Magic and Mythology – The real Coyote of Gunnerkrigg Court

The story of Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court is a sweeping tale of magic and technology, the clash between the old and the new, and the coming of age for main characters Antimony Carver and Kat Donlan. Overseeing this tale are two opposed factions, the shadowy leaders of the eponymous Court, and the flamboyantly-non-shadowed Coyote, God of the forest that surrounds the school. In fact, Coyote and his machinations have had an increasing presence in the comic, following the relatively early appointment of Antimony as the forest’s representative in the court, the summer she spent living in the forest, her growing relationships with Coyote’s minions Reynard and Ysengrin and more recently (minor spoilers ahead!) the freeing of Jeanne, the guardian spirit who separated the denizens of the forest and the court. But who is Coyote, and what resemblance does he bear to his real-world mythological counterpart?

Coyote, both in Gunnerkrigg Court and real life, is most often depicted as a trickster God, creating a carefree kind of chaos throughout the tale by pursuing actions and making snap decisions based on what he finds amusing at the time. In this way, he is very much like the Coyote of Navajo legend, an irresponsible troublemaker who can be either funny, foolish, or incredibly fearsome depending on his whim. In fact, some of the stories in the comic told by  Coyote himself link him even further to Navajo mythology, such as Coyote’s explanation of how the stars came to be in the sky – a direct retelling of the Navajo myth – or his traditional Navajo connection with lunar cycles and the power of the moon. However, in addition to his Navajo links, the Coyote of Gunnerkrigg Court also shares a lot of characteristics with other North American cultural traditions. Perhaps the most clear example is Coyote’s creation of the “shadow men” in the comic, a clear reference to the Maidu legend where Coyote fails his attempt to copy the creator God’s formation of humans, resulting in “glass-eyed men.” In a similar way, the connection between rain and the magic of the ether in Gunnerkrigg Court could be seen as a relation to the power of Coyote, from the Caddo legend where the trickster God arranged what properties the rain would have.

But on top of this connection with North American mythology, the Coyote of Gunnerkrigg Court has many relations to his European mythological counterparts. Many of Coyote’s plots in the comic reflect the kinds of strategies concocted by Loki of Norse (and Marvel Comics) legend, where he serves as both an occasional antagonist or ally to those he takes an interest in. Loki is also known as the “wolf’s father” – the God who birthed Fenrir, the wolf destined to destroy the God’s king Odin in the final days of Ragnarok. Although Coyote does not explicitly detail his relationship to Ysengrin, the wolf spirit of Gunnerkrigg Court (though Coyote’s consideration of Reynard the fox, a continental European trickster God himself, as “cousin” suggests familial ties between all three), it is made clear that Ysengrin is fully under Coyote’s control, and may reflect something of this historically unhealthy paternal relationship.

This possible connection could have darker undertones as well. In 1963, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss theorised that part of the deification of creatures such as the coyote and raven in North American folklore could be directly related to their position as carrion-eaters; a sort of ‘mediator’ between the states of life and death (pp. 224-225). In fact, Coyote’s own recollection of his ‘birth’ in the comic points towards this interpretation as correct. In the comic of Gunnerkrigg Court, this theme of ‘mediation’ is very prominent. Antimony Carver, the main protagonist, acts as the “medium” for the forest creatures, charged with maintaining relations between the two factions through the Court’s own mediums, Smitty and Parley. On top of that, Antimony also intermittently acts as an avatar for the ‘Psychopomps,’ a group of mythological figures taken from folklore around the globe, each acting as guides between life and death, and repeatedly reflecting the iconography of carrion animals or processes associated with decay (such as physical decay or insectoid appearance). Even the iconography around Kat Donlan has been steadily increasing in this regard, with her robotic experiments coming closer and closer to bridging the gap between machine and flesh, or: the living and the non-living.

Knowing the depth and intricacy of this theme, it seems more likely than ever that the association of Coyote, the trickster God, with the wolven iconography of Ysengrin has also been a carefully constructed relationship by Siddell, and one that may very well pay off in a similar fashion to the mythology which inspired it. What Coyote’s role will be when the end of the comic draws near, and who might be the Odin he sets his wolf against, are questions I suppose we need to read on to discover!

Do you know any other Coyote myths that are used in the comic which we haven’t included here? What do you think about the relationship between Coyote in the comics, and the Coyote of legend? Be sure to let us know in the comments or on Twitter, and until next time remember: don’t eat the clickbait!

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