Carl Jung’s explanation for the archetypes that surface in cultural and religious literature is that they are the product of what he calls the collective unconsciousness. That thread of consciousness connects all human beings 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 and comparing them to each other and our own. Studying it reminds us that all humans are bound together by a common source.
The “Trickster” is an archetype that surfaces in many cultural and religious stories. Each trickster is unique to its own culture, but all tricksters are bound by certain characteristics no matter what religion they show up in.
Anthropologists would argue that each trickster should be evaluated in its own cultural setting, but in order to see their archetypal value, they must be and can be evaluated as a group.
Jung would say he is a manifestation of our own collective unconscious. Evidence to support such a claim was found by psychologist John Laynard.
In his research on schizophrenia, he found the qualities of the trickster surfacing in the disorder (p.54 Euba). This suggests that the Trickster is within all of us just sitting on the borderline of conscious and unconscious thought.
So who is this Trickster? He has many forms both human and animal. His physical form seems to be particular to each religion. The best way to view a trickster is by his personality. “[He is] Admired, Loved, venerated for his merits and virtues, he is represented as thievish, deceitful, parricidal, incestuous, and cannibalistic.
The malicious practical joker is deceived by just about anybody; the inventor of ingenious stratagems is presented as an idiot; the master of magical power is sometimes powerless to extricate himself from quandaries.” (p.67 Hynes and Doty). The trickster seems to be a comedy of opposites.
For every good aspect of his persona, there is an equal and opposite aspect. In religious stories, his role is very diverse. He is the breaker if taboos. He provides comic relief to a religious myth. And he will pull off elaborate schemes to teach a moral lesson or expose the folly of men.
The Trickster shares many attributes with man. In Native American stories, he takes the form of the coyote. He is earthbound, like man, but is constantly trying to transcend this fate. He is always attempting to fly (which is the sign of a god to the Native Americans) with disastrous consequences.
No matter how hard he tries he cannot escape the human condition. Perhaps these stories are meant to teach Native Americans not to aspire to be anything more than human.
The Trickster can be seen as a parody of the Shaman, or the spiritual leader of the tribe. The Shaman looks to the supernatural for his strength while the coyote relies on his own wits.
The coyote is always looking for a shortcut. Through meditation, the Shaman is said to be able to fly. This is a sign of his divinity. The coyote always has an elaborate scheme for flight, like hitching a ride with a buzzard, but the end is always the same. ( p.87 Hynes and Doty)
Does this character sound familiar? Millions of kids grew up with this very same character, but we knew him as Wile Coyote. The Looney Toons character was always after the Road Runner.
The creators of him were interested in the comedic value they saw in Native American stories and adapted him into a cartoon. Wile would come up with some elaborate schemes, but in the end, the result 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. Once again we see a sort of bridge between the average man and the gods. Hermes is the only God in Greek mythology that is born to a nymph (a mortal). Also with Hermes, we see the recurring theme of flight. Hermes is said to have wings on either side of his head.
In Greek culture, Hermes is seen as a patron of facilitating roles as opposed to commanding roles (p.48 Hynes and Doty). Icons of Hermes were displayed in front of houses and where roads intersect. He is seen as guiding people in transition. Stories about him also provide comic relief and make him one of the Greek’s favorite Gods.
In Africa, the Trickster we encounter goes by the name of Esu. Esu is a great satirist and is always blamed when life plays a trick on the African people. Esu is also great at exposing man’s follies. In one story two farmers who live next to each other decide to make a pact that they will never argue with each other again since they are such good friends.
One day Esu put on a hat that is black on one side and white on the other. He then walks between the two farmers. The farmers then proceed to argue about the color of the hat that Esu is wearing. After they have fought for a while Esu returns and shows them that they are both wrongs about the hat. He turns the hat inside out and shows them that it is red. (p.54 Euba)
Esu, both symbolically and through ridicule shows the farmers their error. Once again we see the trickster (either by example or by tricking humans) telling people not to become too full of themselves or think that they are somehow invulnerable in one way or another.
1. “Mythical Trickster Figures”, William J. Hynes and William G. Doty
(c) 1993 The University of Alabama Press ; Tuscaloosa, Alabama
2. “Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate”, Femi Euba
(c) 1989 Greenwood Press ; New York, New York