Religion manifests itself in a variety of ways including setting ideologies through storytelling; also known as myth. Societies use myth as a history and a guide for their culture and beliefs. Myth’s from all over the world tend to have similarities in them, whether this be through plots, motifs or characters. One example of a similar character is the trickster figure. A trickster is a character and a plot device used throughout different cultures and histories with a specific but hidden purpose. This paper will examine who the trickster is as a figure, the effectiveness of its methods and its effect on western culture specifically relating to Christian myth and popular culture.
A trickster can be qualified as any character, archetype or figure who challenges society in unconventional ways. Tricksters have been known to use different forms of comedic, ridiculous, violent, deceitful and offensive behaviour to upset the established order1. While the behaviour of a trickster may seem random or pointless, their actions have a broader purpose to them. Their antics may incite chaos into a narrative because they pick apart a society through their actions, words etc. They do not conform to what society sets as rules. Through the use of outlandish ploys, irreverent language and extreme displays of individualism they will cross boundaries. In breaking the rules, they also confirm them. “The trickster is at the same time the creator and the destroyer, giver and negator, who dupes others and who is duped himself. A trickster doesn’t know good or evil yet is responsible for both. They possess no personal values, morals, or social standards yet through his actions all values come into being”2. It is important to note that they are amoral, not immoral. Trickster tales can be seen as examples to re-affirm the rules of society or serve as a model for these rules. These stories are demonstrating what happens if the expectations laid by society go unobserved. A trickster is good and evil intertwined. They may be called by many names such as a boundary crosser, wise fool, creative idiot, mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, contradiction and a paradox. In some cultures, the trickster is thought to be sacred because they are present during a cultures transition and change. Appearing at the points of growth and change that represent the possibilities and next steps for a culture. The trickster is used in different societies myth to encompass different kinds of behaviour. Usually through comical elements to highlight important social values. They will also speak using language conveying that they carry more knowledge than they are letting on. In some narratives, they step back from instinct as well as need acting more like an all-powerful figure rather than the character they are. In Shakespeare plays the fool (trickster) would reflect the knowledge of the artist himself, they are both divided from and within a story.
The trickster has a defined role in narratives and myth. The work they do is effective for many reasons. The tricksters use of humour, and boundary-breaking is unique in the way that it affects the society to which it relates. They hold ambivalence towards society allowing them to mock without taking a specific side. They mock nearly every central belief but at the same time focus on the nature of these beliefs. Some forms of humour and comedy are used to disrupt to deal with both truth and absurdity simultaneously creating new and disrupting old realities. Hence why humour and comedy lend themselves well to trickster myths. Humour is the most effective method for this task because it criticises without personal attachment. An individual isn’t going to feel their personal beliefs have been insulted if something gets said in jest. However, it will still make them think and question what has been said vs their thoughts and opinions. “The stories they tell provide a source of cultural reflection and critical reflexivity that leaves those who consume it thoughtful but laughing”. Through what cultures do with the laughter reflects its vitality, flexibility and creativity. The type of humour they use is based heavily on truth and really “truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions”. Ideas such as ‘all men are created equal’, define cultures, ideologies etc. When in truth all those ideas are, is a decision someone in the past has made about values. Tricksters seek to point this knowledge out and force reflection in the face of hardened belief. There is a bias in western cultural against allowing humour to represent serious and important cultural info. It is for this reason that it is so interesting to look at how this myth plays into its culture.
