(As I’ve already established in other reviews, I’m no science nerd.)
It is precisely because of my unique place in the universe that I found myself immeasurably fascinated with Paul A. Trout’s DEADLY POWERS: ANIMAL PREDATORS AND THE MYTHIC IMAGINATION.
I’ve always been fascinated with myths. Creation myths. Roman myths. Greek myths. Indian myths. Various tribal myths. I think that’s because I’ve always believed that – trapped somewhere deep within a rationed and reasoned exploration of man’s earliest stories – there has remain hidden slivers of reality. Once we can crack open this last crystal of secret knowledge, we can fully examine the pieces in order to unlock a truer understanding of where we began – as a people. I think Mr. Trout would agree with that premise, as, in his new book, he goes against popular convention regarding the evolution of storytelling (aka “myths”) to assert that mankind, first and foremost, didn’t begin its collective experience at the top of the food chain; rather, it was probably somewhere very near the bottom.
This is what most fascinated me about DEADLY POWERS. Rather than dissecting the earliest myths to give them clarity for the time in which they were told, Trout reaches very astutely back to what mankind’s first experiences more likely were – that of being the prey running from vastly more threatening predators – and he uses those frights and horrors to establish man’s earliest understanding (feeble it may’ve been) for the role he played in that environment. How many times must these early men and women have watched others from their tribe fall prey to giant tigers or lions or bears? How futile may their hopes have been for survival? How would these experiences have played out with their limited cognitive ability? What did early man learn from this, and how would they then pass this knowledge on to others as well as successive generations? It only stands to reason that myths would’ve sprung out of these early terrors – the kind of myths that teach survival when survival seems near impossible; and it only stands to reason that subsequent myths would’ve incorporate threads and hints back to these prehistoric fears so that those sentiments could’ve been preserved for the generations that followed.
Trout goes to modest lengths to provide an overview of these earlier predators that man would’ve shared space with (mostly running away from!), giving the reader only a glimpse at the treacherous Pleistocene era and thereafter. From there, he gives a solid rundown of fear triggers and responses know to man, even showing how some of these behaviors may’ve evolved from or have been heavily influenced by these early predators. As these early men developed languages and began to think with ‘metacognition’, Trout explores how a fragile psychology could’ve attached feelings of kinship, guardianship, and even godhood to such carnivores. Lastly, he ties his theory all up in the complete package by highlighting how all of these factors coalesced into perhaps the single greatest influence within mankind’s ability to create myths – myths with meaning and purpose and stories to convey for the benefit of those who learn them and carry them forward to future generations.
As I hope I’ve conveyed, it’s a fascinating exploration, mostly because it fills in what I’ve always thought was a bit of a gap in understanding the what’s, where’s, and why’s mankind first decided to begin telling a story; certainly, it all could’ve begun with a very simple purpose in mind – saving one’s skin. That’s a very significant influence when you’re little more than a tasty morsel being given a healthy look-over by the nearest lion. It’s all told briskly and, thankfully, in very relatable prose. If you’re a student of myths, then I would imagine you’d be equally pleased as I was.
So … was mankind the original roadkill in the history of Earth? Was he nothing more than tomorrow’s leftovers for yesterday’s animal kingdom? Trout makes a convincing argument, and it’s one that comes with my highest recommendation.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to share that the kind folks of Prometheus Books provided me with a press copy for the purposes of completing this review.
What did you think of this review?