Excerpted from A Stone's Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth, by Ross Laird
Avery asks Elizabeth if we can visit my mother’s grave. The request comes suddenly, on a cool morning filled with errands, and I’m surprised to hear about it. My mother died before Avery was born, and the tales he’s heard of her are not, for the most part, appealing. After all, at the end she was so thoroughly consumed by alcoholism that all trace of her previous charm – a lovely, honest, and passionate charm – had fled.
The days of my mother’s grace are slim in my memory: a summer-camp care package, her generosity with gifts and conversation, her love of music and dancing. But these were overshadowed, later, by the emotional corpulence that infests the drinker. Elizabeth and I have tried to give our kids a balanced view of my mother’s ailment: that she was ill, sometimes difficult, but also gregarious, and often kind. The only known photograph of her as a child hangs in the hallway alongside our den. It shows a little blond girl, about three years old, a blue ribbon in her hair, playing intently with a toy rabbit. She’s looking down, away from the camera, shy perhaps. It’s a picture of innocence, of a world not yet cracked open. I hope this is what my kids see, as well as the later, darker vision of a woman utterly lost.
Avery asks frequently about my mother. His request to visit her grave is not a fleeting impulse. He’s following something, trying to piece it all together. So we go, on a blustery day with ashen clouds rushing along the southern horizon. The graveyard rests on a hill overlooking the city and the mountains to the north. From the access road, I can see the flanks of the farthest peaks, crowned with glaciers stark against the sky’s blue. Just beyond them, along a gravel track meandering into the wilderness, lies the mountain my father and I climbed to find the stone.
Some of the graves are somber and unkempt, while others show signs of being well tended: fresh flowers, a white slip of paper folded inside a crack in masonry, pine needles swept carefully away. We see tombstones of white, of muted gray, of black with moss growing in the cracks of the letters. There are gated enclosures and wooden crosses and wide verges with black crows perching. I haven’t been here since my mother’s inurnment, when my young nephew grabbed the box of ashes and ran with it, away down the avenue. He too was trying to follow something, to piece it all together.
Eight years, one visit, and I can still spot the grave from a hundred yards off. It’s there, beneath that small cedar with the slender trunk. We park beside the tree. The four of us trundle out of the car, fasten our coats against the wind, and cross the grass to the plot. Avery is intrigued, curious, but Rowan is old enough to know that graveyards can be spooky. She wants to go back to the car. I ask her about it, and she tells me she’s imagining all the dead people buried in the ground. I talk to her, about what remains and what departs. She holds my hand, and together we wander over the bones of the dead.
There are two family tombstones at the gravesite. The one on the left is white granite, hewn roughly, streaked with black. Black fire on white fire. I recognize the several names inscribed upon it as ancestors from two generations back. I note, in particular, the name of my paternal grandmother’s father, who was consumed by fire. The other tombstone is made of black granite, also rough, also with letters carefully inscribed. My grandfather is here, whose father was gored to death by a bull. And my great-uncle, the war-wounded, who once tamed a wild bull, is here also. It must be strange to tame an animal of the kind that killed your father.
The names of my great-aunt and my grandmother, her sister, occupy the lower portion of the black tombstone: Eileen, meaning torch, and Bernice, the name of a queen from the twilight of the Kem, during whose reign the Temple of Horus at Edfu was constructed.1 That temple, perhaps more than any other artifact of the Kem, has preserved their mythological legacy. Bernice, beside whose grave I stand with my family, was the keeper of our family legacy: myths, dreams, memories. Without her, I would know almost nothing about my forebears. She constructed the temple of our endurance.
The black tombstone, flecked with moss, feels cool to my touch. It reminds me of the stone of the Kem – swirling in the waters – which is also the Hebrew stone of foundation: “The construction of the earth was begun at the centre,” says Hebrew folklore, “with the foundation stone of the Temple, the Eben [or Even] Shetiyah, for the Holy Land is at the central point of the surface of the earth, Jerusalem is at the central point of Palestine, and the Temple is situated at the centre of the Holy City.”2
Avery wanders round to the back of the gravesite and inspects the rear of the stones. Elizabeth stands on my one side, Rowan on the other. These three are my foundation, as are the others, named upon the headstone as the Unnameable is named upon the foundation stone. They are the center of the many tales by which I stitch myself together, motley and haphazard and entirely inconsistent. This mythological and spiritual nexus inhabits all fables; it happened here, whether it happened here or not. Black and white fires meet at these interstices.
Scattered family tales ghost into my memory. This is where the heretic among my Scottish ancestors was burned, where the inquisitor spoke to a crowd gathered at the gallows. The château of my French ancestors once stood here, though its chapel doors with their carvings of the foundation stone are long gone. This black headstone is the cornerstone of the colonial church, perhaps the oldest stone building in Canada, laid down by my ancestor more than three hundred years ago in Quebec City. The site of mythical origin, of the world’s foundation, is every place of homecoming.
At the base of the black stone rests a small horizontal slab of polished marble. It lies slightly to the side, at the level of the grass. Upon its surface, gold-colored letters are inscribed and painted: my mother’s name, and two dates. The polished surface is still clean and fresh. Beneath the slab lie her ashes, retrieved from my nephew and placed here at the well of origin. Elizabeth calls Avery over, shows him the spot, answers his question about how a human being is rendered into ashes. He’s quiet, thoughtful. He frowns, then smiles at a ladybug skittering across the marble. Then he’s off, down the aisle toward the cenotaph nearby. A flag flutters from its pole in the crisp breeze. Snap, flutter, snap.
My mother’s people were jewelers. This is almost the only thing I know about them. My grandfather died when I was an infant, and my grandmother, persevering until I was in my early teens, came into my life so infrequently that I can hardly recall her. All but one of my memories of her are fleeting and indistinct. The sole exception: her lying in a cot, at the far end of our living room, stretching out the last of her days. I don’t know how long she was there – a week, a month – before she negotiated the terms of her own end. But I recall that on every one of those days, a bottle of amber liquid lay on the floor within arm’s reach of her trembling hand. Now, in the light of my memory, the bottle glows with a russet sheen. By the color of steeped amber: this is how I remember those days (was it late autumn?). I recollect them as though looking through lenses tinted the hue of single malt whiskey.
The jewelry store had been closed by the time I was born, and there was nothing left of the stones except what remained in the family. The language of that trade, with its practical esoterica still echoing from the Kem, from the Hebrew high priests with their jeweled breastplates, was no longer spoken in our home. But my mother’s brother, the exile – he alone of his family who stopped drinking before it killed him – stayed in the business. He worked at a small jewelry store downtown, a place of hushed formality, as though the glint of polished metal, the shimmer of stones alive like eyes of every color, as though the wonder of those fiery fragments could be tamed and subdued with sufficient decorum. There was carnelian and ruby and opal. And lapis lazuli, stone of stones, and emerald and sapphire.
During my teenage years I visited him at the store each time I was downtown. I brought my friends to see him, my only maternal uncle, about whose life I knew almost nothing. He showed me all the stones. He named them in his soft, almost reverent voice. His movements were careful and measured, giving the impression, though he was not an elderly man, of pervasive fragility. His hand trembled slightly as he drew out a disk of jade from the display case. He seemed old and gentle, and the tenderness I felt toward him was entirely distinct from the conflicted intensity of my relationship with the only other member of his family that I ever really knew: my mother. It wasn’t until much later, when my professional life brought me into contact with those in recovery from substance abuse, that I finally realized the source of my uncle’s brittleness. He was a man snatched from ruin but forever burned by the heat of his struggle. He had redeemed himself from his particular shadows, but he would never again be physically healthy. Like my mother, he died young.
Those visits were almost the only times I ever saw him. I can remember him at our home only twice: at Christmas one year, when he was a sufficiently foreign presence that my younger brother was unable to approach him, and one summer afternoon when he appeared, unannounced, pulling up in his El Camino, a vehicle which has ever since been an emblem, for me, of mysterious journeys.
He taught me no stone lore when I visited him. He wasn’t trying to teach me anything, so far as I know. He was just visiting. He didn’t tell me that amber, one of my favorite stones, is not actually a stone but fossilized tree resin, or that its peculiar electrical properties have earned it a reputation for possessing talismanic powers. He simply held it up and let the light reflect and refract through it, so that I could see the colors – honey and gold and sunbeams. Amber is the color of those memories, of the bottle beneath the cot, of my uncle’s stones, of my own wonder of secrets.
