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Richard Ebbs. Spring 1998.


The English word monster can be traced back to various etymological roots. The Latin 'monstrum' means 'that which teaches', and there is also another connection to 'monstrare', to show. Both Latin words derive from the same base 'monere', to warn. [1] The theme of teaching or guiding is thus implicit in the etymology, with the English word 'demonstrate' turning out to be a cousin of 'monster' in that the Latin 'demonstratum' is a past participle of 'demonstrare', which means 'to point out, indicate, show or prove'. [1] Tracing these etymological roots is instructive insofar as it suggests that the ancient pagan (as in non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic) world may well have had a somewhat different view of monsters than 'we' in the contemporary Judea-Christian cultures of Western Europe do. Perhaps the most common form of monster to appear in myth and legend has been the 'serpent' -in a variety of different guises, from the talking snake in the Garden of Eden to the winged serpent or dragon slain by St.George. The etymology of the word dragon also reinforces the suggestion of a difference of view, since the Greek word 'drakon' meant not only 'a dragon or large serpent', but also (more literally) 'sharp-sighted one', and the probable Sanskrit etymological base for this translates as 'drk', meaning 'to see'. [1] In this essay I would like to explore the changing way in which monsters have come to be seen, and attempt to relate these changes to both their causes and effects in terms of culture, philosophy and politics.


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Monsters- Where Do They Come From?

In biology, the word monster may be used to describe an organism that is grossly abnormal or deformed. Similarly, when used in other contexts, we find that 'monstrous' entities also tend to be somehow 'beyond the norm' in appearance or behaviour, crossing the boundaries of acceptability, manifesting traits alien to the natural order or outside of 'normal' consensus reality. We often find monsters having hybrid form, as a result of mixing species, sexes, or other attributes. They may also have dislocated or superfluous parts. Thus we have the Centaur (horse-man), the Minotaur (bull-man), Echidna (snake-woman), Pegasus (horse-bird), Sphinx (woman-lion-bird), Siren (bird-woman), the griffin (lion-eagle), mermaid (woman-fish) and mandrake (plant-man).

We may also find that mythological monsters exist by virtue of some kind of transformation. In many traditions, for instance, the dragon has the power to change it's form at will. The notion of unpredictablity is also widely associated with dragons. Clearly monsters are chaos beasts, lurking beyond the cracks in the world of order. They may predate the creation of the world as we know it, living in dangerous and inaccessible places but still able to remind us of their presence in dreams and nightmares. In short, a monster is out of place, conforming to no class or violating existing classes. Bearing this in mind, it seems that attempts to kill or sacrifice monsters may symbolise an attempt to stabilise reality, and bring the unkown under our control. Where our maps include uncharted territory, we may write 'there be monsters' to signify all that lies beyond the boundaries of the world as we know it.

In the ancient Middle Eastern world, where snakes were often large and deadly, both snakes and their more mythical counterparts, dragons, did at times symbolise evil. (The Egyptian serpent-god Apepi, for example, ruled the world of darkness). However, this was by no means always the case, with serpents themselves, and serpent-gods and goddesses often worshipped in one form or another. A number of examples of this are given below.

The 'dragon' form, too, has varied considerably from culture to culture. But because they generally possessed both protective and terror-inspiring qualities, dragon-forms were frequently used as war-emblems. Thus, in the Iliad, King Agamemnon's shield had a blue three-headed snake design. Later, Norse warriors painted dragons on their shields and carved dragons' heads on the prows of their ships. In England before the Norman Conquest, the dragon was a common royal ensign. In the Far East, where even to the present day the dragon is considered to be beneficent, it has been the emblem of the Imperial family from ancient times. Until the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1911 the dragon adorned the Chinese flag, as it does the flag of Wales still.

It may well be that the mythological dragons of Asian and Western legends have origins in very early dinosaur fossil discoveries, but there is no historical evidence to back this claim. It does not seem unreasonable to assume this, however, considering that even today it is not uncommon for freak weather, a landslide, or an unusually high tide to bring to light strangely alien reptile remains that have been buried for millenia.


Monsters- Distant Cousins Of That Ancient Enemy, The Snake?

