Beside serving as the foundation of the world, Turtle surfaces in folk literature as the tricksterâ€™s trickster. It may surprise some to learn that Turtle has the smarts necessary to get the best of flimflammers like Jackal and even Anansi, the trickster spider, but then surprise is part of the strategy.
Conning the con is not Turtleâ€™s preferred manner of being-in-the-world.Â Usually, Turtle acts in this role only to help less imaginative creatures protect precious resourcesâ€”water or food, for exampleâ€”or to correct social imbalances, or perhaps to mete out comeuppance, which is also a way of restoring order to the world locally and at large.Â Someone must show the clever ones that they donâ€™t, as they suppose, run everything.Â Someone has to teach the Anansis, Jackals, and Coyotes that thereâ€™s more going on than even they, the wry ones, can imagine and restore them to their proper places when they become too destructive or powerful.
In one African tale, all the animals in a village labor to dig a water hole to relieve a severe water crisis.Â But at night, Jackal, who didnâ€™t lift a finger to help, sneaks in from the desert to drink at the well. Then he muddies the water so no one else can use it.Â The other animals complain but donâ€™t know what to do to.Â It is Turtle who solves the problem.Â Smearing a sticky substance on his shell he submerges in the pool, and when Jackal sneaks in to steal and foul the water, up comes turtle from below and bumps against him.Â Poor Jackal!Â He sticks to Turtleâ€™s carapace like a fly to sap.Â Turtle parades the stuck Jackal before the others who laugh and jeer at him, then he delivers him to Lionâ€™s den.
In a Yoruba tale from Nigeria, Anansi the Spider twists rules of etiquette to avoid sharing his yams with travel-weary Turtle, who arrives just at dinnertime.Â As Turtle opens his mouth to bite into a yam, Anansi says, â€œIn my land, we wash our hands before we eat.â€Â By invoking this and other rules of good manners, Anansi keeps Turtle from the yams until the spider has himself more or less eaten all.Â Turtle knows heâ€™s been slighted but understands that two can play this game.Â Likewise drawing upon rules of hospitality he invites Anansi to dine at his house.Â Anansi does not imagine that anyone is as clever as he is; also, heâ€™s greedy.Â Anxious to eat well at someone elseâ€™s table, he arrives at the riverâ€™s edge where Turtle lives and there faces a dilemma.Â Turtleâ€™s house lies on the bottom.Â To get to the food, Anansi must sink through the water.Â Anansi tries to sink himself but nothing works.Â Finally he fills his coat pockets with rocks.Â He sinks down and arrives at Turtleâ€™s table where the feast has been laid.Â Wide-eyed with gluttony, Anansi reaches for his first bite.Â But Turtle says, â€œIn my land, we remove our coats before we eat.â€Â Anansi removes his coat and floats up out of reach of the food, losing not only his meal but also a perfectly good coat.
In a Cherokee tale, Turtle and Coyote race to see who will win Turtleâ€™s dinner.Â Turtle may be slow, but heâ€™s no fool.Â He knows Coyote intends to cheat him so he turns back before the race is over and secures the meal for himself.Â Thus Turtle cons the con artist.Â Another good Cherokee story presents Turtle as a master of illusion.Â Turtle outsmarts Rabbit in a race over five hills by locating one of his turtle relatives on each of the hills, fooling Rabbit into thinking he is seeing something he isnâ€™t.
Some might wonder at such a stolid, slow-moving creature achieving revered trickster status, but as a former hunter of turtles I share this reverence for Turtleâ€™s ability to gain the upper hand.Â Because once upon a time, Turtle tricked me.