by Terri Windling
Now listen, I'm going to tell you a story.
This was back when all the animals were people, before the Human People came. Creator called all them Animal People together and said, "There's going to be a change. New people comin', and you old people got to have new names. You come 'round tomorrow morning, and you can pick your own new names, first ones first until they're gone. And then he goes home to bed.
Well that Coyote, he goes back to Mole, his wife, and he's all frettin' now, he's scratchin' and he's thinking hard, and Mole, she's lookin' nervous 'cause there's always trouble close behind when Coyote starts to think. "Mole," he says, "build up that fire, I'm going to stay awake all night. I'm going to be the first in line tomorrow at Creator's door. I'm going to get a strong new name. A better name. A power name. Maybe I'll be Bear," he says. "Or maybe I'll be Salmon. Or maybe I'll be Eagle, and then they'll treat me with respect."
So Coyote, he sits down beside that fire and tries to stay awake, but just a little while later he's fast asleep and snoring. Mole lets him sleep. She's thinking if Coyote gets a better name then maybe he'll just up and leave, that mangy, sneaky thing. Mole waits until the sun is high, and then she wakes her husband up.
Coyote runs right over to Creator, but he's much too late. All the power names are gone. All the little names are gone. The only name that's left now is Coyote -- which nobody wants.
Coyote sits down by Creator's fire, quiet now, and sad. It makes Creator start to feel real bad to see him sit like that. He says, "Coyote, my old friend, it's good you have the name you have. That's why I made you sleep so late. I've got important work for you. The Human People are comin' and you've got to go and help them out. They won't know anything, those ones, not how to hunt, or fish, or dress, or sing, or dance, or anything. It's your job now to show them how to do it all and do it right."
Coyote, he jumps up and he's all smilin' now, with all them teeth. "So I'll be the Big Chief of these new people!" Coyote says.
Creator laughs. "Yeah, somethin' like that. But you're still Old Coyote, you know. You're still a fool; that's what you are. But I'll make things easier for you. From now on you'll have these special powers: to change your shape, to hear anything talk except the water, and if you die you can come back to life. Now go and do your work."
Coyote left that tipi very happy. He went to find them Human People and to do his work. He went to make things right, and that's when all the humans' troubles began....
It is winter now as I sit in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, contemplating Coyote and his sack full of Trickster tales. In a number of Native American cultures, it is considered inappropriate, even dangerous, to tell Coyote tales at any other time of year; it is disrespectful to Coyote and unlucky to attract his attention by telling his stories out of season. Wild coyotes, cousin to the Trickster of legend, often appear in the dry stream bed just beyond my office window. They are beautiful creatures, untamable, sensibly wary of humankind. It is not at all unusual to see coyotes here in the desert outskirts of Tucson, but there seem to be more and more of them lately -- drawn here by my interest in their stories, the traditionalists would say. It is one thing to read Coyote tales as I first did years ago in New York City, far from the creature's natural haunts; quite another thing to read them here, where coyotes roam the yard at night, making an eerie noise that sounds remarkably like laughter.
It is in the desert that I've begun to truly understand how myths are drawn from the bones of each land's geography -- and how very different oral stories become when they are committed to the printed page, divorced from the land which birthed them. Too often printed versions of Coyote tales read (to urban and suburban readers) like simple children's fables: This is why the beaver's tail is flat, this is why the sky is filled with stars. In the oral tradition, Coyote stories are marked by their combination of outrageous (sometimes X-rated) humor and elements of great profundity; they are stories in which the sacred and profane are tied ineluctably together. "They are funny stories," a Diné (Navajo) friend tells me, "but they are also sacred and serious. Trickster reminds us not to be too simplistically dualistic in our thinking; that good can come out of bad and vice versa; and that right and wrong are not always poles apart."
Although Coyote may be the best known mythic Trickster in North America, other popular Tricksters can be found in myths and legends all around the world, from the woodlands of northern Canada to the rain forests of the Amazon, from the fairy glens of the British Isles to the haunted shrines of the Orient. Tricksters are contradictory creatures: they are liars, knaves, rascals, fools, clowns, con men, lechers, and thieves -- but they are also culture heroes whose tricks can do great good as well as great harm, and whose stories serve to uphold the very traditions mocked by their antics. As folklorist Christopher Vecsey notes, regarding Trickster in West Africa: "By breaking patterns of culture the Trickster helps define those patterns. By acting irresponsibly, he helps define responsibility." (1) Trickster's role to shake things up, to ignore established conventions and to transgress traditional boundaries, thereby initiating acts of change and transformation, for good or for ill.
