Lessons of the Trickster: Coyote

Indigenous stories do not have obvious heroes. Beings are not easily divided into “bad guy” or “good guy.” The moral is often obscure. In fact, many of the stories are not for children.  Some of the scenarios deal with the consequences of improper sexual actions or other mature themes. These stories do not have a tag-line ending with “they lived happily ever after.” Mistakes led to uncomfortable results, and the hero does not always survive the story.

Many tales involve the Trickster archetype. Certainly, the Trickster has played an important role in many cultures. This complex character has been portrayed as animal — rabbit, raven, praying mantis, coyote, or spider — or as a divine being like Eleggua, Loki, Puck, and Hoyoka. Yet the active aspects of each are quite different. They range from sacred clown to wise fool, from scoundrel to sage, from conman to consultant, and from jolly companion to judge.

Tricksters have the job of teaching us about our limitations and responsibilities. While they flaunt convention (and gravity), they explain the limits of right action and the double-edged sword of power-hungry moves. One of the most popular tricksters is Coyote.

Coyote is a survivor. He trips through stories from many different traditions. In quite a few legends of North American indigenous peoples, Coyote is very similar to the sacred fool in European culture. He is shrewd and silly and seems oblivious to results of his actions.  Often he falls flat on his face, but he manages to do something wonderful while falling. In some tales, he is the wise animal instrumental in creating the world. Acting as a caring, wise person, he sets the stars in the sky and then leads a daring raid to capture fire to rescue the world from darkness and cold.

Yet, despite his sacredness, he has an ignoble side.  His greed brings him to a bad end. When he can’t control his basest urges, he sabotages himself and loses everything.  Jamie Sams wrote: “As Coyote moves from one disaster to the next, he refines the art of self-sabotage to sheer perfection. … Coyote takes himself so seriously at times that he cannot see the obvious; for example, the steamroller that is about to run over him. That is why, when it hits him, he still cannot believe it. ‘Was that really a steamroller? I better go look,’ he says. And he is run over once more.”[1]

In the oral traditions, Trickster stories allow people to laugh while learning. Ultimately the story teller’s entertaining tales demonstrate valuable lessons about the individual’s role in society. They illuminate the folly of greed, selfishness, and egotistic actions. Indeed, the best storytellers show us our own contrariness: our self-indulgence, avarice, and foolishness are highlighted through Coyote’s actions. As with the best cartoons, we may despise his actions; we may hate his repetitive silliness, but we have all been there.  All of us know people who are learning lessons of the trickster. If we are honest, we can recognize ourselves in those stories.

For instance, making an important decision can be intimidating. We analyze and fantasize about outcomes while worrying that we might choose wrongly or we might fail. Because we fear the potential consequences of our actions, we might put off choosing until someone else decides for us or we are forced into actions we don’t want. Through our fear of failure, indecisiveness, or sheer laziness, we make life worse for ourselves.

On the other hand, we can egotistically assume we have all of the answers. Consequently, we don’t even consider the possibility of being wrong. On the other hand, we might see the potential costs but choose to follow our personal desires despite them. We can ignore how our actions will impact others and do not see the steamroller coming towards us.

In all of these situations we are confronted by our own personal trickster energy. If we had listened to the message of the stories, we could have realized that Coyote did all of that before us. If we are smart, we learn from watching Coyote; if we are not, we become him.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of Coyote is that he persists. Coyote remains running through the countryside despite centuries of hunters; sometimes coyote finds himself lost on city streets.  This is the happy ending; although it is not the one we desire, it is the one that life teaches us.  We make mistakes, fall down, and despite the embarrassment, we rise again perhaps a bit wiser.



—- Footnote —-

[1] Jamie Sams and David Carson.  Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals (St. Martin’s Press, 1999).


About Lillith ThreeFeathers

Lillith ThreeFeathers is a shamanic healer, author, medium, and priestess.
This entry was posted in Shamanic Posts, Society and Civilization, Spirituality & Religion, Stories from long ago and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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