The Trickster Around the World: Making Mischief and Balancing Power

The archetype of the Trickster runs through myths from cultures around the world. The term “Trickster” was first introduced to the academic world in connection with the study of Native American mythology in Paul Radin’s book The Trickster in 1955 (Hynes and Doty 2). However, since the term was coined, the telltale signs of the trickster have been noticed in mythical characters dating back to Ancient Greece. The trickster possesses both positive and negative qualities, but overall is a helpful force that challenges the status quo and improves humanity.

The world is rife with stories about the trickster. Michael P. Carroll, in his article “The Trickster as Selfish Buffoon and Culture Hero,” surmises that modern scholars have written more about the trickster than any other type of mythical character (105). The trickster defies definition because his presence in myths and folktales seems to be that of boundary crosser and duplicitous mediator; he is a hero and a fiend at the same time. For example, the trickster is often portrayed as having an excessive appetite for sex and food, and as being selfish and vain. And yet, he plays a sacred role in many myths, as the progenitor of benevolent changes, even bringing life into existence in some myths, such as the Native American story of “The Great Flood” wherein a trickster rolls mud in his hand and turns it into dry land for people to repopulate the world (Campbell). In an interview about the Trickster, the scholar Joseph Campbell said, “He is both a devil and a fool, and the creator of the world”. The focus of this article is to highlight the way the trickster crosses boundaries and topples corrupt social mores.

In this article the trickster will usually be referred to as “he”, but there are plenty of female tricksters to be explored as well. Myths from the cultures of Ancient Greece, Medieval Wales, Native America, modern America and the Ancient Mayans will be analyzed. The details of the myths vary widely, revealing differences in the values of these cultures. Some cultures, such as the Native Americans, revered animals and the earth. Others, like the 5th Century Welsh people, placed a high value on property and wealth. American culture in the 1950’s prized the family unit and its distinct roles. In spite of the cultural differences, the myths here all point to a common feature of the trickster: He is both destructive and helpful.

In their book Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms, William J. Hynes and William G. Doty identify six characteristics of the trickster that transcend cultural differences.   Though there are others, they say these six represent the most common elements in trickster myths around the world. The authors claim that the trickster is “ambiguous/anomalous, a deceiver/trick-player, a shape-shifter, a situation-inverter, messenger and imitator of the gods, and a sacred and lewd bricoleur” (33-42). The trait of situation-inverter is the one most important to my thesis. As Hynes and Doty write of situation inverting, “the trickster exhibits typically the ability to overturn any person, place, or belief, no matter how prestigious” (37). With this wily ability to upset the apple cart, the trickster is a cultural hero, in that he seems compelled to disrupt the abuse of power and balance the scales in favor of the underdog. He is a hero of the “little guy”.

In the Native American myth “How Coyote Stole Fire” as retold by Gail Robinson and Douglas Hill in their book Coyote The Trickster, Coyote overhears ancient humans wailing over the loss of their children and elderly during the cold winter (79). Coyote feels sorry for the people. He knows that there are Fire Beings on a far mountaintop that have fire but guard it from the humans so that the humans will not have too much power. Coyote thinks that these Fire Beings are selfish and decides to steal some fire and give it to the humans. He spies on the Fire Beings day and night and sees that there is a brief window every morning during the changing of the guard when the fire is unwatched. One morning he slips in and steals a piece of the fire. The Fire Beings chase him and during his getaway he passes the fire to various other animals, all of which take a turn in bringing fire down to the humans. The Fire Beings finally give up, having lost their monopoly on Fire. In this myth, Coyote is sneaky in service of the humans and he has thrown a wrench in the agenda of the selfish Fire Beings. He can be likened to the famous English trickster, Robin Hood, who, with his merry band of robbers, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Today Robin Hood would be called a socialist, but he and Coyote are both tricksters standing up for people that feel downtrodden by elitists. As Stephen Thomas Knight writes in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, “Robin Hood represents principled resistance to wrongful authority” (xi).

