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Why Not Dance?” with mythologist Catherine Svehla, Ph.D.”

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    Catherine Svehla, Ph.D., joins us again in Conversations of a Higher Order (COHO)  to discuss “Why Not Dance?”, this week’s contribution to JCF’s MythBlast essay series. Dr. Svehla is a storyteller, teacher, artist, and activist with a PhD in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology. She is also the host of the Myth Matters podcast (which is a member of JCF’s MythMaker℠ Podcast Network), a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the relevance of myth and story to contemporary life (available over all the usual podcast platforms).

    Our theme in June is “The Trickster.” Please keep in mind this is not an interview, but a conversation – your participation is essential. Dr. Svehla would love to hear your thoughts, questions, comments, and observations about her essay.

    I’ll get the ball rolling . . .


    I have always loved the trickster – or, rather, the figure of the trickster as a mythological motif. I have to admit I have been slower to embrace trickster energy when it’s actively disrupting and upending my life – though I am much better today at appreciating these plot twists when they arise (as you say, “Why not dance?”).

    And Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World is one of my favorite post-Campbell myth-oriented works (with nary a mention of Joseph Campbell in bibliography or index)

    . . . which brings me to your description of the trickster:

    Tricksters appear in mythological traditions around the world, in a variety of forms. The trickster may be a coyote, a spider, a fox, or a rabbit. Sometimes Trickster is a sly old man or a precocious baby. Tricksters may be charming, clever, boorish, or brutal, and they play tricks. Usually driven by a prodigious appetite for food, sex, or personal acclaim, the trickster is an opportunist who plays all the angles. She lies, steals, and shapeshifts; she commits adultery and murder. Tricksters will do whatever it takes to succeed and yet fail miserably more often than not. The mutability and moral ambiguity of the trickster is puzzling.” (emphasis mine)

    I do hope the conversation returns to that question of moral ambiguity – there’s so much to play with there – but the line that really leaps out at me is “She lies, steals, and shapeshifts; she commits adultery and murder.”

    Hyde notes in his work that, though some female characters may occasionally resort to trickery, there are very few female tricksters in myths, apart from maybe the bawdry Baubo, who gets a grieving Demeter to laugh with a profane pantomime, episodes in Norse mythology where Loki has transformed into female form (I’m surprised the Marvel cinematic universe hasn’t jumped on this yet), and appearances of a female coyote figure in a handful of Hopi and Pueblo myths (a number dwarfed by hundreds of male coyote trickster tales)

    . . . and where there is a fully fleshed out female trickster, she is never presented, at least in any tales collected so far, in the role of culture hero (e.g., stealing fire from the Sun, teaching dances, inventing fish traps, etc.).

    What are your thoughts about why this might be? Is this a case of a simple oversight (male academics studying patriarchal cultures, either dismissing or just not noticing female examples), or does this speak to a perceived difference in past cultures between masculine and feminine qualities . . . or maybe something else entirely?

    I do appreciate your use of pronouns, reclaiming this dynamic (for good or ill). Where would you recommend we turn for examples of female tricksters today (even if that means stepping outside myth to examine fairy and folk tales, literature, film, and such)?


    Hi Stephen,

    it’s a pleasure to be part of COHO again, and thanks for your question.

    You provide a good catalog of known instances of female tricksters in the mythological canon. There are very few.

    I think patriarchy and male bias impacts our view of the trickster: a lack of willingness to see female figures as tricksters (male and female sexuality and sexual misconduct are treated quite differently, for example), and the history of revising, repressing, and erasing narratives of female power and creativity.

    In addition, the study of tricksters, including the creation of the term “trickster,” is a minefield of cultural bias. It’s reasonable to wonder about the effect of bias (male, European, white, Christian, scientific, etc) on the understanding of different gender constructions and the roles played by men and women in cultures where outsiders found “the trickster.” I don’t know anything definitive but think these are questions to have in mind.

    On that note, the question “where are the female tricksters?” reflects awareness of the unequal and deeply unsatisfying treatment of women in the dominate culture. The question could be meaningless in a culture in which male and female had different and also equally valued roles to play!

    Despite our need to create dualisms and categories, there is something in life that confounds them, and reminds us that life is more than our definitions and perspectives. There is synchronicity. There is good and bad luck. And no matter of view of ourselves and our intentions, we get tripped up, are fooled, play the fool. Cosmos and life are dynamic, and the trickster somehow embodies this. Ultimately, I dropped a “she” into my description of the trickster as a nod to the ambiguity and fluidity inherent in this figure/concept and the dynamism of myth.



    Lovely essay Catherine!

    As for female tricksters, I wonder if real life legends could provide examples?

    Grania? (Grace O’Malley) Irish pirate queen or She-King of the Seas?

    It seems that kind of resourcefulness has its own cleverness and tricks (though done on behalf of her people.)

    If someone asked a young teen today they might come up with the movie’s imaginary Harley-Quinn? (The pun write in the name)

    Sometimes, I wonder if a type of literal perception makes the female trickster less noticeable? (i.e. seeing those terms in a negative light rather than seeing the expansive potential within?)

    But with exceptions…scanned an article of modern woman artist who says she would rather go to the trickster for inspiration than the hero. Though wish could remember her name. She was from Australia.

    On a different note speaking of “why not dance…”

    I have had some interesting experiences, which involve dance and trickster energy.
    There were various dances, I had choreographed…(some for a one woman show—different styles of tap.)

    But each dance seemed to me to have it’s own “personality.” There were definitely character dances in the mix but the two which come to mind the most were “Will Rogers,” and “Whimsey.” (a Charlie-Chaplin/buster keaton type of character) They both had props…a rope and a hat. And those props began to take on a “trickster energy of their own.” (Well minus the cowboy hat which had a strap)

    I had to spin the rope and began to get the hang of it but sometimes it flew out of my hands or would tangle itself up almost with a mind of its own. So the rope soon earned a name “Nanobozo,”speaking of coyotes!

    And there was the hat in the other dance, which I would spin on my finger. I was supposed to make a deft twirl and place it back on my head. But the hat alas often had other ideas. Such as flying off my finger like a frisbee or flying saucer. Sometimes it was easy to imagine it having a life of its own even in my hands. Every time I took it on and off my head! But I suppose from such fancies stories can me made!

    Funnily I had read an article about Tricksters in a magazine and wrote the author who suggested that same book: “Trickster Makes this World.” I never found it so perhaps it’s time I try again!

    The other irony in dance  is performing literal fool/jester dances…”fool on the hill.” And then for a mythic laugh what are the chances of coming across a “Fool,” song related to a group with erm a coyote moniker? Universe has a sense of humor.

    And regardless on or off a stage all those lessons of the trickster definitely come into play! Including  learning how to mostly keep ones feet on the ground—-even with stumbles and faux pas along the way.  But if the ground is solid as you say… “why not dance?” Love it!


    Robert Juliano

      Thank you for this wonderful essay, Catherine! I can certainly appreciate the fact that the hero’s adventure does not speak to everyone. James Hillman certainly wrote much about how this type of imagining does not always apprehend the world in a nuanced way. Recently, there was a wonderful movie which, in my opinion, explored this to be certain degree – The Green Knight. I wrote some reflections on this movie, one of them being the following:

      The darkness in the movie and the deep flaws in Gawain reveal that such can be an immense reservoir of strength – a source of will which enables one to carry on – to persist in the “game” instead of abandoning it. It is not strength and virtue, but weakness and deep shame which fuel Gawain’s movement forward to a fate, as he sees it, of certain death, all in the name of “honor.” One wonders, though, if the movie reflects, not the end of the magic and possibilities of Camelot, but the eyes which view the movie, for the hero’s journey and the medieval period’s values may no longer speak to us. Perhaps, Arthur and Guinevere are seen as old and long past their prime because the myth is old and no longer resonates with us. Joseph Campbell felt the individual quest was the best and most authentic image of Western spirituality, but perhaps this is not as widely applicable as he thought (e.g., issues of gender – the heroine’s journey; James Hillman and Archetypal Psychology’s view that the hero may no longer be the appropriate imagining for our time, etc.).

      As you well know, there is a fairytale entitled Der Geist im Glas (The Spirit in the Bottle), one of Grimm’s fairytales, where the spirit in the bottle names himself as Mercurius. Mercurius is a figure of medieval and modern Latin alchemy and exhibits many of the characteristics of the trickster even in this fairytale. What is fascinating is that he has been imprisoned in a particularly human creation – a bottle. And as powerful as he is, he cannot free himself, but must be freed by someone else. Crucially, such a freeing is seen as being exceedingly dangerous. This image of hermetic enclosure is very much worth reflecting on. On the one hand, Mercurius is seen to pose great danger and, consistent with the trickster, is held to be largely unconscious. On the other hand, when freed, he gives a reward that both physically heals and creates riches.

      When seen through the lens of certain depth psychology traditions, the imprisoning of Mercurius is seen as correct. The bottle as transparent might be thought of as a sort of psychological enclosure comprising the tradition’s discipline, the employment of careful observation, and the isolation, both from inside and from outside influences, of that dangerous spirit. Here, the freeing of Mercurius is seen as an incorrect solution, both alchemically and psychologically. On the other hand, there are other traditions of depth psychology which see the enclosure as being necessary, but crucially inclusive of both the psychological tradition and Mercurius. The freeing of Mercurius, then, is the freeing of this spirit in the hermetic enclosure in which the depth psychology is also held. Thus, the discipline and focus (i.e., the enclosure) are maintained, but both Mercurius and depth psychology intermingle such that the psychological tradition is also affected and also undergoes change. This approach permits a far more intimate relationship with the trickster with its inherent dangers and life-giving boon, but again, all requiring the discipline (conscious attention and focus) the image of the bottle expresses.


      Hi Sunbug,

      thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, especially the story of those dances. I can feel the trickster energy there— I’d say a blend of the playful, crazy, and potentially disastrous, and all for and in the moment:). Nanobozo!

      I’ll have to look into the female tricksters that you suggest. A female pirate sounds interesting. After I posted to Stephen, I realized that I forgot to answer that part of his question. I agree that there are likely  female tricksters in the legendary stories but the definitions and biases get in the way.

      One thing that I wonder about is the need to attribute gravitas and culture hero status to trickster. Do European derived/outsider scholars feel a need (perhaps unconscious) to “redeem” the trickster by saying, “well, he also did this good thing?”

      In the case of coyote and raven, for example– I’ve only dipped a toe into Native American perspectives but I find emphasis on the foolishness and bad example and humor. More of a “oh well, there he goes again” and shrug your shoulders, attitude.

      I also expect contemporary spinners of the old myth material will reveal female tricksters to us in ways that are both old and new:).

      warmly, Catherine


      Hi Robert,

      I also found the Green Knight interesting, Gawain’s character in particular. The one story about him that I know is the one with Lady Ragnell and the question: “what do women want?”. In that story, Gawain behaves so admirably. Then I looked into the various knights of the Round Table a bit and discovered that he was the lusty one, susceptible to sexual temptations. I appreciated that this was the Gawain created in the movie and thought they made good use of his weakness, but your reflection goes deeper. Thank you!

      Mercurius and alchemy. Reading your comment, I realize that when I think of “trickster,” I think of a figure that embodies a dynamic in the world and in my self, and reflects that dynamic back to me. As you point out, the alchemical Mercurius, who gets his name from the Greek trickster god Hermes/Roman Mercury,  is a “trickster” or trickster-like energy that one  deals with in a conscious process of psychological transformation. Is he a catalyst? I haven’t spent much time with alchemy–might have to remedy that!

      warmly, Catherine



      You might also be interested in the Pacific NorthWest tales of Raven.
      In some of those, Raven appears both as Trickster and Co-creator.
      In one tale raven pulls a shell out of the ocean and humans come out of it.

      In another raven steals the sun, moon and stars from the hut of a magical sky being. And when raven escapes all the light falls out of the bag bringing light to all the land.  There is more to these stories but this is a short paraphrase.
      Think more than one tribe share stories of raven similar to these.
      As far as bringing light there’s a specific Tlingit tale..

      “Raven and the Box of Daylight”

      There is an article on this and a museum exhibit in National Museum of the American Indian magazine from Winter 2021.


      Thanks Sunbug!

      Raven is another of my favorites too. He’s the patron energy of mythic mojo, my work with mythology:). I know a version of the shell story that begins with Raven finding the shell on the beach. I’m always looking for variations on all of these stories so appreciate the note about the museum exhibit!

      warmly, Catherine

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