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The trickster figure Reynard the Fox as depicted in an 1869 children's book by Michel Rodange
The trickster figure Reynard the Fox as depicted in an 1869 children's book by Michel Rodange

In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a character in a story (god, goddess, spirit, human, 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.

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  • ✪ Tricksters: An Introduction: Crash Course World Mythology 20
  • ✪ Joseph Campbell--Mythology of the Trickster
  • ✪ Archetypes 101 - The Trickster
  • ✪ Coyote and Raven, American Tricksters: Crash Course World Mythology #22
  • ✪ The Path of The Fool (Trickster)


Hi, there. I'm Mike Rugnetta. This is Crash Course Mythology, and today we're going to start the first of a few episodes a show favorite: trickster stories, but be warned, trickster myths can get sexy, a little gross, and they're filled with betrayal, but we should be able to handle it, right Thoth? Oh, hmm... Oh, Thoth, Stan just texted me. You've been promoted to host. So, uh, I'm just going to go grab a coffee. See you later Good luck. [Intro] Just kidding. There's no way that Thoth could host the show. He's like thousands of years old and he only speaks Ancient Egyptian which literally no one understands. But roping some sucker into doing my work is exactly the sort of thing a trickster would do. Trickster stories are traditionally very popular, and for a good reason: In many trickster stories the underdogs come out on top, and not by virtue of their... superior strength or immortal attributes either, but because of their smarts. Another appealing thing about tricksters Is that they're transgressive. They're rebels and who doesn't love a rebel? Just ask Ares, Greek God of War and Rebellion or James Dean the American God of pomade and leather jackets. A good place to start is mythologist David Leeming's description of a trickster: so a moral and scatological, but otherwise a good guy. We all have that friend, I think. Let's begin in Africa. African Trickster stories remain popular and frequently have ambiguous or morally dubious endings. According to Thury and Devinny, So let's see exactly what they mean by "disharmony" in the Thought Bubble. Anansi the spider and his son [] are farmers having a bad year because of a drought. One day [] is out for a walk lamenting the poor harvest and he sees a hunchback dwarf by the side of the road. The dwarf asks [] what's wrong, and when he explains the dwarf promises to help. He tells [] to find two small sticks and tap him lightly on his hump while singing. So, tap tap, and it begins to rain. Soon the crops start growing. Anansi thinks he can do better and goes to look for the dwarf himself, making sure to bring two big sticks. The dwarf tells Anansi to tap him on his hump again, but Anansi ends up hitting the dwarf so hard that he kills him. Now, Anansi is scared because the dwarf was the King's favorite jester. So he puts the dwarf's body in a kola tree and waits. When his son [] come by and asks his father if he'd seen the dwarf, Anansi tells him that the dwarf is climbing the tree looking for a kola nut. The quicken sin climbs up the tree the dwarf's body falls down to the ground Anansi cries out that "his son had killed the King's jester!" But [] knows Anansi's tricks and replies that the King was actually angry with the dwarf and now he could go to the king and collect a reward. Knowing there's a bounty Anansi exclaims that he had killed the dwarf. Anansi arrives at the Kings court and discovers the King was not angry with the Jester. But now he's certainly angry with Anansi. The king orders the body of the dwarf to be put in a box which Anansi must carry on his head forever unless he finds someone else to carry it. Eventually, Anansi comes across Ant and asks him to hold the box while he goes to the market, and, wouldn't you know it, Ant falls for it? This is why to this day we often see ants carrying great burden. Thanks, Thought Bubble. It's probably becoming clear. Why you know a lot of us just don't trust spiders. In a number of ways, this is a classic African Trickster story. It features animals with human characteristics interacting in a human world The Trickster is initially undone by his own greed. If Anansi had just listened to his son and not tried to outdo him, he would have been okay. Also, maybe he shouldn't have tried to frame his son for a murder. But Anansi fails in his attempt to hide his crime because his son knows his reputation for duplicity. Despite his cleverness Anansi's greed gets the better of him. His desire for the reward leads him to admit his bad deed and be punished for it. And if he did end up