Stones are all that remain, in my own life, of my mother and her brother: stones on the third finger of Elizabeth’s left hand (given to us by my mother, set into a ring designed by my uncle), and a green stone – emerald – I inherited from my mother after she died. Emerald is the stone of prophecy, and is reputed to be capable of protecting the wearer against every kind of enchantment. My mother had need of protection from enchantments; though in the end, she seemed not to have had protection enough.
In the Jewish tradition, small stones are placed on gravestones as markers, as symbols of memory preserved. A friend of mine once told me that her father, returning to Europe after long absence, found stones laid on the crest of her mother’s gravestone. Who had visited, he wondered, who of those that remained had come here – those not exiled, not fleeing, not fractured and lost by the war. Who had come?
I take a small stone from my pocket: blue, veined with white, smoothed by water. I place it upon the summit of the black gravestone, the way the radiant stone called the shamir, in the Hebrew traditions of antiquity, was said to lie upon the foundation stone of the world. My blue stone rests in a tiny crevice on the gravestone’s rough, dark shoulder.
Elizabeth walks with Avery toward the cenotaph, and Rowan tags after them. It’s quiet, but for the wind and the sound of my children’s laughter. I touch the two gravestones and the slab of marble, take a last look at the pebble I’ve left here, and follow.
The cenotaph is at the highest point of the graveyard, along its western edge. Smooth, precisely jointed white marble slabs are inscribed with crisp letters:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
>We will remember them.
I recognize the lines from Remembrance Day services; they’re from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” written during the first months of the First World War, just after my grandmother and her sister saw a vision of savage horsemen in the sky, before anyone knew how terrible things would become. My grandfather and his brother had not yet gone to war. My grandmother’s brother had not yet been shot down, had not yet died, like so many of his forebears, in the sweet countryside of northern France. I think of him, on his first reconnaissance flight, gliding above the fields upon which my grandfather and his brother would, much later, cradle their heads as artillery shells flashed among the black horses. He never saw them in the muck, never met them. He floated into the sky like a red balloon and was lost.
The kids run round the cenotaph, chasing each other. Elizabeth and I watch them circling, then Rowan heads back with me to the car. Avery takes Elizabeth’s hand and walks over to my mother’s gravestone, to say farewell. I watch them go, and wonder what this visit has been like for the kids. Has it helped Avery make sense of his relationship to the grandmother he never met? While I’m thinking about this, Elizabeth bends down beside Avery at the gravesite. He pauses for a moment, then turns to her, exuberant, and says: “I got it! The stone stays here with the body, but the spirit goes with us everywhere.”
Myths are untethered dreams, rising like red balloons into a cerulean sky. Breath – warm and simple and filled with longing – inflates them, and they expand, ascending into a firmament inhabited by relics and departed gods. Eventually, the balloon breaks open, and the dream merges with myths stretching across every horizon.
The Kem are gone, their dreams risen into the sky. They became myths, drifting across the field of time, exerting a persistent and sometimes invisible influence. Their science and philosophy were passed to the Greeks, who freely acknowledged their debt. The sudden flowering of classical Greek culture, commonly thought to be the origin of Western civilization, was a legacy and not a unique development. The Greeks adapted much of the Kem wisdom: in geometry, art, mythology. And long after the Nile temples were left derelict by a world marching resolutely away from its past, the teachings of the Kem persisted; in hiding, traveling in disguise. They persist even today. The ancestral eye and the stone of origin, united into the single symbol of an eye atop a pyramid, are displayed on the most powerful economic symbol of our age: the American dollar. In the contemporary world, every financial transaction in American dollars owes a debt, in spirit if not in currency, to the Kem.3
I follow the stone of origin, searching for it in later tales of the Kem, finding the wake of its passage in legends of chambers buried beneath the sand. I read of the battle between Hardjedef and his rival for possession of the stone book, and of its eventual return to the island of beginnings. I remember going to Edfu, where the Kem temple rests on a foundation older than history. I sculpt the stone on my bench, shaping the contours with the grinder before switching to a rotary carver for finer work. I think of my mother’s face, and my grandmother’s.
After the age of Khafre, twenty-five hundred years before Christ, the radiant stone faded from tales of the Kem. It went underground, as the mythic landscape came to be populated by warriors and ghosts. But the stone did not disappear: it migrated instead, taking with it much of the archaic Kem mythology. It rose from its foundations, like the wandering stones of the desert, and followed the people of the exile. They took it in, sheltered it, and made it a part of their tangled history.4 They cradled it within their own legends of origin, though it was a child of their enemies, and delivered it to the center of their own cosmology. Those wanderers, the people of the dream, were the Hebrews.5
At twilight on the sixth day of creation, five days after the foundation stone had risen from the ancestral waters, when the tasks of crafting mountains and iron and cedar had been completed, the virescent earth floated like spindrift in the sky. Fireflies gamboled across the quiet hills. In these final moments of unfolding, the Unnameable spoke words that flowed across the landscape and rendered the shapes of creation. The mouth of a well, its location now lost to us, was fashioned from the earth. The first and infinite rainbow was made. The words – recording the secrets, and that which must be remembered – were inscribed in tablets of stone. These are things we have forgotten.
The demons were also made during the peculiar twilight of the sixth day, as was the sepulchre of Moses, whose name denotes a son of the Kem.
Finally, there came the shamir, the radiant, living stone. Small – the size of a barleycorn – but bright, like a shard from a star. It is a tiny eye, a fragment of the foundation stone. The light it emits – its gaze, as the craftsmen will come to call it – slices through the hardest stone. The gaze of the shamir is terrible and wonderful; sharp enough to sunder the world, clean and smooth. Its cutting action leaves no flakes, no dust, no trace of its passage. The rock is simply cracked through.
The shamir cannot be kept in a container of iron or bronze; it will blaze through them. It must be wrapped in a woolen cloth, placed in a lead basket, and surrounded by barley bran.
The shamir was hidden in paradise, secreted in its nested layers of protection, while the world spread outward from the garden.6
The Hebrews, like the Kem, were a hinge upon which human consciousness turned. The Kem faced forward into the past; the first Hebrews faced backward into the future. For the Kem, everything rolled toward the origin. Their vision stretched deep into the well: ancestors, a stone, a god whose wing covers the sky. The Hebrews were different. Their destination lay in the future, in a new world not yet manifest but already made by the hand of the Unnameable. Memory was the most important aspect of Kem spirituality – the art of memory, as it would come to be called.7 For the Hebrews, by contrast, prophecy was theurgy. Promised land, covenant, Messiah, kingdom of heaven: these are the touchstones of a future-oriented religion begun in the wake of the Kem’s decline.8
During the formative age of the Hebrew religion (the first and second millennia BCE, roughly), the consciousness of the Kem gave way to something entirely opposite. Relics passed away. In the Hebrew tradition, every object fashioned at twilight on the sixth day of creation is a tool for the future. With these objects – ram, shamir, tablets – the arc of prophecy was begun. “Behold,” says the Book of Isaiah, “I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.”9
After thousands of years of history and tradition, the Jews today are steeped in the past; the existence of the country of Israel and the turmoil that surrounds it are based on the pedigree of that past. Upon the mountain, the Unnameable appeared to Jacob and promised to his people possession of “the whole of Palestine.” Furthermore, “God promised that Jacob should spread out to the west and to the east, a greater promise than that given to his fathers Abraham and Isaac, to whom He had allotted a limited land. Jacob’s was an unbounded possession.”10 This Hebrew prophecy is one mythological source of the enmity between Jews and Palestinians, those intractable enemies who are, in fact, one people.
Genetic studies have shown the obvious: that peoples who reside in the same geographical area share the same biological heritage. From a genetic point of view, Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs are essentially identical. This is consistent with their shared mythologies; Jews and Arabs both trace their ancestry to the patriarch Abraham. The war between them began first with a stone – of foundation, of boundary, from which all lands issued – then with a dream, and finally a myth.
I work slowly, sensing and listening to the rhythms of the stone. Unlike wood, which provokes me – with subtlety, with a mysterious coercion – the stone is in no hurry to be shaped. Wood creaks, cajoles, gives off the heat of its insistence; this stone is sedate, seems content to while away the time in my workshop. A black stain of embedded dust digs its way into my workbench.
I start working the chin and make the outline of the mouth. I feel the stone’s inertia absorbing my motivation. A year in my shop is not even a moment of its time; why should it rush? I search along its cracks and contours and fissures for something to hold my attention, to keep the work vibrant. But I slow, drifting into the work for a few minutes here and there, wondering about the shape of the face, wandering through old tales in books. I return to my touchstone every few days, tracing its texture with my hands. The pressure I so often feel when working with wood – to push through the tricky spots and get the work done – fails to rise. Instead, I continue to dream: of water and coves and sand and hills. Of sounds swishing across sandstone, of tunnels and a bright cobalt sky.
