Trickster Gods and Their Unusual Relationship With Gender Bending
Most cultures around the world have their own varying forms of trickster gods, especially the more ancient oral and written traditions. Trickster gods are a slippery sort of character that show up in traditional tales where they use their greater intellect to manipulate others into doing what they want. In most of these stories the trickster god is highly intelligent, partially or totally self-absorbed, morally ambiguous, rebellious towards societal conventions, and are the hardest of all the gods to understand because they're ultimately unknowable. Their motivations are complex and they can show up just about anywhere doing anything. This has led a lot of modern observers to believe they're villains or bringers of chaos, a plot device in each story that shows in the end it's probably better just to keep up the status quo, but it's my belief this is a vast oversimplification of a far more interesting trend. Trickster gods can also be used to add the element of humor, humanity, or critical thinking. They can be celebrated as the creative spirit that drives change. They are neither good nor evil and each story they may be being used to highlight the deeper thinking in each saga. In modern Western society we like everything clear cut, a good guy, a bad guy, a conflict, and a very solid resolution based on the good guy doing good things. Tricksters deeply offend this sensibility because they're not always good or always bad, they are the embodiment of nuance. Ever more fascinating is sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don't, which lead many of us to wonder what the point of each story is. Still, even with this moral ambiguity they're still very popular and their archetype is making a comeback in literature.
The Trickster God and Gender
Trickster gods are most often male, however there's some debate if this is an accurate assumption or if female tricksters have just been forgotten by anthropologists and historians, who themselves tend to be male. I lean towards thinking the latter because many female trickster gods are not described as such in current resource material even though they clearly fit the criteria. However today, since I am focusing on more well known tricksters, I will be speaking mostly about their male forms. This is because throughout cultures trickster gods seem to have an unusual ability - that is they can change their sex at a whim and will often do so if it'll serve them in some way. I have focused on this one trait because I have found it to be the most interesting. On one hand it makes sense because tricksters are usually shape shifters, changing into the form of animals as well, but on the other hand it seems to make no sense at all. Many of these stories are absolutely baffling and the sex changes within them seem hard to grasp because by the end of the story our favorite tricksters usually return to their regular form without saying much about it at all. If anything the characters themselves seem utterly indifferent to this magic that would make the rest of us a little uneasy to say the least. One wonders if that isn't in and of itself a message from our ancestors.
Loki is one of the more well liked trickster gods in today's society simply because modern people have an easier time relating to him than some of the more ancient gods who can be a bit abstract. His struggles seem very familiar to those we deal with every day within our own rule abiding societies. Loki doesn't like the way things are done and frequently rebels against the systems he finds himself in. He also is frequently motivated by jealousy. Both these characteristics translate well to modern retellings. But at his core Loki is a Norse god and a very stereotypical underdog. Most see him as being a little narcissistic or as being the plot device that undermines the basic rules of society. However, most modern retellings leave out his dubious relationship to sex and gender probably because it's a bit uncomfortable not to do so.
The easiest story I can point to for this one would be the Raising of the Walls of Asgard. This story starts when a stone mason wanders into Asgard and tells all the gods that they need protection from invaders and that he can provide exactly that by building a vast wall around Asgard. He would be happy to do so if only he were paid the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freya's hand in marriage. Most of the gods say absolutely not but Loki comes in and convinces everyone it's a safe bet - just give him an unreasonably short period of time to finish the wall and refuse to pay him when he doesn't meet the deadline. Begrudgingly they set forth with this plan.
The stone mason begins to build the wall, and just as planned, he works very slowly all by himself. He then asks if he can't have a little help, from his trusty horse, and the gods took pity on him an allowed him this luxury. What they didn't know was the horse was a magical stallion that could outwork the mason and speed up his building process to the point he could make the deadline.
Not happy about this the gods called Loki back in, who by now is under suspicion of undermining the security of Asgard for feckless reasons, and they basically tell him he has to fix this problem. Their solution was to get rid of the stallion. Loki relents and sets about working on the stallion problem.
