Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.05

Paul A. Trout, Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination.   Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, 2011.  Pp. 325.  ISBN 9781616145019.  $26.00.  



Reviewed by Reyes Bertolín Cebrián, University of Calgary (rbertoli@ucalgary.ca)

Trout’s book presents an interesting hypothesis about the origins of myth and storytelling. The author conceives the development of storytelling in the very ancient past as a mechanism of early human beings to cope with the fear of predators. The purpose of the book is to “explain in detail how and why the animal predators of the Pleistocene got inside our heads and our stories” (25). Trout reminds his readers right at the beginning that, before human beings became the most efficient predators on the planet, they were the prey for about two million years, and until only about ten thousand years ago. For most of this time, humans had only stones and sticks to ward off predators.

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first introductory chapter, in which the purpose and method of the book are explained, is very short. Trout sets out to clarify why we are still so fascinated with stories about predators, real or fictitious. His purpose is also to discover the role that predators played in the evolution of storytelling itself.

The second chapter, "Bringers of Death", presents a survey of the predators which our ancestors encountered. Besides those still living and devouring humans in our own times, such as tigers, lions, wolves, bears, crocodiles, sharks, and snakes, the Pleistocene had a variety of fierce and dangerous animals to fear. Not only were those animals much larger than the current ones, but human beings were also not yet confident hunters, although not completely defenseless.

Chapter three, "Be Afraid, Be very Afraid", deals with the triggers of fear and the survival behaviours prompted by them. According to Trout, triggers of fear were and still are the face of predators, specifically the staring eyes, the mouth, the teeth, and the tongue. Other triggers are the sight of blood and bones of previously devoured victims as well as sound, darkness, and the night. To control these fears there are four basic types of reaction. The first one is freezing, since some predators have difficulties picking out a stationary object (95). The second reaction is fleeing, for which it is vital to know when, where and how fast. According to the author, such knowledge would have been transmitted first through performances and later through myth and stories. The third reaction is fighting. Fear, whether motivated by real or imagined dangers, induces adrenaline and hormones that reduce pain, giving human beings a sense of potency and what has been called the euphoria of danger. According to Trout, the desire to experience these euphoric emotions would have encouraged storytelling. This is a central claim in Trout’s book. The fourth reaction is appeasement. In order to appease a predator one has to give it what it wants, and the author argues that this could perhaps be the origin of blood sacrifice.

The next chapter, "Performing the Predator", deals with mimetic storytelling and its functions of transmission of information about how to act towards a predator. The author sets the inception of mimetic storytelling before the evolution of modern language. Even with limited language use our ancestors would have been able to communicate information about predators. However, it is perhaps not as easy to place mimesis before complex language as Trout assumes, since there seems to be evidence that much of the complexity of language is innate. The evolution of language in relation to the evolution of other cultural traditions is a hotly debated topic among linguists and anthropologists, with no general consensus. This is perhaps the most problematic point in all of Trout’s arguments. If a human being a million years ago was able to recreate the past in order to advise for the future, can we really talk about limited use of language? I agree with Trout in emphasizing the important role of mimetic performance as concomitant to myth, but to date mimesis in relation to the evolution of language remains problematic.

In chapter five, "The Emergence of the Mythmaking Mind", the author proposes three necessary conditions for myth to develop: anthropomorphism, animism and metamorphism. These developments are linked to the development of complex language (one based on syntax and lexicon) about 200,000 years ago. Trout also speaks about the tragedy of imagination – the fact that human beings are able to imagine creatures more dangerous than actually existed. For instance, the dragon is a composite creature of predators like birds, snakes and leopards. An imagination that is not under control triggers fears very difficult to dominate. Myth making would be a way to control the power of imagination by establishing a more authoritative vision of reality and reinforcing that even imagined creatures can be defeated. At the end of this chapter and almost as an afterthought, Trout also discusses the possible role of women as storytellers, since they have an important role of the socialization of the young.

Chapter six, "In the Belly of the Beast", talks about the predator as mythical monster and the need of humans to battle it. The battle was done by the hero, but also the trickster, who would battle the monster not by force but through ruses.

