Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination by Paul A. Trout. Prometheus, 2011.
Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human by Boria Sax. Reaktion Books, 2013.
There is no limit to what the mythic imagination is able to transform into a predatory agent. Nor is there any limit to its urge to perform this transformation. —Deadly Powers, 23.
Animals return us to a primordial time before we had encompassed the world in names, categories and elaborate conceptual frameworks. —Imaginary Animals, 34.
Taken together, these two beautifully illustrated books could be sold as a set to introduce readers into a short course on comparative mythology. Their shared images are animals, real and imagined; where the reality of a historical animal bumps into the imagined beast is where myth is generated as a bridge to unite the world of imagination to that of historical certainty. Th at alone is reason enough for their purchase. Both books, through their words and magnificent illustrations, especially Boria Sax’s images, will place the reader somewhere between dream and reverie as s/he meditates on how powerfully animals have inhabited the human imagination—from a pet cat to griffins, water monsters, dragons, and phoenixes that populate mythological traditions, literature, art, cultural legends, and our own dreams.
As John Trout off ers early on in Deadly Powers : “Th ere is no limit to what the mythic imagination is able to transform into a predatory agent” (23). Th is declaration sets the compass for his study: the eat or be eaten terror that Pleistocene (two million to ten thousand years ago) people felt in their vulnerability. Now some critics believe that such a narrow bandwidth of understanding of how myths grew from encounters with animals, based largely on fear and then aggression, is inadequate, I allowed myself to slip by this critique. For what captured my attention was a ledger of another kind that I found more fruitful to attend to. “If myths are the language of the soul, then the soul speaking to us is anxious and fearful, haunted by the dreadful prospect of being killed and eaten by voracious predators” (63). Yes, that is part of the story. But the reader can absorb Trout’s vast and extensive citations of world mythologies, at times almost overwhelming, to discern the deeper patterns in the animal as archetype that mirrors and helps make more visible our deep natures as human beings/animals.
I should mention my own bias here in reading a new book. Its value for me resides not in my level of agreement or disagreement with the author; rather, I am more excited by what questions the book evokes in me, what it makes me think more deeply about. Trout’s work pushed me to reflect on the relation of mythic stories to historical events or imaginal “as-ifs.” Where does history end and myth begin? Is the separation in fact seamless? Are animals, real, imagined, storied along via a corridor into the recesses of our deepest interior caves? I slowly began to understand that the more penetrating subject of his book was the mimetic nature of storytelling itself: “Put another way, storytelling was a way for distressed humans to manage their fear of dangerous predators” (87). Sigmund Freud in the nineteenth century discovered that his patients’ storytelling was itself curative; they too oft en relayed the predators of their own lives; narrating these fi gures, situations, and conditions allowed these dangers to assume a size that could be dealt with. Trout is engaging the same dynamic of a therapy of healing through the imitative nature of story to confront what in actual life was adjudged too terrible to risk one’s life for. He goes on to develop this idea several pages later:
Storytelling was a cultural adaptation that grew from and continued the work of, the innate fear system. Like this system, mimetic storytelling helped early humans manage their fears of being consumed by predators by using the element of that system—fear stimuli and survival behaviors—to enact stories about predators— stories that informed, warmed, consoled, and inspired. (105)
Millennia before the Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing his Poetics in the fifth century bce, discovered the presence of mimesis in stories, our ancient ancestors found it as a way to manage their fears in order to survive emotionally, psychologically, and physically. The quote above, for me, comprises the hard internal core of Trout’s exposition in his fi ne study. He will spend the rest of his work citing comparative mythological narratives and extending the reach of mimesis to ritual, dramatic performance, donning the skins of animals, even altering the physical human body to resemble the animal feared, in order to make a more complete home for themselves. Myth enacts rituals to enable “mimetic storytelling” (119) to become the most complex life buoy for our early survival as a species. I found this section the most exciting part of Trout’s study. From it we discern that not much has changed in this fundamental dynamic today.
