Fear of eels

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Jan 14 15:34:49 UTC 2010

Perhaps.  But vervet monkeys (from an ancestor of
whom humans are descended) have three words to
warn of danger, one of which means "snake".  (The
other two are "leopard" and "eagle".  See, e.g.,
Nicholas Wade's Jan. 11/12 NYTimes
article.)  Perhaps it is really the dry, scaly
forest or savannah snake, not the wet, slimy
water-borne eel, that is our primal (primate?) fear.


At 1/14/2010 10:21 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>And eels.  To crib from an old paper of mine,
>"Eel of darkness, eel of light", discussing
>man's, and especially woman's, profound fear of snakes:
>Morgan (1972: 157) rejects the standard view
>attributing this phobia to 'something we brought
>down with us from the trees'.  Rather, as befits
>our evolutionary lineage as the aqueous ape, it
>is not the snake in the grass that gives us
>those 'atavistic creeps' but the deadly eel in
>the water.  As evidence for her proposal, Morgan
>points out that while 'the snake is by an
>enormous margin the animal that most people
>loathe', further inquiry shows that the
>creature's most abhorred attribute is its
>'sliminess'.  Mais où sont les slimy snakes d'antan?
>Now, an eel is very slimy, but a snake's skin is
>as dry as a length of sunbaked rope.  That slimy
>snake that haunts our nightmares exists nowhere
>on God's earth, except in the backwaters of the race memory of Homo sapiens.
>        (Morgan 1972: 157)
>And it would have been especially the female of
>the species, naked in the shallows with an
>infant or two in close attendance, who was most
>vulnerable to the mordacious ravages of the eel,
>and hence the most likely to have translated
>this memory into what endures as a vestigial
>phobia within the sex-linked collective unconscious.

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