Mercury and The Tower of Babel

The Book of Genesis traces the origin of the nations to an event that took place in the age subsequent to the great Deluge:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. ... And they said to one another ... 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 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: they left off to build the city.

The builders of the Tower of Babel, according to some sources, were motivated by the fear of a world conflagration.(1)

The tradition that fire from heaven destroyed the tower is also a feature of some of the Meso-American accounts, as in the legend recorded by Pedro de los Rios concerning the foundation of the pyramid of Cholula in Mexico. After the waters of the Deluge had receded, one of the survivors came to Cholula, where he began to build a large structure. "It was his purpose to raise the mighty edifice to the clouds, but the gods, offended at his presumption, hurled the fire of heaven down on the pyramid, many of the workmen perished, and the building remained unfinished."(2)

In reporting this legend, G. Frazer adds that "It is said that at the time of the Spanish conquest the inhabitants of Cholula preserved with great veneration a large aerolite, which according to them was the very thunderbolt that fell on the pyramid and set it on fire."(3)

Another Mexican tradition, recorded by Diego Duran in 1579 tells of giants who built a tower that almost reached the heavens, when it was destroyed by a thunderbolt.(4)

The question of whether the Greeks transmitted an account of the same events was debated by several writers in antiquity, including Philo of Alexandria,(5)

Cyril of Alexandria(6)

and Origen(7)

considered the story of the revolt of the giants--the sons of Aloeus who piled Ossa upon Olympus and Pelion atop Ossa in a vain effort to reach the lofty dwelling of Zeus and make war on the gods--and the account of the construction of the tower of Babel in the book of Genesis.(8)

The earliest allusion to these events is in Homer's Odyssey, where the destruction of the giants is ascribed to Apollo.(9)

Pliny and Macrobius identified Apollo with the planet Mercury.(10)

Apuleius, too, asserts that Mercury and Apollo were alternate names for Stilbon, "The Gleaming One" i.e., the planet Mercury.(11)

Hesiod describes the battle with the giants as an immense catastrophe involving the earth and heaven alike:

The boundless sea rang terribly around, and the earth crashed loudly: wide heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympus reeled from its foundations under the charge of the undying gods, and a heavy quaking reached Tartarus the cry of both armies as they shouted reached to starry heaven. Then Zeus no longer held back his might; but straight his heart was filled with fury and he showed forth all his strength. From heaven and from Olympus he came forthwith, hurling his lightning: the bolts flew thick and fast from his strong hand, together with thunder and lightning, whirling and awesome flame. The life-giving earth crashed around in burning, and the vast wood cracked loud with fire all about. All the land seethed, and Ocean's streams and the unfruitful sea. The hot vapour lapped round the earthborn Titans: flame unspeakable rose to the bright upper air: the flashing glare of the thunder shone and lightning blinded their eyes, for all that they were strong.

It seemed as if Earth and wide Heaven above came together; for such a mighty crash would have arisen if the Earth were being hurled to ruin and Heaven from on high were hurling her down.

Also the winds brought rumbling earthquake and duststorm, thunder and lightning, and the lurid thunderbolt, which are the shafts of great Zeus.

Seneca, in referring to Jupiter's thunderbolts, distinguishes between the ordinary kind that seek out the homes of wayward mortals, and those "by which the threefold mass of mountains fell"--that is, the mountains that the giants had piled on top of one another as a direct challenge to the gods. A tradition recorded by Ovid held that this was the first occasion on which Jupiter used his bolts.(12)

The pagans disputed with the Jews and Christians whether Moses took the story from Homer or Homer from Moses, but the common origin of the two accounts was generally conceded. Eupolemus, an early defender of Christianity, drew on both sources in asserting that "the city of Babylon had been founded by those who saved themselves from the deluge: they were giants, and they built the famous tower."(13)

From the viewpoint of sequential chronology, the link is plausible. The giants' revolt is said to have occurred not long after Zeus had taken over from Kronos the dominion of the sky, and it marks the real beginning of Jupiter's dominion.(14)

Among the descriptive epithets applied to Mercury in India, were budha--"mind, spirit, intelligence," sarvagna--"all-knowing," shadhabhigna--"possessor of the six sciences," advayavadi--"eloquent, unequalled in speech."(15)

Conversely, the presence of the god could induce forgetfulness.(16)

A similar effect was ascribed to the alleged remains of the Tower of Babel in Borsippa, the chief cult center of Nebo-Mercury, the son of Marduk-Jupiter. Nebo's cult in Borsippa was centered on the city's main ziggurat, or stepped pyramid. In the Talmud the ruins of this structure are identified as the remains of the Tower of Babel.(17)

It was of these ruins that R. Yochanan is reported to have said "a third of the tower was burnt, a third sunk [into the earth], and a third is still standing." Immediately after this statement, the Talmud quotes Rab as having said "The atmosphere of the tower causes forgetfulness."

