The Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University recently announced that, after further review, they had rescinded a fellowship previously offered to Canadian psychologist and self-help author Jordan Peterson. Other faculty members expressed doubt that an official offer was ever made in the first place. “It’s not clear to me that this ‘fellowship’ existed except as request by Peterson to affiliate to the Faculty,” English lecturer Priyamvada Gopal remarked on Twitter. “My guess: he asked a couple of professorial chums… in Divinity to give him a berth; he’d basically pay his way.”
Regardless of the actual circumstances, the media has run with the narrative that an offer was made and then rescinded. The Guardian cited a “backlash from faculty and students” as the cause for this decision, while Peterson’s own statement called those who blocked his appointment “conspiratorial, authoritarian and cowardly bureaucrats.” Right-wing outlet The National Review took this assessment a step further, characterizing the faculty who challenged Peterson as “petulant careerists” hell-bent on reviving the Inquisition.
Such criticism hinges on the notion that Peterson has controversial yet academically important ideas and that refusing to platform them is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty. But there is a far more compelling reason not to let Peterson’s assertions go uncontested, much less allow him to espouse them at Cambridge: Jordan Peterson is an unserious scholar whose own sources contradict the very claims he uses them to make.
Simply reading the books you find in the religion section of your local used bookstore does not make you a religious scholar, no matter how many YouTube videos you post.
Last fall, in preparation for a paper I gave at a conference on Peterson and his influence, I read Maps of Meaning (1999), his 400-page magnum opus. In this volume, he lays out the philosophy he expounds upon in his newer book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and his myriad YouTube lectures, with which I also spent perhaps a little too much time. (You can read my paper, with citations for everything in this paper here, and you can watch my conference presentation here.)
While doing this research, I discovered an author who—despite his obvious passion for mythology and religion—does not study sacred texts in their historical contexts. In addition, he does not bother to investigate contemporary scholarship on any of the texts he cites. Instead, his understanding relies heavily on a handful of early- to mid-20th century authors like Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell—three popularizers of myth who share, as religious scholar Robert Ellwood put it, “intellectual roots in the antimodern pessimism and romanticism that helped give rise to European fascism.” This is not to say that these authors have no value: I read them voraciously when I was younger, and I can tell you what I still think is useful about each. But simply reading the books you find in the religion section of your local used bookstore does not make you a religious scholar, no matter how many YouTube videos you post.
Peterson uses myths to suggest that his own personal worldview indicates a natural, evolutionarily determined process, and he does this by assuming that myths, too, are generally formed according to a similarly natural, evolutionarily determined process. But even ancient narratives have origin stories, and failing to understand a text in context is often a recipe for profoundly misunderstanding its significance.
Much has been written on Peterson’s failure to support his arguments with relevant citations. My paper focuses on one particularly egregious instance: his handling of the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, which he considers to be a “comprehensive exemplar” of archetypal narrative themes. This sloppy scholarship is foundational not only to Maps of Meaning but also Peterson’s entire worldview.
Recorded on seven tablets in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform around the seventh century BCE—although composed several centuries earlier, possibly around the time of the reign of Hammurabi—Enuma Elish is one of the world’s oldest surviving examples of a (mostly) intact story. Its plot focuses on the exploits of Marduk, a fiery, heroic deity who slays Tiamat, the oceanic dragoness and mother of all life, and uses her flayed body to create the heavens and the earth.
Enuma Elish is a story written to justify a cosmic power grab that mirrors a real-life power grab.
Peterson talks a great deal about the adversarial relationship between order, which he reads as masculine, and chaos, which he reads as feminine. In a video called “Why Is Chaos Symbolized as Feminine” (a fan, rather than Peterson, provided the title), Peterson attributes this characterization to “fundamental social cognitive categories” that are integral to the human experience. He is careful to note that these tendencies do not correspond to male and female humans, but rather archetypal processes. Still, Peterson argues, consciousness is “always symbolically masculine,” and thus heroes tend to be male. The reason, we are told in this video, runs as deep as evolution itself:
And I think that’s because we evolved those categories as our fundamental representational archetypes and then we try to fit the world into those categories because that’s the categories that we evolved first, and we have to look at the world through those categories. We’re cognitively prisoners of our evolutionary history—or beneficiaries of it, that’s another way of thinking about it.
For Peterson, Marduk’s triumph over Tiamat not only exemplifies this dynamic, but also serves as evidence of its deep archetypal significance—after all, here it is playing out in this ancient story. He calls Enuma Elish one of the “archaic theories of creation” and devotes a significant portion of Maps of Meaning to mapping its characters and events onto his schema of the archetypal experience of the world.
But Peterson’s reading completely misses (and therefore misconstrues) the text’s historical purpose. This is no simple feat, given that Alexander Heidel points it out in the introduction to his 1951 translation of Enuma Elish, which Peterson cites as his source:
There can be no doubt that, in its present form, Enuma Elish is first and foremost a literary monument in honor of Marduk as the champion of the gods and the creator of heaven and earth. Its prime object is to offer cosmological justifications for Marduk’s advancement from the position as chief god of Babylon to that of head of the entire Babylonian pantheon.
