Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms

Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms

by William J. Hynes (Editor), William G. Doty (Editor)

See All Formats & Editions

Editorial Reviews

Most cultures have some kind of "trickster figure." This collection of scholarly essays examines the diverse manifestations and uses of the trickster phenomenon across a wide range of cultures. Through exploring the complex structures of trickster myths, a variety of tricksters--from the coyote of the American Southwest to the Greek Hermes--are described and interpreted. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Judaic Studies Ser.
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.35(h) x 0.94(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mythical Trickster Figures

Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms

By William J. Hynes, William G. Doty

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8285-8



William J. Hynes & William G. Doty

Well, I tell you dis, ef deze yer tales wuz des fun, fun, fun, en giggle, giggle, giggle, I let you know I'd a-done drapt um long ago. —Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus stories, cited by Lawrence C Levine, "'Some Go Up and Some Go Down': The Meaning of the Slave Trickster."

Almost all non-literate mythology has a trickster hero of some kind. American Indians had the great rabbit and coyote, the ravens, and blue jay. And there's a very special property in the trickster: he always breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation. He's both a fool and someone who's beyond the system. And the trickster hero represents all those possibilities of life that your mind hasn't decided it wants to deal with. The mind structures a lifestyle, and the fool or trickster represents another whole range of possibilities. He doesn't respect the values that you've set up for yourself, and smashes them. —Joseph Campbell, in An Open Life

Brer Rabbit, cited in our first epigraph, is just one of many intriguing trickster figures. For centuries, perhaps millennia, and in the widest variety of cultural and religious belief systems, humans have told and retold tales of tricksters, figures who are usually comical, yet serve to highlight important social values. They cause laughter, to be sure, as they profane nearly every central belief, but at the same time they focus attention precisely on the nature of such beliefs.

The diversity and complexity of the appearances of the trickster figure raise doubt that it can be encompassed as a single phenomenon. Perhaps just such diversity and complexity help explain why three decades have lapsed since the first comprehensive portrait of the trickster appeared, in Paul Radin's The Trickster (1955). The number of studies of individual tricksters has grown, and the range of trickster phenomena is now such that many scholars argue against a generalizing, comparativist view. Others of us have continued to argue that there are sufficient inherent similarities among these diverse figures and their functions to enable us to speak, at least informally, of a generic "trickster figure."

In the editors' perspective as well as that of many of the contributors, we seek to build upon Radin in a critical manner. While we acknowledge the inherent difficulties in speaking about such a complex figure, we steer a course between those who see the trickster as so universal a figure that all tricksters speak with essentially the same voice and those who counsel that the tricksters belonging to individual societies are so culture-specific that no two of them articulate similar messages. Consequently, in contrast to Radin and his fellow essayists, Carl Jung and Karl Kerényi (Radin 1955), we do not argue for archetypal roots in a transcendental human psyche, and we are less interested in origins than in cultural manifestations. But in contrast to a number of contemporary social scientists, the essays here generally do represent the belief that important aspects of a "trickster figure" can be identified across several different cultures. The fact that trickster phenomena contain similar features in several societies leads us to examine comparative social functions, psychological mechanisms, literary traces, relationships to religious systems, and ritual transformations.

This book presents a variety of tricksters set within their specific sociocultural settings across a wide variety of cultures. Some of the tricksters to be encountered include the African Ananse, Eshu, and Legba; Western tricksters such as Hermes, Saint Peter, and Herschel; Native American figures such as Coyote, Wakdjunkaga, and Manabozo; and such Asian tricksters as Susa-noo, Sun Wuk'ung, Agu Tampa, and Horangi. Readers will find many examples of trickster episodes in this book, appearing across a wide range of contexts.

Published collections of African or Native American tales usually include segments devoted to the trickster, and an inclusive collection of trickster tales ranging worldwide would require several volumes (Apte 1985: ch. 7 provides a convenient summary of trickster tales). The figure is central in many European materials and in the Orient, but because trickster myths are focal in nine of the eleven Native American regions (Bierhorst 1985: 17–18), contemporary American scholarship in particular ignores the figure at the risk of irrelevance.

Here is a sample tale, involving the Southwestern trickster, who is often Coyote:

Hearing a strange sound coming from an old elk skull, Coyote looks inside and finds a village of Ants (or Wasps) having a Sun Dance. He makes himself small in order to get inside the skull and see better, but presently his body returns to normal size and his head is stuck inside the skull.

He wanders into a village and announces, "I am holy; I have supernatural power; you must give me something!" The awe-stricken people pass him in a procession, marking him with pollen as is customary in that region [as a blessing]. But the last person in line is a smart aleck boy who is carrying a stick behind his back. When he reaches Coyote he brings the stick down with all of his might across the old elk skull, and it cracks and falls off. "That's what you should have done long ago," Coyote tells them, "but instead you wanted too much supernatural power" (Lipan Apache, cited by Ricketts 1964: ch. 8: 18, from Opler 1938b: 169–70).

