Karl Jung’s explanation for the archetypes that surface in cultural andreligious literature is that they are the product of what he calls thecollective unconsciousness. That thread of consciousness that connects all humanbeings 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 andcomparing them to each other and our own. Studying it reminds us that all humansare bound together by a common source.The “Trickster” is an archetype that surfaces in many cultural andreligious stories.
Each trickster is unique to it’s own culture, but alltricksters are bound by certain characteristics no matter what religion theyshow up in. Anthropologists would argue that each trickster should be evaluatedin it’s own cultural setting, but in order to see their archetypal value theymust be and can be evaluated as a group. Jung would say he is a manifestation ofour own collective unconscious. Evidence to support such a claim was found bypsychologist John Laynard. In his research on schizophrenia he found thequalities of the trickster surfacing in the disorder (p.54 Euba). This suggeststhat the Trickster is within all of us just sitting on the borderline ofconscious and unconscious though.
So who is this Trickster? He has many forms both human and animal. Hisphysical form seems to be particular to each religion. The best way to view atrickster is by his personality. “He is Admired, Loved, venerated for hismerits and virtues, he is represented as thievish, deceitful, parricidal,incestuous, and cannibalistic. The malicious practical joker is deceived by justabout anybody; the inventor of ingenious stratagems is presented as an idiot;the master of magical power is sometimes powerless to extricate himself fromquandaries.” (p.67 Hynes and Doty). The trickster seems to be a comedy ofopposites.
For every good aspect of his persona there is an equal and oppositeaspect. In religious stories his role is very diverse. He is the breaker iftaboos. He provides comic relief to a religious myth. And he will pull offelaborate schemes to teach a moral lesson or expose the folly of men.The Trickster shares many attributes with man. In Native Americanstories he takes the form of the coyote.
He is earthbound, like man, but isconstantly trying to transcend this fate. He is always attempting to fly (whichis the sign of a god to the Native Americans) with disastrous consequences. Nomatter how hard he tries he cannot escape the human condition. Perhaps thesestories are meant to teach Native Americans not to aspire to be anything morethan human.The Trickster can be seen as a parody of the Shaman, or the spiritualleader of the tribe. The Shaman looks to the supernatural for his strength whilethe coyote relies on his own wits. The coyote is always looking for the shortcut. Through meditation the Shaman is said to be able to fly.
This is a sign ofhis divinity. The coyote always has an elaborate scheme for flight, likehitching a ride with a buzzard, but the end is always the same.( p.87 Hynes andDoty)Does this character sound familiar? Millions of kids grew up with thisvery same character, but we knew him as Wile Coyote. The Looney Toons characterthat was always after the Road Runner. The creators of him were interested inthe comedic value they saw in Native American stories and adapted him into acartoon.
Wile would come up with some elaborate schemes, but in the end theresult 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. Onceagain we see a sort of bridge between the average man and the gods. Hermes isthe only God in Greek mythology that is born to a nymph (a mortal) . Also withHermes we see the recurring theme of flight.
Hermes is said to have wings oneither side of his head.In Greek culture Hermes is seen as a patron of facilitating roles asoppose to commanding roles (p.48 Hynes and Doty). Icons of Hermes were displayedin front of houses and where roads intersect. He is seen as guiding people intransition. Stories about him also provide comic relief and make him one of theGreeks favorite Gods.
In Africa the Trickster we encounter goes by the name of Esu. Esu is agreat satirist and is always blamed when life plays a trick on the Africanpeople. Esu is also great at exposing mans follies. In one story two farmers wholive next to each other decide to make a pact that they will never argue witheach other again since they are such good friends. One day Esu put on a hat thatis black on one side and white on the other. He then walks between the twofarmers. The farmers then proceed to argue about the color of the hat that Esuis wearing.
After the have fought for a while Esu returns and shows them thatthey are both wrong about the hat. He turns the hat inside out and shows themthat it is red.(p.54 Euba) Esu, both symbolically and through ridicule shows thefarmers their error. Once again we see the trickster (either by example or bytricking humans) telling people not to become too full of themselves or thinkthat they are somehow invulnerable in one way or another.After reading about these three tricksters I wondered if modern culturehad any of it’s own original tricksters.
Then I found one in one of my favoriteTV shows; Star Trek the next generation. The character by the name of Q’ playedby 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, usingscience and reason as their Gods (like Freud, they are a product of theenlightenment philosophy). Q is as close as one can get to a God in the eyes ofthe 24th century human. He is a being that exists in a different continuum thanman, but in the human continuum Q’s powers are nearly omnipotent.
Here onceagain 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 ofhumans in it’s place. In one episode he does just that. Seeing what he thinks istoo much arrogance from the starship Enterprise, Q decides to take the big fishin the little pond (the Enterprise) and put it in a massive pond. Q teleportsthe ship to the other end of the universe to meet some of the enemies they canlook forward to meeting. This is when they meet the Borg. The Borg are muchstronger than the humans and just when it seems that the Borg will destroy theEnterprise he teleports them back to their end of the universe.
Here we seeagain how the trickster reminds humans that there are many greater powers thanthem in the universe.Now that we have seen several examples of the trickster and his ways wehave a good way to identify him and understand him. In many ways he is areflection of the human desire to become more than human. He is also a reminderthat humans are just that, humans. The trickster’s satire and ridicule serve asboth comic relief and reminders of our own obvious limitations as humans. Herepresents all those parts of our psyche from wishing to fly like a bird tothose that wish to rule like a God. It is fascinating to study his attributeswith in a collective and within ourselves.
Bibliography1. “Mythical Trickster Figures”, William J. Hynes and William G. Doty1993 The University of Alabama Press ; Tuscaloosa, Alabama2.
“Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate”, Femi Euba1989 Greenwood Press ; New York, New YorkCategory: Religion