Humanities Information

The Trickster of Folklore

Folklore includes a traditional trickster figure, the subject of many stories in a cycle. Trickster tales are in the animal tales genre, with the trickster himself -- he seems always to be male -- identified with a particular animal. These include the fox in Japan, mouse deer in Southeast Asia, the coyote and the spider among the Native Americans, the tortoise and spider in West Africa, and the mantis in Southern Africa.

These tales feature a trickster-hero who may be regarded as both creator god and innocent fool, evil destroyer and childlike prankster.

Tricksters are usually small in size next to the large, strong animals that appear in the same folktales. Tricksters survive by their wits, but they do more than just survive. They constantly play tricks on the animals around them, outwitting and mistreating their powerful neighbours even when these larger animals haven't done anything to deserve it. Occasionally he overreaches himself and finds that he's been too clever for his own good.

It's the Trickster who points out the flaws in our carefully managed societies. He rebels against authority, pokes fun at the overly serious, creates complex schemes and generally plays with the Laws of the Universe. He constantly questions the rules, and causes us to question these same rules. The Trickster appears when a way of thinking becomes outmoded, when old ways need to be changed.

The Trickster is a creator, a joker, a truth teller, a story teller, a transformer. We are most accessible to the gifts of the Trickster when we ourselves are at, or near, boundaries - when we are experiencing transition states. As an archetype, the Trickster, the boundary dweller, finds expression through human imagination and experience.

Trickster tales are great favourites in many cultures. They represent the underdog who uses skill and cunning to outwit a superior. West African trickster animals have a significant presence in the New World, when they travelled as part of the folklore of enslaved Africans. The rabbit is best known as Br'er Rabbit in the folktales documented by Joel Chandler Harris in the USA. We also find him in his modern avatar, Bugs Bunny !

The spider is best known as Anansi, and you find him throughout the former English and French colonies of the West Indies.

The role of the slave trickster tales was an important one giving a sense of pride and hope for the future. They showed that the weak could conquer the strong. The tales were devices that taught helplessness can triumph over virtue and mischievousness is better than malice. For the slaves, trickster folklore was also a weapon by which they were able to take subtle revenge on their masters.

Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant, grief counsellor and mythologist. She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic functions, and specialises in celebrations for women.

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