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Popping Thunder and Fateful Towers, May 16, 1999 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: May 16, 1999
"Popping Thunder and Fateful Towers" [permalink]
    keywords: myth, history, anthropology
    soapbox #: 187
    written: May 16, 1999
    words: 1259

"Popping Thunder and Fateful Towers", an Essay

The Tower of Babel fascinates me. I do not have a denominational faith, but still, it intrigues me. As should religious myths for anyone, even the most steadfast atheists.

This mythical tower was supposedly built during King Nebuchadnezzar's (for trivia, what was the name of Morpheus's hovercraft in The Matrix? Ten points to anyone who can tell me why it was named that...) reign in Babylon in the sixth century BC, which served as a monument to the achievement of Mankind. As the Book of Genesis says, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

It is apparently erroneous to say that God punished Man for his attempt to defy the power of the Heavens -- a more accurate interpretation states that Man wished to celebrate his progress by building a huge structure that would rival the skies in height. God, not accepting this self-gratification so early in history, came down to Earth and said, "Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

Before God came down from Heaven, all people on Earth spoke the same language, the language of God. But afterwards, they spoke many different languages and it was at this point that all languages split apart from each other and developed their own separate ways instead of remaining one universal language. All the evolutionary language trees that linguists draw must lead back to the Tower of Babel, according to the Book of Genesis. The ancients had different names for this tower -- the Hebrews "Babel" ("Confusion"), the Greeks "Borsippa" ("Tongue-Tower"). What relation "Babel" has linguistically to both "Babylon" and "babble", I am unsure.

Myths are so powerful. It is best to probably not treat them literally, for it brings up so many perhaps pointless questions of physics and specifics. But they carry much meaning to Mankind, and not even on a religious level. They illustrate Man as he is and how he came to be that way. They give us stories to tell to others. They make the world make sense.

What compelled the Babylonians to build a tower into the skies? What ambition and determination would it take to stick to a plan like that? Supposedly, Alexander the Great tore down the tower when he was living in Babylon in his last days -- imagine if he had remained well enough to rebuild it, as he probably had planned? We have skyscrapers and huge office buildings and monuments that were built so much more easily than anything the ancients could've ever built. Yet we don't build them to reach to the Heavens. We just build them for looks and bragging rights. Less ambitious intentions.

Did the Tower of Babel really exist?

It interests me when God intervenes in the meddlings of Man. Sometimes, he gets downright angry, like when he cast Adam and Eve out, and other times, like with the Tower of Babel, he breaks apart the languages of Man after they build a monument to themselves. This is an active god, a god who will take action when he disagrees with things. And there's no mistake about his presence, either. Does God feel anger? Is he allowed to? Does he feel threatened by Man? Is he really more complex emotionally than he is made out to be? You have to admit, having a god who loves and forgives is not exactly thrilling, or easy to relate to.

What do we as Mankind strive for these days? We don't decide to just pile rocks on top of each other to challenge ourselves anymore. To us, the unconquerable limits are space, and we continually fail to rise up to the effort. The Moon landing should have spurred on decades of space exploration in the 70's, 80's, and 90's, but they haven't, because Mankind is too concerned about this world, fixing what is perhaps unfixable. We no longer strive to be something bigger, but only to repair the damage we've already done to ourselves. Tragic.

What does it say about me if I think I would want to not only see that tower, but also help build it?

In some ways, it's all similar to the End of the World so common in folk tales, ancient nautical maps, myths, and sailors' stories. The Edge of the World is something else I am fascinated with. It means the Earth is finite has boundaries, instead of being a spherical shape. What is past the Edge of the World? Could we fly there? Where does the water fall off to? Where does the water come from? Who would fear the terror of coming to the Edge of the World, and who would brave the unknown just to see it? What does it say about us when now we know that there is no Edge of the World, at least for Earth? That refusing to probe deeper leads us to keep believing in fallacies that prevent us from discovering bigger and better things, the joining up of worlds and theories and philosophies as one large interconnected mass instead of a finite and limited world? Did the early explorers who traveled west to find America not open our minds and unite the world in many ways?

I like to believe in myths like this. The Tower of Babel has been subject to many creative expressions that I've touched across, and probably thousands more I haven't even heard of. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash discusses the myth of the tower, and Antiloop's "Purpose of Life" samples voiceovers of the quoted text from the Book of Genesis, to name some more modern examples. What would the world be like if the myth was true? Is there a force that would come back to Earth and purify the languages again into one language of God?

As I said, I am not religious, but sometimes, I wish we had our roots in supernatural myth, which would then not be myth, but history. Perhaps that's why some modern philosophers have split up the world into separate spheres of living, such as religion and thought and art and language, products of Man's work, in order satisfy the demands of those who live in one sphere but not another. (for instance, mythical world, but not religious world, when before the two were linked almost completely)

It is raining outside. The loudest clap of thunder I've ever heard struck some place very near by. The rain falls calmly, car alarms have been set off by the thunderous booms, police sirens blare somewhere off in the city. The campus is emptying out as people go home after finishing their finals. The streets are empty, the dorm is quiet, and the campus's youthful spirit has diminished, the parents on campus breaking the illusion of a year-long fantasy land of youth. It's dark and I'm alone. And here I am writing about the Tower of Babel and the Edge of the World.


 
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