The first known Western mythic trickster is Hermes from ancient Greece. Hermes is one of Zeus’ children but he feels cheated of the glorious spoils that his brother, Apollo, and other gods enjoy. His mother lives in a cave and apparently he is destined to do the same. This “smooth-tongued enchanter” decides that he will resort to being the “Prince of Thieves” in order to get the honor and wealth he feels he deserves (Hyde 203). Hyde explores the Hymn to Hermes (written in the 6th Century BCE) wherein Hermes executes an elaborate scam as an infant. He enchants all form of creature to successfully steal fifty of Apollo’s cattle, slaughter two of them, and divide the meat into twelve equal parts, which he offers to the gods. Afterwards, he crawls back into his crib and pretends to be a helpless baby. When confronted by Apollo, Hermes plays innocent and covers by saying he was only “born yesterday.” Zeus, Apollo and Maia (Hermes’ mother) all see through him and know that Hermes is a devious child. However, Hermes also invents the lyre and in the end he plays and sings a song for Apollo so beautifully that Apollo is enchanted and transformed. Apollo ordains Hermes “Keeper of the Herds” and gives him a magic wand and the art of prophecy (203-219).  Hermes is clearly a situation invertor who has taken himself from being an empty-handed outsider to having a place at the table. Tricksters seem to have a bent toward democracy. Hyde notes the way that Hermes divided the meat into equal parts and he calls this “re-allotment.” The concept of re-allotment in this story is significant because of its kinship with the “lottery of elections,” a system of selecting Athenian public officials that “was the supreme expression of the democratic principle of the absolute equality of all citizens” (215).

The ancient Mayans were an advanced civilization in Mexico. Their writings are known to have existed from around 400 BCE to 1520 CE. In 1521, the Spaniards conquered the Mayan culture and destroyed their literature as it was thought to be “diabolical” (Powell 402). Very little of the Mayan writings remain, but a volume of Mayan myths called the Popol Vuh was composed in the early 18th century by a Dominican priest. The priest claimed that the myths had been handed down through oral and phonetic tradition (Powell 404). One of the myths is called “The Twins Overcome Zipacna, Son of Vucub Caquix.” It is about two trickster brothers who destroy an arrogant, privileged creature named Cabracan who likes to demolish mountains for no good reason. The god Huracan tells the twin tricksters that the gods wish Cabracan (and his family) to be overcome because “it is not good what they do on earth, always reveling in their glory, greatness and power” (Powell 414). The gods don’t appreciate how Cabracan doesn’t respect and listen to them. The boys befriend Cabracan and trick him into eating a bird, which has been rubbed with earth. Cabracan is pulled down and made weak. In this state, they bury him. Once again, tricksters take down the “fat cat,” the character who holds the cards and has no regard for the welfare of others. The brothers bring Cabracan “down to earth” with dirt.

The myth of “Pwyll and Arawen” from Wales in the 5th Century CE describes the hero Pwyll who meets an underworld king, Arawen, while out hunting. Pwyll offends Arawen by letting his dogs feast on a stag that Arawen’s dogs have killed. Arawen tells Pwyll that the only way to gain his forgiveness and friendship is to get rid of his enemy Hafgan, a rival landowner who borders Arawen’s property. Arawen has fought Hafgan many times but never been able to overcome him. Arawen proposes that the two men switch forms for a year. They shape-shift into each other’s identities. After a year disguised as Arawen, Pwyll is able to defeat Hafgan. Arawen absorbs Hafgan’s lands. Pwyll and Arawen exchange gifts, return to their own lands, and enjoy friendship and abundance for years to come. In this myth trickery is employed by Pwyll and Arawen, though neither of them is necessarily a full time trickster. The element of “situation inverter” is evident in the outcome of defeating Hafgan and taking his lands, though in this tale there is not a clear polarization of the “haves and have-nots,” as there is in some of the other myths. Hafgan is not explicitly portrayed as corrupt or unfair to Arawen, but given that the hero Pwyll has left his home and done battle on Arawen’s behalf, one might conjecture that Hafgan is not a nice man.

