This paper’s primary focus is to explore the role of the trickster in Amerindian spirituality, their society and propose a universal application of trickster medicine today. The trickster concept is revealed through exploring oral traditions and the nuances of aboriginal language. It is supported by background information of the Red Path spirituality and a brief historical orientation to Native American Indians and our local Algonquin Nation (listed as appendices.)
The body of the paper illustrates an analytic focus on attributes and important elements of the trickster figure drawn from North American aboriginal stories. The role of the trickster offers many lessons regarding individual, group behaviors and spiritual growth. Due to the broad scope of the trickster, the legends have been categorized into some commonly identifiable forms. Cross religious comparison to the Yogic eight-fold path and the deity Shiva are identified for some stories.
The paper concludes with how the modern trickster has benefited my own personal experience, and finally how every person may choose to draw on their own trickster medicine for today’s world.
An Oral Tradition
The hundreds of aboriginal stories come out of an oral society. For millennia stories, songs and ceremonies have been passed word-for-word, step-by-step from teacher to student. Many repetitions were required to get the story just right, not unlike learning a musical score from Mozart or Beethoven. One would never say, “I think I’ll just add a few notes here or there”. The reliability of the story depends on how well the storyteller has learned his lines and brings into focus the importance of passing on the stories today. As older aboriginal peoples pass on, legends, traditional ways and stories are passing with them. For this reason it is now “acceptable” to write down songs and stories but certain nuances are lost “in translation” both because of language incompatibilities and because of gaps in the knowledge base.
These nuances take the form of body language, facial expression, eye contact (or lack thereof), hand gestures and tone of voice - all combining to bring a story to life. Paying particular attention to the language of the spoken word is also important when reading and listening to aboriginal stories. For example “that’s the way it happened” is shown to be a truth, where “an old man/woman told me,” is known to be a story. [i(ppxxiii)]
Stories were told to entertain and teach. Stories were usually left unexplained. This was done out of respect for the intelligence of both the listener and the Great Mystery. They hold deep meanings and no matter how you explain them there is always something left to ponder and “chew on” another day. Repeated tellings enable the listener to deepen their experience of the story depending on their own capacity, their knowledge of the community and their depth of spiritual attainment.
Stories also reflect the surrounding landscapes of their origin nations. For example east coast, Algonquin Nations stories figure lush forests, great lakes, rocky surfaces; where west coast, Haida Nation stories focus on water tales, bear tales, fishing, trapping, and canoeing.
It is important to remember the context in which these stories would be told. Stories were generally told in the winter – the time for dreaming and introspection. Today, stories are told around campfires at powwow gatherings often combined with other traditional forms like songs and ceremonies.
When examining many aboriginal stories, one notes that the term “trickster” is in itself a trick as many stories not listed as trickster tales also contain trickster messages. Most aboriginal tales contain multiple messages. Evan Pritchard illustrates this beautifully in his book entitled, “Native American Stories of the Sacred, Annotated & Explained”. For example, in the Sacred Hero Mi’kmaq story entitled “Agulabemu, the Great Bullfrog” 1 [i(pp123)], Mr. Evans points out comparisons to both Chinese and East Indian mythology. This is coupled with the Why? Aspect of how the bullfrog got its wrinkly back; biblical and Talmudic parallels to the role of frogs in intolerable curses; and human messages like “power is not to be trusted”.
Traditional Mythological Form of the Trickster
The trickster archetype is seen all over the world. The trickster is a specialized form of Shaman found in most tribal or traditional cultures. His main identifying feature is the combination of laughter with lessons.
Under the disguise of the trickster mask, the archetype plays out a complex landscape of human emotions, foibles, and wisdoms. He allows the listener to see beyond the mask and not be caught up in the form of the storyteller himself both literally and metaphorically.
The trickster is both of this world and not. Sometimes compared to Jesus, he exhibits supernatural powers, human weaknesses, and the ability to cross boundaries of this world and the next. Stories told of the trickster illustrate both different kinds of tricksters and the different lessons he teaches.
