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TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE TRICKSTER

By Helen Lock

Trickster tales have existed globally since the earliest times, and nearly everyone recognizes a trickster when one is encountered in a story, whether it be the Monkey King stealing the Peaches of Immortality, Hermes making Apollo’s cattle walk backwards, or B’rer Rabbit pulling the stunt with the tar baby. It is not hard to account for their appeal—they are fun, for one important thing, in their anarchic assault on the status quo, although their trickery also strikes a deeper human chord. The ubiquity of tricksters in stories generated by disparate cultures emphasizes the centrality of this archetype to the imaginative self-perception of all societies. Their cultural function seems to have been reinvented in successive eras, however, so that while it is easy to recognize them, it is a lot more difficult to find any critical consensus about their essential nature: who or what they are, or can be. Contentious issues include the status of the archaic archetypal tricksters (were they mortal or divine? can a god be a trickster?), the relation of tricksters to gender and to ethnicity, and the vexed question of whether modern tricksters exist at all. In one sense it does seem entirely appropriate that these embodiments of ambiguity (no dispute there, at least) should remain so elusive. However, it is still important to address these tricky questions, because the trickster performs such fundamental cultural work: in understanding the trickster better, we better understand ourselves, and the perhaps subconscious aspects of ourselves that respond to the trickster’s unsettling and transformative behavior. I therefore propose to take up some of these disputed issues—in roughly chronological order as the trickster develops from the archaic figure of ancient folklore to the modern literary figure—in order to resolve at least some disputes: the existing literature will be examined both to dismantle false connections, and to reveal perhaps unorthodox connections that have been obscured. The aim is, like tricksters themselves, to increase the sphere of hermeneutical possibilities.

“Everywhere one looks among premodern peoples, there are tricky mythical beings alike enough to entice any human mind to create a category for them once it had met two or three. They are beings of the beginning, working in some complex relationship with the High God; transformers, helping to bring the present human world into being; performers of heroic acts on behalf of men, yet in their original form. or in some later form, foolish, obscene, laughable, yet indomitable” (Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa 15).

In this archetypal form, the culture heroes called tricksters have been widely discussed and analyzed: two representative and thorough studies, for example, are Paul Rodin’s The Trickster (1956), which focuses on the trickster in the Winnebago myth cycle, and Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (1998), which examines tricksters from a wide variety of cultures and discusses their effects on the modern artistic imagination. There seems to be fairly general agreement about the characteristics or properties of these tricky beings. According to Radin, for example, “Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. . . . He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being” (xxiii). Carl Jung, in an appendix in Radin’s volume, says further, “[T]rickster is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness. . . . He is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, and his two hands fight each other” (“Trickster” 203). In all this, says Lewis Hyde, “Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox” (7), and can thus be seen as the archetypal boundary-crosser, although here Hyde notes that “there are also cases in which trickster creates a boundary, or brings to the surface a distinction previously hidden from sight” (7).

All this holds as true for the exploits of the Winnebago trickster Wakdjunkaga as it does, for example, for the West African Esu-Elegbara, who Henry Louis Gates, Jr., says is “a figure of double duality, of unreconciled opposites, living in harmony. . . . the epitome of paradox” (30) with the “capacity to reproduce himself ad infinitum” (37). But these two examples raise a point over which there is considerably less agreement. Unlike Wakdjunkaga, the composite trickster Esu-Elegbara—and his variations throughout the African diaspora—is a divine figure: so, do tricksters belong to the world of men or gods, or neither, or both? In some respects they seem decidedly earth-bound—a strong scatalogical vein runs through many trickster tales, for instance—but at the same time they seem to have god-like transformative powers (even if the purpose of the transformation is an apparently pointless trick). Hermes, the trickster god, is one of Hyde’s primary examples of tricksters, despite Hyde’s assertion that the trickster “belongs to the periphery” and if he “were ever to get into power, he would stop being trickster” (13 fn.). Karl Kerenyi, on the other hand, in a commentary also included in Radin’s volume, differentiates Hermes from (in this case) Wakdjunkaga, or the god from the trickster, thus: “Hermes belonged to Olympus despite his office of intermediary between the higher and the lower. Not even by Winnebago standards did Wakdjunkaga become a deity equal in rank to one of the Olympians” (189). Further, “To be a god means to be the creator of a world, and a world means order. This decisive verdict can be pronounced upon Hermes. Even his loyal Winnebagos have never believed that Wakdjunkaga, the creator of a literature, could be the creator of a world” (190-1).

