“he is sexually over-active, irresponsible, and amoral. But it is that very phallicism that signifies his essential creativity” David Leeming
“trickster is a boundary-crosser” Lewis Hyde
“admired, Loved, venerated for his merits and virtues, he is represented as thievish, deceitful, parricidal, incestuous, and cannibalistic. The malicious practical joker is deceived by just about anybody; the inventor of ingenious stratagems is presented as an idiot; the master of magical power is sometimes powerless to extricate himself from quandaries.” “Mythical Trickster Figures”, William J. Hynes and William G. Doty
A while ago, a good friend of mine celebrated her nerdiness by going to a local Comicon. About an hour in, she texted me enraged. «I swear to God, if I see yet another girl dressed up as Harley Quinn, I’m going to throw up» she lamented. (This was not long after Suicide Squad had come out, and I’m pleased to see that of late the hype is finally turning down a notch).
Alas, I could not find it in myself to disagree, having had my share of cosplayers spamming my Facebook wall with pics of their poorly made costumes. And yet, well, I also felt that it was nothing more than an inevitable evil.
Harley Quinn is nothing more than the latest addiction to the Trickster Club. First rule of the Trickster Club? Be a two-faced, cunning, quirky, adorable bastard. Then enjoy the popularity of the masses, the merch crowding the shelves to rob teens of their money, the poorly-written fanfics where you copulate with any other character best suited to the writer’s dirty fantasies.
Another will come, sooner or later, even quirkier, played by an even British-er actor, to dethrone you and take your place. But you’ll forever be part of pop-culture, and will never be forgotten.
The term trickster comes from one Daniel G. Brinton, who coined it in 1885 in the attempt to define the Jungian archetype of the mischief-makers. What is an archetype, you ask? According to Jung, it’s just one of the many faces of the so-called collective unconsciousness – that cluster of symbols that can be found in any culture, even though taking slightly different forms.
What it means is, the trickster is something anyone will be familiar with, because it represents some hidden parts of our subconscious. One John Leynard noted how patients suffering from schizofrenia were showing characteristics typically associated with this archetype, further conferming that the trickster is not only a fun, enjoyable bastard – he is our dark, unpredictable side.
Let’s take a step back though, and try to define what the hell is a trickster. We will do it by dissecting one of the best examples folklore gave us, the mischievous Loki himself, and by comparing it to similar examples throughout other countries and cultures – both in the past, and in the present.
In old Norse Mythology, there’s more than one «race» of supernatural entities, and among those are the Aesirs, the Gods. Odin is the commander in chief, his right arm being Thor. Not unlike their Greek counterparts, they are a pantheon of powerful deities that rule the Nine Realms and therefore mankind.
Loki is not, strictly speaking, one of them. He is not an Aesir but a frost giant. The reason why he spends so much time with the Aesirs is because he is Odin’s blood brother. In ancient Norse culture, two men (usually close brothers in arms) could «mix their blood together» and thus become real brothers, same as if they had been born from the same parents.
The old adage «blood is thicker than water», often misinterpreted to mean that relatives are more important than strangers, actually comes from this practice; the full version of the saying goes, «the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb» – the connections you choose, the things you share with your blood brothers, mean so much more than simple DNA.
Back to business, this gives us the very first clue concerning tricksters. They are often «one of a kind». Very often they are demigods, demons or spirits; if they are human, they tend to be outcasts or fools.
Loki is a very good example, being of a different race than his friends and companions, but other examples can be found throughout the world. In West Africa, the trickster is the spider Anansi; for the Native Americans, the coyote or the raven. They are «bad» beasts, carrion eaters or treacherous.
Another good example is the Egyptian god Bes (we’ll go back to him later); whereas the other gods have human features (with the occasional beastly head), Bes is portrayed as a dwarf with twisted features, very funny, always grimacing to make people laugh.
(Mmmh, I wonder why that sounds familiar…. dwarf… funny… outcast…. oh, right. Tyrion Lannister, anyone?).
And tricksters have to stand out from the crowd. Since they are different, they can be expected to act differently from anyone else. That, as we will see, is their very purpose.
Tricksters are also shapeshifters, and that is one of their most remarkable, handy powers – usually, the very mean by which they manage to trick and cheat. Most of the times, they can change into pretty much anything by magic, and if human, they are masters of disguises.
Loki does it all the time. Odin has a six-legged horse named Sleipnir, that is actually Loki’s son. At one point, playing one of his tricks, the frost giant turned into a mare , got pregnant, and delivered a six-legged pony. He and the Aesirs might be frenemies, but I see some dedication to Odin’s cause there.
And isn’t that something Hollywood relies a lot upon? That’s every action/sci-fi/fantasy character ever. Think about the Joker from The Dark Knight, posing as a nurse (that scene when the hospital explodes will never not be funny) in order to bring forward his one agenda – chaos.
