Coyote (mythology)

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Coyote canoeing, in a traditional story

Coyote is a mythological character common to many cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America, based on the coyote (Canis latrans) animal. This character is usually male and is generally anthropomorphic, although he may have some coyote-like physical features such as fur, pointed ears, yellow eyes, a tail and blunt claws. The myths and legends which include Coyote vary widely from culture to culture.

Coyote shares many traits with the mythological figure Raven. Coyote also is seen as inspiration to certain tribes.


The word "coyote" was originally a Spanish borrowing of the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the animal, coyote. Coyote myth lore is one of the most popular among Native American people. Coyote is in some lore said to be a trickster.


Coyote is the tutelary spirit of "Coyoteway", one of the Navajo curing ceremonies which feature masked impersonators of divinities. The ceremony is necessary if someone in the tribe catches "coyote illness", which can result from killing a coyote or even seeing its dead body. During the ritual, the patient takes the part of the hero of a ceremonial myth and sits on a sandpainting depicting an episode from the myth. He or she "meets" Coyote, who appears in the form of a masked impersonator. The ceremony restores the patient's harmonious relationship with Coyote and the world and thus ensures a return to good health.

Other Native American tricksters[edit]

There are many Native American trickster characters, or many faces for the same archetypal figure. Kumokums is a trickster of the Modoc Indians of California. Nanabozho is an Algonquian trickster. Among tribes of the Midwest the trickster is sometimes the Great Hare. For many Plains Indians he is Iktome the Spider. In the Pacific Northwest he is Raven. Great hare, Nanabush or Glooskap in the woodlands, Rabbit in the Southeast, Coyote on the Plains in the West, and Raven, Blue Jay or Mink on the Northwest coast.

By culture[edit]

The coyote (Canis latrans), the animal on which the myths are based

Coyote is a figure in the following cultural areas of the Americas, as commonly defined by ethnographers:


Coyote is featured in the mythology of numerous peoples from the area covered by the modern state of California, including the Achomawi and Atsugewi,[1] the Dieguenos,[2] the Gallinomero [3] the Juaneno,[4] the Karok,[5] the Luiseno,[6] the Maidu,[7] the Miwok,[3] the Pomo [8] the Rumsen,[9] the Shasta [10] the Shastika,[3] the Sinkyone,[11] the Wappo,[12] the Yana [13] and the Yokut.[9] In many of these stories he is a major sacred character with divine creative powers; in others he is a malevolent and often comical trickster. In some stories he combines both roles.

A good example is a Maidu myth that says that at the beginning of time, a primal being called Earth Maker is floating on the infinite waters, when Coyote calls out to him. Together they sing to create the world. After it is completed, and Earth Maker has created the people, Coyote vows to spoil the world and introduce evil to it. Earth Maker orders the people to destroy Coyote, but despite their best efforts, Coyote uses supernatural trickery to outwit them. In the end, Earth Maker is forced to recognize that Coyote's power is equal to his own.[7][14]

A common theme is of Coyote benefitting the human community by organizing the theft of fire, or of the sun, from the supernatural beings who have been keeping it for themselves; in these myths he is portrayed as a benefactor of the people.[8][5][15][11][14] In a Shasta myth, Coyote saves the world from ten evil moons which have inflicted it with everlasting winter.[10][14]

In a Miwok myth, Coyote creates all animals, then calls them to a council to discuss the creation of human beings. Each animal wants people to be imbued with its own best qualities, causing an argument. Coyote mocks them all, vowing that human beings should have his own wit and cunning. Each animal makes a human model in its own likeness; but overnight Coyote destroys the other models, so that only his own model comes to life.[3]

A Maidu myth says that as the Creator was fashioning various creatures out of clay, Coyote tried to do the same. However, as he kept laughing, his efforts did not turn out well. The Creator suggested that if he stopped laughing, he might do better. Coyote denied laughing - thus telling the world's first lie.[16]

Some stories depict Coyote as the embodiment of evil lechery: a serial rapist who uses trickery to attack a variety of victims including, for example, his own mother-in-law [7] and his sister.[13] Such tales may have served to reinforce the community moral code, by using outrageous humor to portray examples of intolerable behavior.