Humanity and snakes have never lived in harmony together. Throughout history our (often well-founded) fear of snakes has led to a war of attrition, with snakes being hunted mercilessly by man in most parts of the world. In a single year (1889) 578,415 snakes were turned in for bounties in India. Humans suffer around 1,000,000 snakebites per year globally. Of this total perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 bites result in death (mostly in tropical Asia and Africa). Clearly, therefore, there are common-sense reasons to be wary of snakes. These cold-blooded creatures can seem fearless and independent, silently going about their solitary business with little or no social behaviour among themselves. Their eyes do not blink, and every now and again a snake will emerge from hibernation (in temperate climates, at least) to shed it's skin completely, emerging as a bright new creature of radically different appearance. Thus snakes may exert a fascination as strong as the fear evoked by them. Python worshippers are found in Africa, and cobra cults are found in parts of India. Quetzalcoatl was the feathered serpent of the Aztecs. Even in America we not only find snake dancers among the Hopi Indians but also snake-handling Protestant Christian sects.


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Monsters And Taboo.

For some, the spiritual path lies in conformity to a religious moral code that has already been laid down. For others, it is found by pushing through the boundaries to see what lies beyond. Those in the latter group may feel called upon to seek freedom by challenging limitations in order to create new possibilities for existence. For these, the sacred is found in the extraordinary, not in the ordinariness of conformity, and for spiritual anarchists such as these it may be necessary from time to time to actively loosen the constraints of normal life.

We can illustrate this whole area of conformity versus non-conformity by looking at the notion of taboo. Research has shown that taboo is primarily a taxonomic (classificatory) system, with 'forbidden' things tending to cross existing boundaries or fall between existing classes. Thus, it may be taboo to enter other spheres of existence (by attempting astral travel, for instance). It may be taboo to transport an object from one realm to another, to cross sexual or class lines, or have relations with a being not of one's class. Individuals or creatures (real or imaginary) who transgress in such ways may then themselves become taboo in order to uphold the existing order. Where the existing order is particularly rigid and the boundaries are most strongly proscibed then we may also find that the monstrous/taboo inhabitants of the space beyond the fences are particularly strong, virulent, fearsome, and so on.


Monsters- What Can We Learn From Them?

In looking at monsters both real and imaginary we are elucidating some very important aspects of culture, whilst at the same time gaining a deeper understanding of the psychodynamics of individuals within their cultural context. The myths, philosophies and theology of a culture all tend to provide important building-blocks that lie at the heart of an individual's world-view, and the way an individual sees the world (their 'ontological perspective') can be seen as an edifice, constructed around a foundation of key themes. Where these key mythical, theological and philosophical foundations differ from culture to culture, in consequence we see significant differences in the manifest effects both on the large scale and on the small, from the way society is organised to the intricate details of human psychology and interaction.

In current usage, the word monster is broadly pejorative for us. Monsters generally represent gross ugliness or evil or both, and such a view has been with us for many centuries. Typically the monster is to be shunned (qv the myth of the scapegoat) or destroyed (qv St. George). Clearly, however, we are also often fascinated by monsters, finding catharsis in the monsters of film and literature, from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein to Star Trek's Borg (against whom 'resistance is futile'). The ubiquity of this love/hate fascination tends to suggest that whether we like it or not 'the monster' still has a great deal to teach us about ourselves. We might look critically at the demonisation of a minority group in society, or we might ask ourselves about the origins of vampire stories, but either way we must necessarily look inside, at the nature of the original psychological processes that give rise to such powerful fear-fascination responses, and we must ask just what aspects of ourselves does the external monster relate?

The mind of an individual is rarely free of conflicting impulses. It is in the nature of things that as growing children we are socialised, learning to share a common language with all it's richness of shared context and associative meaning, whilst at the same time learning how to behave in society, where with various carrots and/or sticks we are taught which aspects of ourselves are relatively socially acceptable, and which are not. And so we build up a wardrobe of behaviours, where we keep a variety of items appropriate for particular occasions (or otherwise we are just too attached to some things to throw them away!). Basically every individual represents a set of diverse potentials, and this diversity has been described in a number of different ways. A psychologist might talk of mental/emotional energy patterns, or sub-entities, whilst a Christian Scientist might talk of engrams. A Hindu would use the word vasanas, whilst an occultist might talk about elementals, or demons. An artificial intelligence researcher might use the term sub-routines to describe the analogous sub-systems of a computer 'mind'. And where our view of any one of these sub-systems is negative, then we are dealing with a monster.

