Excerpted from A Stone's Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth, by Ross Laird
The blisters on my skin do not abate. I burn, far beyond the typical acute phase of chicken pox. My fever dwindles, and exhaustion yields to tentative movement, but I do not heal. For weeks, during which my complexion is that of a man scorched by flying too close to the sun – a boy with feathers and wax and a long fall – I can hardly muster strength to eat. I think about mortality. My idleness and my dependence are so pervasive that I feel as though I am undergoing a slow, intractable dying. I wait, while my body struggles to subdue the heat, while the damaged nerves in my skin confuse the virus with flame. Along my ribs, stretching around to the hollow of my spine, across a swath where the blisters are blood red, my skin is hot to the touch. The heat is more intense than I would have thought my body could produce. When I place my hand on my flank, my instinct is to pull back, away from the heat, as though my body were a stovetop still too warm after cooking.
I can’t read much, or exercise, or keep my recalcitrant moods in check. I sit on the couch, look out at the shaded forest, watch my kids and my wife water the garden, and think about death. I have not yet come out of the fire. I lie on the desiccated ground, sheet around me like a shroud, and I attend the ritual of my own dissolution. I am buffeted along by something – an odd, archaic query, an identification with the lost and the forgotten. This odyssey has consumed me; I can no longer muster the energy to master it. I surrender to it, as one surrenders in faith to the stake. I am carried like smoke upon the wind.
The stone lies undisturbed in my shop, unworked, patient. Though it still shows the marks of its birth, the fire has long since cooled. The rate of cooling determined the size and distribution of white flecks in the stone’s matrix. I wonder, as weeks pass and many of my blisters seem to be turning to scars, if the rate of my own cooling will serve a similar function.
Eventually the exiles made their way back home, to Jerusalem, the City of Peace ever haunted by war.1 They came singly and in groups, scattered and wandering across the desert, carrying with them nothing but the weight of memory. The temple was gone, the stone of foundation bare, the ark vanished. The scorched peak of the sacred mountain lay like a broken watchtower, black and derelict. Moist air from the western sea carried with it the scent of salt and olives.
For the exiles, whose homecoming will not be completed until the end of days, time had stopped. While the ages unfurled around them, they set to the task of rebuilding the temple, of redeeming their infinite catastrophe. Their descendants, Jews in the contemporary world, are still building it today: in the country of the heart, which is not fractured but still preserves the innocence and promise of lost days.
Today the foundation stone lies within an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, on the wide summit of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. More than a thousand years after the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Muhammad ascended from the stone to meet with the Unnameable. Jews and Muslims share and contest the mythological history of the place, and this is the essence of the conflict between them. Now cracked and worn, imprinted with the quarrying marks of Crusaders, still flat where the ark once stood, the stone lies at the heart of the world’s most persistent conflict. The Holy Land is so because of the stone at its center, its oldest and primary relic, the foundation of every subsequent devotion. The keeper of the stone is the guardian of the gate of heaven.2
Not all the exiles returned from Babylon. Many remained, made peace with Nebuchadnezzar, settled down beside their enemies upon the verdant fields. (Today, of thirteen million Jews worldwide, about 120 are left in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ensured the exile of the rest.) Some went west, back to the lands of the Kem and farther, across the parched face of Africa, north toward Europe. They were dispersed – diaspora – as sand thrown to the wind. In this migration, families and clans and tribes became familiar strangers to one another, wanderers, nomads. Most found their way back, across the swells of centuries, either to the Holy Land or to the communities of Jews that sprang up in every place. There were some who vanished.
When the pillar of fire came at night to the captives at the river shore, and Daniel fell into his vision of fire, those who followed the beacon were never seen again. They crossed into the southern territory and were gone.
As the pillar of fire faded into morning, the refugees scrambled upon scree slopes warmed on their eastern flanks. To the west, the hills were still cool and shadowed. They saw hawk prints on the crest of a windblown dune: a sweeping indent of feathers, the crisp ligature of hollow bones incised upon the sand. They continued south, skirting the western mountains hiding the sea, treading stands of acacia, scavenging dates from dry valleys and sun-beaten plains. They knew the great ocean which encircled the earth lay to the south, along their path, and that eventually they would reach it.3 But they knew it was not to be their destination. They were, instead, following the track of Abraham.
Before the exile, before Solomon, before Jacob had wrestled upon the sacred mountain, Abraham came south to find refuge for his son Ishmael. Along the track that the refugees would follow centuries later, Abraham led Ishmael and his mother, Hagar – woman of the Kem, ancestral matriarch of the Arab peoples.
Ishmael was fourteen when his brother Isaac was born. More precisely, they were half brothers: Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, and Isaac’s was Sara, the first wife of Abraham. Sara was thought to have been barren, and Hagar – the second wife – was sought so that Abraham might not die childless. But when Isaac, a child of miracles, was born to Sara, the resulting turmoil between Sara and Hagar became too much for the family. Now there were two boys, two wives. Who was the favorite? Would the boys share equally in Abraham’s inheritance? Who would care for the mothers as they aged? Eventually the family fractured, and Hagar was forced out. She and Ishmael fled into the desert. Abraham led them south.
Isaac and Ishmael, boys who had played together, elder leading younger to find rabbits hidden in the high grass, were lost to each other. Isaac, saved from sacrifice, became the father of Jacob, and thereby the father of all Jews; Ishmael, the exile, became the ancestor of the desert peoples.4
When the Babylonian refugees made their way south, when they imagined Abraham threading the canyons and open plains, when they lay beneath the stars on cold nights and watched the bear spin above the northern horizon, they told one another snatches of the tale: how Abraham had set out with Hagar and the boy Ishmael, how they meandered in dry and empty lands, following ravines, how the water in their drinking skins was used up in the paltry shade of thorn bushes.5
Abraham’s was the first hajj, the first holy pilgrimage into a radiant terrain, bright and sharp with outlines: ocher hills, hardpan streaked with yellow, far-off cliffs hidden with haze. Sometimes, when the wind drew moisture up from the south, Ishmael smelled frankincense. Heat rippled up from the plain, flowed into the texture of water – but only the texture, not the substance – and dwindled into the sky. Reflections ghosted before them, led them across dry gulches that once, in the beginning days of the world, were cascades of clear water. They found no wells to drink from; and as they walked on, haggard and persistent, following the glimpses that Abraham saw of a pillar of fire shifting in turbulent air upon the horizon, Ishmael lost his strength. He stumbled, caught himself, lost his balance again and fell to the ground. Hagar went to him, swept her sleeve across his gaunt and burning brow, shielded his eyes from the hammer of the sun. She turned toward Abraham. He stopped, looked south, toward his vision in the distance, then returned to mother and son crouched in the relentless light of the afternoon.
High up, a heron coasted on a spiral of ascending air. Abraham looked up to see the sacred bird circling. It heartened him, this witness, the immortal bird. In every tale that Abraham knew, its presence denoted wisdom and prosperity. From his pouch, slung sidelong and now almost empty, he retrieved the white covering cloth they used as a sun shield. He unfolded it, placed one edge upon Hagar’s shoulder, and let the rest billow across the prone form of Ishmael. The boy reached with one slender arm to seize a corner of the fabric, pulled it to his side, and was still again. The covering lay like a shroud upon him.
Abraham knelt beside Hagar and wondered what to do. The bird wheeled high overhead, promising redemption. It looked down upon three tiny figures, crouched among pale pebbles on the dark sand, a fleck of white upon a desolate expanse of umber.
During my convalescence, when the television is often my only slender connection to the wider world, I watch images of the Taliban attempting to destroy the mythological inheritance of Afghanistan. They attack stone Buddhas with rocket launchers, hack the heads from statues of white marble, crush the remnants of two millennia into shards of broken rock. The rationale they offer to an incredulous and outraged world is that the true Islamic state suffers no infidel idols. Did not Muhammad, almost fourteen hundred years ago, destroy the pagan idols in the holy sanctuary at Mecca? In those formative days of Islam’s struggle for ascendancy, the relics of archaic gods shared the sanctuary with Allah, the one who would become the sole god of the deserts. Muhammad cast them out, as the Taliban were now casting out their own history.
I see pictures, before and after, of the world’s largest Buddha statue – almost two hundred feet high – reduced to rubble. I hear Mullah Muhammad Omar, Taliban supreme leader, wonder at the umbrage his actions have provoked in the world community. He says, “All we are breaking is stones.”
This desecration – of a people’s history, of their collective memory, of the sacred faces that have nurtured their culture – becomes for me, in my strange and fragile circumstances, a personal affront. My effort, since before I found the stone on the mountain, has been to collect the remnants of a fractured past, to shape them into meaning, to find my own affiliation with distant ancestors. Now, as I wander in the fugue of my illness, fatigued and confused and immersed in the well of myth, I find that there are those whose aim is to destroy the past. We are at cross-purposes, they and I, and the struggle between us is not an abstraction.
I will fashion my stone, and it will stand in defiance of erasure. I will tell the story of its passage, surrender it into the stream of other tales. It is all one tale, one stone, one face. The impulse to divide that face, to choose fragments and versions of the story, disowning all others, is part of the mythological inheritance. It does not begin with the Taliban. Cultures and religions, clans and families; in every context where the Other is projected outward, differing tales prosper. This is the alchemy of myth; its ferment is diversity and wisdom. Its dregs are the forgetting that comes over the storyteller, the deliberate exclusion of the Other as ignorant, foolish, inferior. Racism is the most pervasive mythic impulse.
But the Other is our own people, our own ancestors. Mullah Muhammad Omar, Taliban leader, and I, writer and occasional stone carver, share the same heritage. We are one family, Saddam Hussein and George Bush and Osama bin Laden and I. Not so long ago – some time between the present and six or seven hundred years ago – our ancestries crossed. Countless undiscovered genealogical threads connect us.
It’s simple mathematics: everyone possesses two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents; the lineage of our direct ancestors spreads exponentially into the past.6 At some point in the fourteenth century CE – about twenty-eight generations ago – the number of direct ancestors of every person living today equaled the number of people living in the world at that time: roughly five hundred million. The common ancestors of everyone of European and Middle Eastern descent lived just over six hundred years ago.
These threads lead far back, weaving a myriad of links to the archaic past. We are, all of us – every person alive today – direct descendants of Muhammad, Abraham, Khafre, of every mythic character who populates the old tales. The shattered Buddhas, sculpted two thousand years ago by our forebears, were made in the image of one of our shared ancestors.
Race, culture, ethnicity, nationalism: these are fables of difference, of the Other, written in the narratives of conquest, war, and exile. I do not choose that path; instead, I claim the tales as one tale, as my own, as the legacy of nomads and sages and boys lost in the desert. Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael ghost inside me, around the well of my knowing, and their tale – like every other – cannot be untold.
Abraham followed the spiraling path of the heron, out from the huddled forms of Hagar and Ishmael. He walked in widening circles, looking for water. Hagar watched his dust trail rise into the haze of the afternoon. He crested a small rise and was gone.
On the ground, muscles strained by dehydration and contracting in protest, Ishmael began to writhe. The luster of his skin was gone; it lay sunken around his eyes, flat and taut across his cheek. Hagar did not wish to watch him die. Frantic, desperate, she scanned the plain for signs of Abraham, for a miraculous indication that her son – and soon after, she herself – would not perish alone. The sere terrain was punctuated by two small hills nearby. With the last of her strength, Hagar climbed them.7 Perhaps she would see Abraham from higher ground. Perhaps she had failed to glimpse a well of flowing water, or a river carving deep banks. Or a blue lake, waves playing out the rhythm of solace. She shielded her eyes and walked.
The first hill, five hundred paces north of where Ishmael lay, was bare. A stretch of flat and sandy ground meandered beyond it. Hagar stood on the summit, turned, gazed west and south. No sign, no track, nothing but a jumble of small scree hills on the horizon. She paused, as if by waiting she might invoke nameless redeeming spirits; then she clambered down again. The second hill lay southeast of the first, along the contour of a shallow cleft in the ground. Hagar followed the landscape. Midway between hills, she began running. Quickened by a sense of urgency, desperate and hopeful and terrified, she ran: with heavy strides, coughing, drawing heat and dust into her with every breath. The sounds of her labor broke the silence of the afternoon.
She reached the base of the second hill. Stunted cassia bushes crouched in the slim shadow of the western slope. Again she climbed, this time wavering, pushing down with her arms upon her knees, upward, slow and circuitous. She called out in low gasps, as though her voice might seek and find what her eyes could not. There was nothing upon the summit. The bowl of the hard-baked earth lay round and indifferent. The plain was desolate.
But no – she saw something: a brief shimmer, twenty paces from where the small, white form of Ishmael lay. Like a cloud, low and fleeting, a cartwheeling breeze with a darker shape hidden behind it. A wave of heat moved on the rocks, ephemeral. Then it was gone, and she heard Ishmael cry out from below. A distant sound, pitched high, keening. Hagar ran down the slope.
Ishmael was writhing in water. His movements had scraped away the hardpan and released the flow of a hidden well.8 Mother and son, redeemed from what they had reconciled themselves to be their final moments, drank the clear water. And Abraham, returning from his errand not with water or with rescue, but with report of a strange encounter, saw his wife and son washing the grime from their faces.