Nebo was the herald of the gods, while presiding over all matters pertaining to the intellect.(18)

His nature is further revealed in a prayer of the 7th century B.C. Assyrian king Assurbanipal: "For Nebo the perfect son, regulator of all things in heaven and earth, him that holds the tablet of wisdom, carrier of the stylus of fate. . . ."(19)

The stylus was appropriate, since Nebo, like the Egyptian Thoth, was the divine scribe.

The qualities ascribed to Nebo by the Assyrians are consistent with an ancient Mesopotamian tradition, in which the planet Mercury is made to be the protagonist of a momentous event in the history of mankind. The earliest known inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the Sumerians, "believed that there was a time when all mankind spoke one and the same language, and that it was Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, who confounded their speech"--so concluded S. N. Kramer in publishing his translation of a Sumerian epic fragment.(20)

The text of the tablet is translated by Kramer as follows:

The whole universe, the people in unison

To Enlil in one tongue

Enki _ _ _ the leader of the gods,

Endowed with wisdom _ _ _

Changed the speech in their mouths (brought) contention into it,

Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.

The Sumerian Enki was the same as the Babylonian Ea(21)

--the name Ea was written with the ideogram EN.KI. And as students of Babylonian astronomy are well aware, "by 'Star of the god Ea' Mercury is meant."(22)

The world's traditions are consistent in giving Mercury a subsidiary role, albeit an important one, at a specific moment in the development of the celestial drama. Diodorus recounts an Egyptian tradition that when Isis took over the kingdom from Osiris, Hermes (i.e., Thoth) became her chief cousellor.(23)

This would indicate that the first appearance of Thoth-Mercury occurred in the wake of the celestial event in which Osiris-Saturn disappeared and his place was assumed by Isis-Jupiter, the same event that the Greeks interpreted as the dethroning of Kronos-Saturn by Zeus-Jupiter.

Diodorus reports that the Egyptian Hermes, or Thoth, was honored as the one by whom "the common language of mankind was first further articulated."(24)

Egyptological research has confirmed this tradition: An Egyptian hymn calls Thoth the deity that "made different the tongue of one country from another."(25)

Another text tells that this god "distinguished (or separated) the tongue of country from country."(26)

Yet another recounts that he "distinguished the tongue of every foreign land."(27)

The translator of these texts comments that the words "made different" or "distinguished" or "separated" are "past participles alluding probably to some lost myth or legend according to which Thoth differentiated the languages of the various countries. These epithets might even be cited as evidence of an Egyptian parallel to the Hebrew fable of Yahwe and the Tower of Babel."(28)

In Egyptian texts Thoth was called "lord of divine words" and "mighty in speech"; according to E. A. W. Budge, "from one aspect he is speech itself . . . Thoth could teach a man not only words of power, but also the manner in which to utter them. . . . The words, however . . . must be learned from Thoth." Thoth was also known as "scribe of the gods" and "lord of books."(29)

An Egyptian hymn assigns to Thoth control over man's mnemonic powers, invoking him as the deity "that recalls all what had been forgotten." (30)

In the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presents a story about the invention of letters by Thoth, and explores some of the implications of this new skill. It "will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."(31)

The worship of Mercury was the main religion of the ancient Celts who inhabited much of Central and Northern Europe in Roman times. The first written report of Celtic religion comes from the hand of Julius Caesar:(32)

The god whom they worship above all others is Mercury. He is the one with the most shrines; they make him the inventor of all arts, as well as their guide along roads and on journeys; they assign him power over matters involving money and trade.

A century later Tacitus wrote in his Germania: "Above all they worship Mercury, and count it no sin to win his favor on certain days by human sacrifices."(33)

More than three centuries after Tacitus, Mercury remained the chief object of worship for the Saxons. Matthew of Westminster transmits a speech by Saxon envoys to Britain ca. 450 A.D. When asked about their religion, they answer, without hesitation: "We worship the gods of our fathers, that is, Jupiter, Saturn, and the rest of those that rule the world, but most of all [we worship] Mercury, whom in our language we call Voden."(34)

Voden of the Saxons was the same as Odin the head of the Viking pantheon. Of Odin it was said in the Heimskringla Epic that: "He spoke so well and so smoothly that all who heard him believed all he said was true."(35)

He was associated with Hugin or "thought" and Munin or "memory." One of the myths about Odin connects him with the multiplicity of languages. In the Gylfaginning, ch. XIX, it is said that the reason why Odin is known by many different names is "the fact that there are in the world so many different languages."