It may be true that to some extent a fear of snakes is a remnant of a very ancient, and very sensible, survival mechanism handed down from generation to generation. It may also be true that an English veteran's loathing for Hitler's monstrousness in no way signifies a resonance between the dictator's evil and some aspect of the veteran. I would suggest however that such a lack of recognition or congruence between inner and outer is an exception to the general rule- the general rule being 'the fear and fascination evoked by the monster demonstrates the presence of some aspect of the individual with whom the monster has something in common'. And if this is true then the strategies that we adopt in relating to, or dealing with our monsters are important. Do we attempt to destroy them (like Doctor Von Helsig pursuing Count Dracula), or repress them (like Pentheus, King of Thebes imprisoning Dionysus) [2], or do we make allies of them, transforming, say, a pack-hunting killer instinct into a love of football? We might try and cast the monster out, putting all of the sins of the tribe onto one poor creature (who happens to have cloven-hooves and horns) forcing them out into some hinterland between life and death on the periphery of our personal space. Or maybe we indulge them! One thing is certain, and that is that there's a lot of scope for ambivalence in all of this. It does seem clear that where we attempt to deny our monsters, by destroying or suppressing them, then if we don't succeed, then we have conflict, and we experience a duality of opposing forces within ourselves.

Dracula lived for centuries. He was notoriously hard to kill, reappearing time after time when people had thought him dead until the doughty Van Helsig plunged a wooden stake through the vampire's heart. And Dionysus was a god (although Pentheus thought of him as a monster) so destroying him was quite out of the question. Dionysus allowed himself to be put in prison, in a playful spirit, hoping that the game he played would result in a much-needed education for King Pentheus. Grendel was both ancient dragon and scapegoat, being also extremely difficult for a man to destroy:

'this unhappy being
had lived long in the land of monsters
since the creator cast them out
as kindred of Cain. For that killing of Abel
the eternal Lord took vengeance.' [4]

The Green Man of Gawain and the Green Knight could survive decapitation. Long-livedness almost to the point of indestructibility seems therefore to be common among monsters, and perhaps this is significant insofar it illustrates the extent to which our own inner demons too are extraordinarily tenacious. From a psychological perspective our instinctive drives tend also to be very deep-rooted, and very ancient in that many of these drives have been passed on from generation to generation since the dawn of human history. This begs the question about the wisdom of being over-hasty in any attempt to destroy any of these aspects of self that we have come to find ourselves in conflict with.

Beowulf is generally considered to be predominantly 'Christian' in terms of the time and place of it's first appearance as a written text (in Northumberland in the early 8th century). Another characteristic which suggests a Christian viewpoint is the extent to which good and evil are sharply defined. Grendel is depicted as wholly repulsive, non-human, and unworthy of understanding or compassion (even though his original misfortune was to be scapegoated for someone else's wrongdoing, namely Cain's). Historically Christian theology itself has been predominantly dualistic and absolutist, presenting sharp contrasts between the states of grace and sin, between heaven and earth, and between spirit and matter. No wonder then that in Christian myths (or epic poems) we should find heroes pitching themselves in battle against absolute evil, seeking permanent and absolute end to their enemies' lives. Perhaps in less dualistic, or more polytheistic cultures mythological heroes (when they are lucky) are as likely to be found winning relative or short-term victories in skirmishes with their supernatural opponents, knowing that the conflict is continuous with little or no hope of absolute victory. Such heroes are heroes because of their stamina and resourcefulness rather than because they represent absolute (good) or absolute victory. Congruent with this we often find a view of the world which is more cyclical (as opposed to goal-oriented) in pagan cultures. The Hydra, in Greek legend, was a gigantic monster with (usually) nine heads, the central one of which was immortal. As one head was cut off, two grew in its place, and this 'fact' may have psychological significance, since similar attempts to kill absolutely our own inner demons may (also) be doomed to failure. Other strategies may be more appropriate. (See Monstrous Psychology, below).

Since it would seem to be the case that the themes of dualism and monsters are closely linked, it seems apposite to look at the philosophical and theological basis of the dualism that still today remains important among the foundations of the Western world-view.


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Monsters In The Landscape Of Western Philosophy And Mythology.

If we look at Western philosophy we must look at Plato. As A. N. Whitehead pointed out, we can safely characterise European philosophy as consisting of a series of footnotes to Plato. Perhaps the single most important aspect of the philosophy handed down to us has become known as 'Platonic Idealism' wherein the ultimate universal 'substance' was considered to be mind, with the physical world a manifestation of some 'higher' and pre-existent mental reality. This realm of eternal and unchanging ideals/ideas was seen to exist somehow above and beyond the reality that most of us percieve, and here (and only here) could absolute or 'objective' truth be found. While the Platonic view of absolute truth contrasted with the views of Heraclitus (and later the Sophists) who asserted the relativistic nature of all things, on the battlefield of ideas Platonism prevailed.

This philosophy profoundly influenced Christian thought (qv Augustine, below), the Italian Renaissance, and much of the intellectual climate of 17th century Britain, where Platonism surfaced strongly again in the works of Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley. Of particular relevance to this discussion is the idea that the messy particulars of 'everyday' reality are seen to be somehow less superior and less 'real' than the unchangeable, authoritative and final class of ideas which should rule the world, and which exist somehow above the world, as it were. Thus 'the perfection and order which are lacking in the real world, on the plane of history, are projected onto the eternal'. [5] This perspective (Platonic Idealism) also has within it the idea that ideas exist in themselves, and that we FIND pre-existent general laws, rather than invent them.

Neoplatonism was an influential school of thought which flourished in Alexandria in the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD, which again drew a sharp distinction between the world of the senses and the world of the mind, between changing phenomena and the eternal, between the everyday facts of experience and the 'truth' behind these things. Furthermore, reason and knowledge were seen by Neoplatonists to be the means of salvation from the corrupting influence of the material world.

Augustine, alive around 400 AD, 'infused into Christian thinking all that could be tolerated of Neoplatonism'. [5] Augustine was also a dualist, in that for him heaven was completely separate from the world, and the soul completely separate from the body. (This dualist view was sometimes also known as Manicheanism, after the Manichee sect who were also a big influence on Augustine, although he did adapt and move away from these dualist views in later life). Thus the church took on board the notions of both Platonic Idealism and Neoplatonic dualism, with far reaching effects that can be traced without too much difficulty to the present, preparing the ground well for such notions as 'the sinful body', not to mention the arrogance that goes with a belief that 'knowledge' (as opposed to feeling or sensual experience) is utterly and immutably the most superior human attribute. Such dualist views imply a separateness (if not alienation) of 'mind' from 'the world', implying also that transcendence or liberation is synonymous with a process of somehow 'conquering', or leaving behind, the world of nature.

From the Middle Ages onward, the Spiritual Authority of the church, whose justification lay in Aquinas' Platonic idea of 'The City of God' went from strength to strength. Popes claimed supremacy over all worldly monarchs, and in creating an elite priestly (male) church heirarchy, structures were created in society which have perhaps subsequently been populated by scientists. Both scientist and priest have been percieved as mediators of eternal truth, with the laws of scientific theory (again, like Plato's idealised forms) given the attributes of a Holy Grail, existing outside and beyond nature and the life of ordinary mortals.

It should be noted that Thomas Aquinas (13th century AD), also a profound influence on Christian theology, 'rejected the notion that evil or sin is rooted in the body or the material world', [5] but nonetheless dualist views have remained very prevalent in much Christian thought and action for millenia. (Also the view that 'matter and consciousness are inextricably linked' has surfaced in later Western philosophies, such as Evolutionary Naturalism, but again, such views have never become strong enough in the West to challenge the basic dualist paradigm so prevalent in our culture). These ideas did much to influence the way ordinary people in Western Europe have thought and lived in the past two millenia. They also set the scene for the Age of Reason two hundred years later again, where the influence of Descartes was pivotal.

The ideas of Descartes (1596-1650) were very authoritive and important to the subsequent development of science and philosophy in Europe and the West. He too was a dualist, in that he postulated two kinds of ultimate reality, the material and the mental, both eternally distinct. He was also like Plato in that he 'emphasised the rational element and overlooked the empirical'. [5] ('Empirical' meaning based on the observation and experiential evidence). This problem of the distinction between mind and matter has haunted Western philosophy. It has been called 'the dogma of the ghost in the machine', and although many have sought to demonstrate the errors of Descartes' assumptions, the critics have not prevailed, and I would suggest that this (dualist) view remains so firmly rooted in the mass mind that for a majority it would probably seem to be self-evident.

Descartes was also especially interested in mathematics, and he influenced the development of science very strongly by insisting on 'excluding everything qualitative and reducing everything to the measurable'. [5] This is an admirable approach when applied to scientific experiment, and it is an approach which has reaped many rewards. Arguably, however, many educated scientists, like Descartes himself, have not looked particularly hard at the dualist paradigm that underpins their approach. Consequently, it seems, one may be so persuaded by the (scientific) success of a method which stresses the quantitative to the exclusion of the qualitative that one is tempted to apply it to all areas of life.

Descartes further gave the 'green light' to physical science by 'providing a philosophical framework, a world-view, which explained the Newtonian mechanistic cosmology. It assured men that nature was lawful and therefore completely subject to control. Descartes even extended this idea to the human body, making it an automaton, containing a soul, but in itself a machine'. [5] This is in contrast to the view widely found elsewhere in the world that 'consciousness' exists in greater or lesser degrees in all things. We might also say that the view of matter and mind being indistinguishable is one of the things that most effectively distinguishes 'pagan' (ie non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic) cultures from our own. It is my contention that a holistic approach, more accepting of the validity of individual emotional and sensual experience, is often implicit in cultures ouside 'the West'. And such acceptance may be vital if we are to look at the reality of our complex and sometimes atavistic inner processes.

In Genesis we read that man was put on Earth 'to subdue it'. Such an attitude is alien to those who haved lived in close harmony to nature for millenia (the main examples being most of those indeginous peoples whose cultures are currently being rapidly destroyed in most regions of the world). Yet this strange idea crops up again and again in the West, in many many different spheres of life, from intrusive science, to intensive agriculture, to art critics who have praised Cezanne for 'conquering nature', and so on, and we can trace this attitude back not only to philosophy but also to some the myths and legends that lie behind Judeo-Christian religion. Should we also attempt, in likewise manner, to subdue all our monsters, all our drives, all our instincts?

Scattered through the Prophets and Holy Writings (the two latter portions of the Hebrew Bible) are allusions to ancient myths whose origins may well be outside of the Judaic tradition- for instance the primordial combat between Yahweh and a monster variously named Leviathan, Rahab, or simply Dragon. (In the Old Testament the word dragon was generally used to denote a sea monster). A Canaanite poem from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in northern Syria records a battle between the god Baal and another monster called Leviathan. Hittite myths contain accounts of a battle between the weather god and the dragon Illuyankas, and the Babylonians told of a fight between their god Marduk and the monster Tiamat. This story of Marduk's combat with Tiamat is thought to be a precursor of the Christian legend of St. George and the dragon. (See below).

'It is the object of myth, as of science, to explain the world, to make it's phenomena intelligible' [6]. Whilst the patriarchal Judeo-Christian religions of the West have relatively few myths, (and that in itself is interesting, since we may be forgiven for suspecting that mythological richness may often be replaced sets of edicts), what myths there are have been very potent. A prime example is the Adam and Eve story. Much evidence suggests that this myth was in many ways contrived for political reasons. [7]

snake goddess image

Eve, if you remember, listened to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the Judeo-Christian 'fall of man' was been blamed on that one event for 2,000 years. However, across the ancient world of the Middle East, before the Adam and Eve myth was invented, there was a strong connection between 'the Goddess' and serpents. The serpent 'appears to have been primarily revered as a female in the Near and Middle East and generally linked to wisdom and prophetic counsel' [7]. The Goddesses Nibada, Nina, Inanna and Tiamat, Hathor, Maat, and later Athena, were either depicted as snakes or else were closely connected to serpent worship. Ishtar's sceptre was entwined with snakes. 'The use of the cobra in the religion of the Goddess in ancient Egypt was so ancient that the sign that preceded the name of any Goddess was the cobra'. [Stone] The glyph of the cobra on it's own was the symbol of mystic insight and wisdom. At the famous temple to the Great Goddess at Delphi, 'the woman who brought forth the oracles of divine wisdom was called Pythia. Coiled about the tripod stool upon which she sat was a snake known as Python'. [7] (For considerably more material in this area the reader is referred to Merlin Stone). Conversely, the Christian Revelation of St John sees the great dragon (Satan) being chained up and thrown into the abyss for 1,000 years (while a new heaven and a new Earth are created). If the pagan sacred snake is evidence of a willingness to respect and revere the forces of nature (including the darker forces too) then St John's vision illustrates the complement of this- a desire for absolute suppression or subjugation of 'negative' energies.

