Kathy Hempel
403LE Fall, 2004

Tricksters Around the World




Rabbit
Raven Turtle
The World
Old Man Coyote
Spider

Fox




Click on each animal to read about each animal's stories around the world.


Characteristics
Contributions
Bibliography
Web Pages
Illustrations
Gifts to Man
Trickster gets Tricked



"You should always be in bare feet to tell these stories, because the
stories live in the earth . . .and they speak to us through our feet."

Ed Edmo, St.
Shosone-Bannock elder
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 our 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.

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.