Excerpted from A Stone's Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth, by Ross Laird
The stone lies on my workbench, the water of the river gone from it, its surfaces lighter. Just rough, dull stone. But something drew me to it, drew me far up the slope of a mountain, across a guarded threshold, and into the dark, chill river.
I call my father to see how he’s doing. Yesterday, after we made our way down the mountain and I dropped him off at the harbor, he seemed tired but also invigorated. I want to make sure he’s not too sore today; my own joints and leg muscles are tight and sluggish. He answers the phone, upbeat and sprightly, and tells me he’s been passing along the story of the bear to anyone who will listen. It’s the kind of story we’ll be talking about for a long while.
He asks me about the stone, and my plans for it. I’m not sure, I tell him. I need to acquaint myself with it, to understand more deeply the impulse behind my search for it. The dreams, which cracked open and tumbled into the brilliant day, are forging paths inside me, crisscrossing, weaving toward a horizon I can’t quite see. I need to follow them, follow the myth that was their inspiration. I need to sit with the stone until my direction becomes clear.
The November day is dark. Sheets of rain wash the evergreens behind our house; bright drops hang, then fall, from branches. I turn from the window and head back to the shop. The room was designed as a garage, but no car has been in here for years. Except for a clear space in the center, the shop is filled with tool cabinets, stacks of wood, assembly tables, power tool stations. A block of marble from the quarry used by Michelangelo holds up one end of a pile of seasoned beech. An oarlock from an old dinghy lies on the windowsill, its bronze green with age. On my kids’ workbench, scattered with offcuts of cedar and pine, a small hammer rests alongside a row of nails hammered into a board. I can see from its rounded edge and scratched surface that it’s one of the boards from the old ski rack my father and my brothers and I built for our cabin when I was eleven years old. Along the top, between two holes that once held pegs for securing the skis, one of the kids has used a rasp to abrade a shallow valley in the wood. Fresh fibers of Douglas fir – pale, with a hint of orange – contrast with the old surface, deepened by thirty years of mountain light.
This place is steeped in layers of time. In my own work, in that of my kids, we intersect with other moments: the forest tree, growing for hundreds of years before any of us was born; artifacts old and discarded, made by unknown craftsmen, by my father, by my own hands; tools, new and ancient, whose histories will remain forever obscure. And now a stone, millennia old, lies on the bench beside a bloodstain from a mishap last summer when the power planer took off the tip of my finger. At the time, my father laughed, saying that truncated fingers seemed to be a family tradition. Another story to tell, like that of the bear.
These stories – remembered, adapted, embellished – form the core of our family identity. And of our personal identities as well. Stories are how we make sense of who we are; they are the thread of our connection to the unfathomable.
As I wipe the stone with a cloth, clearing its surface of sand and algae from the river, I wonder about the intersection of the stone’s tale with my own. I’m reaching toward something, a way of bringing the dreams out from the shadow of my inner life. A way of holding them to the wind, so that they might lift off and be borne toward the territory of myth. After all, a dream is only a wandering myth, exiled from the source but always on its way back home.
The dreams and myths to which I have been drawn – sea of beginnings, well of fire, black stone spinning – originated with people who called themselves the Kem. Their culture is now long gone, though their country remains: wide desert, red cliffs, black earth. They were already vanishing more than two thousand years ago, and they were gone by the time Christianity began. A few hundred years before Christ, the Greeks, whose civilization borrowed substantially from the Kem, called the land of their cultural forebears Khemia. That name journeyed through ages of forgetting, of secret flame, and was delivered, intact with its essence of mystery, as the modern word alchemy.1 The land of the Kem is one place, the beginning place of burnished sky and deep river: Egypt.
From a craftsman’s point of view, ancient Egypt is the most compelling place on earth. In stonework, in monumental architecture, in artistic finesse, the Kem achieved a level of astounding refinement. In temples, statuary, and sculpture, they were capable of matching – and in some cases, exceeding – what we can accomplish today. Their endeavors, which now lie strewn across the desert, buried and fallen into ruin, served the aims of an enigmatic spirituality about which we know many facts but few truths.
The consciousness of those vanished people is so fantastically distant from our own that we can hardly grasp it. It has been lost on the road of the world’s unfolding, somewhere between the present and the crossroads of beginning. The impulse that drew me into a dream and up the mountain involves walking back along that road, reading the signposts in the way that I know – through the work of my hands – trying to discover the traces of a lost age. That odyssey begins with stone.
The black stone lies undisturbed at the edge of the bench. While I wait for the impulse to shape it, I carve a canoe bowl in the tradition of the aboriginal artists of the Northwest Coast, a birthday present for my friend Grant. I glue up two layers of cypress with a slice of purpleheart between. As I work, removing layers of the light, almost yellow cypress, I find myself diverging from the intended shape of the piece. I carve deeper, hollowing out the central section and shaping the edges by instinct. I bore through to the layer of purpleheart deep in the wood. It emerges as an indigo oval at the bottom of the bowl’s swept-out interior. A tendril of dark grain threads its way along the wood at the intersection of the contrasting layers. I pause, inspecting the work. The top of the bowl is not narrow and uniform like a canoe but instead flares wide at the center; it’s almost a circle that flows into short handles at the ends. Working in imaginative leaps, I inlay shimmering copper along the contour of the handles and polish the cypress to a clear, amber sheen. When it’s done, the bowl is an eye – a pupil in a deep well, surrounded by a bright iris.
I finish the bowl with walnut oil, a non-toxic finish, in case Grant decides to use it for serving food. I apply six coats over the course of a week, holding the bowl above my workbench, sliding around its interior with a cotton cloth. After the third coat, the wood begins to shine. I sit in the shop and watch the light play upon the surface. As I wait for the oil to dry enough that I can move the bowl inside, where it’s warmer and the finish will dry more quickly, I pick up the stone and hold it in my lap.
It’s darker than slate, not quite jet black. The corners are sharp and distinct, as though cleaved level by a colossal hand. The two largest and opposing faces, what I think of as the top and bottom, are parallel. The side planes taper slightly, forming shallow wedges at the corners. The surface, mottled with mineral streaks from water erosion and marked by a ragged crack that runs between two corners, feels smooth. It’s not smooth – small fissures and fractured veins crisscross the stone everywhere – but nothing on the surface is remotely loose, and there are no grains that shift under my fingers. My eyes see rough patches – crevasses and ridges roughly sheared off – but when my hand touches the stone, allows itself to glide over the surface, the rock feels smooth as polished bone.
