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.