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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Kye Oh Tay

The notion of the trickster and the culture hero, together, is fascinating to me.   Around the West, coyote was the hero of these tales.  In the Northeast it was Raven, and in the South and Eastern United States it was hare and rabbit.

But what is a trickster?  And what is a culture hero?  In reading about ‘culture hero’ definitions, it is a mythical animal or creature that brings important things into this world, such as the animals, or humans, or gives fire to humans and teaches them how to grow or find food.  Coyote fills this bill in many stories.

Coyote blends into the landscape with deer in background

And the trickster?  That is harder to define.  A trickster is the embodiment of opposites, of extremes.  He makes you laugh at the absurd, or at his foibles.  Jung described the trickster as the ‘shadow side of a culture’, all the things that you can’t admit to or hide now out in the open and that energy is expressed and released through story.

I am intrigued by the trickster, because no matter how much you read about it, the trickster is enigmatic and can’t be grasped.  Coyote stories remind me of a tradition I studied for some time–Tibetan Crazy Wisdom. These Enlightened Adepts taught through living paradox; their life and teachings (if they had a teaching at all) were expressions of their unconditional freedom.  They lived lives outside the conventional agreements of morality, religion and social contracts.  Their very existence in Time and Space exploded and confounded our idea of living as limited mortal beings.

Coyote, as creator and destroyer, rogue, knave, fool, giver of fire to humans but also of birth and death is the Crazy Adept of many American Indian cultures.

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

But what is interesting to me is simply how confounded I am when I read Coyote stories.  I think “I don’t get it” and that is exactly it.  It is funny and silly yet profound and sacred at the same time.  There is a depth that is untouchable and indescribable.  And still my question remains “why Coyote?”   We can tell the story about how coyote has defied extermination by the White Man, and lived to spread ten-fold instead.  Or how he might follow a trapper, dig up his traps, urinate them and run off to the hills.  Surely these tell of Coyote’s cunning.  But I suspect the native peoples understood many more attributes of coyotes that white men overlook because our culture has seen them only as pests and predators to be extirpated.

Coyote catching grasshoppers

In choosing Coyote as their culture hero and trickster, native peoples have bestowed a great honor as well as power to this creature.  Coyote is given the power to stop the mind just as the Zen Masters’ stick might give the blow of Enlightenment to his student.  Coyote frees us from stodgy mind, creating an opening for creativity, inspiration, and True Religion.  Coyote embodies our dualistic nature, Yin and Yang, Good and Evil, Form and Formless.  In the embrace of Paradox, we are Free.  Coyote is here to guide us through his Crazy Wisdom, his Tricksterness, beyond Time and Space.

That is a great power.  And so I am still puzzled, speechless, and confounded by The Trickster–and that is as it should be, I suppose.  I feel that I need to observe and understand coyote more deeply so that his hidden blessing will be revealed.

It was a cold night. Winter was beginning to set in.  My window was slightly cracked and, at 2am, I awakened to the songs of a ‘Medicine Dog’–a lone coyote howling just outside near the front lawn. Since Koda has lived here, the coyotes take a different route home at night, so this was a rare visitation.  In my sleepiness, it seemed like the right thing to howl back.  After some responsive singing between us, it became clear that this was a pup of the year, calling for his pack and I was only confusing him, so I stopped singing his songs back to him.  And sure enough there soon came faint replies far up the mountain from where the coyotes den in the spring. The teenager took off to meet his brothers and I fell soundly and happily back asleep.

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2 Responses

  1. Wolf and Coyote (Shoshone)
    The Old people say Wolf created the world

    One day he was sitting in his tipi making arrowheads out of obsidian when the door sas pushed rudely open. It was Coyote.

    Welcome, Cousin, said Wolf. He was always polite. He filled a pipe and handed it to Coyote, who smoked it all up in one puff.

    Somewhat taken aback, Wolf refilled the pipe, tamping it down more firmly this time. Again Coyote emptied it in a single puff.

    The Coyote filled his own pipe and handed it to Wolf, who puffed and puffed. Soon the tipi got so smoky he passed oout. The pipe was still full.

    Coyote let in some air and revived him. Wolf t ried again, but again the tipi filled with smoke and he fainted. After three times he gave it up.

    Coyote had noticed black arrowheads lying behind Wolf. Now that’s a thing that would be good to know about, he thought.

    Cousin Wolf, you have lost the smoking contest very graciously. Let’s see who can make the most arrowheads out of obsidian.

    Wolf, who was embarrassed agreed. He chipped feverishly, piling points around him in heaps. Coyote only pretended to work, all the while watching Wolf’s technique from the corner of his eye.

    When he had seen just how it was done, he blew obsidian dust into Wolf’s eyes and escaped. He went home to his nephews the Shoshones and taught them.

    Poem by Lynne Bama from her book Yellowstone Rising

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  2. Sorry about the few typos in the above poem. I was proof reading, and hit some unknown button that posted the poem. I would like to add, that every now and then we have coyotes in the fields behind the house. I love hearing their concerts in the evening while lying in bed.

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