There is blue in it, the color of the northern sea beneath a November sky. Dark, impenetrable blue. And white, like flotsam, or a flock of gulls gliding across the night sky. Flecks of white, in every part of the stone, spreading out like ancestral lights tumbling across the mouth of the well.
The constituent minerals of the stone give rise to these colors. The black-blue background is composed of hornblende and pyroxenes; they are many times harder than tool steel. Microscopically, the hornblende displays precise, six-sided crystals, each one a tessera of the black stone’s mosaic. Pyroxenes are a group of minerals: augite, hypersthene, bronzite, and the like. All much harder than iron, all crystalline. Using a magnifying glass, I can also see labradorite, with its distinctive glow, blue and metallic. It resembles lapis lazuli, one of the stones sacred to the Kem.
The white flakes in the rock are of the feldspar mineral group; microcline, probably. There is some olivine, as well, judging by its namesake color, and a host of iron-rich minerals and metals, magnetite and hematite among them. All of it twined together, thrust up from the mountain’s core, cooled by hidden waters.
The combination of minerals in the stone denotes it as basalt, a name of Kem origin. Pliny, the Roman savant and author of the celebrated Natural History, a work of authoritative scholarship until the Middle Ages, wrote, “The Ægyptians also found in Æthyopia another kind of Marble which they call Basaltes, resembling yron as well in colour as hardnes.”2 Bands of basalt form the crust of the earth beneath the oceans. In this sense, basalt is the foundation stone, a pillar upholding the manifest world.
Basalt forms far down beneath the earth’s crust, miles down where the temperature exceeds a thousand degrees Celsius. There its constituent minerals melt together as magma, as molten stone. Volcanic and tectonic activity thrust the magma up to the surface, either directly through the summit of a volcano or along dikes and sills leading to the mountainside. As the magma approaches the surface – quickly or slowly, depending on geologic action – the minerals begin to crystallize. If ascent toward the surface is slow (millions of years), and the surrounding temperature drops gradually, large crystals can form in the aggregate. If the movement upward is rapid (a few seconds, say, with a further few days of cooling), crystals have only a short time in which to develop, and the resulting texture is more uniform. The small flecks of microcline in the stone I found, along with the absence of any other large crystals in the matrix, indicate that it cooled swiftly on the surface.
Along one edge of the stone, its dark color and smooth texture are interrupted by a lighter mass of grainy material, almost like sandstone. This intrusion, called a xenolith, is a mass of compressed ash from the volcano. When still molten, cooling on the surface beneath a sky blackened with pumice, the developing stone flowed around this anomaly. The dense ash is there still, a gray lump the size of a golf ball.
For ten thousand years this stone has lain on the mountain, on an old riverbed, in the shadow of a volcano. A long series of eruptions delivered it from the earth’s hidden core, as in the Kem myth of origin. It floated up through the fiery sea, rested upon the summit of an emergent mountain, took its rough and simple shape. As I place the stone back on the bench top, ruminating on its origins, I wonder about the similarity between geological and mythological tales. According to the current scientific view – itself a fluid construction, always changing to accommodate new ideas – the earth was indeed fashioned as the Kem myth describes: out of a maelstrom of solar dust, hot gases, and gravity. The planet coalesced, a great sea formed (no one knows how), and under the protection of its waters the first stones were made. Those stones, some of which have been discovered by geologists, are more than four billion years old. My mountain stone, by comparison, is young indeed. The ratio of its span to that of the most aged stones is as one day to a thousand years. This is about the same ratio as the age of my kids to the age of humanity.
I visit Bill to discuss the age and composition of my black stone. Bill is a geologist, and he’s much more interested in the chemical composition of basalt than in its mythological associations. As we’re talking, in Bill’s den overlooking the forest, he retrieves a stone from the edge of his fireplace hearth. It’s about the size and shape of a small Bible. Bill hands me this stone and tells me it’s one of the oldest objects in the world. It has been sawn into two parallel planes, banded with black and white striations, edged by rough sides where the rock shows deep weathering. The white bands are quartz and feldspar; the darker ones are mostly biotite. The stone is called a gneiss.3 Though it’s not large, it’s heavy in my hand. There are no loose grains; only a hard, crystalline matrix spread across a background of contrasting hues.
Bill received the gneiss as a gift when he worked as a geologist for the Canadian government, and he counts it among his most prized possessions. I can see why: at almost four billion years of age, such an artifact is astonishing – older, by far, than the dinosaurs, older even than the earliest fossils. It invites questions and ruminations. It encourages within me a sense of my own insignificance. But also, like an anchor offered to the drifting mind, it provides a concrete means of joining with the past. Four billion years is a difficult span to imagine. Measures and metaphors can capture the breadth of that time, but not its depth. Here, though, cradled in my palm, is four billion years.
Looking closely, I glimpse the detail in each of the black bands: whorls, curves, marks like tiny swirls of ink. Dark tendrils extend above and below each striation. Here and there the white breaks through, truncating a long skein of black. As I study the surface, it begins to resemble a text – black on white, linear, structured with letters and punctuation. The similarity is unmistakable. “In the beginning,” says the Hebrew legend, the Torah was “written with black fire on white fire, lying in the lap of God.”4
Bill shows me, on a map, where the stone was found: at the center of a small island, rising from the waters of an unnamed lake, in the Acasta region of northern Canada.5 Islands and nameless waters. I mention the similarity between Kem mythology and the geography in which his gneiss was found. As I look at the map, tracing my eye over a northern territory almost devoid of human habitation, I notice something else: the unnamed lake drains into a river system that adjoins Great Bear Lake. The guardian again, protecting the ancestral land with its stone of origin.
Bill’s stone is a fragment of the original continent – what geologists call the protocontinent – that survived asteroid impacts and the turbulence of a formative earth.6 From a core veined in black and white, on an island surrounded by fresh and aged waters, the beginning text of the world was written.
As I drive home, past the cedar mill and the bog that reaches to the river, I wonder about time, about what is remembered and forgotten. I drive south, along the new highway that borders the bog’s eastern edge. How old is the bog? The highway is fifteen years old; trees on the bog’s fringe are standing dead because the blacktop disrupted the drainage of their soil. Old gives way to new. I suspect, however, that the bog will be here long after the highway has vanished. The road stretches into the future; the bog retreats and waits.
