Tricksters are among the most ancient mythological figures. They are archetypal characters from folklore and religion that use intelligence and supernatural knowledge to make up for physical weakness while employing cunning and subversive humor to play tricks on mortals.
In a 1998 New York Times article, Paul Mattick described the behavior of tricksters by claiming they “ violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life then re-establishing it on a new basis.” He might have said further that they display the behaviors that people living in communities learn to control so social order can be maintained.
Tricksters show us how a seemingly powerless creature can triumph over dominant, sometimes oppressive ones. They can be foolish or cunning and they are often both.
Some tricksters are messengers of gods who use their skills to completely invert situations, ensuring they come out on top and that, if looked at closely, a lesson can be learned. Roguish and disorderly, the trickster in a jack of all trades, unafraid to deceive others and openly mock authority.
We don’t know the origin of the trickster, but they’re evident in many cultures. The ancient Greeks had Hermes, the patron of thieves and inventor of lying. Norse mythology has Loki, the gender-bending shapeshifter. African cultures have animal tricksters in the form of rabbits or spiders. Native Americans have several animal tricksters as well, the most famous of which is Coyote.
In literature, film and pop culture, tricksters are often catalysts whose antics cause discomfort for other characters. They often induce those around them to engage in outrageous, sometimes dangerous antics while they stand untouched by the consequences of their actions.
Occasionally, the trickster becomes ensnarled in its own trap as its deeds backfire. Usually, these stories are created to teach a lesson on morality and the world’s kharmic nature. However, even when punished, the trickster’s innate spirit and love of foolishness and pranks keeps it coming back for more.
Famous modern tricksters:
Puck from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”