Each culture has its set of mythical trickster characters, creatures that rely on sheer wit and presence of mind to haul themselves and others out of trouble. Often, the trickster uses those qualities to survive in a merciless world. On other occasions, it uses the gift of the gab to help those who have fallen on difficult times. In many parts of the world, it is a small and inconspicuous canid that shoulders the part – the Coyote (Canis latrans) of North America, the Red Fox of Europe (Vulpes vulpes), the Black Backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas) of Africa and the Golden Jackal of Asia (Canis aureus). As one can make out from their scientific names, all except the Red Fox are very closely related to the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) and its domesicated descendants – dogs.
These trickster creatures are not known for their size or strength as much as they are for their great adaptability. Maybe, it was their cunning and social nature that made human identify them as kindred spirits. In fact, members of the dog family (the Canidae) depend a great deal on their social organization to hold their own against much larger rivals (the big cats and hyenas). Over the millennia, different cultures developed their own folklore of helpful canids. Here’s one such tale, one narrated by the Santhal people of Eastern India, and noted down by Cecil Henry Bompas in his ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’. It speaks of how a repentant Golden Jackal helps a poor weaver marry a king’s daughter.
Once upon a time there was a young man of the weaver caste, named Jogeshwar. He was an orphan and lived all alone. One summer he planted a field of pumpkins on the sandy bed of a river. The plants grew well and bore plenty of fruit: but when the pumpkins were ripe, a jackal found them out and went every night and feasted on them. Jogeshwar soon found out from the foot-marks who was doing the damage; so he set a snare and a few days later found the jackal caught in it. He took a stick to beat its life out, but the jackal cried: “Spare me and I will find you a wife.” So Jogeshwar stayed his hand and released the jackal who promised at once to set off about the business.
The jackal kept his word and went to a city where a Raja lived. There he sat down on the bank of one of the Raja’s tanks. To this tank the servants from the palace brought the pots and dishes to be washed, and to this tank also came the Rani and princesses to bathe. Whenever the servants came to wash their dishes, the jackal kept on repeating: “What sort of a Raja is this whose plates are washed in water in which people have bathed? There is no Raja like Raja Jogeshwar: he eats off golden plates and yet he never uses them a second time but throws them away directly he has eaten off them once.”
The servants soon carried word to the Raja of the jackal who sat by the tank and of his story of Raja Jogeshwar. Then the Raja sent for the jackal and asked why he had come: the jackal answered that he was looking for a bride for Raja Jogeshwar. Now the Raja had three or four daughters and he thought that he saw his way to a fine match for one of them. So he sent for the young women and asked the jackal to say whether one of them would be a suitable bride for Raja Jogeshwar. The jackal chose the second sister and said that he would go and get the consent of Raja Jogeshwar.
The jackal hurried back and told the astonished weaver that he had found a Raja’s daughter for him to marry. Jogeshwar had nothing to delay him and only asked that an early day might be fixed for the wedding. So the jackal went back to the Raja and received from him the knotted string that fixed the date of the wedding. The jackal had now to devise some means by which Jogeshwar could go through the wedding ceremonies without his poverty being found out. He first went to the Raja and asked how many attendants Raja Jogeshwar should bring with him, as he did not want to bring more than the bride’s father could entertain. The Raja was too proud to fix any number and said they could bring as many as they liked.
Jogeshwar having no relations and no money, was quite unable to arrange for a grand procession to escort him; he could only just afford to hire a palki in which to be carried to the bride’s house; so the jackal sent word to all the jackals and paddy birds of the neighbourhood to come to a feast at the palace of the bride, an invitation which was eagerly accepted. At the time fixed they started off, with all the paddy birds riding on the backs of the jackals. When they came within sight of the palace, the jackal ran on ahead and invited the Raja to come out and look at the procession as there was still time to send them back, if they were too many, but it would be a great disgrace if they were allowed to arrive and find no entertainment. The Raja went out to look and when he saw the procession stretching away for a distance of two miles or more with all the paddy birds looking like white horsemen as they rode on the backs of the jackals, his heart failed him and he begged the jackal to send them away, as he could not entertain such a host.
So then the jackal hurried back and turned them all away and Jogeshwar reached the palace, accompanied only by his palki bearers. Before the wedding feast, the jackal gave Jogeshwar some hints as to his behaviour. He warned him that three of four kinds of meat and vegetables would be handed round with the rice, and bade him to be sure to help himself from each dish–of course in his own house the poor weaver had never had more than one dish to eat with his rice and when pan was handed to him after the feast he was not to take any until he had a handful of money given him; by such behaviour he would lead everyone to think that he was really a prince. Jogeshwar did exactly as he was told and was thought a very grand personage.
The next evening Jogeshwar set off homewards with his bride, the bride’s brothers and attendants accompanying them. They travelled on and on till the bride’s party began to grow tired and kept asking the jackal how much further they had to go. The jackal kept on putting them off, till at last they came in sight of a grove of palm trees, and he told them that Raja Jogeshwar’s palace stood among the palm trees but was so old and weather worn that it could not be seen from a distance.
When they reached the palm grove and found nothing but Jogeshwar’s humble hut, the bride’s brothers turned on the jackal and asked what he meant by deceiving them. The jackal protested that he had told no lies: the weaver ate every day off plates made of dry leaves and threw them away when done with and that was all he meant when he talked of golden plates. At this excuse they turned on him and wanted to beat him, but he ran away and escaped. The bride’s friends went back and told the Raja how things had turned out and as divorce was not lawful for them, the Raja could only send for his daughter and her husband and give them an estate to live on.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows an illustration of Striped Hyenas and Golden Jackals on a kill in Richard Lydekker’s Wild Life of the World Vol II, dating back to 1916. Lydekker was an English naturalist and geographer who served in the Geological Survey of India, studied the palaeofauna of South Asia, laid down the Lydekker Line (separating the biogeographical regions of Wallacea and Sahul) and published multiple works on natural history.