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?

Unlearning To Not Speak

I believe that the title of today’s post – unlearning to not speak – is a phrase used in an article by Ursula LeGuin.


Dear doubt, old companion,
you hold both my hands in yours
chafing them lightly as if to warm.
But, beneath crumpled papery skin,
your glacial muscles tense and
slowly your fingers slide
around my wrists, snap shut.
You lean in close, counseling
caution, whispering a cold wind
from your throat to mine, stilling
my breath, numbing my tongue.
We sit for hours knee to knee
rigid as startled rabbits.
If for a moment you loosened your grip
I could brush back your stray locks,
trace the labyrinth timelines carved in your cheek.
I could cradle and rock you until
no longer afraid, we might tell ourselves
new stories, give ourselves new names.

                  - MCK


There are times when silence is helpful and healing.

There are times when silence invites listening.

There are times when silence invites speaking.

There are times when silence is used to punish others.

There are times when silence signals assent and complicity.

There are times when remaining silent poisons your body, mind, spirit.


Audre Lourde, excerpts from “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from Sister Outsider:

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

“…what I have regretted most have been my silences. Of what have I ever been afraid?”

“And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into perspective gave me great strength. I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence?”

“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. [….] …we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. [….] And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”


Giving Tongue to Truth (To Be Read Aloud)

If we are to speak in tongues --
tongues of flesh and not yet fire --
do not give me the sympathetic tongue of dog
who gently licks slash and abrasion,
assuaging that which is meant to wake me.
Give me not the slippery tongue of snake,
forever tasting, calculating 
proximity of predator and prey,
forked and flickering, prudently testing the air
to see which way the wind blows.

By no means give me the seductive tip
of lover's tongue, the lunge to oblivion.

Give me the tongue of a cat -- the rasp,
the hooked spines serrated -- separating,
capable of scraping fat from bone.

The time has come to sound the tocsin,
to give a tongue-lashing to the toxin-
spewing habits of our days.
If the cat's got your tongue,
insist she give you hers.

The tongue manipulates food
for mastication but if
what you are being fed
proves too hard to swallow:
       Spit it out.
If it is bitter, your tongue tells you:
       Spit it out.

Don't bite your tongue any longer.
The hotter it is, the longer a dog's tongue.  
It is already too hot
to control the heat
with a soft tongue hung
out of your mouth.
Out of the mouth of babes....

Give me the tongue of the tiger.

                                  - MCK

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprived it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness–and our ability to tell our own stories.”

Arundhati Roy

The Earth is calling out to us, inviting us to join the work.

How shall we each proceed?

What silences do we need?

What words do we need?

“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that is political, in its most profound way.”

— June Jordan, Caribbean-American poet

— Insima

Wondering About Words

When we were children, we chanted, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Even then, we knew it wasn’t true. Words Matter. They become incarnated in emotion and deeds. Depending on context, tone, and intent (and sometimes even without intent), words can inflict pain upon another person. Our words can be used to incite ourselves and others to violent action.

And yet, words can also be used intentionally to clarify the truth or to create and weave new and more generous worlds for ourselves and for others.

We can refuse to speak in order to protect others. We can also refuse to speak to protect ourselves. As I have learned, words spoken or words refused –hidden and repressed– because of our fears can cripple us. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

What happens to all our words, spoken and unspoken?

At a Journey Into Wholeness gathering about 20 years ago, I met the artist & poet Martha Grant. We talked about how we were hesitant to speak up in group discussions and about the ways in which our mothers, too, had hidden so many feelings and words silently within. When she got home from the gathering, Martha sent me this poem she’d written — and which is included here with her kind permission:

ALL THOSE WORDS IN HER   by Martha Grant
What if she died with all those words in her?
How would we know who she was if she hadn't told us?
We would gather at her gravesite and speculate,
arguing among ourselves over who knew her best,
and in which milieu,
and find discrepancies,
while back at the funeral home
an embalmer would be wringing his hands
over what to do with all these words
that had come flooding from her body
when he'd cut into her.
All his years of embalming school
hadn't prepared him for this.
He scooped them into wastebaskets and file drawers,
old lunch bags, any receptacle he could grab,
and still they kept coming,
while he ran to the back door and called in
the homeless from the streets,
those who'd lost their own voices,
and passed words among them
like doling our Christmas turkeys,
for which the silent ones were just as grateful.
Funny, her drivers license hadn't listed her
as an organ donor.

