Myths are to societies as dreams are to individuals: image-packed indicators of what’s really going on down deep inside. And because the same human dilemmas recur, the characters do too. Scratch the surface of a well-known person, place, or event, and you’ll often find a bit of myth hiding beneath it, and under that, a broader archetypal pattern waiting to return to life in response to how we live or fail to, what we open up to and what we keep down.
If we looked at current American politics through the eye of myth, what might we see?
Perhaps we would see Hera and Zeus attempting to get back into office via Hilary and Bill Clinton. In Elizabeth Warren testifying against the Underworld financiers of Wall Street we might catch a glimpse of mighty Athena guarding the polis. We might watch the warlike Republican Party worshiping Mars, who now commands the largest military appropriations on the planet, furtive Democrats bowing to Pluto, god of plutocracy and hidden wealth, while both parties cooperate to keep anyone else, mythic or mortal, from any chance at holding high office.
But we need not stay solely within the Greek or Roman pantheons. Especially when considering someone like Donald Trump.
An archetype is more general than the myth expressing it. In this case we are dealing with the archetype of the Trickster, whom we find all over the world and in every time and place. Trickster is not just someone who makes us laugh. He is an agent of chaos. Turning everything upside down and inside out, he brings disorder, confusion, lies—and exaggeration, because Trickster always goes too far, never knows when to stop, and likely as not gets caught in his own scheming.
Trickster is a god of commerce both legal and illegal, shifty deals, windfalls, and thievery. He’s hard to pin down, but he’s easy to figure out because of his oversized ego. He loves admiration and will deceive, cheat, steal, and bluff to get it. He uses up women and boasts about his sexual prowess. He sells snakeoil and relies on bluster and bullying. Where he goes, trouble always follows.
When I consider Trump mythically (“Donald,” by the way, means “stranger,” and “Trump” has several related meanings: “dominate,” “fabricate,” “cheat,” “mock,” and “blow a trumpet”), a Shoshone myth comes immediately to mind. Here is a condensed version:
One day Coyote decided he was cold and lonely. And envious, because he knew that the desert people to the north had something nobody else did: fire. Convincing his henchmen Stinkbug and Packrat to accompany him, he went north to find it.
When he finally found fire, the desert people were dancing around it, so he put on a wig and, pretending to be one of them, joined in the dancing. When no one was looking, he reached out, scooped up the entire fire, and ran away with it.
The outraged desert people gave chase immediately. When they had almost caught up with him, Coyote gave what was left of the flame to Stinkbug, who bore the embers safely away. Coyote was apprehended, but Stinkbug gave fire to the other animals, including some grateful two-legged ones.
In another version, however, Coyote runs so fast that the wind blows sparks into his wig, which catches fire and burns him up…
Figuring out whether or not Trump unconsciously enacts this myth would require careful substantiating, finding points of agreement between the full myth and Trump’s own actions and aims, as well as examining places where his story and the myth do not conform. This short piece cannot undertake that. But it can at least raise the question of what we might expect if the parallels hold.
Tricksters can do enormous damage but in the end they might also bring forth an unintentional good or two. Institutions far gone in corruption, lovelessness, intolerance, rigidity, and hypocrisy are ripe for a Trickster dismantling. Little wonder that the imagery of fire follows Trump wherever he goes. (“He’s stealing our fire!” “He’s burning down the party!”). Even Melania Trump’s fashionable scarves had to be recalled for posing a fire hazard.
A Trickster unconscious of his own myth can do even greater damage than a conscious one. Trickster, we should remember, also brings death into the world. Essentially amoral, his god is himself, and his own desires always come first.
The customary solutions for dealing with an out-of-control Trickster are to unleash a team of Tricksters against him or to ask a Wisdom Goddess like Athena to manage him. Nothing much else can touch him, except perhaps a thorough education in the power of mythic characters, plots, and motifs which tend to return to life at the very moment we congratulate ourselves for being practical, hard-headed realists.
Craig Chalquist, PhD is founding editor of Immanence, department chair of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, adjunct faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and President of the Depth Psychology Alliance. He is the author of several books, including Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place, editor of Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled, and co-editor of Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. His website is Chalquist.com.