Rated: E · Essay · Educational · #2276776
A deep dive into why tricksters hold such a special place in our hearts.
Southern New Hampshire University
Trickster Archetypes in Modern Society
Literature 229: World Mythology
Dr. Amber Duncan Schoolcraft
18 April 2021
Trickster Archetypes in Modern Society
Trickster myths are found in several cultures around the world, but in the Native American and Celtic cultures, the trickster often presents a dual personality. Coyote and Trickster Rabbit (or Jistu) in the Cherokee tribes are both creative and destructive, benevolent and cruel, helpful and useless, cunning and annoying. Their tales, often only told during specific times of the year, caution children and adults alike against rebellious and deviant behaviors, teach tribal members the importance and necessity of change, and explain the characteristics of animals and nature (Baker). In Welsh mythology, Gwydion was a quick-witted and keen-minded powerful mage of Wales credited with being both a heroic leader and an untrustworthy trickster. Many Welsh and Celtic myths cast him as a deceitful and borderline dangerous person that sired his own nephew and tricked his shamed sister into undoing the three curses she placed on her son. However, he also acted as a trusted advisor that guided his nephew into power by defeating an enemy king single-handedly while enabling the abduction of an innocent woman (Greenberg). The dual and unpredictable personalities of Coyote, Jistu, and Gwydion speak to how tricksters have become anti-heroes in our modern society.
Anti-heroes often look out for their own well-being and have dark sides to their personalities, even if they appear to have honorable intentions. Whereas heroes go out of their way to help those in need, anti-heroes prefer to stay in the background and help from the sidelines only if they must. Tricksters, while being annoying and sometimes dangerous, look out for their own interests; however, sometimes their selfish actions prove helpful and beneficial to humans. The class clown, the anti-hero, and the village idiot are a few of the many ways the trickster archetype appears in our modern society. Bugs Bunny has ties to Jitsu of the Cherokee myths, and despite the humorous pranks the famous and beloved Looney Tunes character plays on others, he sometimes chooses to help others gain justice. Along those same lines, Wile E. Coyote bears a striking resemblance to Coyote the Trickster from the Cherokee tribes as well; Wile E. Coyote's shenanigans often lead him into trouble just as Coyote the Trickster would bring trouble upon himself through his selfish actions.
Outside of cartoons, the film and television industries appear to treasure tricksters and anti-heroes. Venom, Deadpool, and The Punisher from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are anti-heroes who embrace the ideology of helping others on their terms alone, regardless of how people view them or what people expect from them. Nate Ford and his crew on TNT's Leverage go out of their way to help people by bending the rules--if not outright breaking several laws in the process--to gain justice for victims of corporate greed, scandals, and corrupt individuals. Fred and George Weasley are prankster twins in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series that help Harry achieve his goals and cause chaos for the sake of fun. Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise mimics the Welsh trickster Gwydion in his cunningness as the unusual pirate helps Will Turner rescue "his bonnie lass" Elizabeth from pirates. No matter how the trickster archetype appears in our society, one fact remains clear: The trickster is a beloved culture-hero that teaches humanity the value of change, how to maintain humor in dark times, and the dangers of egocentrism.
Archetypes, much like stereotypes, are built into our modern society and seared into our subconscious. Not only do archetypes endure throughout time, but they continue to appear in cultures otherwise isolated from each other. As mentioned earlier, Bugs Bunny, the lovable Looney Toons character who cunningly dupes his rivals or enemies, has ties to the Cherokee Trickster Rabbit Jistu as Bugs' tricks often result in dangerous consequences for himself and his victims. Likewise, Wile E. Coyote's endless attempts to capture the Road Runner at risk of mortal peril are comparable to how Coyote the Trickster's insatiable, self-serving appetite leads him into a sticky or dangerous situation of his own making; although, each of these tricksters somehow manage to miraculously survive or cheat death. Other tricksters appear in popular works of fiction or movies such as Fred and George Weasley of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Robin Goodfellow in Rob Thurman's Cal Leandros series, and Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. These examples prove that Carl Jung's collective unconscious theory and Joseph Campbell's dispersion theory have influenced our modern society, and changed how archeologists, sociologists, and psychologists understand the myths, values, and beliefs of various cultures worldwide.