What do you choose to do with your own words?

Christos Georghiou

Raven Steals the Sun

Dear ones,

Thank you for your encouragement! As one who loves language, I can’t help but remember that the root of ‘encouragement’ is the Latin “cor,” meaning ‘heart.’ Also related to ‘core’ – the heart or essence of the matter. You all are helping to strengthen my heart, essence. Thank you. I hope I may also encourage you.

Several folks have asked about Subscriptions. l’d like to add that option for those who’d find it more convenient than checking out the website on Fridays, but it turns out that it’s less straight-forward than I (with my computer ignorance & naivety) realized. I’m working on it.

There’s also been an enquiry about a “Comment” button. Once again, it’s complex. Since this blog is in many ways a practice of discovering & sharing Voice, I would very much like to have it offer a place where the voice is not restricted to my own! In my dream, I would find a way to make it possible for folks not only to comment on or respond to my words but ultimately to respond to & converse with each other, encouraging & enlivening one another. But, as you all know, communication via internet is not the same as face-to-face sharing. There are many wrinkles. I’ll keep dreaming, as well as doing some more exploration of realistic possibilities.

I do hope to add links for further information and perhaps an ever-expanding list of some of my (our?) favorite resources. And….

…Sometimes I feel like Trickster, who is forever (literally or figuratively) biting off more than he can chew – – – – always with unexpected results!

But ….
….today, I promised you a Story.

These days many of us think of “stories” as escapes from life, or ways to lull ourselves, or others, into sleep. But Stories are wild & meant not only to comfort us but also to wake us up! Today’s Story and others like it have certainly led me — sometimes, jolted me — to new places, new understandings of myself and of the larger world …..

“The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans. They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight. …. And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead — I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.”

~Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free

Like Trickster himself, Stories are shape-shifters. Since the time they were first told, stories have been, again like Trickster, travelers – always “going along…” Like Trickster, they leap boundaries of geography, culture and ownership, and in the leaping they change to fit their new home. Often as they travel and transform, stories and their tellers begin to violate the original sacred practices and social norms — much as Trickster in many of his own Stories crosses forbidden boundaries and violates the rules of the storyteller’s culture. And still the Stories go about their work in the world. In fact, it can be said the Trick is in the Telling.



With gratitude to the Haida storytellers who shared their story and to all those of many cultures who have told & retold this and similar stories over the centuries.
This is my retelling for this day. Because there are so many versions, I cannot promise that this is exactly how it happened, but I can assure you that it holds truth.
~Margery Knott

Raven was going along and as he went he found himself stumbling and bumbling and bumping into unknown objects in the dark.

It was uncomfortable. It was undignified. “Ouch!” said the voice of Beaver. “Watch where you’re treading.” And “Ouch!” cried Raven himself as he tripped over Porcupine.

But there was no light— No light to be seen anywhere in the whole world, in the whole universe. All the light was hidden away where no one could find it.

Raven was tired of stumbling and bumbling and bumping in the dark. He said to the Wind, “O Wind, you go all around the world. Tell me — where is the Light hidden?” But Wind just flapped her many hands and ran away laughing. Even Raven could not fly fast enough to catch her.

Raven went down to the shore where Sea splashed and spilled against the rocks. “Sea,” croaked Raven in his sweetest voice. “O Sea, you are mighty indeed. You cover the world from edge to edge. Surely, you can tell me. Where is the Light hidden?” But Sea just laughed and pulled back its tide.

