Trickster in the Skull

“There are ways in which stories create themselves, bring themselves into being, for their own inscrutable reasons, one of which is to laugh at humanity’s attempt to hide from its own clay. …[S]tories choose us to bring them into being for the profound needs of humankind. We do not choose them.

~~~ Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free

"May a good vision catch me
 May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me
 May a deep and full vision come over me, and burst open around me
 May a luminous vision inform me, enfold me.
 May I awaken into the story that surrounds,
 May I awaken into the beautiful story.
 May the wondrous story find me;
 May the wildness that make beauty arise between two lovers,
 between my flesh and the flesh of the this earth,
 here and now,
 on this day,
 May I taste something sacred."

                              David Abram,
I received this copy of Winter-Telling Stories on my 5th birthday, an early introduction to Trickster. In the lower right, you can see the Kiowa Trickster (Saynday) trapped in the buffalo skull.

~~~ The following is based on a Kiowa story collected by Alice Marriott (Winter-Telling Stories, William Sloane Associates, Inc, NY, 1947) & a Winnebago story collected by Paul Radin (The Trickster, Schocken Books, NY, 1956). ~~~

That one was coming along, and as he came, he heard a drumming sound. “My,” he said to himself, “I wonder where that drumming is coming from?” And as he walked, he looked around to see if there was a village nearby, but there was no village. And he looked up to see if it was thunder, but there was not a cloud in the sky. That drumming sound seemed to be coming from down near the earth. “What can that be?” he wondered. “Well, whatever it is, I’m going to find out.”

That one walked on and on, and the drumming became louder and louder. On the ground, he saw the scattered bones of some large animal, bleached white by years in the sun. “Oh,” he said, “That’s too bad. No meat at all left for me to gnaw.” And he stepped among the bones, crushing some the little ones under his feet. On he walked until, suddenly, he saw a skull lying on the ground. And the drumming was coming from inside the skull! In fact, the drumming was so loud it shook the skull until that skull seemed to bounce along the ground like a living thing.

“Well,” that one said to himself, “That’s some powerful medicine.” And he bent down and peered in through the eye socket.

Inside there were ants — a whole tribe of little red ants — and the drummers were drumming and the singers were singing, and he could see that they were having a sacred sun dance.

When the ants saw his big yellow eye peering in, two of the elders came over to that eye socket and asked, “What do you want?”

“Oh,” said that one, “You are doing such important things. You are thanking the Earth. You are making things better. I want to help, too. How can I come in?”

“Go in through the neck,” they replied. “That’s how we do it.”

And that one went around to the neck hole, but it was too small.

“Help! Help!” he cried. “The neck is too small for me to come in.”

The elders turned around. They spoke to that one. “Well,” they said, “Say to the neck-hole “Become large” and it will get big enough for you to enter. That is how we do it.”

And that’s exactly what that one did. “Become large!” he ordered. And the hole opened up, and he stuck in his head and looked around. And he heard the ants drumming their sacred songs and singing their sacred songs. And he saw the ants dancing their sacred dance. It was amazing. And he just sighed a big sigh of amazement.

And that sigh blew all the ants, and all their drums, and all their regalia and fragrant sage and sacred pole right out along the skull’s jaw where the tongue used to be, right out through the skull’s teeth where it used to gnash and chew, right out into the deepening dusk and gone.

And the neck-hole clamped back, tight around that one’s neck.
“Become large!” that one ordered. But the skull kept its grip.

“Let go! Let go!” he cried. But the skull stayed tight.

And that one’s eyes did not match the eye sockets of the skull. He could not see. And he stumbled about on the rough, rough ground — bumping into thorny bushes, twisting his ankle on loose stones — stumbling, tumbling here and there.

That skull stayed right on his head. The one inside couldn’t eat; he couldn’t drink. He promised this and he promised that, but still that old skull wouldn’t budge.

And so it was. I followed Trickster right into that empty skull. I stuck my head where it didn’t belong, into other people’s stories, into other people’s ways, into thoughts too big for words. And all my researching and cogitating and theorizing and long-winded explaining about Trickster got me nowhere. So here I am, like Trickster in the skull, heavy-headed, blind, lost, and weary.

I know the stories. In Marriott’s Kiowa story– rewritten for children — Trickster feels his way from tree to tree until he falls in the river and floats home to his village, where his neighbors pry off the skull and set him free. In Radin’s Winnebago tale, the trapped Trickster pretends to be Elk Spirit and convinces passers-by to bring him lavish offerings and then to look for good medicine inside the skull, setting him free in the process. And though Trickster kept their gifts, though he laughed uproariously, that one did at least keep his promise:

“‘For whatsoever be purpose for which you use this head, that purpose will be accomplished.’ So then they made themselves various medicinal instruments and afterwards found that they were efficacious. Then Trickster left and continued wandering.” [Radin, p.35]

And me? Neither family nor friends can seem to liberate me from the Trickster obsession that holds me as fast as any magic skull. And I doubt that I could, like the Winnabago Trickster, convince any hapless bystanders that I am an Elk Spirit to whom they should bring rich offerings –”red feathers, white deer skin, and red-yarn belts…in great quantities”. [Radin, p.34] Still, like Winnebago Trickster, I can promise that there is efficacious medicine available in here, just waiting to be shared. Maybe I can find another way through my dilemma. Maybe I can shape-shift the story’s ending just a little….


And after a long long time, after that one was black and blue from all his falling and faint with hunger and thirst, after he had begun to feel his life draining away, after he had begun to feel his own skull as worn out as that dried-up old one in which he was stuck, he panted to the skull that held him captive, “If you let me go, I’ll tell you a story.” And though –to start with– the skull stayed tight as ever around that one’s neck, slowly – as it listened – its jaws began relax. First, that one could see a little light between the teeth. Then, that one could smell fresh air. Then, that one could take in a little sip of water. And so the Story began……

What good story has been following you around lately — asking to be told, asking to be lived?

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