Trickster Essay, Research Paper

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.

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

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