The Garden of Eden myth adapts earlier myths in such a way that the presence of the Goddess, as symbolised by the serpent, and all of the female wisdom and power that goes along with that, is presented in an extremely bad light. Similarly, in ancient European folklore dragons were not the absolutely evil creatures that they were later percieved to be. Often they would be the guardians of a spring or (other) sacred site, and often they were reputed to have a young human female companion. They were sometimes unpredictable, sometimes wise, usually ancient and their destruction was certainly not an outcome to be sought under any normal circumstances. Christianity was primarily responsible for changing this. It seems that in some deep mythic sense 'dragon-lore' was percieved to be significantly bound up with 'pagan' religious practise. It was precisely for that reason that the patron saint of England, St George, was the 'dragon-killer' and this is why it is still possible today to find that many churches dedicated to St George or St Michael (the other dragon-killing saint) have been built close to or on top of documented earlier pre-Christian sacred places. This was ideological warfare, where the church had few qualms about demonising and suppressing the practioners of paganism whilst at the same time attempting to subvert their mythologies, and build on their sacred sites. As we have seen, however, monsters may be harder to kill than one might think. Apparently it was the Old Testament Daniel's refusal to worship a Babylonyian dragon that caused him to be thrown into the 'lion's den'. In the original story his heroism rested not only on his escape from there, but also on the fact that he finally subdued the dragon he had refused to worship.

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All of the pre-Christian faiths of Western Europe, for instance Finnish Shamanism, German and Scandinavian Odinism, the faiths of the Continental and British and Irish Celts, all incorporated belief in 'nature spirits' and what might be called 'the spirit of place' -such beliefs have survived even to the present day in Ireland where the sacredness of some wells and trees is still recognised and celebrated with decoration and gifts of coloured ribbon and so on. Looking at 'pagan' religions elsewhere in the world, in Chinese Toaism we find that the forces of yin and yang, light and dark, male and female, heaven and earth, are in many ways equally powerful and equally valid. (The most common symbol of the forces of nature in Toaism being a dragon). In Japan we find that, 'Shinto mythology offers no evidence of dualism'. [6] Furthermore 'there is never an overwhelming feeling of catastrophe... this may be due to a deep-seated harmony between the Japanese and their natural environment'. [6] Or, put another way, we might say that the inherent sense of harmony the Japanese feel with the natural world is largely a consequence of their mythology, since 'the early Japanese world was an animistic world. Both natural things and human beings were animated or permeated by a vital spirit'. [6]

'In animistic times, when great sky-spirits carried the lanterns of the stars and drove the fiery chariot of the sun, there were 'spirits' also in men and in all living creatures, spirits in stones, trees and running waters. It was the spirit of a tree that made it put forth leaf and flower and fruit. In this revelatory, beautiful superstition there was everywhere and in all things a personal otherness. It was a world of 'you' and not of 'it'. And for that very reason it was a completely interrelated world, a world most entirely and deeply akin to it's human inhabitants. Man had none of that sense of separateness, of aloof distinctness, of being a lonely pilgrim wandering in alienation from the things and creatures of this world. He could dance to the rhythm of life and the seasons and the great world around him, and feel at-one-ment with them'. [8] The word 'Pan' (Roman god of nature and ecstasy) literally meant 'all'. The Hindu Agni, the god of 'divine will or conscious power', is supposedly all-pervading: 'Agni is in the Earth, in plants; the waters contain Agni; Agni is in stones'. [9] Similarly, for the Hindu 'atman' or soul, is everywhere: 'I am in heaven and on earth, in water an in air. I am in beasts and plants. I am a babe in the womb and one that is not yet conceived and one that has been born. I am present everywhere'. [10]

isis image

To summarise this 'pagan' view, frequently we find 1) that all of nature is sacred, 2) that there is no fundamental division between the human realm and the divine, 3) that desire itself is sacred, 4) that where divinity is anthropomorphised, we are generally more likely to find an accepting female deity than a fear-inducing male one. Each of these perspectives is antithetical to most Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology, and as such this is a significant help in illustrating the way we relate to our 'monsters'.


Monstrous Psychology.

the sleep of reason produces monsters by goya

In sections above we have looked at the origins of dualist views in Western culture. Dualism, we noted, was significant in the study of monsters since generally we find that the monsters who evoke such fear and fascination in us represent aspects of ourselves, and since we fear them, a conflict must therefore exist within ourselves. If we believe in an all-powerful God who (somewhat inconsistently, perhaps?) is also absolutely good, then we find that our monsters also tend to be all-powerful (and absolutely bad). We have also noted the surprising tenacity of our monsters and questioned the appropriateness, or even possibility, of complete and final victory over these entities who, etymology has suggested, may well have much to teach us. 'The sleep of reason', somebody [?] once said 'is filled with monsters', so it seems that while we may try to ignore our monsters, they are certainly not going to disappear just like that. On the contrary, it seems we tend to be forced one way or another to develop our own monster-strategies, whether in childhood dreams where we meet the bogey-man, or in adult life where we may have to choose whether to risk our lives fighting some foe who the newspapers or our leaders have told us is particularly monstrous. Are these monsters real, we ask ourselves. What is their real nature, and have they been built up out of fear or ignorance to be something that they are not? Are they paper tigers? Do we trust our instincts, or do we trust the word of others, when as we have seen, there may be hidden agendas at work in painting monsters one or another shade of black?