The “Divine Trickster” [i(pp179)] called Heyokah trickster of the Plains Tribes (known as Koshari by the Hopi and Pueblo Indians) balances sacredness with irreverence. His hallmark is the use of opposite backward behavior or advice. He laughs at himself and tricks others into overcoming their rigid practices and beliefs. He is “master of Coyote Medicine and can use the joking part of Coyote’s nature to trick others into enlightened states of understanding.” 2 [i(pp180)]
The Heyokah shaman is selected by the divine. Through a dream he comes in contact with life-force energy. This is often referred to as an encounter with Thunder Beings. After this sacred experience, he is reborn with healing powers and wisdom teachings. He is an enlightened being. He teaches tribal members about themselves and takes away the pain of learning through laughter and fun. The Heyokah is sensitive to each individual’s ability to learn and sometimes teaches the lesson by being the brunt of his own joke so the “student” can learn through observation alone.
These sage characters perform invisible acts of kindness among the community and are highly honored.
Trickster - Attributes and Important Elements
The Trickster reflects the spiritual potentialities in each of us. Trickster often introduces strife rendered with humour and/or stupidity. This strife [i(pp219)] engages acts of becoming and changing in the individual and society thereby fuelling spiritual transformation. Trickster’s disguises or masks allow individuals to see the truth without getting caught up in its form.
Trickster (human, god, half-human half-animal) often has help from other spiritual demi-gods like Spider Woman and animal helpers like Mole Son of Light Kills the Monster [i(pp211)]who represent aspects of spiritual connection to the divine self. Spider Woman represents the all-knowing inner voice and mole represents the physical strength and cleverness used to conquer the situation. Without these helpers, the trickster in the story Son of Light would not win the day.
Trickster’s lascivious, earthy nature illustrates the baser human physical qualities of lust, indulgence, desire, vanity, etc. A comparison can be made to yama in the Ashtanga yogic path. (Yama are restraints necessary to purify the physical body on the path to enlightenment). They show an aspect of ascent of the spirit through physical experiences with hunger, zeal, sexuality. Stories that illustrate these characteristics of the trickster show a contradiction of sacred fool and sacred lecher.
Trickster is not limited to the male form. Female trickster, Old Woman, trumps the day as she shows how to get even with her trickster husband Ikto and sexually inappropriate Coyote in What’s This? My Balls for Your Dinner? *4 [i(pp339)]. Trickster does not limit his sexual appetites nor have any particular preference for one sex over the other Iktome Sleeps with His Wife by Mistake. 4 [i(pp372)]. The lusty side of trickster illustrates child-like naivité, arrogance, and sometimes the cruel shadow side of human nature.
Trickster’s often changing shape and representation as an animal or half animal/half man Adventures of Great Rabbit 4 [Ii(pp347)]illustrates many things:
1) closeness to nature and study of animals that personifies the aboriginal people Why? Stories like Why the Blackfeet never kill mice 1 [i(pp89)] ;
2) respect for the interconnected circle of life The First Fire 1 [i(pp43)];
3) magical ability to transform often shown as a force of nature representing abilities of the spirit, Raven 1 Ii(pp149)], Fire Stealing Fox 1 [i(pp55)];
4) personifying animals with human characteristics (all Coyote tales); and
5) self-actualization and forces to be overcome through spiritual questing, visioning Stone Canoe 1 [i(pp185)].
Trickster has many and varied experiences of life which illustrate human behaviors like stupidity and greed Coyote Gets Rich off the White Men 4 [i(pp369)], lust, pomposity and arrogance. Trickster also teaches moral lessons like giving gifts from the heart without regret Coyote, Iktome, and the Rock 4 [i(pp337)]. Trickster’s confrontation of Force Major in Nature The Raven 4 [i(pp344)] illustrates the personification of energies at play in the great mystery. Trickster is not restricted by boundaries: neither good or bad; living or dead; heaven or earth. The ambiguous nature opens space to allow the unknown and sometimes undesirable to happen.
