Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 4a, Rites, Rituals and Initiations

This is a shorter post. There’s a couple of reasons for this: it’s cold out, and so I’m walking less ― especially with my daughter in a sling ― and I’ve fallen behind on the podcasts I enjoy and perhaps more importantly, knowing that I’m less than half way through the book and seeing it get increasingly divorced from a coherent and relevant discussion is quite defeating.

The book also seems to be repeating itself. The idea of dropping the myth of Christianity and keeping the values (basic humanistic values, by the way) being hypocritical came up again. And my rebuttal is no different: thousands of years ago, someone who didn’t have the Christian myth started stating their values in a way that became the start of the Christian myth. They didn’t need the myth to have the values.

I have seen an interview with Peterson where he has talked about the value of learning history, and particularly realising the normality of people like the Nazis and that it would have been you if you were there. I agree with this; the normal German people who became Nazis or didn’t fight the Nazis weren’t a different species, and in all likelihood you would have been a Nazi if you had been German in the 1930s and 40s. There are values and lessons to pull from that striking observation and likelihood, but there’s no myth and no Gods and no cosmogony required. And no myth saved the German people from that transformation. And so, as a general tint to the discussion, notice that learning history and mythology are not the same thing. Although, this is an aside and not related to the rest of the post…

There seems to be a theme in Peterson’s thesis that denies the concept of a transition. Instead, the old must die and then be born anew, better. Like so many of the concepts discussed, this seems to be entirely backwards: you grow or develop to improve; you don’t start entirely afresh, which is what a rebirth would be. Nonetheless, that does seem to be the tool of the imagery in myths.

Peterson talks about initiations. Yes, the degrading and weird ones you hear about in University societies. I’m sure street gangs have something similar. The initiation ― or so Peterson argues ― isn’t just a rite of passage into the new group. It is a symbolic death of the pre-group individual and rebirth into the group. The group is a type of Great Father, and there’s a reason initiations tend to exist at stages where the individual’s relationship with their parents change: the individual is seeking out new structure and order.

I’m trying to recall the initiations I heard about while I was at university. I never went through one, and they seemed more common at the neighbouring Bristol University than University of West of England (although, the Rugby team definitely had one). The basic structure did seem to include something humiliating, followed by some short journey (like going down a slide covered in mud, or through a tunnel while you’re hosed with water). This, it seems, is the basic death and rebirth imagery. And, perhaps the basic arch of being in a good situation, having that situation change or outgrowing it, struggling with that change and then ultimately succeeding in creating a new normal (Paradise, Chaos, Fall, Redemption) is encapsulated in there somewhere.

This also brings the narrative of The Great Mother back into focus. If one must die to be reborn, then the Mother must be a symbol of death to make room for life. But, there’s still a problem here. Peterson points out where the narrative has a biological basis: the Mother as a symbol of fertility and life has that basis. The Mother as a symbol of death does not have that basis, and neither does the necessity of death for life: you don’t have to take grandma out behind the bike shed and hit her with a shovel to become pregnant. In fact, you can have several generations of family in the same house. Peterson isn’t as keen to discuss this lack of a biological analogue as he is to discuss where there is a biological analogue.

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