I dream of water and fire, while the routines of daily life encircle me and I drift, disconsolate and desultory. I dream of the holy mountain, of the well of origin, of my hands cupping cool waters. Above me, the lava wall rises skyward. But I no longer know if I am dreaming, or if a hidden door has opened inside me and I have stumbled into the beginning tales.
I’m not sure anymore what’s real, what I’ve imagined, what rises of its own accord, implacable and insistent, from the bones of the spirit. Carl Jung spoke of the collective unconscious, the shared mythological and instinctive history of the human species. I feel as though I’ve fallen into that landscape of relics and ghosts.
Finding no water, Abraham turned back. He made his way toward the spot where Ishmael lay; but he did not see Hagar upon the hill, nor did he see the boy. Instead he came across the foundations of an old temple made of black and uncut stones. The roof was gone and the walls were in ruin. Three ashlars – the lintel and posts of the portal – lay tumbled on the sand. The black stones, heated by the sun, were too hot to touch. Somewhere near this derelict place, Abraham knew, there must have been a spring or a well of water. Perhaps it had retreated underground and now lay beneath him, out of reach but close enough, almost, that if he clawed his way into the earth he might reach down to it. But such thoughts, he knew, are the mark of one deranged by lack of water.
Abraham walked around the enclosure, unsure what to do, circling and looking and wondering that such a structure would be here, in the empty lands. Seven times he circled the site, ever anxious about his errand and more certain of salvation. On his seventh turn, as he rounded the easternmost corner of the old temple, Abraham saw, from within the curtain of heat rising from the stones, three forms resolving themselves. At first he thought the figures were stones, and that the illusion of movement had come from the turbulent air. But the images did not waver. They came toward him, black shapes, hooded, faces hidden.
The three sisters, guardians of the temple, spoke to Abraham: of forgotten things, of vanished gods, of the rhythms of creation. They told him of the sages, the Shebtiw who had fashioned the enclosure with words, who had called the sisters from their sleeping.9 The sages sometimes took the shape of herons and launched themselves, at twilight, into the sky. This is how they had come to the empty lands, from another, distant errand. They remained in the desert, speaking words that thickened into shapes, singing the stones into form on the waiting ground. From three stones, the Shebtiw fashioned the guardians: in appearance like old women, in temperament like fire cooled with water.
The sages had departed, traveling south toward the wide sea and the expanse of other tales: in Tibet, India, Mexico. But the sisters remained, venerated as goddesses, preserving the sanctuary for thousands of years. Pilgrims came: to hear prophecy, to steep in the wonder of the crones, to meditate in the temple. The structure, open to the elements, was shaped by the wild forces of the place. Some of the stones fell. But the cornerstone, at the southeastern edge of the temple, remained solidly in place. This stone, made of basalt, black and radiant, was the gift of the Shebtiw. They had brought it from the well of origin, entrusted it into the care of the sisters. It burned, and there was writing upon it.
When the flood came, and Noah passed over the sunken temple as he searched the waters, the sisters were sustained by the radiant stone. They lay underwater while the deluge buried the sanctuary; and when the waters abated, the temple lay in ruin. The sisters, knowing one would come to redeem the holy place, waited.
When Abraham came, when Hagar watched the indistinct chimera of the temple from the hilltop, when Ishmael cried out, the sisters came forward and drew Abraham into their circle. He was swallowed up by their timelessness, and though he was no more than fifty yards from his wife and son, they failed to see his perambulations. He vanished into the twilight that surrounds every holy place.
Later, as night fell and Abraham lay on the damp ground with Hagar and Ishmael, he pointed northeast and showed them the temple of stones, half buried by the encroaching sands. It lay, mute and manifest, as though it had always been there, beyond the threshold of their encampment, unseen by Hagar and Ishmael until Abraham drew their attention to it. The pillar of fire no longer burned on the horizon.
I slowly come awake. Tentative, uncertain of my direction, I ease myself from slumber. As the Taliban tear down their own ancestral sanctuaries, seeking to do away with their mythic heritage (which is also my own), the impulse for preservation grows in me. I must fight back: by means of the stone on my workbench, by way of tales turning within me. I must sustain the link that joins my children to the well of origin.
I tell Rowan and Avery about an old temple in the desert, a place of sacred pilgrimage that predates Muhammad by thousands of years. I describe to them the Kaaba sanctuary, in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site: a flat-roofed building, fifty feet high, walls of mortared blue-gray stone on a foundation older than memory. The word kaaba means cube (though two of the walls are forty feet long while the others are thirty-five). The building is empty, save for hanging votive lanterns and three pillars supporting the roof. There is a single door, seven feet above the ground, in the face of the northeastern wall. The sacred black stone is set into the southeast corner of the outer wall. In modern times, the Kaaba structure is draped with black brocade, made yearly in Egypt, embroidered in gold with passages from the Qur¸an.10 (The holy of holies in Jerusalem, the shrine crafted by Hiram with the shamir, where the ark rested upon the foundation stone, was also a cube, of approximately the same dimensions.11)
At the kitchen table, over oatmeal and bagels, I try to explain to my children why the Taliban would destroy or proscribe everything not in keeping with their radical interpretation of Islamic law. The reasons are not complicated: the pious always wish to destroy the Other – the neighbor, the guest, the awkward ancestor – to flood time with their own myths, to scrape the horizon clear of old tales. They never succeed.
Myths cannot be excised from their origins: the Kaaba is a relic of the Other, of the Hebrew Abraham, of the three crones who were once venerated throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The Islamic guardians of the Kaaba sanctuary are still called Banu Shayba, the Sons of the Old Woman.12 In the beginning, when Islam was fresh with revelation, when the messenger Muhammad wrestled with the angel Jibril on the mountain, Jews and Christians and devotees of the three crones were all recognized as followers of the Unnameable’s many forms. Later, when the scriptures were collected and codified, the old imperatives crept in: racism, exclusion, violence urged upon the Other. This is the shared heritage of the religions of the Book: in the passage from revelation to scripture, from glimpse to certainty, animosities proliferate.13
Prayer is better than sleep, says the Islamic call to devotion, and storytelling is a kind of prayer: for the enduring, for the mythic, for the ancestral and the numinous. The stories of the infidel and pagan past are at once the objects of the Taliban’s ire and the foundation of their own religious culture. In telling these tales – stones, fire, goddesses in the desert – I resist the Taliban’s impulse for erasure. I rouse myself from the slumber of my ailment and enter the fractured world again.
