Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination

Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination

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In this illuminating and evocative exploration of the origin and function of storytelling, the author goes beyond the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, arguing that mythmaking evolved as a cultural survival strategy for coping with the constant fear of being killed and eaten by predators. Beginning nearly two million years ago in the Pleistocene era, the first stories, Trout argues, functioned as alarm calls, warning fellow group members about the carnivores lurking in the surroundings. At the earliest period, before the development of language, these rudimentary "stories" would have been acted out. When language appeared with the evolution of the ancestral human brain, stories were recited, memorized, and much later written down as the often bone-chilling myths that have survived to this day.

This book takes the reader through the landscape of world mythology to show how our more recent ancestors created myths that portrayed animal predators in four basic ways: as monsters, as gods, as benefactors, and as role models. Each incarnation is a variation of the fear-management technique that enabled early humans not only to survive but to overcome their potentially incapacitating fear of predators. In the final chapter, Trout explores the ways in which our visceral fear of predators is played out in the movies, where both animal and human predators serve to probe and revitalize our capacity to detect and survive danger.

Anyone with an interest in mythology, archaeology, folk tales, and the origins of contemporary storytelling will find this book an exciting and provocative exploration into the natural and psychological forces that shaped human culture and gave rise to storytelling and mythmaking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616145026
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 11/15/2011
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 325
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Paul A. Trout, professor emeritus at Montana State University, taught English for thirty-eight years. He has published widely on cultural and academic issues, and his articles have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, Commonweal, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Deadly Powers

Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination
By Paul A. Trout

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Paul A. Trout
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-501-9

Chapter One

Predators and Myth


The myths taught to us in school and college usually are about gods and heroes fighting, or falling in love, or both. Even when these stories end sadly, they have the power to comfort us because we see that the gods care about us intensely, and that the heroes and heroines fight and love each other with uncommon passion, gallantry, courage, and resourcefulness.

Deadly Powers is not about these kinds of myths. Instead, it is about myths that make us feel uncomfortable and a bit ashamed because they probe the most primal human fear—the fear of being ripped apart and eaten alive by an animal. The gods in these myths thirst—like carnivores—for human blood, and the humans live in nightmarish terror of being chased and swallowed by hideous monsters.

Wherever one looks, animal predators slither, run, and swoop their way through the mythic landscape in search of human flesh. Along with them are the fictional predators spawned by the mythic imagination—dragons, griffins, gorgons, furies, sirens, krakens, harpies, werewolves, vampires, ghouls, zombies, golems, and evil spirits, among others. The scarcely ennobling message of these myths is that humans are good to eat. This "unsavory" aspect of myth has been largely ignored by scholars—not even Joseph Campbell has anything to say about it. Yet the threat posed by dangerous animals may be the oldest and most pervasive of all mythic themes.

In Egyptian myth, the giant serpent Apep (or Apophis) attempts to devour the sun god each night, and the lion goddess Sekhmet gets drunk on human blood, as does the Indian goddess Kali, who dresses in a tiger's skin and flashes long fangs. In Aztec myth, a ravenous alligator goddess, Tlaltecuhtli, possesses not only a great fanged maw but also gnashing mouths at her elbows and knees. And throughout the night she screams for the hearts of humans. In Hawaiian myth, dragons, giant birds, and enormous sharks regularly feed on human flesh.

Some myths suggest that in the earliest times, predators were so numerous and powerful that they threatened the very existence of humankind. In Hittite myth, a great serpent must be killed for the earth to be fertile. In Vedic Indian myth, a dragon must be dismembered if the waters of life are to flow. In Norse myth, humans can appear only after the gods have killed a giant wolf (Fenrir), a huge serpent (Jormungand), and a monstrous hound (Garm). The world of myth constitutes a veritable menagerie of fierce and hungry predators.

The fear of being chased and killed by an animal predator is not confined to ancient myths or tribal stories. Folklore and fairy tales also are filled with predatory agents—wolves, bears, ogres, giants—that eat hapless humans. And ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, tens of thousands of novels, stories, and films have depicted predatory agents wreaking havoc on humans. This theme is treated almost obsessively in contemporary storytelling.

The film The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), based on a true story, is about two lions that killed over a hundred railroad workers in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. In Alligator (1980), a giant reptile lives and kills in the sewers and waterways of Chicago. In Anaconda (1997, with follow-ups in 2004, 2007, 2008), a giant snake eludes capture and swallows researchers in South America. In Attack of the Sabretooth (2005), a genetically engineered reincarnation of a Pleistocene cat called Smilodon eats its way through the celebrants at the grand opening of a wild animal park. In the Jaws franchise (1975, 1978, 1983, 1987), a series of great white sharks have their way with bathers and boaters. In horror and thriller stories, all kinds of creatures—animals and animal-human hybrids—rend and tear human flesh, often with impunity.

Nowhere do predators take a greater toll on human life—or assume a greater variety of lethal forms—than in science fiction. Even when dressed up as a space alien, the predator is often a direct descendent of the monsters found in classical mythology. The slavering reptilian monster in the Alien franchise (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997, 2004) resembles the monster Scylla in Homer's Odyssey. The alien invader in Predator (1987, 1990) is essentially a well-armed and highly intelligent dragon. The winged predator that dines on rooftop sunbathers in Q (aka The Winged Serpent, 1982), is explicitly said to be Quetzalcoatl, the serpent-eagle god worshipped by the Aztecs.