Though the trickster is very prevalent in ancient Greek and Native American myths, it is used in a very modern context as well. As much of the western culture is based historically on Christianity, it is natural to examine the use of the trickster in this narrative. The most obvious figure to come out of Christian belief was Jesus, and he was a type of trickster. Through the telling’s of parables, Jesus upsets the status quo. He uses humour, and likeable characters to challenge the norms of society making people question the roles they accept. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story the upsets the status quo. The people of the time in which Jesus lived were used to hearing these styles of stories. The format of the stories was simple. The hero would be someone like them, a person of faith, prominent stature, ready to do the right thing. The Good Samaritan story upsets this idea. The question of who must help others inspires the answer that is the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is robbed and beaten and left on the side of a road. Two people pass by without helping, a priest and a Levite, both people one would expect to help, building anticipation for the third person. This helper is unimaginable, a Samaritan, the enemy of the people of Jesus’ audience. The Samaritan bandages the wounds and helps the man to a nearby Inn paying for him to get cared for. This story is scandalous because the people you would expect to help do not and the one person expected not to have helped you, (a Samaritan) is the hero of this story.3
A role reversal gets shown again in the story of the Prodigal Son. The three characters are the elder son, the younger son and the Father. The younger son begs for his inheritance, squanders it and returns begging for pity. When he returns, he gets greeted at the gate by his Father, who upon seeing him, runs to greet him, and celebrates his return. The Father then calls on the elder son to rejoice with them. This upset societies norms for two reasons. Both sons getting a blessing is not the norm in society. The father refused to choose and thus blessed them all. He also steps way outside of his role as a Jewish man of stature – because he runs to his son thus lifting his robes and showing his ankles, a scandalous and unrefined thing to do. He also shows emotive love for his sons – a role reserved only for mothers at this time. This man is procuring ridiculous acts, and Jesus promotes these ridiculous people himself. By propagating these kinds of stories with the pure purpose of creating an upset and going against the norms, he is creating chaos. This reversal of societies norms, where those are thought to be the worst people in society, are valued. Including women, widows, beggars, the tax collectors. This is one theme of the trickster Jesus, always challenging people to think beyond their comfort level. These stories had a more profound purpose, to push tolerance and willingness to change. When telling these stories, Jesus speaks with language that suggests he is more aware—in his narrative he has the superior wisdom because he is the son of god. Though he does not take on the role of a traditional comedic figure, this can be attributed to cultural differences through time and thus the inability to recognise any of his humour. Regardless of comedy, the purpose behind Jesus’ actions is that of a trickster.4
In modern society where religion is being transposed by spirituality and common morals, the trickster figure remains to taunt cultures. Teachings get done through different types of myth that may manifest themselves through many different mediums. A common way to endorse morals to kids is through cartoons. A well-known example of a trickster character is Bugs Bunny. Bugs over the top antics with Elmer Fud are cunning yet foolish. Elmer Fud is the hunter and Bugs is supposed to be the weak creature that is easy to overpower; though this is never really the case. In these cartoons, Bugs’ intelligence doesn’t just rival the hunters but greatly surpasses it. Their relationship and interactions change the rules and expectations of their beings. It would encourage the breaking down of stereotypes and predestined roles. Instead, these narratives highlight working with individuals. Bugs is self-aware, impulsive and mischievous, mocking authority openly. He destroys convention and promotes chaos. Another convention he deploys often is breaking the fourth wall, looking to or addressing the audience—breaking the boundaries between the tv and the audience. The cartoon is no longer something you are watching it is something you are apart of. The trickster has also manifested into many other archetypes that are in media like the trickster/eccentric mentor, the loveable rogue, etc. Each of these subsectors takes vital pieces of the trickster myth to use in a way that is beneficial to their narrative.
Tricksters also get translated into personas that people take on when they are on tv, specifically when doing comedy. Satire as a type of comedy has the express purpose to criticize through humour, much like the trickster. Tv shows like SNL or faux news commentators like Seth Meyers, John Oliver etc. seek to challenge norms through comedy5. The jokes, points and arguments made promote social commentary. The commentary they engage is one that many forms of media cannot engage in themselves. With no barrier or expectation of being unbiased, they make comments on race relations, gender stereotypes and inequality in the world. They raise relevant social questions by bringing controversial issues into the lighter playing field of comedy. At times going as far as discussing what people need to change, or pointing out that change isn’t as complicated as people make it seem. As comedians push the envelope open, new opportunities to discuss issues through jokes arise; there are attempts to provide a less Western centred media, bringing other cultures into the conversation. “This is central to the spirit of trickster discourse, the voice of the outsider and the harbinger of change.”6 The trickster persona that gets broadcasted to the public knows that if these issues aren’t brought up and discussed, they aren’t going to get solved. The importance of non-conformism is that social structure only exists based on anti-structure and boundary crossing. They are essential to the activity of activism and social life. Through history when tricksters appear it is always stressed that the trickster intends to provoke and raise questions. Tricksters intend to disrupt the norm as creators of the anti-structure. By doing this, they open new spaces for social critic. Though they may not always be the liberator, they are a precursor of change and disturbance, recreating social and cultural life.7
The role of a trickster is a prevalent one. A trickster is a character who uses rule breaking, offensive behaviour and humour help develop and change a culture. Jesus by spreading stories idolising those who did not fit in or who were demonised by society played his role as a trickster. The trickster further developed into the western culture through cartoons and comedians. While looking at the effect of a trickster, it’s clear that wherever culture may exist so will the trickster. They play an important role in the development of Western culture, society and religion and will continue to do so.
1 Kripal, Jeffrey John, et al. “Chapter 4 The Creative Functions of Myth and Ritual.” Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms, Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
2 Hyde, Lewis. Trickster makes this world: mischief, myth, and art. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
3 Scott, Bernard Brandon. Hear Then the Parable: a Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Fortress Pr., 1990.
4 Scott. Hear Then the Parable: a Commentary on the Parables of Jesus.
5 Kripal. Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms, Wiley Blackwell
6 Gardinaru, Ioan-Alexandru. “Eminar of Discursive Logic, Argumentation Theory & Rhetoric.” The Ways of the Trickster. Meaning, Discourse and Cultural Blasphemy, 2012