The blisters on my skin begin to heal, though it looks as though numerous white scars will remain. The most prominent, on my face and brow, are unlike the scars I’ve picked up by way of various mishaps. The pox scars are not uniformly pale but rather chameleonlike, turning from white to red and back again. They are the texture of parchment. Sometimes they become inflamed, like embers fanned by wind, though frequently they are cool. The rest of my skin remains sensitive, prone to welts and red blotches wherever it is rubbed or touched. Every morning, my body is tattooed with patches of red where I lay against folds in the bedsheets. During the day, blooms and blushes migrate across my chest and neck and face. If I itch or rub, marks remain for hours: traceries, lines, hieroglyphs rising and fading upon me.
Eventually I visit the dermatologist; he tells me I’ve developed a condition called dermographism, “writing on the skin.” It seems I’ve taken up the old tales after all, in welt and weal. I think of the stone of origin, on the surface of which, in a text of fire, words are written.
The exiles, led by a pillar of fire, fleeing Babylon and the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, found the Kaaba rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael. Courses of green stone, uncut and nestled together like the humps of camels,14 rose from the old foundation. The ashlars of the doorway stood upright. The radiant stone, bound by a silver frame in the shape of an eye, remained bound to the outer wall; it looked southeast, to where the Shebtiw had vanished.
The nomads who appeared to the exiles – all of a sudden, like mirages from out of the empty lands – called it al-Hajar al-Aswad, the black stone.
Today the black stone of the Kaaba and the foundation stone of the Hebrews are the last of the sacred stones. Their archaic companions – the benben stone of the Kem, the shamir of Solomon – are gone. (The benben stone has not entirely vanished. As mentioned, the capstone of the Washington Monument and the aluminum pyramid at its peak are modern reproductions in the Kem symbolic tradition.) Perhaps it’s true that the Kaaba stone, now broken and fragmented, held together by a silver ligature, is a fragment of the original benben stone that fell from the sky before the time of Khafre. Perhaps it was part of the foundation stone in Jerusalem, or was the shamir. No one knows.15 But the two persistent stones – one venerated in Mecca by Muslims, the other in Jerusalem and venerated by both Jews and Muslims – still lie at the center of devotion. Millions of Jews and well over a billion Muslims preserve and cherish these relics. Even the Christian tradition remembers them: the church is said to be founded upon a rock, and it identifies Jesus as the cornerstone rejected by the builders of Solomon’s temple.16 In the modern age, so removed from ancient practices and symbols, the stone of origin remains.
The exiles were drawn into the circle of the Bedouins. They settled down beside each other and became one people: wandering the landscape, reading the horizon for the approach of sandstorms, each year returning to the Kaaba on their pilgrimage to the holy places. They preserved the sacred rite, begun by Abraham, of walking seven times around the old temple. And when the sisters appeared to them, as to the travelers of previous ages, the Bedouin learned the true names of things.17
The desert people maintained the sacred site. They cleaned its dark stones, swept sand from the lintel, placed boundary markers around the enclosure. They guarded the well that Ishmael had unearthed, made narrow paths upon the hills that Hagar had climbed, searching for redemption. They worked the stones of the outer court with whispering sand brought from Sinai: made of clear quartz crystals, hard enough to polish basalt, known for the soft songs it made when blown by the wind.18
The Kaaba has been continually renovated since the time of Abraham, most recently by the construction firm of the bin Laden family, of whom Osama is an exiled son.
In antiquity, the Kaaba’s most notable caretakers were the desert tribe called the Quraysh; one of their number, Muhammad, assisted with renovations undertaken in 605 CE. At that time, the three sisters were still venerated. They had not yet departed the temple, following the old gods out of the world. During the life of the Prophet, new courses of blue-gray stone were laid down and mortared above the stones of Abraham (themselves built upon an older foundation). The portal was raised high off the ground, the roof replaced by a shipwrecked carpenter of the Kem.19 The black stone was removed and cleaned. Tradition attests that Muhammad resolved the question of who would have the honor of returning the stone to its mountings: he laid it upon a cloak, handed a corner to each of the groups who had assisted in the renovation, and together they lifted the stone into place. Muhammad seated it with his own hands.
The devotion of the desert peoples to the cubic sanctuary, to the black and radiant stone, to the surrounding circular plaza and the minarets they added to the enclosure, spread with them in their later religious conquests. Islamic architecture evolved from the rough-hewn temple of the sisters into complex geometric forms based on the cube, to filigrees and domes and rhythms of enclosed space. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, home of the foundation stone and site of Solomon’s temple, was their creation. In Europe, Islamic arches and arabesques inspired the Gothic cathedrals. While Renaissance mystics contemplated the philosopher’s stone, the spirit of the Kaaba’s black stone made its way among them.
That spirit thrives in the architecture of today: in the geometric patterns of the modern, in the rectilinear forms of urban plazas, in the soaring and slender shapes of minarets in the guise of office towers. In one modern example, the Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki’s design for a commercial district was intended to reproduce, in proportion and symbol, the Kaaba sanctuary. Yamasaki’s towers were based on the geometry of the cube, delineated by arches at the base and extended heavenward. He provided a fountain to represent the sacred well, and a radial circular pattern for the grounds, mimicking the enclosure surrounding the Kaaba. The office buildings were wrapped with steel filigree, as the Kaaba is wrapped in brocade embroidered with gold. Yamasaki’s project was completed in 1976 (the towers were finished earlier, in 1973) in lower Manhattan and was called the World Trade Center.20
The black stone in my shop, veined with blue and flecked with white, lies unfinished on the bench. I haven’t worked it for almost two months, during my odd and frightening ailment. I’ve been fatigued, distracted by my discomfort. The destruction of sacred objects by the Taliban urges me toward healing, toward completion of the work, but it’s another month or more before I actually return to the shop. I’ve left too many things for too long – recreation with the kids, time with Elizabeth, the details of my professional life – and it’s August by the time I pick up the rotary carver again.
I thumb the power switch; the tool coughs to life, and I press the whirring cutter into the stone. My hands are tentative, uncertain now of the rhythms of the work after such a protracted hiatus. I shift position several times, looking for the best purchase, listening for changes in the sound of the tool to guide me in shaping the final contours of the eye sockets. The cutter skates across the surface, abrading the material in neat furrows; but I have trouble regulating the cuts. My guidance of the tool is ragged; the abrasions are clipped or extended. Along my forearms and across the backs of my hands, this small, beginning exertion evokes migrant flushes upon my skin: a spreading archipelago of blotches, red clouds rushing, parchment stained with crimson ink. Chicken pox scars glow white against the fine tracery of capillaries at my wrist.
I accomplish no actual work for the first few days: I tire easily, my hands are both sensitive and numb from absence, the cutter jumps around as I try to remember what the stone wants me to do. I go slow. I think again, as so often, of the vanished craftsmen who shaped the Kem sculptures, the temple of Solomon, the Kaaba of the desert. These artifacts were crafted by myth and by hand together, one nurturing the other. The hands that formed the black stone of the desert and the hands of the sculptor of Khafre were of one people, settled together in spirit, remembering the same tales. One thread of persistence: from the carvers of the Buddhas to the masons in colonial Canada, setting the foundation stone of the old church. One defiant negation of erasure.
