Tricksters, as archetypal characters, appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the trickster as a "boundary-crosser". The trickster crosses and often breaks both physical and societal rules: Tricksters "violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis."
Often, this bending or breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both. The trickster openly questions, disrupts or mocks authority. They are often male characters, and are fond of breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods.
Many cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty being who uses tricks to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths Hermes plays the trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined.
Frequently the trickster figure exhibits gender and form variability. In Norse mythology the mischief-maker is Loki, who is also a shape shifter. Loki also exhibits gender variability, in one case even becoming pregnant. He becomes a mare who later gives birth to Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
In a wide variety of African-language communities, the rabbit, or hare, is the trickster. In West Africa (and thence into the Caribbean via the slave trade), the spider (Anansi) is often the trickster.
The trickster is a term used for a non performing 'trick maker'; they may have many motives behind their intention but those motives are not in public view largely. They are internal to the character or person.
The clown on the other hand is a persona of a performer who displays their actions in public intentionally for an audience.
In modern literature, the trickster survives as a character archetype, not necessarily supernatural or divine, sometimes no more than a stock character.
Often, the trickster is distinct in a story by his acting as a sort of catalyst; his antics are the cause of other characters' discomfiture, but he himself is left untouched. Shakespeare's Puck is an example of this.
Another once-famous example was the character Froggy the Gremlin on the early USA children's television show "Andy's Gang". A cigar-puffing puppet, Froggy induced the adult humans around him to engage in ridiculous and self-destructive hi-jinks.
For example, many European fairy tales have a king who wants to find the best groom for his daughter by ordering several trials. No brave and valiant prince or knight manages to win them, until a poor and simple peasant comes. With the help of his wits and cleverness, instead of fighting, they evade or fool monsters, villains and dangers in unorthodox ways. Against expectations, the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward.
While the trickster crosses various cultural traditions, there are significant differences between tricksters in the traditions of different parts of the world:
Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.
Native American tricksters should not be confused with the European fictional picaro. One of the most important distinctions is that "we can see in the Native American trickster an openness to life's multiplicity and paradoxes largely missing in the modern Euro-American moral tradition". In some stories the Native American trickster is foolish and other times wise. He can be a hero in one tale and a villain in the next.
According to Crow (and other Plains) tradition, Old Man Coyote impersonates the Creator: "Old Man Coyote took up a handful of mud and out of it made people". He also bestowed names on buffalo, deer, elk, antelopes, and bear. According to A. Hultkranz, the impersonation of Coyote as Creator is a result of a taboo, a mythic substitute to the religious notion of the Great Spirit whose name was too dangerous and/or sacred to use apart from at special ceremonies.
In Chelan myths, Coyote belongs to the animal people but he is at the same time "a power just like the Creator, the head of all the creatures." while still being a subject of the Creator who can punish him or remove his powers. In the Pacific Northwest tradition, Coyote is mostly mentioned as a messenger, or minor power.
As the culture hero, Coyote appears in various mythic traditions, but generally with the same magical powers of transformation, resurrection, and "medicine". He is engaged in changing the ways of rivers, creating new landscapes and getting sacred things for people. Of mention is the tradition of Coyote fighting against monsters. According to Wasco tradition, Coyote was the hero to fight and kill Thunderbird, the killer of people, but he could do that not because of his personal power, but due to the help of the Spirit Chief. In some stories, Multnomah Falls came to be by Coyote's efforts; in others, it is done by Raven.
More often than not Coyote is a trickster, but always different. In some stories, he is a noble trickster: "Coyote takes water from the Frog people... because it is not right that one people have all the water." In others, he is malicious: "Coyote determined to bring harm to Duck. He took Duck's wife and children, whom he treated badly."
In Internet and multimedia studies
In online environments, there has been a link between the trickster and Internet trolling. Some have said that a trickster is a type of online community character.
Anthropologist James Cuffe has called the Chinese internet character Grass Mud Horse ()a trickster candidate because of its duplicity in meaning. Cuffe argues the Grass Mud Horse serves to highlight the creative potential of the trickster archetype in communicating experiential understanding through symbolic narrative. The Grass Mud Horse relies on the interpretative capacity of storytelling in order to skirt internet censorship while simultaneously commenting on the experience of censorship in China. In this sense Cuffe proposes the Grass Mud Horse trickster as 'a heuristic cultural function to aid the perceiver to re-evaluate their own experiential understanding against that of their communities. By framing itself against and in spite of limits the trickster offers new coordinates by which one can reassess and judges one's own experiences.'
^Campbell, J., G. Fletcher & A. Greenhill (2002). "Tribalism, Conflict and Shape-shifting Identities in Online Communities." In the Proceedings of the 13th Australasia Conference on Information Systems, Melbourne Australia, 7-9 December 2002.
Koepping, Klaus-Peter (1985). "Absurdity and Hidden Truth: Cunning Intelligence and Grotesque Body Images as Manifestations of the Trickster". History of Religions. 24 (3): 191-214. doi:10.1086/462997. JSTOR1062254.