Lecture Four: Humor, Community, Tricksters, and Choice

Folklore and Folk Humor

By Madronna Holden

Let us now turn our focus to the issue of humor in folk traditions.  We all know some type of folk humor by experience.  Children often tell jokes and riddles that are part of the repertoire of folk humor:  “Knock-knock” and “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes are of this type, passed by children among themselves.

Other examples of folk humor are jokes that Alan Dundes has recorded in what he calls “folklore from the paperwork empire.”  These circulate among office workers in various professions in the contemporary United States.  Such humor is not only “fun”; it also helps cement group identity and has a personalizing function for workers in bureaucratic work situations, who may have relatively little control over their work life.  There is, for instance, the “New Sick Leave Policy” (in our reading) Dundes records.  After stating that sickness, deaths (other than your own) and leaves of absence (for an operation) are no excuse for absence from work, and giving company reasons for this, the policy goes on:

DEATH:  (Your own)…This will be accepted as an excuse, but we would like a two-weeks notice as we feel it is your duty to train someone else for your job.

The ironic jab at the manipulation of persons in impersonal work situations–the priority of their work over their person–humorously couches a concern of many contemporary workers.

One distinguishing feature of “folklore from the paperwork empire,” and a sign of folklore’s own adaptive ability, is that, unlike most other folklore, it maybe passed between persons in a written form: as a xerox or mimeograph that is posted on a bulletin board, for instance.

Humor can also have clear functions of social control.  Some cultures used humor quite consciously in this fashion.  Among some Native groups on the Olympic Peninsula, professional clowns had the business of lampooning and satirizing those who tried to assume too much authority over others.  Among other Native peoples (who would have felt it a violation of personal integrity to directly correct another’s behavior), a humorous story might be circulated instead, which satirized a type of behavior similar to that of someone acting in a destructive fashion within the group.  It would be up to the destructive individual to understand and reform his or her misbehavior on hearing the story.  In ancient Greece, such humor was not considered benign, but, in the case of public satire through dramatic presentations, close to lethal.  The word for sarcasm itself derives from the Greek word meaning, “to tear the flesh,” resulting from public ceremonial theater which satirized, with no few social consequences, powerful members of Greek society.  Folk humor, however, even if painful, often functions to defuse and replace anger and hostility with communication and perspective—as in the example of the humorous stories about an individual’s destructive behavior I have just cited.

Often, as well, humor may express honest self-recognition at the same time it directs itself at oppressive persons or situations “on the outside.”  For instance, there is a Native American joke about a Native man who hunts down a white who has stolen his goods, burned his barn, and killed his wife.  After chasing this man across the continent, the Native man confronts him, asking him if he has indeed done the evil deeds.  When the white man confirms he has, the Native man replies, “Watch that shit!” (cited in The Way).  This is an obvious take-off on the supposedly meek response of Native peoples to the outright genocidal effects of white culture on some of their peoples.

By openly assuming a stereotype in humor, other groups (such as Afro-Americans in our reading assignment) at once rob the stereotyper of his or her power and indicate the true absurdity of the stereotype in question.  There is, for instance, the “Recipe for Dog Head Stew” (again, cited in The Way), which plays upon the white stereotype of the Native Americans and the Native way of life as savage.  Having invited whites to share a feast, the recipe for the dish to be served there specifies how to prepare the most unappetizing, “savage” concoction imaginable.  After which time, the recipe instructs, one should wait for the whites to leave, bury that mess, and bring out the turkey.

I heard many, many folk stories in which whites were humorous actors when I worked among the Chehalis peoples, and then again, as coordinator of the Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Oregon.  And in every case, this humor functioned as a great “equalizer,” serving to set up an equal status between those who told these jokes and those who were joked about.

Let me emphasize this key point:  Humor is a great equalizer. 

When anthropologists, for instance, assumed a superior intellectual stance among Native persons, the Native response was to incorporate anthropologists into folktales as humorous actors.  This struck a sure blow against the assumption of any privileged or “superior” position by an anthropologist!

Folk humor, in its equalizing and personalizing bent, is used to “cut down to size” overwhelming situations as well as presumptuous persons.  There was a traditional children’s game in colonial Massachusetts in which children acted out in a humorous fashion the roles of “stolen children” and “witch,” thus dealing with psychological material that might otherwise be quite terrifying.  The most sacred (and authoritative) aspects of Plains Indians culture were satirized by persons who assumed the at once humorous and sacred role of “contraries.”  (We will see more of the contraries in an upcoming lesson.)

