“The Beast Within” in Western Tradition

“The Beast Within” in Western Tradition

A very bright young student with an interest in mythology and a great writing gift asked me for my take on this theme. I jotted down the following and offer it as a few brief marginal notes on this fascinating subject.

The first source is the Sumerian-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (roughly 2006-1800 BC), a text contemporary with the last stages of Stonehenge.

In this story there are two heroes, Gilgamesh, the half-divine but dissipated ruler of Uruk, and Enkidu, his wild double, type source of the medieval “wild man” who lives with the animals on the edge of civilization. When Enkidu succumbs to the wiles and charms of a “temple priestess” he is brought into the city and becomes the “sidekick” of Gilgamesh. They form the first known pair of hero and sidekick, setting the pattern for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Batman and Robin, etc.

When—after a series of events—Enkidu perishes, Gilgamesh seeks his other half, his lost “natural self” in a quest that takes him to the paradisal world of Dilmun, where he meets Utnapishtim, the “Babylonian Noah” who has survived the destruction of the world by the gods.

The first source of the wild man idea therefore is the sense of life outside of civilization, the unity of humans with animals, the dangerous power of instinct that is incompatible with the higher civilized life. (Was Gilgamesh destined to explore this because of his own wayward instincts?)

The Odyssey (around 800-600 B.C.) carries on this idea. The Cyclops and other creatures outside of the oikos, or home estate, creatures on the fringe of the civilized world represent dangerous challenges, all the more so because they are affiliated with aspects of the human. This kind of cannibal ogre follows from Humbaba, the wild dragon of the deep forest that Gilgamesh and Enkidu challenged. Odysseus himself has been thought to be “Bearson”—related to the half-bear hero of a famous European folktale, elements of which certain analysts (Rhys Carpenter, e.g.) see in The Odyssey.

The sources of human-animal connection, however, predate civilized written narrative. There are the totemic animals, which played a huge role in tribal social structure, spirituality and healing.

There is the shamanic tradition, in which the shaman had a special relation to animals (animals found when he made his journey to the other world) one he could use this for healing purposes.

The Greeks had a fluid sense of reality. As their myths show, human, animals and gods existed in a kind of continuum, in which through certain actions one could be pushed from one state to another. This sense of transformation underlies many later notions of the wideness, depth, and receptivity of the human psyche, a complexity which cannot be easily fathomed or encompassed by rational structuring.

In the famous Roman picaresque novel The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius (born 125 C.E.) , the hero is metamorphosed into a jackass, as punishment for his curiosity and lust. The beast within is embodied concretely in the transformation of his outward shape, and he is cured only by the rose of love and the goddess Isis.

Beast-animal connections abound in fairy tales; there are folktale types of “the beast marriage” where a young woman is betrothed to a monster (I wonder where they got this idea?!!!) and the “monster in the bridal chamber” an analogous folktale type. Cf. “Beauty and the Beast” and the fairy tale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” etc.

Even the Greek learned tradition (perhaps influenced by esoteric notions from the Near East), produced the idea of the indwelling presence that could exercise power over the individual. This is the “daimon,” a role Athena plays for Odysseus in his journey back to Ithaka. But the Greek daimon usually referred to a spirit within—godlike or demon-like. See Rollo May’s book, Love and Will. Plato’s tutelary daimon, however, was purged of the dark side, which later emerges in the Christian idea of the “demon” that can tempt humanity. In the Bible stories the demons Christ faces are sometimes associated with animals—e.g. swine.—this of course underlies and supports the Christian notion of daimons (demons) as bad spirits that can enter into and control human beings.

And of course this notion percolates through popular religion and culture all the way up to The Exorcist.

The relationship of human and beast was also elaborated in the in the animal stories recounted in the bestiaries, beginning in the ancient world and continuing elaborately in the Middle Ages. While partially serving the function of primitive natural histories, the bestiaries also encouraged the notion of beast-human linking. See Animals with Human Faces, by Beryl Rowland, and The Zoo of the Gods by Anthony Mercantante.

Many of the assumptions about beast-human interaction depended on fable, half-truth, and downright ignorance. With the Renaissance and the wider exploration of the planet many of the older stories were relegated to the realm of fantasy.

Natural history study grew, until by the 18th century, there was vast fund of knowledge about animal life and a lessening of interest in animal-human interaction.

This is explained by the carry-over from the Middle Ages of the notion of the Great Chain of Being, an offshoot of Christian creation doctrine, which posited a universe organized in strict hierarchies, with God at the apex and human beings (created by God) safely ensconced in their own niche, superior to the animals and plants around them. In the first creation story (about 900 BCE) God give man “dominion” over the earth.

Even the Romantic poets (first half of the 19th century) inherited this kind of thinking, although they were making it more dynamic and emphasizing the creative power of the psyche. Their interest in natural history was extremely narrow. The famous poems of the Romantics–however much they talk about nightingales, and such– include very little accurate natural observation (although John Clare, a lesser British poet, showed more, as did Thoreau).

