Picture: A Deerhide ornamental drum I hand stretched and painted. The story depicted, ironically, is the one in which coyote brings fire to the people. I translated the story with the help of Plains style paintings/weaving patterns into this circular design. See if you can guess who is who. This is not meant to be a representation of Native works, as I am not Native and this has meaning specific to me only. Thanks.
Note I use Coyote spirit loosely here, to mean an archetypal Spirit that subscribes to certain traits.
Ah, trickster spirits. My favorite subject. This is going to be a mix of academia on some shenanigans close to my heart and personal experience. BUT FIRST:
What do I mean by a trickster spirit?
Trickster spirits are a category of spirit or creature that subscribes to a certain set of rules: namely, their own. Humanity loves trickster spirits because they intentionally break the rules of society, and they do it so well they can't be reprimanded. They turn the world upside down to force you to look at it from their perspective, and they force you to laugh at a serious situation. They liven up a somber mood and remind you to pick it up and keep moving, and when you can't bend the rules, break them.
For some reason, every culture in the world has some sort of trickster. Most people are familiar with Pan, the Greek God who generally fucked shit up and had awesome sex with tons of ladies. (Some of it was questionably consensual but that's a feminist issue for another time.) Pan is a representation of the wild, untamable fecundity of nature and how humanity can't do shit except go along with it. (Dionysius arguably did the same, but with spirits.)
Let's examine some trickster animals, shall we? Click the lines in the text to access the source tales, too!
When the people came up on earth, Coyote was the very last one of the animals to emerge.
When this world was made the trees wouldn't burn. The people were living without fire.
The coyote was running all over. No one knew where he would be the next day. He was running from place to place.
One time he found a place with great rock cliffs all around. In the bottom was a hollow place. A great spruce tree was standing there. The people who lived there were the fireflies. They came up in the cliffs by means of rock steps, so that no one could see their footprints and know the way to enter. The stones were laid one ahead of the other, so that the people, when they came out, could step on these rocks.
Coyote saw some little children playing on the other side of the cliff. He asked them, "Where is the entrance to this place?"
The children paid no attention to him, however.
He thought and thought, "What will these children like?"
Coyote is the trickster spirit most are familiar with from Native American mythos. Coyote is especially featured in myth sourced from the Plains (Crow and Menominee) and the Pleateau (Nez Perce, Flathead); whereas Crow/Raven as trickster is a staple of Inuit and Northern mythos. Also featured in some myths is Fox as trickster. Coyote is generally a jovial creature of male, female, or androgynous origin who makes a fool of the others involved in the tale. In some Native tales, Coyote is either Creator or Direct Servant to the Creator, instructing the other animals and carrying out its will. Alternatively, he can be portrayed as a thief. At the same time, coyote is often the butt of his own joke, and therein makes him a human, relatable character to us.
"You will be very lonely by yourself," said Raven to Man one day. "I will make you a companion."
He went to a spot some distance from where he had made the animals, and, looking now and then at Man as an artist looks at his model, he made an image very much like Man. He took from the creek some fine water grass and fastened it on the back of the head for hair. After the image had dried in his hands, he waved his wings over it as he had done with all the live things, and it came to life and stood beside Man, a beautiful young woman.
-Raven Creates Woman
In tales of the Raven sourced from Inuit mythos, it is most often male and actually participates in human society; in the tale of Sedna he (or his equivalent bird) tricks her into becoming his wife. Like Coyote, Raven is sometimes Creator or Creator's servant, or alternatively is responsible for helping humanity in some way. This is a prime example, to me, of how the animals/landscape of the People influence the archetypal conception of Spirits.
A retainer who served the governor of Kai was heading home one sundown from the governor's mansion when he saw a fox, gave chase and shot at it with the kind of noisemaker arrow used for scaring off dogs. He hit it in the back leg.
The fox yelped in pain, rolled over, and dove limping into the brush. As the retainer went to retrieve his arrow the fox reappeared in front of him, and he was about to shoot at it again when it vanished.
A quarter of a mile from home he saw the fox running ahead of him carrying a flaming brand in its mouth. What could it be up to? He spurred his horse on. On reaching the house, the fox changed into a human being and set the house on fire. The retainer was ready to shoot as soon as he got within range, but the human changed right back into a fox and got away. The house burned down.
