Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Trickster Stories As Parodies of Shamanism

In 1964 [C.E.], Mac Linscott Ricketts finished a doctoral thesis that is a remarkably wide-ranging survey of North American trickster tales. There and in later essays Ricketts has argued that the tales locate the trickster in opposition to the practice and beliefs of shamanism. To Ricketts’s way of thinking, humankind has had two responses when faced with all that engenders awe and dread in this world: the way of the shaman (and the priests), which assumes a spiritual world, bows before it, and seeks to make alliances; and the way of the trickster (and the humanists), which recognizes no power beyond its own intelligence, and seeks to seize and subdue the unknown with wit and cunning. “The trickster…embodies [an] experience of Reality…in which humans feel themselves to be self-sufficient beings for whom the supernatural spirits are powers not to be worshiped, but ignored, to be overcome, or in the last analysis mocked.” The shaman enters the spirit world and works with it, but “the trickster is an outsider…. He has no friends in that other world…. All that humans have gained from the unseen powers beyond—fire, fish, game, fresh water, and so forth—have been obtained, by necessity, through trickery or theft….” In obtaining these goods, the trickster, unlike the shaman, “did not also obtain superhuman powers or spiritual friendship…. He seems to need no friends: he gets along very well by himself….”

To explore this idea, Ricketts shows how a number of trickster stories can be read as parodies of shamanism. In shamanic initiation, for example, the spirits kill and resurrect the initiate, often placing something inside the resurrected body—a quartz crystal, for example—which the shaman can later call forth from his body during healing rituals. If someone in your group claims such powers, you might find wry humor in stories which have Coyote, when he needs advice, calling forth (with much grunting) his own excrement. Likewise, dreams of flying are said to be premonitions of shamanic initiation, and the shaman in a trance can supposedly fly into the sky, into the underworld, into the deepest forest. With this in mind, it’s hard not to hear the parodic tone in the almost universal stories of trickster trying to fly with the birds, only to fall ignominiously to earth. Trickster’s failure implies that shamanic pretensions are daydreams at best, fakery at worst. “Humans were not made to fly…. Trickster, like the human being, is an earth-bound creature, and his wish to fly (and to escape the human condition) is…a frivolous fancy.”

Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, pp. 293-94

Emphasis mine.