Trickster Gods can be found in mythology around the world. While their stories are often entertaining, and sometimes terrifying, almost all tales of these gods of mischief were created to teach us something about ourselves. It could be to warn us that doing the wrong thing could be punished or to explain a natural phenomenon.
There are dozens of gods around the world that have been called the “god of mischief” or “god of deception,” and our folk tales include many other mythological beings of trickery, including Sprites, Elves, Leprechauns, and Narada.
While some of these beings and tales are quite well known to us, others are only just now being passed on as stories outside of their culture of origin.
Loki: Norse Trickster God
The Norse god Loki is described in Norse mythology as “very capricious in behavior” and “having tricks for every purpose.”
While today people know Loki from the character in Marvel movies played by British actor Tom Hiddleston, the original tales of the god of mischief was not Thor’s brother, or related to Odin.
However, he did claim to have had an affair with the god of thunder’s wife, Sif, and went on many adventures with the more famous deity.
Even the name tells us a little about Loki the trickster god. “Loki” is a term for “web spinners,” spiders, and some stories even talk about the god as a spider.
Even the word “spiderweb” in Swedish could be translated literally as “Loki’s net.” Perhaps this is why Loki is sometimes also referred to as the patron god of fishermen, and not at all surprising that he is sometimes called “the tangler.”
In modern times, many people have suggested that Loki’s “trickery” shows similarities to Christianity’s Lucifer. This theory became especially popular to Aryan theorists who were tasked by The Third Reich with proving that all religions stemmed from Norse mythology.
Today, few academics make this link but discuss if Loki is also the Norse god Lóðurr, who created the first humans.
Most of the tales of Loki we know today come from The Prose Edda, a thirteenth-century textbook. Only seven copies of the text exist from before 1600, each of them incomplete. However, by comparing them, scholars were able to recreate many of the great stories from Norse mythology, many of which had held oral tradition for millennia.
One of the best-known tales of Loki also happens to be the tale of how Thor’s famous hammer, Mjolnir, was made.
In Norse mythology, Mjolnir was not just a weapon but a divine instrument, having great spiritual power. The symbol of the hammer was used as a good luck symbol and has been found on jewelry, coins, art, and architecture.
The story of how the hammer came to be is found in the “Skáldskaparmál,” the second part of the Prose Edda.
How Mjolnir Was Made
Loki had thought it a prank to cut off the golden hair of the goddess Sif, wife of Thor. Her golden yellow locks were famous around the world and did not find the prank funny. Thor told Loki that, if he wanted to live, he had to go to the dwarven craftsman and make her new hair. Hair made of literal gold.
Being so impressed with the dwarves’ work, he decided to trick them into making more great wonders for him. He bet them his own head that they could not produce something better than the world’s greatest craftsman, the “Sons of Ivaldi.”
These dwarves, determined to kill Loki, got to work. Their measurements were careful, their hands firm, and if it wasn’t for a pesky fly biting them all the time, they may have produced something perfect.
However, when the fly bit the eye of one of the dwarves, he accidentally made the handle of the hammer slightly shorter than it should have been.
Having won the bet, Loki left with the hammer and gave it to the thunder god as a present. The dwarves would never learn that the fly was, in fact, Loki himself, using his supernatural powers to ensure the bet would be won.
Eris: The Greek Goddess of Discord and Strife
Eris, the Greek goddess of strife, was renamed as the Roman goddess Discordia, for that is all she brought. The trickster goddess wasn’t fun but brought about problems for all she visited.
Eris appears to be an ever-present goddess, though sometimes sent directly by others. However, besides being present to cause havoc among gods and men, she never appears to play a larger role in stories. Little is known of her life, her adventures, or her family.
The Greek poet Hesiod, wrote that she had 13 children including “Forgetfulness,” “Starvation,” “Manslaughters,” and “Disputes.” Perhaps the most unexpected of her “children” was “Oaths,” as Hesiod claimed that men taking oaths without thinking caused more problems than anything else ever could.
One interesting, though very dark, tale of Eris has her, like Loki, pitting craftsmen against each other to cause problems. Unlike the Norse god of mischief, however, she does not interfere. She simply lets the bet play out, knowing the loser would go on to commit atrocities in anger.
In another, much more famous tale, it is the golden apple owned by Eris (later known as the “Apple of Discord”) that was presented as a prize for the woman Paris chose as the most beautiful. That woman was the wife of King Menelaus, Helen, who we now know as “Helen of Troy.”
Yes, it was Eris who started the Trojan War, with a clever little prize she knew would cause trouble. It was her that led to the horrible fate of many poor men.
A more pleasant story of the deceptive goddess, and one which comes with a clear moral, can be found in the famous fables of Aesop. In it, she is referred to specifically as “Strife,” using the capitalized name to make clear that Athena refers to her fellow goddess.
The Fable of Eris and Heracles (Fable 534)
The following translation of the famous fable comes from Dr. Laura Gibbs, a lecturer from The University of Oklahoma.
