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In Lakota mythology, Iktomi is a spider-trickster spirit, and a culture hero for the Lakota people. Alternate names for Iktomi include Ikto, Ictinike, Inktomi, Unktome, and Unktomi. These names are due to the differences in tribal languages, as this spider deity was known throughout many of North America's tribes.
According to the Lakota, Iktomi is the son of Inyan, the Rock, a creator god similar in form to other male creator gods. Iktomi has a younger brother, Iya, who is a destructive and powerful spirit. One story of Iktomi goes that in the ancient days, Iktomi was Ksa, or wisdom, but he was stripped of this title and became Iktomi because of his troublemaking ways. The Oglala Indians of south Dakota presents Iktomi as the second manifestation, or degeneration, of Ksa, which hatched from the Cosmic Egg being laid by Wak-Inyan, the primordial thunderstorm. Ksa invented language and stories, names and games. In this version Iya is the son of Unk (defined as passion), who detested Ksa. Iya and Unk had an incestious relationship out of which Gnaski, the demon, was the result. Because of this, and for not taking the advice of Ksa, Unk was expelled from the circle of divine entities. Unk wanted to outwit Ksa with the help of the cunning of Gnaski. Gnaski succeeds in this, mainly because he has no fear of Skan (the Judge, Activity), by sowing confusion. Gnaski enabled this by mimicking Ksa to perfection; therefore, Gnaski is called Ksapela (little wisdom). The first people were not able to distinguish between the two. Through his folly Gnaski entangles Ksa completely, and through the activity of Skan Ksa consequently becomes a spider, the meaning of the name Iktomi. Iktomi still had the feature of making games. It seems that Iktomi, in stories attributed to him, in his very essence is representing the confusion between wisdom and folly. He began playing malicious tricks because people would jeer at his strange or funny looks. Most of his schemes end with him falling into ruin when his intricate plans backfire. These tales are usually told as a way to teach lessons to Lakota youth. Because it is Iktomi, a respected (or perhaps feared) deity playing the part of the idiot or fool, and the story is told as entertainment, the listener is allowed to reflect on misdeeds without feeling like they are being confronted. In other tales, Iktomi is depicted with dignity and seriousness, such as in the popularized myth of the dreamcatcher.
His appearance is that of a spider, but he can take any shape, including that of a human. When he is a human he is said to wear red, yellow and white paint, with black rings around his eyes.
The tales of Iktomi's propensity for mischief leads many without a full understanding of Native American mythology to believe that he is an evil figure, however, it is not quite that simple. Iktomi can be seen as both good and bad, and has been portrayed in both ways. Many other Native American tricksters, like Mica (Coyote) are often victims of the same misconception. Despite Lakota not expressing hysteria or extreme fear towards Iktomi, generally he is viewed as a being whose gaze is to be avoided, lest trouble find you; as depicted in the modern film Skins, directed by Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre.
Iktomi is a shapeshifter. He can use strings to control humans like puppets. He has also the power to make potions that change gods, gain control over people and trick gods and mortals. Mica or Coyote is his great accomplice in all of this, though there are times when he behaves seriously and comes to the aid of the Lakota people, there are instances where he gives the people ways to protect from evil, live a better life with technology, or warn them of danger.
Lakota mythology is a living belief system, there is a prophecy that stated Iktomi would spread his web over the land. Today, this has been interpreted by some contemporary Native Americans to mean the telephone network, and then the internet and World Wide Web. Iktomi has been considered by the Lakota from time immemorial to be the patron of new technology, from his invention of language he gave to the people to today's modern inventions, such as the computer or robots.
Because the Lakota mythology is word of mouth, and traditionally there were no written records, most of the information about Iktomi in Lakota mythology has not been written down or recorded. He has lived on in the retelling of tales and the religious traditions which are passed on from generation to generation, into the modern day.
Comparable figures in other cultures
- Lame Deer. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions.
- (Movie) Chris Eyre. Skins. 2002
- Marie L. McLaughlin. Myths and Legends of the Sioux.
- J. R. Walker. The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of The Teton Dakota.
- Pliny Earle Goddard. Jicarilla Apache Texts.
- Philip Jenkins. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality