The Trickster

The Trickster
Karl Jung’s explanation for the archetypes that surface in cultural and
religious literature is that they are the product of what he calls the
collective unconsciousness. That thread of consciousness that connects all human
beings and cultures around the world. Yet it is not visible to the naked eye,
one must look for the signs of it by researching cultures who are long gone and
comparing them to each other and our own. Studying it reminds us that all humans
are bound together by a common source.

The “Trickster” is an archetype that surfaces in many cultural and
religious stories. Each trickster is unique to it’s own culture, but all
tricksters are bound by certain characteristics no matter what religion they
show up in. Anthropologists would argue that each trickster should be evaluated
in it’s own cultural setting, but in order to see their archetypal value they
must be and can be evaluated as a group. Jung would say he is a manifestation of
our own collective unconscious. Evidence to support such a claim was found by
psychologist John Laynard. In his research on schizophrenia he found the
qualities of the trickster surfacing in the disorder (p.54 Euba). This suggests
that the Trickster is within all of us just sitting on the borderline of
conscious and unconscious though.

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So who is this Trickster? He has many forms both human and animal. His
physical form seems to be particular to each religion. The best way to view a
trickster is by his personality. “He is Admired, Loved, venerated for his
merits and virtues, he is represented as thievish, deceitful, parricidal,
incestuous, and cannibalistic. The malicious practical joker is deceived by just
about anybody; the inventor of ingenious stratagems is presented as an idiot;
the master of magical power is sometimes powerless to extricate himself from
quandaries.” (p.67 Hynes and Doty). The trickster seems to be a comedy of
opposites. For every good aspect of his persona there is an equal and opposite
aspect. In religious stories his role is very diverse. He is the breaker if
taboos. He provides comic relief to a religious myth. And he will pull off
elaborate schemes to teach a moral lesson or expose the folly of men.

The Trickster shares many attributes with man. In Native American
stories he takes the form of the coyote. He is earthbound, like man, but is
constantly trying to transcend this fate. He is always attempting to fly (which
is the sign of a god to the Native Americans) with disastrous consequences. No
matter how hard he tries he cannot escape the human condition. Perhaps these
stories are meant to teach Native Americans not to aspire to be anything more
than human.

The Trickster can be seen as a parody of the Shaman, or the spiritual
leader of the tribe. The Shaman looks to the supernatural for his strength while
the coyote relies on his own wits. The coyote is always looking for the short
cut. Through meditation the Shaman is said to be able to fly. This is a sign of
his divinity. The coyote always has an elaborate scheme for flight, like
hitching a ride with a buzzard, but the end is always the same.( p.87 Hynes and
Does this character sound familiar? Millions of kids grew up with this
very same character, but we knew him as Wile Coyote. The Looney Toons character
that was always after the Road Runner. The creators of him were interested in
the comedic value they saw in Native American stories and adapted him into a
cartoon. Wile would come up with some elaborate schemes, but in the end the
result was always the same. The long fall from the cliff to the ground.

The Trickster of Greek mythology was a God by the name of Hermes. Once
again we see a sort of bridge between the average man and the gods. Hermes is
the only God in Greek mythology that is born to a nymph (a mortal) . Also with
Hermes we see the recurring theme of flight. Hermes is said to have wings on
either side of his head.

In Greek culture Hermes is seen as a patron of facilitating roles as
oppose to commanding roles (p.48 Hynes and Doty). Icons of Hermes were displayed
in front of houses and where roads intersect. He is seen as guiding people in
transition. Stories about him also provide comic relief and make him one of the
Greeks favorite Gods.

In Africa the Trickster we encounter goes by the name of Esu. Esu is a
great satirist and is always blamed when life plays a trick on the African
people. Esu is also great at exposing mans follies. In one story two farmers who
live next to each other decide to make a pact that they will never argue with
each other again since they are such good friends. One day Esu put on a hat that
is black on one side and white on the other. He then walks between the two
farmers. The farmers then proceed to argue about the color of the hat that Esu
is wearing. After the have fought for a while Esu returns and shows them that
they are both wrong about the hat. He turns the hat inside out and shows them
that it is red.(p.54 Euba) Esu, both symbolically and through ridicule shows the
farmers their error. Once again we see the trickster (either by example or by
tricking humans) telling people not to become too full of themselves or think
that they are somehow invulnerable in one way or another.

After reading about these three tricksters I wondered if modern culture
had any of it’s own original tricksters. Then I found one in one of my favorite
TV shows; Star Trek the next generation. The character by the name of Q’ played
by John DeLancey is a classic trickster and a good specimen for the archetype.

In Star Trek man is a constant voyage to better himself through knowledge, using
science and reason as their Gods (like Freud, they are a product of the
enlightenment philosophy). Q is as close as one can get to a God in the eyes of
the 24th century human. He is a being that exists in a different continuum than
man, but in the human continuum Q’s powers are nearly omnipotent. Here once
again we see the not quite God, not quite human nature of the trickster.

Q, as you would expect from a trickster, loves putting the arrogance of
humans in it’s place. In one episode he does just that. Seeing what he thinks is
too much arrogance from the starship Enterprise, Q decides to take the big fish
in the little pond (the Enterprise) and put it in a massive pond. Q teleports
the ship to the other end of the universe to meet some of the enemies they can
look forward to meeting. This is when they meet the Borg. The Borg are much
stronger than the humans and just when it seems that the Borg will destroy the
Enterprise he teleports them back to their end of the universe. Here we see
again how the trickster reminds humans that there are many greater powers than
them in the universe.

Now that we have seen several examples of the trickster and his ways we
have a good way to identify him and understand him. In many ways he is a
reflection of the human desire to become more than human. He is also a reminder
that humans are just that, humans. The trickster’s satire and ridicule serve as
both comic relief and reminders of our own obvious limitations as humans. He
represents all those parts of our psyche from wishing to fly like a bird to
those that wish to rule like a God. It is fascinating to study his attributes
with in a collective and within ourselves.

1. “Mythical Trickster Figures”, William J. Hynes and William G. Doty
1993 The University of Alabama Press ; Tuscaloosa, Alabama
2. “Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate”, Femi Euba
1989 Greenwood Press ; New York, New York