The Ashanti people, today primarily of the nation of Ghana, once built one of the leading empires of Western Africa. And in their stories about the world, how it works, and why it is so, one of the leading characters is Anansi, the spider. But the Ashanti tell the tale that once there was a time before there were any stories at all in the world. And Anansi realized that this made life very boring, and dull, and hard to make sense of. So he went to see the Sky God, because he knew that the Sky God possessed all of the stories that have ever been or will ever be, and that he kept them in a chest underneath his bed.
Anansi asked the Sky God if he would open the chest and give him the stories. He said no. So Anansi asked if he could buy the stories from him. The Sky God laughed and named his price: he would only give Anansi the stories in return for three things: Onini, the python; Osebo, the leopard, and Mmoboro, the hornets. He thought this was a cute way of saying that he would never let those stories out of the chest underneath his bed, but Anansi was undeterred.
First he went to Onini, the python, and said, “Onini – my wife has said to me that you are not quite so long as this great tree branch that I have here. I told her I disagree – I believe you are just a little bit longer, from your head to your tail. Please will you settle the dispute between us and restore peace to my house?” Onini agreed, and Anansi explained he would have to tie the snake’s tail to one end of the branch to make sure he wouldn’t move and throw off the measurement. Once this was done, Anansi simply picked up the other end of the stick and carried Onini to the Sky God.
Next, Anansi went to the jungle, where he knew Osebo, the leopard, was hunting. He dug a hole and waited until leopard fell into it. Then he came along and playing the part of a concerned bystander, offered to help Osebo out of the hole by wrapping one of his webs around him and pulling him up and out. This Anansi did, as he promised, and then he carried Osebo, still all wrapped up, to the Sky God.
Finally, Anansi came to Mmoboro, the hornets. To capture them, he filled a calabash – a hollow gourd – full of water, and from the hole at one end he sprinkled water all about the hornets’ nest, declaring that it was raining. When Mmoboro became concerned that their nest was now too wet to stay in, Anansi helpfully offered them a safe, dry place, out of the rain. They took him up on his invitation and flew into the now-empty calabash. Anansi plugged up the one hole, and brought it straight to the Sky God. And because he did these three things, the chest was opened and all the stories that have ever been or will ever be came to belong to Anansi. And maybe because he decided to release them to the four winds, or maybe because they tumbled out of his hands as he was climbing back down from the sky, or maybe because he traded them all away to pay his debts – for whatever reason, they went from Anansi to all of us, and that is why we have stories to tell, today.
All over the world and across time and great boundaries of language and culture, one major recurring theme in folklore and religion – not everywhere, but in a wide variety of places – is that of the trickster. The trickster – like Anansi – is a god or a spirit or a hero or a saint or some other such character who’s defining trait is that they are consistently more clever than everyone else around them. Because they are so clever they have the wisdom or the wit to accomplish the unlikely, or the seemingly impossible, through the sort of ingenious problem-solving that a less-than-generous interpreter might label as cheating.
For instance: in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the titular protagonist, the reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, finds himself in a riddle contest with a cave-dwelling cannibal monster named Gollum. Back and forth they trade little word puzzles like this one:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
That thing, of course, is time. Eventually it comes to be Bilbo’s turn for what will prove to be the last time. The soggy, hungry creature is growing more and more insistent.
“It’s got to ask uss a quesstion, my
preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Jusst one more
question to guess, yes, yess,” said Gollum.
But Bilbo simply could not think of any
question with that nasty wet cold thing sitting
next to him, and pawing and poking him. He
scratched himself, he pinched himself; still he
could not think of anything.
“Ask us! ask us!” said Gollum.
Bilbo pinched himself and slapped himself;
he gripped on his little sword; he even felt in his
pocket with his other hand. There he found the
ring he had picked up in the passage and
“What have I got in my pocket?” he said
aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum
thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my
precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its
nassty little pocketses?”
Bilbo seeing what had happened and
having nothing better to ask stuck to his
question, “What have I got in my pocket?”
Gollum loses the contest on this one, for obvious reasons: unlike any conventional riddle, there’s no built-in clues; all he can do is wildly guess. And for the record, if we ever play a game of riddles, you and I, and you decide to use that or something like it for one of yours, I won’t want to play that game with you anymore. It’s hardly sporting, and contrary to the spirit of the exercise, if not to the letter of any particular rule. Tricksters, you see, are most often amoral figures. Not immoral – not actively seeking to do wrong – but amoral – disinterested in right and wrong, at least to some degree. But this amoral attitude towards breaking rules and conventions is what allows them to accomplish the surprising or impossible – and often those accomplishments can serve a greater good.
