Trickster Gods of African Myth
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Trickster Gods play an important role in mythology. They break the rules of society, and frequently their actions benefit humanity – either deliberately or accidentally, as a result of their schemes going awry.
Many pantheons have at least one Trickster God, and while they are all different, there are some attributes that are common to find in these gods, such as the ability to shapeshift, a talent for wordplay and cunning, and a penchant for larceny.
This week, we’re taking a look at Trickster Gods in African myth, from Anansi to Set, and what legends say about just a few of these incredible figures.
Anansi is a trickster figure appearing in myths and legends across West Africa, believed to have originated in Ghana. He is associated with spiders (his name literally translating as spider in the Akan language) and in some myths he takes the form of a spider, or a man capable of taking a spider-like form.
Anansi is believed to be the owner of all the stories in the world. The stories once belonged to Nyame, an omniscient sky god. Wishing to own them, Anansi went to Nyame and requested to buy the stories from him. Nyame was reluctant to sell, and so set what he believed to be an impossible task, for Anansi to complete. Anansi was to capture the four most dangerous creatures in the world. Ansansi told Nyame that he would not only bring Nyame these creatures, but he would throw in his own mother as part of the bargain.
Following the advice of his wife, Aso, Anansi managed to use trickery to capture all four creatures. Onini the python, he claimed, was shorter than a length of palm tree that he had brought with him. Eager to prove himself, the python stretched out beside the branch, giving Anansi the opportunity to lash the snake to the branch. The leopard, Osebo, Anansi managed to capture in a pit, before knocking him out under the guise of helping. He used similar tricks to capture the other two creatures, a hive of Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the Fairy.
Nyame was so impressed that Anansi had managed to complete his tasks that be bequeathed the stories to Anansi, and declared that from now on, no story would belong to him. They would all be a Spider Story.
Appearing primarily in the mythology of the Igbo people of Nigeria, Ekwensu is often seen as an evil figure, and the source of all evil in the world. He is often used as an equivalent to Satan, and his name is often taken to be synonymous with the devil.
This interpretation is largely due to Christian missionaries, who supplanted earlier mythology to make it more compatible with their own religious beliefs. Chukwu, a supreme creator deity became akin to God and Ekwensu, a crafty god of war, became akin to the devil.
In earlier depictions, Ekwensu was an agent of chaos (as many trickster gods are) but he was not evil. As a war god he was associated with violence, and people committing violent acts in peacetime were thought to be under Ekwensu’s influence. However, Ekwensu was also a god associated with merchants and trade. People may invoke his craftiness and cunning in matters of trade and negotiation, ensuring that they got the best deal.
A trickster god belonging to the Fon people of The Republic of Benin, Legba is the youngest of creator deity, Mawu-Lisa’s seven children. Legba serves as a linguist and translator, conveying the messages of Mawu-Lisa to human who are unable to understand the deity’s cryptic messages. It is not only humans who must go through Legba –even the other gods must first convey their wishes to him, before approaching Mawu-Lisa.
On the surface, Legba may not appear to be much of a trickster, but he is not always reliable, and loves to confuse, so his messages are not always accurate. In addition to this, it is believed that it was his own actions that caused Mawu-Lisa to distance from the earth – allowing him to take on the role of mediator and messenger in the first place!
Ti Malice is a trickster figure in Haitian folklore. He is cunning and clever, but lazy, and serves as the nemesis and antithesis to the unlucky Uncle Bouki, who is greedy and imbecilic, but hardworking. Ti Malice normally comes out on top of their encounters, with Uncle Bouki getting the short end of the stick. Ti Malice’s tricks vary from slightly malicious to wicked and harmful, so it is best to be wary.
Legends of Ti Malice and Uncle Bouki are primarily passed down in oral tales and are believed by some to originate from Anansi myths. It is thought that the deity’s characteristics were divided between the two.
In addition to being known as a trickster god, the Egyptian Set, or Seth, had many titles. He was known as Lord of the Desert and Master of Storms, as well as being associated with disorder, chaos, and war. Between the vastness of the land, the treachery of shifting sand dunes, and the risk of sandstorms, it is easy to see why the Egyptians may have associated the desert with a chaotic trickster god.
Set was the brother of Osiris and uncle to Horus – one of the most significant Egyptian deities and ruler of the gods. Set murdered Osiris, though his reasoning for doing so was unclear, with some sources saying that Set did so because Osiris had slept with his wife. He cut his brother’s body into pieces and scattered them so that he could never reform. Isis, Osiris’ wife, managed to find and unify the pieces in a process said to inspire Egyptian mummification rituals. Osiris was temporarily returned to life, and conceived his son Horus, who became Set’s enemy. Set made many attempts to steal the throne from Horus, but each was unsuccessful.
These are, of course, only a few of the incredible trickster deities that can be found across Africa. From shapeshifter and storyteller to fratricidal desert-lord, these gods are different, but all have something in common; they are cunning, they are clever and (though sometimes unsuccessful) they stop at nothing to get what they want.