Coyote: a Folkloric Triad

Child of Chaos
Coyote: a Folkloric Triad
Three stories ov thee Coyote
by: Josepha Sherman
[The World & I - April 1990]

Coyote … mischief maker, child of chaos, creator-by-chance. Coyote…the unpredictable whose pranks, somehow, tend to Set Things Right…Coyote, there at the very Beginning. Trickster tales remind us that life isn't necessarily fair, but that nothing, no matter how unhappy, lasts forever. The amoral trickster, as befits his shape-shifting, unpredictable nature, can be a force of wild, primal power, acting on mere whim. He assumes many guises and roles: the Greek god of wine and chaos Dionysus; High John, the black slave who always gets the better of his master and is the breath of hope to an enslaved people; or folk heroes such as the German medieval Till Eulenspiegel, the English Robin Hood, and even modern cartoon characters who give us the relief of laughter and the vicarious triumph of 'little' people over the pompous, bureaucratic, or tyrannical. Coyote is the form of trickster common to the Native Americans of the West, Southwest, and Great Plains. Anyone who has followed the coyote's triumphs over those who have been trying for the last two hundred years to eradicate him with traps, poison and guns can understand why he was chosen as a mythic symbol. The following stories are examples of the vast lore surrounding Coyote, whose offspring can even today be heard howling within an hour's drive of most major American metropolises.

At the very beginning of things neither sun nor moon were in the sky. The Kachinas, the spirit people, kept them, safe and secret, in a box that they opened whenever they wished some light. Without the sun, the world was always dark. Without the moon, there were no seasons; the world was never cold nor warm, never white with snow nor green with leaves. Coyote thought this was a sorry state of affairs. He liked change, did sly Coyote - most certainly, since he was a clumsy hunter in the darkness shrouding the world. 'Ho, Eagle Chief,' he called, 'let us form a hunting partnership. Two hunters should do better than one.' Haughty Eagle looked down at Coyote and laughed. What, he, the keen of eye and mighty of wing, make a pact with a flightless ground crawler? But he remembered that Coyote, the sly one, could steal an eagles meal, even in the darkness. Better to keep Coyote in the open, where he could play no pranks! So Eagle agreed to the partnership.

But even so, Coyote caught nothing but bugs.

'Bah! How can anyone do any decent hunting in all this darkness? Tell me, Eagle, you who fly so high, have you ever seen any light in your travelings?'

'Why, yes, from time to time I have seen a flickering of light in the west, where the Kachinas live'

'Then west, we shall go.'

Eagle soared lightly in the winds. Coyote, wingless, had to struggle through desert and mountain, river and mud. But he would not give up, not he! There at last lay the camp of the Kachinas. Coyote and Eagle hid and watched. Eagle stared at the Kachinas sacred dances. But Coyote only stared at a strange dark box. When one of the Kachinas opened it a crack, golden light poured out. When one of the Kachinas opened it halfway, silver light poured out.

'That's what we want,' Coyote whispered. 'We must steal that box!'

'All you think about is theft!' Eagle whispered back. 'I will go and ask the Kachinas if they will let us borrow their box of light.'

Coyote watched as Eagle approached the Kachinas and demanded the box of light. He watched as the angry Kachinas threw stones to chase Eagle, bruised and squawking, back into the sky. But while all the Kachinas were chasing Eagle, Coyote the sly slid silently into their camp, caught up the box of light in his jaws, and scurried away.

But the box was heavy. Coyote's jaws were getting tired. Eagle swooped down to join him.

'Here, give me the box. I can carry it more easily in my talons.'

He snatched it up and flew away. Coyote ran after him, panting. 'Hey, Eagle Chief! Let me carry the box again.'

'No, no, you will spoil everything.'

'You only want to see what's inside.'

Coyote yelled up at Eagle, 'Whose sides ache from the Kachinas blows? Not mine! Who stole away the box with never a bruise? Not You! Now, let me have the box.'

The box was heavy. Eagle swooped down again. 'Take it. But don't open it!'

But as Eagle soared up into the sky once more, Coyote studied the box. And curiosity began to burn and burn within him. Could the sun and moon really be inside? Surely there could be no harm in opening the box just a bit…

A ray of golden light shot out and hit him right in the eyes! Coyote yelped - and let the lid fly open. In a blaze of gold, the sun flashed up into the heavens. The first day had begun.

'Well now,' Coyote said, admiring his grey coat in the sunlight. 'That's not bad, not bad at all.'

He watched the sun move across the sky till it was out of sight and darkness came again. Eagle came flapping hurriedly back. 'What have you done? You've let the sun escape!'

'It will return,' Coyote said placidly.

'No, no, you've spoiled everything!'

Angry Eagle lunged at Coyote. Coyote dodged - but as he did, he knocked over the box. The moon came shooting out and flashed up into the heavens. High rose the moon, higher yet, and the world grew chill. Leaves dropped from the trees, and an icy wind blew. The first season had begin, and it was winter.

'What have you done?' Eagle shrieked. 'You've brought cold into the world!'

