When The Gods Fell Silent


Rachel Aviv revisits Julian Jaynes’s eccentric, controversial 1976 book on human beings’ interior lives. The basics of Jaynes’s theory:

Jaynes began inspecting the world’s earliest literature for the first signs of human consciousness. “I started off like in a detective story,” he told a reporter for the Princeton radio station. As he moved backward through the centuries, he saw that consciousness, as he had defined it, disappeared somewhere between the Odyssey and the Iliad. Odysseus is a modern hero, introspective and deceptive. In the Iliad, the writing of which scholars date some three hundred years earlier, the characters are passive and mentally inert. They have no concept of a private mental space. The word “psyche” referred only to actual substances in the body, breath, and blood, which leave the warrior’s body as soon as he dies. The gods, emerging from mists or clouds or the sea, handle the warrior’s decisions. When Achilles accuses Agamemnon of stealing his mistress, Agamemnon insists he had no agency. “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus,” he explains. “So what could I do? Gods always have their way.”

Why modern understandings of consciousness emerged:

By roughly 1,000 B.C., earthquakes and overpopulation in the Mediterranean led to mass migrations, which caused an unprecedented degree of social upheaval, according to Jaynes’s speculation. The gods, who had provided guidance by transforming habit and intuition into speech, fell silent in the face of novel dilemmas. They retreated to the sky, where they gave ambiguous signs of their watchful presence. Humans were left alone, groping for answers. They still heard a voice, but they knew it was their own: they silently narrated their days, weighing options, imagining what others would think, making sudden pronouncements that they immediately doubted. Jaynes describes the muting of the gods as an excruciating loss from which we still have not recovered. “The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time,” he writes. “Why have the gods left us? Like friends who depart from us, they must be offended. Our misfortunes are our punishments for our offenses. We go down on our knees, begging to be forgiven.”

(Photo by Flickr user Brenda-Starr)