carrying the coffin for eternity, the story might provide a lesson about justice, but Anansi, being a trickster, is able to convince someone else to bear his burden. So he gets off scot-free. The ending of the story does explain a natural phenomenon (why ants are so industrious), but the story isn't exactly a model for good behavior. In the end Anansi gets away with killing the dwarf. His comeuppance is brief and the only thing he learns is that ants are total suckers. It's really like a Quentin Tarantino film of trickster myths. The story of Anansi and the Ant bears some resemblance to one of Hercules's labors. We'll talk more about Hercules when we get to our episode on heroes, but the long and short is that he had to do twelve labors, and completing them cemented his reputation. One of these labours, the eleventh, was to gather Zeus's Golden Apples from the far end of the Earth. These apples were guarded by a dragon (Ladon) and the Hesperides, nymphs who were the daughters of Atlas, the Titan with the unenviable task of holding the world on his shoulders. Talk about legendary back pain. It took a long time and a number of adventures before Hercules even found out where the apples were, but eventually he is told about them by another trickster, Prometheus. You remember him, he's the guy who stole fire for the Humans and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten daily by an eagle. Well good news, eventually Hercules kills that eagle and in return Prometheus tells him that the way to get the apples isn't to fight a dragon, but to simply ask Atlas. Atlas can easily get past his daughters and that Mr. Dragon. No sweat. So hercules makes a deal with Atlas hercules will hold up the world giving Atlas a much-needed break and in return, apples. Atlas is thrilled because I mean think about it, how would you feel holding up the literal world all the time? So he leaves, he goes he grabs the apples. The problem is that when he returns he tells Hercules that he really doesn't want to hold up the earth and the sky anymore. So like maybe that's just your job now Hercules. I don't know, just spit balling here. So here's Hercules, he can't move, he's holding the world after all, but he does some quick tricky thinking. He tells Atlas "Sure, he'll do it", but could atlas take the Earth and Sky back for just a second while he gets some padding for his shoulders? And when Atlas agrees, Hercules grabs the apples and vamooses. Tricksters tricking tricksters. Kind of like [???]. In these stories, we see that it often doesn't take much for a trickster to figure out how to fool the object of his trick, sometimes called a dupe. Often the dupe doesn't really deserve it, although it's hard to feel sorry for Atlas, who was attempting some minor league trickstering himself. While tricksters can be seen as playful scamps, they also show us that play can be dangerous, especially, when like Anansi, we let it go too far. in the Anansi story, the trickster acts as what Leonard and McClure call a moral counterexample. We're usually better off when we don't lie or cheat each other, but that's exactly what tricksters do. We're typically happy when they're punished for their tricks, but this doesn't always happen. Trickster stories can be especially troubling because not only do they usually get away with their tricks, but are often celebrated for it. Tricksters aren't all bad, though. The trickster can provide a model for the oppressed to reclaim some autonomy in the face of overwhelming power. This is one of the main lessons of the Br'er rabbit stories which are descended from African Trickster stories, but transplanted into the context of chattel slavery in English-speaking North America. Br'er can be seen as representing slaves who would use their ingenuity to fort and outsmart cruel plantation owners Maybe then, it's worth asking what would happen if the tricksters just always won. And the truth is while some tricksterism may be justified and a little bit of transgression here and there is fun, if everyone decides that it's okay to beat dwarves to death in order to double the amount of rainfall, metaphorically speaking, that wouldn't be great. Trickster stories are often morally ambiguous in this way. Even Br'er rabbit isn't all clearly the good guy, and that's one part of why we like them so much, maybe. Sometimes it's simply a thrill to break the rules. We as human can see ourselves pretty clearly in the trickster myths. It's hard to identify with someone who can hold the world or who goes on errands for the father of creation, but we've all at least tried our hand. Bamboozling someone into taking over our responsibility. Sorry Thoth, you're a good sport. Thanks for watching, we'll see everyone next week.



Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the trickster as a "boundary-crosser".[1] The trickster crosses and often breaks both physical and societal rules. Tricksters "...violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis."[2]

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.[1] In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined.

Loki cuts the hair of the goddess Sif.
Loki cuts the hair of the goddess Sif.

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".[3]

In a wide variety of African language communities, the rabbit, or hare, 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.[4]

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 an 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."[5]

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.[6] According to Gates, the "Signifying Monkey" is the "New World figuration" and "functional equivalent" of the Eshu trickster figure of African Yoruba mythology.[7] The Lion functions as the authoritative figure in his classical role of "King of the Jungle."[8] 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..."[8] 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.[6] The net effect of all of this is "the reversal of [the Lion's] status as the King of the Jungle."[8] In this way, the "master's house" is dismantled when his own tools are turned against him.

Br'er Rabbit is a trickster character who succeeds through his wits rather than through strength.
Br'er Rabbit is a trickster character who succeeds through his wits rather than through strength.

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."[9] 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."[9] 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."[10] 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.[11] 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."[11] 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."[11] 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.[12][13] 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."[12]

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.[14]

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".[15] 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 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.[1]

Wakdjunga in Winnebago mythology is an example of the trickster archetype.


Coyote often has the role of trickster as well as a clown in traditional stories.
Coyote often has the role of trickster as well as a clown in traditional stories.

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".[16] 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.[citation needed]

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.[17] 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."[citation needed]

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.[18][19]

In oral stories

Trickster subplot in The Relapse: Tom Fashion, pretending to be Lord Foppington, parleys with Sir Tunbelly Clumsey in a 19th-century illustration by William Powell Frith.
Trickster subplot in The Relapse: Tom Fashion, pretending to be Lord Foppington, parleys with Sir Tunbelly Clumsey in a 19th-century illustration by William Powell Frith.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
  2. ^ Mattick, Paul (February 15, 1998). "Hotfoots of the Gods". New York Times.
  3. ^ Brown, Evan. The Bible in the Context of World Culture, Ch. 3
  4. ^ Smith, R. L. "Remembering Andy Devine".
  5. ^ Lorde, Audre (2004). "Age, Race, Class, and Sex". In Rivkin, Julie; Ryan, Michael (eds.). Literary Theory: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. p. 859.
  6. ^ a b Gates (2004), p. 990.
  7. ^ Gates (2004), pp. 988–989.
  8. ^ a b c Gates (2004), p. 991.
  9. ^ a b Earl (1993), p. 131.
  10. ^ Earl (1993), p. 158.
  11. ^ a b c North, Michael, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 77.
  12. ^ a b Brennan, Jonathan (2003). "Introduction: Recognition of the African-Native American Literary Tradition". In Brennan, Jonathan (ed.). When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African–Native American Literature. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. pp. 72–73.
  13. ^ Baringer, Sandra K. (2003). "Brer Rabbit and His Cherokee Cousin: Moving Beyond the Appropriation Paradigm". In Brennan, Jonathan (ed.). When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African–Native American Literature. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. p. 116.
  14. ^ Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Little Rock; quoted epigraph in Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin, 2001
  15. ^ Ballinger (1991), p. 21.
  16. ^ "Gold Fever California on the Eve- California Indians", Oakland Museum of California
  17. ^ Edmonds, Margot; Clark, Ella E. (2003). Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends. Castle Books. p. 5. ISBN 0785817166.
  18. ^ Campbell, J., Fletcher, G. & Greenhill, A. (2002). "Tribalism, Conflict and Shape-shifting Identities in Online Communities." In the Proceedings of the 13th Australasia Conference on Information Systems, Melbourne Australia, 7–9 December 2002
  19. ^ Campbell, J., Fletcher, G. and Greenhill, A. (2009). "Conflict and Identity Shape Shifting in an Online Financial Community", Information Systems Journal, (19:5), pp. 461–478. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2575.2008.00301.x.


External links

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