A trickster is someone who walks the boundaries, sometimes predator, sometimes prey, often neither. They are simultaneously smart and stupid, ignorant but cunning enough to learn. They are invariably selfish, hunting to fill their bellies. Tricksters can only exist where there are rules to flaunt and boundaries to cross, otherwise they fade into the background as one of many cunning, selfish people. Sometimes they are heroes and teachers, bringing fire and knowledge, sometimes they are irreverent liars and thieves. Tricksters are hard to define and pin down, and even the definition I’ve given is not necessarily true of all of those considered tricksters.
Tricksters come in many forms, whether gods or wily animals, humans with a disregard for rules or aliens. Loki, the Norse God of Mischief and Chaos, Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire for the earth, Hermes, the Greek God of Travelers and Messages, and Anansi, the God of Spiders are all trickster gods. Folk heroes include Brer Rabbit, Robin Hood, John the Conquerer, and Jack the Giant Killer. Even today, there are many modern heroes, such as Jerry, from Tom and Jerry, Deadpool, from Marvel Comics, The Doctor, from the BBC show Doctor Who, and Captain Jack Sparrow, the famous pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Their stories are popular and many, and more crop up all the time, urban legends about con men and burglars. Loki’s most well known story goes something like this:
Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, was beloved of the gods, golden and fair, and could do no wrong. Therefore, when he began to dream of his death, the gods were fearful, and cried to Odin to discover what his dreams meant. Odin mounted his many-legged horse Sleipnir and rode to the underworld with all haste to consult with a dead seeress he knew. When he arrived, clad in one of his many disguises, there were an abundance of hangings and sumptuous foods, and the hall of the Dead was filled with light and laughter. Finding the seeress he sought, he asked
“Why do the dead celebrate?”
“We celebrate the coming of Baldur, of course!” the seeress cried, merrily. She regaled Odin for some time with tales of what would come, until she looked more closely at Odin and divined by his distress the god’s true identity, and became more sober.
And indeed, all that she said would come to pass.
Frigg was distraught by the news, and, in a desperate attempt to save her son, rode over the Earth, asking all that she came across to swear never to harm her son. All agreed, save for the mistletoe, a plant so small and insignificant it hardly seemed to matter.
When the gods heard the news, they rejoiced, and in the ensuing celebration they started a game of throwing objects at Baldur to watch them turn aside without so much as touching his golden skin. At the side, Loki spoke to Frigg, masking his mischief in concern.
“You did get all of the Earth to agree to this game, Frigg?”
“All except the mistletoe, which is so small and weak as to hardly matter.”
Loki nodded in apparent agreement, and then left, to go find some mistletoe.
The blind god Hod was sitting by the side, unable to test Baldur’s invincibility for himself.
“You must feel quite left out,” Loki remarked. The god agreed, and sighed.
“Here, I’ll give you this branch, and direct your arm,” Loki said, and the god agreed once more, eagerly. He picked up the mistletoe branch, and Loki directed it so that it flew at Baldur–and pierced him through.
The gods trembled, for Baldur’s death was the first sign of Ragnarok, the end of the world.
Frigg wept, and begged for someone to go down to the underworld and ask Hel to release Baldur in return for a ransom. Young Hermod, an obscure son of Odin, volunteered, and rode nine days and nine nights down to the underworld.
Hel was sitting on her throne with Baldur, pale and gaunt, sitting beside her, and she looked coldly upon Hermod as he told her why he was there.
“All things mourn for him,” Hermod said. “And especially the gods.”
“If all things mourn for them, then you should have no trouble convincing all the things on Earth to weep for his death,” Hel said, and Hermod nodded. “If all things do mourn, then, and only then, will I return him to you.”
Hermod brought the news to Frigg, who rode back out over the earth with her messengers, begging all things to mourn. All did, even the mistletoe, except for a giantess named Tokk who was none other than Loki in disguise. Tokk coldly told the messengers “Let Hel keep her bounty!”
And so Baldur remained with Hel until Ragnarok.
As you can see, trickster gods could be very malicious.
Most people like a good trickster tale, such as the more lighthearted tale of Loki and Thor wearing gowns and veils in order to sneak into a frost giant’s home and retrieve Thor’s hammer, or Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. We can see ourselves in the tricksters, our mistakes and curiousity, and at the same time they can do things we’ve never dared. Tricksters are the underdogs, but win through with their cunning. Everyone has felt like an underdog at some point in their life, and the trickster tales tell them that it doesn’t matter, if you’re clever enough, you can win.