Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

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:

4 thoughts on “Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

  1. Agreed on the dual-process consensus that broadly “demotes” reason (agent-controlled reasoning processes and attempts to live up to appropriate standards of good reasoning) and broadly “promotes” emotion and automatic cognitive processes. Fully consistent with it being good, and possible, for agential rational response (reasoning) to control the relevant sorts of important emotional, attitude, and behavioral responses. Next installment on Haidt coming later today. Hard to integrate vacation and blogging…

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    • Hard to integrate vacation and blogging? Well, maybe if I were writing careful, responsible blog posts like yours I’d sympathize. Instead, I write blog posts when I’m trying desperately to procrastinate from doing work, so it’s like a miniature vacation in itself.

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  2. Haidt would have no problem with anything you say here, I don’t think. Nor is there any reason he should.

    One minor point, though: to speak of “the evolutionary function of reason” is to simplify in a way that can lead to misunderstanding. “Slow, reflective, rational, conscious, critical thought” is a broad category, not to speak of just any controlled (as opposed to automatic) processing. There is hardly going to be just one evolutionary function of these things. There will be many, and their balance a matter of more-or-less, not all-or-none. Haidt’s claim concerns the relative importance of self-justification in the evolutionary shaping of our discursive reasoning processes.

    Haidt’s point here is to emphasize how few, of the matters that concern and confront us, we manage to reason through thoroughly and achieve real objectivity about, and how difficult we find it to do these things. One of the main questions that interests me in this book is, if Haidt is right about this, what does that imply about how we ought to pursue and organize our personal lives and social institutions?

    Sorry to have been incommunicado for a week. I’ve been buried in a reading project, and I’m now heading into a four day weekend with house guests. I’ll comment on Michael’s post on chs. 5&6 as soon as I can, but that might not be before Monday.

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    • At some point I may just have to read the book myself to try to figure out exactly what he’s claiming. The further we go, the weaker and weaker the claims seem to get, to the point where I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be inconsistent with or what plausible views they’re supposed to be challenging. You’ve said that you find the view surprising or at least rather unusual, but I can’t figure out how that’s supposed to be so if his claims are really as unambitious as your descriptions here and elsewhere suggest. If the main point is supposed to be about “how few, of the matters that concern and confront us, we manage to reason through thoroughly and achieve real objectivity about, and how difficult we find it to do these things,” then he seems to be siding with the vast majority of philosophers and moral psychologists in the Western tradition.

      But really, as I said, I mostly wanted an excuse to write about the snakes. The damn things creep me out.

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