For instance, among several of the Native nations of the western plains of this continent, the leading trickster figure is Coyote. Traditional culture and society among the plains Natives depended heavily on the buffalo, up until the last century – a chief source not only of food, but also materials for clothing, shelter, and tools. And there are many versions of a story about Coyote and a time long ago when all the people on earth were hungry, because they had nothing to eat. Coyote saw that this was a problem, and he sought a solution.
After searching for a long time, he found a place where a greedy giant kept all the world’s buffalo – which would otherwise have been roaming free and available to hunt – in a stone corral. Because of this, only the giant, and his one young son, had any food to eat. To get close enough to reach the gate of the corral without being stopped by the giant, Coyote changed his shape into little bird with a broken wing. The giant’s son found the bird and took pity on it, but his father sensed that something was off – he raised his club to smash the animal and Coyote changed back and ran off.
The next day, Coyote changed his shape again, into that of a small puppy this time. Again, the boy found the animal, and wished to adopt it. Again, his father the giant did not trust that the creature was as it appeared. The giant picked up the puppy that was really Coyote, and made to throw it into the fire. Thinking quickly, Coyote did the most believable thing a puppy might do in that situation: he peed on the fire. That convinced the giant, and Coyote was allowed to sleep in the house that night. Once the giant had gone to bed, Coyote used the opportunity to release all the buffalo into the world, and for the first time the people had something to eat.
But that amoral quality in a trickster – their willingness to cheat to get what they need, or simply want, is a flaw as well as an asset. A religion or a culture that celebrates their ability to be effective and to do great or important things is usually also uncomfortable with celebrating them unconditionally – most people don’t like to think that cheating has no consequences, at least for other people. So many trickster stories include the hero getting a taste of their own medicine. And for this no example is better than that of Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit is a leading character in the folklore of the American South, the creation of storytellers who first lived as slaves, their ancestors having been stolen from Africa in the atrocity of the middle passage – European colonialism’s scheme to amass vast wealth over centuries of dehumanizing and commodifying the bodies of people from the African continent. Br’er Rabbit is a quick thinker and a fast talker, and he will do anything he can to avoid honest work.
One story goes that one day Br’er Fox (there are a whole bunch of these Br’er animals, you see) decided to plant himself a patch of goober peas – peanuts, that is. And when they were just about ready for eating, he noticed that someone was coming in through the fence when he wasn’t around and eating up his goober peas. So he set a trap by the hole in the fence, bending a green sapling all the way down to the ground, tying a rope to it and setting it so anyone who stepped through that hole would be yanked up into the air.
Well of course, that unfortunate someone was Br’er Rabbit, and that trap caught him by the foot and pulled him up into the air and left him dangling between earth and sky. He knew he’d be done for if he couldn’t get down before Br’er Fox came to check the trap, but then, as it happened, Br’er Bear came to be strolling on by. Br’er Rabbit started whistling a very happy tune, like he was quite pleased with himself – this is still while hanging upside down, mind you – and Br’er Bear just had to stop to ask what Br’er Rabbit was so happy about.
Br’er Rabbit explained that he was pleased as could be with his new job working for Br’er Fox as a scarecrow, keeping goober pea thieves out of his goodber pea patch, and making one whole dollar a minute doing so. Br’er Bear thought that that did sound like a very fine job indeed, and he couldn’t help being more than a little bit jealous of Br’er Rabbit’s good fortune. With a look of kindness and concern on his face, Br’er Rabbit allowed that he had been quite lucky to land such a plum position, but that he’d already racked up so much money from just a few hours on the job that he felt ready to retire. Knowing as he did that Br’er Bear had a large and growing family, he asked if he might like to take over as Br’er Fox’s new scarecrow, and finish out the earning hours of the day?
Br’er Bear naturally leapt at the opportunity, and helped Br’er Rabbit down from the sapling trap before managing to get his own self up there dangling between earth and sky in Br’er Rabbit’s place. Of course eventually Br’er Fox did come along to check on his trap, and wasn’t he disappointed to hear Br’er Bear’s explanation for what he was doing in his goober pea patch, and wasn’t Br’er Bear disappointed to hear that Br’er Fox never promised any money to anyone, let alone a dollar a minute. So Br’er Rabbit had two animals with good reason to be powerfully angry with him – but by that time, Br’er Rabbit was long gone, and with his stomach full of goober peas.
