Article Series: Tricksters in Literature, Part 1 of 5
Perhaps the most well-known trickster at present is Loki, the Norse Trickster god, thanks in large part to Tom Hiddleston’s brilliant portrayal of Loki Laufeyson in the blockbusters Thor and The Avengers. These films portray Loki as a scheming and manipulative, yet still sympathetic, character. But what was the real Loki like? And by “real,” I mean the Loki from Norse mythology rather than the character portrayed in popular media, which is meant to simply entertain.
Loki, Norse Trickster God
"LOKI" by Anna Khlystova (Spiritius) Spiritius
To answer that question, we must first understand what a trickster is and the role tricksters play in the mythologies of various cultures. Essential to this understanding of the universality of tricksters is the fundamental knowledge of archetypes.
The Trickster is one of psychologist Carl Jung’s most widely known archetypes. As defined by Jung, an archetype is a concept or model contained in the part of the unconscious mind that is common to all human beings, known as the “collective unconscious.” In other words, archetypes are the unconscious ideas that all humanity inherits, and these ideas transcend time and are found in the mythologies of all cultures.
Archetypes are important because these unconscious roles are universally found in all cultures and are useful in the analysis of mythology, literature, art, and religion. (1) The Trickster archetype can be seen as an allegorical figure that illustrates ideas about the humans’ place in the world. Thanks to Jung, the Trickster archetype provides “insight into not only the literary conventions of a society, but also its deepest mores and mass psychological characteristics.” (2)
Now that we understand what an archetype is and the function it serves, let’s explore the Trickster archetype in particular. In an overview for a mythology and folklore course, Margaret F. Crawford from the Houston Teachers Institute quotes Jean Hardy:
“The archetype of the Trickster…is the existence of the unexpected as it appears
in every human society, sometimes fully acknowledged, sometimes feared and
hidden. He is the opposite of order – but then he is opposite of everything… He
upsets normality and hierarchic order… He can change the expected world, and
therefore be an agent of transformation.” (3)
The trickster’s role in mythology is specifically to hinder the progress of the hero and generally to cause trouble. A perfect example of a mythological trickster is Loki. The trickster’s role in folklore is a little different as he is roguish and cunning, surviving the obstacles and dangers of the world with defense mechanisms of deception and trickery. He uses unconventional methods to elude adversaries with the aid of his shrewd intellect. Examples of tricksters in folklore are the Coyote and Raven spirits of Native American culture. (4)
There are several characteristics that are common to most, but not all, tricksters. Tricksters are: ambiguous, amoral, almost always male, deceitful, shapeshifters, culture heroes, self-serving, solitary, less physically imposing, and boundary-crossers. (A more detailed list can be found here: fav.me/d5fpa2)
As you can see from the list I compiled (fav.me/d5fj0xx), there are dozens upon dozens of fascinating trickster characters in various cultures; now that we have covered the most common characteristics of tricksters, let’s briefly meet a few of the trickiest tricksters in mythology and folklore: Loki from Norse mythology, Eris and Hermes from Greek mythology, and Coyote and Raven spirits from Native American folklore.
Loki is one of the best-known and, judging by the characteristics and the archetype of the Trickster, greatest tricksters in mythology. Proof of his ability to manipulate others is the fact that he was a giant, a jotunn, but managed to make his way into Asgard among the Aesir through his charismatic charm and wits as well as a close relationship with Odin, who had a deep respect for his cunning ways and slick tongue. (5)
Loki exemplified nearly all of the common trickster characteristics. His original/true form was male, and he was a shapeshifter and a boundary-crosser. Snorri Sturluson recounted in his Edda (ca. 1220 AD) how Loki transformed into a mare, crossing the boundaries of both form and gender at once, to lure away the stallion Svaðilfari and later gave birth to the eight-legged Sleipnir. He was often depicted as being less physically imposing that Thor, Norse god of thunder, who was a friend and sometime adversary. He was amoral, playing the gods against one another without thoughts of morality, and he was deceitful and self-serving, using his sly tricks to wreak havoc on the gods to achieve his own ends and for his own entertainment. Loki was also ambiguous; at times his tricks seemed to be harmlessly entertaining, while at other times he is malevolently cunning. His ambiguity is evidenced by the fact that not even scholars can agree on the correct depiction of him. Folklorist and linguist Jacob Grimm called Loki a god of fire, equating him with Prometheus and culture heroes, while others perceived him as a “typical” trickster god. (6)
Loki, bound until Ragnarok
* "Loke och Sigyn" by Marten Eskil Winge (1863)
Again and again, Loki tricked his way into trouble and had to think quickly to trick his way back out again. There was the time he thought it would be fun to cut off all the beautiful hair of Sif, Thor’s wife, and had to make a quick promise to get her hair that was even better to escape his wrath. Loki promised his head to the dwarf who could make the finest treasures for the gods (including Sif’s new hair, Thor’s hammer Mjollnir, and Odin’s spear Gungnir) and said dwarf sewed his lips shut when he realized he had been tricked. Or there was the time he attempted to steal Freyja’s necklace Brisingsamen, stole Mjollnir only to have to steal it back, and caused the disappearance of the goddess Idunn with her golden apples of eternal youth and their return through his trickery.