In Japan, there are demonic trickster spirits called kitsune. They are usually represented as fox-like entities, but when they have to prank someone, or get what they want, they can turn into beautiful, sexy women to seduce men.
In many of the tales the Grimm brothers collected, disguise and shapeshifting is the main plot device cunning characters use to achieve their happy endings. King Thrushbeard is my favorite, where the prince poses as a commoner to humble his proud love into submission – but there are many many more.
Of course, tricksters can change because the plot require them to, but at a deeper lever, there is another explanation for it to be found.
They change, because they are change. They don’t play by the rules. They think outside the box, and thus succeed when others fail. And this brings us to the next point.
Yes, these unglorios basterds are agents of chaos and change, just like Joker is for Batman. Although most of the time they have a goal, they often mess up things just for the laughs.
Loki is mainly a friend to the Aesirs, but still, he pulls pranks on them all the time.
He steals Freya’s beautiful magic necklace Brisingamen, because it’s pretty and shiny. Not his to take? Who gives.
He waits until Sif (Thor’s wife) is sleeping, and then cuts off her beautiful golden hair. (Some say, he slept with her too).
It’s not about good or evil. It’s not about, «why?», but instead, «why not?».
Everything can be questioned, everything can be turned upside down. And it so happens that this is the best way to bring something new to the table.
It”s the same magic that goes behind Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn is hot, but that’s not the reason why that movie is now so popular. The Suicide Squad is quirky, it’s wicked, it’s bad – and that’s why they can get shit done.
Want another one? Bugs Bunny. Sly AF, going around cross-dressing, mocking, joking, tricking, often for no other reason than because he wants to.
I talked earlier about the ancient god Bes. Despite his hideous appearance, he was loved by people in Egypt. He was so popular, his image can be found pretty much on any artifact. He was a benevolent entity, said to protect fertility and children. When a baby laughed for no reason, it was said he could see Bes making faces to entertain him.
Prostitutes had him tatooed on their bodies to prevent venereal diseases. He was, in general, supposed to protect good people. (By the way, queer and abnormal sexuality, and a great interest in sex, is another common trait in tricksters).
What we can learn is, that there is a great power in laughter. Most tricksters (Loki included) love to make others laugh. That’s why they love pranks. It’s the great power of irony. It makes people question things with a good chuckle.
That is why a character often associated with tricksters is the wise fool. In Shakespeare we find plenty of them, and the most notable example is the one we find in King Lear. The fool is, well… a fool. And yet, with his japes, he speaks his hard truths to the king, without offending him, without being harsh. Madness and irony can be the best disguise for the truth!
The wise fool is often present in Grimm’s tales too. Many stories revolve around a man, considered by his friends and relatives to be foolish or dumb, that still manages to win over the princess, or a good amount of gold.
What makes someone wise? is something foolish just because it is different, is someone a fool because he doesn’t think like anyone else?
The most important thing about tricksters, though, is the fact that they are both creators and destroyers.
Set, Osiris’ brother in Egyptian mythology, is both. He kills and dismembers his brother to take his place as king (destroyer), and yet by doing so he opens a path to an afterlife (because that is where Orisis goes, and where dead men are supposed to reach him). He is also the one that every night stands alongside Ra to fight the serpent that threatens to swallow the sun – he is the one that makes dawn possible every day.
Loki too is the «creator of an afterlife». He is, quite literally, the father of Hel (the goddess of Hell, yes). He is the one to accompany Thor in all his adventures, the one that solves all unsolvable problems. He is also the one who is supposed to start Ragnarok, the Norse version of apocalypse, destroying the Universe as we know it today – only to have it start again, in a different form.
Prometheus steals the fire from the gods (bad), and gives it to humans so that they can civilize (good).
Tricksters create ideas, tools, boundaries – but they way they do it is by erasing whatever came before.
Truth is, we will never not love tricksters. Are they good or bad? Wish it were so easy. Their nature is ambivalence. They’re both, they’re neither, they’re hot and cold like a Katy Perry’s song. Hells, it’s almost impossible even to know how they look like. They change all the time. They were genderfluid before Tumblr made it cool. They pull pranks, tell jokes, they are the ultimate con artist.
More importantly, though, they’re essential. It might feel like those characters are only there to fit in the shoes of the devil, the antagonist, and in some measure, that’s true too. But they are so much more.
They kick the beehive, and have a good laugh afterwards. They disrupt the order of things, mix everything up, so that something new can come up. Nothing is static for very long, and if it does, it gets stale.
They tell us that it’s good to be different and sing outside of the choir, even if that means turning everything upside down. It’s a good thing to change and change, and laugh, and make a mess, when something is not right. In fact, that might be just what the world needs.
(As long as you don’t murder anyone while doing it, you should be fine).