This landscape is a metaphor for modern consciousness: the past diminishes as we depart from it, and the future is a road dwindling ahead to a bright horizon. This conception of time – linear and unidirectional – continually shapes our experience. We are governed by its regular sequence; its precise direction leads us toward an irrevocable, unknown destination. The road of time moving forward is a structure upon which we bind our living.
But for the ancients, it was not this way. Their descriptions of time are not straight paths but circles. For them, every step forward led back toward the origin, toward the welcoming light of ancestral fires.7
By the time of Plato, in the fifth century BCE, the old view of time was entirely reversed. Plato maintained that time spreads out behind the present moment, as though we stand on the deck of a boat gazing forward, and the sea of the future assaults us from ahead. Our present is the cleaving prow, our past a turbulent wake drawn across a wide expanse of ocean.
This shift in the perspective of time is the basis of Western culture. We no longer face backward. For us, such a direction is a regression, a betrayal of what we have come to think of as progress. Our immersion in time as a path moving forward makes it difficult for us to understand an alternative perception. We are preoccupied with the idea of evolution. The ancients, conversely, were occupied with notions of return.
They would have understood more easily – in the bones, in the breath – the span of time embodied by the past. Our straight road of time never turns back; we leave our flotsam at the side of the road and move on, forgetting. But if the path of time curves round again, leads us down remembered tracks, rolls toward beginnings, we begin to know the way.
Stones, which unlike people are not circumscribed by time, may live for millions or billions of years. Every pebble underfoot is a relic of numberless days. We dismiss, or are indifferent to, the fact of our fleeting residence on the earth. But stones remember. In the dance of remembering, they constantly move, playing out a rhythm too slow for us to perceive, alive with the thrumming of mountains and the music of the sky. The minerals in basalt, each a crystalline structure tuned to a note of nature, are the individual strings of a volcanic instrument. A song – old, soft – plays as we pass, its music unnoticed as we press forward along the straight road of time.
I pass my hand over the black stone, feeling again its smooth texture, the weight of its age. And I begin to sense, in these opening moments of the work, the well of origin. I move toward it, as though gliding on dark waters. Inside the stone, beneath its implacable surface lambent with the colors of a hidden age, water and fire together begin – are always beginning – to stir.
Winter, the season called proyet by the Kem, deepens. Proyet means emergence. It is the season of remembering, of reflection, of quiet. In modern times, Remembrance Day marks – inadvertently, though perhaps not accidentally – its beginning. While branches in the yard are ruffled by cold wind and weighted with snow, the stone spins its awakenings within me. It lies on the bench, still and dark, while I work on other projects. It appears in my reading of myths from many cultures. My kids inspect it every time they’re in the shop with me, slapping its surface with resounding thwacks, as though testing its resiliency. Something is begun in these moments of engagement and observation. I’m not sure what, exactly, but I can feel a delicate momentum building.
During Christmas week, we make our annual trek to my father’s island home. We gather up our gear – gifts, food, life jackets – and head down to the dock. The yellow dinghy waits. There’s wind on the water; rigging from the moored sailboats whistles and clangs. On the way across, my kids ask about their cousins, whether they’ve arrived yet. They don’t see their cousins much; about as frequently as I saw mine when I was a boy. I haven’t seen any of my cousins since my mother’s funeral, and before that, my paternal grandmother’s funeral. Almost ten years. The next time will be the funeral of my father, or one of my aunts.
I am troubled by the distance in my family, a gulf that has been growing since the death of my grandmother. Bereft of its center, the family began to scatter – even before my kids or my older brother’s kids were born. My mother died soon after my grandmother, and it was as though the wind went out of our sails. We had been held together by a fierce old gentlewoman, and by a mother of desperate intensity; once they were gone, we began drifting. We moved forward through time, but in different directions.
We dock the boat on the far shore, climb the ramp at the head of the dock, and take the funicular up to the house. My brother’s kids are here already; when they see Avery and Rowan, the playing begins in earnest. They run together into the forest out back, climb along the rocky hill where springwater bubbles up into a pool, shout and chase and catch one another with reckless vigor. Later, when we’ve finished opening presents, they make a pile of shredded wrapping paper, dive into it, wrestle until it spreads across the living room in tendrils of bright color.
The winter sun, low in the southern sky, filters light through the trees behind my father’s house and illuminates the nest of a heron, ragged bundles of sticks gathered across a high tree’s crown in a wide arc. In many myths, herons are immortal birds, beyond time. In Kem tales, the ibis – cousin of the heron – is given this role. The ibis is the animal form of Thoth, god of wisdom, voice of the world’s creation.
At the end of our visit, we walk down the winding path that leads from the cliff-top house to the shore. My younger brother goes ahead to ready the boat for crossing. As we descend on the switchbacking trail, Avery holds aloft a red helium balloon that had been attached to one of the presents. His four-year-old fingers wrap tight around the ribbon; the balloon bobs up and down as he walks.
We reach the ramp that leads down to the dock. It’s late in the afternoon, Avery is tired, and he asks if I can carry him. I lift him from the ground, cradle him against my shoulder, settle into this simple affection which will carry me through my whole life. But as he reaches his arm around my neck, he lets go of the balloon. Too late, I see the ribbon drifting up, and I snatch for it with my free hand. Realizing, suddenly, that his hand is empty, Avery looks up and with a shout of frustration watches the balloon ascend. Together we watch it meander in the breeze and dwindle slowly upward into the sky. It climbs into the cobalt expanse, a drop of red in a blue ocean. It drifts higher, almost out of sight. When Avery loses track of it, I point with my index finger, holding it still until he finds the balloon again. Eventually it becomes tiny. How high: hundreds, thousands of feet? Distance and perspective are rendered void by infinite blue and infinitesimal red. I could be looking at a galaxy, or a single mote in my son’s eye.
One moment the balloon is there, clear but distant, and then it’s gone. I search for it, and see it again. Then it disappears once more. I spot it one last time, rising into the far distance, somehow buoyed with the promise of deliverance, of endurance. The balloon fills my vision with a kindled hope – for myself, for my children – that we might be carried aloft on our fragile dreams. It wheels in the empty sky and is gone.
Early in the new year, I visit Lorenzo. His studio, which looks out to the inlet and a series of bridges spanning the water, is fronted by a wide grassy yard populated by slabs of stone. Square columns of white marble, shot through with skeins of apricot and charcoal, lie sidelong on the ground. A dark block the size of a fridge rests beside stacked shards of pale granite. Many of the stone surfaces are smooth, cut with clean lines by a band saw using a steel blade and a slurry of corundum powder. Rough faces appear here and there, their angles and contours shaped by the grain of the stone and a hand chisel. I see remnants of drill holes where some of the blocks were split with wedges.
Lorenzo shows me blocks from Italy, from northern Canada, from diverse places where these treasures have been thrust up from deep in the earth. I wonder about their age, and about the many turns in their spiraling paths that have brought them here. I carry my own dark stone cradled in the crook of my arm.
Inside the studio, a film of stone dust covers every surface. Shelves are stuffed with abrasive wheels and diamond blades and chisels. In many ways, the space is much like my own shop: scattered with cords and tools and worktables, disheveled enough to be interesting as well as hazardous. Lorenzo says precisely the same thing to me that I say to everyone who enters my shop: “I need to clean up a bit more.” This is a craftsman’s mantra, repeated because it never gets done. A certain amount of chaos seems, for many of us, to be necessary. Clean shops produce clean work – measured and refined. But for most of the craftsmen I know, clean work can be an exercise in the mundane. A bit of mess helps to make things interesting, to loosen up the formality and rigidity of materials that, in themselves, are rigid enough. Besides, why clean up when the work is there, waiting, inviting?
Lorenzo leads me into a corner of the studio and shows me two matched sculptures of amorphous human forms climbing a pillar of marble. Each is about six feet high; hands and backs and legs twist around the stone, merging and separating as they reach upward. These sculptures remind me of the ancestors in the Kem origin tales, climbing up the well, drawn by the radiant stone. When I mention this to Lorenzo, he tells me that his intent is to show the rhythm of time, the cycles of becoming and dissolution. We talk about memory, about the unity of myth and experience, and then he shows me the fire sculpture – twinned human forms, clothed in flame, emerging from a foundation of red marble shaped like a pyramid. I think of the Shebtiw, the twins of Kem mythology.
I place my fire stone on Lorenzo’s workbench. We talk about my half-formed plans for it, the kinds of tools I might use, the approach I might take. We make small cuts in the stone, testing its hardness and grain. The smell of dust spreads out in the damp air. As I watch the blade neatly incise the stone’s surface, a pressing need grows in me; to get going, to take the images and words of the old tales and coax their shapes from the stone itself. My hands, after a period of waiting and research and simple openness, are ready to work.
Late that evening, I sit out in the yard and watch the northern sky. A rampart of tall evergreens, blackened by the night, is silhouetted against a vault of indigo. I see the Great Bear, turning around the hub of the world. As I gaze up, suddenly, from the blue darkness of the sky, emerging all at once as though swimming up from deep waters, a flock of white birds appear. Their wings, reflecting light from a source I cannot see, are brighter than the surrounding stars. They move like ripples on a sea of obsidian. Then they glide past the trees and vanish.
At the temple of the falcon god Horus, in Edfu – in the south of modern Egypt, along the Nile – limestone inscriptions relate how primeval ancestors reanimated the universe. The black stone is their embodiment. The name of each member of this company of first beings contains the element hr, meaning face or countenance. And it is here, reading these myths while the stone perches quietly beside me, that I find a formative impulse: to uncover, and animate, the ancestral face.
I visualize the long backward steps of my family and the many faces of my forebears. I follow the thread of names back as far as I can. I remember some things, and I imagine I remember others. I read the old stories in our family chronicle, and I watch them take shape inside me. I work to refine my vision. And I dream: of a luminous wave splashing through the crack at the bottom of a closed door. The water washes up the wall, erases the room with its brilliance. Outside, a sliver of new moon drifts through an indigo sky. On the far side of the door, there is a sound like the rushing of waters, and a shadowed foot moves across the light. I do not get up. I do not open the door. I lie in bed, waiting, fearful. The figure takes another sidelong step, as though pacing. His foot is bare, and dark, the rhythm of muscles lithe as his heel pivots on the cold floor. As the moment stretches itself out, and a skein of bright tendrils weaves across the wall, I remember black earth under my feet and the cry of a bird, high up. I know, without seeing, that beyond the door’s threshold a deep well is encircled by desert. The surface of the water is a glistening disk. The true names of things call out in clear voices. A momentary dislocation jostles me – a flutter, a ripple in the air – and I find myself in the hall, my body a cool and liquid fire. A feeling of urgency draws me down the narrowing corridor. The sound of water comes rushing back. Light and water. I take a step forward, tentative, expectant. The water sound fills the air, and I awake.
It’s early; the kids and Elizabeth are still asleep. Conscious but not yet alert, drifting on the fringe of the dream, I wander down to the shop and sit with the stone. It has been sitting, in one place or another, for thousands of years. I inspect, again, its marks and crevices, looking for something to guide me. Despite my itch to get going with the actual work of sculpting, I’m hesitant to push, to rush. I want to allow the stone to speak slowly, the way a pebble makes its measured way down a creek bed.
I ruminate on the Kem myth of the coming of light and the world brought into being by the power of words. This old and fractured story is the first resonant trace of the later sacred myths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The biblical account is a descendant, thousands of years later, of the early origin tales fashioned by the Kem and their neighbors the Sumerians. Beyond the threshold of their storytelling, before writing was invented, the tales stretch back even further. No one knows how far – perhaps as much as seventy or a hundred thousand years, when language and symbolic thinking seem first to have entered human consciousness.8
Stone and word, always together in the old tales: the Unnameable, speaking from the perch of stone; Moses and the tablets of creation; Thoth, writing in a book of stone and throwing it, trailing fire, to the earth. Black fire written upon white fire. I wonder again: How far back does it all go?
I hear the sound of running feet: across the hall upstairs, down the stairs, along the tiles behind the kitchen. The shop door opens, and Avery is there: sleep fading from his face, blue eyes soft and inquisitive, ragged teddy bear in one hand. He asks for breakfast.
Later, after Elizabeth has readied Rowan for her grade two spelling test and I’ve walked Avery to preschool, I return home and begin the preliminary work. I place a diamond blade over the arbor of my grinder, tighten the bolt counterclockwise, and replace the safety guard. Tiny industrial diamonds, set into the body of the steel blade, lie just proud of the metal – an essential design feature, as basalt is much harder than steel. I lift the grinder from the bench, press the black start button with my thumb, and immediately feel rushing air spin off the accelerating blade. Unlike most power tools, in which the blade is either fixed to a heavy assembly or mounted at the center of the mechanism, grinders are gyroscopes. Because the circular blade lies near the end of the motor housing, its motion is not balanced along the length of the tool. Maneuvering a grinder with the power on feels the same as steadying a spinning bicycle wheel in the air while holding its mounting bolts. Above a certain threshold, the revolutions of the wheel take on their own life: shifting, edging sideways, always trying to rotate away from your grasp. By virtue of this same peculiar physics, grinders possess a unique dynamism.
I steady the blade and move it toward the surface of the stone. I choose a spot near the edge – a location I’m sure will be removed in the later work – and ease the blade down. I hear a rushing, grating sound: pitched high, consistent, but with a rough undercurrent, like gravel tumbling through a tunnel of ice. As the blade spins, a flat spot emerges from the backdrop of the stone’s surface. First I see white flecks, more evident now as the darker matrix is smoothed into a uniform texture. Then I begin to see into the stone, layer upon layer of aggregated minerals.
I lift the blade from the stone and release the power switch. The wind settles. I run my finger across the clean patch. It feels polished, though there’s no gloss. As I explore the area with the tip of my index finger, I trace the boundary between the stone’s cut surface and the surrounding eroded texture. I skate across to the other side, follow the threshold around again, notice that the shape of the worked patch, smooth amid rough, is like the scar that encircles the tip of my finger – an old mishap from cutting firewood in the rain.
The past sneaks into the present, and my mind turns to a developing question: What is my obligation to the histories of the Kem, to the ancestry of my own family, to these ramshackle tales of sacred stones and departed gods? I have been taught, by virtue of the age in which I was born, to separate myself – my values and convictions and aims – from those who have gone before me. We move on. But for the Kem, there was no moving on. They believed in the immediacy of ancestry, the immanence of origin. Each generation was responsible for the past. As I rub the exposed corner free of grit with my finger, I wonder about the unfinished tales I am responsible for, the unremembered heraldry that I and my children have inherited.
Our collective legacy from the Kem – symbols, tales, a persistent iconography – is due entirely to the simple fact of their devotion to stone. They prized the hardest, most enduring stones for their work: basalt, granite, diorite. Many of the oldest artifacts, dating from 2500 BCE and earlier, are made from these materials. One of the statues from that period, of a monarch whose name has come down to us as Khafre, is the sole surviving artifact from a series of twenty-three identical diorite sculptures. It was unearthed in 1869, upside down at the bottom of a pit beneath a temple adjoining the Sphinx. Khafre’s lone black statue – battered, portions of the left side sheared off – is magnificent. The monarch is seated on a wide slab of stone that extends beneath and behind him, up to the crest of his shoulder. Both hands are in his lap. The left lies palm down, fingers relaxed and forward, on the crest of his left leg. The right hand, curled firmly into a fist, rests atop his right leg. The face is shaped with a similar polarity: the left side expresses affection and openness; the right is formal, authoritative.
The character of the statue depends on the perspective from which it is viewed. The right side, less damaged than the left, shows Khafre as regal, forceful, yet also conveys a sense of enigma – a commanding presence gazing out from a remote age. From the left side, Khafre looks young; a faint trace of a smile, balancing rebellion and authority, plays upon his lips. His head appears to tilt back from this angle, in humor or repose. The impression is not of a monarch, an icon of power, but of a man, fleeting and vulnerable, embodied by lasting stone but with the face of one who has stopped only for a moment, to rest here on the rock while following the circular road of time.
The ceremonial beard has been broken off below Khafre’s chin, but his headdress is still intact. It wraps the back half of his head, flares wide just below his ear and descends, decorated with horizontal stripes, to his upper chest. A thin covering extends from the headdress across the top of this head. A seam of fabric, etched into the stone, follows the contour of the fontanel line from the crown of Khafre’s head to between and above his eyes. From there, a narrow band diverges on each side, back along his skull to where the two sides meet the rear of the headdress above his ears. The overall effect of the front portion of the headdress is to emphasize the intersection of the fontanel line and the two bands, low and central on Khafre’s forehead. They make a crossroads, a deliberate marker of utmost importance. “On the brow,” says the Book of Illumination, “your vision of the veiled god opens. Awaken the eye in calmness, wander the temple halls wrapped in the peace of your own becoming.”9
Seated behind Khafre, at the top of the black stone slab, is a falcon. Its wings are extended forward on either side, enfolding Khafre’s headdress. Its head is raised, as though sighting movement far off. The falcon is the ancestor, raised up from the sea of beginnings, witnessing and whispering.
The statue, which now lies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, is slightly larger than life-size. Streaked with veins of green and gray, the black diorite captures precisely the texture of Khafre’s skin and underlying sinuous structure. The portrayal is realistic enough to be eerie: a dark figure, striations of color moving across him, a bird of prey nestled on his shoulder.
Why was the statue at the bottom of a pit? Where did its companions go? What catastrophe overtook this monumental work – and the culture that crafted it, forty-five centuries ago? In modern times, archaeologists working on the Giza plateau have unearthed smashed fragments from other statues in the series. The cause of their destruction is unknown, hidden by the simple erasure of time. It’s likely that the damage was done about 2250 BCE, during an anarchic period of two hundred years following the time of Khafre. The chaos and social upheaval of that era, only the first of several waves of mayhem, forged a gap we have not been able to cross.10
I skate the grinder across the stone’s surface, getting used to the feel of the work. I smooth more of the top, and wonder about Khafre. I first saw his statue when I went to Egypt as a tourist. His precise and personalized features animated the ruins for me. Of Khufu, Khafre’s father and the builder of the Great Pyramid, only the monument remains; but Khafre, builder of the middle pyramid, has persisted through the statue’s individuality. It’s this persistence that I’m interested in: old things that do not surrender to oblivion. Khafre’s likeness in stone is one of the most ancient personal representations that still exist. He has become, for me, a mythopoeic ancestor of sorts, a cultural precursor, perhaps humanity’s first individual.11
My kids ask a great deal about where things come from: cars, the moon, ice skates. They want to know about origins, ancestors, the means by which the earth was crafted from nothing. This questioning began, for each of them, when they could no longer recall the incidents of their own early development and birth. Until the age of three or four, their recollections of the womb, of their definitive entry into the world, were clear and simple. Avery used to comment on the feeling of warm enclosure; Rowan remembered sounds drifting into the womb from outside. They had not yet begun to forget.