Great Basin

Coyote is featured in myths of the Chemehuevi,[17] Paiute,[18] Shoshone[19][20] and Ute [21][22] peoples. In this region most of the stories feature him as a malevolent and lecherous trickster. However, there are some echoes of his divine role as expressed in the myths of California, in particular obtaining fire for the people.[21][14]

Origin of the Horse[edit]

One such myth from the Chemehuevi involves Coyote enlisting the help of other animals in order to achieve his goals. In the later half of a myth called "Coyote Went to get Basketry Material" Coyote enlists the help of the Black Spider and Parotsok^^itapitsi, an unknown bird species, to take revenge on the Sky-Down-feather-Brothers for killing his grandson. This myth also involves Coyote discovering the first horse, who happens to be his own grandson.

It begins with Coyote's grandson being sent by his mother to go see Coyote and before the grandson leaves he is explicitly told not to enter a cave that lies between his mother's house and Coyote's house. However, after the grandson had traveled for some time it began to get dark and rain began to fall. Deciding to disobey his mother's instruction, the grandson spends the night and the subsequent morning in the cave.

When the youth awakens, he finds that his head feels heavy, his hands now look completely different, and he is covered in hair. As he leaves the cave, he is approached by some mountain sheep who accompany him on his journey to his grandfather's house. When he reaches Coyote's home, Coyote sees them coming and notices that one of the mountain sheep is much bigger than the rest. He plans on killing the big one before Wolf tells him that that mountain sheep is actually his own grandson and urges him to not only not kill it, but also to feed the big mountain sheep bunchgrass. Coyote obliges and decides to settle for killing some of the smaller mountain sheep instead. After eating, his grandson goes off to spend the night with the other mountain sheep before returning in the morning. Once again, Coyote kills some of the smaller sheep and feeds the biggest one some bunchgrass. This same process repeats itself several times with Coyote gaining an enormous amount of meat.

One morning, however, the big mountain sheep is spied by the two Sky-Down-feather-Brothers. The eldest, knowing who the big mountain sheep really is, plans on leaving him alone but the younger brother ignores his older brother's warning and decides to kill the big mountain sheep. After shooting the big mountain sheep the younger brother finds that his big catch has suddenly turned into a boy wearing moccasins. The two brothers then butcher the body and fly away. The following morning Wolf mourns the loss of their grandson and devises a plan for revenge. Wolf tells Coyote to hide almost all the water, have the Black Spider spin a web to fill the sky's hole, and to hide near the little water still uncovered with Parotsok^^itapitsi with a hot rock from a fire pit. Coyote agrees to this plan but before he sets it in motion, he goes to the spot where his grandson was killed where he finds some blood and a little bit of hair which he packs in a basket before leaving.

Coyote asks the Black Spider to make a web out of cooked sinew and the spider agrees to help him. He then asks Parotsok^^itapitsi to accompany him at the edge of the water and shout when the Sky-Down-feather brothers try to fly away in order to keep them in place and he also agrees to do this. Eventually, both of the Sky-Down-feather-brothers get thirsty and search for some water to drink. The younger brother quickly spots the water where Coyote is hiding and suggests they land there to drink but the elder brother knows better and tells his brother that that is where Coyote is hiding, waiting for them. The brothers then try to trick Coyote multiple times by flying close to the water and saying, "Oh, Coyote, sitting by a roasting pit heating a stone!" Each time, Coyote almost reveals himself thinking he has been discovered but each time Parotsok^^itapitsi stops him telling him that the brothers are trying to trick him. Finally, the two brothers stop to drink and in that moment, Coyote throws the hot stone at them and Parotsok^^itapitsi shouts as they try to fly away and the brothers become trapped in the web blocking the sky's hole. Then, Black Spider climbs down the web and bites the brothers on their necks and they both fall back down to the ground.

