Lost for Words Part Two


The Tower of Babel. Engraving by Gustave Doré (1861).


Sep 22, 2014

An essential building block of a sound theory is the recognition that Jewish legend was considerably more elaborate than the sterile version of the story come down in the ‘first book of Moses’.

More than a hint of an intended coup d’état is gleaned from the deity’s anticipation that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”, a fear embedded in the Sibylline revelation that the people constructed the exceedingly high tower because they “wished to climb up to the starry heaven”. The Rabbis were clear that the hybris by which Nimrod’s clique wished to ‘make a name for themselves’ amounted to nothing less than rebellion:

“But the generation of the dispersion also arose and revolted against the Holy One when they sought to ascend to the firmament. … They said: He has no right to choose the upper regions for himself and to assign us the lower regions. Come and let us exchange, so that we take the upper regions and he takes the lower regions. … had they not built, they would have said: If we had built the tower, we should have ascended to the heavens and fought with him.”

Furthermore, the ancillary tradition also testifies to termination of the project by means of a violent wind or “a fire … descended from heaven”. The latter element could have been reinforced by the melted appearance of the ruins of the Babylonian structure at Borsippa, long identified as the ‘tower of Babel’.

To explain the presence of these traits in ethnographic parallels to the Biblical report, one might invoke either the same hypothetical missionaries or the alluring notion of ‘lost tribes’ in the Israelite diaspora. In earlier centuries, European intellectuals commonly embraced the latter option to accommodate the similarities between Jewish and indigenous American materials. For example, the Tohono O’odham (southwestern Arizona) interpreted the ruins on the banks of the Gila as the remnants of Montezuma’s provocative post-diluvian architecture:

“Still rebellious and undismayed, Montezuma determined to build a house high enough to reach the heavens. He collected together all the nations of Indians, and built the Casas Grandes of the Gila. The interior apartments of the stupendous structure were lined with gold and silver, and ornamented with precious stones most beautiful to behold. The building had already reached a lofty height, when the Great Spirit sent his thunderbolts and threw it to the ground.”

Similarly, the Aztec perceived the ruinous ‘Mountain of Unbaked Bricks’ (tlalchihualtepec) at Cholula as the frustrated handiwork of giants (the Tzocuillicxeque or Quiname). The Spanish Dominican friar Diego Durán (c. 1537 – 1588 CE) told it thusly:

“Not having found a way to reach the sun but enamored of its light and beauty, they decided to build a tower so high that its summit would reach unto heaven. And gathering materials for this building, the giants found clay for bricks and an excellent mortar with which they began to build the tower very swiftly. When they had raised it as high as they could – and it seemed to reach to heaven – the Lord of the Heights became angry and said to the inhabitants of the heavens, ‘Have you seen that the men of the earth have built a proud and lofty tower in order to come up here, enamored as they are of the light of the sun and of its beauty? Come, let us confound them, for it is not right that these earthlings, made of flesh, mingle with us.’ Then swift as lightning those who dwell in the heavens came out from the four regions of the world and tore down the tower that had been constructed. And the giants, bewildered and filled with terror, separated and fled in all directions.”

Despite the strong resemblance to the Jewish tradition, Durán remained “convinced” and wished “to convince others that those who tell this account heard it from their ancestors …” Certainly, another version of the same myth (c. 1570 CE) is freer from a Biblical varnish: “They relate of one of the seven, whom they mention as having escaped from the deluge, that the earth becoming populous he went to Chululan, and there began to build a tower, which is that of which the brick base is still visible. The name of that chief was Xelua; he built it in order, should a deluge again happen, to escape upon it; its base is eighteen hundred feet in circumference. When it had already reached a great height, lightning from heaven fell and destroyed it.” The demolition of the “tower, that was named Tulan Culula, which was so high that it appeared to reach heaven” was blamed on what appears to have been a ‘thunderstone’ or meteorite alighting on its top:

“And being content, since it seemed to them that they had a place whence to escape from the deluge if it should again happen, and from whence they might ascend into heaven, – a chalcuitl, which is a precious stone, fell from thence and struck it to the ground. Others say that the chalcuitl was in the shape of a toad; and that whilst destroying the tower it reprimanded them, inquiring of them their reason for wishing to ascend into heaven, since it was insufficient for them to see what was on the earth.”

The opulence of Montezuma’s dwelling and the bolide at Cholula are aspects that may seem alien to any Judaic version; certainly the German scholar Alexander, baron von Humboldt (1769-1859), opined that the Cholulan tale was of high antiquity. Yet perplexingly, one Jewish narration of the mid-14th century CE associates the tower erected by Nimrod both with metallic splendour and a gemstone (’ębęn yǝqārā):

“… on it he placed a throne of cedar wood, upon which arose, one above the other, four thrones, of iron, copper, silver, and gold. Crowning all, upon the golden throne, lay a precious stone, round in shape and gigantic in size. This served him as a seat …”

The plot thickens. Did the native American storytellers read Hebrew and mislead historians by drawing inspiration from a Midrash which was then obscure anywhere outside Yemen? Or does the precise parallel suggest a shared objective basis for the motif? The analogies extend to still other themes, such as the giant stature of the transgressors and the transformation of survivors into various species of animals. That those closest to the ‘source’ – missionaries and anthropologists – typically gravitated towards faith in the authenticity of the core narrative is quite striking. In comparative terms, the defining essence of the ‘tower of Babel’ theme is the construction of a tower – usually by rebels – in order to scale heaven, quashed by a natural catastrophe and followed by dispersion of the insurgents; the confusion of languages is merely an aetiological appendix limited to a subset of myths. Moreover, the edifice emerges as an expression of the mythological axis mundi, paralleled in countless reports in which it is not associated with nearby ruins, but portrayed as a towering living giant challenging the sky, a pile of mountains or a chain of arrows. A Greek equivalent is the famous myth of the Aloads and other Giants stacking mountains upon each other in their bid for cosmic supremacy:

“… they say that the Giants essayed the very throne of heaven, piling huge mountains, one on another, clear up to the stars. Then the Almighty Father hurled his thunderbolts, shattered Olympus, and dashed Pelion down from underlying Ossa.”

According to a Jewish variant on the story of the fateful tower, written between the 9th and the 16th century CE, some builders intended to “ascend to heaven and smite him with bows and spears”: “… when they were building they cast the arrows toward the heavens, and all the arrows fell upon them filled with blood, and when they saw them they said to each other, surely we have slain all those that are in heaven.” This tidbit forges a connection with the cross-cultural motif – especially thriving in the Americas – of a string of arrows, enabling a band of mythical beings to invade the sky, often with a mind to overthrow the rightful denizens; invariably, the project fails.

Framed in such terms, the ‘tower of Babel’ is doubtless an exponent of a universal mythical motif. As indicated by the same Jewish legend that features the gemstone, it had been conceived “in imitation of the seat of God.” The prototype was apparently not man-made, but was a wondrous atmospheric structure beheld worldwide, just as the architects were hardly carnal beings. Remnants of tall ancient monuments destroyed by fire will have been redolent of a ‘tower’ and thunderbolt the likes of which have seldom been seen. Lustrous throughout its existence, each column will have ended in an intense electrical discharge. But to see how this might work physically, it may be necessary to vacate one’s ivory tower – either that, or face the fireworks from dizzying heights.

Rens Van Der Sluijs



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