I pay attention to the sounds of the stone, to the particular timbre of hard minerals worn down by diamond. In this listening, I rediscover the basalt’s own fundamental tone, the octave by which it resonates. It’s the music of water. In turn, I find the distinct notes of our encounter, and the finishing of the project begins in earnest.
I splash water onto the dark surface and watch it run in rivulets toward the eyes. The cutter picks up tiny droplets and flings them into mist. The black-blue stone smooths out along the careful rises of the irises, the delicate ridges of the lids. The hollows of the inner sockets fill with a tincture of dark water. I see fleeting reflections upon the surface, and I think of the frame of silver that surrounds the black stone of the Kaaba. I round out the sockets, then shape the pupils in small sweeping motions, remembering the old Jewish fable of the redeemed temple reflected in the pupil of the eye. Water splashes back at me; I am soaked in memory and prophecy. My skin cools.
These myths I have stumbled upon, that at times I have wrenched from the bindings of tradition, that I have collected and drawn into my own sphere like wayward ghosts, are fragments of humanity’s collective tale, deposited royalty-free in the chambers of the heart. They are not owned by a single group, or by history, by culture, by the academy. They roam, exiled, gathering up the skirts of their foundations and wandering across the landscape. They depart, surrendering the guises of uniformity and consistency. They reinvent themselves, spinning new versions from old, ever moving. We find relics in their wake – a shard of iron, a snatch of cloth, a red balloon rising into the sky – and we claim the talisman as the symbol of our pedigree. We are the chosen people, the ones of whom the whirlwind spoke. Look, the proof is here: in the temple, where the first and timeless stone is kept. But myths move on, old and always new; if they don’t, they die.
The origin myths of the Hebrews meandered east and south, followed the captives across the desert, found themselves welcomed into the enclosure of the sisters. By the time of Islam, a thousand years after the exiles followed the pillar of fire in search of the fable of Abraham, the Hebrew tales had become the mythic foundation of the Arab peoples.21
I coast over the cheeks and forehead, smoothing the stone’s texture, readying the surface for the minimal polishing that will complete the work. I run the rotary cutter along the ridge where nose and eyes meet, deepening and clarifying the rough scarification. Back and forth, from the summit of one eye socket to the other, I whittle down abraded edges and surfaces pocked by the cutter’s facets. I winnow down a crevice on the chin, polish the upper lip with careful strokes. Where the cheeks narrow toward the sensuous sweep of the mouth, the face looks distinctly feminine. All along, as I’ve been thinking about my own ancestral face, carving instinctively, guided by the archaic dreams of remote ages, I’ve assumed that the face, like my own, will be that of a man: after Khafre, after the radiant stone of Solomon and Jacob and Abraham. Now, as I look on it in the refracted light of the goddess tales – matriarchs and sisters and crones, languid as birds wheeling above the desert – the cast of the face is unmistakably feminine. Perhaps, as I’ve eased the rough edges into smoothness, as I’ve washed the surfaces and made the abrupt planes softer, the contours of the stone have shifted. But it’s more than that: from the first outlines that I made of the mouth – using the grinder, a delicate touch, and a surplus of anxiety – the sensuous lines of the lips have been there. The slope of the cheeks has always been slender, the jaw sleek and graceful. It’s not simply the polishing that has helped these features to emerge. They were there, and I did not see them; they were there, and not there.
So goes the Arabic aphorism Kan ya ma kan: there was, there was not. There was a mountain, and a well, and a stone of fire burning with endless beginnings. And a people, nomads and sages and exiles, who revered the crones of the desert. There was a clan of divine beings who had seeded the world with words, made books from stones, had long since left the empty lands. There was not a true god before Allah, a temple built by sisters of the word, goddesses who remembered a time before history.
Kan ya ma kan is a conundrum of Islamic theogony, symbolized by a putative incident in the life of Muhammad in which he first accepted, then rejected, the intercessory status of the three sisters of the Mecca temple: al-Lat (the goddess), al-˛Uzza (the mighty one), and Manat (the other), goddess of prophecy. The Islamic tale of these events is called both the fable of the Satanic verses and the story of the cranes; after all, the sisters were of the same mythological family as Thoth, and as the Shebtiw: immortal, slender birds whose art is stillness amid the cacophony of change. They share the convoluted theogony of the Greek sisters the Fates, the witches of Macbeth, and the three sisters of Norse mythology, who live beside a well beneath Yggdrasil, the tree of life. (The Scandinavian myths are not, in fact, as removed from the pre-Islamic tales as might be expected; a number of Arabic words appear in ancient Icelandic literature.22)
Here are the lines that were first included, and then removed from, the Qur¸an: “Have you thought of al-Lat and al-˛Uzza and Manat, the third, the other? These are the high-flying cranes; verily their intercession is to be hoped for.”23
According to the oldest Islamic histories, Muhammad agreed to include the sisters as angels within the pantheon of Allah. This strategic move ensured, among the polytheists of Mecca, a foothold by which the Prophet might spread his doctrine of Allah, the One God. The sisters had been divine mistresses of the desert for thousands of years, and the nomads were not about to betray them for a middle-aged man who had a vision in a cave. After his concession – after Muhammad realized that his compromise enabled the existing theology to consume his own, to migrate into it and subsume it within its own well of tales – he changed his mind. Allah would be one god, without agents, peers, or intermediaries. Muhammad told the custodians of the temple that Satan had tricked him, had taken the guise of the archangel Jibril and decreed blasphemy as orthodoxy.
