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The Realm Of Monsters

The word "monster" comes from the Latin monstrum, "that which is shown forth or revealed." The same root also appears in the English word "demonstrate," and several less common words (such as "remonstrance") that share the same sense of revealing, disclosing, or displaying. In the original sense of the word, a monster is a revelation, something shown forth.

This may seem worlds away from the usual modern meaning of the word "monster" - a strange, frightening, and supposedly mythical creature - but here, as elsewhere in the realm of monsters, appearances deceive. Certainly, monsters are strange, at least to those raised in modern ways of approaching the world. As we'll see, too, monsters have a great deal to do with the realm of myth, although this latter word (like "monster" itself) has older and deeper meanings that evade our modern habits of thought. The association between monsters and terror, too, has practical relevance, even when the creatures we call "monsters" fear us more than we fear them.

The myth, the terror, and the strangeness all have their roots in the nature of the realm of monsters and the monstrous - a world of revelations, where the hidden and the unknown show furtive glimpses of themselves. If we pay attention to them, monsters do have something to reveal. They show us the reality of the impossible, or of those things that we label impossible; they point out that the world we think we live in, and the world we actually inhabit, may not be the same place at all.

For thousands of years, monstrous beings have been a source of revelations of this kind. In earlier times, in fact, monsters and what they showed forth were seen as matters of very great importance. Monsters were news, and not just for the reasons that draw crowds to monster movies and UFO- sighting areas nowadays.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the appearance of any strange being was a message from the hidden realms of existence, and needed interpretation by skilled professionals. Like comets, meteors, the mutterings of oracles, and the behavior of birds and animals, the appearance of monsters could be read and understood by the wise, and used to cast light on future events, the unknowns of the present, and the always-mysterious purposes of the gods and goddesses. Other ancient societies had similar habits. In China, up to the time of the Nationalist takeover of 1911, for instance, the imperial government included a whole bureaucracy of omen readers, who collected reports of dragons and other monstrous creatures and recorded them as guides to the will of Heaven.

The same sort of attitude is common to most traditional cultures, and it remained standard in the West all through the Middle Ages. The monkish chroniclers of medieval times noted sightings of werewolves and mermaids in much the same spirit that leads modern newspapers to report the doings of such equally mysterious entities as the Gross National Product. The appearance of a monster was news, not just because of what the monster was, but because of what it meant - in other words, what it showed forth about the universe and humanity's place in it.

This approach to the monstrous only faded out with the Scientific Revolution, which began some three hundred fifty years ago in Western Europe. The thinkers who spearheaded that revolution saw traditional lore of all kinds as one of the most important roadblocks in the way of their dream of a wholly rationalistic approach to the world. Some of these early scientists, such as Francis Bacon, suggested that the old lore should be carefully searched for whatever real knowledge it contained. The majority, though, thought otherwise, and it was their view that ultimately triumphed.

That triumph was rooted in a profound change in the way people understood the world around them. Before the Scientific Revolution, most people saw the world as a living unity, one that communicated with the observant mind. With the new science came a radically different way of thinking about the universe: a way that saw dead matter moving in empty space as the only reality, and rejected everything else as fable, fraud, or delusion. Under the influence of this new philosophy, all the old monster- lore of the ancient and medieval periods (and a great deal more) was heaped up into one great pile, labeled "nonsense," and tossed aside without a second thought.

Depending on one's viewpoint, this shift in the way people understood the world may look like either common sense breaking through centuries of superstition, or a Faustian bargain in which an entire civilization sold its soul in exchange for material wealth and power. Our task here, however, is not to judge the Scientific Revolution but to understand it, and to make sense of the changes it made in our habits of thought - changes that have had a major impact on how we understand (or, more precisely, fail to understand) the appearances of monstrous beings in our midst.

What set the new science apart from nearly all previous ways of thinking about the world was its insistence that everything real had to be material - that there was nothing in the universe except atoms and empty space. The most interesting thing about this claim is that no one ever proved, or even tried to prove, that it was correct. It was simply assumed, by the founders of modern science, without proof - and it is still assumed, without proof, by most scientists today.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the Scientific Revolution's rejection of magic, alchemy, and the like was based on rhetoric, not experiment. In all the arguments over the reality of these things, no one on the scientific side of the debate claimed to have done experiments proving that magic, alchemy, and other kinds of "rejected knowledge" were false. (This point can be looked up quite readily in contemporary sources, or in the very large modern historical literature on the period.) The early scientists assumed that these things were false because they didn't fit the new scientific and materialist image of the universe, not because anyone disproved them.