Among the Chehalis people, the “night people” were creatures who “felt things” and thus (out of a terrifying empathy) might appear to a relative before the death of someone dear to them.  In one and the same breath as she gave me the serious traditional characterization of these creatures, the venerable Chehalis woman who did so also told me (when I asked whether the night people had specific territories or traveled around):  “I think the night people travel in Ford cars.”  This statement did not in any way negate the meaning or importance of the “night people”; it did relegate them to the status of “just people” (as the Chehalis woman put it) and at once lampooned the “objective” pose and question of the outside observer (myself).  The humor was gentle, not hostile, and it served to provide insight into both the “night people” and myself!

This was the same droll wit with which the Chehalis elder summed up her impression of a Native man who was called upon to give his life story in a film about the Chehalis people: “I think he did a real nice job of telling his life story,” the Chehalis woman remarked.  “Only thing is–he just didn’t give us the ending.”  Another elder, asked by whites what kind of winter it would be– as if Native people had some magical weather-forecasting ability– replied that winter was going to be long and hard this year.  The squirrels were gathering a lot of nuts–and the white men were really chopping wood!

I would venture that there are no beliefs, no situations, nor any persons so somber or authoritative that they are immune from folk humor.  Indeed, the more somber a belief, a situation, or a personal endeavor, the more likely it is to be addressed in folklore by a humor that cuts it down to the size of its human measure.  The humor in folklore may show us, in fact, what we care enough to laugh about.

In sum, humor in folklore strengthens a sense of group solidarity (those who share the same humor recognize one another as belonging to the same “in crowd”).  It functions, moreover, to lend perspective on difficult situations, to humanize them and make them accessible to human understanding.  Folk humor also functions as an “equalizer,” a check on the assumption of too much superiority on the part of any type of authority.

             The Trickster

There is no character that so persistently expresses this function of “equalizing” as the The Trickster.  In your e-reserve reading for this week, you will read several traditional Coyote tales from California. Coyote is a classic trickster figure.

The Trickster Archetype

The Trickster figure is an archetype in Jung’s sense of a dynamic pattern that reflects a universal aspect of human behavior and appears consistently in folklore throughout the world.  The Trickster is the “wise fool,” who is at once creator and destroyer, the “forward-backward,” “upside-down” contrary (as the Sioux said of their sacred clowns, the Heyoka).  Indeed, we can most readily recognize the Trickster by its absurd actions and contradictory nature.  In the Winnebago [1] Trickster cycle, recorded in Paul Radin’s The Trickster, we see the Trickster acting in every way contrary to the accepted norms and practices–and the common sense–of even the youngest Winnebago.  Everything Trickster does is patently absurd.  As Jung points out, we have the Tricksters Mercurius and Hermes in our tradition (though the Trickster is not so conscious a figure for us as for many tribal peoples).  In Jewish tradition, there is a whole town of Tricksters in the village of Helm.

As an archetype, in what ways does the Trickster figure “tell the truth”, as Jung asked, about human nature?  This is perhaps another way of asking, why is this character so loved throughout the folklore of the world?  For one thing, Trickster ignores social limits and restrictions.  In this sense, Trickster expresses raw creative power, the power to transcend social limits:  in short, Trickster represents our individual freedom in the world.  He also expresses the consequences of our choices if we misuse this power, teaching us humility as well.

 Trickster is rule-breaker and rule maker.  There is no limit whatsoever that phases this character–for better and for worse, as his story tells us.  But the obvious delight of children and adults in his escapades is more than an appreciation of the humor created by his audacious rule-breaking.  Trickster reflects our own life’s journey from infant to adult, as Paul Radin discusses with reference to the Winnebago Trickster myth.  In the long and involved Winnebago myth, Trickster begins his story as every child begins his or hers–with no socialization whatsoever.  Early on in his story, this Trickster acts on impulse alone, whether it be his anger (the Winnebago Trickster, as is Coyote, is forever planning revenge on someone), his hunger (which is so enormous and disproportionate that it is satisfied only by the most grandiose schemes and then never for long), or his sexual urges (symbolized by his possession of a penis so large and unwieldy he must carry it around in a box in a number of Trickster tales).

Indeed, the Winnebago Trickster does not even begin his story with any view of himself as a whole person (or even a single body–at one point his right and left arm do physical battle with one another).  And since he has no idea of himself as a whole, it follows that he also has no sense of his relationship to anything else.  When he destroys things (as he so often does), he does so not out of any maliciousness, but as the youngest child might do this–out of simple lack of knowledge about his own power and the consequences of his own actions.  And especially, a lack of knowledge about the consequences of his actions in any perspective of relationship.  He knows only his own impulses and how to express them–and nothing at all of the effects of his actions as they reach out beyond him and into the world.

The above aspects of the Trickster express those helpless and foolish parts of our own nature that we might rather forget.  But in world folklore, the Trickster is portrayed not only as the bumbling fool, but, sometimes, as well, as the possessor of great wisdom.  He is not only destroyer but creator, often sacred creator.  He is not only an unsocialized mass of impulses, but sometimes (as Jung notes) he takes on the very role of redeemer, of savior figure.  And the character who cannot connect his right and left arm to the same body (his own!) in one story may in another story become the wise judge, who cleverly and evenhandedly assesses the actions of others.

