North America’s Four-Footed God

When I was new to Paganism, I thought about pantheons. Should I be signing with Team Celtic, Team Roman, Team Germanic, or whom?

Now I don’t really care. Sometimes you don’t come to the pantheon, the pantheon comes to you — and it may be a motley crew at that.

My own pantheon includes Hermes, Tlaloc (I live at the fringe of his territory), the Moon, and a forest god who has manifested as a young blue spruce tree dusted with golden aspen leaves.

But maybe I should make room on the shelf for Old Man Coyote, whose howl, says Dan Flores, author of  Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, could be “the original national anthem of North America.” His publisher says,

Coyote near my house this summer.

Coyote America is both an environmental and a deep natural history of the coyote. It traces both the five-million-year-long biological story of an animal that has become the “wolf” in our backyards, as well as its cultural evolution from a preeminent spot in Native American religions to the hapless foil of the Road Runner. A deeply American tale, the story of the coyote in the American West and beyond is a sort of Manifest Destiny in reverse, with a pioneering hero whose career holds up an uncanny mirror to the successes and failures of American expansionism.

Coyote likes camps, villages, towns, and cities. He lived with the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan — the word coyotl itself is Aztec (Nahuatl), pronounced COY-yoht, so we Westerners who say it as two syllables actually favor an older pronunciation than the Hispanicized co-yo-te.1)As a boy in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, I was taught that only Easterners and tourists said kiy-yo-te.

As a deity, he was Huehuecoyotl, or “Venerable Old Coyote, “who sounds so much like the widespread North American god-avatar often called ‘Old Man Coyote’ that the empire-minded Aztecs may have borrowed him from tribes far northward, in what is now the western United States,” Flores writes.

Europeans had old experiences, stories, myths, and preconceptions about gray wolves, bears, and foxes and long employed folk stories about them to investigate human nature. But coyotes are different. The coyote is an American original whose evolutionary history has taken place on this continent, not in the Old World. We see it not from the traditional vantages but from a sideways one, and from that perspective everything looks different.

But you don’t honor him/her/them by feeding them, at least not directly. Maybe you honor Coyote by telling Coyote stories. They are easy to find.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Wrong canid in the title, but a movie nevertheless inbued with the spirit of Old Man Coyote is The Grey Fox (1982), starring Richard Farnsworth.  I treasure my VHS copy.

Notes   [ + ]

1. As a boy in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, I was taught that only Easterners and tourists said kiy-yo-te.