Thursday, September 19, 2013

Trickster Stories

The trickster archetype is abundant in the world's myths and legends, and examples are found in traditional folklores from every continent. The trickster is a being who defies the laws of men, gods, and nature through acts of deception, often with beneficial results for the wider world. The deceptions may paradoxically serve to affirm or rebuild the normal order of things, and may take the form of pranks, larceny, or malicious lies which lead others into danger or even death. Many tricksters are shapeshifters, and often even change genders. In general, the trickster belongs to the realm of myth or fable rather than of everyday life, swindling gods and vexing talking animals. The trickster may himself end up being deceived by those he sought to trick, but in many stories his deceptions are more successful.

Perhaps the most famous trickster in world folklore is Coyote, who appears in this role in the legends of many different American Indian tribes. (Other tribes have other tricksters, such as the Raven in many parts of the pacific northwest, who also plays the role of creator god.) Coyote is also often presented as a buffoon, failing to heed advice, and when he does play tricks (most often to catch other animals he hopes to eat), they are only seldom successful. One Apache story, for example, has him catching a rabbit by deceit, pinning it to the ground, but then the rabbit offers to tell him how a wildcat had carried him home under his arm once. Coyote is eager to try this out, and agrees to loosen his grip on the rabbit so it can breathe well enough to describe the technique, at which point the rabbit slips from his grasp and escapes. (This story, of course, has shades of the European tale of the rooster Chanticleer, who is caught by a cunning fox who is immediately chased by all of Chanticleer's friends. Chanticleer comments that they will never catch up in a hundred years, and persuades the fox to call back and taunt his pursuers; when the fox opens his mouth to do so, Chanticleer flies away.)

In West Africa, the trickster character is Spider, best known in the west by the Ashanti name Anansi. Anansi can appear as a spider or as a man, and all the stories in the world belong to him, a distinction he earned by buying them from the sky god with four animals he had captured by tricking them in four entirely different ways. The last of the four involves making a doll out of sticky pitch, which his quarry considers rude for its refusal to say anything and strikes it, exactly as in the American story of Br'er Rabbit and the tar-baby. (This story may very well have been derived from the Anansi tale, as it was first collected among former slaves of West African descent; the rabbit as a trickster originates with the Bantu-speaking peoples of southern Africa, and the various regional African cultures came into close and prolonged contact in the New World as a result of the slave trade.)

In Europe, perhaps the best-known pure trickster figure is Loki. While modern popular culture often imagines Loki as an enemy of the other gods, he is in truth on whatever side of a conflict is best served by his deceptive nature, and this often involves helping the gods; in one story, he arranges for Thor to disguise himself as Freya in order to steal his hammer back from the giants, while in another, Loki prevents a man from building the walls of Valhalla in a single year (and thus rescues the gods from having to make good on their promise to pay him with the sun, the moon, and Freya's hand in marriage) by transforming himself into a mare and seducing the builder's horse. Loki returns pregnant, and later gives birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

The Greeks and Romans had their own trickster figures in Pan and Faunus, respectively, but with the arrival of Christianity, these gods all faded. In Christian teaching, the role of the supreme deceiver is reserved for Satan, and portraying Satan in the sympathetic light found in most trickster stories was not an option. Instead, the trickster character archetype found its way into animal fables as Reynard the Fox, about whom I will post a great deal more in the future, or was reduced from its mythic stature and brought into the realm of human life. The latter type, we see in Robin Hood (whose disguise as an old man to take part in an archery contest is still one of the best-known of his exploits, and was a popular one from the very beginning), in the hero of the Icelandic Króka-Refs Saga (whose name, perhaps not coincidentally, translates as "Fox the sly"), and in the German character of Till Eulenspiegel.

While many of the tales of Till Eulenspiegel (whose name is perhaps most idiomatically rendered in English as "Till the Asswipe") are sanitized so they can be told to children, they were originally all scatological in nature, with the hero playing tricks that culminate in farting or taking a dump in various inappropriate places. In one, Eulenspiegel is apprenticed to a farrier, and is put off by the smell of the pelts; when he complains, the farrier tells him that the smell is only natural, and if he does not like it, he should never have been apprenticed in the fur trade. Eulenspiegel lets out a terribly smelly fart, which (he assures the farrier) is far more natural than the smell of the pelts; when the farrier tells him that, nonetheless, if he is going to fart like that he should do so outside, Eulenspiegel says it will do no good, as it is cold outside and farts like warm places (which, he says, is always why they rush straight for the nose, going as they will from one warm spot to another). These stories take a consistently comedic tone, in contrast to many tricksters; Robin Hood's deceptions and robberies engross the listener, but are not meant to cause laughter, and Reynard the Fox is not merely a liar but a notorious perpetrator of more serious crimes against the other beasts.

Today, we continue to keep the trickster confined to more realistic scenarios, but we continue to celebrate the dashing and deceptive thief through numerous heist films, which often show crimes that rely far more on cunning than does the average robbery in reality. It is this very cunning which exalts the criminal from his roguish base nature into the ranks of legend; if Daniel Ocean had robbed three casinos with an army of thoroughly-armed men, his story would not have been so well-loved as to prompt a remake, but when he and his band steal a fortune without shedding a drop of blood and then through some mishap cause it to all be set on fire, we hold them in the esteem that attaches to the greatest tricksters of yore. There is, quite simply, something about the archetype which we are unable to escape.

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