Trickster figures abound in folklore around the world. Though their motivations can range from selfish to selfless, their clever ruses have delighted listeners through the ages. From tribal Africa to ancient Greece to Baroque France, these trickster figures carry both an entertainment and didactic function; they make us smile, and help us understand how certain phenomena came to be—through their ruses, or as fallouts from those hijinx.
In fact, there is good cause to say that many of the amusing trickster figures of modern day (such as Bugs Bunny) are descendants of these original tricksters. Let’s take a look now at some of the more memorable mischief-makers of world folklore, as we learn about these 9 mythological tricksters from around the world.
1: Anansi the Spider (African)
Anansi the Spider is probably one of the most recognizable trickster figures in the world repository of folklore. He is most commonly featured in the narratives from the Ashanti people of Ghana. Though they are not codified in written, but rather extend to a diverse range of verbal retellings, most of them celebrate his shape-shifting abilities and clever wit, which he leverages to get what he wants out of creatures and beings who are much bigger than he is. Oftentimes his antics are beneficial for mankind, such as the way he obtained rain. As Africans were enslaved and brought to North America and the Caribbean, they brought along these trickster narratives, some of which became stories about Brer Rabbit (featured later in this list).
2: Raven (Tlingit)
Raven is a black, winged trickster figure from the lore of the Pacific Northwest. His chicanery and subterfuge is more than amusing—according to Tlingit mythology, he helped create the world as we know it. Selfish, mischievous, and often hungry, his cute antics usually stem from a desire for food, but result in world-changing moments such as the time he released humanity from a seashell, or when he stole the sun by carrying it through the chimney of an old man’s longhouse. In the process, he got a little burnt…hence his black color. Raven is viewed as a trickster figure in other parts of the world as well, such as Russia, where similar tales of his hijinx abound.
3: Prometheus (Greek)
Prometheus is the trickster from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods. According to Hesiod, Zeus concealed fire from mankind because Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting fat and bones as a sacrificial offering (instead of meat). While the theft of fire by Prometheus certainly brought a useful tool into play for all mankind, it didn’t bode well for him. According to one variant, Zeus sent an enticing woman named Pandora to seduce Prometheus. She ended up opening a box of miserable things that were released into the world—although the palliative of hope trailed after them. According to a different version, Zeus nailed Prometheus to a mountain and ordered a vulture/eagle to eternally peck out his liver.
4: Loki (Norse)
Loki is the trickster-god from the Norse pantheon. Through his union to Angrboda (herself a jotunn, a type of undefined creature), he is also the father of the great wolf Fenrir, the world-serpent Jörmungandr, and Hel, the goddess of the underworld. Loki is quite the shape-shifter, because he is also the mother of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. Loki’s relationship with the other gods was sometimes good and sometimes bad. Throughout Norse mythological cycles, he shape shifts into a variety of creatures such as a salmon, a fly, a horse, and an old man. Ultimately, any positive connection he has with the other gods ends when they decide to bind him with the entrails of his sons. Come Ragnarok, Loki will break free from his bonds and fight against the gods, alongside Fenrir and Jörmungandr (his children).
5: Brer Rabbit (American)
Brer Rabbit is a figure right out of American folklore and featured in the Disney Movie Song of the South (good luck getting your hands on a copy—it’s out of production). Like many tricksters, Brer Rabbit uses his brains over his brawn, which somewhat speaks to the difficulty slaves faced in their physical subjugation to Southern plantation owners. In his most popular story, Brer Rabbit faces off against a tar baby, whose silence infuriates him. Kicking and punching the tar baby, Brer Rabbit gets stuck…which is exactly what the hungry Brer Fox was hoping for. But clever Brer Rabbit won’t get eaten at the end of this tale. He pleads with the fox not to throw him the briar patch, which of course Brer Fox to do just that. Since rabbits are comfortable prancing between the briars, Brer Rabbit outruns Brer Fox. In any case, since you most likely won’t find the movie, you can experience the ride at Disney theme parks: Log Mountain. After the log plummets down the chute, you’ll be immersed in the world of this trickster figure from the American South.
6: Maui (Polynesian)
Maui is the name of a popular Hawaiian island—but did you know it’s also the name of the polynesian trickster god? Maui literally means “little thing” in Hawaiian, and it refers to the fact that Maui’s mother was not particularly fond of him. He had a lot of siblings, so she couldn’t quite give him the time of day. In response, he acted out for attention, tangling his brother’s fishing lines and engaging in other such hijinx. Finally, his mother got fed up and sent him away to his father Mekea, who was the lord of the underworld. Fortunately for Maui, his father found him more endearing than his mother did, and gave him a magic fishing hook. Maui used it to pull up the island that took on his name. This amazing fish story made him a little boastful, and he took it too far, attempting to hook the sun and make it move at will. His undoing came when he thought it would be funny to walk through the goddess of death Hinenuitepo (alternative versions state Maui thought he would become immortal by doing so). Unfortunately, she was not so down for this plan, and before he could try it out, she crushed him to death with the obsidian teeth around her lady parts.
7: Queen Medb (Irish)
Queen Medb in Irish lore is the trickster-queen of Connacht. She is portrayed as stubborn, clever, and somewhat promiscuous. Her most famous exploit involved stealing the prized bull of Ulster, which is portrayed in the mythological epic of “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” Her chief nemesis was her former husband, King Conchobar. She once asked a druid which one of her sons might be the one to kill her enemy (eesh!), to which he replied “the one named Maine.” Since she didn’t have any sons with that name, she renamed all of them to bear some variation of that particular moniker. The druidic prophecy became fulfilled, but not exactly in the way she was expecting—one of her sons killed a different Conchobar. Eventually Queen Medb herself met her demise while bathing; the sons of one of her many victims struck her with a catapulted piece of cheese (no joke). Queen Medb, like many of the old Irish heroes and demigods, eventually were recast as less-powerful fairy folk. In Medb’s case, she became a fairy queen, and made a famous appearance in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as Queen Mab.
8: Jacob (Biblical)
Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, according to biblical chronology. His most famous ruse involves impersonating his brother in order to steal the blessing and birthright given by their ill father. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob (at the behest of his mother) put on Esau’s clothing and covered his arms in wool, to give himself the feel and texture of his hairy brother. Isaac, whose sight was dim, was initially confused, but decided to give the blessing to the one who indeed felt like Esau. In truth, this ruse was needed to effectively follow through on the arrangement that Jacob and Esau had previously worked out; Esau had already sold his birthright and blessing to Jacob in return for a pot of hot, red stew. Later, Jacob goes to live in the house of his uncle Laban. Laban pulls a trick on Jacob, promising him one daughter in marriage (Rachel) and then giving him another (Leah). Ultimately Jacob is able to outsmart Laban and leave his home as a wealthy man, overcoming Laban’s tricks and ruses around a business partnership.
9: Puss-in-Boots (Fictional)
Puss-in-Boots is a fairytale character from the anthologized work of Charles Perrault, but we can refer to him as representative of trickster figures in the fairy tale genre, most of which come in the form of animals like cats or foxes. Puss-in-Boots first appeared in Italy, but later worked his way around Europe as an anthropomorphic cat who used his human-like abilities to garner power, wealth, and a beautiful princess. His most recent and famous iteration was in the Shrek series, but prior to that he had appeared in the writings of Straparola, Basile, Mother Goose, and Tchaikovsky’s operatic work, Sleeping Beauty. Folklorists have noted that motif of a clever animal helper (or hinderer) can be traced all the way back to The Panchatantra, a collection Hindu tales from 5th century India.