Now neither of them can recall anything about their personal origin. This, I surmise, is due to the widening of their sphere of awareness. Older memories tend to vivify with age, not diminish; I don’t think they’ve forgotten the womb because time has passed. They have forgotten because the womb of their existence is now the wider world; it insists upon their devotion. They now identify their personal beginnings with universal creation. The answers to the basic questions – Who am I? Where did I come from? – have changed, but the impulse for questioning remains. And it seems to me, as I wipe stone dust from the workbench, that the assistance I provide my kids in their questioning of origins is one of the central privileges of my parenting.
The Kem offer considerable guidance in this regard. They created, for the first time in human history, a means by which tales of origin could be symbolized and preserved. Their means of accomplishing this involved the shaping of hard stones into representations of myth. The falcon perched on Khafre’s shoulder, the orientation of his hands, the dais upon which he is seated: folded within each of these is an iconography layered with many meanings.12
The statue is, in fact, a book of stone. It relates the tale of creation, of the world’s unfolding, of Khafre’s place within the knotted threads of time. For the Kem, who practiced this kind of esoteric craftsmanship in every artifact, book and stone were one.
I decide that the stone from the mountain will be a book in the Kem tradition – not a book of words, but a symbolic narrative, one that we will remember, river and bear and numb fingers, and make part of our larger story. Books, after all, have been the keys to my own origin. I inherited roughly a hundred from my great-aunt Eileen: bound with leather or thick black stock, pages gossamer thin, bindings cracked and crumbling. Books of poetry, fable, science, philosophy. Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton; illustrated versions of Byron and Homer. Most were published in the eighteenth century and are by far the oldest artifacts in our family. Inside an old black Bible – small, about the size of my outstretched hand, the binding reglued but still fragile – the page edges, once red and gilt, are the color of pale red roses. Secreted between facing pages in the Book of Joshua, a flower was long ago pressed. Fragments, cinnamon-hued, delicate as the wings of dragonflies, are all that remain. The underlying text describes the raising of stones as memorials: “This may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying What mean ye by these stones? Then ye shall answer them… These stones shall be for a memorial unto the children.”13
Before paper, before papyrus, stone was the means by which the enduring was crafted from the fleeting. The Kem have preserved, in stone, the entire corpus of their learning for five thousand years. Today much of their stone library shows little sign of wear. But they are long gone.
The devotional importance of stone and the craftsmanship surrounding that devotion have not been surpassed since the reign of Khafre. In scarcely more than a century, the Kem devised the monuments of the Giza necropolis (the centerpiece of that necropolis, the Great Pyramid, was the tallest building in the world until the Washington Monument was completed in 1885); they shaped the Sphinx, and the Valley Temple with its limestone blocks weighing as much as two hundred tons. Using simple copper tools, they sculpted hard stone – as much as fifty times harder than copper – into shapes both massive and delicate.14 Then, like their forebears, they were rolled under by the wheel of time.
Kem tales tell of living statues, of stone imbued with sentience. Inside them, nestled within the dark stone matrix, the essence of a god, or of a person, passed into a world of long dreaming.15 For the Kem, animating statues was not simply a metaphoric or ritualistic process. The stone, in their conception, was literally alive. Statues spoke and walked. A living statue was said to have healed a young girl sick with grief. When the girl’s father tried to keep the statue in his home as insurance against further ills, its spirit was seen to fly out, departing into the sky as a golden hawk.
The black diorite statues of Khafre were intended to make a home for his double, the spirit self that walked his own untrodden paths. During his time, there were many such statues. All but one have disappeared, smashed by the tumult of history. Yet I can’t help hoping that some of them walked off into the desert. I imagine that if I knew their true names, if I could gaze past the translations and find the authentic voice of those original words, I could call them into waking.
“What unsuspected marvels we should find,” says the alchemist Fulcanelli, “if we knew how to dissect words, to strip them of their barks and liberate the spirit, the divine light, which is within.”16
Matzeivot is the Hebrew word for standing stones scattered throughout the Middle East. Every religious tradition of the area claims them as their own. They are found on ridges and along open stretches of ground, singly and in groups, thousands of them. They have been adopted by every age – as talismans, as altars, as signposts – but their origin is obscure. They are part of the mythic landscape from which new tales are dreamed.
I read, in my great-aunt’s Bible, about Jacob’s vision of a ladder ascending to heaven. After awakening, he makes a pillar from the stone he has used as a pillow, saying it “shall be God’s house.”17 In the Arabic tradition, the term for a standing stone means “house of God.” In an old Assyrian chronicle, a campaigning king “camped by the stones in which the gods are dwelling.”18
According to the local mythology at Tula, in Mexico, four massive basalt statues of female warriors, called the Atlanteans, become animated at night. Fifteen feet high and three feet across, they walk the grounds of the temple, thundering across the flat-topped pyramid with their stone feet, still enacting the guardianship of a mute and derelict sanctuary. They are sentinels, crafted by the Maya, but unable finally to preserve their lands against history’s conflagration.
Tales of moving and speaking stones and statues are commonplace. The bleeding figures of Christ, seen in churches throughout the world, are perhaps the best-known examples. In the same vein, statues of the Virgin Mary sometimes move, or cry, or sing. Along the volcanic slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, tourists gather stones as souvenirs, only to return them (by mail, usually) months or weeks later, having gone home and found themselves subject to ill luck as a result of defying the injunction of Pele, goddess of fire, not to remove her property. The National Park Service in Hawaii receives thousands of pounds of returned stone every year.