The spaces that monters occupy in ourselves tend to be the innaccessible places where fear and dangers are never far away. Egos have a habit of relegating monsters to such territory, and in the normal course of events our conscious minds tend to steer well clear of these waters. If external circumstance induces fear or panic, however, then we can find ourselves in monster-territory quite easily, and we may then project our monsters onto external objects. Children may find it easy to perceive threatening faces or monsters in shadows at night, whereas adults tend to lose the ability to cross the threshold so easily. However, a soldier tense with apprehension may perceive inanimate objects as the enemy attacking, or he may percieve his own comrades as the foe. Similarly psychiatric patients for whom fear and anxiety are constant companions may perceive other people to be machines or devils.

The sleep of reason may be filled with monsters but so may the sleep of ignorance. If our own inner monsters do have something to teach us, maybe there are times when we should listen to them. Interestingly, the Victorian era was a time when fascination with monsters was particularly prevalent. And yet this was also a time of relatively rigid moral codes, with great pressure often being brought to bear in the suppression of sexual desire, emotionality and so on. This was a time when children, supposedly, should be seen and not heard. This was not a good time for monster self-expression, clearly, and yet the fascination remained. A monster's stature, it would seem, may be in inverse proportion to the energy expended in trying to suppress it. And so we learn from the monster. And no such education is complete without a psychological perspective.

Herbert Wallace, Darwin's contemporary, noticed that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny', ontogeny being the study of the foetus in the womb and it's development, with phylogeny being the study of the development of the species. So in other words, he saw that the developing human foetus goes through stages of development which mirror the development of the human species, that is, it takes various forms such as tadpole-like, to reptilian, to monkey-like and so on. Timothy Leary adapted this quote to say 'ontology recapitulates phylogeny', that is, that the development of an individual's world view (ontology) mirrors the development of the species. Arguably, however, an individual never fully supercedes or transcends these more 'primitive' world views/behaviour traits. Some psychologists have noted, for instance, that the structure of the brain itself shows an evolutionary development over time with the 'hind-brain', above the spinal column, being the most ancient, at the centre of later accretions, with the latest evolutionary developments being found generally in the 'fore-brain', the areas closest to the skull. These later developments are associated with such faculties as speech and logical thought, whilst the kinds of behaviour associated with the hind-brain are more or less 'reptilian' in nature, such that some have called these associated areas of individual psychology the R-complex, R being short for 'reptilian'.

On an individual level, these basic drives may be simply too strong to repress, and where dualist Patriarchal religious views are taken on board, then a war is likely to ensue, a war between the individual and his or her innermost self, and this war cannot be won, unless mutually assured destruction can be considered to be victory. An alternative strategy may be to see what can be learned from this reptilian/snake aspect, integrating it into a broader whole that includes rationality and the finer emotions. If our myths implicitly condemn our deepest instincts then it is hardly surprising that a profound alienation is likely to ensue. And if in our relations to our monsters our attitude is entirely pejorative, then our sense of integration is likely to be severely compromised.

Psychologically, any aspect of self which exists in opposition to the position taken by the conscious mind necessarily acquires a demonic, or monster-like appearance, although the apparently malicious nature of such entities may in fact be in illusion fostered by the conscious mind itself which refuses (invariably with limited success) to admit the 'monster's' existence. The following story illustrates the power of one monster, and one stratagem for dealing with it.

Over a period of time a friend had a recurring dream. Frequently he woke up in a cold sweat having being chased by a 'Terminator-like' figure. (This before the film had been made!). This monster in his dream was utterly ruthless, strong, fast, and apparently invincible. His memesis also had senses of superhuman sensitivity, being able to hear the sound of breathing, or the sound of a heartbeat, from a great distance. When my friend 'knew' that his enemy was aware of him, he also knew that the only way he could escape capture and certain death was to hide, preferably underground. He also knew that he must stop breathing and slow down his heart, which even in a dream is no easy task.

