It is quiet on the dock. A speckle of frost on the handrail melts into the wood as I touch it. Trees on the far shore appear black against the slate sky, though a fringe of November light has begun to spread across Point Grey to the south. The eastern horizon is crimson. The water of the bay is now still. An ebbing tide sweeps the rocky beach without a sound.
I walk across fir planks to the corner of the dock, where my view of the channel widens. A row of moored sailboats blocks the open water and the tiny island with its cluster of residences; but I look in that direction, and listen.
Presently, I see a ripple curving along the white hull of the farthest sailboat: the day’s first stirring. And I hear the sound of oars in the water: quiet creak, soft splash, silence, then the patter of droplets. The day unfolds into the rhythm of these sounds.
A yellow dinghy comes into view from behind the moored boats. A set of spruce oars moves through the black water. I can see from the shape of the hull – steep rake of the bow, wide thwart – that it’s a Davidson dinghy. Upon the thwart seat, his back to me, his face looking along the channel to the open water, wearing a red windbreaker and a blue hat, my father rows.
I wait at the dock’s edge. As the dinghy approaches, my father slows, lifts the left oar from the water, and pulls with the right. The boat swings to starboard and comes alongside the dock. He ships the oars as I reach down to the gunwale. I find the cold painter, loop it through the dock ring, and tie it with a bowline. My father hands me a bag of gear and climbs out. The hull rocks gently, and small ripples skitter out into the bay. We say our good mornings. I remark on the cold. He mentions that a Thermos of coffee is in the bag, along with bananas for breakfast.
We drive north along the coast, past the islands of Howe Sound, into the mountains. Before the fjord closes in and we lose sight of the wide ocean to the southwest, we see – around the back side of a large island, fifteen miles to the west, hazy in the oncoming light – the shore where both he and I spent our childhood summers. We can’t see the cabin, or the trail that leads up the hillside to a plateau overlooking what seemed, to an eight-year-old, all of creation. But we can see the hill, round and slight at this distance, a bump in a far landscape. The cabin is still in our family, bought by my cousins when my grandmother died, but neither I nor my father has visited there for many years. Sometimes he passes that shore, during trips north on his sailboat. He doesn’t stop, though he’d be welcome. He keeps going, into the oncoming breeze that wraps the headland and through the channel to the sea.
Steep treed slopes border the road. Far ahead, white peaks are beginning to catch the gathering day. We stop at the diner adjoining the old mine; I’m surprised to find it open this early on a Saturday morning. A logger’s pickup sits out front, its owner the only other customer inside. As we select our snacks, the power browns out, the lights flicker, and the waitress pauses, looking both annoyed and hopeful.
This stretch of the old road has always felt derelict to me. The mine, once the largest copper producer in the British Empire, is long closed. Almost every window in its terraced superstructure is smashed; its tunnels are now a museum not visited much by travelers driving through the mountains. Southward, the city is spreading in this direction; within a generation, this quiet town will be another burgeoning suburb.
Before the mine, in the days when this landscape was not yet populated by ghosts, my great-uncle walked this territory. Just after the First World War, through the days of a long summer, lodging with trappers and homesteaders and sleeping in the rough; hundreds of miles across a land of impenetrable silence. He walked off the ache of his wounds here, along this shore where the sound widens and the glaciers first come into view.
We climb back into the car and head north. The road is wider than it once was and bypasses the old cemetery beside the nesting ground of the eagles. Highway crews have straightened out the tight corner we used to call the death curve, and they’ve blasted away the cliff face upon which someone once painted a false tunnel opening. We once hit a moose near that cliff face, late at night, the road slick with rain. The front quarter of the car was smashed in, but the moose kept going. We could hear it trundling off into the bush, hurt or unhurt we never knew.
By the time we turn off the highway and crunch onto the gravel track heading eastward, the sky is bright. Ahead, the forest ramparts – green and dark and thick with shadow – stretch across a series of ascending ridges. The distant peaks are cloud-hidden. The road meanders toward them, climbing three thousand feet over the next half hour, switchbacking through stands of fir and cedar along the shoulder of the mountain. The track has been worn into two ruts, now filled with water streaming from the alpine above. The ridged center of the road rises close to the undercarriage of the car. Halfway up a long switchback, my father reminds me that a few years back, along this stretch, the oil pan was ripped loose from the bottom of a car he was traveling in.
We come around a tight bend and the road widens. We must be close now to the trail, so we pull over to check our location on the map. The slope of the road, followed by a tight bend, looks similar to a tiny hooked line that I can see between two altitude markers. The line extends a fraction beyond where we are. Near its end, a small track wanders off into the bush.
We drive another two hundred yards, then park where the road is overhung by a scrim of silvered branches. The temperature hovers around freezing; snow covers the most shadowed slopes. We put on hats and gloves, and I shoulder my pack. Ahead, mottled leaves of birch and alder form a sunburst canopy above an opening in the woods: the trail. Underfoot, the dark ground is broken by skeins of aggregated volcanic rock. Fragments of arkose, a sandstone dyed with red feldspar, lie like tumbled bricks among the scree. Above us, hidden by the forest, up in the alpine where marmots and bears traverse a territory seldom disturbed by human activity, the crater lies dormant. About ten thousand years ago, more than a cubic mile of this mountain exploded with a ferocity similar to the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. A vast fountain of fire ejected molten rock into the sky. Volcanic gas, pumice, and ash swept down the slopes, feckless, debris thick enough to cover the tallest fir trees, more than three hundred feet high. Nearby forests were either blown down by the searing ash cloud or left standing dead as black spume spread to the horizon.
A whiskey jack flitters among the trees. Beneath this fresh and pristine forest, the old fire lies hidden like a seed.
The trail is narrow at first, and we walk one in front of the other. But it soon widens, and we pull alongside. As we go, we talk about navigating the trail and what the weather might bring. Then the conversation shifts, becomes more imaginal: what it would have been like to be here when the volcano erupted; what my great-uncle Dave saw, when he came here after the war, to see the crater; what we’re doing here in late autumn, a questionable and perhaps dangerous season. Taking what seems like an opportune moment, my father asks me, as he did when I first invited him on this hike, to tell him about the dreams.
There was first a story, I tell him, a tale of origin – perhaps the oldest tale of origin. I came across it in the summer, at the lake with Elizabeth and the kids, in one of the books I had brought with me. I read it, ruminated upon it, was absorbed by its simplicity. It spoke of water, of a mountain, of a stone rising from the depths. As we sailed our dinghy and the kids swam near the lakeshore, I began to see ways in which the archaic myth renewed itself in every moment. Though it was crafted in a vanished age, the myth seemed to come alive again in my own imaginings: in the way stones on the beach glistened beneath the surface, in the whoops and shouts of my kids after they dunked their heads in the water. As I rebuilt the cabin’s breakwater – its stones brought from the Rocky Mountains in the back of a station wagon over the course of many long trips and laid down by my father-in-law and his kids – I discovered why old, discarded things cannot be forgotten.
In the oldest Egyptian myth – thousands of years older than the Book of Genesis – white wings against a dark sky do not yet trace the morning twilight. Bones do not yet speak of the weather, or of what lies over that ridge, itself not yet formed by the broken earth. No scents come from there – of cinnamon or smoke or the salt of a green sea. A dinghy has not yet rounded the point on a November morning.
There are no paths upon which to follow yearnings, no rustlings of trepidation. Rain is not yet falling on the shake roof. A world is not yet formed by the call of a child. No touch, no night, no time. Only a well of black water, not yet formed but waiting.