To follow the Kem, to discover the consciousness of their surpassing craftsmanship, I must take their assertions at face value. I must enter that world in which statues speak and awareness is a nomadic light taking up residence in the stone. Yet, living as I do in an age so remote from the Kem, immersion in their reality is not a seamless endeavor. It beckons double selves from me. An ancestral and imaginal self, capable of knowing the forgotten ways, offers me dreams of awakening, of light and doors and water, meandering. Come to the river. I follow old memories, drawn up from the well of my deepest knowing. I am watched by another self, one who follows the raveled threads of a different kind of awareness. This Other, whose eye is a searchlight dispelling shadow, eases open the mysteries through patient and pressing inquiry. He watches the patterns of leaves growing and falling. He reaches for the tangle of perception, draws together its diversities, and finds for each shining thing a place of understanding. Drawn onward by his gentleness, my awareness blossoms across an unknown territory.
These interwoven selves are not simply the instinctive and rational faculties. They are, to borrow from the Kem, complementary aspects of the unified God. One eye moves forward, the other gazes back.
Wan winter light from the street drifts in through the single window in my shop. I’ve installed a number of overhead fluorescent lights over the years, but they never seem to provide enough illumination. When spring and summer come, I’ll open the garage door while I’m working. It faces east, and laboring on summer mornings can be a surpassing joy. Now, with chill air and an overcast sky, both heaters and five fluorescent fixtures are on. I’m wearing a fleece jacket flecked with yellow cedar sawdust; I can smell its fragrance, like sandstone warmed in the sun. Motes of dark dust from my experimental foray into the stone’s surface drift around the shop.
I inspect the stone where the eroded contours and grinder marks meet. Now I’ve begun, with dreams and myths and memories all wrapped up together, interwoven. There’s a growing momentum. I must try to follow. I will fail, as always, to follow it entirely; my devotion, my skill, will be insufficient to the task of manifesting the vision. But my effort will be enough, is always enough, to carry me forward into wonder.
Pliny compiled the first encyclopedia. Our modern word for such a work derives from Pliny’s justification, to the emperor Titus, of his own volumes on the grounds that they gathered together the scattered materials of “encyclic culture” (enkyklios paideia), the archaic cultures devoted to the rhythm of time. Pliny was overcome by the fumes of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and subsequently died from his exposure to the ash.
The “brazen serpent” that Moses received from God in the desert and used as a healing instrument (later destroyed by Hezekiah) takes on a different cast when viewed as an aspect of consciousness rather than a pagan idol. The Kundalini energy has long been associated with remarkable healing properties.
The crater, two miles wide, indicates an explosion equivalent to hundreds of nuclear warheads. The sequelae of such an impact (around 2300 BCE, when the area was a shallow sea) would have included earthquakes, rampant fires, sunlight blocked by the dust, and monstrous floods. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most famous of the world’s old tales, relates that the world was once lit with flame, a storm turned day into night, and the land was “smashed like a cup.” Every culture of the Middle East abounds with such recollections.
Most modern scholars now agree that comets and meteors seeded the earth with its first organic life. In the case of the ˛Amara meteor, much regional life was also abruptly terminated. The ancients would have discerned poetry in this cycle of creation and destruction, especially as ˛Amara lies ten miles from the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, two of the three rivers whose source is reputed to lie within the bounds of Eden. The meteor struck the bull’s-eye of the world’s mythical origin. An “ever-turning sword of flames,” says Ginzberg in his Legends of the Jews (vol. 1, p. 32), protects the entrance to paradise from the trespass of the fallen.
Because the face of the greatest and oldest stone sphinx is probably that of Khafre, he is the first riddler of human essence, the first to ask what it means to bind together the contradictions of individuality. In this sense, he is humanity’s first authentic self.
Each of these symbols possesses many overlapping layers. See Wilkinson, Symbol and Magic.
Both copper and iron are softer than basalt and granite, common materials used by Kem sculptors. To increase the cutting action of their tools, Kem sculptors may have used sand as an abrasive. When sand is inserted between the chisel (or saw) and the stone, the soft metal of the tool provides a matrix in which the quartz crystals of the sand become embedded. The cutting action is accomplished almost entirely by the sand. In 1987, a cache of “whispering” or “musical” sand was discovered inside a cavity behind the passage leading to the Queen’s Chamber in the pyramid of Khufu. (The cavity may or may not be a hidden passageway; to date it has been explored only by camera, by way of small holes drilled through from the passage adjoining the Queen’s Chamber.) Whispering sand, named for the peculiar sound it makes when blown by the wind, is not native to Giza, and was likely brought from the Sinai. It is almost pure quartz, unlike the sands at Giza, which are a blend of calcite, quartz, and plagioclase. Grain for grain, whispering sand is substantially harder than Giza sand and would have made an ideal slurry for abrading all kinds of stone. Today quartz-rich sands are still used as abrasives in sandblasting and other applications.
I am your son Horus, whose eye is opened to infinity.
I have come in search of you, listening for your voice.
I carry Upuaut, fragment of the god, opener of the way.
Let me release you, gently, that you may sing again, speak with the vanished ones in the place of remembering.
The ritual of opening the mouth was an integral aspect of elaborate funerary rites intended to release, from corporeal death, the “transfigured spirit” of the deceased. This spirit, also called the “body of gold,” was luminous and without limits. It was called the akh, a partial reversal of khat, the body. The akh was the migration of form back to the light of beginnings; the wandering self, released from the wheel of time, returning at last to the ancestors, welcomed into the spiral of unity.