Just as importantly, as Trout extends his argument, “the very first enacted narratives and mini-dramas had a certain element of ‘fi ctiveness’ about them in that they enacted something not actually present but remembered or imagined” (113) even prior to the development of a language; dramatic enactment was enough; its ritualized story “warned, excited, informed and alerted group members about the threats and opportunities in their environment” (114) so to emotionally equip them to confront what felt to be a taboo and at times led to certain death. Moreover, “Mimetic storytelling . . . was a form of sympathetic magic in which the terrifying ‘predator’ could be lured into symbolic existence and so subjected to the will of its rebellious prey” (125). I found this addition of the symbolic very crucial to the nature of narrative as well as to the growth of us as a species over two million years ago. Its other advantage or boon was in reversing the roles of predator and prey; by symbolic mimesis through narrative, early humans could grab hold of their predator in a profound act of imagination and in reality begin to shift the imbalance of power between them and their predators in terms of the fear evoked in us by those seeking to devour us. Th e implications for this today in the life of all people is enormous and puts back into prominence the absolute necessity of living a symbolic life, in whatever degree is achievable.
Trout’s argument then tacks into a discussion of how Paleolithic humans, with the use of language and a fuller menu of storytelling possibilities, began to see how they too could become predators in monstrous form. A shift in consciousness developed such that “the monster objectifies (at times) the very ‘monstrous’ imaginative power that created it” (178). In other words, our ancestors learned how to become the objects they most feared in a kind of mimetic reversal; now the prey assumes the condition of predator. He suggests that “myths about heroes defeating primordial monsters are less history than therapy, helping us manage our fear. The hero fulfi lls our longing to escape from our abject vulnerability to dangerous animals” (181). The imagination itself becomes a monster-creating attribute and opens up a myriad of possibilities for abusing and for scapegoating whatever is chosen to carry the fears and guilt of a people. The shadow side of our humanness now has a vent wherein the external shadow of the monstrous travels indoors.
At the same time, Trout argues, those very fears we imagine in the other may have been the origin of the sacred, the numinous, and the divine. He reveals how “the Greeks had two words for fear, deisdaimonia, literally, ‘fear of the gods,’ and phrike, which means hair-raising shudder. Both are deeply implicated in the formation of the sacred” (193). From here it was a short walk to making sacrifices, what Trout calls a ritual for making something sacred. Sacrifice opened up a new way of relating to those powers that threatened; the gods or animals that menaced mankind were deflected from inflicting further harm by means of something or someone sacrificed to them.
What I find so compelling in his development of the mythic imagination and mimetic performance is the complexity and subtlety with which our development began and continued, ending, it seems, in the total mastery of the planet as well as its fragile continuance. We migrated from being prey for most forms of life in the early years of our existence to the status of the greatest predator on the planet, including self-predation. Furthermore, and to his credit, Trout lists, negotiates, argues, and at times proves erroneous a host of competing theories that disagree with his own (214–17).
He ends his rich and extended arguments for myth-making, mimesis, and storytelling by revealing how at a point in history, we engaged the totemic imagination to discover ways to befriend animals, both dangerous and domesticated. By “imitative magic,” we established ways to appease, to alter, and to befriend the animal forces that threatened to extinguish us. His ending allowed me to consider how stories allow for transfers of energy; we learn through mimesis, through imitative performances like reading, or in establishing rituals as inroads into imagining both adversaries and conflicts: “Rituals oft en create an altered state of consciousness during which participants envision all kinds of things, including their transformation into dangerous animals” (240). To know the animal is to merge with it; perhaps such is true of all that we wish to learn about or establish a relationship with. A form of interpenetration with the other may allow a level of deep knowing unavailable any other way.
Trout devotes the last part of his book to extending his argument to animal sacrifices, creating predatory fictions as a way to empower the prey, wearing masks of the predators—all in the service of gaining some dominance over what threatens, overpowers, and in some ways is similar to us. I began to sense at the book’s end that the human imagination was the animal most admired, feared, loved, worshipped as it is always in the service of creating realities that we may choose to call our own. In the process, his study altered and increased my understanding of mimesis, make-believe, creating “as-if ” fictions, and subduing those forces that we may believe, rightly or wrongly, threaten our well-being. For students of mythology, literature, storytelling, narrative purposes, Deadly Powers should be essential reading.
In league with Trout’s book is the magnificently illustrated cloth copy of Boria Sax’s Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human. I would suggest that before one begins to read it, treat yourself to simply paging through it to enjoy the high quality prints on rich glossy paper. By themselves, they tell the story of the text. While it too has as its sub-text the power of imagination to create what does not exist in the phenomenal world, generally, in contrast to Trout’s rather singular vision of predator/prey dichotomy, Sax’s thesis is more wide ranging. However, he, like Trout, devotes considerable effort to ranging over world mythologies to off er, in the spirit of Joseph Campbell’s methodology, a comparative approach to the mysterious array of animals that inhabit mythologies globally and throughout historical periods. Moreover, he devotes more space to Jungian realities, like unconscious, archetypes, projection, underworld, to inflect his study along more psychological sluices.
We glimpse a large sector of his intentions in the book early on when he writes: “The play of sensuality and imagination that form our perceptions of animals can liberate us, if only partially and momentarily, from the restraints and limitations of our culture, including preconceived ideas derived from religion, philosophy or politics” (17). Th e book then particularizes hundreds of examples that reveal a liberating impulse in the imagination when we as a species clothed ourselves in the skins, gestures, and patterns of fantastic images that are often amalgams of three to five different animals that oft en include human features. As one reads, one finds that the gap between us and the animal/plant/technological world grows ever thinner. Th e term he uses is “anthrozoology” (25), which is a way “we construct our ideas of humanity largely through encounters with animals” (24). Further, and underpinning and supporting anthrozoology, is an insight by Aaron Katcher, a “pioneer of animal-assisted therapy,” namely, that the therapeutic power that can come from contact with animals lies in their ability to convey something ‘prior’ to what we know as civilization” (31). Now this substrata is crucial to understanding the motives of the imagination behind the figures discussed and conveyed imagistically in the book. Like Trout’s study, the figures of animals convey narratives of the unconscious as well as cultural consciousness and have a liberating impulse that attracts us to them.
A few of his chapter titles illustrate the variety of angles the study pursues: “What Is an ‘Imaginary Animal?,’” “Every Imaginary Animal Is Real,” “Monsters,” “Creatures of Water,” “Shape-Shifters,” “Mechanical Animals.” In addition, and like Trout’s book, the number of references he cites could keep one reading in this area for years, if not decades. I found particularly helpful Sax’s developing what range of perceptions we use to classify, define, and domesticate animals, often forcing them into comfort zones for ourselves so they become more like us and thus more easily understood. He accomplishes this range of perceptions convincingly by comparing how an animist, a naturalist, a totemist, and analogist would each relate to a cat quite differently (43). His observations allowed me to consider the way a myth is like a template: we set it over so many of our daily experiences in order to see it cleanly and safely. The template is often an abstraction or a concept that distances us from the thing itself. Animals as we know them can then be used to allow us to feel more comfortable with our own animal nature. But animals created or alleged to have been seen, can also dislodge us from that comfort space and force us to reconsider our assumptions not only about animals but also about ourselves in relation to them.
An imaginary animal, as Sax defi nes it, is “a creature that seems to belong to a realm fundamentally diff erent from, yet somehow allied with, our own” (47). Yet it combines other characteristics not native to it “with heightened alterity” (47). It is, as he continues “like a ‘second self ’” that functions in a “psychological, spiritual and social role” and may have attributed to it one of many epithets like “‘monster,’ ‘prodigy,’ ‘wonder,’ ‘freak,’ ‘miracle’ or marvel’” (47). Nonetheless, Sax throughout his study links these fantastic creatures to the geography, culture, or historical period that gave rise to them, so that they are linked to a reality we share. But his question at this juncture is provocative: “And why do people everywhere constantly create not only images of, but elaborate stories about, fantastic beasts?”(57). He attributes this imaginal impulse to several developments in human beings as early as 500,000 years ago wherein we as a species developed the ability to interpret the behavior of others “by attributing to them ‘beliefs and desires other than one’s own’” (60) and later, the ability to “respond to phenomenon in ways that are not strictly compartmentalized,” what one writer has called “cognitive fluidity” (61).
Several pages later, Sax adds to his reasons for even creating imaginary animals: “We are not satisfi ed with the mundane world of everyday existence; thus we invent imaginary animals, just as we create imaginary objects, histories, people and worlds” (72). Such thinking, while I am sure has validity, seems thin to me. What it sidesteps is the creative impulse itself, for its own sake, because such creativity gives us pleasure, joy, expands our thinking, and deepens our understanding by craft ing “as-if ” analogies of our world. He salvages his thinking, however, when several pages later he asserts: “Despite what many thinkers hoped or feared, contemporary people have not lost the capacity to make myths” (77). Th e deeper question, of course, might be: What conditions, dispositions, inclinations, needs, desires are behind and under such a capacity and impulse?