This is where things get weird. Instead of killing the stallion Loki makes the unusual decision to seduce it instead. He morphs himself into a beautiful mare and lures the stallion into the wilderness where he's never seen again. One might think this was just a clever trick to bait the stallion to his death but then Loki shows up again, in Asgard, dragging behind him a magical eight-legged horse, that clearly he's given birth to while he was still a mare and raised. Bizarrely, no one discusses this, and without any real reason Odin merely takes this strange monstrosity aside and starts using it as his own personal steed. It accompanies him in one shamanic journey to the next where it travels to different worlds.
As we conclude the story the stone mason is discovered to be an evil giant and Thor kills him by bashing in his head in with his hammer. Why he didn't do that to begin with is really perplexing. Far more so is Loki's role. There wasn't much need for trickery here but he seems to have gone all out. And the story which might be dismissed as some sort of homoerotic tale is dismissed as such with the introduction of the eight legged colt, which was clearly conceived by a female Loki. I'm not sure anyone will be able to tease out the real reason this story is as wildly bizarre as it is, but the fact it's lived into the current day must mean something.
Tricksters in Greek Mythology
I grew up loving Greek mythology, mostly because so many of the gods here are tricksters themselves and there's a lot of strange things going on between sex and gender as well. Most of these gods aren't academically known as tricksters but I could easily argue that they are. Zeus, for instance, shows a great fondness for shape shifting and shares in the insatiable sexuality of other trickster gods, often luring mortal woman as his conquests. One of his most well known escapades involves him transforming into a swan and raping queen Leda. Although it's true Zues maintains masculine form in all these stories it's no less confusing, especially when queen Leda lays an egg. This really may be just another plot device allowing other divinities and half divinities like Hercules to be born. However that doesn't explain the occasional male lovers Zeus also has like Ganymede, who he abducts after turning himself into an eagle and flying away with him. Maybe there was some significance to birds, bulls, and horses, that I am missing. Hard to say!
But if turning yourself into a rapey swan isn't weird enough Zeus really outdid himself trying to trick Ixion. Ixion was a human Zeus pitied and brought to Olympus, where he immediately fell head over heals for Zeus' often neglected wife Hera. Hypocritically Zeus could not stand for cheating (if his wife were the one doing it.) So he shaped a cloud into the form of Hera and sent it to Ixiom who had his way with it. And if having intercourse with a cloud isn't confusing enough, the cloud then gets pregnant and eventually births Centaurus, who then grows up, has his way with an entire herd of mares, and sires the entire centaur race of half horse half humans. That's a lot to digest for anyone. At the beginning of the story Zeus' attitude towards cheating lets you know just how patriarchal a society this was (while he's off having swan sex with random women) but it gets muddled when the cloud comes in. Are clouds inherently female? They do bring rain, which might be seen as inherently feminine in it's life-giving properties. But then what on earth do horses have to do with anything? Maybe it's best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or anywhere else if they're springing from Greek mythology.
Hermaphroditus was another interesting God. Originally this god was male, until that is ,he fell in love with a nymph, Salmakis. She prayed to the gods to be united with him forever and the gods, being quite literal, granted her just that when they merged Hermaphroditus with Salmakis. Together they formed the god of hermaphrodites (now most likely referring to intersex people) and effeminate men.
And then we come to trickster humans with gender issues. The first is Achilles. In one tradition Achilles was raised as a girl. This was to protect him since his mother was told by a oracle that Achilles would die in battle. Instead of allowing this to happen she shoved her little boy in a dress and hid him in a harem of princesses under the name Pyrrah. Achilles was not a trickster god, or even a proper divinity, but he did pull this gender bending forgery throughout much of his youth, only cracking when Odysseus tricked him into picking up a sword, which apparently identified him as male. Why? Because clearly girls don't like sharp things.
