Why we invented monsters

How our primate ancestors shaped our obsession with terrifying creatures

Topics: Science, Environment, History, ,

This article was adapted from the new book "Deadly Powers," from Prometheus Books.

Monsters fill the mythic landscape. In Hawaiian myth, there is a human with a “shark-mouth” in the middle of his back. In Aboriginal myth, there is a creature with the body of a human, the head of a snake, and the suckers of an octopus. In South American myth, there is the were-jaguar; in Native American myth, there are flying heads, human-devouring eagles, predatory owl-men, water-cannibals, horned snakes, giant turtles, monster bats, and even a human-eating leech as large as a house. In Greek myth, one finds Polyphemus, the one-eyed cannibal giant; the Minotaur, a monstrous human-bull hybrid that consumes sacrificial victims in the “bowels” of the subterranean Labyrinth; and Scylla, the six-headed serpent who wears a belt of dogs’ heads ravenously braying for meat.

Regardless of their different sizes, features, and forms, monsters have one trait in common — they eat humans. Whatever else they may do for us psychologically, monsters express — and ex-press — our dread of being torn apart, eviscerated, chewed, swallowed, and then shit out. This shameful fate of those who are eaten is confronted in an African myth in which a giant predatory bird swallows the hero whole day after day and then excretes him. Myth after myth confronts the stark facts of being consumed by a larger creature, obsessively depicting in graphic detail what both monsters and animal predators naturally do — turn humans into excrement.

Every day over the course of several million years, our ancestors saw (and heard) living creatures being torn apart and devoured by hungry animals — with some victims still kicking as they were eviscerated and dismembered. No wonder our brains are wired to make us dread this awful fate, and that the stories we tell ourselves reflect this dread and attempt to express it — press it out.

The archetype of the monster is an expression of this primal fear writ large, exaggerated and intensified to an outlandish degree. But why does this primal fear take the form of a “monster,” that is, a predatory creature that grotesquely mixes animal or human-and-animal physical features? In what way did our experiences as a prey species contribute to the formation of the mythic monster ?



Let’s begin by looking at the most widespread and celebrated of all mythic monsters — the dragon. This creature, in one guise or another, appears in almost every mythology and has been the subject of many books and countless articles. Perhaps the most intriguing of these examinations is “An Instinct for Dragons” by anthropologist David E. Jones. Jones argues that the image of the dragon is composed of the salient body parts of three predator species that hunted and killed our tree-dwelling African primate ancestors for about sixty million years. The three predators are the leopard, the python, and the eagle.

According to Jones (what follows is a condensed summary of a complex argument), ancient primates evolved alarm calls to identify each of the three predators, with each call triggering the defensive response appropriate to the nature of the attack mode of the specific predator. Jones calls this predator-recognition template the “snake/raptor/cat complex.” This complex is the source of what Jones refers to as the “ brain dragon.” The brain dragon emerged when our apelike ancestors left the trees to walk on the ground. rather suddenly, the relatively small brain of Australopithecus had to process a lot of information about many new forms of predators and develop new alarms calls and strategic responses to them. Faced with information overload, the brain of Australopithecus resorted to lumping information into manageable and memorable chunks. As a result, the cat, the snake, and the raptor were merged into a hybrid creature that had the salient predatory features of each: the face of a feline, the body of a snake, and the talons of a raptor. This is the hybrid “monster” that came to be known as the “dragon.”

Because the image combined features from three dominant predators, it could quickly send the neural message very dangerous animal. Indeed, the derivation of the word monster seems to acknowledge this ancient function. Monster comes from the Latin word monstrare, “to show,” and monere, “to warn.” Monsters are warning signs, reminding us of the many threatening creatures lurking in the environment eager to gobble us up.

Jones argues that the image of the dragon—the salient elements of which were already hardwired into the primate brain—became a “pattern” or “template” that could be passed on genetically as well as culturally. He spends a considerable amount of space demonstrating how this process could have worked, but the upshot is that the “ brain-dragon” was stored in the human mind for hundreds of thousands of years, where it lay dormant or lurked in the dreams of ancient humans, to be released during times of great communal anxiety. It was only with the development of language and art, Jones argues, that the image of the dragon could be given full expression and a greater semblance of reality. It could be said, then, that the dragon — like other monsters and mythic figures — is a product of the cognitive fluidity that underlies the mythic imagination. The archetype of the dragon gave form to the fears engendered by humanity’s developing ability to imagine all kinds of new dangers and threats.