As spring spins itself into summer, I start to feel out of sorts. My forehead hurts; fleeting aches migrate here and there through my body. The work slows, though I manage to rough out the chin, mouth, and forehead in a series of halting stages. The slow rhythm feels right. I have time to see the contours change in tiny increments. I develop a feel for the stone’s roughness, its seeming insistence that it not be too thoroughly smoothed. It seems to prefer its primitiveness to anything more precisely sculptural. This dialogue between us results in the slow awakening within me of a modified plan for the surface: not elegant and precise, as I had originally thought, but simple and primitive. After all, the foundation stone of myth is neither refined nor rarefied. The stone of beginnings is a simple block, cut rough, worn by tumbling.
I put away the plaster cast of my face, choosing to forgo even the convenience of measuring my work against its proportions. Instead I wait for directions from the stone: in dreams, in reveries, in daily moments spent with my wife and children. I don’t try to work the stone but rather let myself be worked. I think about the cargo of myth, making its way across the landscape of memory.
A prophecy is a dream halfway to becoming a myth. It hovers above the earth, rises on currents of air, meanders across peaks and over a restless ocean. The dream lifts the dreamer, making the old world new again, new for the first time. Prophecies, dreams, and myths suffuse the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible, the scriptural core of Judaism (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). These narratives trace the history of the Hebrew people from creation to the end of the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century BCE, when the myths were first rendered into written form by an unknown editor or editors. These myths were crafted by exiles who had survived invasion and the destruction of their temple. They had lost almost all their sacred artifacts: ark, shamir, foundation stone. Only the eldest among them even remembered the temple. They were bereft, in the way that many of the world’s aboriginal peoples are today: removed from the sacred land, relieved of the artifacts of memory, tethered by the conqueror. In this situation, a culture must choose either to surrender and be subsumed by its surroundings, or to remake the mythological world with itself as the first and chosen people.
The emergent myths crafted during the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon establish, perhaps for the first time in the history of the West, the conception of time as linear – as an arrow, a metaphor later popularized by the Greeks. In the Hebrew cosmology, the Kem’s rolling wheel of time is pierced by a stone at the crossroads, then unrolled into a single line that stretches toward the infinite. In this conception, each slice of time occupies a unique point on the line; there are no overlapping rhythms and overtones, no resonances from previous cycles. For the ancient Hebrews, the bull’s-eye of this arrow of time was the celestial kingdom – far in the future, held aloft by prophecy and a covenant.
Time as a linear construct is so integral to the modern Western consciousness (though not to aboriginal societies) that it is impossible for most of us to conceive of it any other way. Of course time moves in one direction only; we are both its witnesses and protagonists. But linear time is a cognitive construct, not a physical law. It has developed, like every tale we tell, from a dream into a myth.
The Kem invented individuality, but the Hebrews invented time.
For Rowan’s eighth birthday, my father gives her a new bike. She gallantly offers Avery her old, tiny, pink bike, and he accepts with pleasure. Elizabeth and I take them first to the park to practice, then to the Serpentine Greenway, a ribbon of grass and asphalt near our home that wends its way across high ground above the river and slopes down toward the sea. Avery sweeps back and forth across the path, singing, head held high, almost as though he would lift the bike into the air. Rowan is quiet, tentative, her bike too large even for her gangly legs. Her pedaling is measured. As she glides off into the high grass with a whoop, rides the sinuous hide of the serpent, I experience a long moment of gratitude. It’s Father’s Day.
The mythology of the Hebrews hinges upon three tales: of the patriarch Abraham, of the exile from the land of the Kem (exodus means journey outward), and of the struggle to establish a new homeland. This last motif is still working itself out. The struggle of exiles forms the mythological core of the Hebrew experience, today as much as ever; and in this sense, the Hebrew tales are universal. Every culture speaks of a desert crossing, an ocean voyage, a migration that sunders old connections and forges new tales of beginning. Myths of exile are the creation stories told by travelers. They are shared, in diverse and numerous versions, by most of the people of North America.
Like many others, my family came from Europe in a series of staggered stages. In our case, the migrations took place between 1635 and 1820.11 They came, Puritans and Catholics and Protestants, some fleeing the Inquisition, some in search of land, others wandering, seeking a new foundation from which the four corners of a fresh world might spread. They arrived from across a wide sea, carrying with them their allegiances, buoyed by hope but shadowed by conflict. They did not know that their descendants would join with their enemies, that their own unresolved struggles would be taken up by subsequent generations, negotiated by the simple means of shared hardship, and put to rest.
The Scottish descendants of Margaret Laird, heretic, burned in 1698, were joined to the French descendants of Diane de Poitiers, champion of the French Inquisition, by the marriage of my grandparents. A century earlier, the marriage of my grandmother’s forebears had joined the exiled British and American sides of the family, a recent war between those two nations notwithstanding.
Exile is the means by which we learn to settle down beside one another, to enact the ritual of the old Kem tales by which hostility surrenders to community. It is not a rapid process: the chronicle of my family describes more than a thousand years of migrations, battles, and intrigues, of descendants returning to ancestral lands to fight among the same forests and fields as their forebears, stumbling upon scattered bones. This period of my family history is also the chronicle of every fractured region of the world today – Israel, Bosnia, Rwanda – in which combatants struggle to decide who remains and who departs.
Typically, a stone lies at the center of the conflict: in Israel, it is the stone of foundation on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the Eben Shetiyah of the Hebrews. It now lies beneath the Dome of the Rock, within the enclosure of al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), third-holiest site in Islam. In Islamic myth, that same stone is believed to have been the point from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Both sides claim the rock as their own, as they claim the land that surrounds it. In the myths of Scotland, where my ancestors fought the English for uncounted generations, the Stone of Scone, or Destiny Stone, played the same role.12 For seven hundred years, from 1296 to 1996, the Destiny Stone symbolized the struggle for ascendancy and autonomy on a small archipelago in a northern sea. That conflict still simmers, in Ireland, as it does everywhere that people are divided by turmoil and joined by ancestry.
In my family chronicle I read of a battle in France, during the Wars of Religion, in which members of my family fought on both sides. Two brothers led opposing charges. In the midst of chaos, when victory seemed remote to each company, the soldiers looked skyward to see a vast crucifix, formed of rushing clouds and light from a hidden sun. Every soldier on the battlefield saw this spectacle, and took it as a sign of divine favor. God is on our side, they thought, then thrashed back into their godless work.
I’m surprised to discover this fragment of mythic history, to find that the battle took place in the territory where my grandfather and his brother fought near the end of the First World War, where my great-uncle Dave was wounded; where my father, years later, saw the stone monument on the hill; where I spent a summer as a teenager, not knowing about the unseen and crossing paths of my many forebears.
The appearance of a celestial crucifix is a recurrent motif in my family history. During the evening of June 27, 1914, three and a half centuries after the Wars of Religion, my grandmother and her sister walked along the shore of a Scottish loch. Two girls, sixteen and twenty-one, on holiday with their parents. The day was blustery, the sky alive with scuttling clouds. The girls paused to rest on a bench overlooking the lake, gazed up at the vault of rushing blue and gray. It seemed to them, as they watched, that the clouds slowed, opened a clearing. The ragged edge of the clearing boiled with turmoil. Along the rippling edge of blue, four immense bastions gathered together – one at each point of the compass. From within these – billowing, rising, growing ever more distinct – four figures emerged: horsemen, lit by the fire of evening.13 The sky was drawn up into their forms. The horizon darkened, the clearing grew dim. The world was quartered.
My grandmother and her sister heard a dog, barking far off among the brakes. The horsemen paused. Then they hurtled forward, racing into the clearing, chased by a turbulent wake of clouds.
The figures merged at the still center of a cerulean sky, rampant, twisting into a single eye. The girls, transfixed by wonder, stood together, hands clasped, voices mute. As they gazed upon the tempest, the horsemen folded in upon themselves, twisted their four roads together and spread themselves back along the way they came. A cross remained: an immense crucifix, poised, motionless. By now, my grandmother and her sister were afraid. They did not know the tale of their ancestors glimpsing similar specters in the sky. They did not perceive the presence of divine allegiance, as their forebears had. They ran back to the hotel, haunted by a feeling of ill omen. Their parents could not explain the incident, nor assuage the girls.
One of their ancestors, Cotton Mather, would undoubtedly have pronounced the event an example of “spectral evidence,” by which demonic forces press their way into the world. My grandmother and her sister were, after all, young girls of similar age to those who had been so troublesome at Salem: sensually adolescent, carefree, feminine, and fatally threatening to the pious (whose secret is shame).
No conclusions were drawn that day, no one was burned or canonized. But the next day, in Sarajevo, Francis Ferdinand and his wife were shot dead, and the rough beast of the First World War was loosed.
I return to the work, in fits and starts, carving and grinding. I complete the broad brow, the nose, the eye sockets, and the chin. I follow lines, wrinkles, and cracks in the stone. I smooth the rounded cheeks and winnow down a sharp edge where the throat draws back from the chin. As I labor, I become certain that I’m not crafting a reproduction; something else is at work – primitive, atavistic. I have deliberately evoked old myths, tales of beginning, and I should not be surprised to find that the work resists a modern cast.
The mouth is tricky, particularly at the seam where the lips join. This takes some finicking with tiny diamond cutters mounted on the rotary carver. The rough contour of the mouth is straightforward, but the slope and angle of the lips takes me almost a month. During this time, I become aware that I’m responding, in ways subtle and curious, to the themes I’m exploring. The stone’s forehead, to which I return again and again, trying to get it right, becomes equated with my own brow. I experience a persistent ache between and above my eyes. The discomfort spreads, and I find myself almost continually uncomfortable in my skin. I don’t feel ill, exactly, just out of sorts, as though the sun has begun to abrade me.
I complete the mouth, and the general roughing out of the work comes to a close. The features are in place, the contours are shaped, and the rudimentary face is now unmistakable. It’s a primitive face, wider and flatter than my own, with heavy brows and eyes not yet formed from the substrate. The cast of my own face looks small and pinched in comparison with these simple, robust features.14
I’m gratified to see that progress is being made – only the eyes now and the brow, and final work with small burrs to smooth the rest – but I feel fatigued, as though I’ve been wrestling with a stubborn and intractable adversary. Which, I suppose, I have; after all, basalt is an extraordinarily hard stone. But I’m making headway, and I’m beginning to understand – in my body, in my bones – the speech of old tales.
For the Kem, history was myth. In their chronologies, the reigns of gods as well as kings are listed (Thoth ruled for thousands of years; Khafre ruled for twenty-six). They spoke of invincible pharaohs, of architecture devised by magic. Every historical moment was projected onto a mythological ground in which facts, as we understand them, were subsumed by a mythogenic vision of return. This vision, which endured from before the third millennium BCE until almost the time of Christ, existed outside time. Time requires a beginning, and possibly an ending; the Kem possessed neither. But around 550 BCE, slightly overlapping the decline of the Kem, the emergent Hebrew consciousness invented an entirely novel, and opposite, conception: myth as history.
The writers and editors of the early Bible, exiles working in Babylon, hundreds and thousands of years distant from the events they described, interwove myth, dream, and memory. The prophetic visions of Jacob, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea: these are asserted as historical facts, devoid of invention or embellishment. Where the Kem would have told these tales as magical fables – and would likely have been unconcerned about the veracity of their storytelling – the Hebrew storytellers were adamant that their myths were true to fact. In an age when magic was vanishing from the world, their authority depended upon it.
From an archaeological point of view, evidence of the historicity of the Hebrew myths is slim (though, as historians are fond of saying, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). Archaeology has failed to corroborate many of the events described in the early Bible: the life of Abraham, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews, the confederacy of the twelve tribes. From the perspective of the minimalist stream of archaeological research, the Old Testament is a mythopoeic document with tenuous connections to actual events. On the other hand, many researchers find circumstantial, indirect, or fragmentary evidence that biblical accounts are substantially true to fact. This debate between minimalists and traditionalists – likely never to be resolved, as it involves the blending of myth and history – is complicated by the fact that the modern identity of the Jewish people, of their statehood, depends upon the historical veracity of their mythic accounts.
The native peoples of North America face the same conundrum: how to resolve the contrast between their own myths of origin – as the first North American peoples, the First Nations – and evidence of anomalous remains such as Kennewick Man, who differs greatly from all modern human groups. The archaeological record of the peopling of North America shows – from as early as twenty thousand years ago – multiple waves of diverse, commingled Asian and European immigrants. No single culture is the first people.15
When myth is equated with history, the truths of the past always conflict with those of the present. To which truths should we be subject: those of the heart, and the community – or those of the mind, and the state?
The Hebrews were the world’s first historians, and their god was the first deity to operate within human time. The Hebrew scriptures speak of time’s beginning, with creation by the word, and of time’s ending, in the final judgment. This apocalyptic view is the antithesis of the Kem conception, which is epochalyptic.16 The Kem were devoted to time’s circular rhythm; the Hebrews looked toward time’s completion.
We hear tales of the enslaved Hebrews building the pyramids of Pharaoh (they did not17), of a coat of many colors, of a man on a mountain bearing tablets made of emerald. These fables – adapted, invoked, invented – lie at the farthest threshold of cultural memory: intact enough to be taken at face value, arcane enough to be gilded and vague. They are like recollections from early childhood: kaleidoscopic, fragmentary, yet somehow whole. The most archaic tales – the creation, the garden, Noah searching the waters – are beyond the memory horizon. Today most people view them as fabrications or allegories; this is easier than believing in magic. But in the later tales – of exodus, of an ark and a temple – myth and history seem entwined enough that we can take one for the other. This is how time, in the personal sense, comes to exist: by virtue of dreams, borne aloft into myths, glimpsed in a sky of visions, and reflected back as self-evident truth.18
According to Jewish folklore, the angel Samael, the exile who would come to be identified with Satan, was a friend to Eve in the garden.19 They grew close over long years, while Adam sojourned with the hosts of the Unnameable. Their intimacy deepened, was distilled into devotion; and Eve gave birth to their child, a luminous boy.
In the late fall, when the infant had grown into a lad, Samael was called away on far errands, and he left the boy with Eve. She let him wander in a landscape not yet shadowed by peril. He followed the sweeping light of evening as it migrated across leaves turned toward the sky. Black furrows punctuated the white bark of birch trees. A wolf called in the distance, waited, called again. The boy saw the dark shape of a bear moving through the brush. But he had no fear of animals: they spoke with him, ate from his hand, showed him hidden hollows where birdsong echoed among fractured stones.
He came to a crossing. To his right, the path was overhung by a yellow wood and sloped up toward a gallery of light. On his left, the way wound down, toward a valley and a road of forgotten days. The old road was a relic. It meandered back into prior ages, toward realms of the Unnameable now hidden in the sea. The other path, climbing into a future of contradictions, was wild and ragged. He smelled the scent of apples coming from there; and something else he could not identify.
The boy, filled with exhilaration, began to sing. The surrounding forest grew still, listened to his celestial voice, watched this fragile, gangly creature whose music was a caress in the air.
At the crossroads, where every myth begins, there is always singing. It spreads with the fiery horizon, moves out along four roads, echoes back from where my father walks ahead into bright autumn air on the mountain. In myth, singing is the means by which words remake the world. Sometimes it is mistaken for the patter of rain, or wind in the trees, or the bellow of breath and the rhythms of blood. But it is singing.
This is what I think of as I shape the final contours of the forehead, above and between the eyes, the location in human anatomy where resonant structures surrounding the frontal sinus assist in the perception of sound. I think of the many traditions and fables in which the brow is said to be the center of illumination, the nexus from which arcane knowledge derives.
I work up from the nose and in from the temples, smoothing the grinder marks with a sphere-shaped cutter on the rotary tool. Unlike the grinder, which screeches and whines and kicks up a flurry of dust, the rotary carver is relatively quiet. With minimal fuss, its tiny motor spins the cutter at as much as thirty thousand revolutions each minute. Small puffs of dust rise from the stone’s surface as the tool etches its way. The cutter abrades without chattering or stalling, though my progress slows. The grinder is capable of deep incisions, of paring away the stone, but it’s no match for the rotary cutter in finishing the surface. The cutter’s diamond burrs, much finer than those on the blade of the grinder, impart to the stone a muted sheen through which I can see interlocking layers of the mineral matrix.
I dip my fingers into a teacup filled with water, hold them above the stone brow, and shake off a few drops. They fall onto the surface, immediately brightening the underlying colors: slate and aquamarine and storm clouds scudding. I dip my fingers again and place them directly upon the stone. A small rivulet advances down the brow and slides into the hollow of the right eye. It leaves a clear track of bright rock. On the brow, a tiny pool forms.