The Greeks knew Mercury as Hermes. "The planet Hermes [is] the deity which presides over the rational energy," wrote the neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry(36)

and Proclus, the last great representive of that school, elaborated on the powers of Hermes-Mercury: "(Hermes) unfolds into light intellectual gifts, fills all things with divine reasons, elevates souls to intellect, wakens them as from a profound sleep. . . ."(37)

Proclus also described Hermes as "responsible for distinguishing and interpreting things, recalling to memory the sources of the intellect . . . ."(38)

. He has a particular affinity for the uniquely human faculty of language: "The faculty of language [corresponds to] Hermes."(39)

For the Romans Mercury was "the god of speech and the interpreter of the gods."(40)

Or he was simply speech and words exchanged in conversation.(41)

Macrobius wrote that "We know Mercury to have power over the voice and over speech."(42)

1. S. Bochart, Geographia Sacra, Lib. I, cap. xiv (Lugduni Batavorum, 1707): ". . . Video quosquam asserere, illos futuri incendii metu de asylo sibi prospexisse, memores scilicet 'affore tempus quo mare, quo tellus, correptaque regia coeli ardeat, et mundi moles operosa laboret."'

2. J. G. Frazer, Folk Lore in the Old Testament Vol. I (London, 1918).

3. J. G. Frazer, Folk Lore in the Old Testament Vol. I (London, 1918). Cf. E. B. Tylor, Anahuac p. 277.

4. Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y las Islas de Tierra Firme I (Mexico, 1867), pp. 6ff.

5. De Confusione Linguarum.

6. Contra Julianum, Bk. IV.

7. Contra Celsum IV. 21.

8. Chapter XI. 3-8

9. (XI. 315-316)

10. Pliny, Historia Naturalis II. 8. 30; Macrobius, Saturnalia I. 19. 7.

11. De Mundo, 336.

12. Ovid, Fasti III. 438.

13. Eusebius, Praep. Evang.

14. Cf. Bochart, Geographia Sacra, I. 13.

15. See Fr. Paulinus, Systema Brahmanicum (Rome, 1791), pp. 156f.

16. The Matsyapuranam XI. 61.

17. Sanhedrin XI. 109a; cf. Obermeyer, pp. 314, 327, 346.

18. Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, Vol. I, pp. 121, 123, 238

19. S. Langdon, Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms (Paris, 1909), p. 129.

20. S. N.. Kramer, "The 'Bable of Tongues': A Sumerian Version," The Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, pp. 108-111. Cf. K. Seybold, "Der Turmbau zu Babel," Vetus Testamentum 26 (197x), pp. 453-479; J. van Dijk, "La 'Confusion des langues'. Note sur le lexique et sur la morphologie d'Enmerkar, 147-155,"Orientalia 39 (1970), pp. 302-310; B. Alster, "An Aspect of 'Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta'," Revue d'Assyriologie 67 (1973), pp. 101-109.

21. See for instance M. Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens (Giessen, 1905), Vol. I, p. 62.

22. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 667, note 2.

23. I. 17. 3

24. I. 16. 1

25. J. Cerny, "Thoth as Creator of Languages," The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 34 (1943), pp. 121-122.

26. Ibid., p. 121.

27. Ibid., loc. cit.

28. Cf. J. G. Griffith, Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride, pp. 263f.

29. The Gods of the Egyptians (London, 1904), vol. I, p. 401; cf. P. Boylan, Thoth the Hermes of Egypt (Oxford, 1922) and B. von Turayeff, "Zwei Hymnen an Thoth," Zeitschrift fuer Aegyptische Sprache 33 [1895], pp. 120-125.

30. R. Hari, Horemheb et le Reine Moutnedjemet (Geneva, 1965).

31. Sect. 274-275, transl. by B. Jowett.

32. Caesar, De Bello Gallico VI. 17: Deorum maxime Mercurium colunt. Huius sunt plurima simulacra; hunc omnium inventorem artium ferunt, hunc viarum atque itinerum ducem, hunc ad queastus pecuniae mercaturasque habere vim arbitrantur.

33. See Tacitus, Germania IX, transl. by H. Mattingly (1948): Deos patrios, scilicet Saturnum, Jovem atque ceteros, qui mundum gubernant, colimus, maxime autem Mercurium, quem lingua nostra Voden apellamus.

34. Flores ed., 1601, p. 82:

35. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, transl. by Lee M. Hollander (Austin, 1964), pp. 10-11.

36. On the Wanderings of Ulysses, transl. by Th. Taylor (London. 1823), p. 259

37. In Euclidi Elementa lib. I, par. 14; cf. idem, In Platonis Rem Publicam, ed. Nauck, I. 255, II. 221.

38. In Platonis Rem Publicam II. 224.

39. Proclus, Commentaire sur le Timee, transl. by Festugiere, Vol. V, p. 237. Cf. F. Buffiere, Les Mythes d'Homere et la pensee grecque (Paris, 1956), pp. 289ff. A scholium to Aristophanes' Plutus, Act. IV, scene I, and a scholium to Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica 1. 517 provide further details about Hermes' association with language.

40. Servius, In Vergili Aeneidem IV. 239: "et orationis deus et interpres deorum." Cf. Hippolytus, Refutatio V. 2; Clement of Alexandria, Homilia VI. xv.

41. Arnobius, Adversus Gentes III. 32.

42. Saturnalia: "scimus autem Mercurium vocis et sermonis potentem."