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KRONOS Vol VIII, No. 1

THE TOWER OF BABEL AND THE CONFUSION OF TONGUES

JAMES E. STRICKLING

"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of an the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." -

Genesis 11: 1-9

1. Introduction

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:

". . . but He [God] created discord among them by making them speak different languages, through the variety of which they could not understand one another."(2)

This belief still prevails - even among those who reject the historicity of the event - as evidenced by Isaac Asimov's words:

"However, God defeated their purpose by giving each man a different language, making it impossible for them to understand each other."(3)

Also:

"The mythical story of its [Tower of Babel's] construction . . . appears to be an attempt to explain the existence of diverse human languages."(4)

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.

"And the whole earth was of one language, and one speech . . . Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech . . . Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth . . ."(5)

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:

"This tower and the confusion of the tongues of men are mentioned also by the Sibyl in the following terms: 'When all men spoke a common language, certain of them built an exceeding high tower, thinking thereby to mount to heaven. But the gods sent winds against it and overturned the tower and gave to every man a peculiar language; whence it comes that the city was called Babylon'."(6)

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:

". . . none [that is, not a single person] knew what the other spoke. One would ask for the mortar, and the other handed him a brick . . ."(7)

A turn-of-the-century translation of the Assyro-Babylonian account, the oldest known extrabiblical account, makes no allusion to new languages:

". . . Babylon corruptly to sin went and small and great mingled on the mound.
The King of the holy mound . . .
In front and Anu lifted up . . . to the good god his father...
Then his heart also . . . which carried a command . . .
At that time also . . . he lifted it up . . .
Their (work) all day they founded to their stronghold in the night entirely an end he made.
In his anger also the secret counsel he poured out to scatter (abroad) his face he set he gave a command to make strange their speech.
. . . their progress he impeded . . .
In (that day) he blew and . . .
For future time the mountain . . .
Nu-nam-nir went . . . Like heaven and earth he spake.
His ways they went . . .
Violently they fronted against him.
He saw them and to the earth (descended).
When a stop he did not make of the gods . . .
Against the gods they revolted . . . violence . . .
Violently they wept for Babylon very much they wept . . ."(8)

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".

"Application of an electric current across a group of neurons elicits both excitatory and inhibitory effects . . . Vocalization can be evoked by electrical stimulation of the motor strip, but these vocalizations are never words. Spontaneous language has not been evoked from cortical stimulation. Rather, cortical stimulation seems to act on such complex behaviour as language as though it were introducing noise into the system. The brain apparently does not have time to compensate for this sudden burst of noise, so its introduction at any point in the complex system involved in language production may interfere with ultimate performance . . . The period of disruption of function is, in large measure, temporary."(10)

"The 'arrest response' produced by [electrical] stimulation in the [brain's] posterior frontal region . . . consists in the arrest of voluntary movement and may show additional features such as post-stimulation confusion, inappropriate or garbled speech, overt mood changes . . ."(11)

The elicitation of such effects is not restricted to direct electrical stimulation. For instance:

"ELF [extremely low frequency] electromagnetic fields and waves may be important biological stimuli because of their penetrability and long distance propagation . . . their frequencies and intensities are within the ranges of processes generated by living organisms."(12)

". . . diffuse behaviours, such as ambulation or emotional responses, which are controlled by a variety of environmental stimuli, have been reported to vary as a function of ELF electric or magnetic field application."(13)

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:

"The Wa-Sania of British East Africa say that of old all the tribes of the earth knew only one language, but that during a severe famine the people went mad and wandered in all directions, jabbering strange words, and so the different languages arose."(15)

Hebrew legend suggests another unusual aspect of the phenomenon, reflecting the incomprehensible disorientation associated with the Tower's site:

"The place of the tower has never lost its peculiar quality. Whoever passes it forgets all he knows."(16)

And again, from our own time:

"A . . . phenomenon during thalamic [electrical] stimulation is monosyllabic yells and exclamations . . . which seem to be utterances of surprise, fright, or pain . . . Most of the patients who produced [such] speech were unable to recollect what was said or that anything had been said, though they are conscious immediately after the end of the stimulation."(17)

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.

". . . one can infer that ELF and VLF signals with wave characteristics have their origin almost exclusively in lightning strokes, even though relationships to disturbances in the earth's magnetic field as well as the ionosphere and more outward layers are known."(19)

In our legends we find at least two references to the destruction of the Tower by lightning. From the Old World:

"Giants attacked the very throne of Heaven, Piled Pelion on Ossa, mountain on mountain Up to the very stars. Jove struck them down With thunderbolts, and the bulk of those huge bodies Lay on the earth . . ."(20)

And from the New World:

"In Mexico, it is told of the great pyramid of Cholula that once upon a time certain giants aspired to build out of clay and bitumen a tower which would reach to heaven, so that they might enjoy from the top of it the spectacle of the rising and setting sun. When, however, they had reared it as high as they could, the inhabitants of heaven, at the bidding of their overlord, came down to all four quarters of the earth, overthrew the structure by a thunderbolt, and scattered the builders in all directions."(21)

There are two other possible allusions to lightning.

"The Njamwezi of Tanganyika [say that the] Valengo, a large family which lived in primeval times, decided one day to build a tower to heaven. For several months they worked assiduously on the project, until at last it seemed to be nearing completion. Thereupon they summoned all their sons and grandsons to witness the crowning moment. Suddenly, however, a storm burst from the sky and overturned the structure. The Valengo were killed to the last man . . ."(22)

And from the Hittites:

". . . the god Kumarbi, at odds with the reigning sovereign of heaven, engendered a monstrous creature, Ullikummi, who grew up miraculously in the form of a stone pillar and, mounted on the shoulder of a subaqueous giant, tried to rock the floor of heaven and topple the gods from their thrones. In this case too, however, the impious effort proved abortive, for the god Ea severed the monster from his support by means of a magic cleaver [electrical discharge?], and he crashed forthwith to his doom."(23)

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:

"As for the unfinished tower, a part sank into the earth, and another part was consumed by fire; only one-third of it remained standing."(24)

6. Conclusion

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)

APPENDIX

Frequency Distribution of Elements on Which the Accounts Are Based
(From a sample of 32)

Artificial Structure Natural Structure No Reference Total
Confusion* 4 1 1 6
New Languages 4 2 8 14
No Reference 12** 0** - 12
TOTAL 20 3 9 32
* No specific reference to new languages.
** An extensive search of myths for this element has not been made.

Bibliography for the Appended Matrix

  • Genesis 11:1-9.
  • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities I:109-121, trans. by H. St. J. Thackeray.
  • W. St. Chad Boscawen (trans.), The World 's Greatest Literature (N.Y., 1901), pp. 233-234.
  • T. H. Gaster (ed.), Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (N.Y., 1969), pp. 132-138.
  • L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (N.Y., 1956), Vol. I, pp. 84-85.
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, I:153-157.
  • E. E. Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest (Los Angeles, 1960), pp. 43, 138-141.
  • Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, 1959), pp. 438, 440.
  • B. Nelson, The Deluge Story in Stone (Minneapolis, 1931), pp. 183-187.

REFERENCES

1. The frequencies of these themes are tabulated in 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)

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