21 April 2014
Paling Around With Tricksters in Native American Myth
Practical jokers have to be the most annoying people on the planet. Catapulting balls of paper at one's head, shooting spitball projectiles into the air, and strategically placing tacks or whoopee cushions in your chair in the classroom. The joker lives to make others laugh and to be the center of all attention. As annoying as the joker can be to the majority of people, none can deny that he/she has brought a smile to their face at least once. That is why it is hard to hate the harlequin. Trickster archetypes have been prevalent throughout ancient mythology and folklore. In West Africa, the trickster, rabbit, is the ancestor of brother or br'er rabbit and arguably, Bugs Bunny. Rabbit's keen wit saves him from being bested by his adversaries. Also in West Africa, there was the trickster, Anansi (spider).
He was an extremely important and power god. Wisdom and wit were also tools utilized by this trickster to accomplish his goals and subdue his rivals. Hera or Minerva acted as a trickster goddess by meddling in the affairs of the heroes and great battles. Loki, who originally assisted the other gods of Norse mythology, evolved into a trickster of extreme importance. Loki orchestrates the death of Balder, who will in Norse eschatology will be raised from the dead and rule the World after it is destroyed and reborn. If one takes into consideration what Paul of Taurus said his epistle about Satan being the God of this World, then the Devil could also be considered a trickster god in Christian mythology. Tricksters are most likely loved by the masses because they are heroes in their own way striving against the status quo. Tricksters are important figures in Native American mythology and folklore. They hold as much importance in Native American myth as they do in Sub-Saharan African, Greco-Roman, and Christian myth. The trickster in Native American myth was used for creation and explanatory myth. In the following essay, we will explore the role of the trickster in Native American mythology from the book, The Storytelling Stone: Traditional Native American Myths and Tales.
"The Sky has Fallen" is an interesting mythical tale. It must be a precursor to the Chicken Little story. Coyote has the wit that is trademark of the trickster. As the practical joker of today tries to see what he/she can get away with, coyote first sees if his plan will work with one animal to see if it will work with one animal to see if it will work with other weaker animals. He tries his plan first with turkey, so after turkey falls for the idea of the sky is falling he tries it with another animal. Since the con of the sky falling worked on turkey, he tries it on turkey's obvious relative, rooster. Coyote is able to fool another fine feather family member, goose, but not before he is able to misguide lamb. After coyote is able to get them all into a hole in the ground, he devours every last one of them. The tale functions as myth and as well a cautionary tale. As P.T. Barnum used to say, "There's a sucker born every minute." The tale advices against being a sucker and not to be gullible. The aspect of myth, the story explains, why these particular animals have a fearful nature and prefer to move around on a limited basis.
"The Big Turtle's War Party" is a peculiar story indeed. It seems reminiscent of the Br'er Rabbit tale about about the briar patch. Just as Br'er Rabbit conned Br'er Fox into throwing him into the briar patch, that was Br'er Rabbit's birthplace, so too turtle tricked the villagers into throwing him into stream, which was near the riverbed were turtle was born. It made more sense in the Br'er Rabbit tale because one would not assume that a fox would be well read in any scientific endeavors, such as studying the mating and birthing habits of other animals. Fox should not be knowledgeable of where Br'er Rabbit's birthing environment was; however, human beings would be expected to observable some of the known World around them. Maybe if one looks from a modern prism about scientific inquiry of human beings then it does seem confusing and ridiculous. Myth seems to be the hypotheses of men in antiquity that filled the gaps in their knowledge. It does not make sense that men would not explore the things which are easily observable, such as where turtles and alligators are born. The aboriginals were probably more concerned with studying ways to stay alive and feed themselves rather than reptile spawning. Another thing that was confusing turtle's claim to be on the warpath. Turtle did not harm anyone. It was his three non-living companions that caused the villagers physical harm. All he did was trick the villagers into throwing him into the stream when they were defending themselves when they observed he was on the warpath. It could be the case that causing man discomfort or deceiving them was a war turtle deemed worthy of fighting. Perhaps turtle is a hero figure in this story because he is striving against the day to day conformity of men and their way of life.