Ultimately, Loki was too clever for his own good, as most wise fool tricksters are; the trickery that led to Balder’s death was the final straw to the Aesir and sealed his fate. He tricked the blind god Hod into shooting Balder with mistletoe, the only entity that had not sworn an oath not to harm him, and Balder was killed. For his punishment, Loki was bound underneath the earth by the entrails of his children and a serpent was set over him to drip venom into his eyes until Ragnarok. It is said that earthquakes are caused by his thrashing when the venom drips on him every time his wife Sigyn must empty her bowl of the poison it catches. The last laugh is going to be on the Aesir when Ragnarok rolls around, however, when Loki breaks free and fight on the side of the giants against them. (7)
While many females may appear to be tricksters, most use their beauty and sex appeal to manipulate others while only a very few females actually use cunning wits and deception; the most well-known of these are Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Eris.
Eris (whose Roman name is Discordia) is the Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord. By some accounts, she is the daughter of Nyx (Night) and by others, she is the sister of Ares, god of war (which would possibly make her a daughter of Zeus); one of her favorite pastimes was to join Ares on the battlefields of the mortals and delight in the bloodshed and bitterness she rained down on both sides of the battle. Her wrath was said to be relentless, and not even her fellow Olympians wanted her around to ruin their fun with her troublemaking. This was the reason that she alone was not invited to the forced wedding of Peleus and Thetis which everyone else from Mt. Olympus attended. She decided to teach them a lesson by tossing the Apple of Discord into the party labeled Kallisti (“To the Fairest One”), which sparked argument between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them was the fairest. The chain of events led to the Judgment of Paris, which initiated the Trojan War, and you can bet that Eris enjoyed every second of all of it. (8)
Eris, Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord
"Eris" by GENZOMAN GENZOMAN
Hermes, messenger of the gods
"HERMES - GREEK GODS PROJECT" by isikol isikol
Hermes, Greek god of transitions and boundaries and god of thievery, as well as messenger to the gods, started his life as a trickster quite young…barely out of his cradle, in fact. According to mythology, as an infant Hermes used a lyre he made from a tortoise shell to steal Apollo’s oxen by herding them backwards to cover his tracks, and Apollo was so amused that he could not stay angry. Hermes also played a part in the punishment of humanity for accepting Prometheus’s gift of fire through Pandora; his gift for her box was lies, seductive words, and dubious character, and he was the one who delivered her to Epimetheus as his wife. Homer and Hesiod portrayed Hermes as a benefactor of mortals and the author of deceptive acts; a Homeric hymn to Hermes petitions him as one “of many shifts (polytropos), blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates…” He was also the father of Autolycus, Prince of Thieves, to whom he taught all of his tricks. As a god of transitions and boundaries, Hermes was able to move freely between the worlds of the mortals and the divine, a characteristic of the boundary-crossing trickster. (9)
Coyote is possibly the most famous trickster in Native American culture, seen most prominently in the Southwest. He is part human and part animal, able to take whichever shape he pleases. As with most Native American tricksters, Coyote combines the sacred with the entertainment because, as John Lame Deer said, tricksters “are sacred [because] we Indians also need their laughter to survive.” (10) He is another example of the wise fool as he is often outwitted by other animals (i.e., rabbits, birds, and even a donkey). As a trickster, he is often portrayed as greedy and insatiable. (11) In some stories, he is known as a creator or “Old Man Coyote” in which, like the Native American Prometheus, he brings fire and daylight to the earth and arranges the sun, moon, and stars in their places. In this way, as well as the way in which he is sometimes said to have arranged the land and fought monsters (with the aid of the Spirit Chief), he is perceived as a culture hero. In other stories, he is simply a messenger. He nearly always provides entertainment, usually with an added dose of trickery. (12)
"Magic Winds" by Laura Airey (MorRokko) MorRokko
* "The Twa Corbies" by Arthur Rackham (ca. 1919)
Raven is the prominent trickster in Pacific Northwestern Native American culture. There is a recurring theme of Raven as king, and his constant search for food is a metaphor for his insatiable sexual appetite. (This is true for Coyote as well.) He is the manifestation of the self-serving trickster, whose deeds are primarily to serve his own needs; he punishes those who oppose him even when he performs a good deed.
This is illustrated in the story in which he brings to the earth. He could not fish because light had not yet come to the world and it was too dark to see, so he impregnated the daughter of the Sky Chief with a cedar leaf into which he had transformed so that he could gain access into the Sky Chief’s home. Upon birth, the baby (Raven) manipulates the family into trusting him with the box of daylight, and he returns to the earth where he transformed back into his true raven form. On his way, he meets the Frog people who refuse to give him food, so he crashed the box against the rocks and released the daylight into the world, so that the Animal people could see to hunt and fish, but causing the demise of the Frog people at the same time. (13)
For further reading about tricksters, visit this website en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickste… or just Google your favorite trickster's name.
Next article: Tricksters in Folktales and Fables