JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!  
E-mail Address:

| | | | | | |


Facebook   Twitter   YouTube   Goodreads


The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Julian Jaynes

BOOK ONE: THE MIND OF MAN

3: The Mind of the Iliad

THERE IS an awkward moment at the top of a Ferris wheel when, having come up the inside curvature, where we are facing into a firm structure of confident girders, suddenly that structure disappears, and we are thrust out into the sky for the outward curve down.

Such perhaps is the present moment. For all the scientific alternatives that we faced into in the Introduction, including my own prejudgments about the matter, all assured us that consciousness was evolved by natural selection back somewhere in mammalian evolution or before. We felt assured that at least some animals were conscious, assured that consciousness was related in some important way to the evolution of the brain and probably its cortex, assured certainly that early man was conscious as he was learning language.

These assurances have now disappeared, and we seem thrust out into the sky of a very new problem. If our impressionistic development of a theory of consciousness in the last chapter is even pointing in the right direction, then consciousness can only have arisen in the human species, and that development must have come after the development of language.

Now if human evolution were a simple continuity, our procedure at this point would normally be to study the evolution of language, dating it as best we could. We would then try to trace out human mentality thereafter until we reached the goal of our inquiry, where we could claim by some criterion or other that here at last is the place and the date of the origin and beginning of consciousness.

But human evolution is not a simple continuity. Into human history around 3000 B.C. comes a curious and very remarkable practice. It is a transmutation of speech into little marks on stone or clay or papyrus (or pages) so that speech can be seen rather than just heard, and seen by anybody, not just those within earshot at the time. So before pursuing the program of the preceding paragraph, we should first try to date the origin of consciousness either before or after the invention of such seen speech by examining its earliest examples. Our present question then is: what is the mentality of the earliest writings of mankind?

As soon as we go back to the first written records of man to seek evidence for the presence or absence of a subjective conscious mind, we are immediately beset with innumerable technical problems. The most profound is that of translating writings that may have issued from a mentality utterly different from our own. And this is particularly problematic in the very first human writings. These are in hieroglyphics, hieratic, and cuneiform, all — interestingly enough — beginning about 3000 B.C. None of these is entirely understood. When the subjects are concrete, there is little difficulty. But when the symbols are peculiar and undetermined by context, the amount of necessary guesswork turns this fascinating evidence of the past into a Rorschach test in which modern scholars project their own subjectivity with little awareness of the importance of their distortion. The indica- tions here as to whether consciousness was present in the early Egyptian dynasties and in the Mesopotamian cultures are thus too ambiguous for the kind of concerned analysis which is required. We shall return to these questions in Book II.

The first writing in human history in a language of which we have enough certainty of translation to consider it in connection with my hypothesis is the Iliad. Modern scholarship regards this revenge story of blood, sweat, and tears to have been developed by a tradition of bards or aoidoi between about 1230 B.C. when, according to inferences from some recently found Hittite tablets,1 the events of the epic occurred and about 900 or 850 B.C., when it came to be written down. I propose here to regard the poem as a psychological document of immense importance. And the question we are to put to it is: What is mind in the Iliad?


The Language of the Iliad

The answer is disturbingly interesting. There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad. I am saying 'in general' because I shall mention some exceptions later. And in general therefore, no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete. The word psyche, which later means soul or conscious mind, is in most instances life-substances, such as blood or breath: a dying warrior bleeds out his psyche onto the ground or breathes it out in his last gasp. The thumos, which later comes to mean something like emotional soul, is simply motion or agitation. When a man stops moving, the thumos leaves his limbs. But it is also somehow like an organ itself, for when Glaucus prays to Apollo to alleviate his pain and to give him strength to help his friend Sarpedon, Apollo hears his prayer and "casts strength in his thumos" (Iliad, 16:529). The thumos can tell a man to eat, drink, or fight. Diomedes says in one place that Achilles will fight "when the thumos in his chest tells him to and a god rouses him" (9:702f.). But it is not really an organ and not always localized; a raging ocean has thumos. A word of somewhat similar use is phren, which is always localized anatomi cally as the midriff, or sensations in the midriff, and is usually used in the plural. It is the phrenes of Hector that recognize that his brother is not near him (22:296); this means what we mean by "catching one's breath in surprise". It is only centuries later that it comes to mean mind or 'heart' in its figurative sense.