The exact opposite thing happened after the birth of Iphis. Iphis was a baby girl born to a woman whose husband wanted sons so badly he threatened to kill any daughter his wife bore. To save her life her mother gave her a man's name and raised her as a boy. That seemed to go OK until it was time to marry their little lady-lad off. She fell in love with her new bride-to-be but this poor woman had no idea her husband-to-be was actually not a man. Iphis prayed desperately to the Egyptian Goddess Isis, to intervene and while she was at the alter saying her vows she found her anatomy magically changing. They lived happily ever after and no one was the wiser. It's interesting to note that in Achilles story his gender couldn't be changed by his upbringing but Iphis' could and did. I guess it's better to be a man in a man's world.
Seth - Egyptian Trickster God
Before we get into Seth the ancient Egyptian trickster god we should probably take a moment to reflect upon how gender was identified at the time. Ancient Egyptians saw three genders which were divided by their reproductive roles. There were men, women, and a third option of eunuch. Eunuchs were men who did not produce offspring. Interestingly there seemed to be no distinction between eunuchs as we define them in the Western world, gay men, or infertile men, they all got the same treatment. Also curiously infertile women and lesbians did not create their own gender, they were still considered female merely because of their potential to still bring life into the world.
With that being said Seth was both a trickster god and Eunuch in all three senses. Seth had a wife but he had no children with her and spent pretty much all his time hanging out with other male gods suggesting he was perhaps gay. But in later stories he also became physically a eunuch when he castrated himself and in doing so gave birth to a race called the Ammiu which sprang forth from his blood. Castration at the time was considered as close to a sex change as you could get, replacing a man's dangling anatomy with a bleeding wound perhaps more reminiscent of a natural woman. What's curious is that when this is applied to the gods they can become pseudo-mothers, a bit like Frankenstein when he brought to life his monster without the aid of a woman.
Set was a powerful deity, placed high in the divine pedigree, as one of the original god's sons. He had a strange appearance with the head of an animal that still has modern onlookers guessing. Over time he had numerous power struggles both within the human realm (which stopped worshiping him as much in favor of imported gods) and within his divine realm, trying to keep power within this own circle. He was fierce, temperamental, and all powerful. If he was upset he could conjure windstorms, earthquakes, severe storms, lightning, hurricanes, and all forms of natural disaster. The desert was his territory. He was someone who was prayed to a lot because if you didn't have his favor he could make you pay dearly.
Coyote - Native American Trickster God
Coyote is a trickster god that shows up in a lot of Native American oral traditions. He seems to have had a very wide range as many tribes throughout the United States seemed to have Coyote as a fixture in their stories. Of course each tribe has their own take and sometimes he's not even a coyote but a fox or a spider. Other times he's not even male but randomly female whenever gender bending suits him. And to others he's a bit racy, bringing a rapacious sexuality and a great deal of raunchy humor. What seems to be most common is the fact he's an outsider to regular society, an instigator, a way to highlight social and moral morays. He's more often the bad guy than not but again it's not really that clear cut. His most popular story is when he brings Death into the world. At first glance this could be considered a bad thing but he only does it because the world had become overpopulated and everyone was starving from the lack of food to go around. With Death in place this issue resolved itself so was it really a bad thing to do? Arguably it wasn't.
He is very reminiscent of Pan in Greek mythology in the fact he's lusty and constantly after women. In some stories he's even freakishly endowed, with a trouser snake so long he has to keep it in a backpack slung over his shoulder so that it doesn't slither it's way across rivers and find safe lodging in some woman without it's owner even knowing! Because this depiction of masculinity is so over the top it seems very odd that he'd also be the same god that changes into female form for largely petty reasons. In one story he meets the Chief's son who refuses to marry because no woman he has met has been good enough for him so Coyote turns into a woman and tricks him into marriage. At the end of the story the chief's son is shunned for marrying Coyote and Coyote turns back into masculine form. But perhaps we can learn more about where Coyote is coming from by examining the stories in which he's female throughout. In one Hopi story the name changes to Mother Coyote as she blunders in and tries to befriend the Bird Girls, who are grinding corn. They allow her to sit with them and learn how to grind corn, which she does really terribly. She laments to the Bird Girls that she wishes she could fly and they give her a few of their feathers but while she's in flight they pluck the feathers from her and she falls flat on the ground.