Now Raven was angry. He was tired of the dark. He wanted the Light. He wanted to gather it up and keep it for himself. “Sea!” he cried. “If you don’t tell me, I will begin to drink. I will drink and drink and drink you dry!”

Sea thought and thought. Sea knew that Raven was angry. Sea knew that Raven was powerful. Sea sent his tides back to tickle Raven’s toes and whisper, “Deep deep below my waves lives Old Man Under Sea. I have seen the faintest gleam seeping from his house. Look within.”

Raven thought. Raven planned. Raven dove deep deep deep and swam to the house where Old Man Under Sea lived with his daughter. He looked in the window. It was too dark to see Old Man. It was too dark to see his daughter. But Raven thought he could see just the faintest gleam of light in a far corner.

Raven knocked politely at the door. Old Man did not unfasten the lock. Old Man did not open the door. “Go away,” said Old Man. “There is nothing here.”

“Old Man, Old Man,” replied the Raven in his most humble voice. “I come to ask you to share your wisdom.”

Old Man Under Sea had just woken from a nap. He was sleepy; his head was not clear. “No!” he shouted. “You have come for my daughter, who may be as beautiful as the first fallen snow or as ugly as an octopus. But who can know — not even I —as long as the Light stays safe in my box. In any case, you cannot have her.”
And Raven could hear him turning away and stomping back to the fireside.

Raven stayed still. He stayed still for a long while. And after a day and a night and a day and a week, a shadowy figure emerged from the house, and though there was no Light, Raven could tell by the rhythm of her steps and how her hips set the world to humming that this was Old Man Under Sea’s daughter.

Raven followed her to the freshwater spring. He heard the splash as her tightly-woven basket hit the surface and the slurp of water as it sank down. That Raven turned himself into a fir needle. That fir needle floated on the water. That fir needle was gathered into the basket. And when the Daughter took a drink of the beautiful fresh water, that fir needle slid down her throat!

Old Man Under Sea’s daughter was pregnant. Inside her belly, Raven was growing and growing into a beautiful baby boy.

When the baby was born, Old Man Under Sea cradled him in his arms and said, “I cannot see you. You may be as beautiful as the first snow or as ugly as an octopus but you are my grandson and I love you.”

That baby grew and grew. He saw a tiny hint of Light gleaming from a carved cedar box half-hidden under a pile of otter pelts in the corner. He crawled over and tried to open it. He began to cry. “Want, want!” he cried in his tiny baby voice. “Want, want!” And louder and louder!

“No,” said Old Man. “No. That is not for you.”
“Want, want!” screamed the baby.
And after hours and hours of this crying, the grandfather opened the box and gave his grandson the box within.

Raven tried to open the box. He tried and tried. “Want! Want!” he cried and cried. And after hours and hours, his grandfather opened the box for him and gave to the baby the next box within. And each time, the gleam of Light from under the lid got a little stronger.

And so it went. And so it went. Down to the 7th carved cedar box. “Oh,” said Grandfather Old Man Under Sea, “oh, how loudly my wonderful grandson does cry. But still the Light is safe in its box. It won’t hurt to let this baby touch the box.”

But there in the dark where no one could see, Raven changed. Raven’s beak was strong. Raven pecked and pecked at the beautiful little carved cedar box. The lid sprang open! And Raven scooped the ball of Light into his beak and flew up and up and out through the smoke hole. He flew and he flew up through the sea. And as he flew up into the sky, rays from the Light struck the eye of Eagle and roused him from his slumber.

Eagle looked. Eagle saw a fat juicy bird flying through the sky illuminated by something in his beak.

Eagle had not been able to hunt in the dark. Eagle was hungry. Eagle flew. Eagle flew faster.

Raven could see Eagle behind him, getting closer and closer. Raven flew as fast as he could but it was not fast enough. Raven opened his beak wide to gulp in more air.

And out fell the Light!

