Slipping The Trap Of Appetite
The Bait Thief
The trickster myth derives creative intelligence from appetite. It begins with a being whose main concern is getting fed and it ends with the same being grown mentally swift, adept at creating and unmasking deceit, proficient at hiding his tracks and at seeing through the devices used by others to hide theirs. Trickster starts out hungry, but before long he is master of the kind of creative deception that, according to a long tradition, is a prerequisite of art. Aristotle wrote that Homer first "taught the rest of us the art of framing lies the right way." Homer makes lies seem so real that they enter the world and walk among us. Odysseus walks among us to this day, and he would seem to be Homer's own self-portrait, for Odysseus, too, is a master of the art of lying, an art he got from his grandfather, Autolycus, who got it in turn from his father, Hermes. And Hermes, in an old story we shall soon consider, invented lying when he was a hungry child with a hankering for meat.
But I'm making a straight line out of a narrative that twists and turns, and I'm getting ahead of myself. We must begin at the beginning, with trickster learning how to keep his stomach full.
Trickster stories, even when they clearly have much more complicated cultural meanings, preserve a set of images from the days when what mattered above all else was hunting. At one point in the old Norse tales, the mischief-maker Loki has made the other gods so angry that he has to flee and go into hiding. In the mountains, he builds himself a house with doors on all sides so he can watch the four horizons. To amuse himself by day, he changes into a salmon, swimming the mountain streams, leaping the waterfalls. Sitting by the fire one morning, trying to imagine how the others might possibly capture him, he takes linen string and twists it into a mesh in the way that fishnets have been made ever since. Just at that moment, the others approach. Loki throws the net into the fire, changes into a salmon, and swims away. But the gods find the ashes of his net and from their pattern deduce the shape of the device they need to make. In this way, Loki is finally captured.
It makes a nice emblem of trickster's ambiguous talents, Loki imagining that first fishnet and then getting caught in it. Moreover, the device in question is a central trickster invention. In Native American creation stories, when Coyote teaches humans how to catch salmon, he makes the first fish weir out of logs and branches. On the North Pacific coast, the trickster Raven made the first fishhook; he taught the spider how to make her web and human beings how to make nets. The history of trickery in Greece goes back to similar origins. "Trick" is dolos in Homeric Greek, and the oldest known use of the term refers to a quite specific trick: baiting a hook to catch a fish.
East and west, north and south, this is the oldest trick in the book. No trickster has ever been credited with inventing a potato peeler, a gas meter, a catechism, or a tuning fork, but trickster invents the fish trap.
Trickster commonly relies on his prey to help him spring the traps he makes. In this fragment of a Nez Perce story from northeastern Idaho, Coyote's salmon weir takes advantage of forces the salmon themselves provide. Salmon in a river are swimming upstream to spawn; sexual appetite or instinct gives them a particular trajectory and Coyote works with it. Even with a baited hook, the victim's hunger is the moving part. The worm just sits there; the fish catches himself. Likewise, in a Crow story from the Western Plains, Coyote traps two buffalo by stampeding them into the sun so they cannot see where they are going, then leading them over a cliff. The fleetness of large herbivores is part of their natural defense against predators; Coyote (or the Native Americans who slaughtered buffalo in this way) takes advantage of that instinctual defense by directing the beasts into the sun and toward a cliff, so that fleetness itself backfires. In the invention of traps, trickster is a technician of appetite and a technician of instinct.
And yet, as the Loki story indicates, trickster can also get snared in his own devices. Trickster is at once culture hero and fool, clever predator and stupid prey. Hungry, trickster sometimes devises stratagems to catch his meal; hungry, he sometimes loses his wits altogether. An Apache story from Texas, in which Rabbit has played a series of tricks on Coyote, ends as follows:
Coyote doesn't just get stuck in gum traps, either; in other stories, a range of animals--usually sly cousins such as Fox or Rabbit or Spider--make a fool of him and steal his meat.
So trickster is cunning about traps but not so cunning as to avoid them himself. To my mind, then, the myth contains a story about the incremental creation of an intelligence about hunting. Coyote can imagine the fish trap precisely because he's been a fish himself, as it were. Nothing counters cunning but more cunning. Coyote's wits are sharp precisely because he has met other wits, just as the country bumpkin may eventually become a cosmopolitan if enough confidence men appear to school him.
Some recent ideas in evolutionary theory echo these assertions. In Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence, Harry Jerison presents a striking chart showing the relative intelligence of meat-eaters and the herbivores they prey on. Taking the ratio of brain to body size as a crude index, Jerison finds that if we compare herbivores and carnivores at any particular moment in history the predators are always slightly brainier than the prey. But the relationship is never stable; there is a slow step-by-step increase in intelligence on both sides. If we chart the brain-body ratio on a scale of 1 to 10, in the archaic age herbivores get a 2 and carnivores a 4; thirty million years later the herbivores are up to 4 but the carnivores have gone up to 6; another thirty million years and the herbivores are up to 6 but the carnivores are up to 8; finally, when the herbivores get up to 9, the carnivores are up to 10. The hunter is always slightly smarter, but the prey is always wising up. In evolutionary theory, the tension between predator and prey is one of the great engines that has driven the creation of intelligence itself, each side successively and ceaselessly responding to the other.
If this myth contains a story about incrementally increasing intelligence, where does it lead? What happens after the carnivore gets up to 10?
There is a great deal of folklore about coyotes in the American West. One story has it that in the old days sheep farmers tried to get rid of wolves and coyotes by putting out animal carcasses laced with strychnine. The wolves, they say, were killed in great numbers, but the coyotes wised up and avoided these traps. Another story has it that when trappers set metal leg traps they will catch muskrat and mink and fox and skunk, but coyote only rarely. Coyotes develop their own relationship to the trap; as one naturalist has written, "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that coyotes ... have a sense of humor. How else to explain, for instance, the well-known propensity of experienced coyotes to dig up traps, turn them over, and urinate or defecate on them?"
With this image we move into a third relationship between tricksters and traps. When a coyote defecates on a trap he is neither predator nor prey but some third thing. A fragment of a native Tlingit story from Alaska will help us name that thing:
Raven eventually gets in trouble for this little trick (the fishermen steal his beak and he has to pull an elaborate return-ruse to get it back), but for now the point is simply that in the relationship between fish and fishermen this trickster stands to the side and takes on a third role.
A similar motif appears in Africa with the Zulu trickster known as Thlokunyana. Thlokunyana is imagined to be a small man, "the size of a weasel," and in fact one of his other names also refers to a red weasel with a black-tipped tail. A Zulu storyteller describes this animal as
If a hunter does manage to trap this tricky weasel, he will have bad luck. A kind of jinx or magical influence remains in the trap that has caught a weasel and that influence forever after "stands in the way" of the trap's power; it will no longer catch game.
Coyote in fact and folklore, Raven and Thlokunyana in mythology--in each of these cases, trickster gets wise to the bait and is therefore all the harder to catch. The coyote who avoids a strychnined carcass is perhaps the simplest case; he does not get poisoned but he also gets nothing to eat. Raven and Thlokunyana are more cunning in this regard; they are bait-thief tricksters who separate the trap from the meat and eat the meat. Each of these tales has a predator-prey relationship in it--the fish and the fishermen, for example--but the bait thief doesn't enter directly into that oppositional eating game. A parasite or epizoon, he feeds his belly while standing just outside the conflict between hunter and hunted. From that position the bait thief becomes a kind of critic of the usual rules of the eating game and as such subverts them, so that traps he has visited lose their influence. What trapper's pride could remain unshaken once he's read Coyote's commentary?
In all these stories, trickster must do more than feed his belly; he must do so without himself getting eaten. Trickster's intelligence springs from appetite in two ways; it simultaneously seeks to satiate hunger and to subvert all hunger not its own. This last is an important theme. In the Okanagon creation story, the Great Spirit, having told Coyote that he must show the New People how to catch salmon, goes on to say: "I have important work for you to do ... There are many bad creatures on earth. You will have to kill them, otherwise they will eat the New People. When you do this, the New People will honor you ... They will honor you for killing the People-devouring monsters and for teaching ... all the ways of living." In North America, trickster stepped in to defeat the monsters who used to feed on humans.
The myth says, then, that there are large, devouring forces in this world, and that trickster's intelligence arose not just to feed himself but to outwit these other eaters. Typically, this meeting is oppositional--the prey outwitting the predator. The bait thief suggests a different, nonoppositional strategy. Here trickster feeds himself where predator and prey meet, but rather than entering the game on their terms he plays with its rules. Perhaps, then, another force behind trickster's cunning is the desire to remove himself from the eating game altogether, or at least see how far out he can get and still feed his belly (for if he were to stop eating entirely he would no longer be trickster).