Beings like that exact swift vengeance. It's better to leave them alone.
-Japanese Kitsune Tale
In Japanese (and Chinese, and Korean, etc...) mythology, Foxes are the prominent trickster. In Japan, called Kitsune, they are most often devious yet flawed villains; they attempt to lie and steal but forget some fundamental part of their disguise. Most commonly, a fox could transform into a beautiful woman to seduce a man, and only after 4-5 years would he realize she has a fox tail she could not disguise, and he awakens from her illusion. The common thread in these tales is often the seduction of a fox, then living in a paradise too good to be true, and the rude awakening when you realize you've been living in a shack in the woods alone behaving like an animal.
Japanese tales of illusion are interesting simply because they are SO prominent. Tales of being 'Spirited Away' by devious foxes abound in that mythology. Often, the fox is rendered immobile if the 'Fox's Jewel', its source of power/coveted possession, is stolen. Alternatively, one should never negotiate with a fox, because any gold or jewels offered in atonement usually turn out to be sticks and leaves later on. At the same time, doing a fox a favor is usually a good thing, as they repay debts. In Japan specifically, it was common to have 'good' foxes and 'bad' foxes. The former was working toward spiritual betterment and often strove to live a thousand years and thereby become immortal or a servant of Inari, whereas the bad predictably made no effort to do much beyond steal and trick.
It should be warned it's never a good thing to follow a fox wedding procession--they don't like to be observed and it's a miracle if you return alive.
There is a real element of fear and superstition in Japan regarding foxes in general; as they were regarded as very powerful and not to be fucked with. It's common to see roadside shrines to them, to kee one's family from exacting vengeange for harm done. Since Shinto is animist, this makes sense. But the element of fear doesn't always run through other cultural trickster tales.
Some kitsune are known for possession, and there are actually reports of this in Japan still today. Some of the symptoms are said to be biting, snarling, crawling around on all fours, and generally...behaving like a fox. Seduction included.
A long time ago Kweku Ananse was respected as the wisest creature on earth. He was so wise that people came from all over to consult him. However, he grew tired of so much company, so he decided to put all of his wisdom into a pot and climb a tall tree to hide from everyone. He hung the pot around his neck and proceeded up the tree. However, the pot hanging over his belly kept getting in the way of climbing. His son Ntikuma saw what was happening and told Ananse to tie it on his back so his hands would be free. Ananse was furious that his son knew something he didn't, because it showed that he did not know everything. When Ananse smashed the pot to the ground, wisdom was scattered all over the world.
-Ananse and the Wisdom Pot
Possibly the best known trickster in West African folklore, the Spider is a great and valuable trickster. Ananse, to me, always struck me as a wise and old trickster deity. With the foxes of Japan, there is an element of the ridiculous. They are not always wise; mostly acting on desires of the now. Coyote and Raven are sometimes wise, but not always. Ananse always seems to be on top of his shit to me, and most of his tricking ended up being for the sake of higher wisdom or betterment. At the same time, maybe that pride was his hero's flaw, as in the above story. I couldn't find many solid myths, but the page above has quite a few traditional ones.
In short, trickster spirits are great to befriend...cautiously. I chose to cover animals on purpose. These tricksters have a separate nature to them that differs from human tricksters. Plus, I have much more experience with the animal variety.
If you encounter a trickster guide, proceed with caution. Though your best interests are usually in their interests, they are tricksters for a reason. There's something you will not learn any other way except falling on your ass a few times and having people laugh at you. But that's life.
They are incredibly important. As Pagans, some of us are guilty of taking our Work too seriously. Don't be surprised if you attract a wily Coyote spirit by proceeding that way. Work must be equaled with Fun, otherwise we wouldn't have a use for the Fool in the tarot, you dig? Tricksters reflect the heroic flaws in all of us as people, and show us how to overcome those flaws. And when we can't, they teach us that might be okay.
The world has a rich history of trickster myths; not all of it human. Check below for some fun resources on the web!
Ivan The Fool
Baba Yaga (I will argue she is a Trickster character in her behavior, if not a malevolent one.)
Fox Story Archive
Legends and Folktales Archive
Animation on Raven
Inuit Creation Myths
Massive First Peoples Legend Archive