What do strangers, new ideas, predators, natural disasters, and the unknown all have in common? Knowing the answer will help you understand an important feature of ancient mythology. Ancient religion’s field of concern encompasses all of human being and experience, objectivity and subjectivity combined. So understanding the significance (and functional value) of mythological symbols and stories requires understanding the subjective emotional and psychological states they illustrate or provoke. So, once again, what do strangers, new ideas, predators, natural disasters, and the unknown all have in common? They all can potentially provoke our fearful, survival responses (fight, flight, or freeze) when we encounter them. They are all potentially chaotic, sometimes deadly entities that can threaten to destroy existing psychological and social order, coherence, and stability. It’s certainly no coincidence that evil forces of chaos and disorder are depicted variously as predatory creatures like a snake, a lion, and a dragon in the Christian theological tradition. Likewise, strangers, new ideas, predators, natural disasters, and the unknown are related in the mythic mind partly because of their similar psychological and emotional significance.
Ancient mythological thinking certainly isn’t all bad. It actually profoundly underlies our psychological makeup and functioning. But for its many benefits, it does have some liabilities. For example, the mythic mind is prone to react to a stranger in the same way it would react to a predatory animal, or to see a new idea as if it were a natural disaster. Can you see why this could become a problem? This isn’t necessarily bad, especially if your an ancient tribesman who wants to protect your tribe’s existing order and traditions, and avoid needless conflict and bloody encounters with other tribes. Perhaps it’d be best to just keep your distance, and this is a helpful risk-avoidance measure in such an environment. But the mythic mind can become a hinderance if we allow ourselves to avoid accepting change, adaptation, strangers, and new ideas as if they will always have the same impact on us as predators and natural disasters.
Here’s the thing: the unknown is simultaneously threatening and promising, a domain that evokes an ambivalence of fear and curiosity. An unknown stranger may intend to me harm, but they may also be a friendly bearer of new knowledge that can further my development and redemption. An unknown predatory force may be dangerous enough to destroy me, but it also may present valuable benefits if I face it, conquer it, and harness its gifts. The only way to determine the actual significance of that which is currently unknown is to carefully move outward to encounter and know it.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t chaotic forces that should be challenged or avoided. We live in a world where there are real dangers. And sometimes our negative emotions do alert us to the presence of malevolent or dangerous forces. It would be naive to assume everything and everyone would be all good if we simply got to know it/them better. But the unknown in general tends to provoke negative emotion. So it would be equally naive to assume everything and everyone currently unknown to us would be all bad if we got to know it/them better. Sometimes what is currently unknown to me is not actually threatening or dangerous, even though getting to know it may temporarily destabilize and reform me. Sometimes what/who is currently unknown to me has promising potential to positively recreate me, if only I would voluntarily seek out the new information and experience contained within it. This process can nevertheless be uncomfortable, even painful. I may be required to tear myself down and rebuild. But it is an unfortunate mistake to assume all of the unknown is necessarily dangerous and threatening disorder, since what is currently unknown to you or me may contain the promising knowledge of salvation and adaptation.
There’s a real problem when a religious person rigidly assumes their own negative emotion (fear, anxiety, anger) when encountering the unknown is the voice of God communicating to them that they are certainly in the presence of evil. Religious or not, just imagine what kind of person you would become if you never voluntarily faced anything or anyone that made you the least bit anxious or afraid or uncomfortable. You would become controlled by every passing state of neuroticism. When someone (religious or nonreligious) maladaptively assumes their negative emotions are infallible indications of the presence of real evil/danger, they become psychologically enclosed in ever-thicker prison walls reinforced by their own fear and anxiety, walls that protect both from real forces of chaos as well as promising opportunities for positive, adaptive learning and change.
We can witness this ancient tribal psychology unfolding today in how opponents involved in ever-polarizing political, social, and religious conflicts engage with one another. We can see it in the development of separate echo chambers that silo groups off from others and reinforce competing senses of group-righteousness. We can see it in stereotyping and demonizing those who are different so they’re easy targets for hate. We can see it in the fearful or indignant unwillingness many exhibit to even talk with people who hold different political, social, or religious perspectives. Having insight into ancient psychology shows us how the attitude we adopt towards that which is currently unknown will significantly determine whether we see it as a something threatening that prompts fear or as something promising that prompts curiosity and excitement.
Many of these ideas have been significantly influenced by the work of Jordan Peterson from his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in a much more rigorous, detailed explanation of this evolutionary understanding of religion.