In the contemporary Qur¸an, the Star Sura describes Muhammad’s prophetic journey, beyond the stars, during which the Unnameable revealed the eternal message. The sisters have been excised from that message: “These are nothing but names which ye have devised, – ye and your fathers, – for which God has sent down no authority.”24
The sisters were banished, and Islam moved away from polytheism. Traditionally this shift is viewed as evidence of a commitment to religious purity, of the absolute ascendancy of Allah. But every tradition of the Book accepts intercessory agents: the prophets in Judaism, the saints (and Mary) in Christianity, the angels in Islam.25 No, the abrogation of the crones was an act of religious gendering. The sisters were exiled, and with their exit the age of the goddesses in the Middle East – stretching back beyond memory, back as far as forty thousand years or more – came to a close.26 Islam continued to venerate Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus, and Aisha (mother of the faithful), one of the wives of Muhammad, as emblems of moral virtue. But the Kem matriarch Hagar is not mentioned by name in the Qur¸an; she, along with the three sisters, migrated into the rarefied air of discarded myths. They are banished but not gone, these crones.27
Kan ya ma kan: it happened, it did not happen. Besides, no one remembers, and nowadays the doctrine is beyond argument: Muhammad cast out the idols from the temple and thus proved the falsity of the cranes, crones. Satan’s guise was revealed, and the scripture corrected. To suggest any other mythic history (as Salman Rushdie discovered when he wrote The Satanic Verses) is dangerous in an age when extremists are still casting out idols (stone Buddhas come first to mind).28
But there they are, slender jaw and soft cheek and bright eye; all three sisters, wrinkled and textured in the stone I found on the mountain. How did I come to find them, through fire and water and forgetfulness? And what am I to make of their most famous prophecy, adapted by Shakespeare in the first lines of a play about war:
When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.29
I’ve been tracking my father’s people, their generations like dried leaves in the chronicle they left me. As I’ve said, I know almost nothing of my mother’s people; they are gone with her, burned up with the drink that seemed to be (but cannot have been) her sole inheritance from them. I find my father in all the old tales, Father Sky with his beard in the clouds; but I also find the Old Mother, the crone of the earth, in the story of my own emergence. She is as much a part of my own mythology as my father, who walked ahead last year toward the bright sky on the mountain of the stone. He remains; she has left no clues for me to follow. Her temple is destroyed. She is a spirit of wandering and rumor. But I find the way of her homecoming: in my return from the shadowland of my younger years to the welcoming fires of my wife and her family, who took me in, sheltered me, offered me the blessings of belonging. When I walked in the desert, searching for water, I was redeemed, at every turn, by the soft and resilient ground of the woman who sustains my life, my children’s lives.
I remember a story from childhood, of a man whose enemy fills his water skins with wine instead of water; too late, far out in the sands, the man discovers the treachery. He remembers that water flows in the great aquifer beneath the desert, and he digs. He dies digging down, drinking wine. My mother’s life was like this. She did not find the ancestral well or the stone enclosure of the three sisters. She was lost. But someone found her tracks, carried on the journey she began but was unable to finish. By virtue of ferocity and gentleness, Elizabeth embodies the spirit of the three sisters, of the Old Woman, of the huntress, and she has carried us all home.
These are the three, in my own life: my grandmother, my great-aunt, my wife; mighty ones, goddesses. They have not been cast out. Their chronicles have not been lost. In the Qur¸an, the sura called “Women” speaks of one hundred and four divine books created by the Unnameable.30 Only four are now known: the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel, and the Qur¸an. The others have vanished. But the hundred undiscovered books of Islam are not lost; they’re in my library, along with the books from the stone temples of the Kem, in the volumes I inherited from my great-aunt Eileen, the fire-tried, the one whose name, in addition to connoting “the radiant one,” also means “the great bird.”
By the end of August, I’m well enough to travel. Colleagues invite me to New York to talk with them about mythology and sacred dance and the feminine spirit in art. One of my colleagues is a Jewish psychoanalyst, descended from German Jews, who is working with a patient whose parents were Nazis. My skin flushes in the heat of Manhattan and the excitement of our talks; but I do not feel ill, and sunscreen protects me from the last flaming days of summer. We talk about the nature of forgiveness, about what is carried on by generations who defy, who must defy, the injunctions of their parents never to forget. I come back to the question in myself: What must I preserve? For me, for my children, for the sake of the threads of human continuity.
I ruminate on these things, on the sustaining force of the feminine, as I walk the streets of Manhattan. I think of the three goddesses of my own life – whose names mean the radiant, the victorious, the promise keeper – and I wonder about their indomitable spirit, the way in which it cannot be diminished – by negligence, by war, by time spun farther than the grasp of memory.
My meandering brings me, on September 9, past the Kem obelisk in Central Park and into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I stand before the only remaining fragment of an ancient sculpture. The body has vanished, and most of the head is gone. What remains is a small artifact, about six inches high: an elegant mouth – smiling, in repose – and the beginning curve of a face, carved from yellow jasper. Between ragged fractures where the stone is sheared off – one just above the top lip, the other below the chin – the mouth has been sculpted with astonishing precision by Kem craftsmen in the age of the Hebrews’ exodus. This statue, all that’s left of an archaic queen, was fashioned in devotion and shattered by war, almost twenty-five centuries ago. Still, she smiles.
I remain in the gallery a long while, absorbing the details of this remarkable object: bright and smooth, polished to a high sheen. Yellow jasper, symbol of the imperishable, the rain bringer, a stone reputed to drive away evil spirits, has long been associated with healing. Perhaps this mouth, so fragile, the instrument of a forgotten voice, has been preserved by virtue of the jasper’s protection. This relic endures, even as the Taliban destroy stone Buddhas in Afghanistan. In many guises, the instinct for beauty prevails.
I return home from New York at midnight on the 10th. A few hours later, hijacked airplanes fly into the World Trade Center towers, into the Pentagon, into the ground. Like their ancient allies, the attackers tear down the standing stones, endeavor to destroy all that is foreign and strange. The old fires have not stopped burning.
I am drawn away from the shop and into my grief for many days. I sit with Elizabeth in the quiet sanctuary she has made of our yard. The first ocher leaves appear, and we wonder how to make sense of such events. Rowan writes a poem about the end of summer, in which birds fly to nice warm places. Safe passage. As the season turns, I pray that I find the wisdom to weigh, in my own small and quotidian life, the will to heal against the wish to harm.
When I can no longer abide images from the television, when the rawness in me must be assuaged, I return to my workbench. My affliction is softened as I cradle my tools and guide them across the stone, polishing here and there, finishing my long effort to restore a shattered visage. The facade of the stone gathers itself into the contours of a resolute chin, a strong mouth, and a cheek rising toward a restful eye.
Rage and tears and a strange dread, lurking and tenebrous, find their way into the rhythm of my work. I strain to reclaim, in the grain of dark stone, the soft faces of those now lost to our sight. I mourn the death, too, of the isolated innocence of my culture. And I try to answer Avery’s four-year-old questions: he cannot understand why the hijackers would hurt anyone. He devises surprisingly elaborate plans for talking to them, for asking them to stop.
He watches me work, brings me tools, draws close in this time of elemental fear. My hands trace their way across the smooth contours of the jaw and the rough edge of the forehead. I imagine the craftsmen of the Kem shaping the face of the jasper queen, and I wonder, as I inspect my work during a warm afternoon, if it’s her voice I hear, humming among the trees out back. I discover, once again, that the simple work of hands is a guide in my own healing. I am shaped by the work of creativity as a stone is by tools. And I am sustained, finally, by the hope that my one stone might stand with the destroyed Buddhas, with the scattered and the fallen, with those on their way back home.