The trickster acts as a channel for the illusion of life, creator of situations, teacher of lessons: both desirable and undesirable (the duality of life), generator of his own misfortunes, clever master of mental abilities, and illuminator of spiritual growth. A religious comparison can be made of these attributes of the trickster with the Hindu god – Shiva. Shiva is also creator of life, its generator, channels the illusion of life, and illuminates spiritual growth 3 [i(pp224)]. Doubtless other comparisons can be made to tricksters in other religious forms. For example, Jesus turning clay birds into doves as a child or using trickery wording when asked by his parents where he has been while he listened to elders in the temple.
How Trickster Benefits the Community
In the community, trickster teaches social values like monogamy Iktome Sleeps with His Wife by Mistake. 4 [i(pp372)], and is an important social regulator. Lessons are directed at both the parents and children. For example, in the story The Adoption of the Human Race 1 [i(pp29)]parents are encouraged to let their children find their own path through experimentation and decision-making. It illustrates that through play, the children find out who they are (“a rainbow, a star, a thundercloud”.) Trickster lives close to the community but is often not part of it (he visits). His characteristics therefore reflect his relationship to community “being in the world but not of it” as well as acting as the “mirror” for society and societies behaviors.
Trickster Societies like the Lakota Heyokah and the Ojibwa trickster societies have the role of performing invisible good deeds, healing and helping both individuals and communities along their spiritual path.
Different Kinds of Tricksters
Hero The most well known Trickster is the Hero. This individual can be a human, a God, or a relative (son) of God who overcomes adversity on behalf of the people often using his cleverness or “brains over brawn”. An impossible situation is presented, and the Hero volunteers for the job. He is mocked by the people as part of his right of passage and discriminates between the greater good and the obvious prize being offered. While he always chooses the higher road, he readily accepts the prize all the same. The event is often depicted as violent or threatening and hero is often small and weak. The Hero is sometimes an animal of physically small stature and/or a person out of proportion to the situation presented. Hero uses both his supernatural powers and cleverness to outsmart or trick the monster and to save his people.
My favorite story depicting the Hero is “Son of Light” because it incorporates the “son of Creator” figure battling the “monster” older “Eagle-Man” for his power. “Son of Light” is assisted by two demi-god characters representing his higher self, his physical prowess and cunning and/or higher powers. “Son of Light” passes many tests including developing a thick skin (necessary for a chief), using sacred tools (pipe and flint) and becoming one with them, hearing his inner voice, acknowledging that vulnerability is also one of his gifts, transforming himself through spiritual tasks and transforming Eagle-Man into a good spirit.
Forces of Nature Trickster characters are often Forces of Nature. Glooskap, an Algonquin trickster, is known as both the creator of the world, spirit, medicine man, and sorcerer. He incorporates the attributes of shape-shifter, the elements and animal/human metamorphosis.
Other Tricksters in this same category, Raven and Coyote are above the rules of human conduct and represent untamed elements of nature. In the story, Raven Steals the Light (one of many versions), Raven transforms himself into a pine needle and is swallowed by the daughter of Sky Chief in order to birth himself into the community. He then grows up as a petulant, spoiled child and eventually steals two boxes returning to his own community. He offers the community the first box (moon, stars and the night sky) winning the girl-wife prize. Raven then mocks the people laughing at their satisfaction with so small a gift. He asks what the chief will offer him for the sun. Upon negotiating the second daughter, he produces the sun. Raven represents the forces of nature, ego, and transformational ability.
Coyote Coyote’s Many Faces: Partner Tricksters like Coyote and Weasel, Benevolent Trickster, What Not to Do, Destructive Childish Impulse.
Coyote represents “Coyote Medicine” a sacred ally of the Heyokah shaman. Coyote stories represent the many lessons of laughing through the pain of spiritual growth. He causes trouble by calling on his many backward behaviors.
Coyote gets away with his antics because he is not bound by human restrictions. This shows the connection between physical and spiritual worls of the Trickster Shaman.
It is interesting to compare the principles outlined in Ashtanga’s Eight-fold path to Coyote trickster’s behavior: he ignores the principles of right understanding, right thinking, right living, right speech, and right action. Instead, he uses backward behavior to illustrate and guide. By walking in a bad way, Coyote reminds us of what not to do and how not to become.
