Trickster gods

Trickster gods Deities representing change, communication, opportunity, and mischief. Tricksters played major roles in the cosmologies of many cultures. The oldest evidence of these gods appeared in the ancient Middle East and Europe. Cave paintings in France dating back 18,000 years depicted tricksters, whereas drawings of warriors and kings appeared about 9,000 years later. They are creators, destroyers, inventors of language, gatekeepers, facilitators, scoundrels, thieves, and seducers. They could be old men walking with a staff, animals, musicians, winged deities, or very well-endowed lovers.

In Western tradition, the Greek god HERMES (Mercury to the Romans) symbolized the Trickster. With his winged feet Hermes performed the duties of messenger to the gods and communicator between gods and mortals. He escorted souls to the underworld and was the patron of magic and medicine, carrying a caduceus as his staff. The Ptolemaic Greeks in Egypt associated Hermes with the ibis-headed god Thoth, who also served in the underworld, keeping account of the judgments passed by OSirIS on the souls of the dead. He brought writing to the Egyptians, while Hermes invented the alphabet for the Greeks. Merging the two deities created the legendary adept Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly the greatest philosopher and guardian of all occult knowledge.

Native American mythologies often identify spirits as animals that embody characteristics such as courage, strength, or resourcefulness. For many tribes, the Trickster is Coyote: shrewd and troublesome, but also a creator, teacher, lawgiver, and peacemaker. According to folklorists, the term trickster was not used by the native Americans but was coined to describe a recurring figure in myth for many different cultures. A story from the Chinook says that Coyote and Eagle traveled to the underworld to retrieve their dead wives. Every night, in a meeting lodge, an old woman swallowed the Moon, allowing the dead to appear, and every morning she vomited up the Moon and the dead disappeared. Coyote and Eagle built a large box, placed it at the entrance to the lodge, and then killed the old woman. Coyote ate the Moon, bringing out the dead, and then disgorged the Moon in the morning. But instead of disappearing, the dead souls were trapped in the box. Coyote begged to carry the box, but he opened it too soon, releasing death, and the souls of their wives disappeared.

According to the Montagnais tribe of Labrador, the god Messou received a box which his inquisitive wife could not wait to open; when she lifted the lid, man’s immortal essence flew away, leaving humankind subject to death. Both of these stories appear similar to the Greek myth of Pandora, who opened the box and allowed the forces of death and destruction to escape.

For the tribes of the American Southwest, the Trickster appears as a hump-backed flute player called Kokopelli, dating back to about 200 B.C.E. in the pictographs (rock paintings) and petroglyphs (rock carvings) of the Anasazi, or Ancient Strangers, who lived in the Four Corners: the intersection of present-day New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. His image also appeared in murals, ceramics, and baskets of the Hohokam, Mogollon, Hopi, Zuñi, Acoma, and Pueblo tribes. Koko refers to his wooden flute, while pelli or pilau means his sack, in which he carried seeds and plants to make the crops grow and thrive. Like his brethren, Kokopelli was a magician, healer, musician, lover, and symbol of fertility. He also carried blankets and even babies in his sack to entice the maidens he wanted to seduce. For a young Hopi woman, to be chosen as Kokopelli’s “dreamtime companion” was the highest honor. Kokopelli remains a popular figure, appearing on clothing, housewares, and decorative items designed to evoke the flavor of the Southwest.

But perhaps the gods most directly representative of the Trickster are those from West Africa. Known as orishas, they came to the New World on slave ships heavy with captives from the Yoruban, Fon, Mandingue, Iwe, Ibo, Congo, and other tribes of Nigeria, Dahomey, and Benin. Called the Eshus in the Spanish colonies and Exus in Portuguese Brazil, these gods again served as the messengers, the gatekeepers, the bringers of language, the facilitators, and mischief-makers. Eshu’s sign is the crossroads (carrefour). Slaves taken to French colonies, such as Haiti, worshipped loas instead of orishas; yet practices remained very similar.

There could be no interaction between gods and the faithful unless Eshu was called upon first to intercede. For members of the Yoruban tribes, all prayers began by inviting Eshu-Elegbara into the temple of worship—anything from a special building to a hidden altar in the woods. Since slaves were forbidden to practice their religion on pain of death, they disguised the names, colors, and symbols associated with Eshu in the trappings of a Catholic saint. Such syncretization was not too difficult, incorporating candles, offerings, crosses, and pleas for intercession. The Fon called their Eshu Legba; he is Legba or Eleggua to the practitioners of Vodoun as well. In the Brazilian religions of Candomblé and Umbanda, the Exus facilitate communication between the orishas and the faithful but are principally divine Tricksters: the gods of opportunity and choice, life and death.

The common depiction of Eshu-Elegbara as an old, dark-skinned man sucking on a pipe or his fingers, walking with a staff, belies his true nature: Eshu is voraciously lustful. Worshipers possessed of his spirit often grope the women in attendance. Even while busy with other divine matters, Eshu seeks sexual conquest. He is exceptionally well endowed, and statues of the god feature an enormous phallus that may be used during worship. As the symbol of communication and interaction, Eshu’s copulations become the ultimate connection. The results of such chaos lead to change, choice, and the success of the tribe.

Legba goes by many names, depending on the role he is playing. In Vodoun, he is the grand chemin: the way, the channel, symbolized by the center pole, or poteau, holding up the temple or peristyle. As such he is called Legba AtiBon, or Legba of the Good Wood. Legba is master of the crossroads, Maitre carefour, a position signifying magic as well as choice, since spells may be placed at an intersection or fork in the road.

Vodoun worshipers practice either “Rada” (from the Arada tribe) or “Petro” rites. Rada ceremonies follow more traditional African practice, whereas Petro embraces a more violent form inherited from the dances and ceremonies of the Caribe and Arawak natives on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Most of the loas or orishas have a darker side; the sexual spirits called Guedes represent an Eshu’s baser nature. The most famous Guede is Baron Samedi (Saturday, the day of death) or Baron Cimitiere (cemetery), master of graveyards, death, and black magic.

For Brazilian followers of Candomblé, Quimbanda provides spells of vengeance and retribution. King Exu, in company with Exu Mor (death, associated with Beelzebub and Ashtaroth) and Exu of the Crossroads, wield pain and destruction. Most feared is Exu of the Closed Paths. Calling this spirit involves taking a red satin cloth adorned with mystical symbols and placing it at a Crossroads. Four red and black crosses are placed on the cloth, accompanied by a cock that has been plucked and stuffed with red pepper and other devilish objects. Then the quimbandista lights 13 candles while intoning the name of the victim and invoking the aid of the powers of darkness. If the spell succeeds, the victim finds “all paths closed”—no choice, no job, no family, no way out: only death.

Modern occultists tolerate the Tricksters as by-products of contacting the spirits. Recommended methods of keeping the pranksters from taking control include burning incense, especially frankincense. In severe cases, dragon’s blood incense should discourage Trickster activity, but the practitioner risks losing good spirits in the process. To invite Trickster spirits, use elemi, mastic, sandarac, white sandalwood, fennel, lavender, or wormwood.


  • Davis, Erik. “Trickster at the Crossroads: West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit.” Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring 1991. Available online. URL: trickster.html. Downloaded July 5, 2004.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1999.
  • Hultkrantz, Ake. “Theories on the North American Trickster.” Originally appeared in Acta American, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1997. Available online. URL: bodhisattva/trickster.html. Downloaded July 5, 2004.
  • Stafford, Greg, and Sandy Peterson. “The Trickster.” Originally published in Questlines #1. Issaries Inc.: 1998. Available online. URL: Downloaded July 5, 2004.

The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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