Creativity can be a deep sustenance – whether in stone or wood or soil. And though my carving is crude, fails utterly to match the surpassing skill of those ancient craftsmen, I persevere; for the work of creation calls not only to the practiced hand. The air is thick with transformations.
I wash dust from the stone. The bright surface beneath appears alive again, as it did during that brief glimpse months ago. But this time I am not fevered, distracted by the creeping fire upon my skin. I am sobered, as are so many others during this time, and I see with great clarity the dark striations weaving their way across the rudimentary cheek, the flecks of white feldspar scattered like snowflakes along the brow. As I gaze on the face before me, collected from the ashes of mountains and the visions of my own troubled days, I glimpse a woman serene and fair. She looks upon our fractured world with an indomitable spirit. And she smiles.
By virtue of distinct classifications of heredity, both Isaac and Ishmael are the firstborn son: Isaac in the Jewish tradition, Ishmael in the Islamic. The biblical version of the sacrificial trial of Abraham and Isaac is detailed in Genesis 22. In the Qur¸an, the trial of Abraham and Ishmael appears in 37:100–03. In some Islamic traditions, the sacrificial site was at Mecca, not upon the Temple Mount (in what was later to become Jerusalem).
There exist many Islamic versions of the tale of Abraham’s journey with Hagar and Ishmael. They differ in substantial ways: Ishmael’s age, Hagar’s character and status, the extent of Abraham’s involvement. My version is a conflation of several traditional forms which appear in The Hajj.
Islamic tradition asserts that the Kaaba enclosure was first built by Adam, then rebuilt by Abraham. The three sisters are thought to have entered the narrative later, after the descendants of Ishmael turned away from the religion of Abraham and worshiped idols. My narrative thus departs from tradition in two ways: by substituting the Shebtiw for Adam, and by providing a foundational role for the three sisters. My aim is to be consistent with the pre-Islamic mythologies of Saudi Arabia, in which Hebrew characters were probably not present until after about 500 BCE. The Hebrew tales, compiled after the Babylonian captivity, would have been delivered to the Arabian Peninsula by exiles and travelers. Before that time, the mythos of the Arabian peoples would likely have been rooted in the local and regional tales of the Sebettu, the goddesses, and the Babylonian pantheon. With the advent of Islam, which in principle accepts Judaism as a legitimate tradition, the Hebrew tales of origin were adopted and adapted, rewritten backward, so that polytheism and paganism were supplanted as the original devotions of antiquity.
Be they Muslims, Jews, Christians, or Sabians,* those who believe in God and the Last Day and who do good have their reward with the Lord. They have nothing to fear, and they will not sorrow. — (Qur¸an 2:62, translation by Thomas Cleary)
(*The Sabians were a religious group from ancient Harran, now in southeastern Turkey. Harran is mentioned several times in the Bible but is of particular note as the place where Abraham’s family settled after their departure from Ur in Genesis 11:31.)
O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily God guideth not a people unjust. (Qur¸an 5:51)
The fifth sura includes one of the Qur¸an’s most aggressive suggestions for dealing with the Other (5:33): “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”
The unfortunate legacy of scripture – almost every scripture – is that the light it purports to shine also casts a great shadow.
In The Hajj (p. 365), Peters notes: “The age of idolatry is long past for those who study idol worshipers, and so we can only very tentatively impose our conceptual patterns on the pre-Islamic Arabs performing sacrifice and other ritual acts before stones.” The act of remembering the pre-Islamic tales is a mythological endeavor.
- The original name of Jerusalem was Urusalim, a word of western Semitic origin meaning “foundation of God.” In the Torah, the first five and most authoritative books of Jewish scripture, Jerusalem is called Salem. This appellation derives from the concatenation of three Hebrew consonants: sh, l, and m. Like the language of the Kem, Hebrew does not write vowels; but when they are inserted in speech, the result is two possible words: shalem, meaning perfect and whole, or shalom, meaning peace. Salem is thus the spiritual center, the location of perfect wholeness and peace. As a geographic location, Salem (Jerusalem) is intended to be a symbolic intersection of the temporal and the eternal: the crossroads, the site of every mythic and divine encounter. ↩︎
- Gershom Gorenberg provides a sobering and insightful view of the Temple Mount’s role in current affairs in his book The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. ↩︎
- In the archaic era (i.e., before the Common Era), it was commonly believed that the primordial ocean encircled the lands of the known world. The journey of conquest undertaken by Alexander the Great was partially motivated by his desire to find the shores of the great ocean (he never did). See Stoneman, Legends of Alexander the Great. ↩︎
- In the Islamic tradition, Ishmael, not Isaac, is the sacrificial object in the story of Abraham upon the mountain. The conflicting accounts (between Islam and Judaism) arise in part from differing traditions regarding who is considered “firstborn.” In the archaic Jewish and Christian traditions, a son or daughter born from a slave woman (as was Hagar) was not granted full familial membership. Jewish tradition still preserves (in spirit, if not in practice) the notion that Jewish identity is defined as having been born of a Jewish mother. Hagar’s status as an Egyptian woman would necessarily have precluded – on two counts: she was a slave, and she wasn’t Hebraic – any of her offspring with Abraham from being considered true Hebrews. The archaic traditions of Islam, on the other hand, granted familial and religious membership to a son or daughter born of a Muslim father (and a mother from any clan or class). If the mother was a slave, she redeemed her freedom upon giving birth. A folkloric twist in the Islamic tradition has Hagar as the wife, not the concubine, of Abraham – though she is not mentioned by name in the Qur¸an. ↩︎
- The Jewish version of this tale, which differs substantially from its Islamic counterpart, can be found in Genesis 21. The Islamic version appears briefly in the Qur¸an (37:100–03) and in more detailed fashion in the works of the ninth-century CE Muslim chronicler al-Tabari (Abu Ja˛far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari), particularly his History of Prophets and Kings. For a contemporary overview of early Islamic mythology, drawing on the work of al-Tabari and others, see Peters, The Hajj. ↩︎
- See notes for chapter one. ↩︎
- This is the source of the later ritual, enacted by pilgrims to Mecca, of climbing the two hills, al-Safa and al-Marwa, on the eastern side of the sanctuary: “Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of God. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good, – be sure that God is He Who recogniseth and knoweth” (Qur¸an 2:158). ↩︎
- This well, called Zamzam according to Islamic tradition, still flows today in the sanctuary at Mecca, where pilgrims drink from it. ↩︎