Jones’s notion that the dragon is composed of tissue samples taken from real predators could account, as well, for the origin of other mythic monsters. The shape of the snake, for example, could furnish not only the body of the mythic dragon but the neck of the hydra; the beak of the raptor could replace the face of the big cat and also be combined with its paws. For example, the griffin has the body parts of a lion but the face and wings of an eagle. And so on. Whatever the particular form the monster may have taken within a specific geographical area, its essential features would clearly have identified it as a very dangerous creature even to those unfamiliar with local fauna. Monsters were used as a means of imbuing sacred or dangerous geographical areas with taboo and explaining the source and cause of lethal natural disasters, such as typhoons, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and so on. But the basic function of the monster was to give fear a face, to graphically capture the dread that is bred into us by millions of years as a prey species that was stalked and sometimes eaten by huge and terrifying carnivores.

The “monsters” of the mythic imagination also inherited some of their DNA from the very real “monsters” created by Mother Nature herself. In ancient Australia (and perhaps in other areas of the Southeast), there was a flesh- eating lizard measuring up to thirty feet long and weighing two thousand pounds, almost “ten times the weight of its closest relative the ‘ora’ or Komodo dragon.” There were birds too huge to fly, four-legged animals that could walk at times on two legs, and carnivores that possessed both female and male genitals (as does the female hyena). In the nineteenth century, monster-lore scholar Charles Gould suggested that some monsters may reflect cultural memories of “a few cretaceous and early tertiary forms” that were thought to have gone extinct but that “struggled on” in isolated and remote areas of the world. This same claim is made today by some cryptozoologists.

Another fertile source of mythic monsters is the bone yard. It’s long been noted that the fossilized skeletons of long-extinct creatures from the age of dinosaurs contributed to the creation of mythic monsters. It was as far back as 1831 that Gould suggested that belief in monsters arose from the frequent discoveries of the remains of “monstrous amphibians.” Gould also pointed out that when the Chinese came across the skeletons of long-extinct dinosaurs, they referred to them as “dragon bones.” In the Carpathians, the bones of extinct cave bears also have been interpreted as the remains of dragons. The reptilian or serpentine characteristics given to many mythic monsters may reflect the fact that fossilized skeletons, often reduced to an undulating backbone and neck, look like a snake. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a decomposed human backbone transforms into a snake, a literal and figurative example of the mythologizing process I’m describing.

No one has done more to illuminate the relationship between fossils and mythmaking than Adrienne Mayor, who has documented hundreds of instances during the last two thousand five hundred years when fossil bones provided the scaffolding for elaborate mythmaking, as frightened people sought to give meaning to the startling animal remains they happened across. To cite just one example, the Thunder Bird of Native American mythology may have something to do with discoveries of Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons. “Someone who discovered a tyrannosaurid forelimb with its peculiar pair of claws, and perhaps with the elongated, birdlike shoulderblade, might well have identified the fossil as part of the skeleton of some mysterious bird.”

The mythologizing process probably did not start with the Greeks and Romans or even with the appearance of the modern brain. Homo erectus also must have tried to explain the frightful skulls and bones it came across. These remains must have been particularly terrifying since early humans could not have known that the remains belonged to carnivorous “monsters” long extinct. In fact, the hyper predator detection system of early humans would have prompted them to interpret the bones as the remains of creatures still alive and possibly lurking somewhere in the environment. The tens of millions of bones that accumulated ever since the first skeletal creatures swam in the sea provided our forebears with constant provocations to imagine the existence of monstrous predators.