The agents of death in science fiction run the gamut from reincarnated dinosaurs (The Lost World, 1925, 1960, 1993; The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953; Jurassic Park, 1993, 1997, 2001; Godzilla, twenty-five movies between 1954 and 2004), tomutant worms or "earth dragons" (Tremors, 1990, 1996, 2001, 2004), to giant rabbits (Night of the Lepus, 1972), to super-sized insects (Them! 1954), to carnivorous crustaceans (Attack of the Crab Monsters, 1957), to devious viruses (The Andromeda Strain, 1971), and even to peregrinating rock formations (The Monolith Monsters, 1957). 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. The number of these stories grows every day, as does the number of people who have read or viewed one or more of them.

So, why are we so fascinated with such an unsettling theme? Why have we unleashed predators to ravage the mythic landscape? Why do we haunt ourselves with the specter of being torn apart by wild animals? Why do predators hunt and chase us in our dreams? Why do stories and myths provide such a congenial habitat for deadly powers?

The answers to these questions lie in the very distant past, at a time when the earliest members of our species could neither write nor even speak. Deadly Powers takes us back to this time to explain how our most ancient ancestors dealt with the threat posed by animal predators. Deadly Powers also takes us through the landscape of world myths to explain how our more recent ancestors mythologized animal predators in four basic ways to manage their primordial fear of becoming meat. At the end of this "safari," we will understand not only why our distant ancestors were compelled to tell stories about dangerous animals but also the role these animals played in the evolution of storytelling itself.


The safari begins in the Pleistocene (the period from around two million to ten thousand years ago), because during this span of time there were more carnivores—both in terms of raw numbers and species—than at any time before or since. We begin here also because during this period, the human line was evolving in response to the selection pressures imposed by this predator-rich environment. Our brain, our emotions, our behaviors, our culture were being shaped by the need of our Pleistocene ancestors to survive amid a "variety of terrifying mammalian carnivores."

Bear in mind that during most of these two million years, our ancestors did not have weapons other than sticks and stones (and an increasingly more crafty brain). Although we can't be sure about what early humans felt, it's reasonable to assume that they were racked by constant fear of being eaten alive by the carnivores that dominated the landscape. As sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich notes, "[T]he problem of predation by wild carnivores throws a new light on every aspect of human evolution, from group living to the relation between the sexes. No doubt many other aspects of human behavior and psychology will find, in time, at least speculative explanations in our prehistory as prey." This primordial and visceral fear played a crucial role in the emergence of primordial "storytelling" and still shapes the tribal myths and urban legends of modern times. Deadly Powers will attempt to explain in detail how and why the animal predators of the Pleistocene got inside our heads and our stories.


Deadly Powers, I believe, is the first book to argue that fear of predators played a significant role in the evolution of storytelling. Although mythologist and author Joseph Campbell also traced the origin of myth back into the Paleolithic era (the term used to refer to human aspects of the Pleistocene), he believed that myth evolved to deal with the guilt felt by early humans when killing prey animals. Hunting guilt is certainly expressed in many myths, but before humans experienced guilt, they must have felt fear, because before we were hunters, we were the hunted. For a good chunk of the Paleolithic, our ancestors were essentially weaponless and did not pose a threat either to large herbivores or to dangerous carnivores. Our early ancestors were prey, not predators.

Another reason scholars find it hard to detect the influence of Pleistocene predators on the emergence of storytelling is that the interpretation of myth has been dominated by a psychological framework. The animal predators mentioned in myth are viewed as symbols of psychological states, as, for instance, expressions of the Freudian id or the Jungian Shadow of the collective unconscious. From these psychological perspectives, the deadly powers found in myth after myth do not represent actual predators but the unseemly inclinations and desires in our old mammalian brain. It's as if the mammals, raptors, and reptiles found throughout mythology never existed anywhere but in the human imagination.

To be sure, predators had to occupy the interior terrain of the human mind if they were ever to find their way into myths created by that mind. But before these predatory animals inhabited that interior terrain, they lived, for millions of years, in the real world inhabited by primates of the human line. Animal predators existed in their own right, and their significance and meaning were not arbitrarily conferred by the developing human mind but reflected life-and-death realities our forebears could hardly afford to ignore or whimsically fancify. Nature writer David Quammen sums up this life-and-death reality quite well: "Every once in a while, a monstrous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or a river to kill someone and feed on the body. It was a familiar sort of disaster ... that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. And it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-consciousness was the awareness of being meat."

Storytelling is universal because it reflects an adaptation that helped our species survive. We became a storytelling animal to deal with our predicament as a prey species—to address our fear of being hunted, killed, and eaten by predators. Like Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, we told stories to stay alive. And, in a figurative sense, we still do. This means that there will be no end to stories in which ravenous beasts of one kind or another threaten to consume us, no end to the phantom of the predator haunting the human imagination. Deadly Powers gives animal predators their due as a force that affected the emergence of the storytelling imperative.

Let's begin, then, with a good close look at the actual predators that menaced our ancient ancestors, and that contributed—as strange as it may seem—to the emergence of storytelling and mythmaking.


Excerpted from Deadly Powers by Paul A. Trout Copyright © 2011 by Paul A. Trout. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich....................13
CHAPTER 1. PREDATORS AND MYTH....................21
CHAPTER 10. SCARING OURSELVES TO LIFE....................259

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