Of course, Hermes was not imagined as the creator of a world, either. In the polytheistic societies in which the ancient tricksters emerged, all gods were not perceived as created (or creators) equally. It may be noted that gods who act as tricksters are not central to the pantheon—they are not among the High Gods, but tend to haunt the periphery. There is often some doubt as to their claim to divinity, in fact. Loki, usually imagined as a trickster god of the Norse sagas, was not a god at all, but the son of a giant, admitted to Asgard despite his trouble-making because “for some reason never explained” (Hamilton 310) he was beloved of Odin. Hermes’s divine status is unclear at his birth (“is he an Olympian god or is he a half-breed from a single-parent cave?” [Hyde 33]); through his early exploits as a trickster, such as stealing Apollo’s cattle, he wins the admiration of Zeus (his father, his mother being a titan) and an uncontested place on Olympus. Through trickery he becomes a fully-fledged god, but his career thereafter is no more or less tricky than that of any other god: he becomes messenger of the gods, psychopomp, and, according to Plato, creator of language. Both Loki and Hermes are more sophisticated tricksters than the (at least initially) “unconscious” Wakdjunkaga, but their trickery is still associated with their more fallible human or earthly sides, with all the blunders and base motives that can entail. Yet they all have access to the gods, which is the significance of Hermes becoming the gods’ messenger: as both gods and non-gods, “bestial [or earthly] and divine,” as Jung put it, they are the ultimate go-betweens, negotiating the boundary between man and god, matter and spirit. They need the polytheistic background in which gods can preside over, and be in conflict with each other about, their particular spheres of influence, in the governance of which the transformative trickster can intervene: “If the spiritual world is dominated by a single high god opposed by a single embodiment of evil then the ancient trickster disappears” (Hyde 10). At the same time, though, tricksters need to participate in the same world as the hearers of their tales—humans whose lives are ruled by the gods, and who take delight in seeing those rules bent, broken, or circumvented, even if the result brings humiliation to the trickster. (It should be noted that many tricksters in fact take anthropomorphic animal form, such as the West African Signifying Monkey and the Chinese Monkey King, allying them even more closely with the earthly realm.) Through his negotiation with and disruption of rules and boundaries, the trickster by implication enlarges the sphere of human possibility, or at least the sphere that his human listeners can through identification with the trickster imagine to be possible for themselves. Robert Pelton says this of Eshu: “True, Eshu comes from above to the earth below. He exercises the High God’s creative and recreative energies to probe, pick apart, and reshape the social order. Yet . . . [h]e does more than to link the two great central forces of Yoruba life, the center above and within and the center beneath and without. Rather, he forms in complex association with them part of that center himself, in order to reveal it as a fully human center” (161). Trickster’s essential participation in humanity is the core of his enduring appeal, his god-like transformative powers notwithstanding.

II

Time passes. Stories continue to proliferate (orally and, increasingly, in written form) about all the tricksters mentioned above, and many others, along with the popular tales and performances of another kind of purveyor of tricks: the fool. The trickster, in fact, has been called “a special mythological form of the fool” (Willeford 132). Despite the family resemblance, though, is this seemingly reductive equation accurate?—is the trickster simply a variant of the fool, or a distinct imaginative being?

Hermes, true to one of his functions, can act as a guide here, although not in his original form. His Roman equivalent was Mercury, or Mercurius, and beginning in the Middle Ages Mercurius came to occupy a central place in the alchemical tradition. In his alchemical imagining he symbolized alchemical mercury: the double-natured transformative substance, Mercury Duplex, that was held to corrode and destroy then revive and recreate, and to be intrinsic to all matter. Jung, who wrote extensively about him, tells us, “When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver, but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter” (P&A 293). Mercurius is closest to Hermes in the latter’s incarnation as the legendary founder of the Hermetic tradition (of which alchemy was a crucial component), Hermes Trismegistos, the thrice-great, but the later figure of Mercurius is inherently associated with dualism (Mercury Duplex). This is the essence of all Jung’s descriptions of him, for instance, which sound very reminiscent of the trickster (including the capacity of hermaphrodism): “He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison yet healing draught—a symbol uniting all opposites” (P&A 295).

