Tricksters: Mesoamerican and South American Tricksters

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The peoples of Mesoamerica and South America maintain lively traditions concerning a cunning and deceitful mythic figure, the trickster. Although tricksters are ludicrous rather than solemn beings, they cannot be discounted as trivial because their activities and transformations touch on religious issues. For instance, they steal fire, which is deemed the center of social and physical life, and their clever bungling frequently introduces death. They stir up such a riot of the senses with their playful conduct, that sex, food, and song become sacred emblems of incarnate life. The trickster's scheming prefigures human intelligence, which is based, ironically, on the realm of the senses.

Tricksters are usually animals that have bodies riddled with passages, or they may have excessively large orifices, any of which may be cut open or penetrated. The contemporary Huichol, who live in the Sierra Madre Occidental, in north-central Mexico, consider Káuyúumaari ("one who does not know himself" or "one who makes others crazy") one of their principal deities (Myerhoff, 1974). Káuyumarie is the animal sidekick of the supreme Huichol deity, Tatewari ("our grandfather fire"). Irreverent, clever, and amusing, Káuyumarie brought about the first sexual intercourse between man and woman. He guides pilgrims to Wirikúta, where the Huichol believe the beginning of time and the center of space are located, and where, as the Sacred Deer, he was dismembered. Pilgrims learn at Wirikúta that all paradoxes and contradictionseven the distinctions between deer, maize, and peyotearise from the division of Káuyumarie's body (Myerhoff, 1974). The four directions are colored by his body parts, and these colors can be seen in flowers or in the visions induced by eating his fleshthe sacred peyote plant. The horns on Káuyumarie's head enable humans to penetrate the contradictions that make up human experience (Furst, 1976).

Tricksters distort sight and sound purely to create illusion and noise. The Aztec divinity, Tezcatlipoca ("smoking mirror"), uses an obsidian mirror to distort images. He was able to trick Quetzalcoatl, for example, into looking into the mirror in which Quetzalcoatl saw a repulsive and misshapen being. Tezcatlipoca in one of his assumed shapes is Huehuecoyotl ("drum coyote"), the puckish patron of song and dance, who was an ancient Chichimec divinity known for being a sly contriver (Brundage, 1979).

Extraordinary body designs or cross-sex dress, which the trickster sometimes manifests, is a way in which the contrary conditions of existence are mediated. In her study of Zinacantecan myth from the Chiapas Highlands of Mexico, Eva Hunt links contemporary female tricksters to the sixteenth-century goddess Cihuacoatl, a female deity with a tail, a fake baby, and a snake, which emerges from under her skirt and from between her legs. In the contemporary Cuicatec region and the Puebla-Nahuatl area of Mexico, she is embodied as Matlacihuatl, and she is also known as Mujer Enredadora ("entangling woman"). Her name derives from maxtli, a loincloth. Matlacihuatl is adulterous and promiscuous, and she specializes in seducing homosexual men. She is sexually anomalous, having a vagina at the back of her neck that opens like a mouth. If a man does seduce her, he will become pregnant and give birth to a child that looks like excrement (Hunt, 1977).

A female turtle is the trickster of the Desána people in southern Colombia. She constantly outsmarts primordial monkeys, jaguars (the dominant supernatural beings of the primordial age), foxes, deer, and tapir, using their body parts to her advantage; for example, she uses the leg bone of the jaguar as a flute.

Tricksters often opposed the dominant supernatural beings of their day and embarrassed or humiliated the divine patrons of priests, shamans, and other privileged religious specialists. For example, the Maquiritaré, Carib-speakers of Venezuela, tell of divine twins; Iureke revives his twin brother, Shikiemona, who has been fixed in the form of a fish by the Master of Iron. In an effort to save his brother, Iureke assumes the form of a kingfisher and covers his brother with excrement. When the Master of Iron washes Shikiemona clean, the water removes the excrement and revives the dying twin, and he swims away (Civrieux, 1980). Later, the twins destroy the supernatural jaguar by exploiting his will for power. "I want some wind. I need some power," the jaguar exclaims. So the twins trick him into swinging on a vine after eating a smelly agouti (a kind of rodent). The jaguar breaks wind, filling the air with a foul smell on a cosmic scale, and ultimately the jaguar is propelled to the end of the earth, where he lands with a bang and breaks all his bones.

In other myths tricksters steal various forms of life from the underworld. For example, the Sanumá (Yanoama) of the Venezuela-Brazil border region, tell of Hasimo, a mythic bird-man, who steals fire from a primordial alligator, which stores fire in its mouth, by shooting excrement into its face, forcing the alligator to laugh (Taylor, 1979).

Manipulation of flesh and of bodily openings and closings is a key stratagem of tricksters. Among the Waiwai of Venezuela, an old man, who is a known liar and master of disguise, rescues his child from buzzards by making himself smell like putrid flesh (Fock, 1963). Yaperikuli, the transformer and trickster of the Baníwa of the upper Rio Negro region of northwestern Brazil, killed the chief of the Eenu-nai ("sky people") by opening his body and leaving it in a hammock like a "dummy." The trickster's role in general consists of his becoming enmeshed in a predicament and then rescuing himself through the use of his incarnate intelligence and the physical transformation of his body. Tricksters are sometimes wedged in the dangerous passages between two states of being, and through their efforts to rescue themselvesusing perhaps a hole, or vine, as a passagethese states of being become altered forever.