- In Babylonian mythology, which in antiquity infused much of Arabic culture, the seven ancestral sages credited with the development of civilization are called the Sebettu. This designation is substantially identical to the Kem Shebtiw and undoubtedly derives from the same mythological ground. (For the sake of clarity, I have used the Kem spelling throughout.) Al-˛Uzza, al-Lat, and Manat, the three divine sisters who appear in the so-called Satanic verses (53:19–22), are the mythological descendants of the sages. (In India, the seven sages are called the seven rishis. The motif of seven culture bearers is persistent; it appears in the myths of cultures worldwide, and has been used by numerous researchers as evidence for cross-cultural links in the archaic world.) ↩︎
- Peters, The Hajj, p. 9. ↩︎
- The holy of holies was twenty cubits (roughly thirty-five feet) in each dimension. See 1 Kings 6:20. ↩︎
- The traditional interpretation of the title Shayba is that it refers to the Queen of Sheba; but this designation is a mythological shorthand for the archaic female deities al-Lat, al-˛Uzza, and Manat. The Old Woman is the mother goddess in her many guises. ↩︎
- Like the Bible, the Qur¸an contains contradictory versions of how to understand and deal with the Other. Compare, for example, the following two passages. ↩︎
- I have borrowed this phrase from the ninth-century Christian doctor and translator of ancient manuscripts Ibn Ishaq (in Peters, The Hajj, p. 47). ↩︎
- No archaeological evidence links the black stone of the Kaaba to the Kem, though an intriguing connection exists with regard to the name Kaaba. Taken individually, the sounds of the word correspond to three sacred Kem terms: ka (the double, or spirit self), ab (the heart), and ba (the soul). Perhaps linguistically, and perhaps mythologically, the Kaaba is the spirit-heart-soul. This interpretation reminds me of the Christian Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – the three sisters of pre-Islamic mythology, and the divine triads that exist in countless religious traditions. ↩︎
- See, for example, psalm 118:22, “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner,” and Acts 4:11–12, “This is the stone, which was set at naught of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” ↩︎
- My version of the tale of the three sisters is a conflation of several fragmentary myths of the pre-Islamic era. Since Muhammad’s definitive act of casting out the idols in the Kaaba, in 630 CE, the pre-Islamic myths of the Arabian Peninsula have not been of general interest to Muslims (as the Kem foundation of Judaism is not of general interest to Jews). As a result, comparatively little is known about the authentic traditions of the Bedouin prior to about the sixth century ce. ↩︎
- The sounds made by “whispering” or “musical” sand derive from resonant qualities imparted by granular friction of the material. In addition to the “whispering” variety, squeaking, roaring, and booming sands exist. Booming sands can be found at Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado (Bing Crosby’s song “The Singing Sands of Alamosa” was inspired by them). See Nori, Sholtz, and Bretz, “Booming Sand.” ↩︎
- Traditional sources (al-Azraqi, for example, and Ibn Ishaq, in his Life of Muhammad) identify the carpenter as Baqum, or Pachomios, a Coptic (or Greek) survivor of the shipwreck of an Egyptian vessel. The Copts were the last cultural vestige of the Kem. The Coptic Orthodox Church, a Christian sect descended from the early Copts who syncretized Kem culture into Christianity, exists in Egypt today. ↩︎
- Minoru Yamasaki was a favorite architect of the Saudi royal family (he designed the Dhahran airport, among other projects). Yamasaki described his vision of the World Trade Center as “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.” See Kerr, “The Mosque to Commerce.” ↩︎
- There is some disagreement among scholars as to the extent of Hebraic influence on the pre-Islamic cultures of the Arabian Peninsula. It is known, at least, that in the centuries before Muhammad, the Bedouin already claimed descent from Abraham. But much of the Hebraic context of Islamic mythology was clearly modified by the Qur¸an and by later Muslim chroniclers. The Qur¸an, for example, asserts that Abraham “was not a Jew nor yet a Christian but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to God’s (Which is Islam), and he joined not gods with God” (3:67). This is a classic, almost invariable, response to mythological adoption. The Hebraic corollary is in their treatment of the Kem and Sumerian tales – the flood, the stone of origin – in which the cultural heritage of the myths is reassigned to the adoptive culture. Scripture is the archetypal mythology. ↩︎
- Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 95. ↩︎
- Peters, The Hajj, p. 26. ↩︎
- Qur¸an 53:23. ↩︎
- The Star Sura, the same scriptural segment that abrogates the intercessory status of the crones, grants limited intercessory powers to the (male) angels: “How many-so-ever be the angels in the heavens, their intercession will avail nothing except after God has given leave for whom He pleases and that he is acceptable to Him” (Qur¸an 53:26). ↩︎
- The Willendorf Venus, archaic indeed at about forty thousand years old, is one of a number of fantastically ancient goddess artifacts. The nature of their symbology is a matter of considerable debate among scholars. See, for example, “Venus Figurines: Sex Objects or Symbols?,” chapter 14 in Rudgley, The Lost Civilizations. ↩︎
- The evolution of religion in the West is basically the evolution of patriarchy. The male god made a slow ascension: prior to the Kem, masculine deities were typically of secondary status; with the Kem, they were endowed with powers sometimes lesser, and sometimes greater, than their female counterparts. Ra and Osiris are considered the ruling deities of Kem theology; but Isis, whose epithets included “mistress of the sacred mountain,” proved her power over both, in differing tales: by healing Ra after he was poisoned, and by raising Osiris from the dead. The Hebrews elevated the male deity while preserving a feminine aspect of divine manifestation: the Shechinah, the feminine soul of God (much lauded today in feminist schools of Judaism). In early Christianity, the male God reigned supreme; but his mother, Mary, was – and still is – venerated with considerable zeal. Islam dropped the feminine altogether: no female deities or angels or powers. (Qur¸an 53:27 says, “Those who believe not in the Hereafter, name the angels with female names.”) In the theological context of Islam, Allah is infinite, and therefore male as well as female. But in practice, the travails of Islamic women were begun when Muhammad cast out the female deities from the sanctuary; when al-Lat (the goddess) departed, and al-Lah (the god) remained. ↩︎
- Casting out idols is a time-honored tradition in the religions of the Book. Whether it’s Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, or Muhammad in Mecca, or the Jews returning to Jerusalem after their captivity, idols and idolaters are the objects of consistent ire. One of the oldest mythological threads of this tradition is probably that of the Marsh Arabs, in Iraq, who preserve a tale in which Abraham – whom they call Bahram – cast out the idols of the Mandaean temple in Harran four thousand years ago. ↩︎
- Macbeth, act 1, scene 1, lines 1–4. The crones of Macbeth derive from a mythological thread that begins thousands of years ago – no one knows exactly how many thousands – with the Venus figures and womb temples of the goddess tradition. See Gimbutas and Campbell, The Language of the Goddess. ↩︎
- Qur¸an 4:1.64: “And there were messengers of whom We told you before, and messengers of whom we have not told you” (translation by Thomas Cleary). ↩︎