Coyote is that most entertaining of gods, the trickster. Like Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, Coyote takes the traditional role, beloved by Shakespeare, of the “wise fool” who uses his wits to gain the upper hand. (indeed, he invented the role.) Sometimes he uses his gifts for his own enrichment, but often he finds delight in handing out sweet justice, most especially by visiting disaster on people who have it coming. Coyote can often be found puncturing the self-important, destroying the greedy, humiliating the vain.
He often uses his cunning on behalf of mere mortals, but more often trips himself up, finding that he’s not always as smart as he thinks he is.
There are dozens of trickster gods in the various pantheons, ranging from the mostly-good-hearted Anansi to the more malicious Loki, but Coyote is a pretty good example of the middle of that spectrum. Most often, Coyote’s efforts involve subverting the status quo in order to gain an advantage, sometimes for himself, but often on behalf of man, whom he seems to like and care for. In the most common story, Coyote, like Prometheus, is involved with the creation of humans, and steals fire from the Great Creator in order to give it to man. Unlike Prometheus, Coyote is not punished for his act.
Common to the myths of most of the Native tribes of the American Southwest, Coyote sometimes serves the role of court jester, with other gods (and man) being alternately entertained or irritated by his stunts, especially the self-serving ones. When he’s provoking the other gods, it’s usually meant to oppose some injustice toward humans, such as taking water from the Frog People, or stealing the sun from the gods and sharing it with man. At other times, he plays the clown who falls victim to his own schemes, as illustrated by his famous descendant, Wile E. Coyote.
In some parts of North America, Coyote may take the form of a rabbit, a fox, a crow or raven, and many of his stories bear striking similarities to African and European characters like Anansi the Spider and Reynard the Fox.
Some Native traditions hold that laughter is essential to any contact with the sacred; According to Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, people could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.
For the beginning god, Coyote offers several tips:
1. The best way to defeat someone stronger is to trick them into messing up their own plans.
2. It’s fun to be a smartass.
3. Be careful that you’re not actually fooling yourself.