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  • The Bushman Trickster:Protagonist, Divinity, and Agent of Creativity
  • Mathias Guenther (bio)

In a classic article and book on the subject, Carl Gustav Jung noted that "the so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster" (Jung 206). In this paper I would like to recall this virtually universal mythological and folkloric figure back to our civilized memory. I will draw most of my information from a tribal culture, the Bushmen of southern Africa, within which the trickster is still very much alive (and on which I have done ethnographic research).

Trickster was once a prominent feature of our own Western myth and lore, for instance, the trickster-god Loki of Nordic mythology who, as the enfant terrible of the Scandinavian pantheon, received more mention in the Icelandic Edda than any of the other divinities—including Odin, the supreme god of the Teutonic pantheon, a bit of a trickster himself (Tonnelat 268-72; Oosten). The trickster remained a popular and prominent figure in general folklore throughout the Middle Ages. Examples are Reynard the Fox; Chanticleer the Cock; and Till Eulenspiegel (or Howleglass, as he is known in English), the peasant yokel who delighted in duping urban burghers; as well as a number of trickster figures from medieval folk Christianity—"natural louts in cassocks" (Welsford 202)—of whom all but Friar Tuck have been forgotten. Another trickster of folk Christianity was, and in some parts of the world still is, Saint Peter; yet another is none other than the devil himself.1 The trickster, or trickster-like figures, also make the occasional appearance in literature. The best known is [End Page 13] Puck of Midsummer Night's Dream, or Robin Goodfellow of medieval Mummers' plays, the mischievous fairy being of ancient English folklore, a trickster par excellence. As a shape-shifter—"sometimes a horse [ . . . ] sometimes a hound, a hog, a headless bear, sometimes a fire"—who played a seductive pipe, Shakespeare's Puck, a "shrewd and knavish sprite," lured forest travelers into swamps, "laughing at their harm." He delighted in watching the follies of humans and—as is the trickster's wont—in "frightening the maidens of the villagery."

It is is probably true to say, however, that the trickster figure—of the classic mold, as ambiguous, multifaceted protagonist, creator, inverter, and culture hero2—has been pretty well obliterated from the folkloric and literary imagination of the Western adult. It has been transferred over to that of the Western child, every Saturday morning, on the television screen. Here we find a rogue's gallery of trickster figures: Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, Woody Woodpecker, and, that most enigmatic and complex of trickster figures, Daffy Duck—the only one, as far as I am aware, without precedents or antecedents in the world's trickster lore (which reveals a dearth of ducks). Daffy, the duck-trickster, may thus be a genuine creation of Hollywood fakelore, as against his colleagues Bugs and Wile E., Tooney Land's premier tricksters, who do have deep roots in world mythology. As suggested by the folklorist Alan Dundes, Bugs, qua Hare, may have had his origin within African oral literature (Dundes; Georges and Jones 148-49), from where the figure was wrested and taken to North America through the slave trade, there, perhaps entering the folklore of Native and Anglo Americans. Coyote may have had a like source, or, alternatively, his folkloric precedent may have been the twelfth-century European Renart (or Reynard or Reineke) the fox, who may have become conflated with the New World Coyote, much the same way as he did in southern Africa, with the Bushman trickster jackal, whom we will meet again below (Bleek, Reynard). The New World incarnations of hare and coyote/fox were such figures as Bre'r Rabbit and Bre'r Fox,3 Nanabush (or Nanbohzo), and Old Man Coyote, of the northeastern and southwestern American Indians, respectively, who along with Raven of the northwestern and Arctic regions, make up the trickster-trilogy of Native American and Canadian myth and lore.

We have banished the trickster figure from the mental, expressive, and religious domains of our own culture because it grates with the spirit of earnest thought and sober rationality...


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