Carl Jung firmly believed all humans are born with the innate ability to create fantastical stories that reflect their personal experiences, and that this ability is buried deep in their subconscious. However, when this ability is unlocked, whether through symbols in dreams or archetypes in myths, humans are able "to share in a universal, enduring community which is both reassuring and necessary" for a fulfilling life (Thury & Devinney 610). On the other hand, Joseph Campbell's cultural dispersion theory accounts for the variations in myths as a result of people traveling for sex, resources, trade, love, and conquest (Mythcrafts Team). When these people moved, they took their values, beliefs, and stories with them, and in the process of sharing their stories with others, story details such as character names, events, and even outcomes emerged as if these groups were playing a complex game of Telephone. Campbell's theory would account for the eerie similarities between the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, as well as the various tricksters in Native American cultures. However, Jung's collective unconscious theory would explain why humans feel the need to tell stories in the first place. Despite the vast differences between Jung's and Campbell's theories, myths help individuals and cultures alike understand the world around them while acting as a mechanism for explaining cultural norms, social roles, and society expectations.
Defining terminology that will be used in this paper to discuss myths and the trickster archetype is essential before going any further. First, trickster refers to any being or entity on the fringes of a society whose self-serving actions benefit humans. Often, tricksters operate as creative mediators who "work between the worlds they represent" with the abilities to shapeshift, provide for humans' needs, ignore the established norms of society, bring forth important changes, and remind people to have fun and to not take themselves too seriously (Thury & Devinney 214). Myths are more than entertaining stories; myths are mechanisms that preserve the values and beliefs of a culture from generation to generation, help humans understand themselves and the world around them, and provide an avenue through which children learn important moral lessons. Since the same myths can have different adaptions depending on "the needs of a time period, group, or individual" this paper will include only the most recent version of the myths provided by primary sources (Thury & Devinney 490). Archetypes are "mythological patterns or motifs...characterized by typical figures common to psychic activity in every culture through history" (Thury & Devinney 609-610). For example, the trickster archetype may take the form of a benevolent creator, helpful prankster, or devious outcast; however, all tricksters share the same core traits such as ego-centrism, lightheartedness, duality, and cunningness.
Comparison and Significance of Myths
Trickster Rabbit (Jistu) and Coyote of the Cherokee myths are not only cunning tricksters, but they are benevolent creators credited with providing fire to the Cherokee tribes. Given that many African-American slaves escaped their white masters by hiding within these tribes, it is no surprise that African trickster stories of Brer Rabbit shifted into Jistu as his adventures and exploits joined in with the Cherokee stories of Coyote the Trickster (Hare). Jistu is the reason why flint was scattered throughout the forest while Coyote heroically stole fire from the Fire Beings and taught the People how to retrieve "fire out of Wood" by "rubbing two dry sticks together, and...spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood" (Nichols). Jistu invited Flint, a being who "lived up in the mountains...[and] killed so many [animals]," to dinner under the guise of getting to know him better since Jistu "...heard a good deal about [Flint]" (Mooney). However, Jistu had not intentions of getting to know Flint better much less be his friend; instead, Jistu agreed to kill Flint since so many of the other animals feared and hated him for killing their loved ones. So, as Flint was falling asleep, Jistu "got some heavy sticks and his knife and cut out a mallet and wedge" and once Flint was sound asleep, he "drove the sharp stake into his body" causing a loud explosion in which pieces of flint scattered everywhere (Mooney). Although these two Cherokee myths share similarities--the tricksters provide for their friends or People's needs--each trickster used their own wits and attributes to achieve their goals; Coyote relied on the other animals at the base of the mountain to help him steal fire from the Fire Beings while Jistu used his cunning to kill a troublesome enemy.