Perhaps most important is the word noos which, spelled as nous in later Greek, comes to mean conscious mind. It comes from the word noeein, to see. Its proper translation in the Iliad would be something like perception or recognition or field of vision. Zeus "holds Odysseus in his noos." He keeps watch over him.

Another important word, which perhaps comes from the doubling of the word meros (part), is mermera, meaning in two parts. This was made into a verb by adding the ending -izo, the common suffix which can turn a noun into a verb, the resulting word being mermerizein, to be put into two parts about something. Modern translators, for the sake of a supposed literary quality in their work, often use modern terms and subjective categories which are not true to the original. Mermerizein is thus wrongly translated as to ponder, to think, to be of divided mind, to be troubled about, to try to decide. But essentially it means to be in conflict about two actions, not two thoughts. It is always behavioristic. It is said several times of Zeus (20:17, 16:647), as well as of others. The conflict is often said to go on in the thumos or sometimes in the phrenes, but never in the noos. The eye cannot doubt or be in conflict, as the soon-to-be-invented conscious mind will be able to.

These words are in general, and with certain exceptions, the closest that anyone, authors or characters or gods, usually get to having conscious minds or thoughts. We shall be entering the meaning of these words more carefully in a later chapter.

There is also no concept of will or word for it, the concept developing curiously late in Greek thought. Thus, Iliadic men have no will of their own and certainly no notion of free will. Indeed, the whole problem of volition, so troubling, I think, to modern psychological theory, may have had its difficulties because the words for such phenomena were invented so late.

A similar absence from Iliadic language is a word for body in our sense. The word soma, which in the fifth century B.C. comes to mean body, is always in the plural in Homer and means dead limbs or a corpse. It is the opposite of psyche. There are several words which are used for various parts of the body, and, in Homer, it is always these parts that are referred to, and never the body as a whole.2 So, not surprisingly, the early Greek art of Mycenae and its period shows man as an assembly of strangely articulated limbs, the joints underdrawn, and the torso almost separated from the hips. It is graphically what we find again and again in Homer, who speaks of hands, lower arms, upper arms, feet, calves, and thighs as being fleet, sinewy, in speedy motion, etc., with no mention of the body as a whole. Now this is all very peculiar. If there is no subjective consciousness, no mind, soul, or will, in Iliadic men, what then initiates behavior?


The Religion of the Early Greeks

There is an old and general idea that there was no true religion in Greece before the fourth century B.C.3 and that the gods in the Homeric poems are merely a "gay invention of poets," as it has been put by noted scholars.4 The reason for this erroneous view is that religion is being thought of as a system of ethics, as a kind of bowing down to external gods in an effort to behave virtuously. And indeed in this sense the scholars are right. But to say that the gods in the Iliad are merely the inventions of the authors of the epic is to completely misread what is going on.

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamem- non (I :197ff.). It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath on the beach by his black ships, a god who whispers low to Helen to sweep her heart with homesick longing, a god who hides Paris in a mist in front of the attacking Menelaus, a god who tells Glaucus to take bronze for gold (6:234ff.), a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, who urges the soldiers on or defeats them by casting them in spells or drawing mists over their visual fields. It is the gods who start quarrels among men (4:437ff.) that really cause the war (3:164ff.), and then plan its strategy (2:56ff.). It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across the bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.

The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods. To another, a man seems to be the cause of his own behavior. But not to the man himself. When, toward the end of the war, Achilles reminds Agamemnon of how he robbed him of his mis- tress, the king of men declares, "Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus, and my portion, and the Erinyes who walk in darkness: they it was in the assembly put wild ate upon me on that day when I arbitrarily took Achilles' prize from him, so what could I do? Gods always have their way." (19:86-90). And that this was no particular fiction of Agamemnon's to evade responsibility is clear in that this explanation is fully accepted by Achilles, for Achilles also is obedient to his gods. Scholars who in commenting on this passage say that Agamemnon's behavior has become "alien to his ego,"5 do not go nearly far enough. For the question is indeed, what is the psychology of the Iliadic hero? And I am saying that he did not have any ego whatever.

Even the poem itself is not wrought by men in our sense. Its first three words are Menin aedie Thea, Of wrath sing, O Goddess! And the entire epic which follows is the song of the goddess which the entranced bard 'heard' and chanted to his iron-age listeners among the ruins of Agamemnon's world.

If we erase all our preconceptions about poetry and act toward the poem as if we had never heard of poetry before, the abnormal quality of the speech would immediately arrest us. We call it meter nowadays. But what a different thing, these steady hexameters of pitch stresses, from the looser jumble of accents in ordinary dialogue! The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener. A similar thing occurs when the voices of schizophrenics speak in scanning rhythms or rhyme. Except for its later accretions, then, the epic itself was neither consciously composed nor consciously remembered, but was successively and creatively changed with no more awareness than a pianist has of his improvisation.

Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices. The gods were organizations of the central nervous system and can be regarded as personae in the sense of poignant consistencies through time, amalgams of parental or admonitory images. The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact that the gods never step outside of natural laws. Greek gods cannot create anything out of nothing, unlike the Hebrew god of Genesis. In the relationship between the god and the hero in their dialectic, there are the same courtesies, emotions, persuasions as might occur between two people. The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be. He simply leads, advises, and orders. Nor does the god occasion humility or even love, and little gratitude. Indeed, I suggest that the god-hero relationship was — by being its progenitor — similar to the referent of the ego-superego relationship of Freud or the self-generalized other relationship of Mead. The strongest emotion which the hero feels toward a god is amazement or wonder, the kind of emotion that we feel when the solution of a particularly difficult problem suddenly pops into our heads, or in the cry of eureka! from Archimedes in his bath.

The gods are what we now call hallucinations. Usually they are only seen and heard by the particular heroes they are speaking to. Sometimes they come in mists or out of the gray sea or a river, or from the sky, suggesting visual auras preceding them. But at other times, they simply occur. Usually they come as themselves, commonly as mere voices, but sometimes as other people closely related to the hero.

Apollo's relation to Hector is particularly interesting in this regard. In Book 16, Apollo comes to Hector as his maternal uncle; then in Book 17 as one of his allied leaders; and then later in the same book as his dearest friend from abroad. The denouement of the whole epic comes when it is Athene who, after telling Achilles to kill Hector, then comes to Hector as his dearest brother, Deiphobus. Trusting in him as his second, Hector chal- lenges Achilles, demands of Deiphobus another spear, and turns to find nothing is there. We would say he has had an hallucination. So has Achilles. The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did.


The Bicameral Mind

The picture then is one of strangeness and heartlessness and emptiness. We cannot approach these heroes by inventing mind-spaces behind their fierce eyes as we do with each other. Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we; he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon. In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind. Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then 'told' to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or 'god', or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not 'see' what to do by himself.


The evidence for the existence of such a mentality as I have just proposed is not meant to rest solely on the Iliad. It is rather that the Iliad suggests the hypothesis that in later chapters I shall attempt to prove or refute by examining the remains of other civilizations of antiquity. Nevertheless, it would be persuasive at this time to bring up certain objections to the preceding which will help clarify some of the issues before going on.

Objection: Is it not true that some scholars have considered the poem to be entirely the invention of one man, Homer, with no historical basis whatever, even doubting whether Troy evei: existed at all, in spite of Schliemann's famous discoveries in the nineteenth century?

Reply: This doubt has recently been put to rest by the discovery of Hittite tablets, dating from 1300 B.C., which clearly refer to the land of the Achaeans and their king, Agamemnon. The catalogue of Greek places that send ships to Troy in Book 2 corresponds remarkably closely to the pattern of settlement which archaeology has discovered. The treasures of Mycenae, once thought to be fairy tales in the imagination of a poet, have been dug out of the silted ruins of the city. Other details mentioned in the Iliad, the manners of burial, the kinds of armor, such as the precisely described boars'-tusk helmet, have been unearthed in sites relevant to the poem. There is thus no question of its historical substrate. The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history, webbed into the Mycenaean Aegean, to be examined by psychohistorical scientists.

The problem of single or multiple authorship of the poem has been endlessly debated by classical scholars for at least a century. But this establishment of an historical basis, even of artifacts mentioned in the poem, must indicate that there were many intermediaries who verbally transmitted whatever happened in the thirteenth century to succeeding ages. It is thus more plausible to think of the creation of the poem as part of this verbal transmission than as the work of a single man named Homer in the ninth century B.C. Homer, if he existed, may simply have been the first aoidos to be transcribed.

Objection: Even if this is so, what basis is there to suppose that an epic poem, whose earliest manuscript that we know of is a recension from Alexandrian scholars of the fourth or third century B.C., which obviously must have existed in many forms, and as we read it today was put together out of them, how can a poem of this sort be regarded as indicative of what the actual Mycenaeans of the thirteenth century B.C. were like?

