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Tricksters are among the most entertaining characters in world mythology. Usually male, they delight in breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods. Most tricksters are shape-changers who can take any form, though they often appear as animals. Tricksters play a prominent role in African and Native American mythologies. They can also be found in the myths of Europeans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and the Aborigines of Australia. Many gods, demigods, and heroes from around the world are described as having trickster qualities.

Major Myths

African Tricksters Eshu, a West African trickster also known as Legba, is associated with travel, commerce, and communication—or miscom-munication. He often creates quarrels among people or between people and gods. In one myth, he caused conflict between a man and his two wives. Disguised as a merchant, Eshu sold one of the wives a fine hat, which pleased the husband but made the other wife jealous. Eshu then sold a more splendid hat to the second wife. The competition continued, making the husband and both wives miserable. According to another myth, the High God became so disgusted with Eshu's trickery that he left the world, ordering Eshu to remain as his link with it.

Eshu is just one of the many tricksters in African mythology. A trickster hare appears in some myths, and tales about a trickster spider called Anansi are widespread in West Africa. Anansi is a cunning fellow who acts as God's assistant, although some stories reveal him trying to trick God.

Occasionally the trickster himself falls victim to a trick. One myth about Anansi tells how he cheated the chameleon out of his field. For revenge, Chameleon created a fine cloak of vines decorated with buzzing flies. Everyone wanted the cloak, but Chameleon would sell it only to the spider. The price, he told Anansi, was merely a little food, just enough to fill the tiny hole that was his storehouse. The spider agreed and sent two of his children with grain. However, Chameleon had secretly dug the deepest hole that anyone had ever seen. Anansi's children poured grain into the hole for weeks, and still it was not full. Chameleon ended up with most of the spider's wealth. Anansi received only a few withered vines for his part of the bargain and fled from the mocking laughter of the people. According to the myth, this explains why spiders hide in the corners of houses.

Native American Tricksters Tricksters figure prominendy in the mythologies of Native Americans. They usually take the form of animals, although they also have some human qualities and may appear human if it suits their purposes. The most common trickster figure is Coyote, but Raven, Crow, Bluejay, Rabbit, Spider, Raccoon, Bear, and others appear in the trickster myths of different Native American groups.

A myth of the Coeur d'Alene people illustrates the sly and bumbling side of Coyote. The first people selected Coyote as their moon. But when they learned that he spied on them from the sky and told their secrets, they replaced him with a chieftain who turned the tables by keeping watch on Coyote. Then, because the sun had killed some of Coyote's children, the trickster cut out the sun's heart, plunging the world into darkness. Coyote wanted to take the heart home with him, but he kept stumbling in the dark. In the end he had to return the heart to the sun, which restored light to the world.

Myths of the Algonquian-speaking people tell of a trickster named Gluskap. Gluskap lived in the cold north, but during a journey to the warm south, he tricked Summer, a beautiful female chieftain, into returning north with him. After she melted the cold of Winter, Gluskap let her return to her home.

Other Tricksters Maui , the trickster hero of the Polynesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean, created the world while he was fishing. He let out a long fishing line and reeled in island after island from the bottom of the ocean. Later, Maui stole fire from the underworld and gave it to humans.

Greek mythology also includes a trickster associated with the gift of fire. The god Prometheus tricked Zeus and the other gods into granting humans the best part of an animal killed for a sacrifice. Angry at having been tricked, Zeus refused to let humans have fire, but Prometheus stole a burning ember from the gods for people to use.

Myths from the Micronesian islands of the western Pacific tell of Olifat, son of a human woman and a sky god, who used cleverness, trickery, and magic to obtain the food, drink, and women he wanted. The trickster's greed turned to jealousy and spite when he discovered that he had a brother who had been raised in secret. Olifat caught the brother and cut off his head, offering it to his father in place of the fish that was expected. The sky god restored Olifat's brother to life and turned in anger to Olifat. The trickster slyly pleaded innocence, arguing that since his father had told him he had no brother, he could not have killed a brother who did not exist.

A trickster may be a go-between or messenger between the human and divine worlds. Hermes (pronounced HUR-meez), the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, was the god of travelers and trade but also of thieves and deceit. As a child, Hermes demonstrated his cleverness by stealing cattle from Apollo. He hid their tracks by tying tree bark to their hooves.

The Norse trickster Loki was originally a friend of the gods, but eventually they became tired of his tricks and grew to dislike him. In one tale, Loki stole the hair of Thor's wife, Sif In order to appease Thor, Loki convinced two dwarf craftsmen to each create three magnificent gifts that he could present to Thor. Loki turned himself into a stinging fly in an attempt to distract the second craftsman, Sindri, and his brother Brock, since Loki had wagered his head that the second dwarf could not possibly create gifts more magnificent than the first. When Thor received the gifts, he chose Sindri's gifts as the better of the two. When Brock tried to claim Loki's head, Thor cautioned that he cannot touch Loki's neck, since it was not mentioned in the wager. Brock satisfied himself with sewing Loki's mouth shut.

Tricksters in Context

Some scholars have suggested that the trickster is one of the oldest figures in mythology. A chaotic and disorderly character, he acts out many human urges and desires that people living in communities learn to control to maintain social order. Trickster myths, especially those in which the trickster's deeds backfire against him in some way, may have developed to teach a moral lesson about the penalties of misbehavior.

Tales in which the trickster is a small but clever animal that emerges victorious teach a different lesson. They show how a seemingly powerless creature can triumph over a mighty one.

While not typically considered purely good or evil, tricksters operate outside the rules of society. Often childish, greedy, lustful, and even nasty, tricksters can also be friendly, helpful, clever, and wise. Sometimes they appear to be clownish, clumsy, or foolish, although they usually possess amazing powers of survival. A trickster may come to a sorry end in one story but then, after being miraculously brought back to life, reappear in other tales. Sometimes a trickster is a creator or culture hero whose activities explain how some aspect of the world came into being. While tricksters are often shown to be selfish, silly, or wrongheaded, they also help people identify with the situations and lessons contained in these myths. In addition, tricksters provide entertaining moments that remind readers and listeners that myths are meant to be enjoyed and shared from generation to generation.

Tricksters in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Over the years, because of the entertaining appeal of this type of character, many trickster characters have been borrowed from their native mythology and incorporated into newer works. Loki, for example, appears in Marvel comics as a villain who fights against superheroes, including Thor. Brer Rabbit , a popular African American trickster derived from other West African tricksters such as Anansi, became the focus of the Uncle Remus books by Southern journalist Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800s. In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the character of Puck incorrecdy distributes a love potion among several couples, creating chaos and compounding the romantic problems of all the main characters.

The trickster character also appears in many popular films. One recent example is Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films. Jack shows the classic trickster traits of greed, self-importance, and foolishness, but at the same time he uses his cleverness as a way out of the predicaments he creates for himself.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Trickster Tales From Around The World (2001) by Ila Lane Gross offers a diverse selection of trickster tales from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Brazil. Virginia Hamilton and Barry Moser's A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales fom America, the West Indies, and Afica (1997) is an illustrated book aimed at younger readers, but provides excellent versions of several popular trickster myths, as well as useful information about the cultures in which the various myths evolved.

SEE ALSO African Mythology; Anansi; Animals in Mythology; Brer Rabbit; Hermes; Krishna; Loki; Maui; Native American Mythology