African and Native American Trickster Folktales

Every culture has its own stories, told generation to generation among its people. For some cultures, those stories served also as a religion, as the myths of the Greeks and Romans, or Africans and Native Americans, have been. For some, those stories have been the legends and Fairy Tales told in America and Europe. And for some, they are the folktales told throughout America.

American folktales traditionally include names like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill, but when we think only of those tales, told by the Anglo-Saxon immigrants, we are ignoring an important aspect of the storytelling tradition. Folktales told amongst the African slaves are an important aspect of American culture, as are the myths, legends, and folktales of the Native Americans.

In the cultures of the Africans, Native Americans, and African-American slaves the role of the trickster in such traditional tales is a large one. Two of the most well-known mythological tricksters are, in fact, the African spider Anansi, and the Native American power, Coyote (“Tricksters”), “Tale-type similarities” can be found between the African and Native American trickster stories, and their fusion forms the trickster stories of Brer Rabbit and his companions of African-American tales (Musinsky, “Trickster/Transformer”).

Anansi the Spider

Anansi is the trickster god of the West African Ashanti tribe. Also called a “culture hero”, he begins as the son of a sky god, whose position is “usurped by” the chameleon. However, he is sometimes thought of as the creator of the sun, moon, and stars. Clearly, Anansi isn’t as bad as the name of Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½trickster” would lead us to believe (“Anansi”).

He became the creator and first king of the humans, and married his sister, the daughter of the sky god, Nyame. He also showed the Africans how to sow grain and use a shovel on the fields. Still, as the typical trickster, “he is crafty, sly, [and] villainous,” (“Anansi”).

The Anansi stories are even prevalent in the West Indies. In the West Indies Anansi is more a man than a spider, but still the tales of his trickery are told to children. Surprisingly, there folktales are even referred to as “Anansi stories” (Starr).

Coyote

The Native American Coyote has several similar traits: he is the creator; he is culture hero and trickster; and he is man and animal both. Known as Old Man, Old Man Coyote, or just Coyote, he is a character mostly of the tribes of the Plans and Midwest, but is common to many tribes in both North and South America (Kazakova).

As the Old Man the coyote is seen as more of a sage, giving knowledge and rituals to the people, much in the same way that Anansi taught his people the tilling of fields (Musinsky, “Old Man”). As Coyote, he is known sometimes as a noble trickster, and sometimes as a cruel one. In one story “Coyote takes the water from the Frog peopleâÂ?¦ because it is not right that one people have all the water,” while in another story, “Coyote determined to bring harm to Duck,” (Kazakova).

Brer Rabbit

While it may be easy to interpret the African-American stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox as tales of race and slave struggles (Gates Jr. and McKay 102), the tales themselves have their roots in African tales of Br’er Rabbit (Anansi the Spider-Man). This association brings further depth to the character of the tales.

The American Brer Rabbit often is the cause of his own troubles, but simply finds a way out of them. He is also beset by Brer Fox, and other Brer-animals, seemingly all out to get him, but he always gets his own. He out tricks the would-be tricksters. This is what makes him the trickster that he is (Harris 120-125).

Folktales

The tales about each of these tricksters vary, but much of the time the stories told about each of them have a theme. For Brer Rabbit the theme is how he escapes the trickery of his enemies through his own tricks; Anansi’s tales focus on trickery as well. Coyote, however, has a number of tales that focus on his world-making abilities, and his helpfulness to humans.

In one story Brer Rabbit, when he finds a job too difficult but doesn’t want to seem lazy, pretends to be hurt. When he wanders off into the woods he falls into a well. In order to get himself out of the well, he tricks Brer Fox down into it. Brer Fox, when he realizes he has been tricked and gets help from the other animals to get out of the well, “Wasn’t nothing he could say,” because he’s ashamed of having fallen for Brer Rabbit’s trickery yet again (Lester 119-120).

Perhaps the most famous Brer Rabbit story is the story of the Tar Baby. In this story, Brer Rabbit gets stuck to the Tar Baby, which is left in the road by Brer Fox. When the Tar Baby doesn’t speak to him, he begins to “tuck Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½er side er in de head,” and, by hitting the Tar Baby, gets both arms and legs thoroughly stuck in it (Harris, “Tar Baby” 120-121).

From there Brer Fox comes back to taunt Brer Rabbit. Brer Fox wants to get back at Brer Rabbit for the many tricks he’s had played on him. Brer Rabbit, though, thinking quickly, pleads with Brer Fox to do anything but “fling” him into the briar patch. Because he pleads so vehemently about the briar patch, Brer Fox thinks nothing of throwing him into it. The punchline: Brer Rabbit was “bred and bawn in a brierpatch!” (Harris, “Mr. Fox” 121-123).

But in the end, Brer Rabbit seems to have learned a valuable lesson. Instead of trusting Brer Dog, or trying to win through trickery, he runs away from the possible danger. Despite being egged on by Brer Dog, who says, “you always gitten scared for nothin’,” Brer Rabbit sticks to his instincts (Hurston 125).

However, there is a story that shows Brer Rabbit raising the dead Simon, the Biblical Peter, from the Red Hill Churchyard. Then, with his Music, putting him back into his grave. This is a very odd side to see of the tricky Rabbit (Adams 118-119)

Anansi also found himself in competition with the other animals. One night when Anansi worked very hard at dinner and was very hungry Turtle asks to join him for dinner. Anansi plays the good host, but gets angry that Turtle would come to the table with dirty hands. After sending turtle to wash his hands twice, Anansi has eaten the entire dinner. Turtle, not to be outdone, thanks Anansi for the dinner and invites him to a dinner of his own. Anansi leaves, but has trouble getting to the dinner because it is under water, and must fill hit jacket with rocks to stay down. Then he is himself sent away because it is offensive to wear a jacket to the table, and he cannot return because his jacket was what was holding him down (“Anansi And Turtle”).