Br’er Rabbit’s stories are thoroughly a product of the African American experience, and the experience of being enslaved, and the share cropping and other means of labor exploitation that largely followed it. A hero who get’s one over on a land-owner makes perfect sense in that context. But the trick on Br’er Bear doesn’t have any stick-it-to-the-man satisfaction to it; it’s simply a matter of survival.
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott – an Evangelical Christian feminist, scholar, and activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights and inclusion – points out that the genius to survive gains a special value for people who live in a state of persistent, ongoing oppression. In her essay, “Reading the Bible from Low and Outside: Lesbitransgay People as God’s Tricksters” she underlines the moral imperative to live when powerful forces in the world around you are pursuing your destruction. The view from low and outside – low in the social hierarchy, outside the dominant groups afforded power and privilege – can frame the clever trickery necessary to get by in a hard world not just entertaining or impressive but vital and lifesaving. Formerly having been married to a man and having lived in the closet for much of her adult life, Mollekott wrote from that experience, saying, “it is time for queer people and all other oppressed people to openly espouse an ethical system that honors necessary subversion and ceases to shame those who practice it.”
A brief note here about that word, “lesbitransgay.” If that seems clunky or unpalatable to your ear, you’re not alone, and it’s use seems to be limited almost exclusively to doctrinally conservative Christian circles in the 90s and aughts. But I want to point out that even if it doesn’t appeal – even if you’re in one of the categories its trying to encompass, and you don’t care for it – the ability to bend, fold, or toss out rules and expectations of language is certainly in the realm of the trickster that Mollenkott was advocating to ennoble. The worst cost of linguistic experimentation as an oppressed identity tries to name and describe itself is that some of the new terms will seem odd or forced and will, sooner or later, fall out of use. It seems to me completely unambiguous that these minor disturbances in language are utterly worthwhile if they can contribute to the saving of even a single life.
The experience of oppression may not have created all trickster stories, but it does make trickster stories profoundly more important. What are Br’er Rabbit, Coyote, and Anansi the spider doing in their tales if not manifesting the principle which the teacher Jesus summarized in the prophecy that the last shall be first and the first shall be last? When the social order is profoundly wrong, the permissible means for confronting the wrong of it must include bending or breaking at least some of the rules of politeness and fair play which primarily serve to keep the powerful powerful and the marginalized marginalized.
In one of the most famous of Br’er Rabbit’s stories, Br’er Fox tries to get back at him for all his shenanigans by shaping a false baby out of tar. Br’er Rabbit offers a kind how do you do to the not-actually-real child, and eventually becomes incensed by its non-answer. The matter comes to blows – quite one-sidedly, of course – and Br’er Rabbit gets stuck fast to it. Now in his clutches at last, Br’er Fox debates how he will kill Br’er Rabbit – by fire, by drowning, etc. Br’er Rabbit announces that he has accepted that his fate is to die, but begs and pleads for one mercy: “Kill me any way you like, Br’er Fox, but don’t throw me into the briar patch, where the thorns will surely cut me to pieces. That’d be the worst way to die.” Eventually, all that reverse psychology has its intended effect: wishing for the most painful end possible for his captive, Br’er Fox throws Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch.
Br’er Rabbit lands unharmed, of course, and scurries away between the briars, laughing. He was, he exclaims, born and raised in a briar patch. By some aloof measurement of absolute principle in isolation, Br’er Rabbit has lied to Br’er Fox, repeatedly, intently, and with direct intent to deceive. But by any reasonable measurement, Br’er Rabbit was fighting for his life, and whatever allows him to keep his own without taking another’s should easily be moral fair game.
By some combination of shared influence, coincidence, and the awesome power of a good idea, the tar baby story actually connects Br’er Rabbit, Coyote, and Anansi. Each one of those characters, from three different continents, has a story that runs about the same way: Someone makes a human figure out of tar or sap or something else very sticky, and then the trickster gets tricked by it and stuck to it and ends up getting into trouble.
The stories we tell each other give color and shape to the world, and help us to make sense of the way that it works. The trickster spirit – in our stories, and in ourselves – reminds us that there are always some rules in our world that need challenging, and that survival in the face of oppression is a courageous act. We heed them when we open ourselves to the possibility that a challenge to the world as it is isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, and honor necessary subversion. They help us, if we aren’t already, to look at the world from low and outside.