403LE Fall, 2004
Tricksters Around the World
Click on each animal to read
about each animal's stories around the world.
"You should always be in bare feet
to tell these stories, because the
Trickster tales are short, imaginative narratives that usually use
anthropromorphic animal characters to convey folk wisdom and to help us
understand human nature and develop proper human behavior. These stories were originally passed
down through oral tradition and were eventually written down. The
literary recorder Aesop was reported to have orally passed on
his animal fables, and has been linked to earlier beast tales from
India. His tales were later written down by the Greeks and Romans. Many
trickster tales are also pourquoi stories, giving us explanations for
certain animals’ appearances and occurrences in our world. Trickster
tales provide comic relief but also explain how humans came to have the
knowledge they possess.
Many people around the world find the trickster intriguing. The
trickster character appears in the narratives of many Native people
throughout North America as well as in much of the rest of the world.
Even in our own modern culture, people use trickster characteristics in
modern cartoon characters like Wily Coyote, and Bugs Bunny. Some
trickster characters begin and develop in one country and then migrate
to another, like Br'er Rabbit.
stories live in the earth . .
.and they speak to us through our feet."
Ed Edmo, St.
It's difficult to pin down the trickster to any fixed set of
characteristics or given forms. Part of his/her attraction is the
impossibility to pigeonhole the trickster. Sometimes the trickster
appears as human, sometimes as animal. Trickster is also a
shape-shifter, changing from animal to human form. The most popular
animal forms trickster takes are fox, coyote, raven, spider, turtle and
hare. Not all Native American peoples tell tales of Coyote. Among the
Lakota, Spider wove the trickster's web, and Coyote was loosely
included in Wolf clan, sharing somewhat in the respect the Lakota
accorded wolves. Among Northwest Coastal peoples--as well as some
Siberian groups on the opposite side of the Pacific--Raven took on the
trickster's role, with all the ambivalent feelings tricksters inspire
among people. The Blackfoot of the northern Plains saw both Coyote and
Raven as tricksters. Worldwide, a variety of animals have taken on the
trickster's role. In European and Chinese folklore, Fox often plays the
part; some African peoples see Fox in the same light. Monkeys are
tricksters in the Far East, and among smaller creatures, Wasp and
Mantis appear as well.
Trickster plays tricks and is the victim of tricks. The trickery
of such stories extends as well to symbolic play regarding cultural
forms, rules, and worldview. Children become educated as how NOT to
behave through Trickster's exploits. Where does the Trickster fit into
the hyeriarchy of gods? At times, it seems he's one of the top echelon.
At other times, it seems he's a demi-god that serves the higher ones
and doesn't belong anywhere. Perhaps that's why he's a wanderer, and
always hungry. He doesn't feel that belongs to any one group. The term
"trickster" is not used by any of the peoples around the world. The
term was introduced in 1874 by a Catholic missionary Father Albert
Lacombe's translation of the Cree buffoon figure, Wisakejak as
"trickster" and "deceiver".
The trickster tales of the American slaves came about in reaction to
the cruelty and harshness of their masters. Slaves worked 15 hour days
with only one midday break for lunch with only the Sabbath and
Christmas off. Punishments included withholding privileges, which were
few. The biggest privilege was the passes to visit family off their
plantation. Misbehavior resulted in less food, in addition to being
whipped and/or beaten. At night they created a culture of their own. To
compensate for the rough days, the slaves made instruments, sang,
danced to African style rhythms, made pottery, quilts and food with the
taste of West African seasoning. With American and African born slaves
a language called Afro-English was created. With this language they
told trickster tales of small sly animals such as Brer Rabbit who was
able to outwit stronger foes such as Brer Fox and Brer Bear. The human
trickster, John, was able rise above his master using intelligence and
deceit. Some stories were brought from African culture. Others
expressed the slaves' own experiences, but all helped the slaves use
language as a means for resistance.