Sax, to his credit, continues to use the existence of a jungle of imaginary animals to reflect on the universal prompts of the imagination. Imaginary animals “are forever evolving in the human imagination in a way rather analogous to biological evolution, adapting, absorbing and dispensing with motifs, like fragments of the genetic code” (83). Such a fine insight pulls at the drawstrings of biology, psychology, mythology, and neuroscience, all of which contribute to the phantoms and phantasms of the imagination in animal forms.
In addition, while there is a rage for security, comfort, and the familiar, in the human constitution there seems also to be a rage for a bit of chaos, uncertainty, novelty, locales where a real adventure may have its genesis. Sax states it slightly differently: “By defying our attempts at conceptualization, certain creatures undermine our existential security, blending human and animals, fi sh and fowl, or male and female” (96). Amen to such an impulse; it can also be a fierce itch to seek a unity in diversity, even a pathos in the fantastic, so to reawaken our sleepy tendency to find and cling to what is familiar and to fall asleep in its seductive clover. But not all of these creatures are born out of fear of being devoured by predators, as Trout asserts and Sax questions directly by citing Trout’s book (101–3).
And, as he does throughout his study, Sax uses each chapter not just to focus on another iteration of the animal imagination in all its grotesque and sublime forms in the upper world, the underworld, and the otherworld, but also to enter into a conversation on the nature of transformation itself depicted through figures such as the Dragon, the Griffin, the Minotaur, and others depicted so majestically in the paintings of Italian, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I enjoyed immensely a too brief account of alchemy (153ff .) and more specifically the work of the Swiss physician Paracelsus, whose name appears throughout Sax’s study. Metaphor, allegory, figural and spiritual language attended the alchemists’ work; Sax’s brief section is nonetheless rich in imagery and description, enough, it seems, to whet interest for further reading. Here rests one of many examples of how Sax’s work extends down and into the patterns of the psyche, both conscious and unconscious, to reveal the elaborate depths to which we mortals will go to give voice and illustration to the inner recesses of our lived experiences. In addition, in the chapter “Creatures in Water,” he is not content to simply format the myriad creatures living below the surface of the seas and rivers. He also develops psychologically and mythically the power and mystery of water as a substance and as an occasion to both conceal and to reveal life forms that are, in themselves, wondrous.
He ends with a brief study of mechanical animals, a species becoming more popular as they are able to be engineered to reveal more emotional expressions and, in some cases, have or can be directed to have, unique identities, as in the case of digital and robotic animals like the Tamagotchis (242), which can be programmed to be a unique pet for its owner. Or a Paro, “a robotic seal designed especially for the elderly and those suff ering from dementia. It responds to petting by showing pleasure, thus calming their owners and helping them avoid disorientation (245–46). In this discussion close to the book’s end, Sax entertains the way we are redefining what consciousness even is and how it should be imagined in a technological age that is merging biology with consciousness itself. One of his last insights helps us see into the future of animal creation and human re-creation: “All animals, no matter whether they exist or in what sense, are products of the same dialectic of reality and imagination” (250). His book’s intention has been to reveal just such a truth; it points us to the larger questions of the nature of reality, our role in creating it and being shaped by it, and our quest to see through what is known to the mystery of what still remains invisible, unknown and waiting for our flashlights to shine on them.
I have enormous praise for both of these books. They range so far beyond their ostensible central subject matter to snag reflections on the nature of stories, narrative itself, myths’ creations, technology’s place in our world revisioning exploits, the power of art to restory and so restore us, and the endless gift s of the human imagination. I hope readers in a host of fields of the humanities will give both of them a close look.
Dennis Patrick Slattery, PhD, is emeritus professor in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-four volumes, including six volumes of poetry and one co-authored novel. His most recent book is A Pilgrimage beyond Belief: Spiritual Journeys through Christian and Buddhist Monasteries of the American West. He is currently co-editing a volume of Joseph Campbell’s letters for New World Library, and offering Personal Myth retreats in the United States and Canada.