March 19, 2021

B is for Babel

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Once upon a time all the humans in the world were united.  They were also ambitious, and decided to build a tower tall enough to reach Heaven.  God, seeing their progress, felt threatened, and confounded their speech so that now they spoke the whole variety of the world’s languages, making them unable to communicate and continue their building project.  Thus the people scattered all around the world, and the Tower of Babel was abandoned.
        Theologically, I find the idea that God would deliberately sow division among happy, cooperating people to be downright blasphemous!  (Especially since any details about their hubris and attacks on God do not appear in the Bible and were later additions by writers who, presumably like me, felt that God’s actions in the story needed a little more justification.)  Better to understand this simply as an etiological myth explaining why people speak different languages.  Sumerian, Greek, several different Native American peoples, and some African peoples all have various myths about people trying to build as high as heaven, and being thwarted by the gods, sometimes with a confusion of languages, and sometimes just with grievous bodily harm.  As for the Biblical story in Genesis 11, it never says that the incomplete tower is destroyed, but later tradition generally holds that God did destroy it.
        The Tower of Babel was built on the plain of Shinar, of fired bricks held together with mortar, and its association with Babylon means that most people nowadays picture it in the style of a ziggurat, a sort of terraced pyramid-shaped structure, rather than what we now think of as a proper tower.  Clearly the base of the structure would have had to cover quite a few square miles in order to support a dwindling series of levels tall enough to reach the sky.  One nice detail appears in a text from around the second century, which suggests that the tower did actually make it all the way to Heaven, whereupon the people tried to drill into Heaven with a gimlet to see what it was made of.  It’s understandable that God would be irritated by this petty vandalism, although it might also be possible to admire the spirit of scientific inquiry.
        Culturally, although the Tower of Babel gets only a few verses in the Bible, it has resonated so strongly through history that it’s one of the better-known Biblical references today.  We seem fascinated by numerous aspects of the story:

- the ambition that strives to make the biggest, tallest, best…

- the confusion of languages and the difficulty of understanding others

- the thin line between our capacity to accomplish great things when we cooperate, and our capacity to let our individuality be subsumed as mere cogs in the machines of tyrants

        So great is the popularity of this subject with artists through the ages that I had a tough time narrowing down to a manageable number to share with you today.  In keeping with my usual predilections, I decided to give preference to relief block prints, but I’m starting with a medieval illumination.  I wanted to be sure to include this because medieval depictions of the story are a fantastic source of information for historians, since they usually show contemporary building techniques.  In this one you can see mortar being mixed on the ground and sent up to the top in a bucket on one side of the tower, while a block is winched up on the other side.  Skilled laborers work on the fine stonework off to the side.  (A nice little detail is the worker on the top looking up at Heaven to find God looking back.  Uh oh!)  Next is a wood block print from the seventeenth century showing similar building techniques, but now with scaffolding, too.  (In my selection of relief prints I had to leave out the world’s most famous painting of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1563.  If you’re not familiar with it you should definitely take a moment and check it out.  It’s epic.)
        Next up are two etchings from Athanasius Kircher’s 1679 book about the Tower, in which he attempted to reconcile modern science and the Biblical story.  He calculated whether there would be enough people in the world, post-flood, to take on such a monumental building project, and he discussed the linguistic issues of how the languages had been confounded and then dispersed, to explain his understanding of current language families.  He also explained that such a tower could never have been physically possible to complete as a) there wouldn’t be enough building materials on Earth to reach the heavens (defined as the distance to the moon), and b) even if you could build it that high, it would throw the earth completely out of equilibrium and cause total devastation.  I love Kircher so much!
        As for my own favorite depiction, I never tire of Escher, and here he has worked his magic by showing us a Gods-eye view.  The people have stopped work to expostulate with each other, gesticulating as they suddenly discover that they can no longer understand or make themselves understood.  And finally an Expressionistic illustration that focusses on the people fleeing the unfinished Tower in horror and dismay.  I find it interesting that they all seem to be fleeing off in one direction together, rather than dispersing in all different directions.
        The MORAL of the Tower of Babel: If you can’t convince them, confuse them.
              OR:  Why can’t all those gol-durn furriners just speak proper American?
        So, what do you think of the idea of a universal language spoken by everyone in the world?  Good, bad, or ambivalent?

[Pictures: The building of the Tower of Babel, illumination from Weltchronik, c 1370 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bouw van de toren van Babel (Building of the Tower of Babel), woodcut by Christoffel van Sichem from a design by Hans Holbein, 1645 (Image from Rijksmuseum);

Two engravings by Coenraet Decker from Turris Babel by Athanasius Kircher, 1679 (Images from Internet Archive);

The Tower of Babel, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1928 (Image from ArtHive);

Tower of Babel, linocut by Stanislaw Kubicki, 1917 (Image from Wejman Gallery).]


Olga Godim said...

My favorite Tower of Babel images are the two by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. You could find them both on wikipedia.
This is one:
And this is another:

Lisa said...

I never even thought about your incredible point of sowing discord among happily cooperative peoples! A universal language? It would have to something entirely new. The western world (let's just say America) would want it to be English of course, that that wouldn't be fair! Too many of "us" already feel like all Americans should speak English or they aren't American. Not true! What we need is to accept and respect and let everyone speak what they want! I don't think it would be as confusing as the bible story!

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I never really liked this story. I do love the images, though.

The Multicolored Diary

JadeLi said...

I can see the light and the shadow of everyone speaking one language.

I also think that the people in control (church leaders) would have an interest in giving common communication a negative spin.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Lisa, I definitely agree that having one language is no good if it's because people are forced into it.

Zalka, I don't like the story much, either. But that just makes it more interesting that cultures around the world have come up with some similar tales.

Jade, in a mystery you always want to ask "Who benefits?" In this case, maybe the church/political leaders?

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I've always enjoyed the story about the tower of Babel. A universal language? Even when several people speak English, they don't understand what the other is saying...

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Black Sun

Wes Ikezoe said...

Excellent and informative as always. I am surprised you didn't also include Brigadoon for "B". Perhaps sometime in the next 100 years.

J-Dub said...

This one scared me as a kid.

Gunilla (galeriaredelius) said...

This is a fascinating story, and it was interesting to see the illustrations from different eras, I've never paid attention to building techniques and such things. I'm a language geek so I am really happy that there are different languages, but it's also practical that there are a few languages (like f ex English) that are widely known.
I believe our language is part of our identity, and every language has a culture attached to it. The worst thing you can do is to forbid or take someone's language away, that is bound to create resilience and increase conflict. Who is willing to give up their own language?