Tricksters – The animist worldviews or cosmologies within which shamans are required ritualists, mediators, healers, or combatants usually posit co-creation by a wide community of persons. At least some of these are “tricksters.” Generally, tricksters are other-thanhuman persons who create or transform the world as a result of strange and even antisocial behavior. In stories and ceremonies they are usually gluttonous, lascivious, greedy, deceptive, destructive, and foolish. Tricksters are creative or transformative either to achieve self-serving ends or simply by accident. Nonetheless, the results of their actions benefit others, especially humans.

Trickster tales and rituals may be playfully celebratory even as they warn against unacceptable and transgressive behavior. It is not that tricksters are “evil,” but more that they are ambiguous, although Coyote (an almost ubiquitous trickster in North America) is heavily involved in the witchcraft traditions of some areas. Part of the ambiguity and marginality of shamans lies in their close kinship with tricksters. This is played out in their performance of gender and results in their ability to mediate, but it is also demonstrated in the common suspicion that shamans may also be sorcerers or witches. They may cure, but they can also inflict illness. They can warn against enemy cannibalism, but they may also aid bloodthirsty deities. For all the amusement that is gained from trickster tales, they should not be mistaken for “just-so” stories told purely for entertainment. The Navajo storyteller Yellowman told Barre Toelken that although his stories of the trickster Ma’i contained humorous episodes and were told in amusing ways, they were not funny but vitally important for educating children in appropriate behavior and for “making everything possible.” Similarly, Ellen Basso links Amazonian Kalapalo understandings of tricksters with the pervasive “perspectivism” that requires shamans to be able to see as others see. The confusion of trickster tales with funny stories may also result from the inclusion of “fools” in collections such as American Indian Trickster Tales (coedited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz in 1998). The short-story collections of Gerald Vizenor not only retell and embellish traditional Ojibwe trickster tales but also make them powerfully relevant to contemporary urban, mixed-blood, and marginal contexts and communities; indeed, he makes full use of the transgressive and metaphorical power of tricksters as he demolishes stereotypes and liberates his stories and readers to reimagine and reform the world. James Welch’s Fools Crow (1986) offers further examples of shamanic-trickster engagements.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007