The trickster is an important archetype in any religion or myth because it provides an outlet for all of the chaotic and destructive emotions and tendencies of a people that are controlled by a larger social construct. It is through a trickster figure that people of a religion or society are able to explore the more untamed side of their nature while additionally presenting them with the consequences of those desires. The trickster is a figure that at once both mocks social morals and at the same time also reinforces those morals by showing the pandemonium and trouble that arises if the people do not follow the rules that are in place.
The trickster also allows the people of a religion to express ideas and desires that might not ordinarily be acceptable in their society. In this way the trickster plays a very important and cathartic role in a religion or myth. Penelope, from Homers The Odyssey, is a woman of grit and spirit. Ellen Shull declares in her essay “Valuing Multiple Critical Approaches: Penelope, Again… and Again” that Penelope is “the paragon of resilient womanhood” (32). However, a trickster god, like Monkey from Wu Ch’eng-en’s novel Monkey, and a mortal woman like Penelope appear to have nothing in common.
Their roles are so different and their apparent purposes are even more so. On the surface it may seem as though Penelope from The Odyssey shares very little resemblance with a trickster god. However, when one takes a closer look the similarities become more obvious. Penelope is at once a powerful figure that adheres to the social norms of her patriarchal society while still rebelliously challenging the acknowledged rules of how a woman should behave. This can be seen as how a trickster like Monkey is used in myth to subvert a society’s own beliefs.
Penelope is the other side of the coin of what it means to be a trickster. She is the female version as it were. Penelope may not be male, amoral, animal, or supernatural but she is cunning, childish, inventive, and she also a subversive figure within her patriarchal society. The most obvious source of incompatibility of Penelope being a trickster is that she is female while the trickster is usually a male like Monkey. Now, unless Penelope was even more deceitful than anyone had ever imagined then it is safe to say that she is not a trickster god based on that one quality alone.
Leeming states that the trickster is “always male” (163). Obviously, Penelope is not male which means that she is, according to Leeming, not a trickster god, no exceptions. But if Leeming were to make an exception then Penelope would be one. Penelope is a woman who must work against all the restrictions and suffocating bounds that her society uses to leash women in order to trick the people surrounding her and she does. “She deceives the suitors and even her own husband” (Mueller, 337). Penelope even has long lasting deceptions that fool people for years.
The sexual organs Penelope was born with seem to be of little importance when compared to the massive opposing powers and influences that she if forced to undermine and battle against. The next point of disparity between Penelope and a trickster figure like Monkey is that the trickster is seen as a philandering, unprincipled, hooligan. The trickster is considered to be an ethically neutral figure with a propensity for getting into humorous predicaments. Leeming calls the trickster “amoral…outrageous… [and is] untamed by the larger social conscience”).
Monkey is a perfect example of this side of a trickster. Monkey is not exactly immoral he just has his own sense of what the right thing to do is and he is overwhelmingly selfish. Every action and quest he takes at the beginning of his story is motivated by his desire to be immortal and to gain power. Even when Monkey protects his other monkey subjects he does so because he wants to maintain his kingship more than out of a fear for their safety and wellbeing. One could even posit that the monkeys would be better off without him because he brings the wrath of heaven down upon them.
Monkey has all these qualities that Leeming states a trickster is comprised of. Penelope, on the other hand, is none of these things. In fact, she is usually remembered for her faithfulness to her husband even though he was gone for twenty years. Penelope “waits in Ithaca for Odysseus. She looks after his home, his son and his estate. She weeps lonely tears but nothing induces her to betray her husband and to neglect her duties, not even under pressure from the suitors does she contemplate infidelity” (Smit, 393-394).
Her unwavering loyalty to her husband and her devotion to the gods are not the sort of characteristics seen in the trickster who typically represents lower or baser instincts and functions. Penelope is a classy lady but again she also has that side to her that rebels at the rules of her culture. Some might even call her a vain tease for keeping her suitors around for so long while never picking one or giving in to their masculine power. Penelope, also, does not fit in the trickster category because she is only human while a trickster is usually an animal.
Leeming states that a trickster “takes animal form” (163). Monkey obviously fits into this category. Not only is he a monkey but he has mystical origins. He was born from a stone. In fact Monkey’s animal form is a point of ire for him because he in Monkey he tries become more and more human-like. He starts wearing clothes and stands upright in an attempt to appear more human. This fight between animal and human characteristics is vital in a trickster figure because that animal quality is in part what allows them to get away with their mischief. Penelope is no dog. Or any animal for that matter.
She is in fact a very desirable woman with scores of suitors fighting for her hand in marriage. This does not help her in the trickster category but it does, however, show how her beauty and desirability are in part what allow her to get away with her schemes. Her beauty can even be seen as her animal side because it basically serves the same function that the animal form serves the trickster. An animal form, or in the case of Penelope, her beauty, is a metaphor of who they are and it allows them to be more completely that character and it allows them to do things that would not ordinarily be acceptable within that society.
Penelope’s beauty is what allows her to subvert her patriarchal culture because her beauty gives her power over her suitors. She is a woman but she uses that to her advantage. It could also been seen that being a woman in the time of The Odyssey was akin to being an animal because it was such a male dominant culture where woman were little more than chattel or bargaining pieces. Maybe Penelope has more trickster qualities than are first apparent. The last way that Penelope does not fit into the trickster category is that she has no supernatural powers. Leeming “” ().
She has no magical powers which show even further how she is not like a trickster. The trickster is almost always a supernatural figure. This category obviously denotes that a trickster has otherworldly abilities with which to influence outcomes. Penelope works entirely in the realm of her intelligence to bring about the results and tricks that she has concocted. This can make Penelope seem as being more skilled than a god who needs magic to bring about the outcome that he so desires. When compared to Penelope supernatural powers might be viewed as cheating.