The theme of Trickster as judge appears in such disparate folklore sources as a Chehalis belief, according to which Trickster-Bluejay, as the “great judge,” “calls the hunt”; and in African-American stories in which Anansi the Spider, in one story, is so greed-ridden as to get himself tangled up in his own web trying to go to four feasts at once, and in another story acts the part of the judge who arbitrates the argument of a hunter and a snake over the respective rights of domesticity and wildness.

How can Trickster be both “destructive fool” and “wise fool?”  Both fools attack the social order as they attack any semblance of the rules and limits of the rational order of things.  But one fool represents that attack from the perspective of naiveté (of the child), and one from the perspective of the adult, who has understood, has lived under convention and is then able to transcend it.  As Radin points out, the latter Trickster is the adult, the “elder” who now lives beyond convention because he has long lived within it, who transcends convention for the sake of his people’s future:  this Trickster thus becomes rule-maker as he once was rule-breaker. Indeed, the both of these are aspects of the same human power:  what we do with it– and what experience and wisdom leavens our decisions what to do with it– make the difference.

The Winnebago Trickster, through experience, “grows up” and becomes conscious of the consequences of his actions.  As this mature Trickster, he then represents the creative force that creates culture itself for his people.

And in this last idea, we have a key as to the nature of the Trickster archetype.  Trickster is indeed our “measure,” that standard by which we may view the conflicting rights of the rules of society and our creative (as well as potentially destructive) individualism.  The Trickster archetype represents nothing less than our own human freedom, which we can express, as does Trickster, in a merely unconscious acting out of impulse–as if we only lived in a world in which we are only “in it for ourselves”; or which we can express that same freedom, as also does Trickster, in a way that transcends the rules of a society becausewe understand and honor the values behind those rules.

Thus Trickster is also represented as a sacred clown–as in the Sioux heyokas– who are also great healers of their people.  A heyoka once told me that she told certain truths the only way people could understand them:  backwards.  The heyoka outrageously satirize the rules and conventions of their society.  They also publicly suffer the embarrassment at doing so.  In their culture, the heyokas are revered and appreciated for their courage as well as their healing power.

Trickster in Everyday Life

Both the sociopath and the violent American frontiersman who knows only his own rules are kinds of “Tricksters”; as are the social rebel, the reformer, the artist as social critic, and the spiritual redeemer.  The sociopath and the vigilante, however, act as unconscious, impulsive, and immature Tricksters –and are thus exceedingly dangerous to those around them.  The redeemer and reformer, by contrast, are conscious and mature rule-makers:  such as is Coyote, when he gives the peoples the “laws of creation” that come from the Creator.

According to Native peoples, Coyote tales symbolize a profound spiritual power.  According to Jung, they also express psychological insight.  Indeed, perhaps the two are not so very different:  the root of the word “psychology” means “soul”–and there are psychologists such as James Hillman, who is also a mythologist, who argue that caring for the human spirit is the most profound task of the modern psychologist.

According to Jung, the remedy for the pathological and dangerous use of Trickster behavior in human beings has two parts.

Firstly, those acting with immature and unconscious behavior must become conscious of their behavior and its results.  This is, of course, one of the benefits of telling Coyote stories: it leads to this kind of consciousness.  It is harder to become conscious of our Trickster behavior if we have no stories to model this understanding for us.

Secondly, those acting as Tricksters must understand their own actions in terms of relationship.  It is the development of this sense of relationship that differentiates the Trickster as impulsive infant, who violates the rules of his society because he is innocent of them, from the Trickster as reformer, who violates the rules of his society in order to make his society truer to its own values.  It is the sense of relationship that ties us to our world; it is when we no longer see ourselves as alone in the world that we also realize the consequences of our actions on others.  And this is also when we may use our unique creativity for the benefit of the world around us.

However, we must not forget that even a Gandhi, who enacted the power of the Trickster archetype in its highest form, cannot leave behind Trickster’s dangerous potential: in Jungian terms, its “shadow” (we shall see more of this term in the next lesson).  It is this knowledge of the foolish, bumbling shadow of our human power that puts it in perspective, engendering humility along with the wonder and joy of our creativity–that guards against a freedom that is freedom to do as one will with others.  This consciousness will not let us forget the necessity of acting with humility, humor, and self- critical perspective, even while it continually reminds us of the importance of holding to the sense of relationship and empathy as the guiding rules of Trickster’s own rule-breaking.