Monsters were also created by dreams and reveries. According to medical anthropologist Alondra Oubre, “proto-humans” of the Early Pleistocene first discovered the emotional and psychological rewards of altering the normal chemistry of the brain. These altered states of consciousness enabled our ancestors to “unlock the doors” to the unconscious and to access its “unlimited reservoir of fantasia, hypnagogic imagery, day-dreaming, and creative ideation.” These counter-factual and counter-intuitive images and symbols were fabricated, necessarily, from the bits and pieces of daily life. The memories of these experiences were not stored as accurate snapshots but as somewhat distorted versions of that experience, reshaped, exaggerated, or diminished according to their emotional content. Oubre suggests that early humans engaged in these practices to escape their “anguishing existence in a prey-versus-predator world.” Admittedly, it would have been suicidal to “escape” from this world for too long or too often—to lose touch with the real threats that provoked the anxieties in the first place. But periodic escape, during rituals, would have been therapeutic, helping assuage fear and increase confidence.

These fear-management strategies, however, had ironic consequences. Among the salient experiences our ancient ancestors remembered and stored in their unconscious must have been life-threatening encounters with predators. Which means that during altered states, images of predators would have undergone further shaping, twisting, recombination, or hybridization. The upshot is that proto-humans were able to conjure up hybrid images of animals well before cognitive fluidity and mythmaking emerged during the Middle Paleolithic.

Although proto-humans could not spin yarns about monsters, they may have been able to imagine them, and thus unintentionally add to their fears through the same processes they were using to escape their fears. Obviously we cannot know what proto-humans envisioned during consciousness-altering rituals, but we do know that during such states, humans with modern brains envision monsters. In several Native American cultures, visions often entail an encounter with powerful animal spirits.

Mythic monsters are often explained — or explained away — as symbols of the “monster within,” an embodiment or projection of the greedy, aggressive impulses at the core of what Jung called the Shadow aspects of the “self and the psyche that are disowned and repressed because they are considered to be bad and evil.” That Shadow wants to feel “the thrill of fangs and claws, the thrill of copulation without commitment, the dog within going wild after a lifetime on the leash.” Monsters allow us to express and confront our dark unconscious, enabling it to materialize — and by so doing , exorcize — hidden and repressed desires and fears.

It can hardly be doubted that monsters “materialize real desires and fears,” but what desires and fears ? How did the monster get inside us in the first place ?

One answer is to say that the “monster” was always in us, as part of our primate inheritance — the “killer ape” view. Faced with so many environmental threats, early humans had to band together in collective group defense rather than kill and eat each other, a task already performed so well by predators. No doubt within the group there was jostling for status and goods, but intra-group and inter-group homicide was probably very rare, or we would not be here to speculate about it. It took a very long time for humans to be transformed — indeed to transform themselves — into the alpha predator of the planet. We were not born “monsters,” we became “monsters.”

This transformation was accomplished, I suggest, through mimesis. We became efficient killers by watching and imitating efficient killers — which is to say that we “performed the predator” in more ways than one. Our ancestors studied predators, learned how to “read their minds” in order to predict their behavior, imitated their hunting behaviors and tactics in ritual and in the hunt, and eventually used the teeth and bones of predators to make weapons. Those who could most successfully imitate the hunting behaviors of predators had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genetic material than those who couldn’t. Over a considerable period of time, mimesis managed to transform the Homo line into a species able — and sometimes eager — to kill vast numbers of its own kind with such up-close-and-personal weapons as bare hands, stones, knives, scythes, machetes, and garden hoes.

But once again, an irony lurks in this dynamic. It was by imitating and gradually internalizing the tactics and behaviors of predators that we managed to survive the Pleistocene. Given this reality, it would be (and it would have been) suicidal for us to “express” all of the monster within, to rid ourselves of the atavistic, primal, bestial power we’ve inherited or borrowed from predators. At times, to survive, we need to conjure up the monster to combat the monster (as “Alien,” “The Edge,” “Beowulf,” “Predator,” “While She Was Out,” and so many other survival films dramatize). So it is too simple, and wrong, to dismiss the monster as merely a negative projection of the “bad” or “evil” self, as is so often done. We want and need to feel there’s a monster within us so we can summon its power when necessary. Millions of years as a prey species have taught us that, at times, we must drink the dragon’s blood to survive.

From “Deadly Powers: Animal Powers and the Mythic Imagination” (Prometheus Books, 2011). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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.

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