In Archaic and Classical Greek religion, snakes are associated with the dead and the dark, atavistic powers of the earth. The so-called chthonic (related to the earth) deities are often presented in contrast and even conflict with the Olympian gods, the justice, order, and patriarchy of the latter set in relief by contrast with the wild, unrestrained, and feminine character of the former (star witness: Aeschylus’ Oresteia). Religious symbolism is always underdetermined by the nature of the symbols, but this bit of symbolism has always seemed, at least broadly, quite natural to me. The association of snakes with the earth is quite natural, and the association of the earth with the dead is quite natural in a culture that buries its dead. So by symbolic transitivity, the association of snakes with the dead seems almost as natural. So too, though in a more indirect way, does the association of snakes with the feminine, since the link between the earth and women is common in many religions and hardly peculiar to the Greeks (the association of women with wild, unrestrained, irrational forces seems much less natural, but thoroughly Greek). Most of all, the association of snakes with things that we are supposed to find scary and dangerous makes perfect sense to me, because I am absolutely and unrestrainedly terrified of snakes. Among my reasons for finding ancient psychological theories that distinguish a rational and a non-rational part of the soul so plausible is that when I encounter snakes, the rational part of my soul seems to depart from my body altogether.
Apparently, however, in the Minoan culture that preceded the Greek culture familiar to us from Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, and pals, snakes had a wholly different religious role. The Minoans were not Greek speakers, and therefore not Greeks either. Nobody knows for sure what their language was, or even what kind of language it was, because while they had a system of writing, nobody has been able to decipher it. But their culture influenced the Greek speakers who conquered them sometime in the middle of the second millennium BCE, and one of the puzzles for historians of early Greek religion has been to determine to what extent the religion of the Archaic and Classical periods of Greek culture was shaped by what the ancestors of that culture found when they gained control of Greece so many centuries before. Since there is no decipherable written evidence, interpretation is often highly speculative. It has long been held, though, that in Minoan religion snakes were seen primarily as guardians of the house. They may even have had various devices designed to feed snakes in order to keep them around the house. Whether these were especially dangerous snakes is unclear. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the Minoans associated snakes with death or with the chaotic, irrational forces of the earth — no doubt in part because, not being Indo-Europeans, their religion did not center around sky gods understood by contrast to the powers of the earth.
When I ask myself why anyone would see snakes as guardians of the house, the first thought that comes to mind is that snakes might be good for keeping the house clear of vermin. If, as many have speculated, Minoan religion was quite generally centered on the earth as the source of fertility and life, then the obvious associations between snakes and the earth could help make even better sense of it. The great historian of Greek religion Walter Burkert, however, in his discussion of Minoan religion, offers a more psychological conjecture:
There is in man a universal, perhaps inborn dread of snakes; if this fear is overcome and the uncanny force is appeased and consciously drawn into life, then life receives a more profound dimension. (Greek Religion (Blackwell 1985, trans. John Raffan), p. 30).
Ok, so it’s not that snakes aren’t inherently terrifying. It’s that transcending that fear and transforming the snake into something positive lends a kind of life-affirming profundity to our experience. I have no particular scholarly opinion about this idea; it seems to me about as plausible as any psychological theory of pre-historic religion. I just know that whatever that supposed profundity is, it’s not something I’m willing to explore. No way.
I have made some considerable progress over the course of my life in moderating my ophidiophobia (which at one time was probably a more general herpetophobia). Even into my early 20’s I couldn’t look at pictures of snakes. I vividly recall sitting in the bathroom one afternoon flipping through a National Geographic only to turn unexpectedly to a page featuring what was no doubt a very fine high resolution photograph of a snake, though I could not appreciate the details as I instinctively leapt up, let out some kind of shameful inarticulate vocal sound, and hurled the magazine across the room. I’ve long since been able to look at pictures of them, to watch videos of them, and even to walk by snakes in pet stores without completely losing my composure (though that does require averting my eyes much of the time). I even managed once many years ago to sit for a whole half an hour or so next to a co-worker who had a boa constrictor in his lap (it was that kind of office) without giving in to my urge either to run as far away as possible or to stab my co-worker with a fork (who, after all, would have then controlled the snake?). But while I admit that I would perhaps be a more virtuous human being were I to overcome my thoroughly irrational fear of snakes, I think my time is better spent trying to cultivate other virtues. Certainly I am not inspired to subject myself to their presence in order to experience some kind of profundity.