Trickster can be an agent of creation or destruction, a cunning hero or a predatory villain; most often he is an ambivalent figure, shifting back and forth from one mode to the other. In some tales, his tricks allow humankind to obtain fire, language, laughter, song, sacred rituals, hunting, and love-making skills, while other tales show how his tricks gone awry have resulted in death, disease, sorrow, and strife entering the world. He is often portrayed as a creature at the mercy of overweening vanity and prodigious appetites (for food, for sex, for social power and recognition), perpetually undermined by these things and yet also perpetually undaunted by failure. As Robert D. Pelton comments in The Trickster in West Africa, Tricksters are "beings of the beginning, working in some complex relationship with the High God; transformers, helping to bring the present human world into being; performers of heroic acts on behalf of men, yet in their original form, and in some later forms, foolish, obscene, laughable, yet indomitable." (2)
The word "trickster" first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the eighteenth century, where it was defined as "one who cheats or deceives." The term was adopted by scholars of literature and folklore from the nineteenth century onward, used to designate a wide range of rascals from the "wise fools" in Shakespeare's plays to the prankster "phookas" of Irish legends. In the early years of folklore studies, scholars collecting stories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas often toned down the bawdy, scatological humor recounted in traditional Trickster stories, or they omitted these tales from study altogether, considering them too rude, crude, or frivolous for publication.
Likewise, some indigenous storytellers refrained from telling Trickster tales to folklorists and anthropologists -- either to spare them embarrassment or because they failed to comprehend the serious intent behind such earthy stories. "It was hard," a Diné storyteller recalled, "for the belagana [white man] to understand how funny stories could also be sacred stories. Coyote shows what will happen if you fail to live in harmony and to take care of your relatives. Coyote is always hungry, he's always lazy, he's always chasing after someone else's wife. He doesn't think about anybody but himself. He does everything wrong, he messes everything up. It's funny, but it's a warning too."
Three influential books in the 20th century helped to establish and define Trickster as a specific kind of mythic archetype (although scholars to this day still argue about the parameters of the definition): Norman O. Brown's Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth (1947), Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, and E.E. Evans-Pritchard's The Zande Trickster (1967). With these works, and publications inspired by them, folklorists began to understand just how widespread the Trickster archetype was, and to gain a better appreciation of the cultural importance of Trickster stories.
Robert D. Pelton notes that when he first heard the Trickster described during an introductory course to the history of religions at the University of Chicago, he was fascinated. "To be sure, I knew of medieval fools, Hasidic rabbis, Zen masters, and the intensity of contemporary religious communities; they all suggested that comedy was an essential aspect of seriously lived religion. Among those engaged in the sacred, laughter kept breaking out. Yet until I met the Trickster, I had not realized that many so-called primitive peoples delighted in celebrating this disruptive power instead of squelching it or using it to launch some dull theory about institutional stress, comic absurdity, or the psychological value of playing around. Moreover, while these people were discovering laughter at the heart of the sacred, they, like so many Flannery O'Connor prophets and profiteers, were insisting that this discovery of laughter revealed the true being of daily life." (3)
Some Trickster tales are shockingly sexual and scatological, reveling in the very things least welcome in polite society: dirt, feces, flatulence, vomit, prodigious appetites and out-sized body organs, along with the kind of slap-stick violence epitomized by The Three Stooges. Karl Kerényi, in his classic essay of the archetype, calls Trickster "the personification of the life of the body." (4) Trickster gleefully punctures all pretensions of gentility, all attempts to live in the mind and not the flesh; he is a creature of the body, of impulse and desire; he contains all the flaws of humankind writ larget -- as well as our boundless optimism, picking himself up after each disaster, irrepressible as ever. Psychologist Carl Jung viewed Trickster as an expression of the shadow side of a culture, the embodiment of all that is repressed and disowned -- the greedy, needy rascal that lives somewhere inside every one of us. In recognition of the Trickster within, we delight in his outrageous escapades -- and then, being ethical creatures too, we also savor Trickster's come-uppance when his tricks have failed, his ego has been deflated, and chaos has been restored to order.