"The Eye of Juggler" makes me wonder how old this myth is and what white man is being discussed; however, it does fit the nature of Native American first contact with the Europeans. Pilgrims were not only ignorant of how to survive in this strange new world, but simply hunting, gathering, and farming. If it were not for the Native Americans, the Pilgrims would not have survived. Native Americans were actually perplexed by the amazing ignorance of the Europeans, so I would not be shocked to find out the tale was about them. In the tale, the Native American man gives seemingly simple instructions to the white man. The white man feels the art of removing one's eyeballs from their sockets is something that will be useful. Regardless of receiving simple instructions of not overusing the technique. The white man ignores the warning of the man and falls into folly. The white man receives an eye from a mouse that is too small that he cannot barely see out of, and he receives an eye that is too big from a buffalo that he can see very well through. Seemingly, this was a myth that was essentially freestyled by the Native Americans when they first came into contact with white people. The Pilgrims ignorance of simple things struck them as strange and their appearance probably struck them as odd as well.
"The Theft from the Sun" is a funny tale placing the Sun as a trickster. Tricking the old man who was unwise was a way of teaching him life lessons. Just as "The Sky has Fallen" teaches one not to be gullible, this tale teaches the listener to be honest and not to steal. It is funny the old man did not learn his lesson the first time he ran away the leggings and awoke in the Sun's lodge. It reiterates the old saying, "There's no fool like an old fool." Probably it was this reason that the Sun did not just tell the old man outright not to ever steal from him again. He figured if he did not learn his lesson from this one act, then he probably would fail to learn his lesson period. Only by losing what the old man most desired did the Sun feel the old man would learn the error of his ways. This lends credence to the fact that some people can learn from seeing burn their hand in the first not to ever touch it, some can get burned once and will learn not to do it, and then there are those who constantly burn themselves and never learn.
"The Deceived Blind Men" is yet another morality tale involving a trickster. The raccoon had a date with some crawfish, but took time out of his hunting schedule to wreak havoc and wisdom upon the two old blind men. It is odd that these two old blind men are just as foolish as the old man who was a friend of the Sun. one would imagine that the old men would have acquired much wisdom in their lives, but they seemed quite devoid of it. Old men may well have been considered a liability in North American culture in general. Intuits sent their old men off to die launched off sheets of ice. Cultural attitudes toward the elderly may have been that of extreme ageism. On top of being considered weak, they may have been considered dumb (as youth of today consider themselves omniscient). Maybe their weaknesses were looked upon with equal feebleness of mind (as people impose on the elderly today). Something also could be said for the tale that learning never ceases, so the raccoon did his part to help instill knowledge and wisdom in the elderly blind men. It was a lesson that could be of the greatest of benefit to mankind in reality. Do not be so quick to anger. Be patient with one another. If we humans of today followed this advice, there would be far less skirmishes, battles, and wars.
"Hare's Adventures" deals with those things which are of the past, which are from the nature of men. Winnebago beliefs dealt with the subject of things past and irretrievable, and they dealt things of their present that were sacred to them. The origin of the medicine rite was learned from the tale. Hare was essentially a prophet of Earthmaker to teach men what they knew not of the practice of medicine. Shaman medicine rites, one could argue, were the nucleus of Winnebago society. It is fascinating the cleverness of oral stories that are told by shaman in Africa and the Americas. Hare's tail is burned and that is why hare's tails are black. Bear rolled around in oil, which is why bears are so fat. A large ant was smashed to pieces because of prideful boasting. That is why ants are small, so they can be trampled upon by men. Native Americans had a great sense of their connection to nature. They felt kinship with the animals. Hare's mother was a virgin woman, so women are his mother and all men are his uncles. Men today, even with Darwin's Theory of Evolution, do not have this same connection to the natural world. If men treated all living things as brothers and Earth as their mother, they would be kinder to their next of kin and the womb that bore them.
