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Reinforcing the patriarchy: tricksters in literature and mythology

Have you ever noticed how much your favorite stories have in common? Boy meets girl, falls in love, gets married. Hero goes on a quest, meets a wise old man, and saves the day.

There’s a reason for this repetition, if you believe the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Jung found that his psychotherapy patients would tell stories containing elements of ancient mythology, even when they had never been exposed to these myths. These observations led him to conclude that some elements of human behavior and culture are universally shared. Jung theorized that these elements exist outside of our individual minds in a “collective unconscious,” that we can all access. Storytelling is a way of projecting this collective unconscious.

Within the collective unconscious, Jung identified archetypes, or universal patterns and images, and you’ll probably recognize many of them: archetypal events like birth, death, separation, and marriage; archetypal motifs of creation and the apocalypse; and archetypal figures such as mother, father, child, hero, wise old man, devil, god, and trickster.

Portrait of psychiatrist Carl G Jung. Credit: “CGJung” uploaded by Adrian Michael. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Across centuries and continents, these archetypes appear again and again in the stories we tell. For example, creation myths are a near-universal feature of mythologies around the world, and the archetype of the trickster can be seen in stories from traditional folklore and fairytales to theatre and religion. A small selection of tricksters from around the world might include the fox in Aesop’s fables, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rumpelstiltskin, Hermes, and the Polynesian god Maui, recently Disney-fied in Moana.    

What all these tricksters have in common is that they disrupt the established order and cross boundaries, both physically and metaphorically. Hermes, for example, moves freely between the worlds of the mortal and the divine, and he helps guide human souls to the afterlife. Maui also travels between the underworld and the world of mortals, in one story to steal fire and give it to humans.

While tricksters often use their ingenuity to help human beings, many are also amoral or immoral. Hermes is the inventor of music but also the god of thieves; Rumpelstiltskin helps the miller’s daughter spin straw into gold, but he is also a frightening figure who demands that she give him her firstborn child in exchange. Tricksters also symbolize sexuality—they have high sex drives and are often associated with phallic imagery. It’s not coincidental that Hermes’s symbols include the pillar, the club, and the wand, and depictions of Kokopelli, a trickster and deity of fertility venerated by some Native Americans in what is now the Southwestern United States, were traditionally ithyphallic.

There’s one more characteristic that you may have noticed all of these tricksters share: they are all male. Is this coincidence? Why can’t women play the role of the trickster and disrupt the established order too? In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde considers the possible reasons for this gender imbalance: most compellingly, the vast majority of the world’s surviving mythologies are patriarchal, and ideologies “contain their dissent”—which is to say that male tricksters challenge the established order, but they do so in a way that does not have the power to fundamentally overturn it. If Hermes is a troublemaker, he is not so much of one that Zeus’s power is ever at risk. 

And indeed, looking at trickster tales with this observation in mind, it becomes clear that tricksters don’t often subvert the established order in any kind of permanent way. They play their tricks, get caught or don’t, and the world goes back to the way it was—maybe a little better than it was before, thanks to the trickster, but not fundamentally different. Because trickster stories operate within their worlds’ established patriarchal frameworks, the stories, while entertaining, are not as subversive as their characters claim to be.

As we think about how the stories we read or write are challenging the status quo, remember that the illusion of rebellion may be the trickster’s greatest trick.

Featured image credit: Illustration of Rumpelstiltskin from Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane, illustrated by Walter Crane, first published by Macmillan and Company in 1886. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Johannes

    Would the Serpent in the Genesis story count as a trickster, and has this line of thought been explored somewhere in the literature?

  2. Dmitry Ostrovsky

    So do you think when women become the “tricksters” of our neo-mythologies; they too will remain impotent in fundamentally challenging the status quo?

    IE; Hillary Clinton would NEVER challenge the plutocratic [formerly boys’] club of American business and polotical elites. Nor would she make America any more democratic. Though she would certainly challenge the patriarchy…

  3. Jenny Zobel

    Add to the list of Master Tricksters, of course:
    ANANSI THE SPIDER
    BRER RABBIT

    See the work of Emily Zobel Marshall on both these characters.

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