The sea of beginnings possesses neither surface, nor shore, nor bottom.1 Its depths are still. Nothing rises there. Ghost forms and long stories lie wrapped tight, cocooned. The underworld, dreams, all that is lost or on its way back to knowing. Secreted inside the waters is the mountain trail I will follow with my father – ramparts of hemlock and black spruce – as well as those paths we have not yet walked, perhaps will never walk, where goldenrod and loosestrife mark the trail’s edge. All the journeys lie here, dark and untrodden, those I must follow and those I will, of necessity, pass by.
From within this singular sea, a black stone of fire – relic of a vanished age – draws up from the formless. It separates the waters into above and below, fracturing the infinite. The stone is an embodiment of nameless ancestors, those who created themselves in the primeval age. Within the stone, emblem of beginnings, are concealed all the words of the sacred language.
The emergence of the foundation stone (it shines, though there is no light to shine upon it) is the first act of the universe remembering itself. The water, bereft of its unity, retreats from an emerging shore. Above, a firmament stretches out, presses back the thick darkness of the waters. They recede but remain forever a boundary beyond which the unknowable extends, far past the reach of gods.
The stone inscribes circles that widen and grow solid in its wake. These revolutions are like a mouth opening, voicing the first vowels – a herald, a lament, an ululation for what has been and what will come to be. Slowly, beneath the stone’s passage, land rises. An island awakens into a world of darkness.
In the oldest histories, this emergent atoll is named the Island of the Egg.2 It is an enclosure crafted by a stone of stones: a benben stone. Its genesis – like every genesis – is a recapitulation of forgotten but never derelict paths.
The trail rises, then flattens out and runs alongside the mountain slope. As we walk, I tell my father that my discovery of the old origin myth prompted in me dreams of stones and fire and water.3 I dreamed of herons gathering at a shore, of tall reeds shining with dew, of a roving flame. A falcon wheeled in an empty sky. I dreamed of a breeze ruffling the water and of boats heading out. Beneath a broken limestone wall, the shadows of an old temple dwindled. I walked on red earth beneath a black cliff. The scents of the desert came to me like a distant memory, a lost tale. Sometimes I heard a voice calling: Come to the river. When we returned from our summer holidays, I tell him, I started looking for the river.
I unshoulder my pack and retrieve the map. I trace my finger eastward from the highway, up the gravel road, and from there northward, to where the map shows the threadlike trail. A tiny line snakes across a ridge and then stops. I’ve extended the trail, with a small pencil line, until it intersects with a river flowing down from the crater. This is our destination: a volcanic deposit in the middle of nowhere, marked only on geological surveys. I found the deposits on a government map in early September, while looking with the eye of intuition for where I might find a stone of origin. I’ve marked the spot with an X.
In the Egyptian tale, the island that rises from the sea of beginnings is signified by a glyph meaning sacred place: an X within a circle. X marks the spot.
We continue on until the path diverges. One track leads up the slope, the other down toward the valley. We pause to consult the map again, but we’ve passed the end of the trail indicated upon it. There’s a considerable stretch of terrain between the terminus of the marked trail and our goal. The paths ahead are phantom trails, and we have only the indications of the forest to follow. On the principle that it’s easier to backtrack going downhill than up, we take the upper trail. It winds across the contour of a ridge and heads toward the open alpine above.
My father leads off. I pause to replace the map in my pack. He is well down the path by the time I’m ready to get going. I look ahead to where he is – blue hat and red jacket, that distinctive, purposeful walk, the curve of the trail beyond which he will disappear from sight – and I realize, in a moment of mingled sadness and love, that this is how it will be. When it comes, in ten or twenty or perhaps thirty years, when he departs on that definitive journey, this is how it will be: my father going ahead, into a world of soft autumn light, his back turned, his face hidden but shining, I’m sure of it, with a radiance I can’t see.
“Rise up, Father,” says the Egyptian Book of Illumination. “Reclaim your place in the broad and welcoming sky. You will stand among the radiant ancestors as a companion to the sun. And I, your son, will with words of praise cradle your abandoned bones. I will preserve for you a place by the river, even as I look upward, searching the sky for a trace of your shadow, vanishing.”4
The trail takes us into the shadow of the mountain. The ground cover thickens, and the going is slow in spots. The sound of flowing water comes to us distantly, audible for a moment and then gone again as we pass into a tangled grove.
We come upon a bare blueberry patch beneath which the trail disappears. We forge through, pushing the branches aside, and emerge at the stump of a massive cedar, six or seven feet across, cut cleanly through by loggers perhaps eighty years ago. I clamber onto the flat top of the trunk, high above the undergrowth, and search the forest ahead. The sound of water is continuous now, and I can make out the cleft of a gorge – a patch of white, a granite boulder.
We follow the trail, now faint underfoot, toward the gorge. It leads through a stand of devil’s club: the seer’s plant, the healer. Devil’s club is actually a kind of ginseng; in addition to its reputed sacred powers – the ability to offer heightened perception of the spirit world, among others – it can be used to help heal broken bones and to balance the body’s energy. Bears eat its fruit, though its spines, filled with organically produced silica, are sharp as glass. As I pass through, I brush up against a branch and feel a prickle. I remove my glove to find a row of small red welts already rising on my skin. My hands are warm. I remove the other glove, put the pair in my coat pocket, and continue on.
The trail ends at the edge of a high cliff above the river gorge. White water tumbles through below, rumbles against black stones on the riverbed. Near-vertical banks of smooth rock guide the water around a roaring corner downstream. A tall fir has toppled over from the cliff top and now lies almost upside down, its branches lost among a jumble of boulders pressed into the far bank.
According to my reckoning (which is usually poor), we should be almost on top of our destination. But aside from the riverbed, I don’t see an outcropping of stone anywhere. And there’s no way to explore further, to cross the white water, without climbing equipment.
We sit down on a fallen log above the river, listen to the sounds of the waters, watch the rushing eddies slide up along the bank. My father remarks on how beautiful it is. He offers me a banana from his bag, and we rest a moment. I wonder aloud, not for the first time, about my great-uncle Dave’s experience in this territory; limping from the wound in his leg, searching for respite from the echoing sounds of the guns. Perhaps he sang as he walked, or was quiet with his own echoes. It was so long ago; no one remembers, there are no children to whom he would have told the tale. My father, too, wandered here, when he was a boy: sailing up the sound, hiking the cliffs, skiing the glacier south of where we are now. A few valleys east of us, in the years when the Trans-Canada Highway was a gravel track, he ran alongside his parents’ car because he was too carsick to ride. They drove slowly. Besides, the canyon road was barely safe at ten miles an hour. He jogged and loped and puffed his way, stopping frequently. He was five years old. Sometimes, when the track widened and lay level for a stretch, he’d climb into the car and they’d speed up, kicking the dust behind them into clouds that trailed off into the forest. Every time I drive that road, going north with my wife and kids to visit our family, I think of my father, galloping toward the next bend and a drink of mountain water.
These old roads – the one below us, and its companion eastward, over the mountain – were first trails, crossed by travelers in unremembered ages. Then, in the generation of my parents and grandparents, the trails were widened into gravel roads. In my own life, the flanking forests have been thinned and the asphalt widened. The roads have changed as I’ve grown older; my own history is wrapped up with them, and with their woods.
I drive the road below several times a year, though I haven’t walked upon this mountain since I was a teenager. I return here now, bidden by dreams, by memories, by a feeling awakened in me by an archaic tale. Who else has come this way: forgotten ancestors, refugees, ghosts?