The Wax Girl traps Anansi, when he is angered by her silence. He attacks her, and gets all of his legs stuck in her, because she is made of wax. Then the people rushed forward and beat Anansi, finally having the chance to get even (“Anansi”).

Another story portrays a very different Anansi. He lives with his friends, Tiger and Goat, and Goat’s kids. Anansi lives on the roof, and Goat and her kids under the house, leaving the house to Tiger. One day Tiger decides to pick a fight, and chases Goat and Anansi out, for making too much dust and dirt. In order to escape Tiger, Anansi turns Goat’s children into rocks and tosses them across a river, then uses spider thread to escape at the last minute (“Magic Anansi”).

The most diverse stories are about Coyote, he runs the gamut, from hero to trickster to beneficent deity. In one particular story he plays more than one role. Man doesn’t have fire, so Coyote goes to spy on the Fire Beings. When he visits them, they pay him no regard, because he seems harmless. He keeps watching them until he learns their schedule, then sneaks around and manages to steal fire while they are changing guards. Then he runs away and puts the fire into the woods. The Fire Beings can’t figure out how to get the fire out of the woods, but Coyote tells them how (“How Coyote Stole Fire”). He is both a trickster and a provider in this story.

Another story has Coyote trying to convince a Hen to come down out of a tree. He said that there was a peace treaty between all of the animals, and that she ought to come out of the tree. Instead, Coyote runs away when Hen tells him that Dog is coming. She realizes he’s been trying to trick her so he can eat her (“The Coyote and the Hen”).

Coyote is out walking and runs across an old woman, who warns him of a giant nearby. He accidentally gets trapped inside the giant’s stomach, and has to find a way out, and help the other people trapped inside the giant, who are starving. He cuts into the giant and feeds the people, then cuts the giant’s heart. When the giant is about to die, the people run out of his mouth. He managed to get everyone, even the last wood tick, out (“Coyote Kills a Giant”).

Comparisons

Each of the characters has their own set of tales with which they are associated. Still, these tales have some similarities. There are significant similarities between the Anansi and Brer Rabbit, and Coyote and Brer Rabbit stories.

Possibly the most blatant similarity is the story of Anansi and the wax girl, “to whom he stuck fast, having struck her with his legs when she refused to talk to him,” (“Anansi”) and Brer Rabbit and the tar baby, who he also became stuck to when the tar baby refused to speak to him (Harris, “Tar-Baby” 120-121). In both of these tales, the trickster is finally captured by his rival(s).

The African-American stories of Brer Rabbit also show a Native American influence. Take, for example, the story, “The Coyote and the Hen,” (“Coyote and Hen”) in comparison to the tale, “What the Rabbit Learned,” (Hurston 125). In both stories there is talk of a meeting between the animals calling for peace, and in both stories dogs who were not in attendance at such a conference scare away the trickster. The main difference between these two tales is that in the Native American tale Coyote was trying to trick the hen, and in the African-American tale we are not sure what Brer dog’s intentions are toward Brer Rabbit. In this case Brer Rabbit seems to be more the victim, and he escapes what would be Brer Dog’s trick.

There are, of course, other similarities between the different tales. Other notable trends are friendship and fighting with other animals. Brer Rabbit competes with Brer Fox, and Coyote has a friend Fox, who saves him in several tales, including “Coyote and the Rolling Rock” and “Coyote and the Monsters of the Biterroot Valley,” (“Coyote and the Rolling Rock”; “Coyote and the Monsters”)

There are fewer similarities between the animals in the Anansi and Brer Rabbit stories. The similarities in these stories lie more in the plot points. Anansi stories are more about trickery than anything else, and the same is true about Brer Rabbit. The stories are about how the tricksters keep getting their way, even though they’re tricky.

It seems that there was a fusion of the cultural stories of the Africans and Native Americans to form the stories told by the African Americans. A few elements of the Native American stories change to fit into the basic backgrounds of the African myths to form a not entirely different set of tales. The Africans had some contact with Native Americans in many places, especially the islands of the Caribbean.

Other similarities are the different aspects of the characters. Anansi is the provider for humans, and so is Coyote. Brer Rabbit has the power to call Peter back from the dead (Adam 118-119). This could be a sign of hope to the enslaved African Americans. Each does their part to take care of the people who tell their tales, the peoples they are said to have brought to life. But caretaking is an element of all important mythological stories, and it’s not surprising to find elements of caretaking stories in the stories of all of these tricksters.

Did these stories come from the combination of multiple cultures? Most would argue that there is a clear influence of African tales on the folktales of the African American slaves, but it seems clear that there is also an influence of Native American tales mixed into these legends.

Whether the influence is as simple as the choice of animals used in the tales, from ones very African in nature to those that are clearly more American, to the natures associated with the animals they chose. These animals play traditional roles in the trickster stories, and fulfill the needs of the people telling the stories.

Trickster tales are probably the most well-remembered folktales because they are fun and interesting stories to tell, even though they were originally told long ago. Everyone can use a dose of the morality and the lessons learned by the tricksters and their friends, whether they’re in Africa or America.

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