I dry my fingers, thumb the power switch on the rotary carver, and start in. The water swirls, mixes with the grit, kicks up fragments of slurry. But the airborne dust is gone, the cutting action of the tool is more efficient, the song of its work now melodic; no more grating and labored coughing. The tool spins, its cutter vibrating like the wings of a hummingbird. As I work, listening for changes in the soft tone to guide my movements, I ruminate on the brow, on the third eye. I think about the scar on my own forehead, the one that runs upward from between my brows and disappears into my scalp.
Over lunch, I pontificate to Rowan about the third eye. Starting with its emergence in Kem mysticism, tracing my way through the Greeks and medieval alchemy, mentioning an intriguing connection to India, I explain the esoteric belief in the third eye as an instrument of illumination.20 I show her an American dollar bill with the eye gazing from atop a pyramid. I tap her forehead, above and between her eyes. She regards me with weary patience, lets me get a few minutes into my oratory, then dismisses me: “Dad, everyone knows this stuff. Don’t you read Harry Potter?”
Adam came upon the boy singing. And he knew, by the child’s lovely features, who his mother must be. They stood, facing each other, across a widening gulf. The singing stopped. The world’s hinge creaked, and swung closed. Adam, suddenly possessed by a feeling he had not known before, struck Samael’s son upon the brow with a stone, and killed him.21
Death entered the world. Samael returned from his travails, found his son – lying, serene, on the damp earth – and his lament was a shadow of the child’s soft song. Samael, a spirit of impeccable wisdom and knowledge, perceived the cause of his son’s demise. He raised his face in supplication, turning, like the leaves of the yellow wood, toward the light, and he foresaw his infinite tragedy: following dark roads in search of a lost boy, calling, listening, trapped between rage and despair. He saw the world’s last day, when finally he would round the bend of a mountain road and find a nimble boy at the edge of a river, drinking from the waters. But he foresaw that in the long, intervening time, during the full age of this world, the enmity between himself and the progeny of Adam would not be diminished. Samael would take his darkest form, the serpent, and provoke discord in the garden. In his grief, he would incite violence and wars and blindness. He would be the harbinger of catastrophe.
The spirit of the boy, rudderless and lost, entered into the hearts of Adam and Eve. And they grieved. Adam, knowing contrition for the first time, dressed in sackcloth, poured ashes over himself, wandered the paths of paradise without looking up at the spreading branches of magnificent trees. He did not eat those rare fruits.
If not for his discovery of the magician’s book, Adam would himself have been lost. It lay in the waters of the river that issues – even now – from the tree of life. Raziel, the angel of mysteries, had left the book there for Adam to find, in the hope that his grief might be assuaged by revelation. For Raziel’s book contained all the secrets, the single secret. The words were written in black fire on stone of white fire. One stone, one page, wrapped in a binding box of gold.
None but gods read, or were permitted to read, the book of Raziel. Because of this injunction against Adam and his kind – the reading of sacred words, after all, frees the divinity of the reader – angels stole the book from Adam and tossed it into the deep ocean; but the Unnameable, wishing that Adam awaken into his own holiness, dispatched Rahab, the angel of the sea, to retrieve it.
Thereafter, without thievery or interruption, Adam read as redemption. The lost boy, residing in Adam’s own unsettled heart, read too. And his spirit resolved to remain with Adam and Eve, with their children, to inhabit the hearts of every generation. This choice, by which the child of Eve and the angel Samael provides the seed of every human soul, is also the source of Samael’s desolation; for his son resides, until the end of days, in the hidden place.
The words of the divine book, read and remembered by the spirit of the boy, are the source, in each writer and reader, of every subsequent sacred volume. Those words – imaginal, dreamed, or set down in type – are the prayers and divinations of the soul.
When Adam and Eve died, they were laid to rest side by side in a cave hewn from the mountain. The book lay at their feet. The prophet Enoch found it there aeons later; he read the words, and grew radiant with knowledge. It was by virtue of this reading that Enoch became the first and holiest of ancestral sages. He ascended through the seven worlds, through all the gates of becoming, to the very throne of the Unnameable. There he received the task of distributing his wisdom, in the form of books and family chronicles, “from generation to generation and from nation to nation.”22 And it was promised to Enoch that these writings would not be destroyed in the flood to come, but would persist, as tales spiraling through time.
When Enoch returned, he wrote of his celestial odyssey in a journal, which his son Methuselah inherited. As for the celestial book: foreseeing that one would come, in time of need, seeking its wisdom, Enoch returned it to Adam’s cave. He then departed again, leaping from the black stone of the world’s foundation, traversing the seven realms one final time. As he soared through the firmaments, Enoch was transformed into a flame bright and terrible. He flew as a storm of fire, and thunder was his herald.
As I work the stone, as I read the ancestral Hebrew chronicle, as I gather up the tales hidden in my great-aunt’s books, everything begins to blend. Myths never disappear but are passed through countless hands, sometimes misplaced or discarded, retrieved by a lucky chance, by memory, by what the eye of intuition perceives as fate. There is only one myth. Its many versions are fragments of a unified tale, its characters one people. The one myth is true – irrevocably, absolutely, unquestionably – and it is a fable, false to fact, conjured for the means of massaging history into a noble countenance. It is a metaphor, an invitation, an indication of divine sleight of hand. Each of its versions is a turn in a labyrinth of meanings. At the center of the labyrinth waits the elusive and essential author.
I read, in the tales of the Edfu temple, of a deluge; and of a man, in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, who will build an ark to withstand the waters. I follow him to sea, with my ancestors who fled the shores of France in 1686. Like the Jews who were evicted from Spain two centuries earlier, the exiled French Protestants took with them most of the craftsmen, artisans, and scholars of the republic. In the age of our diaspora, fleeing the land of our twilight, we became exiles, unraveling across a wide sea, collected together and scattered.
Long into the night, far from shore, my ancestors could see their homes burning like beacons. I navigate with them in their wandering, find them in the hold and upon the sheltered deck. I see a bright flame on the brow of the ship, and a man standing watch. A raven flutters in his hand. His face is burning. My head aches. I can no longer separate the threads of the tales.
I wonder if I’m like the dumb brutes at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, mumbling and screeching as they dance around the black stone monolith they cannot understand. I fall into dreams that peel away into other dreams, cascading backward. I tumble into them, swimming.
Dreams figure prominently in Jewish folklore. In one tale, two brothers slept, and in their sleep, replete with dreams such as came to those before the deluge, the world surfaced into the light of their seeing. Hiwwa and Hiyya dreamed together of a stone covering the earth, inscribed with lines of black fire and white fire, resting upon the waters.23 The lines upon the stone were a text; the words shifted and changed as the twins gazed upon them. Letters rose up from the depths of the stone, strung themselves together into words, and then were consumed by a shifting and fiery texture. On each of five nights, the book of splendor lay open before the twins in dreams. Their eyes were burned by it. They yearned to hide its brightness, wished for boxes within boxes to conceal the terrible fire.
Noah was of the same clan as the brothers, and he too dreamed of waters and a stone. But he also saw the resting place of Adam, where the stone book of the ancients was concealed. And in the morning, waking from the shadow of premonition, remembering the way of his dream, Noah traveled into the mountains. He followed high paths, crossed old but not derelict roads, saw the Great Bear loping across the sky.
As I make my way through this fable, reading several of its many versions,24 reimagining it, finding traces of the Kem and of myths older than history, I am drawn into reverie. I remember that evening twilight, when the sea was kicked up by a west wind, brusque and mercurial. I see, in my mind’s eye, the boat and the shore, far off, and my teenage self at the wheel.
Into the wind, fast, thump and thrump across the waves, the pitch of the motor rising and falling as it alternately pushed the boat through troughs and then crested, surfing down the sliding swells. The wind carried spray across the starboard quarter. My clothes were sodden, my hands cold, my eyes stinging from the salt. The sun’s last flare, directly ahead, flashed out from the horizon. The sky was clear in the west, but clouds overhead stirred themselves into fantastical shapes. I steered the boat forward, into the weather, and looked ahead to where I saw the black pilings of the dock, two miles off. To my left, along the lee shore, a ribbon of sand meandered along a beach tumbled with boulders. In half an hour it would be dark.
A row of fenders lay inside the boat, still tethered to their stanchions, made ready in advance for a solo docking. They bounced on their ropes, a chorus of flailing orange and white rubber. The bottom of the boat was slick with water, and the bilge at the transom was full. But everything was secure, I was at home in a place I knew, and the waves were a welcoming rhythm. I navigated through the swells, zigzagging, easing the bow away from the face of a wave, then swinging it back the other way, correcting my motion as the wave swung away behind me.
