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KRONOS Vol VIII, No. 1
THE TOWER OF BABEL AND THE CONFUSION OF TONGUES
JAMES E. STRICKLING
Unlike the worldwide prolificacy of flood traditions, extant legends of the Confusion of Tongues, such as is recorded in the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, are much fewer in number. Moreover, the skeptic might still discern a kernel of truth in the flood legends even if the idea of an actual global deluge is rejected. Stories of the Confusion of Tongues, on the other hand, are more easily relegated to the realm of fairy tales. Even so, their widespread, if spotty, distribution begs an "historical" explanation that precludes their having resulted through diffusion from a single source. Furthermore, an analysis of some of these stories also suggests that not only are they not fairy tales, but that our usual conception of them suffers from more confusion than did mankind's speech.
The Biblical account of the Tower of Babel actually incorporates two themes found in mythologies scattered around the world: the Confusion itself and man's attempt to scale heaven. In the extra biblical versions, these two themes occur sometimes independently and sometimes together.(1) It is the Confusion which is the main topic of this work, but certain aspects of those "scaling" myths not explicitly associated with this theme are, nevertheless, of some relevance to our examination.
The widespread occurrence of the "scaling" theme would at first seem to be a product of diffusion that reflects an ancient human endeavor of sorts rather than a global disturbance. We shall, however, indicate at least one logical connection between the catastrophe and the structure used for scaling - i.e., the so-called Tower of Babel.
2. Interpretation of the Records
The familiar Biblical account of the Confusion of Tongues was unquestionably recorded at an early date. Most of the other Confusion legends were, until recently, transmitted orally, with the reliability of their details inevitably suffering over the centuries. With this in mind, we note a possible misunderstanding of the nature of the Confusion as stated in Genesis.
From earlier than the time of Josephus, this record has been interpreted as declaring an instant diversification of human language - i.e., the miraculous creation of new languages. In the words of Josephus:
This belief still prevails - even among those who reject the historicity of the event - as evidenced by Isaac Asimov's words:
A careful examination of the Biblical text, however, reveals no explicit statement that such a phenomenon occurred. We read in the eleventh chapter of Genesis.
The idea of language diversification is not present in the above account. The text simply states that the builders' speech was confounded. I submit that the writer of Genesis was not suggesting that groups of people became unable to communicate with each other because of an instantaneous language change. Rather, no one affected could communicate with anyone else - i.e., the power of coherent speech was temporarily lost.
The condition proclaimed in Genesis 11:1 can be read as the prevailing situation - i.e., one language before, during, and after the event. The purpose of this verse could well have served to emphasize the resulting consternation - viz., even though the victims spoke the same language, they could not communicate orally.
Josephus' interpretation is possibly contradicted through his own reference to another source:
We wonder how literally we might take the words of the Sibyl. If "every man" can be equated with "every single individual", which in any case seems to be implied, there is certainly support for our interpretation - total confusion. This total confusion is more than intimated in Jewish legend wherein it is stated that:
A turn-of-the-century translation of the Assyro-Babylonian account, the oldest known extrabiblical account, makes no allusion to new languages:
The content of the other extrabiblical legends varies. Some do tell of the creation of new languages; others, however, tell only of a confusion or confounding.(9)
It is to be expected that the popular interpretation of language diversification would eventually arise, explicit in some of the legends and projected into others. A foreign language, after all, sounds like gibberish to an untrained ear. (Could not the same listener assume gibberish to be another language?) It is obvious that the Biblical version was recorded prior to the interjection of this thought.
3. Contemporary Parallels
Our interpretation above is echoed in a number of modern records of scientific observation which suggest that the Confusion analyzed was quite literally a "shocking experience".
The elicitation of such effects is not restricted to direct electrical stimulation. For instance:
We thus see small scale repetitions of the ancient event resulting from physiological disturbances - by shock and possibly from exposure to electromagnetic radiation. As with the modern experience, the original catastrophic effects (aside from possible death) were likewise transient; and afterwards the victims could again communicate in their own language.
We can therefore envisage a progression of events: the capability of coherent speech was temporarily interrupted; the effects of the catastrophe, coupled with the confusion and fear which resulted, forced a dispersion of the people. It is interesting to note that, even in the modern experience, "electrical stimulation with subconvulsive intensities . . . elicits . . . emotions of rage and fear ".(14) Language diversification would then have proceeded at its own evolutionary pace although, undoubtedly, language would already have been undergoing evolution in different parts of the world. This difference in languages would have been recognized much later but, within memory of the Confusion, and with little else known to account for it, it is understandable that the event would, by some, have been held responsible for it.
Coincidentally, we find in legend a somewhat surprising similarity to our own conjecture:
Hebrew legend suggests another unusual aspect of the phenomenon, reflecting the incomprehensible disorientation associated with the Tower's site:
And again, from our own time:
4. The Toppled Tower
There is a curious aspect to the legends, the significance of which is uncertain.(18) All of the "scaling" legends that do not involve the Confusion of Tongues element cite the collapse or destruction of the structure involved. In some legends, this resulted in the death of its builders. In the tales which include both the Tower and the Confusion, such as the Biblical account, the fate of the Tower is not always revealed. Perhaps this merely reflects a shift of interest in those stories containing both themes. Nevertheless, the destruction seems to be an integral part of the memory.
5. The Toppler
We have seen that the Confusion could have resulted from shock and/or exposure to electromagnetic radiation. There must therefore necessarily have been some natural means by which it might have occurred. We ask if there is some potentially destructive agent possessing these capacities - and indeed there is.
In our legends we find at least two references to the destruction of the Tower by lightning. From the Old World:
And from the New World:
There are two other possible allusions to lightning.