Mercurius has not, however, been generally associated with trickery; but he has been associated with the fool, unlikely as that initially sounds. For example, in The Chemical Theatre (1980), a study of alchemical imagery in late Renaissance drama, Charles Nicholl identifies him with Lear’s Fool, both the King’s mischievous familiar spirit and his psychopomp. “Comrade and fellow-spirit in suffering, or teasing goblin: which one is the Fool? He is. like Mercury, both: Mercurius versipellis [skin- or form-changing], the motley fool” (180). The resemblance, then, lies in transformative power, the ability to penetrate and inhabit complementary or opposing spheres, as the fool’s motley suggests. The fool is aware that, as Erasmus’s Folly said, “all human affairs . . . have two aspects, each quite different from the other; even to the point that what . . . seems to be death may prove, if you look further into it, to be life” (36). Much the same point is made by William Willeford in his study of the fool (The Fool and his Scepter [1969]), in which he sees the awareness and tensions of these opposites as rendering the fool essentially self-divided: “The curiously tentative and fluid self-identity of the fool . . . is too unstable to contain the energies released by the juxtaposition of irreconcilable qualities within the fool. Those energies spread from him into the nonfoolish world. In this way, as in others, the fool is like the alchemical Mercurius which was believed to have the power to penetrate all bodies” (140).

In this ability, then, the fool appears to share the trickster’s role as boundary-crosser, or as Karl Kerenyi put it, “the enemy of boundaries” (185). For the fool, as for the trickster, boundaries are not so much nonexistent as arbitrary (new or different boundaries can be created at will), and the comic play of his folly lies in his refusal to accept or recognize what seems self-evident to those who govern boundaries. In his negotiations with both sides of an arbitrary boundary, the fool enacts Mercurius’s role as the “magical ‘go-between’” (Nicholl 47), mediating between celestial and material, and thus comes closest to the key function of the trickster. The difference is that the fool is playing, albeit playing “seriously” in the sense of total absorption in the role—“The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid,” says Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens (1944), but play is not serious in the sense that it intends to produce results in the world beyond the game; “[i]t is rather a stepping-out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8). The jester who baits the king, the fool crowned as “Lord of Misrule,” observe strictly demarcated guidelines that confine their comic play to its own sphere, contained within the status quo. As another scholar of fools and clowns, Enid Welsford, has said, “There is nothing essentially immoral or blasphemous or rebellious about clownage. On the contrary, it may easily act as a social preservative by providing a corrective to the pretentious vanity of officialdom, a safety-valve for unruliness” (321). The fool, fundamentally, belongs to the world of orthodoxy, his comic play acting as a lubricant of the status quo.

The trickster, however, is not playing. He is not confined to his own sphere of activity, “playing the fool,” he is a trickster in the world at large. He actually is immoral (or at least amoral) and blasphemous and rebellious, and his interest in entering the societal game is not to provide the safety-valve that makes it tolerable, but to question, manipulate, and disrupt its rules. He is the consummate mover of goalposts, constantly redrawing the boundaries of the possible. In fact, the trickster suggests, says Hyde, “a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action” (204). Unlike the fool, the trickster aims to change the rules of the “real” world; he is the lowly outsider who is at the same time powerful enough to transform and reconstitute the inside, or indeed to obliterate the existence of “sides.” As Jung said of Mercurius, who was assuredly not playing, “It is of the essence of the transforming substance to be on the one hand extremely common, even contemptible . . . but on the other hand to mean something of great value, not to say divine” (P&A 134). Despite parallels with the fool, Mercurius is much more closely allied to the trickster (and seemed such to alchemists, who found him, in the apparently deliberate elusiveness of his ambiguities, “the object of much puzzled speculation” [P&A 66]). Like him, the trickster pushes the limits of the unorthodox in order to transform reality—and as such is distinct from, in many respects the opposite of, the fool.