Reply: This very serious objection is made even stronger by certain discrepancies between the descriptions in the poem and plausibility. The disappointing mounds of grassy rubble identified today by archaeologists as the city of Priam cover but a few acres, while the Iliad counts its defenders at 50,000 men. Even the trivial is sometimes moved up by hyperbole into impossibility: the shield of Ajax, if it were made of seven oxhides and a layer of metal, would have weighed almost 300 pounds. History has definitely been altered. The siege lasts ten years, an absolutely impossible duration given the problems of supply on both sides. There are two general periods during which such alterations of the original history could have occurred: the verbal transmission period from the Trojan War to the ninth century B.C., when the Greek alphabet comes into existence and the epic is written down, and the literate period thereafter up to the time of the scholars of Alexandria in the third and second centuries B.C. whose put- together recension is the version we have today. As to the second period, there can be no doubt that there would be differences among various copies, and that extra parts and variations, even events belonging to different times and places, could have been drawn into the vortex of this one furious story. But all these additions were probably kept in check both by the transcribers' reverence for the poem at this time, as is indicated in all other Greek literature, and by the requirements of public performances. These were held at various sites, but particularly at the Panathenaea every four years at Athens, where the Iliad was devoutly chanted along with the Odyssey to vast audiences by the so-called rhapsodes. It is probable therefore that with the exception of some episodes which contemporary scholars believe are late additions (such as the ambushing of Dolon and the references to Hades), the Iliad as we have it is very similar to what was first written down in the ninth century B.C.

But further back in the dim obscurities of earlier time stand the shadowy aoidoi. And it is they certainly who successively altered the original history. Oral poetry is a very different species from written poetry.6 The way we read it and judge it must be completely different. Composition and performance are not separate; they are simultaneous. And each new composing of the Iliad down the swift generations was on the basis of auditory memory and traditional bardic formulae, each aoidos with set phrases of varying lengths filling out the unremembered hexameters and with set turns of plot filling out unremembered action. And this was over the three or four centuries following the actual war. The Iliad, then, is not so much a reflection of the social life of Troy as it is of several stages of social development from that time up to the literate period. Treated as a socio- logical document, the objection is sustained.

But as a psychological document, the case is quite different. Whence these gods? And why their particular relationship to the individuals? My argument has stressed two things, the lack of mental language and the initiation of action by the gods. These are not archaeological matters. Nor are they matters likely to have been invented by the aoidoi. And any theory about them has to be a psychological theory about man himself. The only other alternative is the following.

Objection: Are we not making a great deal out of what might be merely literary style? That the gods are mere poetic devices of the aoidoi to make the action vivid, devices which may indeed go back to the earliest bards of Mycenae?

Reply: This is the well-known problem of the gods and their overdetermination of the action. The gods seem to us quite unnecessary. Why are they there? And the common solution is as above, that they are a poetic device. The divine machinery duplicates natural conscious causations simply to present them in concrete pictorial form, because the aoidoi were without the refinements of language to express psychological matters.

Not only is there no reason to believe that the aoidoi had any conscious psychology they were trying to express, such a notion is quite foreign to the whole texture of the poem. The Iliad is about action and it is full of action — constant action. It really is about Achilles' acts and their consequences, not about his mind. And as for the gods, the Iliadic authors and the Iliadic characters all agree in the acceptance of this divinely managed world. To say the gods are an artistic apparatus is the same kind of thing as to say that Joan of Arc told the Inquisition about her voices merely to make it all vivid to those who were about to condemn her. It is not that the vague general ideas of psychological causation appear first and then the poet gives them concrete pictorial form by inventing gods. It is, as I shall show later in this essay, just the other way around. And when it is suggested that the inward feelings of power or inward monitions or losses of judgment are the germs out of which the divine machinery developed, I return that the truth is just the reverse, that the presence of voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and that the creation of such a self is the product of culture. In a sense, we have become our own gods.

Objection: If the bicameral mind existed, one might expect utter chaos, with everybody following his own private hallucinations. The only possible way in which there could be a bicameral civilization would be that of a rigid hierarchy, with lesser men hallucinating the voices of authorities over them, and those authorities hallucinating yet higher ones, and so on to the kings and their peers hallucinating gods. Yet the Iliad does not present any such picture with its concentration on the heroic individual.

Reply: This is a very telling objection that puzzled me for a long time, particularly as I studied the history of other bicameral civilizations in which there was not the freedom for individual action that there was in the social world of the Iliad.