A black bird, high up, turns and turns. Perhaps he’s eyeing my banana. The old Egyptian myth spoke of such a bird – dark wings against a gray sky. What struck me about the myth, I tell my father, was not only its age, but its persistence. Its authors were gone; yet it remained, undaunted, inscribed upon the walls of a Nile temple built more than two thousand years ago, during the reign of a queen who had virtually the same name as my grandmother, Bernice. I do not think of myself as having ancient Egyptian ancestors, though I am – along with every person alive today – directly descended from them.5 My attraction to the myth did not arise from my own cultural roots or from an academic impulse. No, my motivation was entirely personal. This artifact, which described the world’s beginning as an ancestral gift, spoke of the presence of the past. As I make my own family, as I shape the lives of my children, together we choose what to reclaim – and discard – from our familial stories. Every day, we entertain an important question: What must we preserve?
I look upstream to where a layer of new snow covers a patch of open ground, and I wonder about the day. Perhaps I won’t find the stone after all. But I have the feeling I’m near the hidden place. I’m sure it’s just a little farther, across the water. Or perhaps beneath the water. But where?
I want to think it through, revisit the dreams and indications and hunches that have grown into this journey. I want to enter into the labyrinth of my questioning. But I refrain. Instead I wait, watching the water, looking with the eye of intuition, until the doubt fades and I see, with growing clarity, that we must go back to the junction and take the other trail. That’s all. We took the wrong turn. This certainty comes without fanfare, not a revelation but a neutral, almost indifferent knowing.
The path along which we have come, with its speckled wood and high promontory and pristine water, is the guide to another journey. We will take it again, another day.
We head back, past the devil’s club and cedar, through the barren blueberries, along the overgrown trail to the junction. It’s eleven o’clock by the time we reach it. Today is November 11, Remembrance Day. Right now, in many parts of the world, people are observing silence. I mention the time to my father. He proposes that we stop for a couple of minutes, share in the ritual. We stand on the trail, quiet, listening to water dripping from leaves. I think of my great-uncle, the war veteran, and of the long line of forebears that stretches behind me, bolstering the foundation of my own life.
The ancestral thread has no beginning. It is a loop, tied off and punctuated with infinite, tiny knots. But where the two ends meet and interwoven strands twist the cord into a seamless unity, origin myths reside. In one of these, a stone rises from the waters to make an island: the first land of a renewed age. The island spreads. The shore widens, fringed with black stone. At the island’s center, within the enclosure of the foundation stone’s smallest revolution, a well stretches down into the surrounding sea. Within this contained column, the spirits of the aged ones ascend, undulating through the water, redeeming the magnificent catastrophe that is the world. They move, lissome, summoning forms. Their whispering voices gather the shapes of creation – fallen, scattered, waiting – and sing them light, soft songs of return. At the edge of the well, the black stone glows. The ancestors rise through the waters, languid.
Slumber departs from the shapes of things. Slowly, threading radiance through the old darkness, the Island of the Egg comes again to life (for origin is only a reawakening). The well, hiding all the emergent forms within its waters, lies at the center of creation like the pupil of an eye: searching, remembering, far-seeing. The island encircles it like a dark corona. The ancestors rest here, dreaming the world, gazing back and forth along the avenue of time. They dream of a sun, fierce and orange, on the crest of a new day. They dream a winter bird, on the topmost branch of an evergreen – a swish of wings, the branch trembling as the bird launches into sky. Stirring and turning, their faces the only forms yet manifest, the old ones dream deep into the well. They glimpse a man in a yellow dinghy, rowing. Ripples spread from the bow into the dark water, as though the boat is an island rising from the sea. Everything that will ever be dreamed is first dreamed here: every form, every light, terror and wonder, memory, love, the moon, a far shore glimpsed from the car as you round the bend. All the threads of time, together, weaving.
The island is illuminated by dreaming, glows within a cocoon of light. We are wrapped, even now, inside that radiance, inside the bright eye of becoming with its dark pupil.
When their dreaming is complete, the ancestors depart. The next tasks, spinning the world out from the well of vision, are not theirs. The aged ones fashion the light but do not carry it forward. They awaken the world into its dream and then vanish, leaving a legacy of desire. They depart into the surrounding sea, return to dark waters, wait for the wheel of time to make its circle.
High up, turning and turning, silent, a falcon glides. It is a spirit of long traveling, wanderer of untrodden paths, companion to the vanished shapes of longing. From far off it has come, drawn by a myth, a dream, by the promise of time. Its origin is hidden. The god is genderless, ageless, freed of form. It is the earth maker, the divine heart. It is called Pn, meaning the Unnameable.
The black stone is a perch upon which the Unnameable descends. Warm, risen from surrounding waters, the stone is the first seat of creation. Latent forms begin to stir – a dream flower opens, pebbles tumble down the bank of an imagined river, a woman, not yet born, pauses at the edge of a field of barley, looks back across the golden stalks. Every age of the uncreated world unfurls from darkness, waits for the pupil of the well to dilate.
The first sound rises into the first sky. The call of the Unnameable spreads across the waters, radiates from the perch of awakening, coalesces into air, then into dust, then into ground. From the circular shore of the island, new land rises: sand and tumbled boulders and clay. Pebbles, small and shiny as papaya seeds, are washed by the retreating waters.
“Where there was neither heaven nor earth,” says another archaic tale, in the Mayan Book of Spirits, “sounded the first word of God, unloosed from the stone, declaring divinity. The vastness of eternity shuddered. The word was a measure of grace, which broke and pierced the backbone of the mountain. Who was born there? Who? Father, you know.”6
My father looks up at the sky, overcast with scuttling clouds. The day is drawing on. A crow calls through the trees, and we get moving. The trail leads slightly downward at first, but then turns east, climbing along the ridge. I hear the river again, quieter now than at the gorge. The sound is more subdued, softer, hinting at a wider course. The air grows cold, the forest more dense. We pass slowly beneath a canopy woven by white pines and large, dark cedars.
We emerge at the bank of the river, not a steep cliff here but an easy slope. I can just make out, far up the hillside, the river bend we could see from the cliff top. Careful footing on a fallen log and a hop across wet stones take us to the far side. The path drives straight north from here, bolstered by cordwood laid down by loggers generations ago. This would have been a thoroughfare at one time – steam donkeys hauling themselves along on massive sledges, cabled to trees ahead, winding themselves up the mountain. This abandoned road, hidden past the threshold of a river at the end of a forgotten trail, has likely not seen a traveler in many years. It lies near none of the regular hiking trails, does not appear on the maps, wanders now purposeless toward the Sphinx Glacier far ahead. Yet it is not overgrown.
I want to follow this old path, but it leads off in the wrong direction. We need to travel east from here, up the mountainside. I traverse the fringe of the logging road, sweeping wide along the brush, looking for the opening of a trail. But the ground cover is solid. The road follows the ridge, winds along the slopes of the mountain’s lower reaches; it’s unlikely that it will curve upward and swing back toward the alpine. We’ll have to strike out into the bush, keeping course by the sound of the river.
I check with my father to see how he’s doing. We’ve been moving for more than three hours, in and out of dense brush, along jumbled trails, and I’m becoming worried about him. He’s almost seventy, and this is not the kind of environment where help is near at hand if things go wrong. British Columbia possesses the world’s densest forests – far more overgrown than the Amazon. If we had an accident, if either of us turned an ankle or fell and broke a leg, we’d be in serious trouble. One of us would have to leave the other and go for help – three hours out, a couple hours driving, three hours back in. It would be dark before help came, if the spot could be found.
I was five years old when I was lost in these mountains, alone, in winter. It happened during the year that my brother and I took ski lessons at the mountain south of here. Early Saturday mornings, our parents dropped us at the charter bus stop near our home; we stowed our skis and poles and lunches, then walked onto the bus with the clunky gait forced upon us by our boots. My brother was a year older, and when we got to the mountain he went off to another class. My group was for the smallest kids. Mostly, we practiced the snowplow. But I’d get cold as the day wore on, especially my feet, and my instructor would send me off to warm up in the ski patrol hut. It was a tiny structure: a bench, a table, and an electric kettle with which someone once made me hot chocolate from a little packet of powder. The ski patrollers would come and go, and I’d sit in the hut until I warmed up. Then I’d try to find my group again, or my brother, or I’d wait until the end of the day. But on one occasion, I left the hut and began wandering. I walked along a trail packed with snow, threaded my way into the woods, and was lost.
My brother didn’t know what to do when I failed to show up at the end of the day. In his six-year-old mind, the best course of action was to consult with my parents, so he got back on the bus and went home to them. Consequently, it was dark before anyone else knew I was missing. And by the time a search party was organized, five or six hours of the night had passed.
They didn’t find me. The mountain is an enormous territory; even now, dozens of skiers and hikers lose their way every year. A surprising number never make their way out. But I did. By virtue of luck or providence or simple determination, I found my way back to the chalet at the top of the gondola. A bright light in a dark night.
Standing on the old road, scanning the brush for signs of a trail, I mention to my father my fragmentary memory of that night. How different times were, he tells me. He never doubted that his kids would be safe, a five-year-old and his six-year-old brother, gone for the entire day to a mountain, in charge of each other.
I don’t see a trail, just solid undergrowth fringing the road. As I look for a point of entry, it occurs to me that I’ve been trying to find my way in these woods for a long while.
I check with my father again, to make sure he’s all right. He’s game, as always, to go on. I give him my penetrating stare, the one that’s supposed to be appraising, critically honest, forceful. I don’t usually have much success with that look, and it doesn’t help me now. I can’t tell whether he’s doing fine or bluffing, not wanting to spoil the day, conscious of my enthusiasm and willing to push himself – perhaps a little too hard – in service of another of my odd quests.
He offers me his reassuring look, the one that’s casual, jocular in the midst of adversity. There’s no hint of exhaustion, or anxiety, or even any fatigue. He looks fine, but he could be on the point of collapse. He possesses the stoic reserve so typical of men of his generation – men who went to work the way their fathers went to war, dedicated to the careful siege of feeling. For many of them, the ramparts of an enclosed heart grew tight with pressure, and one day erupted like a volcano. My father has managed the trick of avoiding that fate. He was saved from it by my mother, whose presence evoked the strongest feelings in everyone she knew. She was a fountain of fire.
We leave the old road and head uphill, into the bush. Immediately our progress slows as the forest thickens and presses us inward. The sky is blocked by branches, and the ground underfoot is tangled. We stumble through more devil’s club, salal, vine maple, and patches of stinging nettles. It is not possible to follow a straight course. Moss growing on overhanging hemlock branches blocks our view of the sky. Every few steps, an impenetrable screen of branches forces us aside. We plod around, searching for a way through the gloom. We clamber along the silvered trunks of fallen cedars, slippery with frost but clear for ten or twenty feet. The visibility is so poor, sometimes only to the next tree, that it might as well be twilight already. It’s hard going. In half an hour we progress less than a hundred yards.
This terrain – partially regrown after logging, dead gray snags littering the ground in the wake of an old forest fire – is ideal for underbrush. The returning trees have not yet grown large enough to block the sun entirely, and there’s enough ground light for plants to thrive. Mountain hemlock, with its starlike needle clusters, will eventually form a screen thick enough to curtail the ground cover, leaving thickets of rhododendron and blueberry; but now, in this intermediate condition, the landscape is a diverse and winding labyrinth.
Higher up, several hundred feet from where we are, the alpine begins. Clear stretches of rocky ground lead to meadows carpeted with flowers in summer, where solitary whitebark pines, old as history, breathe the rarefied air. Here and there, algae in the glacial snow lie poised between ice and fire. Their peculiar biochemistry catches the sunlight and stains the spores the precise color of watermelon. As the continental temperature slowly rises, the islands of alpine tundra above the timberline will be squeezed ever smaller; on the lower peaks, many of them will soon disappear.
As we trundle through the undergrowth, we see purple lupines, named for the wolf but small and delicate, that lie like paw prints on the shadowed ground. The petaled flowers are bright splashes of color against a background of wet moss and dark branches. We’re higher now. Tendrils of the alpine are starting to reach down and draw us onward. Niches in the hillside are filled with new snow.
We climb quietly, careful to avoid slips, wary of the sudden shifting of a branch as we grab hold. We move side by side, staying close, calling out discovered passages and dead ends. I try not to worry about my father as he breathes hard, hefts himself over a fallen trunk.
The terrain opens as we come to the crest of a slope. We slow, easing into the wider space. And there, as we pass on either side of a tangled cedar stump covered with fungus and creeping branches, a black bear rises up from the undergrowth.
In countless myths of origin – from Egypt, Greece, Russia, the Americas – a bear guards the gate between the temporal and celestial worlds; between the eternity of the gods and the constantly transforming realm of earthly experience. The Inuit believe that polar bears can see the future. My four-year-old son trusts his teddy bear to guard the night and dreams. Bears are mythic sentinels who never leave their posts. Ursa Major, the constellation of the Great Bear, is so named for this very reason: in the northern hemisphere, it never sets.
In the Egyptian tale of sea and stone, the first speech of the Unnameable is directed north, toward the stars that never set. The sound rises heavenward, invoking nameless powers. And they respond. The nomads come, the Shebtiw who are both magicians and immortal sages.7 They come from a single family, and there are two of them: one each for all the shades of duality. Male and female, young and old, above and below. Their names are Aa and Wa.8
The Shebtiw are the creators of substance and the speakers of words. Upon the stone perch of the island, they name “all substances, all food, all that is liked and loathed, life to the peaceful, every craft, the life and movements of every body.” They enter “into these bodies made of every wood, every stone, and every clay thing.”9 They immerse themselves in the world, merging with all its forms, calling out with the light of voice. They speak the true names of things, names which will be forgotten in the flowering of new language.
But these names still reverberate: in the sounds of water, in the voice of my wife and the calls of my children, in the rhythmic footsteps of a boy running on gravel. My own voice, that of my father, that of each of our remote and forgotten kin – in every one of us, the remnants of the Shebtiw’s speech prevail. As for the sages themselves: when the tasks of naming were completed, they sailed away, across the dark sea over which a ceaseless wind now blows.
And yet, because all myths are one myth, the departing Shebtiw found their way across the ocean, to the land of the Maya. There another chapter of the tale of the twins Aa and Wa was told in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan sacred book. They became Hunapu and Ixbalanqué, warriors of the first age. Their stories – of origin, of emergence, of manifesting a world reckless with diversity – unfurled, gathering the weight of time.
“They do not lose their substance when they go,” says Hun-Hunapu, the father of the sacred twins, “but they bequeath it to others. The image of the lord, of the sage, of the orator does not vanish but he leaves it to the sons and daughters whom he procreates.”10
The twins of the origin tales are the first earthly ancestors, the first parents. To find them, to catch up with them in their long wandering, seems to me a both daunting and imperative task. They hold the promise of the thread’s unraveling, so that I might teach myself, and my children, about their own beginnings. But the Shebtiw did not leave open the gate to the ancestors. There’s a bear guarding it, and this presents no small difficulty.
I should know by now that the guardian never sleeps. He emerges from the ground, almost silent, fur swishing against the fallen wood. He’s no more than an arm’s reach away. I can see the individual hairs of his coat, jet black and glistening. He heaves his body out of the den and swivels his snout toward me, searching for the source of this irksome intrusion. He does not yet see my father standing on the other side of the stump. My father does not yet see the bear.