Novelist and folklorist Midori Snyder notes: "We enjoy Trickster's boundless energy, his refusal to observe the normal taboos, his gigantic appetites, because they reflect our own appetites in their most unvarnished, unsocialized state. Look at Uncle Tompa, the Tibetan Trickster, who poses as a woman in order to seduce a wealthy man into marriage. As the wedding gifts are packed on Uncle Tompa's horse, and the crowd assembles to wish the 'bride' farewell, Uncle Tompa raises his skirts and reveals his true anatomy, much to the merriment of the crowd and the utter shame of the bridegroom. There's more to Trickster than meets the eye, however -- we can't just write him off as a prankster and a fool. In the Winnebago Trickster cycle, the Trickster spends most of the epic engaged in bawdy, gluttonous activities, creating disaster wherever he goes -- yet in the closing episodes of the epic, he also travels through the land as a culture creator, carving out a place for humans to live in the world of nature. Among the Khoi-san of South Africa, Mantis does the same, creating, organizing, shaping the world which man will inhabit. Even Prometheus in European myth is both Trickster (when he steals fire from the gods) and culture hero (when he lifts the darkness for mankind)."
It is interesting, even puzzling to note that the vast majority of Trickster figures are male, even though trickery and duplicity is hardly limited to one gender. There are a few female Tricksters -- such as the seductive, deceptive fox maidens (kitsuné) of Korea and Japan, wise-cracking Baubo in Greek Eleusinian myth, clever Aunt Nancy in African-American tales, and a female Coyote in stories told by the Hopi and Tewa Indian tribes. Such wily women are rare, however, and seldom do they enjoy the cultural status of their masculine counterparts. (The majority of Hopi and Tewa stories, for example, feature the usual male Coyote.) In "Trickster and Gender," Lewis Hyde posits three reasons why male Tricksters are the norm: "First, these Tricksters may belong to patriarchal mythologies, ones in which the prime actors, even the oppositional actors are male. Second, there may be a problem with the standard itself; there may be female Trickster figures who have simply been ignored. Finally, it may be that the Trickster stories articulate some distinction between men and women, so that even in a matriarchal setting this figure would be male." (5)
Trickster is a consummate shape-shifter, turning up in many different forms in myths and legends around the world. Sometimes he's a god, an animal, a mischievous fairy or other supernatural creature. Sometimes he's a human simpleton, a Zen master, a Muslim mullah, or the devil waiting at the crossroads. But "not just any rogue or anti-hero can properly be termed a Trickster," notes literary scholar Helen Lock. "The true Trickster's trickery calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organized, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends)." (6)
The Greek god Hermes, known to the Romans as Mercury, is one of the classic Tricksters of Western myth. Hermes is the god of messengers, of merchants, and of financial transactions -- but he's also, in his dark aspect, the god of liars, gamblers, and thieves. The illegitimate son of Zeus by a nymph named Maia, Hermes was not born to divinity but had to win his place among the Immortals, using charm, cleverness, and duplicity to achieve this aim. His very first act, as a babe in arms, was to steal the sacred cattle of Apollo, covering up the deed with clever tricks and a packet of lies. The adult Hermes is portrayed as wily, lusty, and unpredictable, with a soft spot for pranksters, fraudsters, and con artists of all stripes. Hermes is also the god of thresholds, of open doorways and travelers on the road. He is the psychopomp who guides the dead from the lands of the living to the Underworld, and is one of the few capable of moving safely between these realms. He is, in Lewis Hyde's evocative phrase, "the lord of in-between" -- the god who guides or thwarts men as they pass from place to place or from one state of being to another. (7)
Eshu-Elegba, the Trickster god of the Yoruba people of West Africa, is one of the four warrior deities known collectively as the Orisha. He is the god of the threshold and of the roads, as well as the god of communication, charged with the task of carrying human prayers to the other Orisha. He is a complex, multi-dimensional Trickster with a central role in Yoruban cosmology, a mediator between the human realm and the sacred, numinous world. Eshu can be benevolent or malign -- and is usually both these things at once, delighting in playing tricks on human beings and the other gods. He is related to Legba, the wily, unpredictable Trickster of the Fon people in West Africa and Haiti, who is also associated with thresholds, gateways, roads, travelers, and dogs. Legba is "the opener of the way" in Voodoo ceremonies; he is the facilitator of communication between the human and spirit worlds, between men and women, between different generations, and between the living and the dead. Depicted as an old, old man in tattered clothes, Legba can be both kind and cruel and is never to be entirely trusted.
Loki in Norse mythology is another classic Trickster figure: full of clever pranks that both undermine and benefit the gods of Asgard. Loki's parentage is in dispute, for in some accounts he is the child of giants and in others he's nephew to Odin himself. He is an irrepressible liar, schemer, thief, and lover of practical jokes; he is also a shape-shifter, with the rare ability to shift between genders. In the early Norse tales, Loki is portrayed as an exuberantly amoral character, virtues and faults all mixed together. His actions are alternately helpful and harmful as his various schemes bring trouble upon the gods or, conversely, bail them out of trouble. In later tales, however (under the influence of Christianity), he becomes an almost Satanic figure. His last trick is an evil one, for it causes the death of Baldr, Odin's son. The gods imprison Loki in a cave; and there he's destined to remain until the battle of Ragnarök, when he'll emerge to lead an army of the wicked against Asgard.
Maui, the great Polynesian Trickster, is at home in both New Zealand and Hawaii, where he's known as both a world creator and a meddlesome troublemaker. Half-divine and half-mortal, Maui is the abandoned son of a goddess, rejected by his mother because of his human patrimony. Small and ugly, but possessed of physical strength and crafty intelligence, Maui survives, thrives, and demands his place among the other gods. In the tales of Maui's preposterous exploits he is credited with creating the land from the sea, lifting up the sky above it, forcing the sun to move more slowly, and bringing fire to humankind. Yet all of these good things come about, in the proper slant-wise Trickster fashion, as the result of Maui's avid pursuit of his own desires. He eventually causes such trouble for the gods that they conspire to destroy the half–mortal upstart, and Maui is killed while trying to gain immortality for human beings. As he dies, his blood makes shrimp turn red and forms the colors of the rainbow.
A large number of Trickster figures come in the form of animals and birds, sometimes interacting with human beings and sometimes only with other animals. Coyote, who is both man and animal, falls into this category. His tales are told by indigenous cultures from the Arctic down to Mexico -- particularly by tribal peoples of the American Southwest and Western Plains. (The female version of Coyote is found in New Mexico and Arizona.)
As folklorists Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz note, Coyote "combines in his nature the sacredness and sinfulness, grand gestures and pettiness, strength and weakness, joy and misery, heroism and cowardice that form the human character....As a culture hero, Old Man Coyote makes the earth, animals, and humans. He is the Indian Prometheus, bringing fire and daylight to the people. He positions the sun, moon, and stars in their proper places. He teaches humans how to live. As Trickster, he is greedy, gluttonous, and thieving."(8) Many of Coyote's exploits end in failure, often culminating in his death. Yet like the irrepressible Wile E. Coyote in the old Road Runner cartoons, he's always on his feet again in time for the next tale, as cocky as ever.
Hare is the primary Trickster figure of other Native American tribes, particularly among the Algonquin-speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodlands. The Great Hare known as Nanabozho (or Manabozho, or Nanabush) is a powerful, complex character. In some tales, he's a culture hero -- the creator of the earth and of humankind, the bringer of light and fire, the founder of various arts and crafts, and teacher of sacred rituals. In other tales he's a clown, a thief, a lecher, and a cunning predator -- an ambivalent, amoral creature who dances on the line between right and wrong.
We also find Trickster rabbits and hares in stories ranging from Asia and Africa to the hedgerows of Great Britain. In the Panchatantra tales of India, for instance, hare's cleverness and cunning is tested by the wiles of the elephant and lion, while in Tibetan tales, hare must outwit the ruses of the predatory tiger. In Nigeria, Benin, and Senegal there are stories of a cunning, deceitful hare who is equal parts rascal, lecher, buffoon, and culture hero. African hare stories traveled to North America on the slavers' ships, where they mixed with Native American tales (such as rabbit stories of the Cherokee), evolving into the famous "Brer Rabbit" tales of African-American lore, and into the "Compair Lapin" stories told by French Creoles in Louisiana. In the British Isles, the hare is a wily Trickster associated with fairies, barrows, hedgerow witches, and Eostre: the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the Spring. She's a shape-shifter and messenger between the realms of the goddess, the dead, and humankind.
