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The 'Trickster' Figure in Folklore and Mythology

Updated on December 11, 2016

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'Coyote in a Canoe', F. N. Wilson, 1915.
'Coyote in a Canoe', F. N. Wilson, 1915. | Source

The Trickster, a figure that relies heavily on guile and trickery to get what they want, is a frequent feature in the mythology of a wide variety of different cultures. Some-times cast as the hero of their particular tale, and sometimes taking on a more villainous role, what they all seem to have in common is that they are unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and often extremely intelligent – though, just as often prone to fits of foolishness. Most often depicted as male, they will also often be given the ability to change their shape, taking on whatever form best suits them, including the form of animals. In general, whether depicted as heroic or villainous, a Trickster can be taken as representing a direct defiance of the natural order – and, of normal rules and conventional behavior – sometimes, to the benefit of both himself and the culture as a whole, and sometimes to his own detriment.

One of the best known Trickster figures is, arguably, Coyote – perhaps one of the most popular figures in various Native American cultures. As a mythological figure, and as is standard with Trickster figures in particular, Coyote's position is somewhat difficult to define. Sometimes described as a hero, such as in this retelling of a story from the Chinook tribe, where Coyote comes to the defense of the animal people against the monstrous beaver Wishpoosh. He is also just as likely to play the part of the fool, such as in this retelling of a tale from the Sahaptin and Salishan Tribes, where Coyote's poorly considered greed almost results in his own death.

Also from Native American folklore, this time from the tradition of the Lakota tribe in particular, is Iktomi, a Trickster figure every bit as complex as Coyote. Most commonly portrayed as a spider, Iktomi is also indicated to have the shape-changing abilities so common among various Tricksters. Portrayed most commonly as a force of chaotic mischief, some stories concerned Iktomi coming to the aid of the Lakota people. Though, despite this, he was still viewed in general as someone whose gaze was best avoided.

'The Punishment of Loki', Louis Heard, 1900.
'The Punishment of Loki', Louis Heard, 1900. | Source

Another well-recognized Trickster figure comes from Norse mythology, in the form of Loki – ultimately, a direct example of the Trickster figure as a villain. Like with many Trickster figures, many early stories focused on Loki showing him to be an intelligent figure, prone to pranks and general mischief, though still ultimately likely to prove himself a helpful ally more often than not. As with many Tricksters, Loki's greatest asset in this regard was his ability to alter his own form as it suited him – including being able to take on the forms of animals, and even change his gender. In one particular story, the other gods of the Norse pantheon had made a bet with a giant that he would not be able to construct a wall around Asgard in seven days – as the days pass, though, the gods become nervous, as it seemed that he may in fact be finished in time. Loki's aid was, therefore, requested by the other gods. Taking on the form of a mare, Loki was able to lure the giant's stallion away from his work, ultimately hindering the giants efforts enough that the wall was not included in time – meaning that, because of Loki's aid, the Norse gods ultimately won their bet against the giant.

Ultimately, though, Loki's jealousy of the other gods led to him becoming increasingly malicious. In later stories, Loki was indirectly responsible for the death of the god Baldur, and directly responsible for his failed resurrection. As well, the stories concerning Loki also made clear that he would be directly responsible for bringing about Ragnarok, the end of the world according to Norse legend, following his escape from his imprisonment after the death of Baldur.

Anansi, perhaps one of the most important figures in the folklore of various African and Caribbean based cultures, bares more than a passing resemblance to Iktomi, mentioned above. Like Iktomi, Anansi is most commonly portrayed in the form of a spider, though with the ability to change shape whenever it suits him. And, like Iktomi, and indeed all other Trickster figures that can be identified, Anansi is usually portrayed as a figure of mischief, as likely to help as hinder anyone who comes across him.

These are only some examples of the various Trickster figures that can be identified in the mythology and folklore of various cultures throughout history. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them, though, is how similar they all begin to seem. Trickster figures exist in open defiance of the established order, represented by the other gods of the pantheon, or the laws of mortals – and, they typically combine this open defiance with the powers and intelligence necessary to be able to get away with it. Perhaps that is what's at the heart of the appeal of the Trickster figure?

© 2016 Dallas Matier

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