A moment of startling exhilaration – if this mythological creature has come to challenge our passage, our destination must be close – is followed by alarm of such immediacy that I don’t have time to panic. I become acutely conscious of my vulnerability. Running seems like a poor idea, just the thing to activate the bear’s natural instincts. Besides, the terrain is so overgrown with obstacles that I wouldn’t move very fast, and the bear, whose habitat this is, would easily catch me.
The bear orients himself to my conveniently bright blue jacket. I couldn’t be more exposed. In the absence of a viable escape strategy, I just stand there, waiting.
The bear looks at me. It’s hard to tell if he’s appraising, or alarmed, or indifferent. He has probably not seen humans before. The air is cold, and I’m suddenly aware of its clarity, the rarefied quality with which it renders the colors of the forest. It’s as though I’m looking through stained glass, bright and rippled with liquid texture. The green branches of a nearby hemlock sweep across the sky.
The bear’s black eye swivels within a ring of smoke. He turns his head and looks south along the slope, to where my father plods through the underbrush. They see each other at the same time, both in motion, gliding on momentum. My father looks up, draws back, frightened, and then roars. An inarticulate cry, replete with every vowel, rises through the air.
I laugh, which surprises me. And in the ensuing moment of silence – my father red-faced, the bear beginning to react – it occurs to me that if the bear is a guardian, what he needs from us is a password, and that cry, with its vowel keys to the sacred language of myth, should do the trick. The Egyptians, from whom all Western notions of magic ultimately derive, never wrote down the vowels of their sacred texts. Knowledge of the magical uses of vowels was the mark of power. “When a god or man was declared to be maa-kheru – true of voice, or true of word,” says E.A. Wallis Budge in his Legends of the Egyptian Gods, “his power became illimitable. It gave him rule and authority, and every command uttered by him was immediately followed by the effect required.”11
A tremor of fast movement works its way through the bear’s body. His paws churn the undergrowth. He lunges forward, twisting for a moment toward my father – at this, I experience a flare of anxiety mixed with aggression – and then away, slanting uphill toward the alpine and the river. He makes hardly a sound. His black form dissolves into the trees, and I am amazed that such a lumbering beast, four or five hundred pounds of fur, teeth, and claws, can move this way; lithe and sinuous, a phantom.
I retrieve the map from my pack, find our location, and mark on it “bear.” The notation is slightly north of the X. I suggest we follow the bear, up and toward the river. I don’t wish to run into him again, but his appearance is an unequivocal gesture: the guardian challenges, then guides.
We get moving again, following the sounds of the river, calling out to the bear that we are in the vicinity. The recent excitement has reinvigorated us, and thrashing through the undergrowth is now less of a chore. Our movements are freshened with a sense of imminence.
We approach the river again, first smelling its cold air and then catching glimpses of it through the brush. We emerge at the bank, find it eroded and overhung with trees balanced over the gorge. Water cascades along turbulent paths, boulders shift with a rumbling sound. Directly in front of us, rising over two hundred feet in a vertical slash against the November sky, is a cliff of cooled lava.
High up, where the cliff meets the forest above, we can see our perch from earlier in the morning. I think of the first seat of the Unnameable, from where the Shebtiw spoke the names of things. We’ve come out below the first trail, the one we backtracked along because it ended above the river. We had been sitting on top of the cliff. Its face was shielded by our position above it, its crown covered by the forest undergrowth. We had reached our destination after all. Yet, even if we had known it, there would have been no way to climb down. We would likely have given up, assuming that special equipment was needed to get at the deposits. We would not have been led here by the bear.
The cliff extends roughly three hundred feet along the bank of the river. It’s exposed here because of erosion: more than ten thousand years of water traveling in this cleft, deepening it, etching the surface into relief while the surrounding forest concealed traces of the old volcano. The river lays bare the old flame, cools it, dreams with it – slow, rhythmic dreams of clear water, lucent fire.
The face of the cliff is aggregated, filled with black rocks embedded in solidified ash and pumice. Upstream, where water rushes fast and white, a jumble of huge volcanic boulders has fallen from the cliff face. Five or six of them lean against and on top of one another. Each is as big as a truck. Beneath this edifice, surrounded by water and outlined by the gray mass of rock, is a shadowed space that looks like a cave.
We clamber down the bank to the water’s edge. The rocks are slippery, treacherous. Everything is coated with a quarter inch of clear ice. The riverbed is only rock – nothing like a sandbar here – and the gloss of ice renders the colors bright: slate, black like the bear’s fur, caramel. White stones lie here and there like scrimshaw.
Arms out for balance, we walk carefully across the river, treading upon the largest stones, trying to stay out of the water, slipping and grabbing with every step. I would have thought nothing could be slower going than the rain forest, but the crawl of our progress here is absurd. Two or three hunched steps a minute, struggling for purchase, arms wheeling. I fall in twice, first up to my knees in the water and then on my side, soaking the right half of my pants.
Eventually we reach the shadowed place. It’s a grotto, formed by the fallen boulders and natural contours of the river. A small waterfall cascades down onto the stones. The grotto lies beneath the waterfall; the water rushes above and around it, while the boulders preserve its dolmen shape.
The old Egyptian myth relates that the stone of origin will be found along the winding waterway, “at the boundary of the sky, in darkness, surrounded by fire.”12
We approach the cavern. Water sluices through from above. The interior is small, perhaps a dozen feet across. Ice hangs from the dark ceiling, coats the volcanic walls, and covers the faceted stones of the floor. I step gingerly ahead, out of daylight and into shadow, the sounds of the river now muted. I hear water trickling down from the icicles. A frozen pool lies at the center of the cavern floor, its surface glistening with clear ice, its fringe marked by granite stones and flakes of obsidian. Behind and above the pool, at the rear of the cavern, the river flows down through a gap in the boulders.
Light is carried on the white water as it spills over the threshold of the pool. I bend down, cup my hands, take a sip. It tastes of green branches, the alpine, minerals, all tumbled into it as it cascades down the mountain. The water feels light in my hand. Its surface refracts the skin of my palm, webbed with soft lines. Errant drops make small splashes on the rocks.
My father comes into the mouth of the cavern. We stand beside each other, gazing into the shadows and then up, past the overhanging boulders of the cavern roof to the cliff above. The lava flow covers the sky. Around us, the water sound is like many voices speaking together.
My father sits down on a boulder at the water’s edge. I wander around, becoming curious about the entry of the river at the back of the cavern. I climb around the side, skirt the small waterfall, climb over a fallen cedar, and scramble across the frozen rocks. Behind and above the cavern, I discover another pool. Its surface is white with snow and frost. I can’t see into the pool – there are no glossy stones visible here – but a dark rock, black and flecked with snow, protrudes from the surface.
Come to the river, said the dreams. This is what I’ve come for. A black stone beneath a cliff of fire.
I retrieve my rock hammer from my pack and strike the carapace of ice on the stone. Shards break loose, glancing against my face and falling aside. I inspect the stone, see that I’m not yet through the ice, and continue hammering. The percussion from the blows causes the ice on the surface of the pool to crack. A single, wide fissure works its way five or six feet upstream from the stone. There’s a brittle, cracking sound. Water seeps through from the pool beneath, soaks the snow and clears my view into the pool. At the end of the crack, lying in about a foot of clear water, I see a second black stone. It is a rough and flattened cube. The ice-encrusted stone I had been hammering on is the marker, as the bear was a marker. It points the way; I follow its unequivocal gesture.
