The trickster is a common character in mythology and in certain religious traditions, especially but not exclusively the animistic – spirit based – religions of Africa and Native North America. Typically male, the trickster usually has extreme appetites for food and sex. He is immoral, or, at least, amoral, and he is, more often than not, a thief. Yet he often uses his inventiveness to help human beings and is sometimes, in effect, a culture hero. Often his inventiveness interferes with creation, however, and causes such realities as pain and death. The trickster is a shape shifter. He can change shapes at will and, in that sense, is perhaps a mythological relative of the shaman.
In the ancient Greek religion, Hermes, as a child, has trickster aspects, as, for instance, when he steals Apollo’s cattle. In India, the great man-god Krishna, the most important of the avatars of the god Vishnu, constantly plays tricks – some of a sexual nature – as when he steals the clothes of his bathing female followers. In these cases, however, the trickster aspect seems to reflect essential inventiveness and creativity and points to later more important achievements. The same is true for stories of tricks played by the boy Jesus in some of the apocryphal gospels.
More typical tricksters are those such as the Native American Coyote and Raven and the African Anansi (the spider). The fact that these figures take animal forms coincides with their unbridled appetites. Coyote is an expert seducer of women and he constantly steals food from others more needy than himself. The West African Anansi even steals the high god’s daughter. Like Hermes and Krishna, these tricksters are highly creative, but their creativity almost always causes trouble for themselves or others.
Tricksters such as Erlik in Central Asia are often close to the creator and manage, while pretending to help, to undermine creation, allowing evil in. In this sense, Satan, in the Abrahamic tradition, is a trickster. A fallen angel, once close to God, enters the new creation – Eden – as a serpent and uses his natural guile to infect that creation with sin – sin immediately associated with sexuality.
The trickster is a clear representative of an id-dominated ego untempered by superego. He is the narcissistic child, whose physical appetites are uppermost in importance. Jung saw the trickster as “an earlier, rudimentary stage of consciousness” (1969, p. 141) and an expression of shadow, the primitive, irrational “dark side” of the unconscious, but also, in his creativity and inventiveness, as a hint of a later positive figure who takes form, like the Great Hare of the Native American trickster tradition, as a culture hero savior.
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