Everyone loves a good trickster. I know I do. As a kid who struggled in P.E. class and didn’t have the charisma of the popular kids, I liked that I was at least clever. When I read about tricksters, it showed that a quick mind could win against the strongest giant or the most powerful god.
Most of us know about the more popular tricksters in myth and lore: Hermes, Loki, Brer Rabbit, etc. Today, I’d like to shine a spotlight on those that don’t get as much attention by sharing a few trickster tales.
If you’re as big of a fan of Neil Gaiman as I am, you may be quite familiar with Anansi. I loved him in my favorite book, American Gods, and in the fantastic book Anansi Boys. The great thing about Anansi is there’s a seemingly endless list of stories he’s involved in. Starting with the Ashanti people of Ghana and brought to America through the oral tradition of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, his fables taught valuable lessons and explained why the world works the way it does.
Anansi, being the cleverest creature in the area, was rich and owned a great deal of fertile land. Chameleon, on the other hand, struggled to feed himself with the few crops he yielded on his land. One day, Chameleon lucked out and plentiful rain brought him the finest harvest while Anansi’s crops withered from drought.
This made Anansi mad, and he resolved to take Chameleon’s land. At first, he tried to do it the ethical way, by offering to buy it. Chameleon refused. So, one dawn-break, Anansi snuck over to Chameleon’s property to steal his crops, but his plan failed when Chameleon chased him away. That’s when Anansi noticed that Chameleon leaves no footprints, and this gave Anansi an idea.
Anansi took Chameleon to court to sue him for stealing his land. He claimed that Chameleon’s land had always belonged to Anansi. “Why look,” he said. “Do you even see Chameleon’s tracks on this land? No, you only see my footprints.” Unfortunately for Chameleon, the Chief believed Anansi and granted him Chameleon’s land. God saw this injustice, however, and blessed Chameleon with a clever plan.
Chameleon dug a hole in such a fashion that when you looked down at it, it seemed small, but it actually reached very deep. It was a veritable cavern. Then Chameleon fashioned himself a cloak of vines and flies. The light hit the cloak in such a way that the flies no longer looked like themselves, but seemed to sparkle on the vines.
Chameleon visited Anansi who was so enamored with Chameleon’s cloak that he offered a trade. Chameleon said, “You can have it. Just have your sons fill up a small hole with food, and the cloak is yours.” Anansi agreed and took the cloak.
While Anansi’s sons kept filling up this “small hole” that turned out to be very large, Anansi gifted the cloak to the Chief. Yet the vines fell apart and the flies fluttered away, leaving the Chief naked in front of everyone. The Chief, angry with the trickster now, ordered Anansi to give all his lands to Chameleon, who had already fooled Anansi into filling his “small hole” with all the food in his cupboards.
The moral of this story is not to be greedy and also not to rest on your laurels. As clever as you may be, someone may be even trickier.
Gluskabe is a trickster from the Algonquin-speaking Wabanaki people. Gluskabe is a hero to humanity, creating all the helpful things. His evil brother Malsum, however, created all the things that hurt people like snakes and stinging insects.
- When a giant monster stole all the water in the world, Gluskabe got it back and turned the monster into a bullfrog.
- Gluskabe freed all the rabbits in the world from the prison made by the Great White Hare, providing food for people.
- Gluskabe worked hard to keep balance in the natural world. He kept the birds from creating storms with their wings and disliked how white people exploited earth’s resources.
There was once a man afraid of dying, so he decided to travel to the Island of Gluskabe to wish for eternal life. Along the way, he met a poor man who wanted to wish for more possessions than anyone else. So, they traveled together. Along the way, the two men met another man who was very vain about his height but wished to be the tallest man in the world. The three men met a man who had little skill as a hunter. He wished to be a great hunter so that his family and village would have enough to eat. So, the four men traveled together to tell Gluskabe their wishes.
Their journey was not easy. In the story, they have to overcome great odds to reach the Island of Gluskabe, but eventually they do. Because they survived such a difficult journey, Gluskabe promised to grant each of them one wish.
The first man said, “I wish to live forever.”
The second man said, “I wish to have more fine possessions than any man in the world.”
The third man said, “I wish to be the tallest man in the world.”
The fourth man said, “I don’t have a wish for myself. I just want to be a great hunter so I can feed my family and village.”
Gluskabe smiled at the fourth man, clearly favoring him more than the others, but gave each of the four men a small pouch. He told them, “When you open the pouch, your wish will come true, but only if you wait until you are in your village and in your own lodge.”
The men traveled back to their own land from the Island of Gluskabe. The first man who wished to live forever, thought to himself, “I’m going to live forever. So, why should I be afraid to open my pouch before I get to my village?” So, he opened the pouch and immediately transformed into stone.
The man who wished to be the richest of all traveled home in a canoe, and as he paddled, he couldn’t stop thinking of all the fine possessions he would have. So, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek inside his pouch. The moment he did, endless treasure came out of the pouch so quickly, the canoe couldn’t contain it and great quantities sank into the river. Then the canoe, heavy with the man’s wish, sank as well. The man himself, overburdened with heavy things like pots and pans, drowned in the river.
The man who wished to be the tallest man ever got to the edge of the village and thought to himself, “I want to enter the village taller than any man they’ve ever seen.” So, he opened the pouch and turned into a pine tree so tall that it towered over every man alive.