I step into the pool, reach into the frigid water, and touch the black stone. There’s warmth to it, or so it seems. I lift it from the pool. It’s heavy, perhaps a hundred pounds; a hard, igneous rock. The word igneous means, literally, “of fire.” The six faces of the stone are cleaved sharply, yielding corners that are almost square. Water skitters off the dark surface, revealing shades of color. The rock is not quite black: a dark-hued blue sweeps across it, and speckles of white lie on the textured surface like scattered snowflakes. There is such beauty in it that I am stilled.
I stand on the shoulder of an exploded mountain, up to my knees in frigid, fast-running water, beneath a cliff from which boulders – weighing hundred of tons – and tree trunks have fallen. I am overshadowed by a forest of virtually impenetrable bastions. It is Remembrance Day. And I hold, dripping in my hands, a stone of beginnings. A seed stone, black, hinting at color, hiding the secret, as the myths relate, of the world’s creation.
I heft the stone onto my shoulder and step out of the pool. Carefully, I remove my fleece jacket from my pack, wrap it around the stone, and place the bundle back inside. I hoist the pack onto my back, reel under the weight, correct my posture, and move out toward the river’s edge. I walk down slowly, skirting the waterfall, adjusting my footfalls to the weight of the stone. At first, my steps are shuddery. My feet come down too hard on the riverbed, and my gait is unstable. Walking downhill is more stressful on the legs than walking uphill; the large muscles in the upper legs can be shredded by the exertion of continually halting the body’s momentum. And I have more than the weight of my body to contend with; I’m carrying an extra hundred pounds of stone. I take it slow, reminding myself how unpleasant it would be to fall headlong into the river.
My father waits below, at the entrance to the grotto. I sit on a nearby log, unshoulder my pack, and prepare to show him the black stone. He begins to climb over to where I am, loses his footing on the ice, and slides sideways, flailing for a moment and then falling, with a cry of frustration, into the water. He lands on his side. The water is so cold that he thrashes up, struggling among the jumbled boulders of the shore. I rush forward, reaching, but he’s too far out. I step into the water, and by the time I reach him he’s up, chagrined, the bloom of exertion spreading across his face.
He plods to shore and sits down on the log. I ask if he’s all right. Once again he nods, tells me he’s fine, laughs a little at this inconvenient turn of events. The right side of his body is soaked, as are his arms. It’s one thing to have wet feet – if you keep moving, they usually warm up – but to be wet along the trunk of the body, in weather like this, is not good. It’s time to get moving. We’ll look at the stone later.
We backtrack along the riverbed, down the slope of the mountain, past the cliff with its glittering obsidian and dark ash. We move with urgency now, traveling fast, but not rushing. We head back into the underbrush and struggle across the shadowed ground. We stay closer to the river this time, knowing the trail crosses it downstream, no longer searching for an unknown destination but navigating directly.
Ten minutes into our return journey, my father’s hands grow numb. The ends of the truncated fingers of his right hand are white. Several years ago, while he was oiling the cable on the funicular that leads from the dock to his house, a flayed tendril of the cable seized his hand and carried it into the flywheel of the motor. He’s lucky to have lost only the tips of his fingers. Since then, both his hands have been much more susceptible to the cold.
His gloves are wet and of little use; frostbite is not far off. Suddenly the situation seems serious. And then I remember that I took my gloves off, back at the first patch of devil’s club. If I had kept them on, grasping wet branches and scrambling across the riverbed, they would now be useless. But they’re in my coat pocket, warm and dry. I take them from my pocket and give them to my father. So often when I was a boy, my gloves wet and cold from falls in the snow, my father gave me his pair, large and cozy and warm.
We move on, seeking a clear path through the tangle. I take the lead, turning to the left and emerging accidentally at the water’s edge. I pivot back toward the forest, but my father notices a clearing in the bush, across the river. It’s the old logging track we had come across, but farther south along its line. There must have been a jog in the road where it crossed the river: perhaps the crossing here was precipitous at one time, and further down, where it joined the trail, the bed was wider, more accommodating to logging sledges and pack ponies. The road runs straight south, between the upper and lower trails, and we decide that following it is a fair gamble, especially when stacked up against two tired hikers – one with oncoming frostbite, the other carrying a pack heavier than both his kids combined – heading back into thick winter underbrush.
We cross the river. The bed is flat, and not too deep. Beneath the moving water, stones of every color shine through a liquid veil. Mud on the bottom is packed tight. Fragments of sand tumble silently toward the valley.
We climb the opposite bank to the remains of the road above. Like the segment farther north, the track is derelict but not overgrown. Thin shoots crisscross the path, but the going is easy compared to the underbrush. Twenty minutes later, we emerge at the upper trail. It’s difficult to see how we could have missed this junction; but there are tall grasses here, and the trunks of young alders obscure the view of the old and narrow track. What a windfall: we’ve avoided a couple of hours of hard slogging through the rain forest. My concern for my father’s hands eases, and my mood shifts – confident now of our safety, rolling over to the wonder of the stone’s discovery.
The old road leads us to where the two trails join, the intersection of memory and prophecy I encountered earlier in the morning. Bark on the surrounding trees is dark, and shadows migrate across leaves turned down toward the earth. My father is ahead, and he passes the juncture without comment; it is not, for him, a point of opening. I pause, look back at these two paths – one sloping down toward the valley, hiding the river ahead and an old road of forgotten days; the other, an ascending passage, overhung by a yellow wood, rising into a grand gallery of bright sky.
We will come here again, where the path diverges. My father will go ahead, his back dwindling as he walks with gentle footfalls toward the bright air, the rushing water. But today, with daylight still strong and a path of tumbled rock underfoot, we turn and head down the mountain.
Notes to Chapter One
The ancient Egyptians called this primal water Nun, a universe of singularity, an erasure. The sounds of its name run forward and backward, unfolding and recapitulating. Nun is the first palindrome – expanding and returning, seeing itself in the mirror, searching for its double form. Nun is the template for every uncreated utterance, the word in the beginning. Every movement toward articulation is a re-enactment of this first expression, each word a world created from nothing. This first name is, even now, hidden like a stowaway in our language of the everyday – no one, none, nada, niente – promise hidden in the skin of absence. By way of a mythological association between the primordial ocean and temporal oceans, nun is the Aramaic word for fish. Nun is also a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, symbolizing vitality in faith, the power of divine speech, and prophetic inspiration. ↩︎
The symbolism of the cosmic egg is an integral aspect of almost every mythological tradition. In the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, a duck lays its eggs on the knee of the goddess Ilmatar; the eggs break, and the world is formed from the shattered remnants. Similar tales are found in esoteric Judaism, in Hermetic philosophy, in modern physics. The Big Bang is the most recent version of the myth of the cosmic egg, shattering from nothing into everything.
The mythological association between eggs and cosmogenesis is the source of at least one important technological innovation: the distillation of alum (a hydrated double salt, usually consisting of aluminum sulfate and the sulfate of either potassium or ammonia). Alum was a substance of profound alchemical and practical significance from before the time of Alexander until the nineteenth century. It was used as dye, as healing elixir, as transformer of metals. Its manufacture in England, from 1620 to 1870, involved burning the shales of the Yorkshire coast using brushwood fires on the beach. The rocks were heated for about nine months (though the main shale band at Boulby kept burning on its own for more than fifty years). The resulting powder, rich in sulfates, was doused with water, channeled into alum houses, and mixed with kelp or urine (sources of potash and ammonia) to yield a liquid called “the mothers.” This solution was heated until the alum salts crystallized.