A modern trickster comes from American culture. She is the character of Lucy from the 1950’s television show I love Lucy. In her book Madcaps, Screwballs and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture, author Lori Landay points to the episode called “Lucy’s Schedule” to illustrate the way that Lucy as trickster was bringing attention to cultural ideals that suppressed women in the 1950’s. The episode in a nutshell: Lucy’s husband Ricky has put Lucy on a schedule to manage her time. He especially wants to impress his new boss with his efficient management of his wife. In order to save herself, the boss’ wife, and her best friend (their husbands are considering putting them on schedules too), and all “the women of America” from similar constraints, Lucy and her female accomplices play a trick on their husbands. Everyone is at Lucy’s house for dinner and the ladies stage a frenzied ruse. They serve every course only to immediately take it away before the hungry men can even taste it. Each time Ricky complains, Lucy says, “Well, Ricky, I have to stick to the schedule” (Landay 163). Ultimately, Ricky tosses out Lucy’s schedule and gets a promotion to boot. According to Landay, “By being tricky rather than submissive, Lucy defends not only her own autonomy but that of other women as well” (163). Lucy is the situation inverter here, standing up for the underdogs. She turns the tables and keeps the overbearing men from completely dominating their wives’ lives.

Each of these myths reflects implicit values of its culture. For example, in Native American myths, animals behave like humans. According to Barry Powell in World Myth, “there is scarcely any distinction made between animals and humans [in Native American myth], except that animals are stronger and more clever” (511). This element of their myths reflects the sacredness and respect that Native American people had and have for the earth, nature and animals. In ancient Greece, the story of Hermes coincided with shifting cultural values. It is estimated that Hymn to Hermes was written in 520 BCE. This means that his story of cracking through the glass ceiling, going from being an outsider to an insider, coincides with the “insurgency of the Greek lower classes and their demands for equality with the aristocracy” (Hyde 207).

The Welsh myths are generally bloody and seem to reveal a casual attitude toward violence. Pwyll and Arawen spend a year away from their homes: Pwyll in order to gain an influential friend and Arawen to obtain property. This myth reflects the feudal social constructs of the time, when owning land was the only path to power and bloodshed was a commonplace method for achieving that power. The Mayan myth, which features the punishing of arrogant Cabracan, reflects that culture’s belief in the importance of honoring their gods. By disempowering Cabracan with dirt and burying him in dirt, the myth reflects the Mayans’ disdain of hubris and respect for the humility of the earth itself.

Finally, the episode in which Lucy tricks her husband into abandoning her schedule by rushing their dinner party reflects the 1950’s culture wherein women’s liberation had not yet occurred. A man was the head of the household and Lucy’s trickiness was an early, acceptable (because it was entertaining) way to question that system. Lucy, with her loveable shenanigans, tricked American culture into evolving beyond the “obedient wife” ideal.

Trickster myths are entertaining and each of the aforementioned myths does not disappoint in that regard. As such, each myth, in its own time, must have been an effective tool for illustrating the power of trickery to disrupt a social power imbalance.

In his naughty way the trickster archetype teaches that there is hope for the disheartened. Even when the deck is stacked against a person or a group, there is a way to turn the tables and have a shot at winning when a trickster is around. With his blend of wisdom and wickedness, the trickster makes a mockery of black and white thinking. In his ambiguity, he defies attempts to categorize him or life. For every good deed he does, he also ruins someone’s day. After all, Hermes wreaked havoc for Apollo before gifting him with song, and Lucy nearly got Ricky fired in the process of defending her autonomy. Ultimately, the mischief was a small price to pay for the sharing and respect gained in both stories. The trickster’s message is that the world is complex, nothing can or should be counted on, but life is fun and everyone deserves to come to the party

Works Cited

Carroll, Michael P. “The Trickster as Selfish-Buffoon and Culture Hero.” Ethos 12.2 (1984): 105-31. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

Hynes, William J., and William G. Doty. Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 1993. Print.

“Joseph Campbell: Mythology of the Trickster.” Interview by Campbell Foundation. YouTube. YouTube, LLC, 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003. Print.

Landay, Lori. Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1998. Print.

Powell, Barry B. World Myth. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.

Robinson, Gail, and Douglas Hill. Coyote the Trickster: Legends of the North American Indians. New York: Crane Russak, 1976. Print.