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 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 rainforests 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) It is 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 Navajo 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 recalls 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 large — 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)