Every seventh wave carried with it a freight of white water growling upon its peak, striking the starboard bow, making the hull shudder with its impact. A cascade of fine droplets washed the boat. I steered, watched, counted. On a seventh wave, from whose summit I could see the rocky beach and a sailboat heading north, the percussion of the water knocked one of the fenders over the side. Its rope jerked tight, and the fender fell against the outside hull, splashing and thrashing along the side. I held the wheel with one hand, reaching forward toward the stanchion. If I could grab the rope, I could pull the fender in without stopping. In this kind of weather, stopping is a hazard: the wind pushes against the hull and slides the boat parallel to the waves; from this position, swells of moderate size can easily swamp a small boat.
The fender rope was two inches from the tips of my fingers. I assessed the oncoming sea, saw nothing of concern, and let go of the wheel. Working quickly, I scrambled to the rope, grabbed it, swung the fender up toward me, and brought it into the boat. It settled onto the deck with a thunk. I turned to make my way two steps back to the wheel, and felt my feet leave the deck. What was the wave count? Five? Six? It had taken me longer than I thought to capture the fender, and the boat had already begun to climb the face of the seventh wave when I turned toward the wheel. The boat had reached the summit of the wave and plummeted down the other side. It was not my feet that had left the deck; the deck had vanished beneath my feet. In other circumstances, this would have been fun. My brothers and I used to stand on the foredeck of our family sailboat in choppy seas and jump upward at the precise moment the boat reached the crest of a swell. If the timing was right, we could jump as high as ten feet off the deck. Usually, we’d anchor a halyard on the deck and use it as a guide both to break our fall and to prevent us going over the side.
I did not have a halyard, or a life jacket, or a moment to consider the sporting possibilities. I went over the side.
Noah found the relic, and it revealed to him all that was necessary to build the ark. He knew the number and order of the animals, foresaw his arguments with the raven, paced out the ship’s dimensions in a field on the hillside: three hundred cubits long, fifty wide, thirty high.25 When the work was done, and Noah had begun the sea journey, he placed the radiant book within a gold box and carried it with him, bound upon his brow. Its light opened the way. “The sun and the moon shed no light . . . The ark was illuminated by a precious stone, the light of which was more brilliant by night than by day.”26
I fell headlong into those ancestral waters, that sea which has been the home of my family of mariners for three hundred years: drifting, departing, wandering in our long exile. Beneath the surface, yellow light scattered. It was as though the setting sun, retreating beneath the land’s horizon, had pierced the depths with brilliance. I heard the pitch of the motor, now suddenly high and loud, as my momentum rolled me beneath the hull.
As my somersault slowed, and my face, an arm’s length beneath the surface, was turned upward once again, the boat passed over me. I looked up. On the brow, says the Book of Illumination, your vision of the veiled god opens. The propeller sliced me open, from between my brows to my hairline. There was a flash as the bone of my skull was struck. The water bloomed with red, and the yellow light grew too bright to bear.
Through the deluge, Noah held the stone before him, its radiance upon his brow, and he was a surpassing mariner. He glimpsed – as though in a dream – the root of the earth, a mountain ascending, and a peak, tiny and remote, that broke the surface of the waters. This, he knew, would be the site of landfall, and the crossroads of every future age. He saw the building of a temple upon the summit, glimpsed the intractable war of the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael.27 All around the black stone of foundation, Noah saw the rhythm of time, blossoming and withering.
I surfaced, gasping, struggling. Saltwater washed into my mouth. But there was another, secondary taste: also salt, but not that of the sea. It was the taste of my blood, washing down my face from the wound in my brow. I brushed my hand across my forehead and felt a gash electrified with sensation. My fingers came away crimson. The boat was gone. Far in the west, in line with the dwindling sun, I saw its outline pounding across the waves. The whine of the motor rose and fell with each swell, whining and growling. I knew it would turn back; the centrifugal momentum of the motor and the steering would turn it in a slow arc. I waited. The water was cold, my shoes made swimming awkward. The shore appeared, vanished, then came into view again as the swells carried me. I thought of swimming to the beach, an hour at best. But I didn’t want to leave the boat. I looked west, and saw it coming around: first to the north, parallel to the waves, then nudged farther east, until it ran far down the bay. I lost sight of it for a while, and I drifted, wiping the blood from my eyes and mouth.
After forty days, when the deluge had abated and the ship of Noah drifted upon the face of the waters, he thought to send Raven to seek for land. But Raven, believing that Noah coveted his lovely wife – who could resist those sleek black feathers? – refused to depart. Besides, among the thirty-two species of birds on the ark, there were some who had brought fourteen members (seven pairs) of their species. But Raven and his wife were the only black trickster birds on the ark; if he was lost, his species would be no more.
Raven gazed with his glittery eyes at the wide sea, at the lightening sky, at Noah. And Raven, the creature whose gift it was to divine the future, concluded that the errand to find land was a ruse.28 Raven would leave, another storm would come, and Noah would descend to the belly of the ship and seduce the lone black bird who waited there. Raven, who had shown Adam how to sanctify the dead, who alone among the creatures was capable of calling down the rain, was stung by the magnitude of this injustice. He called his wife, and together they flew from the ark, westward to find a new home.
Noah was bitter at this loss. As for Raven: he became a wanderer, whose tales do not come into this telling. He and his mate traveled far, into the north, vanishing from the knowing of Noah and his kind. But he did not perish. In the end of days, Noah and Raven must meet again, to settle their differences.29
By the time I heard the motor again, the day was gone. By its last light I saw the white hull of the boat heading my way. It had come full circle, and would pass directly by me. I knew if I waited long enough, through two or three circuits of its circular path, the gyre would tighten, and when the boat ran out of gas it might settle near enough to swim to. But as it approached, it occurred to me that I might be able to grab the gunwale and swing aboard. It did not occur to me that such a feat is almost impossible; about as difficult as it would be to lie at the roadside, reach up to grab the side mirror of a car passing at thirty miles an hour, and swing through the window.
I was not concerned with physics. I wanted to get back in the boat. And I imagined, as the counterpoint to my chagrin at being tossed out of my own boat, the tale of my prowess that I would later tell. I would be the equivalent of a Wild West cowboy swinging onto a rampaging horse. Then, as now, imagination was my primary means of coping.
The boat bore down on me. I treaded sideways to line myself up with the side of the hull. I pulled my legs back, out of the path of the propeller, and lifted my arms from the water. The boat was moving awfully fast. Bow spray splashed hard against me, forcing me to close my eyes. When I opened them again, the side of the hull was directly in front of me. It was like the flank of a white whale, slick and smooth and freckled with algae. I opened my right hand, kicked upward, and reached for the midship stanchion. It raced toward my palm. But before I touched it, the path of the boat shifted slightly upon a swell, and the speeding hull hit me in the chest with such force that I was slammed back into the wake. The boat sped into the night.
I lay half submerged in the buffeting water, ribs throbbing with each indrawn breath, forehead bleeding. White foam drifted upon the dark swells. The sea was green in the flanks of the oncoming waves. I turned, searched the horizon, then kicked my feet and gazed up at the darkening sky.
The quoted passage, from the folklorist Louis Ginzberg (Legends of the Bible, p. 5), comes near the end of a mythological description of the first day of creation. It continues: “In the sanctuary itself the Hekal [temple] is the centre, and the holy Ark occupies the centre of the Hekal, built on the foundation stone, which thus is at the centre of the earth. Thence issued the first ray of light, piercing to the Holy Land, and from there illuminating the whole earth.”
Masonic influences on the early development of the United States are well established. See, for example, Knight and Lomas, The Hiram Key. Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and George Washington, among many others, were all Masons. Washington swore his oath of office on a Masonic Bible.
At his city Akhet-aten (horizon of the Aten) in northern Egypt, Akhenaten abandoned the older model of megalithic temple construction, preferring instead to build with smaller stones. No image of the Aten was depicted inside the sanctuary, though external tableaux show the god as rays emanating from a disk resembling the sun.
Much has been made of Akhenaten’s hymn of blessings to the Aten (Wilson, “The Great Hymn”):
Every lion is come forth from his den;
All creeping things, they sting.
Darkness is a shroud, and the earth is in stillness,
For he who made them rests in his horizon.
At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aton by day…
Their arms are (raised) in praise at thy appearance.
All the world, they do their work.
All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing.
