Tricksters (Continued) 2

by Terri Windling

Trickster is a consummate shape–shifter, turning up in many different forms in myths and legends around the world. Sometimes he’s a god, an animal, a mischievous fairy or other supernatural creature. Sometimes he’s a human simpleton, a Zen master, a Muslim mullah, or the devil waiting at the crossroads.But "not just any rogue or anti–hero can properly be termed a Trickster," notes literary scholar Helen Lock. "The true Trickster’s trickery calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organized, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends)." (6)

"Mercury" by Evelyn Morgan

The Greek god Hermes, known to the Romans as Mercury, is one of the classic Tricksters of Western myth. Hermes is the god of messengers, of merchants, and of financial transactions — but he’s also, in his dark aspect, the god of liars, gamblers, and thieves. The illegitimate son of Zeus by a nymph named Maia, Hermes was not born to divinity but had to win his place among the Immortals, using charm, cleverness, and duplicity to achieve this aim. His very first act, as a babe in arms, was to steal the sacred cattle of Apollo,covering up the deed with clever tricks and a packet of lies. The adult Hermes is portrayed as wily, lusty,and unpredictable, with a soft spot for pranksters, fraudsters, and con artists of all stripes. Hermes is also the god of thresholds, of open doorways and travelers on the road. He is the psychopomp who guides the dead from the lands of the living to the Underworld, and is one of the few capable of moving safely between these realms. He is, in Lewis Hyde’s evocative phrase, "the lord of in–between" — the god who guides or thwarts men as they pass from place to place or from one state of being to another. (7)

Eshu–Elegba, the Trickster god of the Yoruba people of West Africa, is one of the four warrior deities known collectively as the Orisha. He is the god of the threshold and of the roads, as well as the god of communication, charged with the task of carrying human prayers to the other Orisha. He is a complex, multi–dimensional Trickster with a central role in Yoruban cosmology, a mediator between the human realm and the sacred, numinous world. Eshu can be benevolent or malign — and is usually both these things at once, delighting in playing tricks on human beings and the other gods. He is related to Legba, the wily, unpredictable Trickster of the Fon people in West Africa and Haiti, who is also associated with thresholds,gateways, roads, and travelers. Legba is "the opener of the way" in Voodoo ceremonies; he is the facilitator of communication between the human and spirit worlds, between men and women, between different generations, and between the living and the dead. Depicted as an old, old man in tattered clothes, Legba can be both kind and cruel and is never to be entirely trusted.

Loki from an 18th century Icelandic Manuscript

Loki in Norse mythology is another classic Trickster figure: full of clever pranks that both undermine and benefit the gods of Asgard. Loki’s parentage is in dispute, for in some accounts he is the child of giants and in others he’s nephew to Odin himself. He is an irrepressible liar, schemer, thief, and lover of practical jokes; he is also a shape–shifter, with the rare ability to shift between genders. In the early Norse tales, Loki is portrayed as an exuberantly amoral character, virtues and faults all mixed together. His actions are alternately helpful and harmful as his various schemes bring trouble upon the gods or, conversely, bail them out of trouble.In later tales,however (under the influence of Christianity), he becomes an almost Satanic figure. His last trick is an evil one, for it causes the death of Baldr, Odin’s son. The gods imprison Loki in a cave; and there he’s destined to remain until the battle of Ragnarök, when he’ll emerge to lead an army of the wicked against Asgard.

Maui, the great Polynesian Trickster, is at home in both New Zealand and Hawaii, where he’s known as both a world creator and a meddlesome troublemaker. Half–divine and half–mortal, Maui is the abandoned son of a goddess, rejected by his mother because of his human patrimony. Small and ugly, but possessed of physical strength and crafty intelligence, Maui survives, thrives, and demands his place among the other gods. In the tales of Maui’s preposterous exploits he is credited with creating the land from the sea, lifting up the sky above it, forcing the sun to move more slowly, and bringing fire to humankind. Yet all of these good things come about, in the proper slant–wise Trickster fashion,as the result of Maui’s avid pursuit of his own desires. He eventually causes such trouble for the gods that they conspire to destroy the half–mortal upstart, and Maui is killed while trying to gain immortality for human beings. As he dies, his blood makes shrimp turn red and forms the colors of the rainbow.

"Seated Coyote" by Midori Snyder

A large number of Trickster figures come in the form of animals and birds, sometimes interacting with human beings and sometimes only with other animals. Coyote, who is both man and animal, falls into this category. His tales are told by indigenous cultures from the Arctic down to Mexico — particularly by tribal peoples of the American Southwest and Western Plains. (The female version of Coyote is found in New Mexico and Arizona.) As folklorists Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz note, Coyote "combines in his nature the sacredness and sinfulness, grand gestures and pettiness, strength and weakness, joy and misery, heroism and cowardice that formthe human character . . . .As a culture hero, Old Man Coyote makes the earth, animals, and humans. He is the Indian Prometheus, bringing fire and daylight to the people. He positions the sun, moon, and stars in their proper places. He teaches humans how to live. As Trickster, he is greedy, gluttonous, and thieving."(8) Many of Coyote’s exploits end in failure, often culminating in his death. Yet like the irrepressible Wile E. Coyote in the old Road Runner cartoons, he’s always on his feet again in time for the next tale, as cocky as ever.

