Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


The trickster is a recurrent figure or archetype in world mythologies, folklore, and literature.

The Trickster was a popular concept in late 20th-century literary criticism. The concept remains popular among students and less specialized audiences for emphasizing familiar transgressive figures who reappear with some similarity across multiple cultures

Danger of concept: Appeals to archetypes and trans-cultural unity may disrespect cultural differences. Apparent resemblances across cultures may rise from distinct motivations and serve distinct purposes.

Online definitions / descriptions:

The Trickster



Examples from Mythology:

Norse mythology: Loki, god of mischief

African American folklore: Brer Rabbit

Hindu mythology: Krishna . . .  Baby Krishna stealing butter, young Krishna seducing the Gopis

European folk tales may feature tricksters in the form of crows, ravens, foxes (usually clever animals)

Native American folklore: Coyote + rabbit

Greek mythology: Dionysus


Other folk examples:

Anansi of West African Ashanti people > "Aunt Nancy"

Monkey or Monkey King of Chinese mythology

Iktomi in Dakota Sioux legend (Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories)

Muslim folktales: Nasreddin

Vodun or Voodoo: Baron Samedi

Nanabush or Nanabozho of Ojibwe American Indians (Gerry Nanapush is a character in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine) (Nanapush)


Literary examples:

Puck in Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream

Reinhart in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Odysseus in The Odyssey (trickster + culture hero)

Huck in Huckleberry Finn, maybe the King and the Duke

White Rabbit & Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland:

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Christopher Moore, Coyote Blue

Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (1857) + "Bartleby the Scrivener"

Gatsby in The Great Gatsby

Dr. Tamkin in Seize the Day

Lord of the Rings: Gollum?

Woody Allen

Charlie Chaplin

Beatnik characters in life and literature: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, Burroughs

Classical Greek literature: in New Attic Comedy, the figure of the "Graeculus" or "little Greek," a crafty, charming rogue of a slave



Pop-culture examples (mostly from students):

Bart Simpson of The Simpsons

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck in Warner Brothers cartoons

Steve Erkel of Family Matters

The Joker and The Riddler in Batman, the Green Goblin in Spider-Man

Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean (played by Johnny Depp)

Dave Chapelle

Chris Rock

Jimmie J. J. Walker of Good Times

Lucy in I Love Lucy

Roseanne of Roseanne

Gracie Allen of Burns and Allen

Eric Cartman from South Park

The Mask (Jim Carrey, who's always a trickster)

Old TV shows: Dr. Smith in Lost in Space; Eddie Haskell in Leave it to Beaver

disruptive sidekicks; cf. The Fonz in Happy Days

Gilligan and Maynard G. Krebs

Newman on Seinfeld

Luanne on King of the HIll

Madonna? chameleon quality, always upsetting

Ray Romano's mother--instigates problem, racy mother-in-law

Ashton Kutcher

Johnny Depp

Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bette Midler

Characteristics or style of Trickster:

Trickster disrupts normal hierarchies and rules of everyday or official behavior, either through cleverness or foolishness.

Tricksters often appear as pranksters or mischief-makers.

Sexual disruption—cuckolding or same-sex action

"flamboyant gay" as trickster in recent American culture—flouts rules but usually can't be caught (e.g., Nathan Lane character in The Birdcage)

May combine with "culture hero" concept—e. g. Prometheus stealing fire from gods and raising humanity from beast-status

Tricksters often play roles in Creation / Origin Stories (e.g. Serpent in the Garden of Eden?)

Sex as trickster impulse in human nature

Plus other body functions: adolescent boys making farting / belching noises in museums, church, etc.

Application to minority or multicultural literature:

outsider figures; excluded parties or styles

participation threatens or overturns hierarchies

Upsides of trickster concept:

trans-cultural concept, "archetype" that tends to show up in diverse human cultures; therefore a supposed unity in human cultures regardless of direct influence--compare language acquisition as molar growth

puts a creative value on disruption, even destructionfor the new to emerge, the old has to be exposed and degraded.

especially younger students may relish this idea; can also teach older learners and teachers the potential value of people who don't fit in and won't submit quietly

Potential downsides of trickster concept:

A topic, subject, or motif may become so universal as to become meaningless.

But . . .

The trickster has a way of rejuvenating itselfjust about the time the concept has lost life or become boxed in, it escapes and overthrows the formulas . . . .


Personal example: students who drive me crazy

Initial reaction: stamp them out, drive them away, make them submit!

That initial reaction gains nothing > subsequent attitude or approach:

What potentially worthwhile value is the student trying to express, even in distorted or deformed ways?

What weaknesses or blindnesses in my own assumptions is s/he threatening? (After all, it's me who's going crazy--what's my problem?)

> creative value for disruption; especially younger students may relish this idea; can also teach older learners and teachers the potential value of people who don't fit in and won't submit quietly.

Danger of expanding application of trickster concept:

Can validate antisocial behavior to extent that this figure may overshadow or crowd out consideration of other worthy character types.



Problem: Jews may be great comedians now, but limited sense of humor in Bible. 

Samson? episode of burning Philistine crops by tying torches to foxes' tails? (Judges 15.4-5)

Joseph, son of Jacob in the Old Testament? (e. g., "coat of many colors" can sound like "motley" or clownware. Also, consider how Joseph keeps working his way out of uncomfortable situations as potentially humorous. Also, Joseph is not typically listed among the Judaic patriarchs, possibly indicating an in-between status.)

Is Satan a trickster in Genesis creation story?


women tricksters?

Superman < Lois Lane?

Heroines in Shakespeare's comedies, e. g. Viola in Twelfth Night, change identities through cross-dressing, often gently disrupting and exposing the assumptions of the governing society.


Note Coyote (trickster) totem on handlebar

thanks to