When you think of the word Trickster, who do you think of? A comedian? A practical joker? A contrary figure among a pantheon of gods? An anthropomorphic animal in the mythology of some tribal culture? A court jester? Your pain in the butt little brother?
When I think of tricksters, I immediately think of troublemakers, mischievous rogues who can’t help disturbing the peace and quiet – and then I think of my late, much loved peach-faced lovebird, Negram.
Negram is the Tigrinya word for troublemaker, and has been the perfect name for this little wise guy. Very smart like all parrots, and extremely curious, if left unattended on the loose in a room he would chew, overturn, toss aside, and otherwise disrupt any items he could get his beak around, anything not too heavy for him to lift or push.
Of course, many animals have that trickster quality, and have been recognized for it throughout human history. Intelligence is a major aspect of the qualities that make a trickster, as well as curiosity, fearlessness, and general impishness.
There is one animal, or rather one class of animals, that has been among other things a trickster, a messenger from the gods, and a symbol of death and evil. I’m speaking of the corvids – and in particular, the raven and the crow. They have great intelligence, which has been classed as similar to that of apes, especially due to their ability not only to make but use tools. They are creative, resourceful, playful, mischievous, social, roguish, and loving. They have long memories, are known for their ability to recognize individual human faces even after long periods of time, and can be vindictive, remembering an individual who has harmed them, and finding means of payback long after the event. In Norse and Germanic mythology, among others, a raven or a pair of ravens travelled across the world of men and brought news and information back to Odin, their chief god. To the Norse, their names were Hugin (mind or thought) and Munin (memory).
I had the good fortune to live with a crow for several years. When she was a fledgeling she was rescued from a cat by friends of mine, who gave her to me. I raised her, and she lived with me in my Dorchester apartment until her sadly premature death. Of course, I named her Hugin. In the photo above the picture of Odin and his ravens she is asserting her claim on her territory from my second floor back balcony. Below is a pose I was frequently seen in, eye to eye with this wise, witty, wonderful friend.
Many cultural traditions give an important place to the trickster. Some famous examples include Coyote in many Native American traditions, the spider Anansi in West African and Caribbean folklore, and the African-American Br’er Rabbit. Among many trickster gods are included the Scandinavian Loki, the Greek Dionysus, and the Roman Pan, and others. Literary tricksters and others from film and other media include Puck, Falstaff, Bugs Bunny, Dr. Who, and Froggy the Gremlin.
By now you may be coming to the conclusion that I have a fondness for trickster figures. In fact, I emulated the trickster from my early childhood, as for example during my uncle’s wedding when I was three years old.
Froggy the Gremlin (from the Buster Brown Show, later known as Andy’s Gang) was a great favorite of mine; younger readers or those who didn’t grow up in the States may not be familiar with this trickster, so I’ll elaborate a bit. The host Andy Devine would summon him with the words “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” and with a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and a loud TWA-A-A-A-A-A-NG, he would appear with the inevitable greeting: “Hiya kids! Hiya! Hiya! Hiya!” When the audience screamed their welcoming “Hiiiii, Froggy!!” he bobbed up and down while chuckling “I’m a little gremlin I am I am I am!” (I’ve always thought that Froggy may have been one of the inspirations for Yoda.)
Froggy’s mischief primarily involved interrupting the “adults” on the show, substituting wrong, even absurd conclusions for their intended remarks. Invariably they would repeat his intrusive errors, then get flustered and upset with his interference, at which point Froggy would again vanish in a twanging puff of smoke. For example, a prim, proper lady would be explaining how to make a banana split. When she said “You peel the banana,…” Froggy interrupted with “…and you rub it on your nose.” The proper lady would repeat “…and you rub it on your nose” and then splutter “Froggy! Look what you made me do!” Here is a brief clip of Froggy inflicting his typical mischief on a guest.
Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed Froggy and his iconoclastic antics. Many years later I became one of the first 500 beta testers of what became America Online, which at that time was known as AppleLink PE (Personal Edition). At first we were able to have only one screen name & one persona, but rumor had it that we would soon be able to have more than one screen name on an account. When this step forward was announced, I had two accounts with one screen name on each, which I was using both on my original Apple //c and a much more advanced Apple IIgs, which sat side-by-side on my desk. At the time, I was one of the service providers who hosted chat rooms, ran game shows, participated in interviews of well-known people in the computer industry and other related fields, and beta tested third party products, such as the original releases of Tetris for Apple //, & later for Macintosh. I hosted events online for the Boston Computer Society as BCS Skip, including simultyping our local meetings for a national audience. A friend and I were co-hosts for many of these events, but I wanted to liven things up further, so while I was signed on for the events on one computer as SkipD1 or BCS Skip, I would sign on the other computer as FroggyG. When Bob, my co-host, would announce “Plunk your magic twanger Froggy!” my alter-ego would appear with a puff of text smoke and a “twa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ng” and a hearty “Hiya kids! Hiya! Hiya! I’m a little gremlin, I am, I am, I am!” The rest can be imagined.
Moving from specific to general, the Trickster (or clown) is a Jungian archetype, as pointed out in the Wikipedia article: “a clever. mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the dangers and challenges of the world by using trickery and deceit as a defense. He is also known for entertaining people…” Tricksters are not usually violent or deadly, but use their wiles to outwit or shame their opponents. A modern example is the Riddler, a recurring adversary of Batman’s. However, others like the Norse god Loki and the Joker, also a Batman nemesis, spread chaos and often reject whimsical cleverness in favor of malice and violence. Loki was a complex character, at one time helpful and cooperative, using his cleverness to aid the other gods, then letting his cunning and deceitful side take over, causing disruption and worse. In the end, his treachery led to the death of Baldr, Odin’s beloved son, after which the gods bound Loki with the entrails of one of his own sons.
There are tricksters in literature and other art forms who become tragic figures, their tricks turning on them in bitterly painful ways. One of the finest examples is the darkly sympathetic antihero of Giuseppe Verdi’s magnificent dramatic opera, Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse (The king amuses himself). A hunch-backed court jester employed by the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto uses his brutally sardonic wit to amuse the duke at the expense of courtiers, nobles, & the duke’s romantic conquests. Verdi’s melodramatic original title for the opera was La maledizione (The curse), referring to the plot twist on which Rigoletto’s heartless jests lead to his calamitous undoing. Like so many operas, the plot is complex & full of ironic twists. Like all the works of Verdi, Rigoletto is packed full of unforgettable melodies which enhance the drama & remain with the audience long after the final curtain. I am devoting my next post to this, my favorite Verdi opera, & its cautionary tale of the hazards that befall the malicious trickster.
Set design for Act I Scene 2 from the 11 March 1851 world premier staging of Rigoletto
I began writing this post in 2012, and worked at it in fits and starts for quite some time. It was begun long before the terrible Aurora Colorado cinema shooting in July 2012, with its surreal connections to Batman and the Joker. That tragedy made me reconsider whether I should continue with this post at all, but it has been my hope that my readers will understand that it was not intended as a commentary on any such current events. Eventually, events in my own life brought my writing to a halt, and this essay sat unfinished. Now, with the passage of time, I am once again at ease with readers’ possible reactions to the topic, and am ready to finish & release it. As noted above, it grew beyond my original intentions, spawning a second post.