Early English translations introduced strong Christian influences and downplayed the role of Greek and Roman gods. Some translations even remove the names of Contentiousness and Strife. Gibbs’ work at restoring mythology to these texts has encouraged other modern scholars to look for further examples of the Roman goddess in other works.
“Heracles was making his way through a narrow pass. He saw something that looked like an apple lying on the ground and he tried to smash it with his club. After having been struck by the club, the thing swelled up to twice its size. Heracles struck it again with his club, even harder than before, and the thing then expanded to such a size that it blocked Heracles’s way. Heracles let go of his club and stood there, amazed. Athena saw him and said, ‘O Heracles, don’t be so surprised! This thing that has brought about your confusion is Contentiousness and Strife. If you just leave it alone, it stays small; but if you decide to fight it, then it swells from its small size and grows large.”
Monkey King: Chinese Trickster God
For English-speaking people, the Monkey King may very well be the most recognizable god in Chinese mythology. This has been helped in no small part by the popularity of the 16th Century’s “Journey to the West” and the 1978 Japanese TV show “Monkey.”
“Journey to The West” is often called the most popular work in East Asian literature, and the first English translation came out in 1592, likely only a few years after the original. By the twentieth century, a number of Monkey’s exploits were known to English readers, despite the majority of the text being read only by academics.
Unlike other gods, Monkey, or “Sun Wukong” was not originally born as one. Instead, he was an ordinary monkey who had an unusual birth. Sun Wukong was born from a special heavenly stone. While born with great magical powers, including powerful strength and intelligence, he only became a god after many great adventures. Throughout the story of Monkey, he gains immortality multiple times and even battles the god of gods, The Jade Emperor.
Of course, many of Monkey’s adventures are those you would expect from a trickster. He cons the Dragon King into giving him a great and powerful staff, erases his name from “The Book of Life and Death,” and eats the sacred “pills of immortality.”
One of the most entertaining stories of the Monkey King is when he crashes the royal banquet of Xiwangmu, the “Queen Mother of the West.”
How Monkey Ruined a Banquet
At this time in his adventures, Monkey had been recognized as a god by The Jade Emperor. Rather than treat him as important, however, the emperor offers him the lowly position of “Guardian of the Peach Garden.” He was, basically, a scarecrow. Still, he spent his days happily eating the peaches, which increased his immortality.
One day, fairies visited the garden and Monkey heard them talking. They were choosing the best peaches to prepare for a royal banquet. All the great gods were invited. Monkey was not.
Angry at this snub, Monkey decided to crash the banquet.
Breaking in, he proceeded to drink ALL the food and drink, including the immortal wine, making himself more powerful. Drunk on the wine, he stumbled out of the hall and wandered the palace before stumbling upon the secret laboratory of the great Laozi. Here, he discovered the pills of immortality, which could only be eaten by the greatest of gods. Monkey, drunk on the heavenly wine, gobbled them down like candy, before leaving the palace and stumbling back to his own kingdom.
By the end of the adventure, Monkey had between twice more immortal, making him impossible to kill, even by the Jade Emperor himself.
While Loki, Eris, and Monkey are great examples of classic gods of mischief, other mythological trickster gods held more important roles in trying to explain why we have the world we do today.
These gods are lesser-known to people today but are arguably far more important to discuss.
These “trickster teachers” or “trickster creators” include many animal spirits like Raven, Coyote, and Crane.
Two gods whose names are becoming more well-known as we explore cultures with oral mythology including Wisakedjak and Anansi. While on other sides of the world, these gods of mischief had many similar adventures and played roles that were far more educational than Loki ever was.
Wisakedjak: The Clever Crane of Navajo Mythology
Wisakedjak, a crane spirit (the closest that American first nations people have to gods) from the storytelling of the Algonquian peoples is also known by other peoples as Nanabozho and Inktonme.
In more central American tales, Wisakedjak’s stories are often attributed to Coyote, the spirit of mischief in Navajo Mythology.
After colonization, some of Wisakedjak’s stories were told to children in new forms, their spirit given the anglicized name “Whiskey Jack.”
Wisakedjak’s tales are often teaching tales, similar to Aesop’s fables. The trickster god was known to pull pranks on those who were jealous or greedy, offering clever punishments for those who were bad. However, sometimes Wisakedjak’s tricks were less a punishment and more a clever way to introduce something to the world, explaining to first nations children how things had come to be.
One such story tells of how Wisakedjak made the moon, and punished two siblings for not working together in the process.
Wisakedjak and The Creation of The Moon
Before the moon existed, there was only the sun, which was cared for by an old man. Every morning the man would ensure the sun would rise, and every evening bring it down again. This was an important job, as it allowed the plants to grow and the animals to thrive. Without someone to look after the fire of the sun, and make sure it rose, the world would be no more.
READ MORE: Sun gods and goddesses
The old man had two young children, a boy and a girl. One night, after bringing down the sun, the old man turned to his children and said “I am so very tired, and now it is time for me to leave.”