III

It cannot have passed unnoticed that all the tricksters discussed so far have been male. Indeed, the relation between tricksters and gender has been a vexed question in recent scholarship. For example, Lewis Hyde devotes an appendix to explaining why, in his view, “All the standard tricksters are male” (335); his argument is not that female tricksters do not exist, but that they fail to fully meet the definition because they either lack “an elaborated career of trickery” (335), or they are essentially male tricksters become briefly female (as Wakdjunkaga does when he marries a chief’s son, for example). On the other hand, Lori Landay, in Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con-Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture (1998), cites Scheherazade as an example of a premodern female trickster (although Hyde would presumably claim that she only employs a single trick, albeit 1001 times), along with figures such as the Native American Yellow Woman (about whom the same case—an unelaborated career of trickery—might arguably be made). Hyde does also make the point, as have many others, that the gender of the anthropologist or folklorist recording stories—in earlier times, mostly male—reflects the nature of the stories the recorder is told.

However, both Landay and Jeanne Rosier Smith, in Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature (1997), which focuses on women writers, make the crucial point that tricksters are culturally specific. In the patriarchal societies that produced the archetypal tricksters Hyde discusses, the very qualities that enabled the trickster to operate belonged culturally to men, or, as Landay puts it, “[I]n a sexist society, the male trickster clearly has the advantages of masculinity: mobility, autonomy, power, safety” (2). These advantages are in themselves gender-neutral, but are gendered by cultural association. Trickster is not gendered—only cultural perceptions of the freedom and mobility necessary to be trickster. Thus, premodern tricksters were imagined as primarily masculine, though with gender-changing abilities, while the alchemical age saw Mercurius as fully hermaphroditic (representing also the “female aspects of matter” [Nicholl 32] as part of his elusive ambiguity), but gave this transformative spirit the masculine name of the god whose powers they perceived it to embody; and now, particularly in modern Western literature and culture (although such figures abound elsewhere, also), Landay and Smith find many female trickster figures, from Toni Morrison’s Pilate to Catwoman. Each age redefines the trickster it needs, as the boundaries of the possible, in this case for women, continue to shift; and although Hyde may be right that there are no modern tricksters in the sense of the archaic archetype that depended on a world of polytheism, it seems more appropriate to say that tricksters have always resisted the confinement of archetype, and modify and transform it whenever a new age gives them a chance.

Some constants remain, of course, such being the nature of archetype. One of the most important recalls the trickster’s differentiation from the fool: the trickster is not playing. Not just any rogue or anti-hero can properly be termed a trickster. The true trickster’s trickery calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organized, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends). In this regard it is not surprising that innovative uses have been made of the modern incarnation of the trickster in American novels produced by writers of dual ethnic or cultural backgrounds, in whose worlds boundaries have continually to be mediated and assumptions challenged.. Gerald Vizenor, for example, explores in his work the world of the “crossblood” of mixed Native American and European ancestry, like himself, exemplified in each novel by a crossblood trickster, the narrative of the novel being effected through what Vizenor calls “trickster discourse”: “the trickster is comic nature in a language game, not a real person or ‘being’ in the ontological sense” (Trickster of Liberty x). Since for Vizenor the trickster is constituted linguistically, trickster discourse is the process whereby language negotiates the boundaries of the crossblood’s world, deconstructing the fixed, authoritative beliefs and definitions that Vizenor has called “terminal creeds” (Bearheart xiv). The trickster hero of Vizenor’s Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987), for example, finds that “now and then his trickeries on rough paper are cornered in popular cliches and institutions, abused by those who vest their personal power in labels and tickets to the main events. When this happens . . . he pleats and doubles shrouds and veronicas, creases photographs, fold brochures, dictionaries, and menus, to weaken the plane realities” (201-2). In so doing, he shifts and disguises the boundaries, undoes and redraws the traditional connections. For the crossblood, “terminal creeds” have typically given rise to the kind of definitive ethnic markers that divide the world rigidly into “sides,” and demand to know which side you are on. The crossblood trickster, however, is on both sides at once, and in any case questions the received definition of “sides.”

