The origins of April Fools’ Day are shrouded in a bit of mystery but probably hark back to the time when, in the Middle Ages, the calendar was changed. March 25 had been the beginning of the new year and in some places in Europe it touched off a weeklong celebration, ending on April 1. Whatever the beginnings, April Fools’ Day or something similar, has a long tradition in many cultures around the world.
Why would a practice of scamming somebody, embarrassing them and making them look ridiculous, be so popular, you ask? We have only to look at the long list of tricksters and pranksters in mythology and literature to see that playing jokes, taking authority down a peg, and generally creating a little chaos where the heavy hand of tradition rules, have always been widespread practices. They make us laugh, they lighten the heavy load of life— which was much heavier in the Middle Ages when most of us would have been peasants or slaves— and gave hope that the future will be brighter than the present.
Famous tricksters include the Norse god, Loki, whose tales helped explain natural phenomena like earthquakes while providing a naughty, often nasty foe for Odin and Thor. In many Native American cultures Coyote is a trickster who can shape-shift as man or coyote and is often portrayed as being part of creation myths.
Some pranksters are helpful, some harmful. Often they are mix of both. Puss ‘n Boots, a French-Italian character, helps his master, the third and lowly son in the family, find wealth and love through deception. A German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel, was possibly a real vagrant and highwayman whose wicked ways became the stuff of legend, even though many of his pranks were scatological in nature (involving tricking people into touching, smelling, or even eating his… poop.)
[When I read about Till Eulenspiegel I thought of the scene in ‘The Help’ when a disgruntled maid tricks her uppity employer into eating a pie made from— spoiler alert— excrement. She deserves a special April Fools Award, no? Shall we call it Der Eulenspiegel? Jawohl!]
Speaking of the South, the tales of Br’er Rabbit circulated for centuries before they were written down, told on plantations among slaves, and originating in Africa. While the Uncle Remus versions may be distasteful today the originals had a purpose, to create laughter, release stress, and show that sometimes you have to use your wits to get out of the sticky wicket. Algonquin and Cherokee tales incorporated many of these same stories of the trickster rabbit, taken from slaves.
Tricksters aren’t limited to the Western Hemisphere. In Japan a nine-tailed fox called Kitsune was originally a Chinese creature. The Japanese lived in close proximity with foxes and during their superstitious periods believed the fox was magical and slightly evil.
Another fox of trickster lore is Reynard who appears in early French tales. His name became so synonymous with ‘fox’ that the French word for fox, goupil, is now archaic. From the Alsace-Lorraine region straddling France and Germany, his stories first appeared in the 12th Century in Latin poems and spread throughout northern Europe.
There are so many more from around the world: Kuma Lisa, a trickster fox of Bulgaria, the Curupira, a red-haired jungle genie in Brazil, and Maui, a Polynesian trickster who hauls islands out of the sea.
We see them regularly in books and on screen: Captain Jack Sparrow, an amoral ‘bricoleur’ who can take a messy situation and somehow make it right, The Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’, the ultimate shape-shifter, and those prankster brothers from another mother: Dennis the Menace and Bart Simpson.
In books and stories we are often drawn to the most colorful characters. Whether we’re writers or readers, villains and jokesters can make or break a book. We love when the hero’s perfect day is shattered by something funny or humiliating, when the heroine is shocked by a little mayhem. Is it any wonder we are fascinated with bad boys, motorcycle gangsters, despicable rich assholes, and the ultimate chaos-creator, the serial killer?
The comical sidekick, or someone like Shakespeare’s Puck, the shrewd knave from Midsummer Night’s Dream, offers a break from the grim business of murder, or falling in love with an ass. Shakespeare knew the incredible value of comic relief in any story. And so did generations of lovers of a good tale before and after.
April Fools! Go out and do some dirty work. I’ll be there right after I finish these ‘Kick Me’ signs…
PS: Send nominations for your favorite trickster. Der Eulenspiegel 2016 is on the line.