Chapter seven, "Fear and Trembling in the Pleistocene", discusses the role of the predator as god. Moved by the fear they inspired, humans mythologized predators as gods and demons. Myths of different cultures describe sacrifices to the predator gods, and Trout thus hypothesizes that perhaps blood sacrifices originated as a result of needing to appease the predator god.

Another way in which human beings imagine predators is as benefactors and friends. This view is discussed in chapter eight, "Kindly Killers". By attributing human characteristics to predators, early humans saw themselves in a kinship relationship with them. They assumed that predators had to be under the same set of rules and projected their own expectations and emotions upon them. Imagining the predator as kin gave rise to totemism, a phenomenon by which all members of the tribe see themselves as biologically related to all animals in the totem. This would imply that they were not to shed each other’s blood, creating in human beings’ minds the false impression that predators are the protectors of their kin. Predators can not only be seen as protectors but also as avengers, punishing those who break the social rules.

Chapter nine, "The Model of Menace", discusses how human beings strove from time to time to become predators in order to possess their deadly powers. In this chapter, Trout discusses hunting as mimetic performance and ritual cannibalism. This perception of the predator as model for humans to imitate ultimately facilitated the transformation of humans from prey to predator.

The last chapter, "Scaring Ourselves to Life", summarizes the hypothesis that mythmaking and story telling developed in order to help humans survive the threat posed by predators. Human beings still create all kind of stories involving predators so that they can feel empowered by the survival ecstasy. Trout attempts to reduce the origin of myth to one single source, fear of predators. He specifically mentions the fear of being devoured, the mechanisms for coping with the fear, and the joy of survival as reasons for the creation of myths and stories.

The universality of myths about predators stems, according to the author, from an universal experience of fear. Trout explains the reaction to predators in biological terms and therefore assumes a similar response to it in all humans and similar coping mechanisms across cultures. One can and should perhaps not reduce the origins of myth and story telling to one source only, but the book goes a long way to make us aware that fear of predators is certainly something to keep in mind when investigating the origins of myth. Since Meuli, classical tradition has tended to attribute the development of story telling to the guilt for killing the animal. Trout inverts the starting point by presenting humans as prey and not predators. His is a welcome hypothesis to explain the origins of the many cross-cultural myths which involve predators. That this might be a hypothesis that can be applied to the origins of myth in general, is perhaps a significant stretch.

The book makes for an easy and interesting read. It is perhaps directed to the general, well-educated reader more than to the (classical) scholar, but nevertheless can be useful for those of us teaching myth courses. The book has some vivid illustrations that bring alive the fear of predators. Myths from around the world constitute the basis of Trout’s hypotheses. It would have been good perhaps to retell the stories in more detail instead of just giving a quick overview of the myths, since the reader cannot be acquainted with all of them. Sometimes the arguments are expressed in a somewhat repetitive way, as if the author were trying to push his point too much.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1. Predators and Myth – p. 21
Chapter 2. Bringers of Death: Predators of the Pleistocene and Beyond – p. 27
Part 1. On Deadly Ground: Predators that Inhabited the Land – p. 31
Part 2. Up from the Depths: Predators of the Water- p. 46
Part 3. Aerial Terror: Predators of the Sky – p.55
Chapter 3. Be Afraid, Be very Afraid: Fear and Survival in the Pleistocene – p. 63
Part 1. Triggers of Fear – p. 67
Part 2. Survival Strategies and Defensive Behaviors- p. 94
Chapter 4. Performing the Predator: Mimetic storytelling in the Paleolithic – p. 107
Chapter 5. The Emergence of the Mythmaking Mind – p. 129
Chapter 6. In the Belly of the Beast: the Predator as Mythic Monster – p. 157
Chapter 7. Fear and Trembling in the Pleistocene: the Predator as a God- p. 191
Chapter 8. Kindly Killers: the Predator as Kin, Friend, Protector, and Benefactor – p. 219
Chapter 9. Model of Menace: the Predator as Exemplar and Object of Envy – p. 237
Chapter 10. Scaring ourselves to Live – p. 259
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