Wise Fools

A gallery of mad prophets, poets, and pranksters


| May/June 2002


Coyote, the Fox, Anansi
Tribal Tricksters Around the World

The trickster gets around. Sometimes male and sometimes female, usually in animal form, this universal character has been spun by storytellers for centuries. In Native American tales, the trickster is often embodied by Raven or Coyote. In Asia and South America, she’s the Fox. In Africa, he’s called Anansi, Legba, or Spider.

Shape-shifting, mischief-making, and often scandalously gender-bending, the trickster likes sex and food—a lot. In one Karuk story from Northern California, Coyote turns himself into driftwood so two girls he sees on the side of a river will pick him up; both girls get pregnant. The trickster is the master of ingenious pranks, too. While his cleverness often helps people, his foolishness creates chaos. The trickster is what Native American writer Joseph Bruchac calls both "Promethean and pathetic."

Take a story about Wakdjunkaga, for example. One summer, this Winnebago trickster makes some new friends. When winter comes, they have no place to live and no food. Wakdjunkaga has heard that a local chief’s son wants to marry, so he fashions a vulva out of an elk liver and breasts out of elk kidneys, puts on a dress, and transforms himself into a very pretty woman. After getting married, and providing shelter and food for his friends, he gives birth to three sons. But then, by accident, his secret is found out. Everyone is ashamed, and Wakdjunkaga’s friends run away.

Sometimes playful tricksters end up as tragic figures. Early Scandinavians told the story of Loki, who, like Prometheus, stole fire from the gods for humans, bringing them out of the darkness. After Loki was caught, he was chained to a mountain—again like Prometheus
—and spent eternity paying for his trick. Today, the trickster lives on in the great Roadrunner cartoons. Ever the hungry prankster, Wile E. Coyote does everything he can to trick the roadrunner. And though Coyote fails and dies—repeatedly—in each episode, he always comes back, bringing more tricks, more laughter, and more life.

—Karen Olson