When did you last play an April Fool’s Day joke on someone? When did the holiday itself begin? And what explains our general cultural fascination with tricks and tricksters?
Ask a folklorist and you’ll get some of the history, but we’ll also go into how pranks and trickster figures in myth and folklore subvert the social order…in some cases just to circle back and uphold it.
In other words, it’s complicated.
Tricksters have been with us for a long time, populating myths, legends, and folktales. Greek myth gives us the trickster Hermes, who pulls one over on sun god Apollo while still a baby; Hindu trickster Krishna performs similar hijinks. West African spider trickster Anansi shows up in various folk narratives (as well as in American Gods!), while Native American trickster Coyote (and in some places Raven) dances between narratives and ritual medicine. And of course Norse trickster Loki has been recently enjoying increased notoriety thanks to Marvel having their fun with him.
Lewis Hyde analyzes all these tricksters and more in his book Trickster Makes This World. Hyde argues that tricksters are often culture heroes, figures (sometimes ambiguously gendered) that disrespect borders and limits. They bolster humanity even as they give authority the middle finger.
Beyond myth, we see tricksters in a number of folktales. A handful of essays in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms flirt with these figures. In an essay on the Grimms’ “Clever Gretel,” Cristina Bacchilega analyzes the titular cook who takes great delight in sampling the food she prepares for her master. But she eats it all up, and tricks her master and his guest into each thinking the other is at fault. In Bacchilega’s interpretation, Gretel is a classic trickster: “a transgressive decoder of the heteronormative patriarchal symbolic order” (35). Similarly, in that collection, Margaret Mills analyzes a folktale (tale type *1351B in the Persian index) she collected in Afghanistan, about a mullah who writes a book on women’s tricks but is himself tricked by a woman into a humiliating and dangerous situation. Mills writes:
[T]he woman trickster reactively and opportunistically maneuvers her adversary onto turf that she does control, domestic space (and time), where he becomes just a tool in her larger scheme to dominate her husband, one that unfolds through her advance planning toward larger goals. It seems to me that male laughter in this and similar stories hinges in general on the instability of patriarchy, of apparent dominance and real power, both in male/male and male/female relations.Transgressive Tales 283
Where are tricksters in the here and now? In a publication with my colleague Linda Lee in the book Folklore and Social Media, I argue that the Biden memes from the 2016 election position Biden as a trickster: a boundary-crossing fun-loving kind of guy who pokes at the existing power structure.
Otherwise, we are the tricksters. April Fool’s Day dates back to the mid-1500s when King Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar, and those poor souls who refused to move their holidays in accordance with the shift were lampooned as fools (McEntire 135-136). By the mid-1700s, the custom had made its way to the English-speaking world, as Nan McEntire’s article delivers a rather complete history of this holiday.
The internet has of course allowed pranks to reach new heights: as information can spread faster, so can disinformation. Still, even in a time when high-tech pranks are feasible (falsehoods announced on websites, on news stations, and so on), many people continue to play low-key and low-tech pranks on one another: switching sugar for salt, making those cruel jokes about pregnancies or engagements or breakups, and so on.
Why the fascination with pranks and pranksters? I think Americans have a real love affair with the idea of getting away with something. Many (white/Euro-descended) Americans have grown up with the idea of the Wild West, the idolizing of the lone outlaw figure. We love the idea of being rebellious types, even as institutions regulate and govern our lives more than ever before. So I can see the appeal to a degree, even as I acknowledge that this romantic fantasy is already pretty exclusive; the story looks pretty different from the side of the colonizers than those being forcefully shoved out of their lands, right?
As Lewis Hyde points out, “trickster belongs to polytheism, or lacking that, he needs at least a relationship to other powers” (13). In other words, you don’t even get the coherent idea of a rule-breaker unless there are rules in the first place. Perhaps the draw of the trickster figure nowadays is that in empathizing with him (and sometimes her), we can briefly pretend that we’re not a part of existing power structures…we’re defying them, living outside them! It’s a quick pick-me-up of wish fulfillment before we get back to the daily grind.
I know that, come April 1, I’ll be trying to live my life as quietly as possible. I don’t need to play tricks on others to feel clever or good about myself; I get my wish fulfillment elsewhere (probably by reading entirely too much escapist fiction). But, if you’ll indulge me, and at least pause to wonder why we continue to obsess over tricks and tricksters, I’d love to hear your thoughts—or your best pranks!—in the comments.
Jeana Jorgensen on tricks and tricksters in this episode of Strange Customs with Sasha Sagan
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. First North Point paperback ed., North Point Press, 1999.
McEntire, Nancy Cassell. “Purposeful Deceptions of the April Fool.” Western Folklore, vol. 61, no. 2, 2002, pp. 133–151.
Turner, Kay, and Pauline Greenhill. Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms. Wayne State University Press, 2012.