In the beginning, the world was quiet. There was no language.
According to The Popul Vuh, as translated by Michael Bazzett,
“Then came the word.”
The gods arrived “in the dark of the only night.”
The gods broke the silence.
“They talked together then. They pondered and wondered.”
And, together, the gods decided to make new creatures to join their conversation. A motivation we well understand – we’ve pored so much effort into the design of chatbots, and even though most language-generating A.I. will be used to inundate the internet with new venues for advertising, sometimes we just want to talk to someone. The first chatbot, ELIZA from the 1960s, rephrased an interlocutor’s statements as questions. But even people who fully understood the inner workings of ELIZA were often comforted when they conversed with her.
The gods made the first people, “human in form, speaking human tongues.”
But the first people displeased the gods. They did not worship their creators correctly. “They held no memory of who had made them.”
And so the gods decided to murder their creations with a flood.
“The face of the earth went black:
a black rain fell all day, all night,
and animals both large and small
began to slink into their homes –
their faces were crushed
by trees and stones –
So the first people were undone.
They were demolished, overthrown.”
Yahweh, too, spoke the world into being. He said, “Let there be light: and there was light.”
Yahweh, too, made creatures after his own image: humans who could talk. He conversed with his creations. When he was alone, he called out to his creations, “Where art thou?”
And Yahweh, too, grew disappointed. He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
“And he said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.”
Of the creatures who could speak, only Noah and his family would be spared; Yahweh had judged Noah to be the best of his (terrible!) generation. Noah was instructed to build a boat. After it was built, the rains began to fall.
“Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.”
Noah watched his god murder everyone he had known. And Noah was traumatized. Noah planted a vineyard, fermented the grapes, and drank himself to sleep at night. Otherwise the dreams would come.
While Noah lay insensate, his son crept into his tent.
This scene is based upon an old Babylonian folktale. A son believes that his father has sired too many children, and so the son, fearing that his inheritance will shrink further as it is divided between ever more heirs, castrates his father. No new children will stake claims upon the father’s holdings. But when the father wakes in his bloodied bed, he curses his son: “You have done this evil to preserve your inheritance, so you will inherit nothing!”
“And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.”
Noah yanked away the son’s inheritance, and more: his son’s heirs would not only fail to inherit the lands, they would become slaves.
Noah’s curse was the beginning of human inequality. When self-professed Christians living in the American regime of abduction & torture (roughly 1600 to 1900, although the era by no means ended crisply) wanted to offer a biblical justification for their abhorrent practices, they claimed that the people whom they’d abducted & tortured were descended from Noah’s cursed son.
Yahweh had claimed that he would not murder the people with another flood, but the humans felt that Yahweh had broken promises before. The people did not believe themselves to be safe. In the first flood, even mountains were covered. (Fifteen cubits would make for a very small mountain – about as tall as a two-story house – but most ancient myths were created over centuries, so we needn’t quibble over a little math.)
To be safe, the people would have to create their own high ground. An even higher ground. They would build a tower into the sky. Not from hubris, but from fear, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
High above the earth, they would be safe from divine violence.
Without the power to wrench away their lives, Yahweh’s power over them would wane.
This was unacceptable. And so Yahweh inflicted upon them the very calamity that they feared. He “scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth.”
And Yahweh ensured that his creations could not attempt again to build their own high ground, their own realm of safety away from his violence. He had noticed that his creations “have all one language” and so “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” To maintain their subservience, he said “let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Yahweh spoke this curse in the Edenic language. Yahweh cursed his creations to make them weaker. And yet, he made them better. Before, they were all of one mind. There was a single culture, a single mode of thought for all, a single set of words to describe the world.
After Babel, there were many.
A cursing, a blessing: our diversity of languages is both.
In the scientific telling, our diversity of languages – a blessing – came from separation. In the beginning, all humans lived within a small region of the globe. Fossils representing the first four million years of human evolution have been found only in east Africa. Only in the last two hundred thousand years did small populations of human ancestors begin to live elsewhere: in Europe, Asia, and the Polynesian Islands.
The mass migrations of Homo sapiens that led directly to our diversity of languages did not begin until about forty thousand years ago.
This was long before anyone told stories like the Popul Vuh or Genesis, which are rooted in agricultural traditions. But this was when our languages were “confounded,” when our ancestors developed a diversity of ways to think of and describe the world.
Yet our separation also wrought a curse. After our ancestors dispersed, creating millions of ways to speak, they also began to foster select pockets of disease. Each isolated community experienced their own zoogenic epidemics; time and time again, their civilizations nearly collapsed, but survivors gained immunity.
Local immunity. After centuries in which influenza had spread through European communities, this virus could typically kill only the very young and old. But when European travelers brought influenza to the Americas, the virus obliterated immunologically naive communities. Upwards of ninety percent of people died. Imagine: a pandemic 300 times more deadly than Covid-19. Influenza was (and still is!) a nightmarish virus.
Our separation also led to our diversity of appearances. And these small differences – lighter or darker skin; straighter or curlier hair; broader or pointier noses – were enough to spur hatred and bigotry.
Guided by these trivial differences in appearance, our ancestors made real Noah’s curse of inequality. Those who happened to have more ancestral exposure to disease and more ancestral access to nutritious foodstuffs were able to conquer their fellow humans. People were enslaved. Resources were plundered. Our diversity of languages has dwindled. Is dwindling now.
Separation – which let our ancestors develop distinct languages, distinct ways of seeing and speaking about the world – also led to hierarchy.
In the fantasy novel Babel, R. F. Kuang reimagines history to consider opposition to Noah’s curse. How might we topple the hierarchies? How might we create a world in which all children are born equal and free?
Babel is a lovely book, but it’s vision is pessimistic and bleak. Babel is subtitled The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This is the protagonists’ conclusion: violence is their only option. Only violence will stop the empire.
Like gods, they will murder and destroy.
Yet even in Babel – with its anticolonial, anticapitalist leanings – the heroes oppress. In their moral framework, only human life has value. Our species can speak. The other creatures – who either have no verbal language, or whose spoken words we’ve failed to comprehend – are ours to enslave, kill, and devour.
In the film The Matrix, only violence can set people free.** With a plethora of armaments, the heroes assault government offices and murder the hapless rule-followers who stand in their way.
Everything Everywhere All at Once reimagines The Matrix without its preponderance of violence. Everything Everywhere All at Once is based upon a similar premise – the world that we experience is an illusion, and huge quantities of information exist just outside our perception – but asks what it would mean to find a peaceful way to set things right.
Hugs instead of handguns: could such a revolution ever succeed?
Midway through the film, Everything Everywhere All at Once re-enacts Genesis 22. The hero is handed a knife and commanded by a father figure to sacrifice her child for reasons that she cannot understand. But where Abraham would have said yes – abetting the sort of god who preferred Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, celebrating the first murder and thereby setting into motion a long chain of suffering – in Everything Everywhere All at Once the hero rejects violence and sets her child free.
In Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the knight of infinite resignation should have been described as more heroic than the knight of faith – to know that there is suffering, to confront a mystery that your mind cannot possibly comprehend, and to reject the demands of a murderous authority.
For a 1963 psychology experiment conducted at Yale University, Stanley Milgram tested how often people would attempt murder when commanded by an authority figure. 40 men were tested; 26 made the same choice as Abraham. “Take now thy son … and offer him there for a burnt offering.”
Abraham raised a knife to slay his son.
Abraham lived within a world of hierarchies and violence. A world of gods who have no respect for the fruits of the ground, preferring instead slain creatures and the fat thereof.
In Babel, the heroes seek to overturn that world, but cannot imagine any means other than by perpetuating its violence.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the heroes consider love.
** Also, a friend recently shared with me their belief that The Matrix would be a better film if Trinity’s prophecy — that she’d love the hero who saved human-kind — meant Trinity learning to love herself before assuming the savior’s mantle. But there’s no way the Wachowski sisters could have made a movie like that in 1999, given their (very reasonable!) reluctance to publicly display their real identities.
Image of a person chatting with ELIZA by Kevin Trotman on flickr.
Painting of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, 1563.