The story concludes with Coyote going to where he had left his grandson's remains only to find that his grandson had been revived and was gone. Coyote deduces that his grandson has become a horse due to the fact that all the grass in the surrounding area had been eaten.[23]


Myths and stories of Coyote are also found in the cultures of the Plateau area: the Chinookan (including the Wishram people and the Multnomah),[24] the Flathead,[25] the Nez Perce,[26] the Nlaka'pamux, the Syilx (Okanagan), the St'at'imc, the Tsilhqot'in, and the Yakama.[27]

One story from the Chinookan describes Coyote's attempts to catch salmon. After repeated failures, Coyote defecates and his own feces begin to insult him. Eventually, his feces stop insulting him and offer detailed advice not only for catching the salmon, but also for preparing the fish once he has them. Coyote enjoys success for a while before he begins to fail once again. Coyote stops and, as before, defecates again. This batch of feces tells Coyote that there are even more aspects he has to take into consideration when fishing including specific instructions for specific geographic location. The story concludes with Coyote finally understanding how to fish properly but thoroughly exhausted.[28]

Sk'elep is the traditional trickster figure in Secwepemc mythology. He is featured in many legends and has many powers, including the ability to die and come back to life. Like the animal his character is enjoined to, he is very clever. But like all intelligent beings, he can also have his foolish moments and can make emblematic mistakes that people can learn from. According to one story, he once decided that he had to climb into a tree and spin a web like a spider. The only result of this misguided idea was that he left behind clumps of his hair in the tree. This magical hair, however, became wila, the Secwepemc language for a species of lichen.[29][30][31]

In some other Interior Salish cultures, Coyote went into the tree for other reasons; for example, in Colville-Okanagan culture, he was dropped into the tree by some swans he had grabbed in a hunt. In this story also, though, his hair became the hair moss lichen.[32]


Coyote also appears in the traditions of the Jicarilla Apache.[33] In the mythology of the Tohono O'odham people of Arizona, he appears as an associate of the culture-hero Montezuma.

He also appears in a legend of the White Mountain Apache, "Coyote fights a lump of pitch" (a variant of the Tar-Baby theme), and in similar legends of the Zapotec and Popoluca of Mexico.[citation needed]

Functional cognates[edit]

Coyote is compared to both the Scandinavian Loki, and also Prometheus, who shared with Coyote the trick of having stolen fire from the gods as a gift for mankind, and Anansi, a mythological culture hero from Western African mythology. In Eurasia, rather than a coyote, a fox is often featured as a trickster hero, ranging from kitsune (fox) tales in Japan to the Reynard cycle in Western Europe.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, French anthropologist proposed a structuralist theory that suggests that Coyote and Crow obtained mythic status because they are mediator animals between life and death.[34]

In the modern world[edit]

Coyote figures prominently in current efforts to educate young people about indigenous languages and cultures in North America. For example, the Secwepemc people of the Kamloops Indian Band in Kamloops, British Columbia, have designated their recently opened native elementary school the Sk'elep School of Excellence, while educational websites such as one co-sponsored by the Neskonlith Indian Band of Chase, British Columbia prominently feature stories about Sk'elep.[31] the Mobooks include two collections of contemporary Coyote tales, Elderberry Flute Song and The Other Side of Nowhere, which place Coyote in a number of different hawk Nation.

Coyote also features as a character in the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, written by Tom Siddell, where he is portrayed with his trickster characteristics in full force and his status as a god and the implications not left forgotten. Coyote is also an important character in C. Robert Cargill's Dreams and Shadows series, playing a focal role in the manipulation of the storyline. He is presented as a manitou.

One character of the Native American Tricksters that has survived into modern times is that of the Southeast version of the Coyote trickster. Usually called the Great Hare passed into modern American folklore as Brer Rabbit after West African slaves fused him with their own Hare trickster.