Hare is the primary Trickster figure of other Native American tribes, particularly among the Algonquin–speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodlands. The Great Hare known as Nanabozho (or Manabozho, or Nanabush) is a powerful, complex character. In some tales, he’s a culture hero — the creator of the earth and of humankind, the bringer of light and fire, the founder of various arts and crafts, and teacher of sacred rituals. In other tales he’s a clown, a thief, a lecher, and a cunning predator — an ambivalent, amoral creature who dances on the line between right and wrong.

"His life is a complete disgrace!"
from Tales With A Twist by E. T. Reed

We also find Trickster rabbits and hares in stories ranging from Asia and Africa to the hedgerows of Great Britain. In the Panchatantra tales of India, for instance, hare’s cleverness and cunning is tested by the wiles of the elephant and lion, while in Tibetan tales, hare must outwit the ruses of the predatory tiger. In Nigeria, Benin, and Senegal there are stories of a cunning, deceitful hare who is equal parts rascal, lecher, buffoon, and culture hero. African hare stories traveled to North America on the slavers’ ships, where they mixed with Native American tales (such as rabbit stories of the Cherokee), evolving into the famous "Br’er Rabbit" talesof African–American lore, and into the "Compair Lapin" stories told by French Creoles in Louisiana. In the British Isles, the hare is a wily Trickster associated with fairies, barrows, hedgerow witches, and Eostre: the Anglo–Saxon goddess of the Spring. He is a shape–shifter and messenger between the realms of the goddess, the dead, and humankind.

Anansi the Spider is a Trickster whose tales are known in many parts of Africa, the West Indies, and far beyond. His tales are generally humorous ones, with Anansi in the role of anti–hero: he breaks the rules, violates taboos, makes mockery of sacred things; he gets what he wants by plotting, scheming, lying and cheating. Anansi is famously lazy, greedy, pompous, vain, and ignorant — but he’s also very, very clever, usually outwitting everyone around him. Another Trickster spider can be found in tales of the Lakota and Dakota (Sioux) tribes of the American Midwest. Iktomi is a small but powerful creature, devious and mischievous. It was Iktomi who created time, space, and language, and gave all the animals their names, but he’s also a thief, a glutton,a letch, and "the grandfather of lies." Like Coyote, Iktomi is a shape–shifter who can appear in the form of a handsome young man;his "love medicine" is powerful and has caused the downfall of many young girls. In this respect, Iktomi also resembles Kokopelli, a Trickster figure found in the American Southwest. Kokopelli is a hunch–backed flute player who wanders the canyons carrying a magical sack; he’s famous for playing tricks on those he meets and seducing young women. (These seductions generally backfire, however — on the women or on Trickster himself.) Raven is the central Trickster figure for many tribes on the North Pacific Coast — a creature born, according to some old tales, from primordial darkness. Raven is revered as a world creator, feared as a source of chaos and strife, and laughed at as a clown and fool; his tales can be dreamlike and phantasmagorical,tinged with sorcery. Fox, Mink, Blue Jay, and Crow are some of the other Trickster characters in the tales of the many tribal groups of North America,in addition to Tricksters who are supernatural beings rather than animals: such as the Blackfoot’s Old Man Napi, the Hopi’s Skeleton Man, the Northern Cheyenne’s Veeho, and the Métis’ Whiskey Jack.

Coyote and Iktomi from Dreamweaver.
Film Concept by Mark Wagner

Other animal Tricksters around the world include the famous Monkey King of China. He’s a magician, a shape–shifter, an incorrigible prankster, and an inveterate creator of chaos, exasperating even the Buddha, who kept him trapped under a mountain after one of his pranks. Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God of India, is sometimes considered a Trickster because of his animal shape and mischievous spirit, yet he doesn’t exhibit the amorality usually associated with the Trickster archetype; he is a brave and noble character, a hero, and a devotee of Lord Rama.

"Fox Wife Departing" by Kuniyoshi

The fox Tricksters found in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese tales are intelligent, devious shape–shifters, generally dangerous to encounter. Fox Tricksters can be male or female, young or old, beautiful or frightening in appearance. They begin their lives as ordinary foxes, obtaining their magical powers in one of two ways: by long years of arduous study (after which they are rewarded with the power to become human), or by posing as a human man or woman, seducing a member of the opposite sex, then stealing his or her life–force. Fox maidens (kitsuné) take human guise to marry unsuspecting mortal men, using elaborate tricks, lies, and illusion to conceal the truth. Such tales usually end in tragedy with the wife or husband’s death — but in some storiesthe passage between the mortal and magic realms is successfully negotiated,in which case the marriage prospers and produces half–mortal children. Fox also appears as a rather nasty Trickster in the European folk tradition, where he’s known as Renard, Renardine, or Mr. Fox. Appearing in the form of a man with fox–red hair, he’s a handsome and smooth–talking knave who tricks girls into marrying him, and then murders them and eats them. In The Tales of Renard the Fox, a European epic of the Middle Ages, the fox is a more satirical figure: a greedy, wily rascal who dupes peasants and the nobility alike.