The fourth man thought of how happy he could make his family and village soon, and traveled with his pouch closed for the entire trip. As soon as he got to his village, he ran to his lodge. There, he opened his pouch, only to find it empty. Then, he heard the voices of the Animal People guiding him in the forest. They taught him the best way to hunt and how to respect the animals of the forest. He never hunted more than he needed, but his family and village always had enough to eat. And so, he became the greatest hunter.
Olifat is a Micronesian god with very lofty parentage, but when he traveled up to the heavens to join his celestial family, some didn’t want him there and a great war broke out. Olifat died, but his father managed to bring him back to life. His father forced the other gods to accept him. So, Olifat became the fire deity, gifting humanity with fire. Olifat would often interpret his father’s messages for men, but he often added his own twists, leading to misunderstandings and mayhem.
Olifat noticed that his brother had become better and more handsome than he was, and he grew quite jealous. So, Olifat gave the fish playing with children below many sharp teeth, creating sharks. The sharks bit the children’s hands. They ran to their mother, Ligoapup, Olifat’s sister. The children told her that it was a man by the sea who did this to them. She told them to bring the man to her. But when they went back, they only saw an old, dirt-covered man. So, they told their mother he wasn’t there anymore.
Their mother sent them back, but each time they did, they saw another lowly man. Eventually, she sent them back, but made them ask if the person was Olifat. So they did and Olifat revealed himself. He returned to their mother (his sister) with the children. She asked him why he was so deceitful and why he gave the sharks their teeth. He explained it was because he was mad his father made his brother so much more beautiful than he was.
His father, seeing the horrible things he did on earth, summoned him up to the heavens, which Olifat was very happy to do. Yet, he didn’t leave his mischievousness on earth and wound up tricking all the gods so he could eat all their fish. This angered the gods, and they tried to kill him in many different ways. They tried to kill him with a thunderstorm. They tried to crush him with giant tree trunks. They tried to set him on fire. His cleverness helped him escape all their attempts. At last, they gave up, and agreed that if they couldn’t kill him, they would name him the god of all who are evil and deceitful.
Sir Reynard is a fox trickster, stemming from Aesop’s fables. He became popular in Europe from the 12th century through the 15th century as a way to satirize chivalry and aristocracy. His Roman origins have very little to do with his medieval tales, which were created to exclude the elite, who often come off as the antagonists in these stories. If you’re a fan of The Magicians by Lev Grossman, you may be familiar with the darker side of Reynard the Fox. Indeed, in medieval tales, he is capable of many terrible crimes.
Reynard the Fox wanted the honey from Bruin the Bear’s beehives. So, he decided to trick Bruin and steal some. He told him that he had to go through the woods to stand as a godfather for a friend’s new child at a christening. When he snuck through the woods, he ate a feast of Bruin’s honey, and then headed back. When he returned, Bruin asked him what name the child received. Reynard, who had forgotten all about his cover story, said, “Just-begun,” which Bruin found very odd.
Some days later, Reynard craved Bruin’s honey. Once again, he told Bruin he was off through the woods to attend another christening. When he returned, after eating lots of honey, Bruin asked what this child’s name was and Reynard answered, “Half-eaten.”
Yet again, Reynard wanted Bruin’s honey. Using the same excuse as before, he ate all the honey from Bruin’s beehives. This time, he told Bruin the child’s name was “All-gone.”
A little while later, Bruin craved some honey and invited Reynard to eat some with him. When they got to the beehives, Bruin discovered there was no honey at all. Now, Bruin may have been a big guy, but he wasn’t a fool. “Just-begun. Half-eaten. All-gone. You’ve eaten all my honey, haven’t you?” he yelled.
Reynard said, “No, I’ve been too busy with christenings to eat your honey. You must have eaten it in your sleep. Look, the sun is out and soon there will be new honey. Let’s both take a nap and see if either of us has eaten the honey in our sleep.”
So Bruin and Reynard laid down and closed their eyes. As soon as Bruin fell asleep, Reynard snuck over to the beehive and smeared honey all over Bruin’s mouth. When the bear awoke, Reynard pretended to just wake himself. He gasped when he saw Bruin’s face and said, “You’ve got honey all over your face, friend!” And so, Reynard the Fox tricked Bruin the Bear.
Why do we love Tricksters?
Tricksters are prevalent in myths all over the world, no matter the culture. Humans love them. We like to think that, even if we aren’t the biggest or strongest or most powerful, we can still win sometimes with a touch of cleverness. We like seeing the mighty brought to their knees by a good trick. Most of all, we need a break from the weight of the world’s problems. Tricksters teach us not to take the world, or ourselves, too seriously. Once in a while, we need to lighten up, and there is some divinity in that.
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Struggling With the Current is the first book in The Telverin Trilogy, a story about an exiled princess who finds herself in a terrifying world with equally frightening powers.
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Princess Eya’s life changes forever with the discovery of the Statue of the Goddess Winds, just as she’s coming of age. The long-overlooked kingdom of Hicares finds itself in a war it isn’t prepared for against the far more powerful empire of Pescel. To survive, Eya must flee her home, losing everything and everyone she loves in the process.
Yet, by leaving behind all she’s ever known, she learns that her sheltered life didn’t prepare her for the real world’s strange and frightening nature. She encounters people, places, and creatures beyond anything she ever imagined, along with sinister enemies from every direction. Perhaps her most surprising revelation is that she is developing terrifying powers of her own. Will Eya be able to find happiness in her new life, or will she continue struggling with the current?
Struggling With the Current is the first book of The Telverin Trilogy, a fantasy war story that takes place between several countries in the world of Telverin.