Anansi the Spider is a Trickster whose tales are known in many parts of Africa, the West Indies, and far beyond. His tales are generally humorous ones, with Anansi in the role of anti-hero: he breaks the rules, violates taboos, makes mockery of sacred things; he gets what he wants by plotting, scheming, lying and cheating. Anansi is famously lazy, greedy, pompous, vain, and ignorant -- but he's also very, very clever, usually outwitting everyone around him. Another Trickster spider can be found in tales of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes of the American Midwest. Iktomi is a small but powerful creature, devious and mischievous. It was Iktomi who created time, space, and language, and gave all the animals their names, but he's also a thief, a glutton, a letch, and "the grandfather of lies." Like Coyote, Iktomi is a shape-shifter who can appear in the form of a handsome young man; his "love medicine" is powerful and has caused the downfall of many young girls. In this respect, Iktomi also resembles Kokopelli, a Trickster figure found in the American Southwest. Kokopelli is a hunch-backed flute player who wanders the canyons carrying a magical sack; he's famous for playing tricks on those he meets and seducing young women. (These seductions tend to backfire, however -- often on Trickster himself.)
Raven is the central Trickster figure for many of the First Nations on the North Pacific Coast -- a creature born, according to some old tales, from primordial darkness. Raven is revered as a world creator, feared as a source of chaos and strife, and laughed at as a clown and fool. His tales can be dreamlike and phantasmagorical, tinged with sorcery. Fox, Mink, Blue Jay, and Crow are some of the other Trickster characters in the tales of the many tribal groups of North America, in addition to Tricksters who are supernatural beings rather than animals: such as the Blackfoot's Old Man Napi, the Hopi's Skeleton Man, the Northern Cheyenne's Veeho, and the Métis' Whiskey Jack.
Other animal Tricksters around the world include the famous Monkey King of China. He's a magician, a shape-shifter, an incorrigible prankster, and an inveterate creator of chaos, exasperating even the Buddha, who kept him trapped under a mountain after one of his pranks. Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God of India, is sometimes considered a Trickster because of his animal shape and mischievous spirit, yet he doesn't exhibit the amorality usually associated with the Trickster archetype; he is a brave and noble character, a hero, and a devotee of Lord Rama.
The fox Tricksters found in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese tales are intelligent, devious shape-shifters, generally dangerous to encounter. Fox Tricksters can be male or female, young or old, beautiful or frightening in appearance. They begin their lives as ordinary foxes, obtaining their magical powers in one of two ways: by long years of arduous study (after which they are rewarded with the power to become human), or by posing as a human man or woman, seducing a member of the opposite sex, then stealing his or her life-force. Fox maidens (kitsuné) take human guise to marry unsuspecting mortal men, using elaborate tricks, lies, and illusion to conceal the truth. Such tales usually end in tragedy with the wife or husband's death -- but in some stories the passage between the mortal and magic realms is successfully negotiated, in which case the marriage prospers and produces half-mortal children.
Fox is often a rather nasty Trickster in the European folk tradition, where he's known as Renard, Renardine, or Mr. Fox. Appearing in the form of a man with fox-red hair, he's a handsome and smooth-talking knave who tricks girls into marrying him, and then murders them and eats them. In The Tales of Renard the Fox, a European epic of the Middle Ages, the fox is a more satirical figure: a greedy, wily rascal who dupes peasants and the nobility alike.
Fox also appears as a Trickster in Aesop' Fables, and the fairy tales of Eastern and Western Europe, where he uses cleverness and guile to aid young heroes and outwit their foes. A similar figure is Puss-in-Boots, one of the best loved Tricksters in fairy tales: a vain and silly creature, yet clever enough to win a castle and a princess for his master.
When we turn our sights to the fairies themselves, as portrayed in European fairy lore, we find there's more than a touch of the Trickster archetype in their make-up. Fairies come in many guises, but a number of them can fairly be described as mischievous, crafty, canny, clever, amoral, and unpredictable, fond of tricks, illusions, deceptions, and outwitting mortals. Puck is a classic fairy of this type: charming and highly duplicitous, best known for the chaos he sows in Shakespeare's fairy play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck also goes by the name Robin Goodfellow, and is related to the Pwca in Wales, Pukje in Norway, Puke in Sweden, and Pukis in Lithuania -- all impulsive, volatile creatures whose tricks are alternately delightful and cruel.
There are also a number of human Tricksters found in tales around the world: "wise fools" and "clever simpletons" who make their way through life with a combination of wit, naivety, and luck. The Jack tales of Great Britain and the Appalachian Mountains of North America feature a well-known hero of this type, as do the stories of Tyll Eulenspiegel told in Germany and among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Such tales often feature a peasant hero who uses his craftiness to triumph over men and women of the higher classes. The high are brought low, the low are raised high, the social conventions are turned upside down. The little guy wins -- not because he's virtuous, but because he's clever and sneaky.
