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The Cautionary Tale of the Trickster

Updated on February 23, 2015

The prevalence of the trickster figure throughout almost all of mythology shows us that the human condition is universally untrusting of someone’s appearance and presumed intentions. The occurrence of the trickster is to educate: His task is to teach us to be careful, to be sure, to not trust everyone.Choose any two myths read from this section and compare/contrast them in regard to what the culture feared and how it perceived this danger to personify itself.

I chose the African myth called “the magic drum” and the American Indian myth called “the release of the wild animals”.

The myth of “the magic drum” was collected from the Benga about the Golden (Powell 536). The myth begins in the country of King Maseni during a time of famine with King Maseni having ordered that anyone with food would be brought before him. One day a Turtle left his home to look for food; after a lot of traveling he found a coconut tree with coconuts growing from it next to a river. Turtle climbs the tree, but one of his coconuts falls into the river. Turtle then jumps into the river and follows his coconut down the river to a town. When he climbs from the river he is asked what brought him to the town, he then tells of the famine in his town and of his coconut. Turtle is directed to a house where he will find drums, but he is told to only take one of the ones that echo ‘wo-wo-wo’ and not the ones that say ‘take me! Take me!’ (Powell 537). When he has his drum he is instructed on how to use it to get a table covered with food. Turtle used Drum to feed himself and his family until Leopard discovered Turtle’s way of getting food. When the King discovered that Turtle and Leopard had food he had Turtle brought before him. After Turtle told the King about Drum the King used Drum to provide food, but Drum became angry at being used by hands that were not Turtle’s and stopped providing food. Turtle then returned to the village where he got Drum, but instead of bringing back a ‘wo-wo-wo’ drum he took a drum that said ‘take me! Take me!’; When Turtle called for food this drum brought forth a table of whips and the drum then proceeded to whip Turtle until he called for the drum to take the table back. Turtle then tricked the King, Leopard, and their people into coming into his house by promising more food, however Turtle was angry at Leopard and the King for they had made his old drum angry, so Turtle called for the drum to bring out the whips and then jumped out a window to avoiding being whipped. As Turtle escaped the house he called for the whips to stop; then knowing he would be killed for his revenge he took his people to hide in the river.

The myth of “the release of the wild animals” was collected from the American Indian culture specifically from the Comanche tribe. The myth begins by explaining that an old woman and her young cousin owned all of the buffalo and that they kept them penned up in the mountains. Coyote summoned the Indians to a council so as to plan a way to release the buffalo. Coyote came up with a plan to send different small animals to the area where the old woman and her young cousin draw their water from in the hopes of the cousin deciding to keep one as a pet. After a few tries an animal was found that the cousin convinced the old woman to allow him to keep as a pet even though the old woman knew that “all the animals in the world are schemers” (Powell 489). The animal slipped away and entered the buffalo pen where it howled. The noise scared the buffalo and caused them to break the fence to escape.

Both of the myths share certain similarities outside of them involving a trickster. Both myths involve animal characters; in the African myth all of the characters are animals while in the American Indian myth the main focus is on the buffalo and the small animal that causes them to escape their pen. Both myths tell of how animals came to be what they are in the world. The African myth tells of how turtles came to live in the water; in the myth the turtles began to live in water to escape the wrath of the town. The American Indian myth tells of how buffaloes came to live in the world; in the myth the American Indians sent a small animal to break the buffalo free of their pen. The African myth shows Turtle as a trickster. Turtle fulfills the definition of trickster by teaching of the dangers of ignoring the rules. Turtle decides to select one of the drums that say ‘take me! Take me!’ against the advice of the people in the town; he is punished when the drum whips him; however Turtle manages to turn his mistake against those who lost him his original drum. The American India myth shows Coyote as the trickster because he sends the small animals to deceive the cousin and release the buffalo. Coyote teaches the lesson of being careful and not trusting in the intentions of everyone. The cousin believed that the small animal was not harmful and took it into their home where it betrayed the cousin. The African myth shows that the culture feared what would happen to those who went against the rules of life while the American Indian myth showed the culture’s fear of being too trusting and not being careful.

Works Cited

Powell, Barry. "Myths of the Trickster." World Myth. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 488-489,536-542. Print.

Tricksters are among the most entertaining characters in world mythology. Usually male, they delight in breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods. Most tricksters are shape-changers who can take any form, though they often appear as animals. Tricksters play a prominent role in African and Native American mythologies. They can also be found in the myths of Europeans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and the Aborigines of Australia. Certain gods, demigods, and heroes from around the world are described as having trickster qualities (Ryan 16). Operating outside the framework of right and wrong, tricksters do not recognize the rules of society. Their characters and actions are far from simple, however. Often childish, greedy, lustful, and even nasty, tricksters can also be friendly, helpful, clever, and wise. Sometimes they appear to be clownish, clumsy, or foolish, although they usually possess amazing powers of survival. A trickster may come to a sorry end in one story but then, after being miraculously brought back to life, reappear in other tales.
Sometimes a trickster is a creator or culture hero whose activities explain how some aspect of the world came into being. In northeastern America, for example, myths of the Algonquian-speaking people tell of a trickster named Gluskap. Gluskap lived in the cold north, but during a journey to the warm south, he tricked Summer, a beautiful female chieftain, into returning north with him. After she melted the cold of winter, Gluskap let her return to her home (Ballinger 22). The more familiar Greek myth of Hades stealing Persephone into the Underworld for six months resonates the same vehicle as well as the same outcome (six months of winter/summer). Likewise, Maui, the trickster hero of the Polynesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean, created the world while he was fishing. He let out a long fishing line and reeled in island after island from the bottom of the ocean. Later, Maui stole fire from the underworld and gave it to humans. The parallels to Prometheus in the latter are striking. The Titan Prometheus tricked Zeus and the other gods into granting humans the best part of an animal killed for a sacrifice. Angry at having been tricked, Zeus refused to let humans have fire, but Prometheus stole a burning ember from the gods for people to use. A trickster may be a go-between or messenger between the human and divine worlds. Hermes, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, was the god of travelers and trade but also of thieves and deceit. As a newborn child, Hermes demonstrated his cleverness by stealing cattle from Apollo. He hid their tracks by tying tree bark to their hooves. The Norse trickster Loki was originally a friend of the gods, but eventually they became tired of his tricks and grew to dislike him.

Some scholars have suggested that the trickster is one of the most ancient figures in mythology. A chaotic and disorderly character, he acts out many human urges and desires that people living in communities learn to control to maintain social order. Trickster myths, especially those in which the trickster's deeds backfire against him in some way, may have developed to teach a moral lesson about the penalties of misbehavior (Koepping 193). Tales in which the trickster is a small but clever animal that emerges victorious teach a different lesson. They show how a seemingly powerless creature can triumph over a mighty one.

Works Cited

Ballinger, Franchot. “Ambigere: The Euro-American Picaro and the Native American Trickster.” MELUS 1991: 21. JSTOR Journals. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.

Koepping, Klaus-Peter. “Absurdity and Hidden Truth: Cunning Intelligence and Grotesque Body Images as Manifestations of the Trickster”. History of Religions 24.3 (1985): 191–214. Print.

Ryan, Allen. The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999. Print.


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      Monica 2 years ago

      Thank you! This was very helpful.