Rather than continue ad infinitum this terrifying recurring cycle of dreams, however, my friend attempted to turn the tables by understanding what was going on, proactively attempting to use the experience as an aid to personal development. He came to see this inner monster as a living symbol of a very deep set of inner drives that had been repressed. He gave it a name (calling it 'R'), and over a period of several months spent a great deal of time gradually getting to know the nature of the beast. He came to feel that most, if not all, of the blind rage that he saw in it was in fact a result of the state of imprisonment that this sub-entity had been subjected to over many long years. It's voice was rasping and coarse and it's store of pent-up energy was as prodigious as it was terrifying. This was one outraged monster. What was most important to my friend, though, was the realisation that he and the monster had become totally estranged from each other, to the point where they regarded each other as mortal ememies. And since my friend and his 'monster' were both in fact, the same person, this was a state of affairs that clearly required remedial action.

He began to direct his dreams, also using visualisation techniques in waking consciousness, in an attempt to befriend and even love the demon. By turning the tables in this way the creature's murderous intent miraculously started to disappear, until night after night the monster was led to the top room in a tall tower, where it was encouraged to sit in a tall chair. My friend gave the creature fine clothes to wear, and talked to it, trying to make it feel valued. He read it Shakespeare, and most of his favourite poets. As beast's anger fell away, so did the profound fear that my friend had felt in relation to it. The final chapter of this story involved my friend and the beast (that was a beast no longer) merging with each other, becoming one and the same. Apparently the effects on him were profound. He seemed far happier as a person, while being less inclined to put up with any kind of shoddy treatment. His energy level also seemed to go through the roof!

We can find evidence of similar 'transformational' strategies in relation to monsters in a number of other cultures. Among practitioners of Tantrism, for instance, while students may be encouraged to 'disengage' from what might be called low-level fears and attachments in pursuit of improved states of consciousness, they may also be encouraged to work on the principle of 'more wood, more fire', such that passions are quite deliberately aroused, and identified with, and the inherent energies channelled and focussed and used constructively. In other schools of Buddhism, after 'evoking' the monster or demon, the practitioner may attempt to gain insight at the level of 'Sambhogakaya' where subject-object dualism ceases to exist (which perhaps is another way of saying that the individual and his or demon become integrated/merged together as one).

A similar approach seems to underpin Shamanic practise, in which the would-be Shaman him or herself may learn to 'stalk' and 'hunt' for his or her 'allies'. In the language of psychology, this may be taken to mean that one learns to develop super-sensitivity to the signs left by one's own inner processes. Dreams, body-language, and every reaction to events are milked mercilessly for the prize of awareness that can be gained, in a mythic context where all of the forces at work have living form, and where all contacts must be dealt with impeccably with a view to forming alliances, where appropriate, and developing effective defensive strategies where these are appropriate. What is particularly significant about these methods is the fact that they are 'proactive' in terms of seeking out the 'monsters' (and the energies they embody).

In Europe in the Middle Ages witchcraft was itself demonised by the church and along with the killing of perhaps half a million women, much knowledge of healing both body and mind was either destroyed or driven underground. I would suggest that in a world where there is no absolute good or absolute evil, and where all things (ie the 'inner' and the 'outer') are connected, then the practise of forging alliances with our monsters and demons, where possible, has the potential to increase our awareness, and help us to become more integrated human beings.

celtic dragon image



1. The Universal English Dictionary [inclusive of etymology] Ed. H.C.Wyld
2. Oceania, Society and Tradition, A.M.Panoff in Larousse World Mythology
3. Euripides, The Bacchae
4. Beowulf
5. John Lewis. Teach Yourself History of Philosophy
6. Larousse World Mythology
7. Merlin Stone. The Paradise Papers. Chapter 10
8. The Light of a Thousand Suns. Jacob Trapp
9. Artharva-Veda. Ancient Hindu text
10. The Upanishads


Appendix One.

Some Monster Films

Frankenstein (producer Thomas Edison) (1910).
Student of Prague (1913).
The Golem (1914).
Homunculus (1916).
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).
Nosferatu (the first Dracula film) (1922).
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).
Waxworks (1924).
The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
The Cat and the Canary (1927).
Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff) (1931).
The Mummy (1932).
King Kong (1932).
Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The Werewolf of London (1935).
The Wolf Man (1941).
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
The Thing, (1951).
Them! (1954).
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956).
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
The Horror of Dracula (1958).
Frankenstein Conquers the World (Japanese) (1969).
Young Frankenstein (producer Mel Brooks) (1974).
Alien (director Ridley Scott) (1979).


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