Coyote and Jistu acted as benevolent creators and achieved anti-hero status among their animal friends and their respective Cherokee tribes, but Gwydion, a "cunning mage of Wales" used his Merlin-like abilities to help his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, rise to power by tricking his shamed sister, Arianrhod, into undoing the three curses she placed on her son (Greenberg). Unlike Coyote and Trickster Rabbit, Gwydion is not half-human and half-animal nor is he an animal with human-like qualities; instead, he is a Celtic, full-blooded human sorcerer. Many scholars compare Gwydion to Merlin in the Celtic Arthurian legends, and in fact, these same scholars believe that "some aspects of Gwydion's story may have also influenced the character of King Arthur himself" (Greenberg). Despite these possible connections, Gwydion not only "uses deceit, worldplay, and cunning" to achieve his goals, but his "magical prowess [and] clever mind [are] his greatest weapon[s]" (Greenberg). This means that the Celtic trickster figure Gwydion has the similar attributes of the Cherokee tricksters Jistu and Coyote even though their stories are vastly different from each other, and the Celts were based in Europe instead of North America. The similarities and differences between these Cherokee and Welsh myths beg the question how did these different tricksters acquire the same attributes of wit, cunning, and deceit? How can they have the same duality to their personalities--helpful and annoying, compassionate and cruel, and cunning but fair--that all tricksters are known to have? One theory briefly mentioned earlier in this paper could explain why these tricksters have the same attributes even though the Native American and Celtic cultures were not only isolated from each other, but separated by an entire ocean.
That theory is Carl Jung's collective unconscious and the process of individuation. Although the collective unconscious claims that all humans are born with the same innate ability to tell stories incorporating built-in archetypes and symbols from their predecessors, the process of individuation consists of these symbols and archetypes "manifesting themselves in a particular pattern in each person's unconscious" based on their personal and cultural experiences (Thury & Devinney 610). Every culture and country experiences trickster-type individuals from used car salespersons to grifters and peddlers. Americans in particular have a soft spot for tricksters as television shows and movies such as Leverage, White Collar, Lucifer, and Deadpool are not only popular but also revered for the crafty and cunning main characters full of witty retorts and good-spirited humor. However, as the Mythcrafts Team explain, if Jung's process of individuation and the collective unconscious were the only reasons why the trickster archetype continues to populate our world and enchant our imaginations, "why do some cultures favor certain [tricksters and trickster] myths over others?" Joseph Campbell's cultural dispersion theory would best explain why certain cultures prefer different tricksters' stories over others. However, Campbell's theory also has limitations in that some cultures carefully recorded their oral myths and, aside from a few slight variations over generations, the same story is shared verbatim. This supposed immunity to the Telephone game mentioned earlier in this paper is especially relevant to many Native American cultures.
The Cherokee tribes often designated a single person to be the keeper of their oral traditions. This figure, often called Grandmother or Grandfather, would act as a tribal historian and share certain myths during certain times of the year (Baker). Trickster myths entailing Coyote or Jistu were often told during seasonal changes, or in the dead of winter, and only once in given year or cycle ("Trickster Figure"). Therefore, many Cherokee trickster tales remain mostly unchanged, especially because anthropologists like James Mooney recorded the oral tales exactly as they were presented or told. Yet, even the most carefully recorded oral stories will have minor changes in details, names, and places just as memories fade and shift over time as humans grow and embrace new experiences, traditions, or knowledge. That is why, "in the study of mythology and culture, it is important to consider the stories of a community from within its own belief system" (Thury & Devinney 105). This means that while tricksters all share similar attributes and engage in the same self-serving behaviors as their counterparts, each entity serves its own purpose within its own culture.
Jistu and Coyote in Cherokee mythology act as both cultural heroes by providing for the needs of their People, and as avenues to teach moral lessons to children. Often, the hijinks of Coyote as well his lust, greed, and pride lead him into mortal danger or social mockery ("Trickster Figure"). However, in the Cherokee Indian eyes, Coyote "represents loyalty, adaptability and the ability to find humor in dark times" while teaching "[humans] to be mindful of [their] actions and the consequences that follow" (Ravenheart). Likewise, Jistu teaches the importance of kindness and compassion to others; if he was not compassionate, why would he bother to kill Flint to protect the other animals and help provide fire for his People? Even the Welsh trickster Gwydion, "a powerful sorcerer and master of illusion," emphasizes the important traits of a Celtic leader as "he is persistent in his ventures, learns from experience...[is] both subtle and devious yet open and honest in his dealing with others, [and] he takes responsibility [for] his actions and [for] the actions of his people" (Fahlman et al.). That said, while "Coyote and other tricksters risk disrupting the balance [of their societies] by insisting on their self-serving individualism," their ability to live on the fringes of society, and operate by their own set of rules, allows them to walk in-between worlds and become heroes of underdogs, outcasts, and life stage initiates (Thury & Devinney 105). Perhaps that is why, more than any other reason, tricksters hold a special, anti-heroic place in the hearts of individuals and societies around the world.
Throughout this paper the similarities and differences between the Cherokee trickster myths and the Welsh trickster myth have been analyzed, discussed, and thoroughly examined. According to Thury and Devinney, "reading myths can provide cross-cultural insights; [however] it is important to remember the differences in cultures and historical periods while noticing the similarities in their stories" (14). So, while Gwydion, Coyote, and Jistu are tricksters first and foremost who are arrogant, prideful, mischievous, cunning, and helpful, their stories serve different functions. The Celtic myth of Gwydion guiding his nephew into power using magic, trickery, and wit serves both an anthropological function and a psychological function. As mentioned earlier, Gwydion exhibits the Welsh culture's ideal leadership qualities such as taking responsibility for his actions and the actions of his people, as well as learning from experience among other important qualities. The psychological element in Gwydion's story is his nephew's transition from a defenseless child to a strong and capable adult, or the coming-of-age journey all children take into adulthood.
For example, Lleu gains a name that means "the fair one with the skillful hand" as parents would name an infant; then, "...to defend her home Aranrhod armed each man in the house including Lleu" just as a teenager prepares themselves for adulthood. Finally, once a child becomes an adult he or she most often marries and goes on to accomplish his or her life ambitions; so, after getting a name and gaining weapons, "Math...and Gwydion made a wife for Lleu from the blossoms of flowers...and [Lleu] went on to become a wise and beloved ruler" (Fahlman et. al.). These brief moments in the popular Welsh myth reflect Gwydion's compassion as well as his ability to be a mediator or guide for Lleu as his nephew transitions through adulthood. Anthropologist Victor Turner calls these moments of transition "liminality" or, "the state of being in between two stages of life, two communities, or two social statuses" (Thury & Devinney 510). Claude Levi-Strauss expands on Turner's thoughts by describing the trickster as a "figure between two worlds who gains inspiration and power from the realms he bridges" and often, as Gwydion did, the trickster can act as a mediator for people crossing these bridges from one realm to another (Thury & Devinney 456). Therefore, Gwydion acting as a guide to his nephew through the various stages of liminality in the Welsh myth provides a psychological and anthropological function.
As for the Cherokee tricksters Coyote and Jistu, Thury and Devinney state that, "Native American myths and rituals emphasize the importance of a cooperative relationship [between] humans and nature, [where] humans and animals are related, and most animals have spirits" (456). When humans interact with these creatures "...all beings are appreciated according to their individual capabilities" and this belief reveals itself in the adventures and exploits of Coyote and Jistu as these tricksters provide the People--or humans--with flint and fire (Thury & Devinney 456). Coyote's heroic efforts to save the People from freezing to death by stealing fire from the Fire Beings results in coyote tail-tips being white as "...one of [the Fire Beings] reached out with a clutching hand...[and] touched only the tip of his tail, [turning] the hairs white" (Nichols). Similarly, Jistu heroically saves his animal friends by killing Flint which results in a "loud explosion" that causes pieces of flint to scatter and strike him first "from behind and cut him just as he dived into his hole" and later, on his lip, "...[splitting] it as we still see it" (Nichols). These events are unfortunate for the tricksters as they both make sacrifices to help their friends and the People, but beneficial for the beings and humans they manage to help. Therefore, the Coyote and Jistu myths have an aetiological function as these myths explain why the rabbit has a split lip and why the tip of a coyote's tail is white. Finally, since the Cherokee--as well as other Native American tribes--share the belief that "...all of nature participates in creation as keepers of the earth, resulting in a symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment" the sacrifices Coyote and Jitsu make in these myths serve a metaphysical function. That is, humans learn to appreciate the sacrifices these animal spirits make to provide for their needs, as well as the importance of gratitude and helping others.
Evolution of Myths
Earlier in this paper, modern appearances of the trickster archetype were briefly discussed. This section will expand on the connections made earlier as well as explain how the Cherokee and Welsh trickster myths evolved in their respective cultures over time. As European settlers began expanding into the Wild West and embracing the ideology of Manifest Destiny, many Native American tribes were forced from their homelands and "physically removed to desert and inhospitable regions" among other horrible fates (Thury & Devinney 736). Manifest Destiny was the concept that Christianizing or defeating the Indians were the settlers' divine Providence (or, God-given mission) as they pioneered the new frontier. Unfortunately, many Native Americans died as a result of the settlers' expansion, and several of their traditions and rites were forcibly destroyed. Although the Cherokee Nation assimilated to American culture by publishing a newspaper in both Cherokee and English, establishing a Constitutional government, and creating a written language, in 1835 the American government pressured a group of Cherokee leaders into signing the Treaty of New Echota in which the entire Cherokee Nation would be "...relocated to western lands...beyond Arkansas" ("About the Nation"). Despite Principal Chief John Ross's refusal to sign the New Echota Treaty and his efforts to rescind it, the American government took action against the Cherokee nation and forced 16,000 Cherokees to undertake the Trail of Tears, a tragic six to seven month journey where some 4,000 Cherokees perished due to stockades, starvation, sickness, and harsh winter conditions ("About the Nation"). This landmark event not only dwindled the Cherokee population, but repressed much of the culture's oral traditions.
The Cherokee were not the only tribes to experience forced relocation and cultural repression. The Celts, much like the Cherokee, were a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe that shared a similar language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture (History.com Editors). Although they were a peaceful people that dominated most of western Europe "including Britain, Ireland, France, and Spain" the Romans, on a quest to expand the Roman Empire and conquer Europe, called them Barbarians and "...launched a military campaign against the Celts, killing them by the thousands and destroying their culture in much of mainland Europe" (History.com Editors). Although Caesar attempted to invade Britain and failed, the Romans were able to mount "a successful attack against the Britons following Caesar's murder in the first century A.D. [pushing] the Britons on the island west to Wales and Cornwall and north to Scotland" (History.com Editors). As a result, the Celts maintained their language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture but their numbers were small and many tribes squabbled over land ownership. The Welsh trickster Gwydion could be a figure based on an actual person--much like how Daniel Boone was an actual person--who helped the Celts establish what tribe was entitled to own which land. Overtime, Gwydion's story could have been embellished just as Boone's story was, and the fantastical adventures of King Arthur and Merlin told today could have ties to the classical Welsh myth. Similarly, since tricksters can walk in-between worlds and promote change, the surviving Cherokee trickster tales surrounding Trickster Rabbit Jistu and Coyote could have evolved to help explain the painful persecution the Cherokee Nation endured, and instill hope, morality, and perseverance for Cherokee descendants today.
