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What Are the Roles of Tricksters in Mythology?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tricksters in mythology can take on a number of different roles, depending on the myths about them, though they are typically involved in activity that is outside the norm. A trickster is typically a male figure who tricks or fools others, often both gods and mankind, and who may be benevolent, amusing, or malicious. They can be wise despite their foolish behavior, and often use wit or cleverness to best characters much stronger or braver than they are. Tricksters in mythology can usually change form, sometimes even changing gender and switching between human and animal, and commonly represent disorder and lawlessness.

One of the most common roles of tricksters in mythology is that of a prankster who lives up to his name by playing tricks or fooling others. There are a number of stories in African mythology, for example, of trickster figures such as monkeys, spiders, and hares fooling powerful figures such as lions and playing tricks on them. These stories are like others in a number of cultures in which the trickster figure seems to delight in proving himself smarter than others and plays pranks merely for the fun of doing so.

Sometimes, tricksters in mythology can act in a way that is benevolent for humanity, often despite the desires of the gods or others in power. The figure of Prometheus in Greek mythology, for example, can be seen as a trickster because he stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Similarly, in Native American mythologies, the trickster coyote stole fire to give to humanity. In this way tricksters in mythology often act as figures who behave in ways outside what is approved by those in power, serving as role models for rebels and non-conformists.

Tricksters in mythology can be quite malevolent, however, sometimes acting as both a merry prankster and a villain. Loki in Norse mythology, for example, is sometimes a friend to the gods and his antics are ultimately not destructive. In other stories, however, Loki is responsible for the death of one of the most noble and beloved gods in the Norse mythos, and ultimately allies against the gods at the end of the world. These stories allow tricksters in mythology to represent both the good and the evil that can be caused by wit and intelligence, as well as the unpredictable destructiveness of nature.

There are a number of tricksters in mythology who can change form, even gender, to represent the formless nature of chaos or change. Modern readers of ancient myths often see these figures as emblematic of entropy and the unending deterioration of the world around us. Tricksters are often wise and intelligent, yet act foolishly and seem to be without self-control. This can be seen as the equivalent to a court jester or comedian, who may use foolish actions to hold a mirror up to the rest of the world and allow others to laugh at themselves.

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