The trickster is not a person, a character or a motif, but rather a metaphor for change. In myths and fairytales, it stands for controversial or even negative things: chaos, rebellion, foolishness, failure, roughness and rudeness, lack of stability and control, irrational and uncivilised behaviour. Mythological tricksters are famous for their stupidity: they cannot control their body, they steal, they blunder, they break taboos and disregard prohibitions, they eat things that are not supposed to be eaten. And they always manage to challenge those in power - something none of us normal people aware of our mortality would do: Prometheus steals fire from the gods of the pantheon, Loki kills Baldr (the god of light and purity), and North American tricksters variously enrage local gods, chiefs and giants. For these transgressions, tricksters are often locked up in caves, chained to rocks, stuffed into bottles where they stay for centuries, or restrained in other ways. Often they lose their magical abilities and simply become human, like the North American trickster Wakdjunkaga from the Winnebago cycle. Becoming human, fully joining the social order and having to deal with reality is the worst type of 'imprisonment' a trickster could endure.
The trickster is neither an entirely negative nor a totally positive phenomenon, but a force that stirs up change within systems and structures. In other words, it stands for innovation and movement within an organised framework, be it a social order, a family, an organisation or a single mind. Tricksters introduce chaos into order because it is important that any system remembers the fact that it is an artificial construct lest it becomes despotic and rigid. Meanwhile, uncontrolled, unpredictable change is as perilous as stagnation, hence the motifs of imprisonment and restriction. The trickster’s childish impatience, its rapture and joy, its determination to break out of the narrow frame into which he was placed by the system, are all linked to the desire to become oneself – a psychological and intellectual entity that is independent from the social structure.
What tricksters defy, in fact, is the very notion of 'normality': we are only as normal as our society tells us we are. Norms and rules are defined by those in power; those holding positions of authority. We do not question them, but people playing the role of the trickster do. These people can be artists, writers, inventors, comedians, rebels or even revolutionaries. Creative individuals make particularly good tricksters because they strive to say something new, and to introduce the products of their creativity into society. In this sense, creativity is dangerous because it has the potential to alter the social order. That is why certain political orders, such as the Soviet Union or contemporary China, have limited creative people's rights to induce havoc in the social and political rigidity.
A trickster is someone who raises his or her voice in the crowd of 'yes men', like Sophocles's Antigone, and announces the unpalatable truth that 'the emperor has no clothes'. This is a stupid thing to do indeed, because one cannot predict the reaction of the authorities one has exposed. Structures and systems do not like exposure, challenge or change. But then again, the trickster is a fool. He never thinks about the consequences, but only about the truth.
Yet, structures are also important, as long as they are questioned and challenged. As anyone who is terrified of flying will confirm, we do not want ‘an accidental’, unpredictable impulse to govern out world. Children of modernity, we want to feel safe in the increasingly tricksterized, fragmenting world. We want to rely on the transport system to get us to work every morning. We want to know that, in case of a serious disaster, man-made and well-organised structures such as the police, healthcare system and fire emergency services will respond effectively and on time. We want to live in the world in which criminals are punished and aggressive impulses are not openly expressed. We expect people to control their sexual instinct in public because we do not want to be harassed or raped. Modern public places are complex and dangerous, as is the hectic modern life, which means that our behaviour should be regulated by a number of social protocols. In other words, we are supposed to subscribe to the Kantian Imperative which forms the moral base of any Western society. We want to feel protected and looked after, and the trickster impulse is certainly not a ‘good enough parent’ (to use Winnicott’s term), for its aim is to destabilize – not to soothe or to protect.
The trickster or the system would not survive on their own. The system contains the trickster, and the trickster keeps the system alive. The key is to find a balance between two.
Attributes of the trickster
Most trickster narratives (mythological, literary or cinematic) share a number of stock themes and motifs which serve as the backbone for the plot:
1. Being Trapped
Physical entrapment in narratives is an allegory of control and order. It symbolizes the structure’s desire for being in charge. The trickster that is not controlled is a menace as, unrestrained and therefore unpredictable, it can damage or even destroy the system.
Tricksters are notorious boundary-breakers. In myth, folk tales and literary and cinematic narratives they cross all kinds of boundaries, from physical (such as property borders) to metaphysical (for instance, sacred cultural values and taboos). Metaphorically, this means that the trickster has no respect for the structural aspect of the social.
Shapeshifting is closely linked to the issues of shame and identity, while the theme of resurrection metaphorically represents the individuating, identity-making component of the trickster impulse.
4. The Name
Another common moment which trickster narratives tend to share is preoccupation with the way human identity is formed. Tricksters – as they are pre-conscious creatures – are often obsessed with their name and status. The trickster’s name (or names) is his passport into the world.
Tricksters tend to be madly, unstoppably creative. Often their creative activities are linked to the birth of the world. Their creativity is not human – not directed, conscious and framed – but spontaneous, wild and random. It is the opposite of the system in that it is free and unframed.
6. Loss of Control
On the one hand, the trickster’s psyche and body are so fluid that he does not always have control over them. On the other hand, he can play tricks with human beings and cause them to lose control over their minds and bodies. The ‘loss of control’ metaphor renders the idea of the interdependence of consciousness and the unconscious. The undercivilized trickster is silly and childlike, and therefore can be easily deceived; but the very adult-like ‘consciousness’ can become so confident in its over-inflated ‘wisdom’ and ‘maturity’ that its vision becomes dangerously narrow.
7. The Trickster’s Dissolution
In many trickster tales – and this is particularly noticeable in large cycles containing a series of trickster transformations – the trickster spirit is dissolved at the end of the narrative. After the creative, chaotic unconscious energy has been woken up for the purpose of disrupting the stale (personal or social) order, it must go back to its dark wellspring.
8. The Trickster and Sex
Another prominent feature of the trickster is his obsession with sex. Because he is a shapeshifter and breaker of taboos, he is capable of having sex with virtually any object. For the trickster, sex is a very vague notion and is certainly not subject to control or prohibitions – or even the strictest taboos. Most cultures have a catalogue of ‘indecent’ fairytales containing the sexual adventures of rogues and fools.
Scatology is a regular guest in trickster tales. This kind of basic humour – alongside sexual references – is another fundamental way of deflating the system and dragging it off its high horse. It works because the trickster is unaware of the shameful aspect of all things scatological.