Tricksters: An Overview

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Trickster is the name given to a type of mythic figure distinguished by his skill at trickery and deceit as well as by his prodigious biological drives and exaggerated bodily parts. The myths of many cultures portray such a comic and amoral character, who is sometimes human but is more often animal in shape, typically an animal noted for agility and cunning: the wily coyote, the sly fox, the elusive rabbit, or the crafty spider. Sometimes the trickster is the agent who introduces fire, agriculture, tools, or even death to the human world. As such, he plays the part of another mythic archetype, the transformer, or culture hero, who in a mythic age at the beginning of the world helps shape human culture into its familiar form. However, the trickster's distinction lies not so much in his particular feats as in the peculiar quality of his exploitsa combination of guile and stupidityand in the ludicrous dimensions of his bodily parts and biological drives. In those cultures where he stands independent of other mythic figures, his adventures are recounted in a separate cycle of myths and lore.

The trickster represents a complicated combination of three modes of sacrality: the divine, the animal, and the human. Myth relates that the trickster existed in the early times when the world was still taking shape and was inhabited by supernatural beings. As one of these important supernaturals, the trickster possesses extraordinary powers more divine than human. He frequently thwarts the supreme being's creative intentions. In one North American Indian myth, for example, the Winnebago trickster Wakdjunkaga scatters all living creatures across the face of the earth with an enormous fart, which leaves them laughing, yelling, and barking. This is an ungracious parallel to the Winnebago's solemn account wherein Earthmaker creates a quiet and static world order in which each species remains in a separate lodge. The trickster may assume an even more active role on the mythic stage in the absence or weakness of a supreme being. However, there is no need to pair the trickster in a dualism with the supreme being in order to understand his unique character.

The trickster is remarkable for the carnality that he shares with humans and animals. In his case, however, bodily functions and features are extreme: voracious appetite, insatiable lust, stupendous excretions, cosmic flatulence. He reorders (or has reordered for him) his bodily parts: His head may be fastened to his bottom, or his penis to his back. The trickster is usually male, but he often assumes female form in order to conceive and give birth. His (or her) most conspicuous bodily parts are passages (mouth, nostrils, anus, ears, vagina) and members that bridge or penetrate those passages (e.g., head, penis, or, in the case of the spider figure, the filament with which he spins his web). The trickster's appetites cannot be exhaustively explained in terms of the biology of sex or the physiology of hunger. He craves modes of being other than his own: animal, plant, and so on.

On a grand scale, the trickster mimics human needs, drives, and foibles, especially the imperfections of an ambitious but flawed intelligence. He often fumbles his tricks, and his mishaps lead to a comic apotheosis of wit into wisdom. The nature of his deception is especially complicated: a pretended ignorance and a pretended cunning. The irony of his maladroit trickery is so pervasive that one cannot decide whether the trickster is really ignorant or whether he is so clever that he successfully exculpates himself by pretending to be stupid. Reflections on his nature call into question the deeper nature of reality in an imperfect and changing world of the senses. By his duplicity, the trickster would have one believe that he intends his elaborate schemes to fail so that benefits might arise from catastrophe.

Ironically, it is just in his animal-like biological constraints and imperfections of intelligencethe human frame of meaningthat the trickster affirms a sacrality different from that of divine immortals. This sensate sacrality of foibles stumbles into other sacred realms with penetrating burlesque. For these reasons, trickster stories have been called a mythology of incarnation, and he a symbol of the human condition. The religious dimension of comic figures in folk literatures and dramas is often illumined by comparison with the strictly mythic personality of the trickster found in sacred texts relating the beginnings of the world.

The trickster parodies all pretensions to perfection. He mocks the gods, institutional religious figures, the techniques of humans, and himself. By poking fun at anything that parades as permanent, important, or impermeable, he exposes a penetrable (i.e., accessible, comprehensible) reality. In the process of penetrating it, he reveals the sacrality both of passage and of mundane flaw. He images the process of the religious imagination itself, which sees to it that human beings experiment with the sacred and which sometimes leads not to the serenity of faith in a static, eternal paradise but to an exciting, unpredictable turmoil of the senses in sacred music, dance, and sexuality. The trickster represents not a mystical contemplation of the singular but a sensuous appreciation of multiplicities and contraries.

As the trickster flounders toward a sacred life rooted more in carnate being than in divine being, ambiguity, irony, change, and humor fill the emptiness caused by the kenōsis of immortality. The trickster unites things by passing them through the senses and the imperfect reflections of his intelligence. His bodily parts and "all too human" intelligence admit no firm distinction between corporeal and spiritual existence. His exorbitant and active penis offers him access to realms of reality in which he ought properly to have no business. His (or her) bodily passages become the loci where worlds meet, come together, and even pass through and interpenetrate one another. Wherever he appears, the trickster enacts the human comedy as a sacred drama, displaying the ironic condition of a limited mind served by limited senses but with an unlimited desire to relate to the realms of meaning around it.


The best overview of general interpretations of the trickster is chapter 1 of Robert D. Pelton's The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight (Berkeley, Calif., 1980). For psychological interpretations that now appear overdependent on developmental models without consideration of religious depth, see three essays in Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (1956; reprint, New York, 1969): C. G. Jung's "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure," Karl Kerényi's "The Trickster in Relation to Greek Mythology," and Radin's title piece. For an overview that makes healthier use of the social context of the trickster in interpreting its meaning, see Laura akarius's "Le mythe du 'Trickster,'" Revue de l'histoire des religions 175 (1969): 1746. For an attempt to place the figure within the history of ideas, see Ugo Bianchi's "Pour l'histoire du dualisme: Un Coyote africain, le renard pâle," in Liber Amicorum: Studies in Honor of Professor Dr. C. J. Bleeker (Leiden, 1969), pp. 2743. Angelo Brelich has done admirably by examining the uniqueness of the trickster vis-à-vis other mythical figures in "Il Trickster," Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni 29 (1958): 129137. I have pointed to the kind of close reading of trickster texts necessary to disclose their full religious value in "Multiple Levels of Religious Meaning in Culture: A New Look at Winnebago Sacred Texts," Canadian Journal of Native Studies 2 (December 1982): 221247. I have also drawn out the comic aspects of incarnate saviors and loutish literary figures in "The Irony of Incarnation: The Comedy of Kenosis," Journal of Religion 62 (October 1982): 412417.

New Sources

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

Kun, Mchog Dge Legs, Ldan Bkra Shis Dpal, and Kevin Stuart. "Tibetan Tricksters." Asian Folklore Studies 58/1 (1999): 530.

McNeely, Deldon Anne. Mercury Rising: Women, Evil, and the Trickster Gods. Woodstock, Conn., 1996.

Mills, Margaret. "The Gender of the Trick: Female Tricksters and Male Narrators." Asian Folklore Studies 60, no. 2 (2001): 237258.

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography