The trickster embodies contradiction. He creates order out of disorder and disorder out of order and thus he defines the two in terms of each other. With any definition one has to say what something is and what it isn’t; this is hot and this is cold, this is right , this is wrong. Wrong is that which is not right and right is not wrong. The trickster. uses this principle to teach by bad example, showing in a humorous way how things are not supposed to be done. The humor in these stories provides an emotional release through identification.
When one learns something new there are two sides to what one learns. When one learns how to do something like say wash dishes the person who instructs tells the person how it is to be done, “You put the dishes in the soapy water, scrub them, and rinse them in clean water.” This is in the positive.
The student may say “OK that’s how it is done but which is the way that it can’t be done; if I’m supposed to put the dishes in both the soapy water and the rinsing water, does it matter which I do first, or does the temperature of the rinsing water matter?”
I think the role of the trickster is to provide an example bf the way not to do things and thereby clarify how things are to be done.
The Zuni myth “Teaching the Mudheads How to Copulate,” provides a perfect example of the tricksters teaching by bad example. The “man” in the story tries to show these “clowns” how to do very simple things, the clowns on the other hand through their inability to grasp what he is showing them, teach how things are not supposed to be done. They teach children how not to sit how not to use a ladder, and how not to copulate.
Another example is in the “Turkey Makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it” story of the White Mountain Apache (p. 252). In this story, the coyote shows the people that cooked corn will not grow after it is planted. The people were given the corn and shown what to do with it, but the things that are crucially important and must be done exactly, is discovered by coyote. He shows by bad example that planting cooked corn does not cause corn to grow that is already cooked, but rather that nothing will be produced at all.
There is an element of humor in both of these stories. The first story where the mudheads are doing everything wrong must have been very funny to children, who are have already grasped the ways of doing these simple things. Also, the idea of planting cooked corn seems to be an idea that is intuitively absurd, but how does one know what will work if it hasn’t been done before. I think the place of humor in both of these stories is more than pure entertainment, but that it is also serves as an emotional release.
Whenever I have learned how to do something new I have made mistakes. These mistakes have helped me to gain a better understanding of the fundamental nature underneath what I have learned, but have also been at times painfully embarrassing. I think that when people listen to these trickster myths, they identify with the trickster’s failure to understand. I also think that when they laugh at the tricksters failings they are also laughing at their own; seeing someone else struggle with learning then gives them the distance they need to release those painful feelings of embarrassment.
When embarrassing things happen usually people are able to laugh about it when they get older, but at the time it seems very serious. That distance of years gives them a somewhat more removed perspective and allows them to release those emotions through laughter. I think that the humor in the trickster stories works much the same way. The listener identifies with the trickster but is removed from the perspective enough to laugh about it and thereby release his own feelings of embarrassment. Humor then m the trickster stories provides a much more immediate release of painful feelings of embarrassment, because instead of a temporal removal there is a personal one.
The “teaching by bad example” role of the trickster is just one of his many roles, but I think it is one of the most important. When the trickster teaches by bad example it is not only a useful educational tool which helps other people gain a better understanding of the fundamental nature underneath what they are learning, but the comical element of these bad examples also enables the audience to release their own feelings of embarrassment through laughter. It is easy for me to see why the tricksters are so important in the lives of Native Americans. The learning process can be quite painful and the tricksters play a major role in lessening the blow and releasing the pain of life’s difficult lessons.