The trickster is in fact the perfect vehicle to undermine the “terminal creeds” that rigidify into overdetermination or stereotype, since his/her essential nature, in the absence of ontological “being,” cannot be stable—is, indeed, both self-contradictory and self-engendering; like Mercurius, the trickster is the transformative agent who can penetrate all matter and reconstitute it anew, and is also the process by which this occurs. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., says of the Signifying Monkey, “he is technique, or style, or the literariness of literary language, he is the Great Signifier” (54); similarly, Robert Pelton emphasizes “Legba’s mastery over the inner language of the human self” (113). The trickster’s transformations in the literary context are effected through the medium of language, which is where his/her self-engendered being (if we recall the trickster’s early role as originator of language) resides. The trickster’s linguistic world thus operates according to his/her own rules, which—being devised by a trickster—are made precisely to be broken, to keep signification evolving and vital. Vizenor’s tricksters, then, like those found in work by Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and many others, work to transform the limitations and boundaries of language in ways that can have real-world consequences for the ethnic American, beyond the confines of a language game. The uses to which such a strategy can be put are exemplified perhaps most succinctly in Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” in which both white and black stereotypes are destabilized to the point that distinctions between them disappear, revealing both their meaninglessness and the social consequences of the false assumptions on which they are based.

It would seem that with Vizenor’s work, we have reached the postmodern trickster, and in fact in their playfulness, manipulation of language, and truth-eluding ambiguity, tricksters have often been held to embody (before the fact, as it were) many of the same characteristics as postmodernism. The self-reflexivity associated with the latter, however, is absent in the ancient “unconscious” trickster, like Wakdjunkaga, whose hands fought each other and who was unaware that his anus was part of his own body. The contemporary trickster, by contrast, is largely self-aware, unlike his/her archaic counterpart. “[T]he pressures of experience produce from that somewhat witless character a more sophisticated trickster . . . who knows that the sign of something is not the thing itself” (Hyde 171), and who thus, embodied in language, can consciously work to reconfigure the network of signs. Or as Jung put it, more simply, “Only when his consciousness had reached a higher level could [trickster] detach the earlier state from himself and objectify it, that is, say anything about it” (“Trickster” 202). Vizenor’s tricksters, for example, continually comment on their trickster status; Wittman Ah Sing, hero of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey (1987), declares, “I am really: the present-day U.S.A. reincarnation of the King of the Monkeys” (33); while in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1966), “The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah” (90) is a self-identified trickster.

Once again, a new age brings a transmutation and a new repertoire of tricks. In fact, we may now have reached the stage of ultimate ambiguity, where the trickster’s self-awareness and self-reflexivity call into question even what is a trick and what is in earnest, or on what side of the boundary truth lies, if indeed there are any more “sides” or any unequivocal truths. Lewis Hyde might be describing the postmodern trickster: “With some polytropic characters, it is possible that there is no real self behind the shifting masks, or that the real self lies exactly there, in the moving surfaces and not beneath” (54). Paradoxically enough, this may be the ultimate boundary, or final frontier, of possibility: when all possibilities can be both entertained and discounted, and tricksters become so elusive that they disappear, as by a magic trick, into the ambiguity of the text itself.

Works Cited

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. 1511. Trans. Hoyt Hopewell Hudson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1941.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: OUP, 1988.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. 1940. New York: Mentor, 1969.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. 1944. N.p.: Beacon, 1955.

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.

Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. 1944. Vol. 12 of The Collected Works. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1968.

—. “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Radin 195-211.

Kerenyi, Karl. “The Trickster in Relation to Greek Mythology. Pt. V: His Difference from Hermes.” Trans. R.F,C. Hull. Radin 188-91.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. New York: Vintage, 1987.

Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper, 1966.

Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” Confirmation. Ed. Amiri and Amina Baraka. New York: Morrow, 1983. Rpt. in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2. 5th ed. Ed. Nina Baym et al. New York: Norton, 1998. 2077-92.

Nicholl, Charles. The Chemical Theatre. 1980. New York: Akadine, 1997.

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. 1956. New York: Schecken, 1971.

Smith, Jeanne Rosier. Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Vizenor, Gerald. Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart. St. Paul: Truck P, 1978. Rpt. as Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.

—. Griever: An American Monkey King in China. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

—. The Trickster of Liberty. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1988.

Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. 1935. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1966.

Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Their Audience. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1969.

© 2002 Helen Lock


Helen Lock did her BA at Liverpool University, England, and her PhD at the University of Virginia. She is now an associate professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where she teaches and writes on American, African American, and ethnic literature.

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