Eagle veered away from the sudden brightness. Raven tried to catch the Light but it shattered and scattered into a great ball of flame in the east and a pale ball of silver in the west and a million million points of light in-between.
Old Man Under Sea rose up to look. Behind him, his daughter came to look , and sure enough, she was as beautiful as new fallen snow. And all the beings — the rooted ones and rock ones and the ones with scales and the ones with fur and the ones with feathers — opened their eyes to a colorful world and gave thanks.

And the Light shone.

And Raven continued on his way, going about his business in this shining world.

Ilya Shalkov


And –before I begin– a memo to myself for courage:

“ In out-of-the-way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

~ John O’ Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us ~

I am a 77 year old woman. For the last 15 years or more I’ve been haunted by the Trickster Spirit as he appears in cultures around the world. I’ve studied him diligently in anthropology texts and read volume upon volume analyzing his tales. But Trickster doesn’t live in categories or theories. He doesn’t dwell on the printed page. Trickster — like Life itself — is present only in movement, relationship, and change. If, in a story, he is cut into pieces, he puts himself back together and goes on his way. No one can truly capture his essence, but storytellers, poets, and artists do invite you to glimpse and participate in his many facets. Trickster is Change & he changes the world.

When I attempted to analyze or describe Trickster in approved academic fashion, to pin him down like a specimen in a museum, he just slipped off the page and, laughing, danced off to other adventures. Finally I realized that all the time I’d been trying to “understand” him, he’d been trying to invite me to play, to explore my own transformation, to engage with the world in all its guises.

Trickster Spirit is a paradox. Whatever you can say about him, the opposite is also true. For example, among the Akan-Ashanti of West Africa, the Trickster (Anansi, the Spider) not only scattered the world’s Wisdom among the people but also, in other stories, brought the people Disease and Death. Among the Diné of the American Southwest, Trickster (Ma’i, Coyote) is a source of both healing and witchcraft.

So, is he a culture hero? Yes. Or the source of trouble? Yes. Or a character in instructive morality tales? Yes. On & on… The only things I might dare say about Trickster are that he is insatiably hungry, insatiably curious, and an inveterate boundary-crosser and transformer. In many of his stories, Trickster brings things out of hiding or tricks others into giving them to him. Then, most often (as in next week’s story), Trickster inadvertently spills his cherished hoard out into the world.

Hence, this blog. For far too long, I’ve kept my weavings of words, fiber, and ideas safely hidden in closed boxes. Now, in response to Trickster’s prodding , I’ll open some of those boxes, spill out the contents, and see what happens.

It is my hope that we will all enjoy this attempt to join the Trickster’s dance — though it is certain to include stubbed toes and awkward tumbles as I learn along the way. Trickster is a Transformer — and who knows? Maybe as we dance, we will — like Trickster — stumble onto new thresholds, thin places through which Enlivenment enters the world. Maybe we too shall be transformed.

With best wishes and lots of curiosity about where this journey might go,

P.S. I’ll start by posting once a week on Fridays. Then we’ll see whether Trickster has something else in mind.

“It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing…. It’s the best possible time of being alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”
— Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

              for Claude Levi-Strauss

 The old myths have been collected and catalogued by those whose way
 was to catch recalcitrant words and pen them flat in dense packed tomes
 or pin the slippery story lines onto sterilized dissecting trays
 that students might strip contingent flesh and study scientific bones.

 So tellings of Raven's derring-do dim beneath dust
 of dissertation, grow flaccid and disparate with misuse.
 Unhinged from tribe and firelight, they slowly compost
 into academic argument or curiosities that merely amuse.

 Yet That One with hair iridescent black gathers up his severed limbs 
 from dusty pages, from display case plucks desiccated skin.
 Preening his feathers he chuckles, remembers how once just for fun
 he slipped into the womb of Old Man’s daughter and stole away the Sun.
 He always returns, That One.  Splattering ink he leaps from our cage,
 riding tenuous rhymes to the end of the page 

                      and out
                           into this