The trickster is one of the most enduring and widespread mythical figures. The trickster is found in widely diverse national mythologies and has been used just as widely in literature, film and television.
The antics of Br’er Rabbit, the Shakespearean fool, Native American Coyote tales, Chinese Monkey tales, the adventures of the Greek god Hermes, and the exploits of the Rabelaisian carnival can all be read as realms of the trickster type.
In their influential collection of essays devoted to the trickster Hynes and Doty (1993) argue for a broad cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary understanding of the motif.
We are persuaded that plurality, plurivocicity, and ambiguity are essential to the trickster Gestalt: this mythological figure encompasses many different social positions is utilised by different societies to inculcate various types of behaviour, and may have manifold modes of appearance even within one culture. (1993:9)
The trickster figure has been identified in a range of contemporary literature and popular culture texts. The American con-man, (Lenz 1985) the novels of Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston (Smith 1997), the screwball comedy of Lucile Ball (Landay 1998), the poetry of Allen Ginsburg (Hyde 1998), have all been cited as examples of the trickster’s contemporary guise. Jack Lule (2001) has used the trickster figure to analyse the media coverage of the Mike Tyson rape trial.
In his survey of the literature Hynes (1993) identifies six characteristics that he claims offer a “helpful map, heuristic guide and common template through which to become better aware of the complexities of specific trickster figures within particular belief systems”. (Hynes 1993:45)
1. The trickster is ambiguous and anomalous
Anomolous, a-nomos, without normativity, the trickster appears on the edge or just beyond existing borders, classifications, and categories…the trickster is cast as an “out” person, and his activities are often outlawlish, outlandish, outrageous, out-of-bounds, and out-of-order. No borders are sacrosanct, be they religious, cultural, linguistic, epistemological, or metaphysical. (Hynes 1993:34)
2. The trickster is a deceiver and trick-player
His, lying, cheating, tricking, and deceiving may derive from the trickster being simply an unconscious numbskull, or, at other times, from being a malicious spoiler. Once initiated, a trick can exhibit an internal motion all its own. Thus, a trick can gather such momentum as to exceed any control exercised by its originator and may even turn back upon the head of the trickster. (Hynes 1993:35)
3. The trickster is a shape-shifter
As shape-shifter, the trickster can alter his shape or bodily appearance in order to facilitate deception. Not even the boundaries of species or sexuality are safe, for they can be readily dissolved by the trickster’s disguises and transmorphisms. Relatively minor shape-shifting may involve nothing more than changing clothes. (Hynes 1993:36)
4. The trickster is a situation invertor
The trickster often turns a place of safety into a place of danger and back again. He can turn a bad situation into a good one, and then back into a bad one…the trickster is often the official ritual profaner of beliefs. Profaning or inverting social beliefs brings into sharp relief just how much a society values these beliefs. (Hynes 1993:37)
5. The trickster is a messenger and imitator of the gods
The trickster quite regularly brings gifts essential to human culture usually by braking a central taboo established in the divine order…within this process, the trickster often seems to operate within a perpetual bubble of immunity that protects him from the full weight of retribution…He has the further dubious distinction of having introduced that most ambiguous of cultural gifts – debt. (Hynes 1993:40-1)
6. The trickster is a sacred and lewd bricoleur
The bricoleur is a tinker or fix-it person, noted for his ingenuity in transforming anything at hand in order to form a creative solution. The trickster manifests a distinctive transformative ability: he can find the lewd in the scared and the sacred in the lewd, and new life from both…the trickster traffics frequently with the transcendent while loosing lewd acts upon the world. Gastronomic, flatulent, sexual, phallic and fecal feats erupt seriatim. Yet the bricoleur aspect of the trickster can cause any or all of such lewd acts or objects to be transformed into occasions of insight, vitality, and new inventive creations. (Hynes 1993:42)
Hynes maintains that although not a complete set, these six characteristics cover those elements most central to the trickster’s identity. He also allows that while some trickster figures may demonstrate most or all of these characteristics, other figures may be characterised by only one or two elements.
Contemporary journalism makes regular reference to trickster figures in profiles of con-men, crooks, larrikins and comedians. At times, in these stories, elements of the trickster figure brush up against the alchemical motif with a focus on paradoxical creativity, or merge with the questing hero, focusing on change wrought through disruption.
Note: Hynes follows most anthropological studies, which assume that the Trickster figure is predominantly if not exclusively male however recent studies (Landay 1998; Smith 1997) have begun to show that the Trickster has numerous female manifestations.