And from the Hittites:
Although there is no reference to lightning in the Biblical account, Jewish legend does have it that the Tower of Babel experienced some kind of pyrogenic assault:
An objective reading of the Biblical record, legendary material, and contemporary experience suggest that the catastrophe which befell the Tower of Babel probably took the form of a thunderbolt. The only strange language involved, however, seems to have been "garbleese". Since it is doubtful that all of the legends resulted from diffusion, the phenomenon could not have been restricted to Mesopotamia but must have occurred elsewhere as well.(25)
C. J. Ransom has suggested an interplanetary discharge as the actual source of the postulated disturbance.(26) He, in turn, credited this suggestion to Immanuel Velikovsky who has attributed the discharge to a close passage of the planet Mercury.(27) Velikovsky was of the opinion that the Tower could have acted as a lightning rod. If the Tower was truly a terrestrial edifice, the possible reason for the legendary association of such towers and the Confusion might lie therein: Societies with an inclination to build tall towers might have stood a higher probability of being "zapped".(28)
Frequency Distribution of Elements on Which the Accounts Are Based
** An extensive search of myths for this element has not been made.
Bibliography for the Appended Matrix
2. Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, I:117. (NOTE: Translation used is by H. St. J. Thackeray, N.Y., 1930 )
3. I. Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible (N.Y., 1971), Vol. I, p. 54.
4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., Vol. 1, p. 707.
5. It was called Babel not because God confounded the language there, but because God confounded the language there. Babel also translates as "Gate of God". (NOTE by Dwardu Cardona: More correctly the name translates as "Gate of El" - i.e., Saturn's Gate. "Confusion" would be more appropriately indicated by the Hebrew word "balal". The Hebrew Babel is, of course, derived from the Babylonian Bab-ilu, which the Greeks rendered Babylon. N. M. Sarna - Understanding Genesis (N.Y., 1976), p. 69 - gives the Babylonian name as Babilim and states that "the name is apparently non-Semitic in origin and may even be pre-Sumerian". It is Sarna's belief that the Hebrew author of Genesis substituted "balal" for "Babel" as a pun. It is, however, my own belief that no pun was ever intended and that Babel came to mean "confusion" because the Biblical Confusion is said to have occurred at Babel.)
6. F.Josephus, op. cit., I:118. (Emphasis added).
7. L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (N.Y., 1956), Vol. I, pp. 84-85 (Emphasis added).
8. W. St. Chad Boscawen (trans), The World's Greatest Literature (N.Y., 1901), pp. 233-234.
9. See appended matrix.
10. H. and H. A. Whitaker, Studies in Neurolinguistics, Vol. I (N.Y., 1976), pp. 120-121 (Emphasis added).
11. J. Van Buren, C. L. Li, and G. Ojemann, "The Fronto-Striatal Arrest Response in Man," Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 21 (1966), p. 128 (Emphasis added).
12. M. A. Persinger, ELF and VLF Electromagnetic Field Effects (N.Y., 1974), p. 4 (Emphasis added).
13. Ibid., p. 276.
14. E. Gellhorn and G. N. Loofbourrow, Emotions and Emotional Disorders (N.Y., 1963), p. 314 (Emphasis added).
15. T. H. Gaster (ed.), Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (N.Y., 1969), p. 136 (Emphasis added).
16. L. Ginzberg, op. cit., p. 85.
17. G. Schaltenbrand, "The Effects on Speech and Language of Stereotactical Stimulation in Thalamus and Corpus Callosum," Brain and Language, 2 (1975), pp. 70-77 (Emphasis added).
18. (D. Cardona contends that the "toppling of the Tower" was an echo of the severing of the Saturnian Axis Mundi. L. E. Rose has also suggested an original link with the Age of Kronos; and "even if there was some later but similar project, at Babylon or elsewhere, [he suspects] that it was carried out in imitation of or even in commemoration of an Age of Kronos project". - (L. E. Rose, "Variations on a Theme of Philolaos, " KRONOS V:1, pp. 41, 37. -LMG) 19. M. A. Persinger, op. cit., p. 11 (Emphasis added).
20. Ovid, Metamorphoses, I:153-157. (Note: Translation used is by R. Humphries.)
21. T. H., Gaster, op. cit., p. 134. (NOTE: The "clay and bitumen" seem to suggest a Biblical influence.)
22. T. H. Gaster, op. cit., p. 133.
23. Ibid., p. 135 (Emphasis added).
24. L. Ginzberg, op. cit., p. 85.
25. (According to Cardona, the occurrence was a cosmic one - KRONOS VII:1 (Fall 1981), p. 81, n. 27 - and would thus have been witnessed from various localities simultaneously. He also believes that the Confusion itself would have affected only some of the eyewitnesses of this cosmic event. - LMG)
26. C. J. Ransom to J. E. Strickling, personal correspondence, August 1976.
27. See for instance, I. Velikovsky, Ramses II and His Time (N.Y., 1978), p. 102; A. de Grazia, Chaos and Creation (Bombay, 1981), pp. 211-213. (NOTE: It should be noted, however, that the Greek and Hittite myths, cited by Strickling above, attribute the destruction to Jove and Ea - i.e., Jupiter and Saturn. - DC) [In an unpublished essay on Mercury, Velikovsky had this to say: "Contemplating the role of this planet in the past, I came to the understanding that . . . there are indications that point toward Mercury's involvement in the catastrophe that is described in Genesis as the confusion of the builders of the Tower of Babel, something that in modern medical terms seems like a consequence of a deep electrical shock." - LMG]
28. (But see D. Cardona, "Jupiter - God of Abraham, " KRONOS VII:1 (Fall 1981), pp. 70, 81, n. 27; Cf. A. Parrot, The Tower of Babel (N.Y., 1955). - LMG)