In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a character in a story (god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphisation), which exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge, and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour. It is suggested by G. P. Hansen that the term "trickster" was probably first used in this context by Daniel G. Brinton in 1885.
Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the trickster as a "boundary-crosser". The trickster crosses both physical and often breaks societal rules. Tricksters "...violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis."
Often, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both. The trickster openly questions and mocks authority. They are usually male characters, and are fond of breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods.
All cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths Hermes plays the trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined.
Frequently the trickster figure exhibits gender and form variability. In Norse mythology the mischief-maker is Loki, who is also a shape shifter. Loki also exhibits gender variability, in one case even becoming pregnant. He becomes a mare who later gives birth to Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
British scholar Evan Brown suggested that Jacob in the Bible has many of the characteristics of the trickster:
The tricks Jacob plays on his twin brother Esau, his father Isaac and his father-in-law Laban are immoral by conventional standards, designed to cheat other people and gain material and social advantages he is not entitled to. Nevertheless, the Biblical narrative clearly takes Jacob's side and the reader is invited to laugh and admire Jacob's ingenuity–as is the case with the tricksters of other cultures".
In The Trickster and the Paranormal, G. P. Hansen lists Mercury in Roman mythology, and Eshu in Yoruba mythology as examples of the trickster archetype. In a wide variety of African language communities, the rabbit is the trickster. In West Africa (and thence into the Caribbean via the slave trade), the spider (Anansi) is often the trickster.
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 his acting as a sort of catalyst, in that his antics are the cause of other characters' discomfiture, but he himself is left untouched. A once-famous example of this was the character Froggy the Gremlin on the early children's television show "Andy's Gang". A cigar-puffing puppet, Froggy induced the adult humans around him to engage in ridiculous and self-destructive hi-jinks.
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 include Bugs Bunny and Pippi Longstocking.
Role in African American literature
Modern African American literary criticism has turned the trickster figure into one example of how it is possible to overcome 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 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'. 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.
Following in this tradition, critics since Gates have come to assert that another popular African American folk trickster, Br'er Rabbit (a contraction of "Brother 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 an epistolary correspondence. Both writers signed the 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."
In Native American tradition
While the trickster crosses various cultural traditions, there are significant differences between tricksters in the traditions of different parts of the world:
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. 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 June 2010, a collection of Native American trickster tales were retold in comic form in a graphic novel anthology titled: Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection, edited by Matt Dembicki.
In many Native American and First Nations mythologies, the Coyote spirit (Southwestern United States) or Raven spirit (Pacific Northwest) stole fire from the gods (stars, moon, and/or sun). Both are usually seen as jokesters and pranksters. In Native American creation stories, when Coyote teaches humans how to catch salmon, he makes the first fish weir out of logs and branches.
Wakdjunga in Winnebago mythology is an example of the trickster archetype.
The Coyote mythos is one of the most popular among western Native American cultures, especially among indigenous peoples of California and the Great Basin.
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". He also bestowed names on buffalo, deer, elk, antelopes, and bear. According to 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 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." while still being a subject of the Creator who can punish him or remove his powers. In the Pacific Northwest tradition, Coyote is mostly mentioned as a messenger, or minor power.
As the culture hero, Coyote appears in various mythic traditions, but generally with the same magical powers of transformation, resurrection, and "medicine". He is engaged in changing the ways of rivers, 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 to fight and kill Thunderbird, the killer of people, but he could do that not because of his personal power, but due to the help of the Spirit Chief. In some stories, Multnomah Falls came to be by Coyote's efforts; in others, it is done by Raven.
More often than not Coyote is a trickster, but 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 malicious: "Coyote determined to bring harm to Duck. He took Duck's wife and children, whom he treated badly."
In Internet and multimedia studies
In online environments there has been a link between the trickster and Internet trolling. Some have said that a trickster is a type of online community character. Others see trickery online as being as much of a problem as cyberbullying.