, see Brian V. Street's "The Trickster Theme: Winnebago and Azande," in Zande Themes, edited by Andre Singer and Brian V. Street (Oxford, 1972), pp. 82104. In addition to Beidelman's bibliography and the one in my book, see also that of Martha Warren Beckwith in her Jamaica Anansi Stories (1924; reprint, New York, 1969).

New Sources

Bennett, Martin. West African Trickster Tales Retold by Martin Bennett. New York, 1994.

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York, 1998.

Hynes, William J., and William G. Doby, eds. Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. Tuscaloosa, 1993.

Owomoyela, Oyekan. Yoruba Trickster Tales. Lincoln, 1997.

Schmidt, Sigrid. Tricksters, Monsters and Clever Girls: African FolktalesTexts and Discussions. Cologne, 2001.

Robert D. Pelton (1987)

Revised Bibliography