For content, reading my article on Jung and Plato will help make this make more sense. Recall that as a society we invent certain Archetypes, or general ideas, that get stored within our collective unconscious and affect the stories we create. These stories and Archetypes give us access to general wisdom, as we can see how our ancestors navigated their problems and saw the world.
If you don’t feel like reading about Jordan Peterson today, feel free to skip this one.
Earlier this year, the New York Times wrote a profile on everyone’s favourite UofT professor, Jordan Peterson. In particular, a lot of people focused on this quote:
“… [Witches] do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”
In short, Jordan Peterson says that Witches and Dragons are real. Really real. The stuff the New York Times article fell into one of two camps. There was the dangerous stuff, like his support for enforced monogamy or his view that women are inherently chaotic creatures. Then there was the ridiculous, such as his bedspread being a giant print-out of his twitter avatar or how he has a painting of naked ladies holding swords above his bed. A lot of people treated this quote as another wacky aspect of his personality, when it actually has more to do with his dangerous ideology.
Witches are Real
When Peterson says that Witches and Dragons are superordinate and more real than anything else, and claims that “what exists is not obvious”, he’s speaking to the ideas of Platonic Forms and Jungian Archetypes. Saying that they exist is claiming that these Archetypes exist in our collective unconscious and are enshrined in mythology. Every culture is afraid of the terrifying power of an apex predator. Powerful, merciless, intelligent. From there we developed this Archetype of the predator, and our mythology reflects it through the idea of the Dragon. No predator on earth is as terrifying as our Dragon. While things in the Sensible World come and go, with species going extinct and dangers subsiding, the Archetypical predator in the Intelligible world is a constant threat. That’s what is meant by saying that they exist more than anything else, in that they represent the most eternal, most pure representation of a given idea.
Peterson believes that mythology, and by extension religion, can tell us how to organize society. How we ought to behave is based on their lessons. This seems plausible in some cases. The fact that certain values and ideas have endured for millennia, and are represented amongst different cultures, can give evidence for their usefulness or validity. The lessons mythology teaches regarding how to handle predators seems helpful. “Don’t get eaten by a dragon” seems like good advice.
However, we should not always regard as benign the values and lessons that these Archetypes impart upon us.
Feeling Bewitched – The ‘Witch’ Archetype
By definition, our Archetypes are the result of human thought. They are representations made by humans, the result of our limited understanding trying to find patterns in the world around us. When these Archetypes find their way into our culture, they represent people’s values and world-views rather than objective facts.
If we look to our mythologies to give us lessons on how to live our lives, we risk only reproducing the values of our ancestors rather than critically examining them.
Suppose we want to order our society according to the Archetypes represented in culture. We might look at our mythology to ask how we ought to view or treat women. When looking at what traits a woman should possess, we might look at an Archetype that gives us knowledge of what an ‘evil woman’ looks like. From here, we turn to the Witch Archetype for advice.
Women are supposed to be beautiful, so Witches are ugly. Women are supposed to marry and take care of a family and home, so Witches live isolated in decrepit huts. If they do have company, it’s in the form of other evil women. Women are supposed to be submissive to men, so Witches typically manipulate and humiliate them. Women aren’t supposed to receive an education, so Witches spend their time hoarding ancient knowledge and poring over old books.
From here, we can conclude that women are supposed to be beautiful, live with and take care of men, act docile, and remain uneducated. We can find similar values present in many mythological depictions of women.
Were we to take our mythology at face value, we would be forced to admit that these traits are necessary to be a good woman. Things like confidence, independence, or knowledgeability are suddenly vilified, as they are the domain of evil Witches.
As a side-note, standard “witch-like behaviours” such as wanting to live with your female friends, read books, and make fun of men seem like perfectly justifiable responses to patriarchal oppression.
Which Witch is Which – Confusing an ‘Ought’ with an ‘Is’
The fact is that our mythologies do give us advice on how to live. Mythology is full of moralistic tales that reflect our cultural values. However, while these tales show us what our values are, they do not necessarily show us what our values ought to be.
This is known as confusing an ought with an is. We treat the mere existence of a norm as evidence of its validity. All cultural norms represent a snapshot of how our population has lived and thought of the world, rather than a necessarily correct vision of how the world should be. By clinging to mythological values, we can become stuck in the past. It becomes impossible to adapt to new situations or information, or critique mistakes within our cultural values.
Two problems come from treating an is as an ought in assuming that mythology gives us a useful blueprint in telling us how to live.
First, we shouldn’t assume that our supposedly beneficial norms are beneficial to all people. have no doubt that entrenching and codifying the Witch Archetype was helpful to some group in society. Mythology teaches us to avoid Dragons. This is a helpful lesson for humans, but not so helpful to the dragons of our world. Similarly, the idea of the Witch was certainly helpful to half of society. Just not for everyone.
Second, we shouldn’t assume that our norms will always be beneficial without changing. Even supposing that certain social roles were instrumentally helpful to kickstarting early society, it it wrong to assume that those roles will still be useful once society has got its wheels off the ground. Furthermore, we cannot know that the social roles that were present at the outset of society would be the optimal arrangement we could have; that arrangement was just the best we came up with at the time.
Witch Please – Archetype Shift and Signs of Progress
Just like how Zombies have changed in meaning, we can already see a shift in the Witch Archetype taking place. Modern stories very rarely deal with Witches as the standard ugly, evil temptress. When those do crop up, such as in Hocus Pocus or Stardust, we don’t think of them as a credible threat to humankind but instead as a cute or campy nod to fairy-tales. They’re more often subverted or referenced than handled straight-faced.
The majority of Witches nowadays show up as sympathetic characters. Since the rise of the Feminist movement, we’ve all been asked to come to terms with our revulsion to the Witch. Why are we conflating Ugly with Villainous? Headstrong with Chaotic? Powerful with Dangerous? The Witch is transitioning from a symbol of corruption within society to a distinctly female representation of confidence and competence. We can see a pushback, a rethinking of our norms. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Halloweentown, Charmed, Wicked, Discworld, etc. all are evidence of a shifting cultural perspective. They, to varying degrees, each critique the patriarchal assumptions that give rise to the Witch Archetype to begin with.
It’s troubling to see that the majority of these sympathetic Witches have to also be conventionally beautiful to be seen as subverting the trope, but that’s a battle for another day.
While following Archetypes and the lessons of Mythology has gotten us this far, there’s nothing inherently good about them. They’re instrumentally useful, and even then not always useful to different groups. We should regard them as a record of what has worked in the past, and may or may not continue to work in the future. Even if we think witches are real, the real witch hunt should be targeting our harmful rhetoric and ideologies.