True enough. But Coyote, ruffling his fur, only grinned. Why, things had worked out even better than he'd planned! For he had also brought day into the world, and night. He had brought winter, spring, summer, fall. He had given the world variety, never-ending changes enough to please even the wily grey trickster himself.

In the early days, when the rules of the world were still being set up, the people of power held a council meeting. And at that meeting was Coyote, the trickster, the thinker.

'Why should there be death?' pondered the people that day. 'Let us do away with it.'

'Death is already a law,' Coyote reminded them. 'You cannot cancel it so easily.'

'Then we shall change the law!' the people cried. 'Folk will still die, yes - but they shall not stay dead forever.'

Quickly the growing plan flew from one person to the next.

'We shall build a great lodge,' their chief medicine man said at last. 'It shall be a place of great power. Into it the spirits of the newly dead shall fly. And out of it they shall walk, living folk once more.'

'How very nice it sounds,' Coyote drawled. 'But you forget one thing, oh wise ones. If folk keep right on being born, yet no one stays dead, the world will be a crowded place pretty soon. How are you going to feed all those people, oh wise ones? Where are you going to put them?'

No, no, the people would not listen to Coyote. They chased him away with angry shouts. They would build the lodge of Power and that was that! But Coyote, watching for a secret place while the medicine men spoke their spells and chanted their chants, grinned to himself. He added his own quiet, sly spell to those set on the lodge of Power and hid to see what would come next.

It was not long before a human man died. The medicine men played their flutes of bone, luring and tempting, and the dead man's spirit whirled on the wind, drawn towards the lodge by their magic. In another moment it would enter, and return a living man.

But Coyote was swifter than spirit, swifter than wind! He leaped out from hiding in a blur of grey fur and slammed the lodge's door shut.

'No!' the people of power cried.

But it was too late. The spirit whined and whirled about the lodge. But the door was too firmly closed. The spirit could not enter, and the power of the bone flutes was broken. The spirit whirled away on its proper path away from the land of the living, and Coyote laughed.

'Thanks to me, the power of your lodge is gone!' he called to the people. 'When the first spirit failed to enter, that lodge became nothing more than a useless grass hut!'

That was all Coyote had time to say. In the next moment, all the furious people of power were chasing him. Of course he escaped, the sly grey one. But from that day to this, all coyotes still run with their heads looking over their shoulders, just in case the people of power - who refuse to admit how Coyote's trick saved the world - might be catching up to them.

Coyote was going along one day, trotting down the desert way, when he saw the dust of a horse and rider. White man coming! And look at the fancy rig on him!

Well, old Coyote was a shape shifter, of course. In no time. he had taken manshape, looking just like a poor man of the people, dark skin, black hair. Only his eyes were odd, the mocking green eyes of the trickster.

Did the stranger know him by those eyes? Maybe. For the man pointed right at Coyote and said, 'Heard there's someone around here who fancies himself a cheater. Someone by the name of Coyote.'

CHEATER! Coyote thought indignantly. A fine name for someone who set the sun in the sky! 'Might be,' he answered smoothly, bland of face. But behind that blank mask, his busy mind was plotting.

'Ha, you're Coyote, I know it! But I'm a better cheater than you. Ain't a man alive who can out-trick me, surely not some worn out old Indian! Come on, try me!'

Now, here was a pretty bird, just asking to be plucked! Coyote grinned lazily, tongue lolling out. 'The day's too warm.'

'Try me! Try to cheat me!'

'No. The suns too hot.'

'You're afraid! You're scared to have a cheating match with me.'

Coyote sighed. 'Trouble is, I left my cheating medicine back home.'

'Well, go get it.'

'It's too far. I'm too tired. You want a cheating match, better wait till another day. Or lend me your horse so I can get there and back again.'

The stranger thought that one over just for a minute, so eager was he to show what a mighty trickster he was. He jumped down from the saddle. But Coyote slyly moved upwind of the horse. And it, smelling the not-human scent of him, shied, eyes rolling, ears twitching.

'He's scared of me because I don't have a white man's hat,' Coyote said. 'Let me borrow yours.'

'Here, take it. Go get your cheating medicine.'

But Coyote still stood upwind. And of course the horse still shied. Coyote shrugged. 'He's scared of me because I don't wear a white man's clothes. Guess our match is off.'

But the stranger was so eager to prove himself, he peeled out of his fancy shirt and pants and boots without a moments thought. 'Here, try them.'

Coyote slid into the alien clothes, leaving the man in only his long johns. With the alien hat on his head, Coyote moved downwind. Unable to scent him, the horse stood still. Coyote mounted an urged it into a trot. But then, safely out of reach, old Coyote reined in the horse again, looked back at the denuded man, and grinned.

'Well, stranger. ' he called. 'Are you content? Learned your lesson?'

'Lesson? what are you talking about?'

'Look down at yourself, stranger. No clothes, no horse. Look down and admit: No man living can trick Coyote!'

'Why you sly, no-good son of a - You come back here!' he raged.

But with a wave of his hand, Coyote rode away.