Trickster appears in religious folk tales too, turning up in humorous stories of clever, riddle-loving Christian saints, Hasidic rabbis, and Muslim mullahs. The "Crazy Wisdom" stories of Tibet are the comical teaching tales of Zen Buddhist lamas who believe that laughter, foolishness, and contrariness can lead to wisdom:
"Tibet harbored the extraordinary gnostic tradition originating from the enlightened yogic adepts and 'divine madmen' of ancient India," explains Lama Surya Das. (9) "These inspired upholders of 'Crazy Wisdom' were holy fools who disdained speculative metaphysics and institutionalized religious forms....They expressed the unconditional freedom of enlightenment through divinely inspired foolishness...vastly preferring to celebrate the inherent freedom and sacredness of authentic being, rather than clinging to external religious forms and moral systems. Through their playful eccentricity, these rambunctious spiritual Tricksters served to free others from delusion, social inhibitions, specious morality, complacence -- in short, all variety of mind-forged manacles."
Many Native American spiritual traditions have a role for clowns and other contrary characters within their most sacred rituals. It is the task of the clowns to be unruly, disruptive, and outrageous; and it is said that some ceremonies have not properly begun until somebody laughs. All clowns, both spiritual and secular, are descended from the Trickster archetype -- as are comedians, jesters, Medieval court fools, the masked actors of the Commedia dell'Arte, and the anarchic puppets in Punch and Judy shows. All such figures make use of outlandish behavior to cross over social boundaries and to mock and satirize the status quo, sometimes making quite serious statements in the guise of foolery and humor.
There are holidays that belong to Trickster, allowing his spirit of disruption and transgression to flourish, if only for a few days each year. In the Middle Ages, the Christian Feast of Fools, with its roots in Pagan Saturnalia, included outlandish revels in which all the usual social conventions were reversed: men dressed as women and peasants as priests; they danced and played dice games in church, then paraded through the streets singing obscene songs -- letting off steam one day a year in order to be good during all the rest.
Carnaval festivities in Catholic countries were intended to serve a similar purpose before the hard, lean days of Lent. Carnaval, too, had its roots in older pagan mid-winter rituals in which laughter and satire were given a social outlet and a sacred context. Alan Weisman described Carnaval in a small village in Spain in 1993:
"This is when, for a few moments each year, the people reign. Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and -- most prized of all -- fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again." (10)
Trickster is still alive and well in the 21st century, for he's infinitely adaptable -- appearing as a stand-up comedian, a shock-jock radio host, a Hopi clown embarrassing the tourists, a cartoon rabbit munching on a carrot, a coyote sneaking through the underbrush.
Contemporary storytellers put a modern spin on Trickster, using the old stories as springboards for creating new Trickster tales for our time. You'll find all manner of Tricksterish rascals in fine novels like Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King, Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, and The Tricksters by Margaret Mahey, among many others. (See the reading list at the end of this article for recommendations.)
Though female Tricksters have long been overshadowed by their masculine counterparts in the mythic tradition, they are not nearly so elusive in contemporary arts: think of Tricksterish comedians from Lucille Ball to Amy Schumers, Tricksterish performers like Madonna or Lady Gaga, and the wide variety of female tricksters to be found (especially) in fantasy fiction for children and adults: from the scrappy young heroine in Margaret Shannon's The Red Wolf to the obstinate, complex Lyra Belaqua in Philip Pullmans' His Dark Materials.
This indicates to me that there's nothing essentially male about the archetype; liars and fools come in both genders, as do culture makers and destroyers. It's simply that the Trickster archetype is more relevant to the lives of women and girls in societies where they have gained a measure of independence and personal freedom. Trickster, after all, is the ultimate Free Spirit, unwilling to be bound by society's conventions, traditions, and expectations. Trickster shows the creative potential in such freedom, as well as its potential for disaster. We can all learn from that, men and women alike, and we all have a bit of Trickster in us.
"Every group has its edge," notes Lewis Hyde, "its sense of in and out, and Trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish -- between right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead -- and in every case Trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the wise fool, the grey-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities....Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox." (11)
Whether male or female, animal or human, thief or hero, villain or clown, Trickster's role is to break out of every box we try to put him in. As soon as we think we know just what he is, she's shape-shifted into something else, tossing us a grin, handing us a fast line, setting us up for another trick.
Sit down, have some coffee, pay attention now. Here's one more about Coyote.