In the same way, the lore of monsters was tossed out with the trash, not because people didn't keep seeing monsters - they did - or because monster sightings all proved to have simple, straightforward, scientifically acceptable explanations - they didn't - but because the scientific model of the universe had no room for monsters. Monsters couldn't exist - this is how the logic went - and therefore they didn't exist. By an extension of this same sort of thinking, anyone who disagreed with this sweeping dismissal was obviously either deluded or misinformed, and anyone who claimed to see a monster had to be either mistaken, dishonest, or crazy.

By any standard of logic, of course, this approach is impossible to justify. If the evidence contradicts one's theory, the reasonable thing to do is to throw out the theory - not the evidence! Still, the opposite habit has a long pedigree in scientific circles. It has even been raised to the level of a full-blown philosophical argument by David Hume, whose book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1748) was one of the first clear formulations of the philosophy of modern science. In that book, Hume argued that no amount of evidence could prove the reality of an event that violated the laws of Nature, since it was always more likely that the evidence was wrong than that natural law had been set aside.

This is an interesting claim. If we knew, with absolute certainty, what laws Nature follows, it might even be a reasonable one. Since we don't - scientific "laws," then and now, are simply the most widely accepted theories about how the natural world works, and they constantly change as our knowledge changes - dismissing relevant evidence because it doesn't agree with one's preconceptions is at the very least a questionable way to go about things. Nonetheless, this kind of logic has remained standard within the scientific community for more than three centuries now, and has shaped our culture's response to an astonishing array of phenomena.

Thus, for example, no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson reacted to reports of a meteorite impact - at a time when scientific theory stated that meteors were not made of rock and could not hit the Earth- by insisting it was more likely that an entire county full of witnesses had lied than that a stone had fallen from the sky. His logic was simple: the best scientific authorities said that there were no stones in the sky, and therefore stones couldn't have fallen from the sky. Meteorites couldn't exist, and therefore they didn't exist - no matter what the evidence said.

Similarly, until Nixon's trip to China brought acupuncture into a blaze of publicity that no amount of official condemnation could obscure, medical authorities in the West insisted that putting needles into a person's skin couldn't possibly cause anesthetic and healing effects. These statements were made, not because anyone had done experiments disproving acupuncture, but because Western medical theories couldn't (and still can't) account for it. Even now, after the publication of reams of experimental studies showing that acupuncture does in fact have the effects claimed for it, there are plenty of medical researchers in the Western world who still dismiss it as quackery because it doesn't fit their theories.

The same questionable logic, finally, continues to govern the way most scientists respond to more than a century of systematic research into extrasensory perception (ESP) and other unusual powers of human consciousness. As sociologist James McClenon demonstrated in his incisive study Deviant Science, most of the scientists who accept the reality of psychic phenomena do so on the basis of evidence. Some are familiar with the impressive results of parapsychological research over the last century, while others have had personal experiences with ESP. Most of those who reject the possibility of psychic phenomena, on the other hand, do so on the basis of theory. In McClenon's study, in fact, no less than 93 percent of scientists who rejected psychic phenomena referred to a priori arguments (that is, arguments based on theoretical principles) as an important factor in their opinions, while only 7 percent of those who accepted psychic phenomena did so.

The sort of thinking that considers theories more important than evidence is a major barrier to the study of monsters and monster lore, among many other things. If any sort of sense is to be made of traditions and experiences involving monsters, it's crucial to avoid this highly unscientific "scientific attitude."

At the same time, of course, it's important to stay away from the opposite extreme of complete credulousness. The realm of the monstrous has attracted its share of questionable cases and dubious characters down through the years; there have been lies, hoaxes, cases of mistaken identity, and other sources of confusion and misinformation. It's important not to forget these issues - but it's equally important not to fall into the trap of assuming that just because such things occur, as they do in every other field of research, the whole subject can be comfortably dismissed. Either of these attitudes misses out on what monsters have to reveal.

John Michael Greer. Monsters: An Investigator's Guide to Magical Beings. Llewellyn Publications. 2006.

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