The hymn is remarkably similar to psalm 104 (11–24): “[Springs] give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst. By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches. He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works… Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their meat from God. The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens. Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.”
After Akhenaten’s death (his body has never been identified), the monarchy was likely taken up by Smenkhkare (possibly his son), then by Tutankhamun (possibly another, younger son, or son-in-law, or half-brother and son). This boy king, whose name is known today only because his was the only pharaonic tomb to be discovered essentially intact, was forced by advisers to resume the old Kem theology. The religion of the Aten was suppressed; Akhenaten’s city was abandoned. The blocks of his temple and residence were used in many other subsequent Kem building sites.
About eighty-five years (in the traditional chronology) after Akhenaten’s death, the exodus of the Hebrews occurred. The mythopoeic chronicle of the Old Testament describes a people fleeing northern Egypt, devoted to one, non-iconic god, whose divine name, YHWH, was too sacred to pronounce. Instead, wherever the written name appeared in the scriptures, high priests vocalized the name as Adon, which translates in the English Bible as “the Lord.” When the exiled Hebrews settled in Palestine, they utilized a sun disk, like the image of the Aten, as the royal seal of at least one of the kings of Judah, Hezekiah. See Deutsch, “Lasting Impressions.”
There are many such correlations. The cartouche of the Aten was inscribed with the name Imram; the Bible refers to Moses as the son of Amram (Num. 26:59), the Hebrew equivalent. Across the Nile from Akhenaten’s destroyed city, there is today an ancient village named Mal-lawi (Mallevi), meaning city of the Levites. The rod of Moses, crowned with the image of a serpent, was symbolically identical to the serpent scepter used to denote Kem royalty.
In his controversial book Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest, David Rohl makes a compelling case for the identification of major biblical characters (Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, and Solomon) with figures of Kem pharaonic history. Rohl’s research, which suggests a new chronology for the early biblical period, builds on the work of scholars such as Ahmed Osman, whose Moses and Akhenaten: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus re-evaluates many aspects of accepted archaeological theory.
The research conducted by Rohl, Osman, and others is thorough and precise. It has also been the subject of tremendous conflict. Heavyweight scholars have taken both sides of the argument. In one recent incident, Kenneth Kitchen, an Egyptologist of substantial stature, penned a long letter vociferously attacking Rohl’s theories (“rubbish… sheer fantasy”) and circulated it widely within the academic community. When the views of heretics within any tradition of knowledge become sufficiently irksome to traditionalists as to provoke strong censoring responses, it’s a sure sign that the heretics have something important to contribute.
Religions typically discount the contributions of their earliest sacerdotal ancestors: Christianity downplays its substantial debt to Judaism; the holiest relic in Islam, the Kaaba of Mecca, was a religious icon millennia before the prophet Muhammad. In the Hebrew tradition, the situation is intriguing but unclear. A persecuted Kem religion disappears from northern Egypt, its leader vanishes, its records are almost completely destroyed. Immediately (in historical terms) thereafter, a religious exile occurs, undertaken by people fleeing the same geographic area. These refugees employ an iconography similar to the persecuted faith. They worship a deity whose spoken name is identical. Their leader, as if to disguise his heritage, answers to a truncated royal Egyptian name (Moses, which means “son of”). If such a situation were to arise today – in a remote corner of Borneo, for example, or within the urban tangle of American religious diversity – anthropologists would undoubtedly assume a fundamental connection between the two traditions. In fact, it would be difficult to argue otherwise.
Egyptian influences may extend beyond the Hebrew tradition. Recently at Qumran, in Jordan – possibly the Middle East’s most thoroughly excavated archaeological site because of its association with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the mystical sect of the Essenes – the largest room of the ruins has been found to be a sun temple “situated at exactly the same angle as the Egyptian shrines dedicated to the sun cult.” See Lönnqvist and Lönnqvist, Archaeology of the Hidden Qumran.
The Stone of Scone is a rectangular block of yellow sandstone weighing 336 pounds. It measures twenty-six inches by sixteen inches by eleven inches and is decorated with a Latin cross. Geological studies of the stone indicate that it originates almost undoubtedly from Scotland or England, though an archaic myth claims it was the stone the Hebrew patriarch Jacob used for a pillow during his dream and later erected as Beth-El, “the house of God.”
The visions of the Book of Revelation are typically viewed as mantic seizures: they reach forward through time, toward prophecy. But they also reach backward, to antecedent myths and symbols. To wit: the colors of the four horses – white, black, red, pale – are almost certainly derived from the Kem ritual called “driving the four calves,” in which the animals symbolize a quaternity of completion. For the Kem, four was the symbol of totality and closure. In the ritual, each calf was chosen based on its color: white, black, red, pale (“speckled” or “ashen”). See Wilkinson’s discussion of the calf-driving ritual in Symbol and Magic, p. 144.
In a similar context, the mythologist Joseph Campbell notes in The Mythic Image (p. 32) that “the recurrence of many of the best-loved themes of the older, pagan mythologies in the legends of the Christian Savior was a recognized feature intentionally stressed in the earliest Christian centuries. The meaning, for example, of the ass and ox in the Nativity scene would in the fourth century a.d. have been perfectly obvious to all, since these were the beasts symbolic in that century of the contending [Kem] brothers, Seth and Osiris.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion is perhaps the finest work of modern mythography, relates a similar tale of the mariner Earendil in his ship Vingilot. Guided by the imperishable Silmaril stone, Earendil journeyed across the western sea in search of assistance in the war against the dark lord Melkor, “he who arises in might”:
Earendil… stood now most often at the prow of Vingilot, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow; and ever its light grew greater as they drew into the West. And the wise have said that it was by reason of that holy jewel that they came in time to waters that no vessels save those of the Teleri had known; and they came to the Enchanted Isles and escaped their enchantment; and they came into the Shadowy Seas and passed their shadows, and they looked upon Tol Eressea the lonely Isle, but tarried not; and at the last they cast anchor in the Bay of Ledamar, and the Teleri saw the coming of that ship out of the East and they were amazed, gazing from afar upon the light of the Silmaril, and it was very great. Then Earendil, first of living Men, landed on the immortal shores. (pp. 247–48)
- Berenice II was the wife of the Macedonian Ptolemy III, monarch of Egypt during the second century BCE. Together they initiated construction of the Edfu temple, upon the walls of which most of the Kem tales related in this book are inscribed. A myth tells how Berenice promised to sacrifice her hair to Aphrodite to ensure Ptolemy’s safe return from his journey to avenge the murder of his sister. (Berenice loved Ptolemy a great deal, or at least loved his politics. She had arranged the murder of Demetrius the Fair, Ptolemy’s rival as her suitor.) In honor of Berenice’s hair sacrifice, Aphrodite placed the tresses in the sky. They form the scatter of dim stars behind the constellation Leo, called today the Coma Berenices. (Coma is a term used in astronomy for a nebulous luminescent cloud. It means hair.) Berenice II survived her husband but was poisoned by her son. ↩︎
- Eben is a word of Aramaic origin meaning stone; shetiyah means foundation. Eben probably derives from an earlier word, banah, to build or rebuild. The pronunciation, etymology, and symbolic value of eben are similar to those of benben, the Kem stone of origin. There is also the Hebrew word ben, meaning child (for the Kem, the benben stone was the child of the ancestors). In Hebrew, shetiyah also means drinking. The foundation stone, therefore, is the stone of sustenance, of the waters. ↩︎
- The Masonic tradition, to which many founders of the American state belonged, is a branch of Hermetic philosophy, in turn derived from the Kem. The esoteric eye of Freemasonry, seated on the pyramid, is a Renaissance adaptation of the Kem benben stone. ↩︎
- The relationship between the Hebrews and the Kem has long been a matter of debate (since the first century ce, in the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; and in the modern popular mind since Sigmund Freud’s 1939 essay “Moses and Monotheism”). The Jewish cultural identity – a distinct people, rich in arts and learning, pursued and exiled through many centuries of travail – depends on the distinction between the Hebrews and all other peoples. Yet there exists a substantial body of evidence in support of (and some evidence against, to be fair) a Kem origin for Hebrew culture. Most researchers have focused on the Amarna period of the Kem, during which the pharaoh Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and attempted to revise the theology of Egypt under one god, the Aten (or Aton). During his reign, from 1353 to 1336 BCE, Akhenaten founded the world’s first monotheistic religion. The most neutral study of this period, its characters, and its subsequent influence on history and culture is Dominic Montserrat’s Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. ↩︎
- The ancient Hebrew religion is not the same as the Judaism practiced today. The old faith was perhaps as distinct from contemporary rabbinic Judaism as that tradition is from Islam: different locus of worship, distinct holy relics and practices, same deity (in form if not in name). In the early Hebrew religion – before about 520 BCE, when the second temple was constructed – the office of the high priest did not exist. The Talmud had not yet been composed. We know nothing about archaic Hebrew practices prior to roughly 550 BCE, except what was adapted by the creators of the Bible. The core scriptures, Genesis through Kings, were invented – refashioned, revisioned, made from whole cloth, depending on your point of view – by Babylonian exiles preparing to return to Jerusalem. Its eventual form, if not its essence, was distinct from what had come before. Subsequent major evolution of the tradition, from the second through the fifth centuries of the Common Era, eventually resulted in the creation of what we now call Judaism. The antecedent religion and culture of the mythopoeic age is more accurately termed Hebrew, and should not be confused with its descendant, the Jewish religion – named for Yehuda, the fourth son of Jacob, founder of the tribe of Judah. To clarify this distinction in the narrative, I use the term Hebrews to describe the culture from the biblical creation to the end of the Babylonian exile, after which I use the contemporary term, Jews. ↩︎
- There exist many diverse versions of the Hebrew myths: oral, scriptural, apocryphal, Islamic, academic. In the modern era, the primary compilers of those myths have been Angelo Rappoport (1871–1950), Louis Ginzberg (1873–1953), and Raphael Patai (1911–1986). Ginzberg’s versions are particularly extensive: his seven-volume opus Legends of the Jews runs to thousands of pages. The index alone is more than six hundred pages. A less daunting volume, Legends of the Bible, covers the most popular tales in roughly 650 pages. Unless otherwise noted, I have adapted my versions of the Hebrew tales from Ginzberg. ↩︎
- Yates, The Art of Memory. ↩︎
- Contemporary Jews might find it strange that I use the terms “Messiah” and “kingdom of heaven” as foundational elements in the Hebrew tradition. After all, these aspects of the faith are not emphasized by Jews today, although belief in them persists. The Christian tradition is typically the one most associated with the coming of the Messiah and the return of divine order. These events, as the Book of Revelation prophesies, are believed by Christians to precede the Apocalypse. Islam preserves a similar set of visions and tales. But all the messianic mythical threads lead back to the Hebrews, after the Babylonian exile, hoping and praying for a redeemer to lead the people to final salvation. ↩︎
- Isa. 65:17. ↩︎
- Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, p. 130. ↩︎
- The first of my ancestors to arrive in North America was Richard Mather, grandfather of Cotton Mather. Richard came with the Protestant migration in 1635. The last of the Old World ancestors to arrive were Scottish farmers, fleeing conflicts over the land. They came in 1820. ↩︎
- The Stone of Scone, wrapped up with the political and mythic histories of Scotland, Ireland, and England, was used in coronation ceremonies in Ireland and Scotland from roughly 700 CE until 1292. The English monarch Edward I took possession of the stone in 1296, as war booty, and constructed the Coronation Throne in Westminster Abbey to house it. The stone was used in the coronation ceremonies of every English monarch from Edward II in 1308 to Elizabeth II in 1953 (with the exceptions of Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of whom was crowned). Eventually the pressure of Scottish nationalism resulted in the removal of the stone from the Coronation Throne on November 13, 1996, and its return to Edinburgh Castle, where it now lies. ↩︎
- In 1498, Albrecht Dürer completed a series of woodcuts, the most famous of which is titled after the four apocalyptic horsemen of the Book of Revelation (chapter 6). The figures – traditionally on white, red, black, and ashen horses, but in Dürer’s version dark and skeletal – are imbued with alchemical imagery. One of the riders swings a set of scales, the symbol of final judgment since the earliest Kem. The others carry a sword, a bow, and a trident. Beneath the thundering hooves of the horses, a crowned man is devoured by a beast. Dürer’s tableau embodies the artist’s growing despair about the decadence and spiritual corruption of the church. In the first years of the sixteenth century, he turned increasingly to Hermetic philosophy. His copperplate engravings from 1514, St. Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I, are freighted with Hermetic and religious symbolism. These works, multilayered and interdisciplinary and brilliant in their obscurity, are the Renaissance equivalents of the essential Kem symbol: the stone of origin. ↩︎
- A few months after I completed my stone work, I came across a photograph of a megalithic stone sculpture from Sulawesi in Indonesia, crafted by a culture of which about four hundred carvings are all that remain. No one knows when, precisely, they were made, or why. They predate recorded history. Some of the sculptures display human facial features; one of them is almost identical to the face I carved into my stone of origin. ↩︎
- Chatters, Ancient Encounters. ↩︎
- Although mythologies of the Apocalypse are typically associated with the Christian tradition, the Hebrews invented the idea. The literal meaning of apocalypse is “unveiling,” but its religious connotation refers to a final, tumultuous period of human history after which history itself will cease. Time will come to an end. This conception of time’s closure is particular to the emerging Hebrew culture in the first millennium BCE. I have coined the term “epochalyptic” to denote the epochal orientation of the Kem, the way in which they conceived of themselves as being immersed in rhythms of time, of epochs and ages and centuries that rolled upon one another in unending waves of emergence and return. For the Kem, time itself could not come to an end. ↩︎
- Although many modern depictions in books and films depict the enslaved Hebrews building the Giza pyramids, they were not involved in that endeavor. Teams of paid craftspeople, not slaves, built the pyramids. The archaeological record is definite about this, but less so regarding the question of whether some of those craftspeople belonged to the group that later evolved into the Jews. Originally, “Hebrew” was likely not an ethnic designation but an economic class named the Habiru (or Apiru), denoting one who sells a service. Scholars disagree about this term; possibly it connoted all Asian Semitic peoples, not simply the workers referred to in pharaonic inscriptions. In either case, the Habiru were not subject to forced labor. However, inscriptions from around 1300 BCE – more than a thousand years after the pyramids of Khafre and his contemporaries were constructed – show prisoners from Canaan and Syria working on the temple of Karnak. This is the only period in the Kem’s history when forced labor was used, and the ancestors of the Jewish people may have been the subjects of that enforcement. ↩︎
- In Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (p. 94), Donald Akenson provides an excellent summary of the way in which history and time were managed by the authors of the Bible: “Any new item is presented as having a meaning that can only be understood if it is placed alongside the earlier text. New ideas are given legitimacy by their being burnished with the patina of history: the newer an idea or practice is, the more it is claimed to be old.” ↩︎
- In Jewish folklore, Samael was originally one of the seraphim, serpents of fire who guard the throne of God. Seraphim derives from the Hebrew saraf nahash (fiery serpent), which in turn derives from the Sumerian siru, serpent. Samael is traditionally identified with Satan, as well as the Kem god Set, adversary of Osiris and Horus. ↩︎
- For the connection to India, see the notes for chapter two. ↩︎
- This method of murder, I have been told, is still employed by assassins in some Middle Eastern cultures, especially in blood feuds or conflicts involving women who refuse to enter into arranged marriages. ↩︎
- Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, p. 130. ↩︎
- The similarity of names between the Hebraic twins and the Shebtiw twins, Aa and Wa, is surely not coincidental. The phoneme which initiates the name of both Hiwwa and Hiyya is represented, in Hebrew, by the letter hei (or the letter het), the symbol of divine revelation. But hei also signifies the simple act of breathing, of presence, as in the Hebrew word heenayni, “I am present.” In Hebrew, the beginning letter of a word usually connotes the esoteric level of its meaning. In this sense, it could be argued that Hiwwa and Hiyya are names indicating “I, Wa, am present,” and “I, Aa, am present.” ↩︎
- Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, p. 150. ↩︎
- Approximately four hundred and fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. ↩︎
- Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, p. 77. ↩︎
- Jews consider themselves to be descended directly from Abraham, as do Arabs. Jacob (Isaac’s son and Abraham’s grandson), the patriarch who changed his name to Israel after his wrestling match with the stranger, is considered the forebear of the twelve tribes of Israel. Ishmael, the son of Abraham by Hagar, is the mythopoeic forebear of the Arabs. In the modern world, the rift between the two groups is emphasized by a secondary ancestral distinction which has some Arabs descended from Esau, the elder twin of Jacob, whom Jacob tricked into surrendering his birthright for a bowl of soup. ↩︎
- Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 5, p. 185. ↩︎
- In the Mesopotamian myth of Utnapishtim, from which the biblical account of the flood was derived, a dove and a swallow are first released. Both are unable to find land. It is the raven, sent after the others fail, who alone succeeds. ↩︎