The secret of alum’s production lay in the precise duration of this process; too much heat, and the alum was ruined by the crystallization of ferrous sulfate. At some indistinct point in the history of alchemy, a moment of divine instinct led to the discovery that a hen’s egg placed in the solution would rise to the surface at the precise moment of the alum’s optimal concentration. No one knows who discovered this secret, but its emergence is undoubtedly a legacy of the mythological association between creation and eggs. Alchemists, the chemists of every age until the twentieth century, would have known about the various tales of a formative egg emerging from a sea of possibility. In the case of alum, their adaptation of myth into science is a miniature history of the evolution of the scientific method. This method derives not only from reason but from instinct grounded in ancestral myth. For a robust exploration of alum production, see Osborne, The Floating Egg.
Modern science emerged from the alchemical (or Hermetic) tradition, which in turn was begun by the ancient Egyptians, the world’s first scientists. Hermetic philosophy is named for Hermes, the Greek version of the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth. Hermetic doctrines are among the sources of the sacred geometry employed in the cathedrals of Europe. This knowledge flowed first through the temples of Hermopolis along the Nile, arrived much later in Greek Alexandria, and spread from there across the Levant. It arrived in Europe, in the first centuries of the Common Era, as an obscure teaching with an archaic pedigree. As a path of wisdom, Hermeticism is also the source, at least in part, of the mythologies of the Grail, the philosopher’s stone, and the practices for refinement and transformation of the base self into illuminated gold. ↩︎
Unless otherwise stated, the mythological material in Part I is derived and adapted from Reymond, Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple. Eve Reymond studied the inscriptions on the walls of the Edfu temple, constructed during the Greco-Roman period. These so-called Edfu Texts, written during the twilight of ancient Egyptian civilization, were the last esoteric narratives to be preserved from earlier periods. Reymond makes a compelling case that some of the myths are old beyond guessing. ↩︎
The Book of Illumination (the Pyramid Texts) is a work of astonishing complexity. Its myths and cosmological speculations, which are likely more than five thousand years old, describe a worldview extraordinarily remote from our own. The symbolic language of the glyphs remains obscure, and though the text has been translated by various scholars, the meaning of many of the words is still unknown. R.O. Faulkner, in the preface to his English translation, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, concedes that the difficulty of the material requires an essentially poetic approach: “A translator can render a passage only as he himself feels it” (p. viii). Faulkner employed a set of diagraphic marks to help the reader make sense of the more difficult passages. One of those marks, the ellipsis, “indicates that a word or words are untranslatable” (p. xiii). Many ellipses run through Faulkner’s translation. Taken together, they are a string of invisible pearls, hiding a tale to which we no longer have access.
Another famous English translator, Sir Alan Gardiner (quoted in Faulkner, p. viii), confirms: “The only basis we have for preferring one rendering over another, when once the exigencies of grammar and dictionary have been satisfied – and these leave a large margin for divergencies – is an intuitive appreciation of the trend of the ancient writer’s mind.” With the Pyramid Texts, translation is not merely a structural and etymological task; it requires deliberate immersion in a foreign consciousness through which the imagination must find its way by the barest of clues. Reading and reimagining the cosmology of the Pyramid Texts is an unsettling experience. Despite the symbolic obscurity of the texts, their eloquence and philosophical richness are compelling. Yet these texts, and the society which created them, have almost entirely vanished. My local university library possesses a single copy of the Pyramid Texts; while writing this book, I checked out that copy and kept renewing it for almost a year before it was requested by someone else. The religious texts of our age will, no doubt, become similarly obscure – as will our cultures – in the millennia to come.
In this section, taking the suggestions of Faulkner and Gardiner, I have chosen a mythopoeic and intuitive interpretation. My version is a conflation of several passages generally called ascension texts by Faulkner. Excerpts of his version appear below (ellipses are mine).
Lines 1004–10: “O my father the King, the doors of the sky are opened for you, the doors of the celestial expanses are thrown open for you… You shall ascend to the sky, you shall become Wepwawet [Upuaut, the opener of the way], your son Horus will lead you on the celestial ways; the sky is given to you.”
Lines 137–39: “Your bones are those of the divine falcons in the sky. May you be beside the god, may you depart and ascend to your son… The sun-folk shall call out to you, for the Imperishable Stars have raised you aloft. Ascend to the place where your father is…”
Lines 1682–83: “Stand up for me, O my father… for indeed I am your son, I am Horus. I have come for you that I may cleanse and purify you, that I may bring you to life and collect your bones for you…”
The Pyramid Texts are suffused with references to light, to illumination, to the seeing eye. The title of the texts should be more consistent with their content. Therefore I have abandoned the traditional title, which simply refers to the location of the texts’ discovery, and suggest instead the Book of Illumination.
By the time of Christ, twenty-five centuries after the pyramids were built, the authors of the Book of Illumination were long gone. All that remained of their legacy was colossal, mute monuments and buried statues. The divine language, its columns of glyphs carved into enduring stone, had been forgotten. The Sphinx lay concealed up to its neck beneath the sand. With the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 – a black basalt monolith inscribed in Greek and three forms of Egyptian – the old tongue spoke once again and the amnesia of history began to recede. The Book of Illumination is the oldest scripture in hieroglyphics and the most archaic corpus of religious texts in the world. There exist older religious myths, symbols, and documented rituals – some stretching back to the Neanderthal age – but the Book of Illumination is the earliest preserved example of an integrated religious cosmology.
Understanding the words embodied by the glyphs does not yield to us the meaning of the sacred language. The hieroglyph depicting an eye, for example, denotes spiritual engagement, protection, unity, creation, the sun, balance, time – a long list of associations that the glyphs, in themselves, hint at but do not directly disclose. In English, by way of contrast, letters bear no concrete relationship to the words they spell: the letters in the word stone do not embody, in themselves, any hint of the word’s meaning. They are simply signs which together make a code of sounds. It is not possible to decipher the meaning of a word by the shapes of its letters.
The hieroglyphic language combines several distinct levels and strategies for communication: ideograms, which portray direct visual meanings; phonograms – sounds, as in English; and determinatives, word endings that denote the context of the preceding glyphs. Each glyph – image, sound, or determinative – represents a physical object: a mouth, a door bolt, a cobra. Each element provides, in addition to its linguistic meaning, a secondary reminder of its layered context. For example, the hieroglyph for the word meaning “to kiss,” pronounced like the word zen, shows two phonograms – a door bolt and water, for the sounds z and n – alongside an ideogram of the human face. The phonograms indicate the sounds of the word, but they may also embody a deeper symbolism: the bolted door of intimacy is opened in the act of kissing, and the waters of affection, which are also the waters of the well and of the river in spring, flow downstream toward the heart.
The relationship between medium and message, which we exalt as a quintessentially modern discovery, was exhaustively explored five thousand years ago. Richard Wilkinson, in Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art (p. 161), contends that Egyptian hieroglyphs “transcended the boundaries of most written scripts in successfully blending symbolic representation and the written word to a degree that no other system of writing has surpassed.” The integration of written language and symbol displays a level of virtuosity so profound that we can hardly grasp it. The interconnections of the Internet, for example, in which objects are embedded within objects in almost infinite nested sequences, would have seemed, to the ancient Egyptians, rudimentary indeed. The Internet is, for all its complexity, a nonsymbolic system: each of its elements (files, Web pages, computer keyboards and monitors, cables, and so on) possesses a discrete and single-level meaning. A keyboard can be represented by an on-screen icon, but it cannot mean anything other than a keyboard – unless you give it further levels of meaning yourself (in which case other people may not understand you).