In both these stories Coyote serves to highlight the importance of various gender roles. Whether he is tricking women or men into marrying (as this seems to be a theme throughout) the difference doesn't matter because the point is marriage is something to be achieved not shunned. It's important to understand in communal families marriage is very important to raise offspring and keep everything running as usual. In the corn grinding story Coyote comes in again to highlight the importance of domestic work and perhaps the frivolity of trying to achieve something you weren't born to do. Coyote is of particular interest because he inhabits a world that is largely matriarchal, the exact opposite of his European counterparts. Perhaps what we can devise from this is that it doesn't matter the structure a society takes, there should always be a character that questions or exhibits the virtues of, the appropriate gender roles.
Huehuecóyotl - Aztec Trickster God
Prior to the arrival of Europeans much of South America worshiped a number of deities who were androgynous in nature, imbibing opposites including both female and male traits. When Europeans started recording the rituals and religions of indigenous peoples they had a strong tendency to omit out how important women were to these religions and focused on only male deities and religious roles. This did a massive disservice to history as the area had a long tradition of androgynous deities and women who worked in parallel with men in society, serving different but no less important roles.
Many of these divinities were also tricksters and one of the more recognizable would be Huehuecóyotl, which translates as, "really old coyote." He's a male god but also a shape-shifter and as such can sometimes be transformed into a woman in various stories. He's a playful spirit, prone to boredom, and that seems to be his motivation to get into trouble. He's neither good nor evil but many of his actions seem to humorously cause a lot more heart ache than intended. Even so he is the god of male sexuality, good luck, and story telling.
Krishna - Hindu Trickster God
Krishna might well be the most lovable trickster gods I have ever come across and it might be just because he stars in so many stories from his birth all the way into adulthood. The whole time he's a playful rebellious personality that is nothing like the regular heroic masculine god archetypes. Instead, from the time he's an infant, he's playing many of the same games Hermes did, stealing cows, and playing music, where he becomes super fond of butter. I don't know what it is about a butter biting baby but it's an iconographic image that sticks in your mind!
As a teenager Krishna is depicted as looking very soft and feminine with a lot of progressive, even some may say feminist, ideals. He spends much of his time teasing and tricking the gopi, female cow herders, who are enamored with his singing and story telling. Many of them are taken as his lovers which in many ways makes Krishna a very male God but then the stories get a bit more complicated.
In the Mahabharata we meet Iravan, a male God who knows he is about to die in battle. He wishes to have a wife for one night before he does but none of the women want to marry a husband for just one night until Krishna comes onto the scene and morphs into female form, Mohini, to satisfy this request and they wed as man and wife. This act is still celebrated today in an eighteen day festival where men symbolically wed Iravan and suffer widowhood at the end just as Krishna/Mohini did. According to this story he stayed in female form as a sign of mourning for quite some time before turning back into a male god.
Perhaps this gender bending is what gives him a more empathetic approach to women than many others. In one tales he befriends a dominant woman who already has seven husbands. None-the-less he still fawns over her but she turns his advances down. Then he comes upon her one night about to be raped with all seven of her husbands just watching, none of them moving to stop such an act of violence. He rescues her and makes the other husbands look like -insert favorite curse word here.- From here he doesn't blame his woman friend for baiting the rapists as most men of that era would have done.
This is by far not a comprehensive list of gender bending trickster gods and lesser deities but it's a good start! I will be all the happier to be continuing into this subject matter as I address gender in creation myths next...