She's walkin' there by that lake yonder, that lake over there by my uncle's place. And Coyote, she's tired, she's hungry, her bag is heavy, and she sees some geese. So she sets this big heavy bag down on the ground.
"Coyote, Coyote" say them geese, "what's in that big old heavy bag?"
"It's songs," she says.
"Coyote," says them geese, "how come you have so many songs?"
She puffs up his chest and she smiles with all them teeth and then Coyote says, "I have strong visions, and that's how come I have so many songs."
"Well okay then, let's have us a big dance."
But Coyote shakes her head. "These are powerful songs. You can't mess around with these songs. If you want to dance, you're going to have to dance just like I tell you to dance."
"Well okay," them geese agree.
They pound down the grass by the edge of that lake and make a big place for dancing. Coyote takes out her dancing sticks. "Now you got to close your eyes," she says. "These songs are powerful medicine songs. If you open your eyes you might get hurt real bad."
So the geese all close their eyes and Coyote sings and the geese commence to dance.
"Keep your eyes closed!" Coyote says.
Then she hits one of them geese with her sticks.
"Wait, stop!" says Coyote. "This here geese opened his eyes and now he's dead! You'd better all keep your eyes closed."
And then them geese, they start to dance again. Coyote snatches another one and commences to strangle him.
That geese is squawking, and Coyote says, "That's right, my friends, sing loud as you can!"
But one old geese, he opens one eye just a peep, and now he sees what's goin' on.
"Run away, brothers!" he cries, and off they go -- but not before Señora Coyote fills her belly real good.
"That was sure some good trick," says Coyote, and she goes along her way.
- From "The Exception Who Proves the Rules: Ananse the Akan Trickster" by Christopher Vecsey, published in Mythical Trickster Figures, edited by Hynes and Doty (University of Alabama Press, 1997).
- From The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight by Robert D. Pelton (University of California Press, 1980).
- From "West African Tricksters: Web of Purpose, Dance of Delight" by Robert D. Pelton, published in Mythical Trickster Figures, edited by Hynes and Doty (University of Alabama Press, 1997).
- From "The Trickster in Relation to Greek Mythology" by Karl Kerényi, published in The Trickster edited by Paul Radin (Bell Publishing, 1956).
- From Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998).
- From "Transformations of the Trickster" by Helen Lock, published online in Southern Cross Review, 2002.
- From Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998).
- From American Indian Trickster Tales by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (Viking 1997).
- From Crazy Wisdom and Tibetan Teaching Tales Told by Lamas by Lama Surya Das, published online on the Lama Surya Das website.
- From "The Sacred and the Profane of Spanish Carnaval" by Alan Weisman, published in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 11, 1993, and available online here.
- From Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998).
Some Further Reading on Trickster
Fiction (Novels & Novellas):
The Delight Makers by Adolph F. Bahdelier
Trickster Tales by J.P. Briggs
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint
Medicine Road by Charles de Lint
The Trickster and the Troll by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
The Trickster by Muriel Gray
Contrarywise by Zora Greenhalgh
The Feast of the Trickster by Beth Hilgartner
The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson
Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston
Coyote Morning by Lisa Lenard-Cook
The Tricksters by Margaret Mahey
Swords in the Mist: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore
Bone Game by Louis Owens
Trickster's Choice & Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce
Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
Quicksilver by Stephanie Spinner
Ever: A Trickster in the Ashes by Felicity Savage
A Rumor of Gems by Ellen Steiber
"The Fox Wife" by Ellen Steiber (novella, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears)
Shadow of the Fox by Ellen Steiber
Deluge by Albertine Strong
Hannah's Garden by Midori Snyder
Chancers by Gerald Vizenor
Griever: An American Monkey King in China by Gerald Vizenor
"Oshkiwiinag: Heartlines on the Trickster Express" by Gerald Vizenor (novella, Blue Dawn, Red Earth)
The Trickster of Liberty by Gerald Vizenor
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Ch'eng–en Wu, translated by Arthur Waley
Fiction (Short Stories):
The Coyote Road: Tales of the Mythic Trickster edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling
One Good Story, That One by Thomas King
Myth & Folk Tale Collections:
African Folktales by Roger D. Abrahams