The Yuküna people of the northwest Amazon region tell the story of two heroic brothers. The younger brother, Maotchi, is extracted from a hole in a tree by a female agouti with whom he has promised to have sex in exchange for being rescued. Once night falls, he fears making love with her, and so they sleep foot-to-foot. However, she begins to devour him through her anus, and by midnight she has "swallowed" him up to his anus, which then begins to swallow her. On another occasion, Maotchi tricks his elder brother, Kawarimi, into jumping with him into an enormous hole that leads to another world at the center of the earth. Maotchi saves himself by grabbing a vine as he falls, uprooting the vine in the process. As his brother falls into the hole, Maotchi shouts "Stone, stone!" to make his brother fall faster and, eventually, break all his bones (Jacopin, 1981).

Cross-dressing constitutes another tactic of the trickster. In eastern Ecuador, the Shipibo trickster is an ant eater who manages to trade "clothes" with a jaguar. The result is the human world, in which appearances and body forms can be deceiving: that is, where an ant eater is really a jaguar, a jaguar really an anteater, and so on (Roe, 1982). Because death is the ultimate transformation, tricksters have been linked with it; they also mock death and extract benefit from its appearances. For example, in Brazil, the Tapirapé culture hero, Petura, is able to steal fire from the primordial king vulture by pretending to be a cadaver: When the king vulture comes to devour the maggots infesting the corpse, Petura steals his "red fire." He also gives the anteater its shape by thrusting a club up its anus and a wooden stick into its nostrils (Wagley, 1977).

In the Gran Chaco area of southern South America, the Mataco trickster Tokhwáhalso known as Tawkx-wax, Takwaj, Takjuaj, Tokhuahis both good and bad, and, although he advances human capabilities, every step forward brings comic disaster (Simoneau and Wilbert, 1982). Tokhwáh acts bisexually, chasing women and often seduced by men. His exploits require an entire cycle of myths, and he is at once divine and earthly, creative and destructive. In order to retain nourishing foods, Tokhwáh uses mud to close up his anus, which had been torn open through intercourse with an iguana. In another episode, he is blinded with excrement that comes flying through the air when Tokhwáh strikes a pile of dung that has answered his questions by making inarticulate dropping noises, "pa pa pa pa." On another occasion, as punishment for eating a child, all of Tokhwáh's orifices are plugged with clay or wax. When a woodpecker reopens his orifices, various bird-beings are spattered with blood and waste, giving the various species their distinguishing marks (Simoneau and Wilbert, 1982).

The actions of Mesoamerican and South American tricksters reveal the contradictions at the heart of human experience: carnal and spiritual, living but mortal, ambitious but finite. With a blend of humor and tragedy, trickster myths describe the calamities that occur when contrary conditions of being collide and overlap in a single experience.

See Also

Jaguars; Tezcatlipoca.


For a consideration of trickster figures as general mythical types among American Indian people, see Åke Hultkrantz's The Religions of the American Indians (Berkeley, Calif., 1967). For a treatment of trickster figures in Mesoamerica, see Barbara G. Myerhoff's Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians (Ithaca, N.Y., 1974); Burr C. Brundage's The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World (Austin, 1979); and Eva Hunt's The Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacantecan Mythical Poem (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977).

For tricksters in various parts of South America consult the excellent series of volumes on folk literature of South American peoples edited by Johannes Wilbert and Karin Simoneau and published by the UCLA Latin American Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Each volume contains extensive indices directing the reader to specific trickster motifs. For example, this article refers to Johannes Wilbert and Karin Simoneau's Folk Literature of the Mataco Indians (Los Angeles, 1982). Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (Chicago, 1971) presents the mythic figures of southern Colombia. For references to tricksters in the northwest Amazon region, see the excellent collections of myths in Robin M. Wright's "History and Religion of the Baníwa Peoples of the Upper Rio Negro Valley," 2 vols. (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1981), and in Pierre-Ives Jacopin's "La parole generative: De la mythologie des indiens yukuna" (Ph.D. diss., Université de Neuchâtel, 1981). Trickster mythologies from Venezuela may be found in Marc de Civrieux's Watunna: An Orinoco Creation Cycle (San Francisco, 1980); Niels Fock's Waiwai: Religion and Society of an Amazonian Tribe (Copenhagen, 1963); and Kenneth I. Taylor's "Body and Spirit among the Sanumá (Yanoama) of North Brazil," in David L. Browman and Ronald A. Schwarz's Spirits, Shamans, and Stars: Perspectives from South America (The Hague, 1979), pp. 201221, which discusses people living on the Brazil-Venezuela border. Mention may also be made of Charles Wagley's Welcome of Tears: The Tapirapé Indians of Central Brazil (Oxford, 1977); the special study made by Mario Califano, "El ciclo de Tokjwaj: Analisis fenomenológico de una narración mítica de los Mataco Costaneros," Scripta ethnológica (Buenos Aires) 1 (1973): 156186; and Peter G. Roe's The Cosmic Zygote: Cosmology in the Amazon Basin (New Brunswick, N.J., 1982).

New Sources

Basso, Ellen B. In Favor of Deceit: A Study of Tricksters in an Amazonian Society. Tucson, 1987.

Bierhorst, J. Myths and Tales of the American Indians. New York, 1992.

Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. American Indian Trickster Tales. New York, 1998.

Vizenor, Gerald. "Trickster Discourse." American Indian Quarterly. 14 (1990): 277287.

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography