Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Ghost Of Louise's Island (Part 1)

I normally don't do ghost stories, but the following has so much personal and nostalgic value to me that I knew I had to write about it sooner or later. What I am about to recount took place one summer night during the late 1990's, in my home town of Hillerød, Denmark. After a night of heavy drinking and partying the older brother of a friend, and a few of his buddies, "borrowed" a boat and sailed out to a creepy, old cabin, located on a small island in a nearby pond. Whether this idea came to them out of boredom or simply because all the local bars had closed (or they had been kicked out of them), no one remembers for sure. But the outcome of this little adventure changed their perception of reality forever.

Over the years I became more and more determined to some day document what took place that night on the island. 
Next after those who were actually there, you probably won't find anyone who were more affected by what happened than me. The basic story was related to me by my friend's brother within half an hour after the event, and for almost 20 years I have been re-telling it in closed circles, whenever the subject of Ghosts has come up. For a full exposé to be possible, however, I first of all had to collect and investigate the accounts of everyone who were there. Also, I wanted to unearth similar cases, both locally and globally, and even look towards finding a natural explanation. During the last couple of years I have been working on these and other angles, and now I finally feel that the story is ready to go public. 

Here then, begins tale of The Ghost of Louise's Island. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

The King, The Island & Its Cabin

Louise's Island is something of a legend in Hillerød, even though most locals don't know its name or the history connected to it. As you can probably imagine from the picture in the beginning of the post, the island with its picturesque wooden cabin can appear quite idyllic on a sunshiny day, but can also evoke a sense of eerieness and dread on a moonlit night when walking past it alone. Countless are the times that I have done exactly that, wondering what secrets it might hold. 

The mystique surrounding Louise's Island is greatly magnified by its immediate inaccessibility. Not only is it difficult to reach - it is permanently off limits to visitors. Believe me, the police will come down on you pretty hard if they catch you fooling around out there. A few years ago, by chance, I observed a couple of youngsters with sleeping bags out on the island, who had apparently planned on spending the night in the cabin. They had barely docked their boat before patrol officers were on the spot, commanding them through a large megaphone to get the *#&¤@ back. Nevertheless, I did actually manage to visit the cabin once myself in the early 90's, during a winter when the pond was frozen solid and you could walk across it. I don't remember so much from those days, but even though it was years before any tales of ghostly events, you couldn't have paid me enough to do a sleepover there - illegal or otherwise.

But what exactly is the real story behind Louise's Island? When I began looking closer into it, I quickly realized that none of the things I had heard about it throughout the years were true. Therefore, no matter what one may think of ghosts and the people who experience them, this part of the post alone will be of value in clearing up a fact or two. So let us first explore its background a bit, alongside some basics about the area.

Frederiksborg Castle, viewed from the east

Hillerød's landmark attraction is the famous Frederiksborg Castle. Every year tourists flock from all over the world to see and photograph this historic building, which in many ways is the heart of Hillerød, connecting different parts of the city with each other. The castle is visible from several miles away and one can only imagine how it must have appeared to approaching travellers in the days before tall, modern buildings, back when the local population was much more sparse. 

The first part of Frederiksborg Castle was constructed during the rule of King Frederik II in 1560, but was almost completely rebuilt during the rule of his son, Christian IV, in the period 1600-1625. A severe fire destroyed much of the castle in 1859 and it had to be reconstructed during the following years. By and large, the castle church interior was the only part that was spared from the flames, and consequently it still appears much as it did hundreds of years ago.

The Badstue "castle" viewed from the east

A mere stones throw from Frederiksborg Castle lies a pretty park area with a similar yet smaller building, which newcomers and the younger generations typically refer to as The Badstue Castle. For most of its existence, however, it went by its proper name, Badstuen ("The Bath House"). The reason that the word "castle" crept into everyday language, may be due to the fact that it resembles Frederiksborg so much, with its distinct Dutch rennaissance style. Nevertheless, it was built solely with the prospect of being a royal leisure house.

The first incarnation of Badstuen came to life in 1580-81, constructed on the order of Frederik II. The following years it served as a nearby refuge for the royal family and their closest circle of friends - a place where they could escape all the formalities of daily life on the castle. Besides this, the king would also use it as a lodge during hunting season. Badstuen maintained these functions until the late 18th century, when it it began taking on a more communal role. At one point it even became the residential quarters for former castle staff members.

Badstuen viewed from Frederiksborg Castle

 ...and vice versa

Around the middle of the 19th century, the king at the time, Frederik VII, decided to restore Badstuen to its former glory. Frederik VII was a controversial figure in many ways, largely because of his drunken antics (he was, by modern standards, a binge drinker, if not an outright alcoholic) and his morganatic marriage to Louise Danner

In 1848 Frederik and Louise Danner moved to Frederiksborg Castle because of the mounting pressures of daily life in Copenhagen. The castle and its surroundings quickly became Frederik's preferred sanctuary and over the next many years he spent as much time as possible in the area, indulging in his favorite pastimes. It certainly wasn't out of convenience that they settled down at Frederiksborg. The place was miles away from most of the king's practical duties and virtually impossible to heat up during winter, which resulted in several ailments for the couple and their aides. The fact that they nevertheless allowed themselves to suffer through this, indicates how much Frederik both loathed the capital and cherished Hillerød.

King Frederik VII and (Countess) Louise Danner. In 1849, when the freedom of press was instilled with the signing of the Danish Constitution, the two became subject of a huge, and at times bizarre, smear campaign. This is one of the reasons that they stayed so much at the remote Frederiksborg Castle

Regarding Badstuen, the refurbishment dragged on and it never became fully operational again during the king's lifetime. Parallel to this work, however, Frederik embarked on another local project which he did get to enjoy the completion of. First, he had a pond dug out in front of Badstuen, where up until that time one had only existed behind it. The new pond was named Badstuedammen (dam = pond). Secondly, the soil that was left over from its creation was used to establish a small piece of land in the middle of the old pond. The king named this Louise's Ø ("Ø" meaning Island), after his wife, and the old pond henceforth became known as Ødammen.

Badstuen and Ødammen with Louise's Island, viewed together from the northwest 

Not long after its creation, Frederik VII had a wooden cabin built on the island. This would come to serve as headquarters for another of his big interests: fishing. The cabin also became a convenient place for hosting intimate social gatherings, where the king and his guests could let off some steam without worrying about public exposure. There is a popular story about one of the king's island binges, involving a guest, who after having consumed inhuman amounts of champagne had to be smuggled back to his home in the middle of the night. The story further goes that he never woke up again, but even though many think this is an exaggeration, it illustrates the notoriety of the island cabin and what the public believed went on out there.

Frederik's cabin has often been referred to as a Svejtserhus ("Swiss house"), but this is a misconception. It is in fact distinctly Norwegian, in a style that is only found in the area of Østerdalen, Norway. Besides the cabin, Frederik had other structures built, including a boat house and a house made of flat stones known as Ishuset ("The Ice House"), which was used to keep food and drinks cool. The island is also home to another curious object, unknown to most and out of view from the mainland: A stone seat engraved with the king's monogram. Originally there was yet another stone on the island, which Frederik had erected in honor of Louise Danner, but this was long ago moved to the town of Jægerspris, where the king purchased another castle in 1854. 

Photo showing both the wood cabin and the boat house

The stone seat with a close-up of Frederik VII's monogram (Courtesy of John Nørgård Nielsen)

This appearance of stones, both on the island and other places Frederik frequented, seems in part related to his interest in archaeology. He was a pioneer of the field in Denmark and responsible for the excavation of several important ancient relics in Northern Zealand. He even wrote a celebrated, and at the time groundbreaking, treatise titled Om Bygningsmåden af Fortidens Jættestuer ("On The Building Method of Ancient Passage Tombs"). 

Finally, although there is no direct proof to back it up, it is actually not so far-fetched to speculate about past occult activities on the island. In fact, it was Frederik VII who introduced the so-called "Swedish system" of Freemasonry in Denmark, establishing a local chapter of the order - from which he attained the 8th and highest degree in 1852 - in the church of Frederiksborg Castle. The castle itself does not have any freemasonic symbolism or decorations to serve as memory of this, but Badstuen actually has quite a bit if you know where to look. So who knows what he at times might have taken with him to the cabin.

With this bit of background firmly in place, let us segway back into our story. 

The Encounter

As mentioned in the beginning, the ghostly episode we are about to delve into took place back in the late 1990's - most probably '97 or '98. I was at the home of my best friend, Jesper, at the time, and we had been up all night watching movies. Jesper and his older brother, Thomas, lived on the lower floor of their parents house, where they each had their own private quarters. However, their circles of friends overlapped to such a degree that everyone visiting would usually hang out together in Thomas' room (mainly because it was the largest).

Thomas worked at an exotic pet store and was a huge animal enthusiast, with a broad, self-taught knowledge about everything from spiders and lizards to monkeys and dogs. It was always interesting to spend time there and see what new critters he had added to his collection since the last visit. It also has to be said that us young whippersnappers looked up to Thomas and his peers quite a bit. They were the town's local skate punks, a seemingly fearless bunch who really knew how to have fun and party. When Jackass became popular some years later, I immediately recognized a lot of the elements from the Hillerød skater lifestyle.

Anyhow, whether we were sitting in Thomas' room that particular night/morning or not, I believe me and Jesper were the only people present. Perhaps there was another of our friends there too, it is possible. Regardless, the way I recall it is as follows: 

At some point Thomas came crashing home loudly and pulled the door open to where we were sitting. Instantly we knew something was wrong, as he stood there with a shocked facial expression like we never saw on him before or since. He told us that he had been running all the way from the castle area and that we wouldn't believe what he had just seen there. Excitedly we urged him to tell us what had happened and he proceeded to explain how he and a few others had been out boozing around downtown Hillerød, when they suddenly got the impulse to steal a boat docked at Slotssøen ("The Castle Lake"), in the area of Slotsgade (gade = street) just before the main entrance to the castle grounds. Their idea was to use it to sail out to Louise's Island (none of us knew it by its real name at the time - I think we just referred to it as "spooky island").

A more or less current Google street view photo, showing the area where Slotsgade meets Frederiksborg Castle at its main bridge. Back in the late 1990's a local boat-renting business kept their boats docked here.

In one way or another they managed to get the boat over to the Badstue area and from here sail across Ødammen, out to the island. When they reached its shore they docked and secured the boat thoroughly before inspecting the various buildings - while fooling around in a manner matching their current level of intoxication. The main purpose of the expedition had been to enter the cabin and see what was inside, and as I remember it Thomas said that they had succeeded, although there was nothing there to really get excited about. 

After a while they got bored and decided to row back, but to the shock of everyone, they discovered, when approaching the boat, that it had come loose from where they had tied it. It was now slowly drifting away from the island towards the mainland. Luckily they somehow managed get a hold of the rope and pull it back in the very last second, despite their panicked yet all of a sudden less drunk state of mind. But if that wasn't a sobering enough experience, what Thomas told us next certainly was.

As they began to maneuver and push the boat off the island shore, a fog surrounded them. Suddenly, one of the other guys stiffly grabbed Thomas' shoulder and looked at him with a speechless and horrified expression. At first Thomas didn't know what was wrong, but when he looked in the direction where his friend was pointing, his heart skipped a beat or two. A cloaked, ghostly figure was standing nearby, where there had been nothing just a minute earlier. And not only that, it seemed like it was watching them with malicious intent, as if threatening them to leave as soon as possible. 

Seeing the entity created even more panic in the group, of course, and they began rowing as fast as they could back to land. At this time the fog had almost completely engulfed the island and most of the pond, reaching the edge of the boat. However, no matter how thick it got, they could still see the haunting figure standing there observing them, as if it was making sure they would never return again. 

As soon as they reached land, they threw the boat aside and scattered in different directions without even saying goodbye to each other, Thomas running towards the eastern part of Hillerød where their house was located.

The classic "Newby Church Spectre" photo. This is more or less what I imagined the entity looked like, from Thomas' original description (Courtesy of Fortean Picture Library)

Jesper and I were of course floored by what Thomas had just told us, although Jesper certainly was a lot more sceptical of it than me. I am sure that we also got the story from one or more of the other guys at a later point (possibly one of them even arrived together with Thomas that morning) but I don't remember ever hearing any details that conflicted with Thomas' original account. But since it was so many years ago, my memory was kind of hazy and I was interested not only in hearing the story from Thomas once again, but from all those who were there. Did they all experience and remember the same details? Was it possible to link this to other ghost stories from the area? 

But before I could answer any of these questions, I first had to track everyone down. And that proved a little more difficult than first anticipated.

The Search

I knew for sure from the outset of my investigation, that besides Thomas there was a guy named Nick with him that night. As far as i remembered, Nick was actually the one who first spotted the ghostly entity. I also knew that at least 2 more persons were there, but initially I couldn't remember who. 

Talking to my old friend Jesper about it didn't bring about much, since he only remembered the basic outline of the incident and never had an interest in these topics in the first place. Via Jesper I did get the phone number of Thomas, but for the longest time he never answered my calls, even though i tried at regular intervals. By complete chance, it would instead be Nick that I got in contact with first. About 1½ year ago, another old friend notified me that he had seen him on TV, advertising for his new company. I looked up the company name online and through the webpage I found Nick's phone number and called him right away. 

Nick was of course surprised to hear from me, but he remembered me quite well from back in the days. Most importantly, he was willing to tell me his version of the story. I got his account over the phone during that first call and then later in the form of a written summary. I asked Nick if he was still in contact with Thomas, but he told me that they didn't meet up as often as in the old days. He promised he would tell him to contact me, though. A few weeks later I managed to finally get through to Thomas, and we talked the experience through for well over an hour. I even visited the Badstue area with him a few days later, in order to perhaps stir up some latent memories of the event. This proved very valuable for understanding some of the finer details, as we shall see later.

After speaking with both Nick and Thomas, it became clear to me that their recollection of events were by and large as i remembered them. But there were details that I had either missed, forgotten, or which became clear only in retrospect. One major point of uncertainty was who else was there with them that night. Both were quite sure that they were four people in total, but could not remember who the other two were either. After going back and forth about it a few times, we came to the temporary conclusion that at least one of Thomas and Nick's closest and oldest friends, Olsen, had to have been there as well. I kept that option on the backburner, trying to contact Olsen and confirm it, while I tried to figure out who the fourth person was. 

Thomas thought it could have been one of their other very close childhood friends, Simon, who I had actually completely forgotten about. But now that his name was brought up it seemed a very real possibility that he could be the one, so I immedialy looked him up on Facebook and wrote him a message. Some days later I got a reply from Simon, stating that although he indeed remembered the story, since it had made quite an impression on him too, he could say with great certainty that he wasn't the person I was looking for. So the search continued.

Somewhere along the way, I think while waiting for a reply from Simon, I got a very strong notion about who the fourth person was. In fact, even if Simon had told me he was there that night I would still not have been completely satisfied that I had found everyone involved, and would have pursued the option that someone had come along as a "fifth wheel". The someone I was thinking of was a guy named Niels (called "Niels West" because he came from the western part of town), who was kind of loosely connected to Thomas and the rest of the skaters, but mainly associated with a different and more "respectable" group of people. Thomas and his friends mostly came from Hillerød East, but they would occasionally hang out with Niels and skate or get drunk together in the city, so it was not out of the question that he could have tagged along.

When I presented this idea to Thomas and Nick they were somewhat reluctant, but admitted that Niels could indeed have been there. In retrospect, I think that Thomas might even have mentioned it back then, but the reason that I remembered him was because he himself probably told me the story some time afterwards. I eventually tracked Niels down last year too, and lo and behold: he not only admitted to being there, but gave me an account that was sufficiently close to Thomas and Nick's to assure me that he was in fact telling the truth - at least as he remembers it.

Then, a few months ago, I managed to get in touch with the last person in the whole ordeal, Olsen. He also proved without a doubt that he was there that night, and had a pretty good memory of what happened. Now I could finally piece together all the accounts, and work towards a deeper analysis of the case. But before I take the next step and write up my results in a "part 2", I hope that the responses to this post may provide me with further information that i can use.

Until then, pleasant screams


Andreassen, Lene: Frederiksborg Slot - Kongeborg og Museum. Poul Kristensen Forlag (1987)

Badstuen ved Frederiksborg. Illustreret Tidende, vol. 21 (1879-80)

Berg, Asger: Frederik 7.'s Stensæde i Hillerød Lokalhistoriske Forening årg. 29, vol.3 (2014)

Erichsen, John: Drømmen om Norge - Norske Huse i Danmark Gennem 250 år. Christian Ejlers Forlag (1999)

Holm-Nielsen, Eva: Louiseøen in Lokalhistorisk Forening i Hillerød Kommune, No. 1 (1997)

Mikkelsen, Birger: Konge til Danmark - En biografi af Frederik VII. Nordisk Forlag for Videnskab og Teknik. 1982

Paulsen, Jørgen: Badstuen ved Frederiksborg in Folk og Minder fra Nordsjælland, 40. årgang (1985)

Prytz, Signe: Frederik VII og Nordsjælland. Rud Pallesen A/S (1966)

Uhrskov, Anders (ed.): Hillerødbogen. Hillerød Byraad (1948)

Wamberg, Bodil: Grevinden - Et portræt af Grevinde Danner. Aschehoug (2005)

Westengaard, Erik H.: Badstuen ved Frederiksborg Slot - Stuk og Frimurersymboler in Acta Masonica Scandinavica vol. 6 (2003)

Westengaard, Erik H & Madsen, Peter L.: Vel dækket og bevogtet - om Frederik VII som Frimurer. Sankt Johanneslogen Frederik VII Hillerød (1996)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Identified Box-like Objects (Part 2)

In my previous post I demonstrated how boxes with mysterious and supernatural qualities show up in ancient myths from all over the world. Judging from the many examples I and others have found it is probably an element that has appeared in most storytelling traditions, at one point or another. Having said that, it seems as if there are certain geographical areas where these stories are more prevalent than others. And even though the stories share many of the same qualities, there are also locally specific details that seperate them from each other.

The pursuit of ancient mystery boxes continues here, with examples from both the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious traditions.

What's in an Ark

Much of my fascination with mystery boxes comes from watching Raiders of the Lost Ark at a very young age. Particularly the scene where Indiana Jones' arch-nemesis Belloq opens the Ark of the Covenant and brings doom upon himself and his nazi collaborators, made a huge impression on me as a child. Looking deeper into the subject, I quickly realized that a complete overview of the many legends surrounding the Ark of the Covenant was impossible to fit into a single post. Still, I have attempted to untangle a few threads and uncover some select details, in order to better place the Ark within the broader "tradition" of mystery boxes. 

The word 'ark' is derived from the latin 'arca', meaning "box" or "chest" and is also the root of the word "arcane". An entry from Biderman's Dictionary of Symbolism (1994:66) provides some further information:

ARK. chest (Latin cista, Greek kiste) A box-like container, corresponding also to the Latin area (see ARK). The mystic chest of Dionysus (see Bacchus) - probably a basket rather than a wooden chest - was filled with symbolic objects and carried by special priests known as kistophoroi; when the mysteries of Dionysus were celebrated, a snake emerged from it. The image of Demeter (Latin, Ceresas worshipped in the Eleusinian mysteries shows the goddess seated on a chest. In the Roman period the cista became a general symbol for esoteric mystical religions. The anatomical meaning of the English word "chest" is an extension of this same etymology.

The above resonates somewhat with what is told about the Ark of The Covenant in the Old Testament, where its dimensions, materials and contents are listed in great detail. In the Book of Exodus, the Ark is described as a gold plated, oblong box made of Shittah (acacia) wood, adorned with two golden cherubs. God ordered Moses to construct the Ark at the bottom of mount Sinai, for the purpose of storing the stone tablets containing the ten commandments. But another item that was put inside it was the Staff of Aaron, which is said to have had the ability to turn into a serpent. This proves an interesting link to one of the main themes from my previous post. It is probably not a complete coincidence that the "reptilian" King Cecrops came from Egypt and quite possibly lived during the same time as Moses.

Erichthonius of Athens depicted in an "ark" ritual, that very likely was "imported" from Egypt. In some way this probably also served as the foundation of the later myth of Erichthonius and the three daughters of Cecrops (courtesy of Ove von Spaeth).

Following its creation, the Ark was carried back and forth between many different locations for a period of over 500 years, demonstrating many miraculous (and, quite frankly, horrifying) feats along the way, before finally being placed in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. This is the last time it is mentioned in the Old Testament. It is only briefly referred to in the New Testament  - once in Revelation 11:19 and once in Hebrews 9:4, but neither of these sources provide any further details.

Theories abound regarding what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. The general, scholarly opinion seems to be that it was lost during the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 587. B.C., if not earlier. Many Jews, on the other hand, believe that the Ark is still in Jerusalem, stored somewhere underneath the city - perhaps under the Dome of The Rock. The plot in Raiders of the Lost Ark builds on the idea that the Ark was stolen from Solomon's Temple and taken to Egypt by a Pharaoh named Shishak, in the beginning of the first millennium, B.C. The Bible does indeed mention a Shishak and his brutal attack on Jerusalem, however, the Ark is not listed among the items he is said to have stolen. This seems like a curious neglect as it would have been considered the greatest of all the Hebrew treasures. Several hypotheses have also been put forward regarding the true identity of Shishak, but most mainstream egyptologists seem to believe that he was really Pharaoh Shoshenq I, who reigned from 943-922 B.C.

A still from Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. The plot of the movie is the quest to find Pandora's Box, but the Greek myth is greatly expanded upon and even changed to the point where it seems to be more inspired by the story of Shishak and the Ark. Here, another (fictional) Pharaoh finds the box/ark and brings it to Africa. All in all an interesting example of different mythical-religious elements morphing together within a modern context.

One of the most widespread hypotheses about the Ark of The Covenant's whereabouts derives from the 700+ year old Ethiopian text known as the Kebra Nagast. An account within it states that the Ark was stolen from Solomon's Temple but brought instead to Ethiopia - not by Shishak/Shoshenq but by Menelik I, the lovechild of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (known as Makeda to Ethiopians and claimed in the Kebra Nagast to be of Ethiopian descent, although this is widely disputed). The popularity of this particular notion is largely due to Graham Hancock's The Sign and the Seal, in which he investigates and documents the many clues about the Ark's presence in Ethiopia. 

What Hancock discovered during his research was something largely unknown outside of Eastern Africa at the time, namely that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes it has the Ark of The Covenant (known to followers as the Tabota Zion). It is supposedly kept inside a small sanctuary in the town of Axum where it has been under the protection of a long line of carefully selected guardians for centuries. While it is easy enough to locate the sanctum (adjacent to the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum), the Ark itself may only be looked upon by select members of the priesthood and its current guardian. Even catching a glimpse of the guardian himself is considered a rarity as he spends almost all his appointed time within the sanctum walls.

The Chapel of The Tablet in Axum, Ethiopia, where the Ark of The Covenant is allegedly stored and guarded 24/7.

Although the claimed-to-be-true Ark is not viewable for the lay person, there is still a way to observe it by proxy, since every Ethiopian Orthodox Church is said to house an exact replica of it (This is also the case with many other churches, as well as several synagogues, masonic lodges and even Shinto shrines, by the way, although measures and materials differ). The Ethiopian replication practice was supposedly initiated many years ago to create confusion about the location of the True Ark. It has since become an important symbol for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and every year there are large ceremonies where these replicas, known as Tabots, are carried around for all to see. What the ceremonies reveal, however, is that the Ethiopian ark-replicas are much smaller than what is described in the Old Testament. In fact they are closer to a square or cube in form and are usually made up of slabs of wood or stone. The reason for this, Hancock eventually concluded, was that "Tabot" really refers to the most important interior of the Ark, the stone tablets, despite the original meaning of the word.

A ritual with senior religious authorities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church carrying a Tabot

A Shinto Omikoshi ritual, very similar to that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Some Shintoists believe that the Ark of The Covenant was moved to Japan after it disappeared from Jerusalem. This is a good example of how widespread ark-lore really is and how different cultures lay claim to it's possession.

From Ark to Ark

Intrinsic to the story of the Ark of The Covenant is the story of Moses himself. Many people have an idea about who Moses was, but the full picture goes far beyond the image of Charleston Heston in The Ten Commandments. One of the leading scholars into the life of Moses is Danish researcher Ove von Spaeth, who has spent half a lifetime or more uncovering the occult roots of this enigmatic figure. Von Spaeth has found evidence which suggests that Moses was an initiate of the Egyptian mystery cults pointing, among other things, to the fact that The Ark of the Covenant is very similar to certain ritual chests used by these groups at the time. The chests were especially popular in the main city of ancient Egypt, Thebes. 'Thebes' is derived from the Hebrew tebah and the Greek taibe, both meaning 'ark’, or 'chest". And yes, the Ethiopian word tabot has its roots here too. 

A ritual chest being carried in a depiction of an ancient egyptian religious ceremony in Thebes, very similar in style to that of the Ark of the Covenant.

The story of baby Moses, who was found drifting along the Nile in a basket has all the traits of a royal initiation ceremony that was consistently practiced in ancient Egypt, as well as in other early civilizations. In these rituals it was common practice to place a young boy inside a floatable container and send it down a river, in order to formally establish them as successors to the throne. But the episode can also be viewed as another aspect of the mystery religions. One of Ove von Spaeth's most interesting findings in this connection, is that the episode with Moses on the Nile was part of an astro-magical ritual, as it happened at a time when both the sun and the moon passed the axis mundiIn the Rabbinic literature Moses is literally mentioned as found floating around inside a chest or a little ship, which correlates with the Carina (Keel of a ship) and Eridanus (river) constellations, that are located at the very root of the axis mundi. Graham Hancock also discusses the etymological link between the words ark and ship in The Sign and the Seal. Furthermore, Hancock mentions the tradition of interpreting the Ark as a symbol of the womb of Mary, adding yet another dimension to the overall picture. 

The symbolism of water, birth and change connects the story of the Ark of the Covenant with another ark that plays an important role in the Old Testament. In fact, the word Tebah is used twice here to describe a shiplike container: once in reference to Moses' vessel on the Nile and once in reference to Noah's Ark. Ove von Spaeth also points out a very interesting fact here: that Noah and his family drifted around for 40 weeks (or 9 months, the duration of a pregnancy cycle). Also, in the Babylonian tradition from which the story comes, it was common to use large chests to symbolize the relationship between the earth and the sky. 

With Noah's Ark we have another good example of how popular representations end up overshadowing the original, written word. But where Pandora's box went from originally being a jar to eventually becoming a box, almost the opposite is the case with the ark. In the Old Testament Noah's Ark is mainly described as having box-like dimensions, and in early illustrations, for example those found in the Roman catacombs, it is shown as an elongated, box-shaped object, often like a case or chest. During medieval times this image morphed slowly into that of a floating house which became firmly established as the main symbol of the church. Things changed again during the Renaissance, when artists began depicting the ark as a boat in the manner we know today. I have included a few examples that illustrate this development below, but a more detailed evolution of the art of Noah's Ark can be seen here.

This image found on the 6th century A.D.Tunisian Kélibia baptismal font is thought by some scholars to be an early depiction of Noah's Ark. As an interesting side note, the first thing Noah brought onto the ark was a golden box containing the Book of Raziel

Noah and his family in the ark, from a 14th century stained glass panel, originally part of the Marienkirche in Frankfurt, Germany. The image shows the common depiction of the Ark at the time as being more akin to a house. 

A Different Kind of Ark

A famous islamic example of a box with extraordinary qualities is of course the Ka'bah or Kaaba (literally: cube), the huge, grey, cube-shaped granite stone, covered in black robes which stands at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. From observing the swarms of people clinging frantically to the Kaaba during Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages one might get the impression that the structure itself is an object of worship. This is of course not the case. It is, however, considered as the center of the world (the axis mundi again) and the holiest of places in Islam. The Kaaba is also said to symbolize the end of the final cycle of creation, being the essence of "the city" in its most geometrically pure form (although in reality it is irregular by more than one meter on two of its sides and therefore not really a perfect cube). In the Quran it is told that the original foundation for the Kaaba was laid by Adam, but that later construction on the site was done by Ibrahim (Abraham), together with his wife Hagar and son Ismail. In any case, we know that it has been damaged and reconstructed many times since then, so it is not really possible to know its original form.

During the time of Mohammed, up until his occupation of Mecca in 629 A.D., the Kaaba functioned as a shrine of worship to a multitude of deities (no less than 360 different religious idols is said to have stood in its immediate vicinity). Not only the worship of multiple gods, but also the decadent rituals that went along with it, was a huge thorn in the eye of Mohammed. It was in fact the main focal point of his proselytizing while he was still living in Mecca, and the opposition he met for doing so eventually forced him to flee the city. This is also why his later abolishment of polytheism in the area around the Kaaba has huge symbolic value in Islam. It is a story that is often brought up when muslims talk about their beliefs, and in effect it was the event that brought legitimacy to Islam.

The Kaaba, or "Sacred House". In Islam, the Kaaba stands at the center of the world and is considered the true place of worship of the One God and the ultimate enclosure of the divine presence of Allah - "a sanctuary consecrated to god since time immemorial" (Glassë:2007, 276) - to which all muslims direct their daily prayers. 

The main ritual connected with pilgrimages to Mecca is the Tawaf, which is a counter-clockwise procession that visitors make around the Kaaba, performed for 7 successive rounds. The rotation has been likened to that of a moving galaxy, but this idea does have some scientific problems and is also not officially accepted by Islamic scholars. Ove von Spaeth mentions what seems like an interesting parallel to the Tawaf ritual. When the Ark of the Covenant was used to bring down the walls of Jericho it was also carried around the city for 7 days (7 times on the 7th day).

The Tawaf ritual always begins in the south-eastern corner of the Kaaba where the famous al-Hajar al-Aswad or "Black Stone" is located. Muslims are encouraged to kiss the stone or otherwise engage in direct physical contact with it, but this is often impossible due to the large masses of people at the pilgrimages (considered to be among the largest gatherings in the world). 

The Black Stone itself was also worshipped by various groups of pre-islamic, Arab tribes and has a long and complicated history. The earliest mention of it within an islamic context is not in the Quran, but in a hadith, where Mohammed talks of it as having come down from paradise. Later, it was revealed to Ibrahim via the archangel Jibril (Gabriel). Over the years there have been many scientific theories about its origin. One of the more popular of these is that it indeed is a remnant of something non-earthly, namely a meteorite. Today, however, most geologists seem to believe that it has a more earthly origin. But there is really no way of knowing for sure without a direct sampling of the stone, which is not likely to happen anytime soon. 
There are many pre-islamic examples, particularly within the Semitic tradition, of worshipping stones said to have fallen from the sky, too. An extraterrestrial origin has even been attributed to the stone tablets with the ten commandments. So the role of the Black Stone in Islam can be seen as a modification of a much older tradition.

There certainly are a lot similarities between the Kaaba and the Ark of The Covenant when you add it all together. There are even theories floating around that the Ark is hidden inside the Kaaba and that this is why non-muslims arent allowed to enter. It is possible to find several videos on YouTube that are filmed inside the Kaaba, although none of them show anything that looks like an Ark.

Finally, the Kaaba has been attributed to certain feminine aspects, echoing another, earlier point in this post. Undeniably, there are certain distinct features about the way the Black Stone is presented on the Kaaba that wouldn't just make seasoned Freudians pause and take notes. I will simply end this post with a picture of the stone, along with a short passage about the earlier use of the Kaaba, and let people draw their own conclusions about to what I am hinting at.

Goddesses played an important role in pre-Islamic Arabian religion and mythology. Manat, Allat (al-Lat, "the Goddess"), and al-Uzza are all mentioned in the Qur'an (53:19-22). Manat was worshiped in Qudayd, near Mecca, and in northern Arabia. She was a goddess of rain, health, victory, and destiny and was particularly honored during the pre-Islamic pilgrimages to the Kabah. Allat was popular in Taif, also close to Mecca. There she was represented by a large flat stone and smaller precious stones kept in a wooden box. .(Leeming:2005, 122).

Main sources

  • Biderman, Hans: Dictionary of Symbolism - Cultural Icons and the Meaning Behind Them. Plume (1994)
  • Campo, Juan E. Encyclopedia of Islam. Facts on File (2009)
  • Cirlot, J.E.: A Dictionary of Symbols (Second Edition). Philosophical Library (1971)
  • Coleman. J.A.: The Dictionary of Mythology - An A-Z Of Themes, Legends And Heroes. Arcturus Publishing Ltd. (2007)
  • Glassé, Cyril: The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (Third Edition). Stacy International (2008)
  • Green, Alana Abadessa (ed.): The Sync Book: Myths, Magic, Media, and Mindscapes: 26 Authors on Synchronicity. Sync Book Press (2011)
  • Green, Alana Abadessa (ed.): The Sync Book 2: Outer + Inner Space, Shadow + Light: 26 Essays on Synchronicity. Sync Book Press (2012) 
  • Hall, James & Clark, Kenneth: Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Westview Press (2007) 
  • Hancock, Graham: The Sign and The Seal - A Quest for the Lost Ark of The Covenant. Arrow (1993)
  • Jensen, Robin M. Living Water - Images, Symbols and Settings of Early Christian Baptism. Brill Publsihing (2011)
  • Kebra Nagast - The Queen of Sheba and Her Only Son Menelyk (translated by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge). In Parentheses Publications (2000) 
  • Luingman, Carl G.: Dictionary of Symbols. W. W. Norton & Company (1995)
  • Mercante, Anthony S. & Dow, James R.: The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend. Facts on File (2008)
  • Morgan, Diane: Gemlore - Ancient Secrets and Modern Myths from the Stone Age to the Rock Age. Greenwood Press (2008) 
  • Schwartz, Howard: Tree of Souls - The Mythology of Judaism. Oxford University Press (2007)
  • Tresidder, Jack: The Illustrated Guide to More Than 1,000 Symbols - Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. Friedman (2000)
  • Von Spaeth, Ove: Tempelridderne og Moses Skjulte Skat. Zenith IC (2012)
  • Von Spaeth, Ove: De Fortrængte Optegnelser - Attentatet På Moses. Zenith IC (1999)

...and special thanks to Ove von Spaeth.