One of Coyote’s many lessons is the destructive force of cunning when used on friends: Coyote and the Salmon (Klamath) 1 [i(pp165)]. In this story coyote tricks two girls into revealing their salmon pen. He then opens the pen too wide and all the salmon escape into the Klamath River. Coyote acts on childish impulses of deception and greed that backfire leaving him hungry again. He illustrates the attributes of wrong understanding (or self-centered), wrong thinking, wrong speaking, and ultimately wrong living.
The introduction of this paper asks “what is the role of the trickster in Amerindian spirituality, their society and how trickster messages can be interpreted for use today. The answer is multi-faceted: a complex manifestation of the human being in all of his/her spiritual potentialities masked by a laughable, insolent, ego-centric, wise and cunning character. The stories of the trickster reveal lessons common to many cultures and evoke the mystery of how these lessons manifest on earth simultaneously – part of the great mystery. The trickster obviously is a moral and spiritual teacher but one with weaknesses like you and me. He illustrates the duality of human kind. We see in him what we wish to see, as well as, that which we do not wish to see in ourselves. The stories are timeless and can be visited again and again each time reaching deeper levels of insight and meaning on the unfolding of life.
The story entitled “Heyokah – Modern Day Trickster” is included in the story list. For two years, I had the privilege of knowing a modern day Heyokah. Here are some of the insights I observed through this experience:
- the trickster draws you in by a force larger than yourself (spiritual questing)
- in the trickster you recognize aspects of yourself both desirable and not desirable
- the trickster is someone who can open doors for you to the spirit world
- the trickster benefits the community through service, invisible acts of kindness and selflessness
- the trickster’s cleverness, abilities, knowledge, and light-hearted humour are admirable and used to teach lessons
- humour is a hallmark of the trickster
- tricksters often struggle with the dark night of the soul
- the walk of the trickster is not an easy one, it illustrates strife of a human walking the spiritual path
Trickster Medicine Today
How can trickster messages be interpreted today? Mother earth’s health crisis leads me to ponder what larger lessons society can glean from exploration of the trickster legends.
With increasing tsumamis, earthquakes, thermal venting on the ocean floor, and melting icecaps, it would seem that the elements of nature are themselves presenting as a “monster” in a modern day trickster story. Would they not be seen as the multi-dimensional beings of nature presenting an incredible threat to survival on earth? The “monster” in mother earth’s clothing is a result of course of “not right thinking, not right living, not right speaking and certainly not right action.” These harmful acts of nature are a result of greed, excess and denial – using the earth’s resources without little or no regard to keeping its balance.
What will the modern day tricksters do? Will we awaken our consciousness to see the danger before us; to see the “monster” that we have created in our lifestyles? Perhaps most will hope that a “hero” will emerge to clean up the mess. Perhaps, however, we will each become a “sacred hero” by assisting change, speaking out, thinking clearly and bringing the natural elements back into alignment and harmony for ourselves and our future generations.
EVAN PRITCHARD, “Introduction”, Native American Stories of the Sacred: Annotated and Edited, (Skylight Pathways Publishing, 2005), xxiii, xix, 29, 43, 55, 89, 123, 149, 165, 185.
SAMS, Jamie, Sacred Path Cards, The Discovery of Self Through Native Teachings, (Harper San Francisco, 1999), 179-180.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL INTERVIEW WITH MOYERS, Masks of Eternity, (Exploring the Sacred THO1306 Courseware, F. Blée, January 2006), 219, 224.
ERDOS, RICHARD AND ORGIZ, ALFONSO, “Son of Light Kills Monster”, American Indian Myths and Legends, (Patheon Books, New York, 1984), 211, 337, 339, 344, 347, 369, 372.
BURLAND, COTTIE, North American Indian Mythology,
(Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1965) 136-137 and C.S. KIDWELL, H. NOLEY, and G.E. TINKER, “Trickster”, Native American Theology, 2001, 113-125.