The Trickster

by stephenpalmersf

The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.

Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.

Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.

But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.

The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.

Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.

Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.

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