Burkert is not the only person who thinks that an instinctive terror at snakes is part of our inherited biological make-up. I used to try to rationalize my fear of snakes by appeal to such a notion. But it’s always been apparent that not everyone is afraid of snakes, and that even those who are aren’t typically so pathetically horrified of them as I am. I’ll probably never know how I got this way, but one theory that my sister has floated is that it stems from watching Raiders of the Lost Ark at an impressionable young age (watching Raiders is indeed among my earliest memories, right up there with the time my brother cracked my head open on a wood-burning stove and the time I vomited chocolate milk profusely in my mother’s car — Raiders is the pleasant childhood memory!). I’m not sure if a movie can have that kind of impact, but maybe it can. Plato would certainly have thought so.
One of the lessons of my fear of snakes, though, is that it nicely illustrates the almost irresistibly obvious truth of one part of Haidt’s psychological theory. Whether my fear of snakes is some kind of ancient instinct or a culturally inculcated pathology, what happens to me when I encounter a snake is well explained by — is perhaps even evidence for — the dual-process model that distinguishes a fast, intuitive, affective, and largely unconscious kind of cognitive response to the world from a slow, reflective, rational, and mostly conscious kind of cognitive activity. But it also shows — whether it is a problem for Haidt or not — that the latter is not merely the slave of the former. I have long since given up any inclinations to rationalize my fear. Yes, some snakes are genuinely dangerous, but my fear is not remotely sensitive to the difference between a boa constrictor or a python and a garter snake (or, in the past, the difference between a snake and a representation of a snake!). I understand perfectly well that most of the snakes I encounter will not hurt me. I’ve even been able to apply that knowledge to change the intuitive affective responses that I have (no more hurling of innocent National Geographic magazines). Were I less of a coward, or perhaps more interested in the profound dimension that Burkert describes, I could probably manage, through some very uncomfortable challenges, to transform that intuitive response even further. Could I ever sit comfortably with a boa constrictor on my lap, taking joy in the way my old co-worker did in the snake gathering heat from my body? Maybe not. But even if, whether through moral laziness or genuine psychological impossibility, I could never become thoroughly comfortable with snakes, my abnormal and pathological fear of them has no real impact on what I think about them. Reason is not entirely passion’s slave, even when it comes to this most despotic of passions.
Is this a problem for Haidt’s theory? I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter. Even granting that Haidt is right that the evolutionary function of reason qua slow, reflective, rational, conscious critical thought is to justify the deliverances of our fast, unconscious, affective intuitions, the plain empirical evidence is that it need not function solely in that way. Perhaps we are incapable of the rule of reason that Plato envisioned (I probably am). Perhaps rationalists of various stripes in various disciplines have overstated the impact of reason in our psychic economy. But for all that Haidt and other proponents of the dual-process model show, reason is nonetheless capable of an important degree of autonomy and influence over our lives.
I’m not really making any points here that I haven’t already made in comments to Michael’s or Other David’s posts on Haidt. Really I just wanted an excuse to talk about the snakes. I’m an opportunistic blogger, I suppose. But now that I think of it — where is Michael’s post on the next chapters of Haidt???
I suppose that in a roundabout way I’ve just recapitulated the Archaic and Classical Greek association of snakes with unreason. So be it. Ultimately, my feelings — though not my thoughts — about snakes are still best expressed by my earliest fictional role model: