Coyotes - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Coyotes exemplify “threshold animals”: wild animals that exist, thrive, and stay wild amidst human society, even flourishing among us.

Coyotes are medium-sized North American canines, midway between wolves and dogs. Once upon a time, coyotes were restricted to a reasonably limited section of North America; however as other predators (wolves and cougars especially) have been exterminated, coyotes have filled the void. Unlike most other creatures, coyotes have a far wider range today than ever before, although this is against all odds—attempts have been made to exterminate coyotes, too. They have been poisoned, shot, and trapped; in many areas bounties still remain on their hides.

Coyotes are the trickster supreme, akin to crows and rabbits but more so. They are clever, wary, and adaptable, epitomizing humor, curiosity, and intelligence. Coyotes in my own Los Angeles hill neighborhood were observed looking both ways before they crossed the street, something my golden retriever could never learn.

Coyote is a central figure in Native North American mythology, playing a broad range of roles. Coyote alternately creates the universe (because he’s lonely or curious or bored) creates people, creates death, darkness, and disaster and/or serves as human beings’ primary teacher. Coyote introduces people to sex, magic, and witchcraft, in both the positive and negative sense of that word. He is the spirit of eternity, regeneration, endurance, and persistence. He gets people into lots of trouble but is frequently also the only one capable of getting them out of it. Coyote teaches sacred rituals, secret knowledge, and malevolent witchcraft.

North America is a vast continent and tremendous variety exists among Native American cultures, truly a veritable “500 nations” possessing varied philosophies, cosmologies, and perspectives. Coyote is sacred to many; malevolent to a few. Coyote is particularly prominent among tribes in California: for the Miwok, Coyote is creator and supreme divinity, but for the Maidu, Coyote is a divine antagonist.

Navajo tradition understands Coyote as a malicious trickster responsible for the introduction of harmful magical practices. Coyote’s name may be synonymous with malevolent witchcraft, making it an insult to be called a coyote—the equivalent of the pejorative use of the word “witch” although traditional Navajo belief understands men to be as likely to be witches as women.

Jackals (which bear a physical resemblance to coyotes but are smaller) play a similar, if more shadowy, role in Africa, Western Asia and India. Jackals are tricksters possessing strong associations with sex and death and are often funerary deities, the most prominent being Egypt’s Anubis, credited with inventing the mummification process. Anubis manifests as either a full-fledged jackal or as a man with a jackal’s head. He may have been Lord of the Dead prior to Osiris’ rise to prominence. Funerary priests wore jackal masks, perhaps channeling the spirit of Anubis. Jackals are also powerfully affiliated with deities Kali and Lilith.

In a Tewa legend, Coyote marries Yellow Corn Girl and teaches her to transform into animal shape by jumping through hoops. He then teaches her methods of killing by witchcraft. She thus becomes the first witch, at least in the malevolent sense. Coyote is the source of witchcraft similar to the biblical angels who entangled themselves with the Daughters of Man, as recounted in Genesis 6:2-4.

Shape-shifters, skin-walkers and nahuals frequently take the form of coyotes—whether this is understood positively or negatively depends upon perceptions of the practice.