There are, in English, no shared multilevel meanings of a keyboard. But imagine a hieroglyphic keyboard: each key is shaped into a distinctive symbol, and the letter displayed upon it is an expression, in another form, of the same symbol. But not exactly the same: the letter is another flavor of the motif of the key. The placement of the keys is related to the fingers that touch them as you type, and the symbols of the keys relate to the symbolic functions of each finger. Moreover, the key placements are designed to evoke specific movements of the fingers as you type, the order of their action as well as the shapes they make. You animate animals and ideas and gods as you move your fingers. And you have a choice about what you animate, because every expression offers hundreds of ways to type it. You can write forward or backward, or vertically. You can change the order of letters, insert symbols that abstractly or concretely express the sense of your words. Your sentences can interlock like crossword puzzles. You can specify that your writing contain anywhere from two to twelve levels of meaning (but not one level, as in English). Every letter, every phrase, every passage you write is a hologram of your entire communication. From the simplest rebus to the most elaborate phonogram, every fragment is a map of the whole and interconnects with every other fragment by way of a web of meanings so colossal no one can grasp all of it. Besides, the movements of your fingers evoke the gods in unfathomable ways, and they insert further meanings which you do not intend and do not understand. The meaning of the text, finally – any text, from a household budget to a philosophical treatise – extends beyond the world, reaches toward the eternal. Your keyboard has five thousand keys.
The symbolic language of Egyptian hieroglyphic texts employs the dialect of dreams: nuanced, multifaceted, holographic. The glyphs are woven with interlocking symbols and strands of meaning through which reading becomes a devotional act. Word or phrase reversals – palindromes – hide in every text, leading the reader forward and back along a spiraling track of understanding. Every textural path unfolds in at least two directions: two truths, two selves. Palindromes are hinges upon which the attention of the reader turns. Ben is the primordial stone; neb is gold, the symbol of conscious awareness (and the root of our modern word nebula). Ais is the brain, sia consciousness. Ab is the heart, ba the soul. These reflected and doubled pairs form a concealed language beneath the pragmatic. They turn awareness back on itself, back to the source.
Passages are strung from left to right, as in English, or in reverse, or even vertically (top down, though never bottom up). The intended direction for reading is denoted by the orientation of the ideograms: an animal or a god looks toward the beginning of the text. A palindromic glyph passage can be written forward in a section of reversed text, or backward in a section of forward-facing text. Such suppleness of linguistic structure has made decipherment a difficult task.
The thorniest aspect of the language involves the absence of written vowels. For the ancient Egyptians, vowels were the keys to magic and power; to speak them in the glyphs was to be in possession of the means to create a world. Scribes were sufficiently convinced of the inherent power of the vocalized glyphs that they were careful to limit that power: many of the glyphs inscribed on the stone walls in the pyramid of Unas were modified to prevent them from coming to life unbidden. Ideographic glyphs of birds were carved with their feet intentionally defaced so the birds could not launch themselves from the stone. Glyphs depicting humans were often carved with missing arms or legs. Sometimes substitute glyphs were used in place of those thought more likely to animate themselves. For the Egyptians, the Book of Illumination was, literally, a living document.
Nowhere in the thousands of columns of text in the Book of Illumination – nor, for that matter, in any of the early Egyptian sacred texts – is there a hint of a single vowel. Our modern pronunciation of the lost language is a reconstruction, a best guess at where the vowels belong, but it’s not the language itself. The authentic voice of the words is gone. We are left to gather up the fragments of a library strewn across a debris field wide as history. ↩︎
Olson, “The Royal We.” The statistician Joseph Chang, in his essay “Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals,” demonstrates that everyone alive today is descended from common ancestors who lived as recently as a few thousand years ago. The number of our ancestors increases exponentially with every generation we trace backward (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on). If we go back far enough, the number of our potential ancestors exceeds the total number of people who have ever lived. But the number of our actual direct ancestors turns out to be almost everyone who was alive a few thousand years ago. This is not limited by culture or geography: everyone today is descended directly from everyone who lived at that time (if they had children, and subsequently descendants).
Chang’s research shows that almost every person in North America is descended from English royalty, and everyone of European ancestry is directly descended from Muhammad. Similarly, everyone alive today – with the exception of those with no surviving descendants – will be the direct ancestor of every human being who will live five thousand years in the future.
For an alternative view, see Rohde, “Somewhat Less-Recent Common Ancestors of All Present Day Individuals.” ↩︎
Adapted from Burland, Nicholson, and Osborne, Mythology of the Americas, p. 148. ↩︎
In the Edfu accounts, as transcribed and interpreted by Reymond, the Shebtiw are both twins and members of a larger family of divine beings who do not appear in the narrative. This mythological family of seven members, sometimes called the seven sages or the Shemsu Hor (the followers of Horus), figures prominently in the antediluvian research undertaken by Graham Hancock and others. ↩︎
In later ages, the name Aa will come to mean, for the Hawaiians, a form of dark lava; it will also, in the Norse cultures, become a word for water. The fiery stone and the sea of emergence, together in a world of opposites. The later meaning of Wa will include an English form, waw, meaning wave. In Hebrew it will become the sixth letter, waw (or vav), whose shape is fundamentally equivalent to the Egyptian glyph neter, which symbolizes divinity. In the neter glyph, the upper, horizontal line is usually depicted in the shape of a small flag, what some have interpreted as the head of an ax. Similarly, the Hebrew letter waw is typically written with a calligraphic flourish that renders the upper line into the shape of a flag ruffling in a breeze. This symbol also appears, in the oldest Egyptian myths, as the icon representing the perch of the primeval god, the Unnameable.
These ancient names and symbols may be linked etymologically. Through the vehicle of myth, carrier of ancestral memory, many versions of the same tales are told across cultures. The old words, the old gods, are preserved through repeated motifs that may apply as directly to specific words as to specific images. Etymology may be one form of myth. Water, for example, appears in myths throughout the world: as agent of beginnings, as river of life, as fertilizing rain. Its symbolism and iconography are consistent and fairly independent of geography.
The words used to denote various forms of water, in languages spoken by peoples at the utmost extent from one another, are also surprisingly similar. John Bengtson and Merritt Ruhlen traced the words associated with water through the etymologies of various language families. With aq’wa as its primary root, water is found in Nilo-Saharan (Nyimang kwe and Kwama uuku), Afro-Asiatic (Janjero ak-k-a), Altaic (Japanese aka, meaning bilge water, and Ainu wakka), Amerind (Allentiac aka, Culino yaku and waka, meaning river, Koraveka ako, to drink, Fulnio waka, lake), and Indo-European (Latin aqua, water). I have reproduced Bengtson and Ruhlen’s list from Richard Rudgley’s The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age (p. 44), which presents an excellent overview of early language development. ↩︎
Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos, p. 58. This quotation is from the Shabaka text, a granite stela upon which the oldest extant Egyptian cosmology was inscribed. Unfortunately, it was later used as a millstone – the equivalent of using the Bible as kindling – and much of the text was lost. In the surviving Shabaka stone myths, which Egyptologists call the Memphite cosmogony, Ptah is the supreme deity who creates the world by virtue of words of power. He is, in this sense, the mythological peer of the Shebtiw. ↩︎
Burland, Nicholson, and Osborne, Mythology of the Americas, p. 186. ↩︎
Budge, Legends of the Egyptian Gods, p. 186. For students of Egyptology, the work of Budge (1857–1934) is considered both foundational and out-of-date. His contributions to hieroglyphic linguistics have largely been supplanted by contemporary research, though his chronicle of Egyptian myth retains a compelling and poetic aura. ↩︎
Hornung, Ancient Egyptian Books, p. 11. The contemporary title of the collection of invocations known as the Coffin Texts is derived from the location of their discovery as opposed to their content. They are, essentially, a second folio of the Pyramid Texts. This passage has been adapted from Coffin Text spell 1080.
“The winding waterway” is a term common to the myths of many cultures as a mythological designation for the Milky Way. ↩︎