In the story of Trickster, we find a being who loves to engage in tricks. By the lack of identification of Trickster, he must be the prototype trickster god in Winnebago myth. We find Trickster's first victim is the buffalo. Trickster makes men figures to deceive the buffalo into thinking he is surrounded by humans. When the buffalo is encouraged to follow Trickster's escape route, the buffalo gets stuck in the muck and mire. The buffalo is then immediately killed by Trickster. Trickster loves to engage in playing tricks so much that he strangely insights violence between his two arms. The two arms needed each other's help to properly skin the buffalo, so it made no sense that they would fight of the honor of skinning the buffalo. I see why Trickster would have a bad rap. A person like Trickster in modern day Chicago would have more than birds flying away. People would be running like track stars from him. The second victim of Trickster was the father of the four thumb sized children. What a very peculiar story indeed was that of the four small children. It reminds one a little of the Native American story with the white man and his refusal to follow instructions. On top of the facts of not following instructions, it was unbelievable that a father would give his kids up for adoption to a complete stranger even if they are deformed. I wonder if Trickster really needed company or did he really just want to kill the man's kids. Why would he be surprised to see the two kids dead if he was warned in advanced they would die if they were overfeed? I mean, the kids just ate a big helping of bear soup right in front of his eyes. The father of the children was just as much at fault for their deaths for giving up his kids for adoption to a complete stranger. After the kids were already dead, then he wanted to pretend to be father of the year by seeking to avenge their deaths against Trickster. The father and Trickster must have been in the greatest of shape to run all over the World until they reached its end. Why did the father not jump into the water after Trickster? Surely a man who can easily kill bears and run all over the World should be able to swim well enough. Trickster has his moments of being clever, but after eating the fish he became a moron. Fish must not be brain food after all. Having a pointing contest with a tree is never to be confused with being smart at all. He could have gotten close up to begin with when the "person" did not respond to him at all. The foolish one was an excellent nickname for Trickster indeed. The situation between Trickster and the turkey-buzzard was interesting. It rang like a short featuring Bugs Bunny or Jerry the mouse getting their extremely rare just deserts at the end. Trickster getting a trick played on him was hilarious. A lesson is what Trickster should have learned, but he did not, as we learn from the women lumberjack fiasco. He tricked them into cutting down the tree by pretending to be a raccoon. Funny how this trick could not work unless the raccoons had the power of speech to talk to human beings. As soon as Trickster shows his cleverness, he does something incredibly stupid. Why would anyone want to hang out in an elk's skull? Trickster the fool, that is who. Once he gets his head stuck in the elk's skull, he uses his absent cleverness to get the villagers to crack open the skull. Fortunately for the villagers they were able to benefit from the split elk's skull by repurposing it into medical tools. Luckily for Trickster he keeps his stride with witty tricks when he comes upon the village of coyote. Coyote knows Trickster wants to play a trick on him and vice versa. It is amazing Coyote fell for a trick from Trickster when he knew to expect one. Logic must be divorced from the mind when dealing with myth and folktales of the Native American tradition. With friends like mouse, who needs enemies? Trickster fulfills his purpose of why he was placed upon the Earth after shaming coyote into exile. Only if Native Americans knew about sex chromosomes, their myths would have been a little more realistic. Sacred were the trickster gods of the Winnebago. They went from prankster to the defenders of men. If one was ignorant of on the mischievous things that Trickster, hare, and turtle engaged in before having dominion of worlds, the listener to the tale would think one was speaking of totally different beings.
In conclusion, Native American myth of the trickster was a source of explanations of the natural world and a way of imparting wisdom. As the modern American gets more advanced in science, he/she should not forget these lessons of wisdom and man's connection to the Earth.
Feldmann, Susan. The Storytelling Stone: Traditional Native American Myths and Tales. New York: Dell, 1965. Print.