The missing pieces in the puzzle turn out to be the well-known Linear B Tablets from Knossos, Mycenae, and Pylos. They were written directly in what I am calling the bicameral period. They have long been known, yet long resistant to the most arduous labors of cryptographers. Recently, however, they have been deciphered and shown to contain a syllabic script, the earliest written Greek used only for record purposes.7 And it gives us an outline picture of Mycenaean society much more in keeping with the hypothesis of a bicameral mind: hierarchies of officials, soldiers, or workers, inventories of goods, statements of goods owed to the ruler and particularly to gods. The actual world of the Trojan War, then, was in historical fact much closer to the rigid theocracy which the theory predicts than to the free individuality of the poem.

Moreover, the very structure of the Mycenaean state is profoundly different from the loose assemblage of warriors depicted in the Iliad. It is indeed quite similar to the contemporary divinely ruled kingdoms of Mesopotamia (as described later in this essay, particularly in II.2). These records in Linear B call the head of the state the wanax, a word which in later classical Greek is only used for gods. Similarly, the records call the land occupied by his state as his temenos, a word which later is used only for land sacred to the gods. The later Greek word for king is basileus, but the term in these tablets denotes a much less important person. He is more or less the first servant of the wanax, just as in Mesopotamia the human ruler was really the steward of the lands 'owned' by the god he heard in hallucination — as we shall see in II.2. The material from the Linear B tablets is difficult to piece together, but they do reveal the hierarchical and leveled nature of centralized palace civilizations which the succession of poets who composed the Iliad in the oral tradition completely ignored.

This loosening of the social structure in the fully developed Iliad may in part have been caused by the bringing together of other much later stories into the main theme of the Trojan War. One of the most telling pieces of evidence that the Iliad is a composite of different compositions is the large number of inconsistencies in the poem, some in very close proximity. For example, when Hector is withdrawing from the battle, one line (6:117) says, "The black hide beat upon his neck and ankles." This can only be the early Mycenaean body-shield. But the next line refers to "The rim which ran round the outside of the bossed shield," and this is a very different kind and a much later type of shield. Obviously, the second line was added by a later poet who in his auditory trance was not even visualizing what he was saying.


Further Qualifications

Indeed, since this is the chaotic period when the bicameral mind breaks down and consciousness begins (as we shall see in a later chapter), we might expect the poem to reflect both this breakdown of civil hierarchies as well as more subjectification side by side with the older form of mentality. As it is, I have in the previous pages omitted certain discrepancies to the theory which I regard as such incursions. These outcroppings of something close to subjective consciousness occur in parts of the Iliad regarded by scholars as later additions to the core poem.8 Book 9, for example, which was written and added to the poem only after the great migration of the Achaeans into Asia Minor, contains references to human deception unlike any in the other books. Most of these occur in the great, long rhetorical reply of Achilles to Odysseus about Agamemnon's treatment of him (9:344, 371, and 375). In particular is Achilles' slur on Agamemnon: "Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is the man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another." (9:3123f.). This is definitely an indication of subjective consciousness. So also may be the difficult-to-translate optative constructions of Helen (3:173ff.; 6:344ff.) or the apparent reminiscence of Nestor (1:26off.).

There are also two extraordinary places in the text where first Agenor (21:553) and then Hector (22:99) to themselves. The fact that these two speeches occur late in the poem, in close proximity, have highly inappropriate content (they contradict the previous characterizations of the speakers), and use some identical phrases and lines, all suggest that they are formulaic insertions into the story by the same aoidos at a later time.9 But not much later. For they are sufficiently unusual to surprise even their speakers. After these soliloquies, both heroes exclaim precisely the same astonished words, "But wherefore does my life say this to me?" If, indeed, such talks to oneself were common, as they would be if their speakers were really conscious, there would be no cause for surprise. We shall have occasion to return to these instances when we discuss in more detail how consciousness arose.10

The main point of this chapter is that the earliest writing of men in a language that we can really comprehend, when looked at objectively, reveals a very different mentality from our own. And this must, I think, be accepted as true. Such instances of narratization, analog behavior, or mind-space as occasionally occur are regarded by scholars as of later authorship. The bulk of the poem is consistent in its lack of analog consciousness and points back to a very different kind of human nature. Since we know that Greek culture very quickly became a literature of consciousness, we may regard the Iliad as standing at the great turning of the times, and a window back into those unsubjective times when every kingdom was in essence a theocracy and every man the slave of voices heard whenever novel situations occurred. >