In the first chapter of her autobiography Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts some of the Somali folktales her grandmother taught her when she was a child. One was a story of a nomad, searching for a home for his wife and child, who mysteriously finds an oasis with a fine grass hut already built in the middle of the desert, and a smiling, friendly stranger who invites them to live there. Alas for the trusting nomad, the stranger was really “He Who Rubs Himself with a Stick,” a monstrous werewolf-like being who stalks the desert in the shape of a hyena, and who returns that night while they lie sleeping and devours their infant son. Another example:
There were stories about an ugly old witch woman whose name was People Slayer or People Butcher, who had the power to transform herself, to adopt the face of someone you liked and respected, and who at the last minute lunged at you, laughing in your face, HAHAHAHAHA, before she slaughtered you with a long sharp knife that she had been hiding under the folds of her robe all along and then ate you up.
Every culture has stories like this, of course, stories of the monsters that lurk at the fringes of civilization and fall upon those who stray from the prescribed rules of conduct. There’s almost always a moral lesson to be drawn from these bloody folktales: whether to be chaste, or pious, or suspicious of strangers, or obedient to one’s parents, the main character almost always transgresses in some way that leads to disaster.
In all likelihood, these cautionary tales are as old as humanity itself. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world full of very real dangers, and it’s no surprise that they gave some of them a supernatural gloss. Natural disasters like drought and flood became the handiwork of angry nature spirits. Members of other, possibly hostile, rival tribes became shape-changing demons, utterly other, utterly alien, ready to drop their guise and strike at any moment. And our fellow predators, those who hunted the night beyond the light of our huddled fires, became monsters of every description. Fanciful though they were, these imaginings served a real purpose – giving our predecessors a way to deal with their fear, by constructing elaborate rituals intended to ward off misfortune. Like all religions, they imparted a sense of security and control in a hostile and uncaring cosmos.With the passage of time, as our societies became more complex and the borders of our knowledge advanced, our myths and our monsters became more abstract. Nevertheless, their basic purpose stayed very much the same. Take a more recent example from human cultural history, William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”:
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s Faith
Triumphs over Hell and Death.
This clumsy, unsubtle threat delivers the same fundamental message as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s childhood folktales: stay within the bounds of your culture, believe your elders, or suffer a terrible fate. With the Somali folktales, it’s more obvious where they originate – the childhood fears we felt on moonless nights, when we heard monsters roaring beyond the light of our fires. But both they and Blake’s poem are descendants of that same ancient, superstitious terror. Both paint pictures of unseen evils waiting to strike down those who stray from the straight and narrow path.
Ironically, these primitive fears still guide our steps, even though we have long since acquired enough knowledge to tell that they are substanceless. Our ancestors cowered from noises in the night, but we no longer need to. We have a better option: just go and look. More than enough brave thinkers have gone before us to make it abundantly clear that there are no supernatural dangers lurking in the dark, no monsters hiding in the bushes. We do have dangers to confront, but we can respond to them more proportionately and effectively if we cease embellishing them with fanciful mythology.