His children understood that he was leaving to die, and to finally rest from his weary job. Fortunately, they were both ready to take over his important job. There was only one problem. Who would take over?
“It should be me,” said the boy. “I am the man and so must be the one to do heavy labor.”
“No, it should be me,” insisted his sister, “for I am the firstborn.”
The two children argued into the night, both certain that this important job should be theirs. Their arguing lasted so long that they did not realize that the sun was meant to rise, and the world remained in darkness.
The people on earth began to work.
“Where is the sun,” they cried, “can somebody save us?”
Wisakedjak heard their pleas and went to see what was wrong. He found the children still arguing, so passionately that they had nearly forgotten what they were arguing about.
“Enough!” the trickster god yelled.
He turned to the boy, “from now on you will work the sun, and keep the fires burning yourself. You will labor hard and alone, and I will change your name to Pisim.”
Wisakedjak turned to the girl. “And you will be Tipiskawipisim. I will create a new thing, a Moon, which you will care for at night. You will live on this moon, separated from your brother.”
To both, he said, “as punishment for your reckless arguing, I decree that you will only see each other once a year, and always from a distance.” And so it was that only once a year would you see both moon and sun in the sky during the day, but at night you would see the moon alone, and Tipiskawipisim looking down from on it.
Anansi: The African Spider God of Mischief
Anansi, the spider god, can be found in the stories originating out of West Africa. Due to the slave trade, the character also appears in a different form in Caribbean mythology.
In African lore, Anansi was known as much for playing tricks as he was for being tricked himself. His pranks usually end up with some sort of punishment as the victim gets revenge. However, one of the positive Anansi tales comes from when the trickster spider decides to “finally get wisdom.”
The Story of Anansi Getting Wisdom
Anansi knew he was a very clever animal and could outwit many people. Still, he knew that being clever was not enough. All the great gods were not just clever, they were wise. Anansi knew he was not wise. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be tricked so often himself. He wanted to become wise, but he did not have any idea how to do so.
Then one day, the spider god had a brilliant idea. If he could take a little wisdom from every person in the village, and store it all in a single container, he would be the owner of more wisdom than any other creature in the world.
The trickster god went door to door with a large hollow gourd (or coconut), asking each person for just a little of their wisdom. The people felt sorry for Anansi. For all the tricks he had made, they knew he was the least wise of them all.
“Here,” he would say, “take a little wisdom. I will still have so much more than you.”
Eventually, Anansi filled his gourd until it was overflowing with wisdom.
“Ha!” he laughed, “now I am wiser than all the village, and even the world! But if I do not store my wisdom safely, I might lose it.”
He looked around and found a large tree.
“If I hide my gourd high in the tree, no one could steal my wisdom from me.”
So the spider prepared to climb the tree. He took a cloth band and wrapped it around himself like a belt, tying the overflowing gourd to it. As he began to climb, however, the hard fruit kept getting in the way.
Anansi’s youngest son was walking by as he watched his father climb.
“What are you doing, father?”
“I am climbing this tree with all my wisdom.”
“Would it not be easier if you tied the gourd to your back?”
Anansi thought about it before shrugging. There was no harm in trying.
Anansi moved the gourd and continued to climb. It was much easier now and soon he reached the top of the very tall tree. The trickster god looked out over the village and beyond. He thought about his son’s advice. Anansi had walked all over the village to collect wisdom and his son was still wiser. He was proud of his son but felt foolish about his own endeavors.
“Take back your wisdom!” he cried and lifted the gourd over his head. He tossed the wisdom into the wind, which caught it up like dust, and spread it across the world. The wisdom of the gods, previously only found in Anansi’s village, was now given to the whole world so that it would be harder to trick anyone again.
READ MORE: African Gods
What are some other trickster gods?
While these five deities are some of the most well-known in world mythology, there are many gods and spiritual beings that follow the trickster archetype.
Greek mythology has the trickster god Hermes (messenger of the gods), and the Slavic underworld god Veles is known as particularly devious.
For Christians, the devil is “the great deceiver,” while many first nations people tell of the clever ways of the trickster god Raven. The Australian peoples have Kookaburra, while the Hindu god Krishna is considered one of the most mischievous gods of all.
Mythology is full of cheeky sprites and leprechauns, clever critters, and disreputable people who even played tricks on the gods themselves.
Who is the most powerful trickster god?
Sometimes people want to know who the most powerful trickster god is. If all these cunning, clever beings were put in a room, who would end up winning in a fight of mischief? While Eres brought trouble wherever the roman goddess went, and Loki was powerful enough to hold Mjolnir, the greatest of the trickster gods would have to be The Monkey King.
By the end of his adventures, Monkey was known to be five-times immortal, and impossible to kill by even the greatest of gods. His power came from his trickery, having not even been a god, to begin with. For Taoists today, Monkey is known to still be alive, helping maintain the traditions and teachings of Laozi for eternity.
That is pretty powerful indeed.