The trickster is the embodiment of lawlessness and paradox. He is a divine buffoon, a hero who breaks taboos, a rebel, a coward, and a creator. Trickster helps establish social rules, and he deliberately flouts them. He is commonly depicted as deceitful and humorous. He is amoral, rather than immoral, and he has a voracious appetite for food and sex. In his traditional and mythic incarnations, he is almost always male. As the supreme boundarycrosser, trickster is always between classifications– between what is human and what is animal, between what is cultural and what is natural.
Native American tricksters tend to be associated with animal spirits (such as Coyote, Rabbit, or Raven). Their tales are both sacred myths and simple folk tales. Among the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, the trickster's name is Old Man (Crow and Blackfoot), Iktomi (Lakota), and Veeho (Cheyenne). The most common incarnation of the Plains trickster, however, is Coyote.
In his various (and strikingly similar) cultural guises, trickster is the self-indulgent clown who dupes women into having sex with him; he steals food from his industrious neighbors; he cross-dresses and becomes temporarily a woman; he dies and is reborn. As expected, his tomfoolery frequently backfires. He juggles his eyes and loses them in a tree; he accidentally sleeps with his wife; he drowns in his own feces; he uses his enormous penis to attack a chipmunk (who in turns bites his penis off to "human" size). Further, trickster is a cultural hero. In some narratives, he creates the Earth; he creates animals or substantially alters their bodies; he steals tobacco from the gods; and, more recently, he tricks the white man.
Symbolically, the trickster is always located at the periphery of the community (though, importantly, never totally separated from it). From this "outer" vantage point, trickster reveals "inner" communal structures. His very presence determines the limits of social boundaries. Trickster thus serves as a political tool with which to subvert (or endorse) social practices. Indeed, trickster continually offers us the possibility of transcending (or renewing) social codes. As such, trickster is arguably an incarnation of creativity itself. At the very least, trickster allows us to poke fun at the powers that restrain us. He reveals the structure of social structures and offers us glimpses of new (and terrifying) world orders. Not surprisingly, many contemporary authors use tricksterlike characters as creative forces that both define and critique dominant cultural practices.
Ultimately, the trickster is disturbing, not because of his difference but because of his lack of difference. As purely a cultural construct, the trickster's body is a cultural body–our body. He is always a part of us, and he exists only to be interpreted. And when we interpret trickster, we interpret ourselves. Even though we often attempt to alienate ourselves from the trickster–by making his body grotesque, indistinguishable–wherever we are, there is trickster, laughing at what we've become.
Anthony Farrington University of Arkansas at Monticello
Babcock, Barbara. "'A Tolerated Margin of Mess': The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered." In Critical Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985: 153–84.
Ballinger, Franchot. "Living Sideways: Social Themes and Social Relationships in Native American Trickster Tales." American Indian Quarterly 13 (1989): 15–30.
Radin, Paul. The Trickster: a Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.