What does such a story "mean"? Such a question should address initially two sorts of contexts. The first is the specific, local, tribal, historically bounded context that is the province of the ethnographer, the historian of a particular religious tradition, or the critic studying micro-level manifestations of a particular behavior. But there is a second context, less studied today than previously, and that is the broader context of what seems to be the wider phenomena of general human cultural expression. Essays in this book heed the former, but they also engage the latter context, the query directed toward the widest significance, and broadest frame. Here the disciplines of the humanities have long been at home, and here lie the distinctive contributions of this volume.

In some curious ways representative of conservative social teachings, tricksters appear primarily at the points of growth and change that represent "the exponent of all possibilities" (Toelken and Scott 1981: 89). Their stories provide a fertile source of cultural reflection and critical reflexivity that leaves one thoughtful yet laughing; and what a culture does with laughter reflects its vitality, flexibility, and creativity. Certainly humans often take themselves too seriously, a foible Oscar Wilde hit squarely when he suggested that such an attitude "is the world's original sin" (Pearson 1946: 196).

Essays in this volume respect the laughter, as they trace the elusive trail of trickster figures through a number of religions and cultures, myths and histories, individuals and societies. We have sought to go beyond such widely recognized materials on the trickster figure as the essays in Paul Radin's The Trickster (1955), Mac Linscott Ricketts's 1966 article on "The North American Indian Trickster," and Robert Pelton's 1980 book, The Trickster in West Africa, by presenting data from a wider range of cultures and by approaching them through the views of specialists from several disciplines.

In this initial chapter we introduce some of the developments leading to a volume such as this. We glance at some of the methodological issues in trickster studies, anticipating chapter 2. And we begin reflection on the problematic attitude toward comic figures typical of our own culture—we reject the common assumption that if something is comical or entertaining, it cannot represent socially significant material. After naming some of our biases, we provide an overview of the contributions to the book.


Anyone attempting to study tricksters faces significant methodological issues. For example, at one extreme one finds colleagues trained in Jungian psychology talking about the the trickster as a universal archetype to be encountered within each of us and in most belief systems. At the other extreme, some anthropologists have called for the elimination of the term "trickster" altogether because it implies that a global approach to such a figure is possible whereas they find it appropriate to focus only upon one tribal or national group at a time (see Basso 1987, and Beidelman 1980—reprinted as chapter 11, this volume).

Although these methodological issues are raised in a distinctly contemporary manner, they are in fact classical in substance, inasmuch as they form part of traditional epistemological debates about universals and particulars. The West has witnessed such debates from the time of Plato and Aristotle, on through the medieval struggles between the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas and the nominalism of William of Occam, through nineteenth-century controversies about idealism and realism, and more recently in Wilhelm Dilthey's distinctions between the methods of the natural sciences and those of the human sciences. The underlying question is whether we can attain general knowledge or only knowledge of particular cases.

We appreciate the cautions contributed by some of our social science colleagues who advise us to study only particular belief systems and the testimony about the meaning of those systems elucidated by persons from within these systems. At the same time we also take seriously advice from other colleagues who find hints of common ground and similar human experience among very diverse belief systems; although accepting such advice, we still reject any simplistic universalism that would assert the existence of universal knowledge on the basis of only one or two systems. We also reject being limited solely to particular cases. Hence we oppose a nominalism that holds any given particular to be so radically individual and different from all other particulars that there can be no similarity between particulars and that general knowledge is therefore fundamentally impossible. Surely no one today is prepared to agree with the fourteenth-century William of Ockham and the subsequent severe-rationalist position that each human being is so distinctively individual that we cannot speak at all about "humankind"!

Nineteenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey attempted to resolve some of the dichotomies when he distinguished between the methodology of the natural sciences, in which a general rule is established only by the repeated confirmation of the particular, and the methodology of the human sciences (which he calls the sciences that deal with "Geist," the human spirit that cannot always be limited to the rule of the particular). How the two approaches complement one another remains to be resolved by the academic disciplines. The one point of view is captured in Beidelman's citation (1980: 27) of Evans-Pritchard (1963: 16): "any claim to universality demands in the nature of things an historical or psychological explanation, and thereby defeats the sociological purpose, which is to explain differences rather than similarities." The noted Renaissance historian G. R. Elton represents the other side of the issue in terms of his own scholarly craft: "Meaningful interconnection in the particular, illuminating generalizations beyond the individual case—these are the marks that distinguish the inspired and inspiring historian" (1969: 126).

