Ancient Origins ran a piece recently arguing that indigenous oral traditions from North America are related to the biblical Tower of Babel story. The author seems to have lifted his understanding of the parallel myths from the Tower of Babel’s Wikipedia page, but even so, it is at least mildly interesting to review what are indeed parallel stories in order to understand where author Mark-Andrew Carpenter went wrong. The short version is that he heavily discounted the influence of the Bible on post-Contact America and among the missionaries who recorded—and revised—Native stories.
The Tower of Babel narrative isn’t all that long in the Bible. In Genesis 11:1-9, the people of Shinar built a tower to reach to heaven. God, upset about this, confounded their language to stop them from cooperating on the project. That’s it. The rest of the legend—that it was built by Nimrod and/or Giants and that God destroyed the tower with a mighty wind is not a biblical claim but rather exists in extra-biblical Jewish legend. Pseudo-Philo introduces Nimrod as the builder, and the hoaxed Oracles of pseudo-Sybil introduced the idea that God destroyed the tower with a mighty wind to punish the giants (whom the hoaxer identified as the Greek Titans!), a claim repeated by Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews. In short, the tower narrative in its popular form is not an ancient story going back to the dawn of time but is a product of Hellenistic thought, sometime around the period when the Greek translation of the Bible was undertaken. The Sibylline Oracles began to be fabricated by Alexandrian Jews around that time, according to Classical scholars.
Since the popular story isn’t in the Book of Genesis (despite Carpenter wrongly ascribing it to the Bible), we should therefore be surprised to find that the extra-biblical, quasi-pagan version from Pseudo-Sibyl shows up in North America, among the Cherokee.
When we lived beyond the great waters there were twelve clans belonging to the Cherokee tribe. And back in the old country in which we lived the country was subject to great floods. So in the course of time we held a council and decided to build a storehouse reaching to heaven. The Cherokees said that when the house was built and the floods came the tribe would just leave the earth and go to heaven. And we commenced to build a great structure, and when it was towering into one of the highest heavens the great powers destroyed the apex, cutting it down to about half of its height. But as the tribe was fully determined to build to heaven for safety they were not discouraged but commenced to repair the damage done by the gods. Finally, they completed the lofty structure and considered themselves safe from the floods. But after it was completed the gods destroyed the high part, again, and when they determined to repair the damage they found that the language of the tribe was confused or destroyed.
While this is often presented as proof of a Tower of Babel narrative among the Cherokee, the story was published in 1896, about 300 years too late to be proof of a pre-Contact story. It is almost certainly merely missionaries’ stories circulating back. Carpenter, of course, takes it as proof of a recurring global motif.
Similarly, he is impressed by a claim made for the massive Cholula pyramid of Mexico. He knows the story associated with it only from a summary, probably the one given in Wikipedia. The original, from Diego Durán’s sixteenth-century History of the Indies of New Spain, was translated in Bancroft’s collected works (and repeated in Donnelly’s Atlantis without credit):
In the beginning, before the light of the sun had been created, this land (Cholula) was in obscurity and darkness, and void of any created thing; all was a plain, without hill or elevation, encircled in every part by water, without tree or created thing; and immediately after the light and the sun arose in the east there appeared gigantic men of deformed stature and possessed the land, and desiring to see the nativity of the sun, as well as his occident, proposed to go and seek them. Dividing themselves into two parties, some journeyed to the west and others toward the east; these travelled; until the sea cut off their road, whereupon they determined to return to the place from which they started, and arriving at this place (Cholula), not finding the means of reaching the sun, enamored of his light and beauty, they determined to build a tower so high that its summit should reach the sky. Having collected materials for the purpose, they found a very adhesive clay and bitumen, with which they speedily commenced to build the tower; and having reared it to the greatest possible altitude, so that they say it reached to the sky, the Lord of the Heavens, enraged, said to the inhabitants of the sky, 'Have you observed how they of the earth have built a high and haughty tower to mount hither, being enamored of the light of the sun and his beauty? Come and confound them, because it is not right that they of the earth, living in the flesh, should mingle with us.' Immediately the inhabitants of the sky sallied forth like flashes of lightning; they destroyed the edifice, and divided and scattered its builders to all parts of the earth.
Carpenter denies the obvious—that a Christian missionary bent Native traditions to conform to the version of the story best known to him. Durán was fluent in Nahuatl and sought to document genuine Native traditions, but these traditions were already contaminated for nearly a century with Christian stories from missionaries, and many of Durán’s informants were converted Mexica. Like other missionaries, he also highlighted similarities to biblical stories and emphasized them in order to provide a grounding for further missionary work. This can be seen by comparing to another early source, from ten years earlier, which was a little less similar to the Babel story, despite apparent conflation with Biblical accounts. This is Pedro de los Rios, writing sometime before 1565:
Before the great inundation which took place 4,800 years after the erection of the world, the country of Anahuac was inhabited by giants, all of whom either perished in the inundation or were transformed into fishes, save seven who fled into caverns. When the waters subsided, one of the giants, called Xelhua, surnamed the 'Architect,' went to Cholula, where, as a memorial of the Tlaloc which had served for an asylum to himself and his six brethren, he built an artificial hill in the form of a pyramid. He ordered bricks to be made in the province of Tlalmanalco, at the foot of the Sierra of Cecotl, and in order to convey them to Cholula he placed a file of men who passed them from hand to hand. The gods beheld, with wrath, an edifice the top of which was to reach the clouds. Irritated at the daring attempt of Xelhua, they hurled fire on the pyramid. Numbers of the workmen perished. The work was discontinued, and the monument was afterwards dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.
Yet another variation has it built in anticipation of a flood to come. Putting material in order, it would seem as though an original story was gradually merging with missionaries’ extra-biblical accounts—i.e., Christian folklore—until they became nearly identical. The story achieved popularity in the 1700s when Lorenzo Boturini Benaducci published a fanciful account alleging that an Aztec painting was proof that the Mexicans built Cholula as a counterfeit of the Tower of Babel. However, even in the 1700s, other writers recognized that the evidence for such claims could not be traced back before the Contact period and was likely not an ancient biblical tradition.
Carpenter doesn’t buy this: “it can be objectively stated once again that these links cannot be the result of some kind of cultural contagion.” And yet, that’s exactly what the evidence shows.
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