All of the struggles portrayed in the epic, Heidel concludes, are placed there “to enhance the glory of Marduk and… justify his claim to sovereignty over all things visible and invisible.”
Subsequent translators have elaborated on Heidel’s assessment of Enuma Elish as politically motivated pastiche. W.G. Lambert, writing in 1965, proclaims the creation epic to be “not a norm of Babylonian or Sumerian cosmology,” but rather “a sectarian and aberrant combination of mythological threads” that cobbles together a narrative from various traditions “perverted to such an extent that conclusions based on this text alone are suspect.” Ola Wikander, a contemporary scholar who translated Enuma Elish into Swedish in 2005, believes a single writer authored the work, incorporating elements from earlier myths to fit an agenda that is likely concerned with justifying the transition from collective rule to monarchy.
The political context of this literary maneuver was an expansion of empire. During the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), famous for having his legal code inscribed in stone, the city-state of Babylon grew in regional power. With it grew the popularity of Marduk, whose power over humankind is invoked in the code’s prologue as a mirror to Hammurabi’s own power as “father to his subjects.” This political transformation, enacted with the aid of Hammurabi’s property laws—which included many new restrictions on the rights of women—was both symbolized and institutionalized by supplanting the old myths with new hierarchical pantheons led by male gods.
Enuma Elish is not a deeply ancient myth handed down generation to generation, nor a documentation of a revelation. It’s a story written to justify a cosmic power grab that mirrors a real-life power grab.
In Occidental Mythology—which Peterson also cites as a source for Maps of Meaning—Joseph Campbell draws a parallel between Zeus overthrowing the Titans of Greek mythology with the fate of Tiamat and her husband Apsu:
Such a mythology represents an actual historical substitution of cult: in both these instances, that of an intrusive patriarchal over an earlier matriarchal system. And in both cases, too, the main intention of the cosmic genealogy was to effect a refutation of the claims of the earlier theology in favor of the gods and moral order of the later.
The word “matriarchal” is a potential point of contention, as it might seem to imply that the conditions that preceded the new cults suffered from an opposite, and perhaps equally imbalanced, disparity of power. But it is precisely the imbalance of power that distinguishes the institution of patriarchal rule from its alternatives. For this reason, it can be useful to replace these gendered concepts with what Riane Eisler has termed “dominator” versus “partnership” cultures.
Any institutionalization of hierarchy tends to erase what came before it. In a passage not only cited but also quoted by Peterson, Jung protegé Erich Neumann explains how the “later development of patriarchal values,” and “male deities of the sun and light” had the effect of submerging aspects of the Great Mother, which can now be glimpsed only through the layers of history covering her image, but “cannot be viewed directly.” Interestingly, Peterson acknowledges the discrepancy between Neumann’s reading and his own in a footnote, but waves away any significance, declaring that for the purposes of his manuscript, “the precise temporal/historical relationship of the various deities to one another is of secondary importance, compared to the fact and meaning of their existence as eternal ‘categories’ of imagination.”
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson elaborates on this dismissive footnote, rather surprisingly conflating the idea that myths have contextual histories with the discredited notions of 19th-century Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen, who believed in a progression of societies, from the matriarchal Das Mutterrecht, to the hedonistic Dionysian, to the enlightened Apollonian. This oddly chosen straw man is swiftly knocked down and with it, apparently, the ideas that societies change over time and that myths reflect (and sometimes help institutionalize) political changes. What remains is Peterson’s firm antihistorical conviction that myths represent, first and foremost, the psychological struggle between consciousness—“always symbolically masculine” and the “Terrible Mother,” the “spirit of careless unconsciousness, tempting the ever-striving spirit of awareness and enlightenment down into the protective womb-like embrace of the underworld.”
The contradiction in that image of carelessness juxtaposed with protection is curious, as it seems to indicate a confusion over the nature of the underworld that hints at a lack of personal experience with what others mean by the term. Jung saw the journey to the underworld as “a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge,” while Neumann compared the fear of the dragon to “the male’s fear of the female in general.” Rather than diving into the underworld himself, as Jung recommended his patients do, Peterson seems to guess at what’s down there, while attributing positive moral valence to the act of striving against it.
He’s wrong about mapping the universe of human experience onto this story for the same reason fundamentalist Christians often have incorrect notions about the Bible.
Even though the political function of Enuma Elish is obvious and important enough to have been mentioned by three of Peterson’s own sources—Heidel, Campbell, and Neumann—it figures into Maps of Meaning only as a dismissive footnote that misses the point of what it dismisses. In 12 Rules for Life, that dismissal resurfaces as a fatuous argument that utterly fails to engage with the history all three of his sources referenced. By Peterson’s own admission, his interest lies not in accurately grasping the historical context of myth, but in using myth to support preconceived notions about archetypes as “eternal ‘categories’ of imagination.” And yet his evidence for the primacy of those categories comes from the myths themselves, leaving us with a tail-biting bout of circular reasoning that calls to mind the illustration of the ouroboros that Peterson uses to illustrate the concept of chaos.
If Peterson effectively demonstrates anything with his reading of Enuma Elish, it’s that his personal philosophy regarding the entire nature of human consciousness maps neatly onto a patriarchal myth cobbled together from disparate sources in order to justify a power grab. He’s wrong about mapping the universe of human experience onto this story for the same reason fundamentalist Christians often have incorrect notions about the Bible: He completely ignores how the stories developed and imagines instead that they are simply evidence of some cosmic eternal truth that just so happens to line up with his politics.
Peterson is fond of opening his lectures by saying things like, “New Age people are very creative, but they can’t think critically. I can think critically.” An inspection of his handling of myth, however, reveals not only uncritical but also quasi-New Age tendencies. University of Amsterdam professor Wouter Hanegraaff defines New Age as “a complex of spiritualities which are no longer embedded in any religion… but directly in secular culture itself.” Like Peterson, New Age practitioners give individualistic twists to existing religious symbols, often ascribing them to secular domains like quantum mechanics or psychology. The popularity of New Age movements is, in part, a response to the pervasive Western idea that science and rationality will eventually render religious faith obsolete. Hanegraaff sees this idea as “wishful thinking on the part of convinced secularists.” Religion has not disappeared, but it has certainly been transformed.
Peterson has, to his credit, recognized the pervasiveness of this flawed narrative. He assumes his audience has no use for mythology and spends a significant portion of Maps of Meaning convincing readers of its value. “We have lost the mythic universe of the pre-experimental mind or have at least ceased to further its development,” he declares in one of the book’s more insightful passages. “That loss has left our increased technological power ever more dangerously at the mercy of our still unconscious systems of valuation.”
There is value in standing up straight with your shoulders back; it just can’t necessarily be read as a primal decree from ancient Mesopotamia.
It is no doubt partly because of a general ignorance of myth and religious symbolism that Peterson’s ideas seem brilliant to people who have never encountered his source material. But unfortunately his cosmology—in which militaristic hierarchies are justified and divinely decreed (even when we can trace their political origins)—not only fails to address the concrete problems caused by our “unconscious systems of valuation” but also perpetuates and reinforces those systems.
Long before Marduk seated himself at the head of the pantheon, the gods and goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia engaged in ecological dramas that ebbed and flowed with the forces of nature. In one annual celebration, the gender-fluid goddess Inanna rescued her consort Tammuz from the underworld, marking the return of rains and fertility to the soil. In this society, the legitimacy of the monarch was justified not by military might, but by becoming “beloved” by Inanna, earning the right to be “fit for her holy lap.” Ecofeminist readings of this myth point to the erotic as an order-bringing aesthetic, acknowledging the role that sexuality and the rhythms of natural processes bring to the creation and maintenance of life. A certain acknowledgment of this dynamic is implicit when Peterson notes that “women are nature for men because they are the force that selects for reproduction.” But rather than grappling with the moral implications of that force, he sells stories of subjugating it through hierarchical dominance—a transgression against the reality of nature with devastating real-world consequences.
It is not chaos, but our fear and visceral disgust toward the idea of chaos undermining civilization—often stemming from a lack of familiarity with what we fear—that drives us to build prisons, wage wars, and develop weapons that are the embodiment of all-consuming fire. Because we do not conceptualize the earth and its natural cycles as sacred, we disregard treaties made with the Indigenous peoples whose lands we have colonized and arrest those who designate themselves “water protectors.” Peterson’s philosophy, while it may inspire motivation at the individual level, is a deadly engine of status quo maintenance and self-justification at the cultural level. It is an ideology that denies it is ideology, hissing insults and flinging lawsuits at those who challenge its god-like powers of complacency.
All that said, I do not believe that everyone who has been helped by Peterson’s fatherly counsel is totally deluded—at least not insurmountably. There is value in standing up straight with your shoulders back; it just can’t necessarily be read as a primal decree from ancient Mesopotamia. The cult of capitalism dictates that competitiveness is hardwired into us to the exclusion of all other virtues, but there is also evidence that our ability to share and cooperate has played a formative role in our evolutionary development. One of Peterson’s strengths is that he understands how confirmation bias and unconscious motivations structure our belief systems, at least in theory. When he fails, it’s because he has forgotten to turn this wisdom on himself.
It is possible, however, to get something of value from Jordan Peterson’s self-help advice before moving on. Despite his flawed conclusions, Peterson has captured a rapt audience of young people who are now interested in the possibilities that religion and mythology have to offer, making staunch atheists like Sam Harris look dull and unimaginative by comparison.
But I don’t necessarily think that means that he belongs in a university religious studies department. Unless, of course, he plans to enroll as a student.