On Sunday, Expedition Unknown broadcasted a live special in which host Josh Gates presided over the opening of an Egyptian sarcophagus containing the mortal remains of a priest of the god Thoth. Gates took to Twitter to share his excitement, declaring the dead man to be “a stunner.” I get the idea of being excited by digging up a mummy, but it makes me uncomfortable to turn a corpse into entertainment.
What is interesting to me is how we decide as a society which corpses are worthy of solemnity and respect, and which can have a multi-hour TV special to use them as entertainment. Could you imagine, for example, a special in which the Discovery Channel unearthed Mark Twain’s grave to see if it still had a white mustache and then promised to put his clothes on display? Or consider the fuss that attended the exhumation of Jesse James’s grave, which was also a bit of a media circus but was treated as an exhumation rather than a festival and party. The difference seems to be that we see some dead people as still human beings, and others as basically objects. It’s hard to imagine putting Shakespeare’s skull on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library the way Egyptian mummies are laid out in the Egyptian Room of innumerable museums.
Meanwhile, a recent post at Medium by writer and art history lecturer Emily Pothast has some interesting things to say about the way Jordan Peterson misuses ancient mythology in his bestselling books. Pothast specifically takes on his use of the Enuma Elish to defend his controversial patriarchal view that “consciousness” is male, while the irrational and chaotic are female.
I will let you read the piece for yourself, but in summary, Pothast notes that Peterson intentionally dismisses the political context of the Babylonian creation myth. The story serves as a mythological justification for the dominance of Babylon in Mesopotamia by justifying Marduk’s position of preeminence among the gods and making him into the head of the pantheon. The Enuma Elish rewrites earlier stories to give Marduk a role originally held by other gods. To that extent, the story is an intentional pastiche rather than an organically developed myth. Peterson, however, treats it as a development from the collective unconscious, despite the fact that the three sources he cites for his understanding of the story all take pains to explain the broader context:
Even though the political function of Enuma Elish is obvious and important enough to have been mentioned by three of Peterson’s own sources—Heidel, Campbell, and Neumann—it figures into Maps of Meaning only as a dismissive footnote that misses the point of what it dismisses. In 12 Rules for Life, that dismissal resurfaces as a fatuous argument that utterly fails to engage with the history all three of his sources referenced. By Peterson’s own admission, his interest lies not in accurately grasping the historical context of myth, but in using myth to support preconceived notions about archetypes as “eternal ‘categories’ of imagination.” And yet his evidence for the primacy of those categories comes from the myths themselves, leaving us with a tail-biting bout of circular reasoning that calls to mind the illustration of the ouroboros that Peterson uses to illustrate the concept of chaos.
Far be it from me to defend Jordan Peterson, but Pothast’s criticism goes a little bit too far. Peterson’s intention was to use the myth of Marduk slaying the primal goddess Tiamat to justify a broader Jungian archetype of the masculine spirit overcoming the “Terrible Mother.” That much is a vestigial survival from the depths of twentieth-century psychoanalysis, but that doesn’t mean that Peterson misunderstood the Enuma Elish, at least not as Pothast believes he did. The reason for that is that the story that it tells existed even before Marduk was wedged into it. The Kutha Creation Legend, for example, gives a similar story, but with Nergal as the hero who slayed Tiamat. For Peterson’s purposes, it simply does not matter which god killed Tiamat, since he is interested in the action of male god or order slaying female chaos goddess.
Nevertheless, despite this, Pothast is fundamentally right about her main conclusion, that Peterson ignores the concept of context and instead imagines that myths precipitate out of a realm of archetypes:
He’s wrong about mapping the universe of human experience onto this story for the same reason fundamentalist Christians often have incorrect notions about the Bible: He completely ignores how the stories developed and imagines instead that they are simply evidence of some cosmic eternal truth that just so happens to line up with his politics.
As Pothast notes, Peterson’s understanding of myth is weirdly divorced from modern scholarship. He relies on the Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and a bunch of midcentury writers whose work, while important at the time, is now out of date at best and superseded by better knowledge in many cases.
Pothast, of course, has her own ax to grind, writing in the article about feminist readings of Mesopotamian mythology as well as issues of social justice. The difference, as she notes, is that Peterson presents his ideology as universal truths so self-evident as to be beyond ideology. And that is a dangerous perversion. Even the Babylonians understood that their myths were political in nature, not merely spiritual. Jordan Peterson would benefit from being at least as insightful as the ancients whose beliefs he mines.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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