By mid-century the Darwinian crisis was setting in. The theory of evolution totally changed the perspective on animals and humans. Humans and animals were now brought very close together again, although in a new way—not so much as linked psychically, or hierarchically, but as fellow-travelers in the evolving planetary ecosystem. Later, a new and much deeper knowledge and respect for animal life derived from this first stride toward ecology, but the nineteenth century writers took a different tack. With the Naturalist movement “the beast within” became a major focus. Writers like Zola and Jack London imported the evolutionary struggle into social life, or probed the residues of “the beast” in human nature. Characters in their fiction were often victimized by what were portrayed as “apelike” or “wolf-like” predatory instincts; earlier human races were necessarily more primitive—see Jack London’s Before Adam, or H.G. Wells’s “The Grisly Folk” (which turns Neanderthals into bogey-men monsters). Jack London’s great story The Call of the Wild plays on the idea of “reversion” in picturing the civilized dog Buck becoming a wolf under new environmental conditions. On this phase see my chapter on Darwinism in Literature in Natural Space in Literature.

But the Romantic turn inward didn’t perish, despite the new obsession with natural history, animal life, race, heredity, and struggle. The Symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century created a new inward focus. Once again animals became symbolic creatures depicting human states of being, or forces of nature malignant to humans, as obviously in that (perhaps over-familiar) poem “The Raven” by E.A. Poe –the grandfather of the Symbolist movement. Not to mention “Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde” by R.L Stevenson in which a scientist can’t escape his inner beast (although the beast is not any particular animal). Visual art also reflected this new emphasis.

At the same time psychological theory– psychoanalysis with Freud and its extension into mythical realms by Jung—were making the notion of the “inner beast” much more part of western thinking. Freud’s “id” and Jung’s “collective unconscious” suggested a more subtle way in which “the bestial” and the “instinctive” could figure in the human psyche. Jung’s focus on imagery in particular was very congenial to the poetic and story-telling mind and provided a new medium for the story-tellers to play out notions of “the beast within.” A friend of Jung’s, Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Prize novelist, wrote the famous Steppenwolf, in which beast imagery is the centre of a virtuosic narrative that contrasts the rebellious but creative outsider, (represented by the wolf of the steppes) with the civilization of urban bourgeois comfort. The movie King Kong (1939) is not only a retelling of “beauty and the beast” but a commentary of civilization and mechanism, nature and the modern city. Literature embodying animal imagery varies widely. Ted Hughes, the British poet in his famous book Crow, uses the bird species to expatiate on basic human situations. Mikhail Bulgakov, the great Russian writer uses a “human” dog as narrator to satirize the Russian Revolution, Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian, writes in his short prose-poem “Ragnarok,” a terrifying parable of bestiality and the godlike. Olaf Stapledon uses the super-intelligent dog Sirius to expose the limits of modern rationalism. Marian Engel, the Canadian novelist, writes an erotic novel about a woman and a bear, which owes much to this whole tradition. Meanwhile, in popular culture and movies, the beast in the human flourishes. One of my favourite all-time movies is Cat People (1944, Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur) in which a woman is caught up by her primitive “cat” instincts. This narrative becomes a complex commentary on modern American culture, sexuality, and alienation. And think of all those– much more exploitative—recent SF and horror movies (two of the best are The Thing from Another World (1951) and the more recent Alien) that use human-beast connection to portray modern anxieties about science and what it may tell us about a hostile universe.

In summary: the interaction of the human and the beast worlds has been the subject of stories since the earliest times, and these have often taken the form of depicting human life in terms of some (often fanciful) notion of animal behaviour. This has served many purposes, sometimes to embody specific human passions, often uncontrolled or evil passions; sometimes to suggest a way of escaping human limitations, especially the seeming narrowness of city life, morality, or purely intellectual discernment; or the text depicts a breaking free from some perceived set of social or political limitations that the writer wishes to expose and change. (Animal Farm).

Such stories are necessarily in tune with the intellectual Zeitgeist and social dynamic of the time, and reflect perceptions of human-animal interaction that relate to current natural history or theory of nature. Thus the “inner beast” requires notions of inner consciousness, the unconscious, or an active inner life, not fully susceptible to the control of the conscious mind. All of which, although multiply-challenged today by new scientific theories, are still active in story-telling, popular culture, and other areas where the human imagination has relatively free play.

And whatever the stringencies of contemporary thought and its tendency to ground human impulse in genetic and body mechanisms, no doubt some of the older ideas and imagery of “the beast” will survive, or be re-fashioned in new and potent ways by future generations of story tellers.

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One Response to “The Beast Within” in Western Tradition

  1. Pingback: Beasts of the Global North and South | whydev.org

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