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Reply To: Tossing the Golden Ball,” with mythologist Catherine Svehla, Ph.D.”


Hello Stephen, COHO and Mythblast readers! I’m excited to be part of this conversation.

I came to myth through art and activism. Studying and making art taught me that myth is a dynamic conversation between the individual, society, and psyche, not merely a collection of old stories. The connection between my first career as a community organizer and mythology took a bit longer to reveal itself. But once I was in graduate school and thinking about unconscious or unrecognized myths in culture, the pieces fell into place.

When I was in art school, I had an important conversation with one of my teachers. I was older than most of the other students and lamenting that I had come to my art practice too late. She said that some people choose a clear straight path very early and some take the winding mountain road. The winding mountain road leads to surprising discoveries and offers the best views, doesn’t it, she asked? I realized that my approach to life is exploratory, fueled by my curiosity about the world and my own nature. I’m kind of a bricoleur of experience, always shifting things around to see what can be made. This is how I approach myth, as my work and a personal practice.

In my work with individuals over the years, I often sense the pressure to have a clear direction and make the “right” choices, and see how a person can get boxed in and lose the sense of adventure. The essential connection between soul and the aspiring ego is lost. You don’t pay attention to what rises up in you, as the poet Rilke says, because it doesn’t fit the plan. You miss your bliss.

Having shared this bit of context… several weeks before my 40th birthday, I was inexplicably seized with the desire to go to graduate school “in some Jungian thing.” A friend told me about Pacifica. I was living in southern California at the time. I got a catalog. The first program listed was a masters in counseling. That sounded good. Practical. Useful. I kept reading. The last program in the catalog was Mythological Studies with an Emphasis in Depth Psychology. My whole body lit up. At the top of the page I wrote, “I have no idea what I will do with this, and so I will do it.” I earned my PhD and became a mythologist.

It hasn’t been easy. It’s been experimentation and bricolage all the way. I discovered my talent for storytelling when I started a JCF Mythological Roundtable Group in Joshua Tree, CA. I didn’t have a plan, only a strong desire to have conversations about myth. The roundtable was a beautiful collaboration, one that created lasting community, shaped the cultural landscape, and launched me into the type of storytelling that I do today. Thank you JCF, and thank you high desert myth-lovers!

You ask about my connection to Campbell’s work. I frequently turn to his books for commentary about a particular topic. The breadth of his scholarship continues to amaze me. He is also an important conversation partner, someone I can think with, and argue with. Campbell often frustrates me, his treatment of women in the hero’s journey, for example. And I find a hierarchy of being, the human species imagined as the pinnacle of intelligence and consciousness, a viewpoint to which I don’t subscribe. I wonder what Campbell would say in response to newer scientific discoveries about birds, elephants, trees, fungi, and many others on our planet who are more than metaphors.

And, yet this frustration is so useful! Campbell reflects the viewpoint of a specific demographic at a certain point in time, and I think it’s important to remember this. Dream–and think– the myth forward. He did, and I think Campbell will continue to be an important touchstone. His work provides so many opportunities for engagement and argument, and his life is an inspiring example of a life lived within a mythic context. I read A Fire in the Mind, the Campbell biography by Stephen and Robin Larsen, before I started the roundtable. His story motivated me to take the leap, to grapple with myth in my life and share this process with others. His marvelous passion for living myth feeds my own.