Afro-American Folktales by Roger D. Abrahams
Ananse the Spider: Tales from an Ashanti Village by Peggy Appiah
The Pineapple Child and Other Tales from Ashanti by Peggy Appiah
West African Trickster Tales by Martin Bennett
Old Man Coyote by Clara Kern Bayliss
Tales from the Land of the Sufis by Mojdeh Bayat
Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables by John Bierhorst
Tales of Uncle Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet by Rinjing Dorje
Coyote Stories by Mourning Dove
American Indian Trickster Tales by Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz
The Zande Trickster by E.E. Evans-Pritchard
The Guizer: A Book of Fools by Alan Garner
Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster by Matilda Koen-Sarano
Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with his Daughter: Coyote Builds North America by
How Rabbit Tricked Otter and Other Cherokee Trickster Stories by Chief Wilma Mankiller
Legends of the Hasidim by Jerome R. Minz
Coyote Stories of the Montana Salish Indians from the Montana Historical Society Press
Navajo Coyote Tales by William Morgan
Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures by Paul Oppenheimer
Yoruba Trickster Tales by Oyekan Owomoyela
Coyote the Trickster: Legends of the North American Indians by Robinson & Hill
Tales of Sri Thanonchai: Thailand's Artful Trickster by Maenduan Tipaya
Nez Perce Coyote Tales: The Myth Cycle by Deward E. Walker, Jr. & Daniel N. Matthews
Omaha Tribal Myths and Trickster Tales by Roger Welsh
Folk Tales from Korea by In-Sob Zong
Trickster Collections for Children:
Pedro Fools the Gringo and Other Tales of a Latin American Trickster by Maria Cristina Brusca & Tona Wilson
A Ring of Tricksters by Virginia Hamilton & Barry Moser
Sister Tricksters: Rollicking Tales of Clever Females by Robert & David San Souci
Trickster Tales: Forty Folk Stories From Around the World by Josepha Sherman &
The Barefoot Book of Trickster Tales by Richard Walker & Claudio Munoz
Living Sideways: Tricksters in American Indian Oral Traditions by Franchot Ballinger
A Social History of the Fool by Sandra Billington
Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth by Norman O. Brown
Synchronicity: Science, Myth, and the Trickster by Allan Combs & Mark Holland
The Praise of Folly by Erasmus, translated by John Wilson
The Irish Trickster by Alan Harrison
Krishna, the Butter Thief by John Stratton Hawley
Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms, edited by William H. Hynes & William G. Doty
Madcaps, Screwballs & Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture by
Mercury Rising: Women, Evil, and the Trickster Gods by Deldon Anne McNeely
Kitsuné: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humor by Kiyoshi Nozaki
The Trickster in West Africa by Robert D. Pelton
The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology by Paul Radin
Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman
Writing Tricksters: Mythic Gambols in American Ethnic Literature by Jeanne Rosier Smith
The Incredible Survival of Coyote by Gary Snyder
Seth, God of Confusion by H.T. Velde
The Fool: His Social and Literary History by Enid Welsford
Outfoxing Coyote (poems) by Carolyn Dunn
Elderberry Flute Song (poems/stories) by Peter Blue Cloud
The Rez Sisters (a play in two acts) by Tompson Highway
Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (poems) by Ted Hughes
The History of Clowns for Beginners (illustrated history) by Joe Lee
If you read only one book on Tricksters, make it this one:
Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde
Some Further Reading Online:
- "Merry Robin: The Native British Trickster" by John Matthews (Mythic Imaginations)
- "Transgression," conversation on the subject of tricksters & transgressors (Mythic Imaginations)
- "A Chorus of Clowns and Masked Comic Theater" by Midori Snyder (In the Labyrinth)
- "One More Smile for a Hopi Clown" by Emory Sekaquaptewa (The South Corner of Time)
- "Agents of Change: Trickster in Ojibwa Oral Narratives & in the Works of Louise Erdrich" by Patrick B. Benton (pdf)
Credits & copyrights:
The Trickster art above is by Danielle Barlow, Susan Sedson Boulet (1941-1997), Hib Sabin, Tricia Cline, H. Kyoht Luterman, Jackie Morris, Margaret Shannon, Roxzanne Swentzell and others. Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
The text above first appeared in Fantasy magazine (2006), and has been reprinted in The Journal of Mythic Arts (2006), The Coyote Road (Viking Press, 2007), and other publications. It is copyright c 2006 by Terri Windling, and may not be reproduced without the author's permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go here.
Author's note: This essay is dedicated to my husband, Howard Gayton, a mask performer & dramatist who has been working with Trickster myths & archetypes throughout his professional life.