 Animal Tricksters in Folktales

The Trickster is an expression, as I have said, of human creativity and our capacity for rule-breaking and transcending limits (which can be as obnoxious and dangerous as it may also be necessary and fruitful).  In its destroyer-creator pattern, in turn, the Trickster tells us something both about our human nature and about nature itself.  We are not creators isolated from our natural world, but in fact are (as expressed in some Native American traditions), co-creators, along with nature, in that world.  This means that we take our models of human creation in myth from the creative processes of nature itself.  It also means that the Trickster archetype, as an expression of our freedom and creativity, uses natural symbols to express its meaning.  And the kindsof natural symbols it uses tell us some very important things about the Trickster archetype (and about ourselves).

Animal Tricksters in folklore are sometimes small and physically powerless animals who overcome others by their wit.  Rabbit is a classic figure of this type, found in numerous tales from Africa and Afro-America, and from Native America, in the Northeast, the Northwest and the Plains–as well as in ancient tales from central Europe.  Here we see the reflection of the peculiar power of humans in the natural order to things.  We might often survive by our wits (I say “might” advisedly, for what these kinds of Trickster tales also remind us is that our ability to survive by our cleverness, depending on how we use it, may be as much curse as blessing).

Another persistent image of Trickster in animal form is of Trickster as Spider.  This image occurs throughout African and African-American tales, sporadically among Plains Indian and Southwestern tales, and even in folklore from parts of Europe, where “dwarf” has linguistic roots in the term for spider.  Trickster-Spider is clearly co-creator (in an African story, he begins story telling itself).  But as the weaver he is, he must over and over yet again learn this essential lesson of his own nature, which is the lesson of relationship, which Jung sees as essential to healing the pathological, impulse-driven, acting out of this archetypal pattern.

Over and again, Anansi (an Ashanti word for Spider that is used for Trickster-Spider in both African and African-American tales) must learn that “what goes around comes around.”  Among the Plains Indians, interestingly, Trickster-Spider often illustrates the problem of the right use of technology.  In Europe, this is also true, but dwarfs are much more benign figures in European folklore:  They have learned the lesson of relationship (and especially, of the right relationship to nature as co-crafters with it), and they seek to teach this lesson (not always an easy task!) to human beings.  In Southwest Native America, Spider Woman, whose very nature is relationship, has the full power of the mature creative facility, and is an important deity.

We have one more animal representation of Trickster to examine.  A most persistent image of Trickster throughout the world is that of the scavenger:  Coyote, Jackal, Raven, Crow, Buzzard, Bluejay, and Gull each act as Tricksters in world folklore.  These Trickster-scavengers, who are clever by nature, are also the garbage-pickers of our world, the ones who live off of its waste and turn death to their own life, thereby also cleaning and revitalizing the natural world.  As Trickster figures, their creative cleverness is combined with this most important aspect of their nature–the one that allows them (indeed, requires them) to assimilate death (literally, to eat it).

The eating of death (or any waste, for that matter), is in itself a foolish act, a humiliating one (and certainly, a potentially hazardous one) as an isolated act.  But when seen in relationship (the perspective of the natural order of things), it may be an act of integration and transformation.  Taken alone, the death of the man in “The Man to Send the Rain Clouds” (in Storyteller, by Leslie Marmon Silko) is only an individual tragedy (as are all our deaths), but taken in the context of generations, that man’s death is also a gift to the people: a gift of fertility and new life.  He becomes, literally, the Man Who Sends the Rain Clouds.  In this sense, his death as an individual is also an act of redemption for his people, and in taking it in this way, his people are enacting yet another part of the power of the Trickster archetype.

As the animal scavenger, Trickster figures (who may be not at all pleasant company) take in death, assimilate it, and transform it into new life.  And thus, they also redeem it.  This is the last important aspect of the Trickster figure we will touch upon:  that of redeemer, who enacts the most profound (and most psychologically difficult) integration of all–the integration of life and death.

In a traditional Pueblo story (of the Ck’ o’ yo Gambler) the world is made infertile because of a people’s fascination for an all-perfect technology.  We will remember that in that story, the world can only regain its fertility (can be redeemed) by bringing back the Buzzard.  In several different Native American myths, it is Coyote that originates death:  in a Navajo story he explicitly does so that life itself may continue.  And here, he functions as redeemer because he thus gives people death and life together.  The death he brings also assures the people may have children.  (The alternative would have been having the current people in the world live forever).  It is their society’s understanding of the sacred and redemptive qualities of the heyokas that gives these religious clowns so much honor (which they must yet “pay for” through their social embarrassment) among the Sioux. Jung saw Christ himself as an expression of this redemptive Trickster aspect, as Christ takes death onto himself in the act of redeeming us not from the physical necessity of personal death but from its isolation–and thus redeeming us from death without resurrection (without transformation and renewal).


[1] The Winnebago are Native Americans who traditionally spoke a language in the Sioux family, and live in the Midwest; Paul Radin worked with these people for over twenty years in the first part of the twentieth century.

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