In this volume we attempt to tack back and forth from the particularities of specific tricksters within their respective belief systems, on the one hand, and the meaningful interconnection between particulars and elucidating generalizations, on the other hand. One tack counterbalances the other. We believe that the reader will gain here an understanding of both particular and more universal characteristics of the trickster (more technical discussion of these issues appears in chapter 2).

Given the particular methodological tangle that attends studies of anthropological themes or issues today, some may wonder at our temerity in presenting this collection of essays. At an anecdotal level, several of our colleagues have been amused that an academic vice-president and a former department chairperson would focus upon a figure famous for outlandish ploys, irreverent language, and extreme displays of individualism. Likewise more than once we confronted the suggestion that our analysis must be suspect because we or our readers might enjoy the materials too much! But through our charting of matters tricksterish, we came to appreciate fully the Renaissance dictum serio ludere—play seriously! We find a direct ratio between the degree of seriousness attending a given belief and the degree of laughter and play necessary to hold the first in check. (We discuss trickster-laughter further in chapter 2.)


The rude mockery, even scatology, present in trickster stories is not simply anti-religious or anti-social criticism. As Brian Street notes in the case of the Zande trickster Ture, the trickster tales "can be seen as moral examples reaffirming the rules of society; or rather they serve as a model for these rules, demonstrating what happens if the prescriptions laid down by society are not observed" (1972: 85). Street suggests that we ought not to exclude entirely the possibility that such figures may voice anti-social feelings, insofar as the trickster often represents the obverse of restrictive order (86–90), but we must remember that tricksters or cultural clown-figures are not, as they would be considered in our culture, individually motivated deviants, but socially sanctioned images or performers (Tyler 1964: 195–96). John Bierhorst (1987) recognizes the moralistic, social-sanctioning aspect of trickster materials in his collection of Coyote tales for children when he concludes each one with an Aesop-like moral saying.

So far this introductory chapter has already highlighted some reasons for carefully heeding trickster materials: they are often entertainments involving play or laughter, but they are entertainments that are instructive. Tricksters map for some societies just how one "ought" to act just as formal moralists inform members of a Western society about proper roles, but tricksters are not stuffed shirts in the bargain: indeed tricksters are comical if not marginal figures, and they represent sacred beings in some cultures, but not in others (Bierhorst 1985: 13). There may be moralistic instruction, as when the myth-history by which approved behaviors have come about is recited; or when deviant speech patterns on the part of the principle characters signal that they are transmitting specifically heightened information (emphasized by Beidelman 1980: 31).

Ellen Basso's In Favor of Deceit: A Study of Tricksters in an Amazonian Society (1987) has taken seriously Beidelman's advice to focus upon specific analysis of trickster language. Basso claims that her "discourse-focused and socially contextualized" study is the first "to show the connections between the content of trickster stories, their tellings, and lives as actually lived" (3–4), although Anne Doueihi has analyzed one text where "there is a flagrant juxtaposition of the discursive, signifying aspect of the narrative and the referential, signified aspect of the text as story" (1984: 284). Earlier, more global approaches are being supplemented today with more specific context-respective analyses that take into account the full narrative and performative textures of the tellings.

Besides presenting examples of trickster tales in various contexts, and the ways these tales are interpreted variously, we suggest that such study of mythical materials is useful within our own contexts: frequently the breaching and upending process initiated by tricksters in their challenges to the accepted ways of doing things highlights the possibilities within a society for creative reflection on and change of the society's meanings. (See the extensive study of "nonsense," Stewart 1979, and of the modern "outsider" figure, Wilson 1956, as well as Babcock-Abrahams 1975 on marginality and 1984 on clowning, and 1978—a strong collection of essays on social revisioning.)

Barbara Babcock-Abrahams's sympathetic account reveals just how such stories promise to expose dimensions of human creativity: "As Trickster travels through the world, develops self, and creates for mankind haphazardly, by chance, by trial and error without advance planning, he reenacts the process that is central both to perception and creation, to the constant human activity of making guesses and modifying them in light of experience—the process of 'schema and correction'" (1975: 181). A similar comment by Ellen Basso, applied to questions of the functioning of human intelligence, reinforces such "real world" aspects in trickster materials: "The very attributes that make such tricksters inventive heroes and clownish fools in the first place are, after all, natural necessities of human intelligence, operating in practical, concrete face-to-face relations that people negotiate all the time, sometimes with considerable immediacy" (1987: 8; cf. 183–84, on Taugi's intelligence). As examples of trickster figures surface across the essays in this book, these observations by Babcock and Basso will be illustrated many times.


Excerpted from Mythical Trickster Figures by William J. Hynes, William G. Doty. Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews