Why Not Dance?
Stories of heroes and their exploits occupy an important place in the collective imagination. The hero leaves the familiar, struggles through the dreaded dark night of the soul, and emerges as savior, role model, leader, and teacher. Heroes, mortal and mythic, embody the ideals and aspirations of the community. They are a source of shared meanings and cultural identity, and their deeds symbolize new possibilities that lie beyond the horizon of their present circumstance.
It’s all pretty grand, and I’m often moved, thrilled, and inspired by hero myths. But the hero’s adventure doesn’t speak to my hopes of fulfillment. I have difficulty getting past the machismo and violence, the honor earned at the expense of the innocent, the language of winners and losers, and the emphasis on the extraordinary and the superlative—qualities of life that feel so far from my everyday existence, and far from my quest to find the wonder here and now in my ordinary life, and approach the ups and downs with equanimity. When I turn to myth for guidance, I don’t seek the heroes. I usually turn to 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 shape-shifts; 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. In Primitive Mythology, Campbell says that the trickster is the principle of chaos and disorder, and yet in Paleolithic times, he observes, the trickster was “the archetype of the hero, the giver of all great boons—the fire bringer and the teacher of mankind.” (252)
According to Campbell, the trickster is a kind of shaman who moves between the material and spirit worlds. Campbell highlights myths of the theft of fire, a rare success in the large catalog of tricksters’ setbacks and failures, and points to the figure of the Greek Titan, Prometheus, in particular. Prometheus defied the mandate of Zeus and stole fire for humankind. In return, Zeus exacted a terrible punishment: Prometheus was chained to a rock and an eagle came every day to eat his liver. But perhaps there was a point to the Titan’s suffering. Campbell reminds us that “it is man that has created the gods […] for as Prometheus knows, there is a prophecy that one day his chains will fall away by themselves and the world-eon of Zeus dissolve.” (257)
The tension between an established social order and the self-determining individual, guided by an inner authority, is central to Campbell’s heroic ideal. But a defining characteristic of the trickster is his lack of self-awareness and the complete absence of reflection. He is driven by appetites. Prometheus plays a trick on Zeus and steals fire, but does he display the trickster temperament? In Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, Lewis Hyde suggests that Prometheus, whose name means “foresight,” is actually not a trickster unless he is joined with his brother Epimetheus, who is short sighted and stupid. (355)
The myths of a fully developed trickster figure like the Native American Coyote, for example, reveal an ingenuous and creative culture hero who is also a laughable fool. Or maybe he is a laughable fool who is also an ingenuous and creative culture hero. The trickster is the exemplar of the contradictions and moral complexity inherent in the heroic, and every other sphere of human life. His escapades also highlight the important role that chance, accidents, and luck play in life. Native American scholar Vine Deloria Jr. writes:
“[…] many Indian people believe that the trickster figure primarily represents the arbitrary side of natural events, those often near-coincidental happenings that demonstrate the fickle side of an individual’s fate, the ironic unpredictable situations that arise in spite of ourselves.”
C.G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions (pg. 27)
Many of the events in trickster myths are obscene or nonsensical. Coyote accidentally cuts off one of his own hands or arms, for example, and then argues with the severed limb and berates it for its recalcitrance. He learns to throw his eyeballs up into a tree, where they can see for miles. This power comes with some rules that Coyote disregards, and he stumbles blindly home with empty eye sockets, only to discover that his family has moved away out of shame. Coyote eats a sweet-tasting root with laxative properties, but the root tastes so good that he doesn’t want to stop eating. “I can handle it,” he decides, and ends up in a pile of his own excrement after defecating so long and hard it almost kills him.
Somehow, parallels to my own behavior are not hard to find. Coyote helps me reflect on the difference between healthy persistence and bullheadedness, self-confidence and grandiosity, about the need to look at situations from more than one vantage point. I think about my compulsions and rationalizations—and the times I’ve ended up in a metaphorical pile of…well, you know. And more than once. Sometimes a blind spot opens up to fresh insight. Sometimes even the notions of success and failure collapse, allowing me a glimpse of something beyond that opposition.
I find stories of tricksters like Coyote memorable and instructive, something like koans. They’re also funny. The irony and earthy humor of the trickster help me return to the present moment where I rediscover the power of humor in the face of disaster. The healing release in a laugh and the recentering perspective that comes on its heels, and the strength one finds in surrendering to the absurdity of our human situation with a smile. Old Man Coyote reminds me that my time in this beautiful world is short; that life is serious play. “If you must have a goal,” he tells me, “aim to be a master of opportunity.” Then he grins and lifts his tail high in the air. “For now the ground beneath you is solid,” he says, “so why not dance?”
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