09. TRICKSTERS

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Standard features of the Trickster (a common figure in myths of many cultures)

  • often takes animal form
  • mischievous, greedy, selfish
  • tricks gods, often helps men or giants vs. gods
  • Examples: Coyote (American Indian), Spider (Africa), Monkey (China), Loki (Norse myth&emdash;Vikings, Scandinavia); Prometheus and Hermes (Greek myth)

Coyote: the prototypical trickster (American Indian)

  • R.A. Williamson, Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian (Norman 1984) 310:
In Native American thought, it is often the trickster, Coyote, or some other animal who brings a chaotic element into the otherwise orderly world. Ruled entirely by his passions, both cunning and credulous, and forever getting into trouble, Coyote often acts entirely counter to social and sacred order. In that role, he makes it possible to experience in speech actions that are not permitted to humans. The trickster, however, though he looses disorder upon the world, is not evil or a devil. He is truly a necessary figure for understanding the sacred. As the Chumash, and indeed the Hopi, stories about Coyote and Sun illustrate, not only does the trickster by his contrary actions illuminate the proper way by indirection, he also reflects an awareness of the nature of the chaotic element.
  • A Navajo story show Coyote comical and a troublemaker:
When Black God had arranged certain stars in the sky (the constellations), Coyote complained that he hadn't been consulted. He emptied Black God's pouch of its remaining crystals and blew them across the sky. This explains why only the stars placed by Black God have a name, and those scattered at random by Coyote are nameless. But then Coyote placed one star very carefully; the Navajo call it the Coyote star (Antares in some texts, Canopus in others).
  • A Chumash story:
Coyote begs to accompany the Sun one day, promising to behave himself. Coyote persuades Sun to let him carry the torch, and Sun warns him not to let it get too close to Earth. Coyote (of course) forgets, drops the torch, and almost burns up the world before Sun rescues it. Thereafter he stays meekly behind Sun.
  • These two stories show how the Coyote can be blamed for randomness and chaos in the world, upsetting "natural" order.
  • Further Coyote stories:
Claimed to hunters that he was a god and could will the death of animals, so the hunters wouldn't have to work. Drove game to them by tying a cedar bark fagot to his tail and setting it on fire.
  • Joined birds in a game of pulling out their eyes, tossing them up into a tree, and calling "Drop back!" so they fell back in their sockets. But Coyote pestered the birds so long that the final time they plucked out his optic nerves too, and the eyes didn't drop back. They made him inferior new eyes out of yellow pine gum; that is why coyotes have yellow eyes.

    Coyote went to serve one of the monster gods called Brown Giant; but a maiden told him he would have to kill a monster god if he wanted to marry her, so he tricked Brown Giant into amputating his own leg, then shot him to death with bow and arrow.

    People try to kill Coyote, by beating him to death, but he keeps his life force in the tip of his nose and the tip of his tail, rather than in the center of his body, so they always fail.

Loki (Norse)

  • son of a giant; handsome but evil, a shape-shifter
  • father of the World Serpent, a dangerous giant wolf, and in some sources also father of the goddess of the Underworld, Hel
  • sometimes appears as a fairly harmless trickster, often taking animal or other form
    • tricking other gods
      • steals love-goddess' necklace as a fly
      • fools thunder-god Thor in guise of fire, etc.
      • helps giant to steal apples of immortality
    • helping other gods
      • helps Thor get his hammer back, by disguising him as the bride of the man who stole it
    • helping mankind
      • gives man sunlight, fire
  • sometimes has far more evil and threatening nature
    • responsible for death of the good and handsome god Balder
      • (this story has elements of the dying god--cycle of seasons archetype)
      Everything in the world promised not to harm Balder, but nobody bothered to talk to the small, insignificant mistletoe. Loki fashioned an arrow of mistletoe, and tricked Balder's blind brother into shooting him dead. Even then Hel said she'd release Balder from death if everything in the world would shed a tear for him. All creatues did, except for one giantess, who was (of course!) Loki in disguise.
      In punishment for Balder's death, the gods tied Loki to three rocks at the end of the earth, with snakes dripping venom on him from above. His wife Sigyn holds a cup to catch the venom, but it falls on Loki('s face) whenever she goes to empty it. Then he struggles in agony, which causes the earthquakes we feel. Loki will remain there until Ragnarök, the end of the world and the destruction of the gods. Then he will be freed, and will fight with the giants against the gods.
  • Loki is similar to Prometheus (see Creation 2 handout)
    • both are not gods but giant (Loki) or Titan (Prometheus)
    • both steal from the gods
    • both are culture heroes who give man fire
    • both are punished by the gods, in rather similar ways
  • BUT: Prometheus' only motive is to help mankind; Loki is more purely mischievous and comical than Prometheus in some stories, and more purely evil in others

Hermes (Greek)

"Though Hermes is called the tricky one, he stands ready to fulfill the prayers of men." -- Pausanias

  • as a baby, he's selfish, devious, and a thief
    • born at dawn, kills tortoise and makes lyre by noon, steals Sun's cattle in evening
    • his first song is about his own birth
  • sneaking back from cattle raid, he's like any thief: dogs don't bark, slips past lock, moves silently
  • Apollo accuses him of the theft; Hermes lies, burps, sneezes (trick played on gods)
    • Hermes swears to Zeus: "I didn't bring the sun's cattle home"--technically true, he left them elsewhere
    • Hermes then teaches Apollo to play the lyre by singing a theogony (helps gods)
  • credited with inventing fire-sticks and sandals (culture hero/benefactor elements)
    • another link to mankind: longs for the MEAT of sacrifice, but stuck with the smell
  • he's the god of thieves and travellers
    • (herma in Greek means cairn (mound of stones); these used as landmarks to guide travellers)
  • he's the messenger of the gods, and conducts souls to Hades' house
  • the Germans identified Hermes with Odin, the king of the gods!
  • Romans introduced him (under Roman name Mercury) to the Celts, and he was their greatest god


Last updated: 8/25/07

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