21 December 2011


Paul A. Trout. Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. Prometheus Books, 2011.

Pat Shipman. The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human. W. W. Norton, 2011.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch ! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!

This verse from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass summarise the thesis of Paul Trout’s book: the origins of language and religion in our ancestors’ fear and awe of terrible predators.
In his opening chapters Trout recounts the various giant predators our Palaeolithic ancestors had to content with from sabre toothed tigers, huge lizards, cave bears, giant bears and all sorts of other things that even the most fervent cryptozoologist would not wish to see surviving in remote places. He argues that much of our species’ history we were less the mighty hunter than often the defenceless prey. Theirs was a world in which the terror induced by powerful predators was ubiquitous, a terror the echoes of which he traces in the mythology of many peoples, quoting many examples.

He argues that the origins of language will have been in warnings about predators and how to avoid them, and in the mimetic performances needed to warn the young of their dangers. Perhaps it was women raising the young who first constructed languages.

The first gods, he argues were these great predatory animals, the lions, leopards, jaguars, crocodiles and such like; the terrible beasts of the earth, water and air.

They are the origins of the first true great fear, that of being torn to pieces, devoured and excreted by wild beasts, the sights and sounds of prey being thus torn apart and consumed being a matter of common experience. This experience is recapitulated by the visionary experiences of the shaman, wherein he or she is devoured, disembowelled then reassembled, reborn; and initiatory rituals for the young wherein the elders take on the role of the predators with appropriate masks. These experiences mimic the fear of being devoured and the ecstasy of survival.

The encounters with these awesome beasts are not only terrifying, the hormonal changes produced by the activation of the fight/flight response are also thrilling.

He is particularly persuasive in his argument that fear and awe of predators is the foundation of sacrifice, one member of the group is sacrificed to the predator so it may be satiated and the rest of the group may be saved.

A very important point that Trout makes is that human beings had to develop strategies for detecting and dealing with predators. One is what he calls an Agency Detection Device, sensing a predator behind any ambiguous stimuli, the second is a Theory of Mind Mechanism attributes that agency with human like feelings, desires and intentions. Thus even the absence of real predators we imagine invisible ones, 'spirits' and the like. These mechanisms are the ones which invest all sorts of natural phenomena with human like minds.

Pat Shipman also tracks the relationships between early humans and animals, and sees their interaction, along with the development of tools, as transforming human consciousness and aiding the development of language. Shipman takes what Trout might see as a more conventional course, that of concentrating on the role of humans as predators rather than prey, forcing their attention ever deeper onto the animals around them, particularly prey animals. Shipman also tracks the role of domestication, starting with the wolf, which she tracks back much further than has been usually supposed, perhaps back 100,000 rather than 10,000 years.

This suggests an important modifier of Trout’s thesis, predators are not just sources of fear and awe to our ancestors, but providers and guides. Humans tracked powerful predators in order to scavenge on the kill, later as they become more and more accomplished hunters they increasing admire the other predators, seek to learn their secrets, to emulate them. In this thesis the predator is not just an enemy but a dangerous, edgy ally.

The idea of invisible predators may lead to another intellectual leap, that of seeing all the really existing physical predators as manifestations or avatars of some archetypal cosmic Universal Predator. This predator becomes manifest not only in specific predatory animals but in the totality of wild nature, seen as the giver and taker of life.

For the hunters sacrifice to the “Universal Predator” is not simply to prevent him/her taking humans, but to prevent him/her taking too much of the game that humans also depend upon The “Universal Predator” is seen as master/mistress of the game. If the game animals are scarce it is because the Great Predator has taken them: the storms, floods, droughts and dearths are its rage. The awe and trembling once felt before a flesh and blood predator is now a fear and awe of the totality of wild nature and the One Circle of creation, destruction and recreation. This awe is what the Greeks called panic, fear of the god Pan, echoes of which are still to be found as forest and mountain terrors.

The predators of the imagination still haunt us, almost any large puddle can be seen as the home of a lake monster, the devouring water itself being seen as a predatory persona. We see beasts from the air like mothman or the chupacabra. Phantom big cats stalk the green fields of England. Once fear of the dead may have been occasioned by dead bodies attracting dangerous predators, now the dead are seen as predators, whether the physical bodies of zombies and vampires (zombies are just seen as walking hunger, vampires suck out the blood of their victims) or the more ethereal presences of ghosts, who bring something of the awesome terror of the wilderness into the settled home. The strange presences felt during sleep paralysis with their whispering noises echo predators stalking in the night.

Our pet cats and dogs are liminal creatures, the predators that we imagine we have domesticated but whose ultimate wildness we can never conquer. Call our cat by whatever human or cute name we can think of, one day they will bring a living screaming disembowelled bird or mouse as a present to remind you of what they really are. The dog is still a wolf, the predator we have had the most intimate and ambiguous relationship with. We think we have tamed it, but not a year goes by without Rover turning round and maiming or killing a child. The wolf/dog is par excellence the liminal creature, guardian of the boundary between habitat and wilderness, participating in both. With the wolf/dog we can be hunter and hunted. Like the phantom felines, phantom black dogs dog the lanes of England, in some folklore turning easily into the true, protean avatar of the Universal Predator.

In an age of the machine, where the only predator that most urban people have to fear is ourselves, it is not surprising that the phantom predators of our age are dominated by sacral or daemonic machines, the UFOs, nor that they first appeared in force after the war in which humans reached the apotheosis of their demonic predatory activity. The old image of the initiate being swallowed, dismembered and reconstructed in the maw of the predator becomes an image of being abducted by predatory aliens and subject to “medical experiments” by greys with the vast eyes of the Universal Predator.

Trout in his own final chapter argues that the modern predators are those portrayed in the range of science fiction and slasher movies, and in the reactions of the audiences. This brings us back to the themes of Monsters in America reviewed HERE. – Peter Rogerson.

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