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. Certain gods, demigods, and heroes from around the world are described as having trickster qualities.
Tricksters' Roles. Operating outside the framework of right and wrong, tricksters do not recognize the rules of society. Their characters and actions are far from simple, however. 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.
demigod one who is part human and part god
culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire
underworld land of the dead
Sometimes a trickster is a creator or culture hero whose activities explain how some aspect of the world came into being. In northeastern America, for example, 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. 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.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
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.
A trickster may be a go-between or messenger between the human and divine worlds. Hermes, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, was the god of travelers and trade but also of thieves and deceit. As a newborn 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.
Eshu, a West African trickster also known as Legba, is associated with travel, commerce, and communication—or miscommunication. He creates quarrels among people or between people and gods. In one myth, he causes conflict between a man and his two wives. Disguised as a merchant, Eshu sells one of the wives a fine hat, which pleases the husband but makes the other wife jealous. Eshu then sells a more splendid hat to the second wife. The competition continues, 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.
Some scholars have suggested that the trickster is one of the most ancient 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.
Trickster Myths. 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.
A Jealous Trickster
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. His father had told him he had no brother. How, then, could he have killed a brother who did not exist?
chameleon lizard that can change color
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. That is why spiders hide in the corners of houses.
Tricksters figure prominently 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 some 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.