A coyote is the main character in the Road runner cartoons.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dixon, Roland B. (April 1908). "Achomawi and Atsugewi Tales". The Journal of American Folklore. 21 (81): 159–177. doi:10.2307/534634. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534634.
  2. ^ Bois, Constance Goddard Du (July 1901). "The Mythology of the Dieguenos". The Journal of American Folklore. 14 (54): 181–185. doi:10.2307/533630. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 533630.
  3. ^ a b c d Berry., Judson, Katharine. Myths and legends of California and the Old Southwest. ISBN 978-1153643757. OCLC 606221450.
  4. ^ Kroeber, A. L. (1925) [1919]. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology.
  5. ^ a b Powers, Stephen (1877). Tribes of California. Washington: Contributions to North American Ethnology.
  6. ^ Bois, Constance Goddard Du (January 1906). "Mythology of the Mission Indians". The Journal of American Folklore. 19 (72): 52–60. doi:10.2307/534762. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534762.
  7. ^ a b c Dixon, Roland B. (1912). Maidu Texts. Publications of the American Ethnological Society.
  8. ^ a b Barrett, S. A. (January 1906). "A Composite Myth of the Pomo Indians". The Journal of American Folklore. 19 (72): 37–51. doi:10.2307/534761. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534761.
  9. ^ a b Kroeber, A. L. (1907). Indian myths of south central California. University of California. OCLC 890498334.
  10. ^ a b Dixon, Roland B. (January 1910). "Shasta Myths". The Journal of American Folklore. 23 (87): 8–37. doi:10.2307/534320. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534320.
  11. ^ a b Kroeber, A. L. (April 1919). "Sinkyone Tales". The Journal of American Folklore. 32 (124): 346–351. doi:10.2307/534986. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534986.
  12. ^ Kroeber, Henriette Rothschild (October 1908). "Wappo Myths". The Journal of American Folklore. 21 (82): 321–323. doi:10.2307/534580. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534580.
  13. ^ a b Sapir, Edward & Dixon, Roland B (1910). Yana Texts together with Yana Myths. University of California.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ a b c d Kerven, Rosalind (2018). Native American Myths collected 1636 - 1919. Talking Stone. ISBN 9780953745487.
  15. ^ Merriam, C. Hart (1910). The Dawn of the World: Myths and Weird Tales Told by the Mewan (Miwok) Indians of California. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clarke Co.
  16. ^ Leeming, David. "Coyote", Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Oxford University Press, USA, 2005 ISBN 9780195156690
  17. ^ Kroeber, A. L. (April 1907). "Horatio Nelson Rust". The Journal of American Folklore. 20 (77): 153. doi:10.2307/534662. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 534662.
  18. ^ Kroeber, A. L. & Marsden, W. L. (1972) [1923]. Notes on Northern Paiute Ethnography. University of California, 1972.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  19. ^ Lowie, Robert H. (1909). The Northern Shoshone. American Museum of Natural History.
  20. ^ St. Clair, H. H. & Lowie, R. H. (1909). Shoshone and Comanche Tales. Journal of American Folklore.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  21. ^ a b Kroeber, A. L. (1901). Ute Tales. Journal of American Folklore.
  22. ^ Mason, J. Alden (1910). Myths of the Uintah Utes. (Journal of American Folklore,).
  23. ^ Laird, Carobeth (1978). "Origin of the Horse". The Journal of California Anthropology. 5 (2): 251–255 – via eScholarship.
  24. ^ Chinookan stories
  25. ^ Flathead stories
  26. ^ Nez Perce Stories
  27. ^ Other stories from Plateau tribes
  28. ^ Elliot, Michael (December 2003). "Coyote Comes to the Norton: Indigenous Oral Narrative and American Literary History". American Literature. 75 (4): 723–749. doi:10.1215/00029831-75-4-723. S2CID 162303256.
  29. ^ Crawford, S. 2007. Ethnolichenology of Bryoria fremontii: Wisdom of elders, population ecology, and nutritional chemistry. M.Sc. thesis, Interdisciplinary Studies: University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
  30. ^ Turner, NJ. 1977. Economic importance of black tree lichen (Bryoria fremontii) to the Indians of western North America. Econ. Bot. 31: 461-470
  31. ^ a b "Stseptekwle – Stories of the Secwepemc". Archived from the original on 19 November 2004. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  32. ^ Mourning Dove. 1933. How Coyote happened to make the black moss food. Coyote Stories. Caldwell, Idaho, Caxton Printers, Ltd.: 119-125
  33. ^ Opler, Morris Edward (1994-01-01). Myths and Tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians. U of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-8603-0.
  34. ^ Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson. New York: Basic Books, 1963. (p. 224)

9. Cooper, Guy. “World Mythology.” World Mythology, by Roy G. Willis, vol. 1, Metro Books, 2012, pp. 220–234.

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