- The word alchemy derives from the Arabic al-kimiya¸, the etymology of which is a subject of debate. Possibly it evolved from the Greek khymeia_ (fusion) or khyma (fluid), or even the name of Khymes, a Greek alchemist. The words chemistry and alchemy both descend from a single source, though their meanings have diverged in the last five hundred years. The prevailing view of the source of these words, and the one to which I subscribe in the text, is that _al-kimiya_¸ evolved from Khemia, the name used by the Greeks for the land of Egypt. The Egyptians themselves called their country Kemi (meaning black earth) in reference to the dark, rich soil of the Nile valley. Modern scholars sometimes use Kem-t instead of Kemi. For the purposes of my narrative, I have chosen the name Kem to denote the ancient Egyptian people. My use of the term, in keeping with my interpretation of the philosophy of that culture, is partially a mythopoeic impulse. ↩︎
- Quoted in Oxford English Dictionary, “basalt.” ↩︎
- Gneiss was a favorite stone of the Kem. They prized the black-banded grain and used it effectively in statues such as the small sphinx of Senwosret III now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The pattern in the rock flows along the lion’s sinuous flank, as though illuminating the texture of the muscles beneath. In the Kem symbolic language, black denotes fertility and talismanic power (kem means black, among other things). For the Kem, the contrasting bands in gneiss were the lights and shadows of creation. ↩︎
- Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, p. 1. ↩︎
- Six thousand years ago, at the time of the earliest Kem, a culture called the Acasta people inhabited this land. Supreme toolmakers, their trademark was the burinated flake scraper, a stone tool with a sharp edge formed by a single blow. For reasons that will likely never be known, the Acasta people have entirely vanished. Their stone tools, some of them shaped from the oldest relics of our world, are all that remain. ↩︎
- Zimmer, “Ancient Continent Opens Window.” ↩︎
- In Sumerian, a language recently supplanted by Egyptian in claiming the distinction of having invented writing, words for the past are formed through the use of the word igi, meaning eye and face. The Sumerians were close neighbors of the early Kem, sharing mythologies and influences. For both cultures, the past was always ahead; they faced it. In Akkadian, a Mesopotamian language which evolved from and replaced Sumerian around 2000 BCE, words used to describe the past (panitu, for example) are derived from concepts of front and face. In both Sumerian and Akkadian, words for the future (such as eger and warka) derive from words meaning back and behind. The future lay behind those cultures; they traveled face forward into the past, searching. ↩︎
- Until recently, the accepted date for the appearance of human culture – as evidenced by complex tools and apparent symbolic thinking – was somewhere around thirty or forty thousand years ago. But this threshold has now doubled back – to at least seventy thousand years before the present. Archaeologists working at the Blombos cave in South Africa have found, among other surprises, finely worked weapons decorated with symbolic engravings – within a stratum older than seventy thousand years. ↩︎
- Adapted from Pyramid Text utterance 81. Many Kem statues depict a serpent uncoiling from the crown of the head to the forehead. This, in conjunction with abundant serpent and eye symbols, has led a number of scholars – among them Joseph Campbell – to suggest that the Kem were the authors of the system of meditation that later became, in India, the tradition of Kundalini. In his Oriental Mythology (p. 102), Campbell writes: “There is a problem here of considerable interest, waiting to be explored; namely, the passage of inspiration from both the arts and the mysteries of Egypt to those that came to flower c. 400–1250 A.D. in India, Tibet, China, and Japan.” ↩︎
- Sharad Master, a geologist at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, offers an interesting explanation for the cause of the social upheaval of the Kem’s fifth dynasty (which roughly coincided with the fall of the Akkad culture in central Iraq). In 2001, while inspecting satellite photos of the ˛Amara region in Iraq, Master noticed a meteor impact crater. The distinctive inner ring of the crater had previously been hidden by a lake, but Saddam Hussein’s canal projects, initiated to drain the entire ˛Amara region in Hussein’s campaign against the Marsh Arabs, had revealed the anomaly. (Master, “A Possible Holocene Impact Structure.”) ↩︎
- Considerable controversy surrounds the date of the Sphinx at Giza, though contextual evidence points to Khafre as the monarch in whose reign the monument was constructed. For an excellent overview of the evidence, see Lawton and Ogilvie-Herald, Giza. The features originally carved upon the face of the Sphinx were likely those of Khafre, though they were possibly modified later. In mythological terms, the sphinx is also known as a riddler, a creature that asks, “What goes first on four legs, then on two legs, then on three?” This riddle, told long after Khafre by the Greek playwright Sophocles in Oedipus the King, is archaic beyond measure. Its solution is simple: human beings first crawl (four legs), then walk (two legs), then use a cane in old age (three legs). But the solution and the riddler hint at more complex themes. The sphinx – part hunting lion, part thinking human – asks, “What is a human being?” In Oedipus the King, a play made familiar to the modern mind by Sigmund Freud, the narrative focuses on the contradictions of human experience: passion and taboo, loyalty and incest, heroism and violence, paternity and parricide. Both the play and the sphinx itself explore the nature and paradox of humanity; this is the true riddle. ↩︎
- The falcon is the primordial ancestor, called This One (or the Unnameable) in the Edfu Texts. (Later this figure became Horus, the warrior god and national divinity of the Kem.) The orientation of Khafre’s hands – left one relaxed, right curled into a fist – symbolizes the receptive left and active right balanced in the monarch. In tableaux of the period, supplicants before the gods are often shown with two left hands. The dais represents the primordial island, rising from the sea of beginnings. ↩︎
- Josh. 4:6, 7. Unless stated otherwise, Bible quotations are from the Authorized (King James) Version. ↩︎
- Copper appears to have been the hardest tool metal available to the Kem of Khafre’s time, though they also possessed some meteoric iron. A fragment of smelted iron was reputedly found inside the masonry of the Great Pyramid in 1837. The sample was lost, then found recently in a cigar box in a drawer at the British Museum. This iron bar is the subject of considerable debate. If authentic, it will revise the start of the Iron Age in Egypt backward by almost two thousand years. ↩︎
- In a ritual called “the opening of the mouth,” statues were animated in the same fashion as the deceased were awakened to the afterlife. Passing an iron implement across the eyes and mouth, priests read from the Book of Illumination. Several passages, as adapted by me from Faulkner, are shown below: ↩︎
- Fulcanelli, The Mystery of the Cathedrals, p. 27. The identity of the twentieth-century philosopher and alchemist who wrote under the pseudonym Fulcanelli has never been definitively established (but a rumor persists that he was the symbolist philosopher René Schwaller de Lubicz). The name Fulcanelli is a mythological reference to the Roman fire god Vulcan, a cultural descendant of the Greek god Hephaestus. In turn, Hephaestus is derived from the Kem origin god Ptah. In The Mystery of the Cathedrals and in his longer work The Dwellings of the Philosophers, Fulcanelli makes the case for an alchemical philosophy, essentially Kem in character, hidden within the Christian symbolism of European sacred architecture. In the preface to Cathedrals, E. Canseliet argues that “our ancestors fashioned the first stone of [the Gothic cathedral’s] foundations, that dazzling gem, more precious than gold itself, on which Jesus built his Church. All Truth, all Philosophy, and all Religion rest on this unique and sacred Stone.” ↩︎
- Gen. 28:22. ↩︎
- Wolfgang Schramm, quoted in Avner, “Sacred Stones,” p. 31. ↩︎