Given the tragic histories of both the Welsh and Cherokee cultures, it is not surprising that trickster myths remain one of the most prevalent stories told and cherished. Tricksters appear to have this ability to "fix" or "correct" a difficult situation and make it better; they have the talent to see light in the darkness. This unique attribute is especially true of the Cherokee Trickster Rabbit Jistu and the Weasley twins of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Jistu is well-liked by his fellow woodland animals, and when the animals start fearing for their lives because Flint continues killing them, Jistu readily agrees to save them. Fred and George Weasley are well-liked by the students of Hogwarts--they're practically heroes--and in Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, when Professor Dolores Umbridge starts attacking students, the twins take her down with some of their more dangerous prank items. In the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the Weasley twins once again come to the rescue by opening their joke shop despite Lord Voldemort's rise to power and oppression; Ron Weasley, their younger brother, even goes as far as to say, "Fred and George reckon people could use a spot of laughter these days" (Harry Potter). These examples are just two of several ways Fred and George Weasley embody the fun-loving and fiercely protective attributes of Coyote and Jistu.
Mentioned earlier, another film example of a cunning trickster is Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. However, his style of trickery and cleverness bears a striking resemblance to the powerful and cunning mage of Wales, Gywdion. Gywdion helped his nephew rise to power and acted as a bridge for Lleu Law Gryffes between childhood and adulthood; Captain Jack Sparrow takes on a similar role as he helps Will Turner save Elizabeth from pirates. Sparrow introduces the hard-working and morally just blacksmith to the world of pirates and successfully helps Turner navigate all the twists and turns. As the two are in the process of commandeering a ship, Sparrow points out "...you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day" (Pirates of the Caribbean). This popular quote reveals Will Turner is at a turning point in his life--on the cusp of adulthood--and he has a choice as to how he wants to proceed; no matter what he chooses, Sparrow will be there to guide him along the way.
The trickster archetype is not only prevalent in cultures throughout the world, but its significance to our modern society cannot be understated. Without tricksters, con artists would not grace our screens with their crafty tricks and flashy wit. Children would grow up without a solid understanding of morality, outcasts would feel slighted and ignored by society, and the tale of the underdog would not have a powerful message hidden in within its plot. Indeed, tricksters may be morally ambiguous with a dangerous shadow self--as is the case with Gwydion--but they are a necessary part of our world, and without them the world could not function. How would society navigate dark times without the aid of humor? Who would seek justice for the wronged? How would have our ancestors survived without the gifts of fire, sunlight, or rites of passage? Most importantly, while tricksters live on the fringes of society, they show society a very basic truth about humanity; that is, humans have a dual personality where they can choose to be kind or cruel. Likewise, the trickster ability to shapeshift is comparable to humans selecting which persona or mask to wear as they interact with their social circles. For these reasons and others discussed throughout this paper, the anti-heroic and culturally notorious trickster will continue to prevail in contemporary society, and hold a special place in the scripts of modern media.
Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, Robin Goodfellow (Rob Fellows), Fred and George Weasley, Captain Jack Sparrow, and the Leverage crew are all con artists, cunning tricksters, and cultural anti-heroes within their own media universes. However, these anti-heroes make up only a small part of a larger archetype that intimately connects cultures across space and time; trickster myths and stories breech language barriers and reflect basic aspects of humanity. For example, a person does not need to speak Gaelic or Welsh in order to understand the tale of Gwydion, just as he or she does not need to know Cherokee heritage and language in order to enjoy the misadventures of Jistu the Trickster Rabbit and Coyote the Trickster. In fact, "...particular stories, alone or in combination, represent the essence of what it means to be human and a participant in contemporary society" (Thury & Devinney 723). This means that trickster myths serve to indoctrinate children into society with morals and responsibilities, as well as provide comfort in times of great change and uncertainty. According to Thury and Devinney however, "whether we see ourselves as superheroes, villains, or just plain ordinary folks struggling to get along may well depend on where we turn and whose stories we listen to" (723). Therefore, whether people enjoy tricksters in books, movies, television shows, or end up the unfortunate victims of real-life tricksters, the trickster archetype will always exist, and it will always be a source of inspiration and change for society.
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