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.
2/16/2021 06:25:19 pm
Even if there was no cultural contamination (I am certain there was) I am not sure what could be shown by them having similar stories. Surely the idea of striving to reach the gods must be common to almost all cultures with sky gods. Trying to build a tower and having the gods destroy it seems like to it should be common to many cultures.
2/19/2021 01:21:07 am
2/19/2021 11:31:27 am
And of course we know that The Tower is a Tarot card, transmitted from the Sufis via the Templars to Europe.
2/19/2021 07:26:39 pm
2/20/2021 12:01:19 pm
"Taoism was a culture that built towers." Simply not true but moving on....
2/16/2021 07:27:32 pm
Maybe if I have a few more cocktails the discussion of etymology toward the end of the article will make perfect sense.
2/17/2021 10:28:14 am
What specific comments by Colavito confuse you?
2/18/2021 09:29:11 am
Since Jason didnt discuss etymology near the end of his write-up, I will give you one guess to figure out whom I was referencing.
2/19/2021 04:56:14 pm
I don't see any discussion about etymology. Maybe this alcoholism stuff wasn't just shtick. Foreign words <> etymology.
2/19/2021 07:32:55 pm
There’s a section in the linked article titled, “The Key to the Mystery is Etymology.” It couldn’t be more glaringly obvious what was meant by Doc Rock.
2/19/2021 08:37:10 pm
"Maybe if I have a few more cocktails the discussion of etymology toward the end of the article will make perfect sense."
2/20/2021 05:35:23 am
Come now Darold. Not everyone can be expected to pick up on subtle hints like the word Etymology spelled out in large bold letters in the heading of the final section of the article which then uses etymology/etymological three more times in the course of discussing the origin of words.
2/20/2021 09:39:55 am
The word "etymology" does appear many times elsewhere on the internet but not once in THIS article. One day at a time.
2/20/2021 12:57:12 pm
Please Kent, tell us more. Spare no details. Be brutal.You are in the Cat Bird Seat so keep driving.
2/20/2021 02:56:25 pm
Your adult-sized ego kept you from saying "I meant in the linked article" and your Korsakoff's Syndrome keeps you babbling "kiddie table" at odd times. The cool thing about disagreeable people is that Nature bats last. I can think, I can wait, I can fast.
Not not not captain obvious
2/20/2021 03:59:57 pm
Kent has such a positively yummy concept of "somewhere else" on the internet. His desire to stand apart from the crowd is just so darn cute.
2/20/2021 07:22:28 pm
Ah, another legendary Kent Three-for-One Showing His Ass Special. He gets proven wrong on something very basic, fails in his effort to land a zinger, and then everyone gets treated to a nice little entertaining outburst since it is always someone else's fault when Kent struggles to connect the only two dots on the board.
2/21/2021 06:18:26 am
"Your adult-sized ego kept you from saying "I meant in the linked article"
2/21/2021 10:36:44 am
The explanation for the Cholula Pyramid discussed by the author is based on 16th century Aztec narratives and others of that period. However, construction of the pyramid began in the 3rd century BC and stopped in the 10th century, long before the rise of the Aztec empire encountered by the Spanish. Languages and political and religious ideologies in a given area change or shift through time. Under the circumstances, the circa-1520 explanations of the origin of the pyramid and associated terminology cannot be uncritically accepted as the same as those of the original builders.
2/21/2021 11:33:14 am
"Lemme tell ya Claudette, I really thrashed that guy on the internet!
2/21/2021 12:20:22 pm
Bill from Machu Picchu
2/22/2021 10:01:02 am
Saying an adult has an adult sized ego? You really got him there, Joe Kent.
2/22/2021 02:06:36 pm
In contrast to "the kiddie table". Try to follow along, won't you?
2/22/2021 04:12:41 pm
Bill from Machu picchu
2/22/2021 09:05:37 pm
An adult is going to have an adult sized ego in contrast to a kiddie table. Thanks for further clarification of the obvious there, Howard Cosell.
2/28/2021 12:24:27 pm
2/17/2021 03:01:44 am
The Christian missionary influence could go back a few more centuries then previously thought. Quite possibly as early as 1025 AD. Likely before this time but, this is when we've found the first evidence of a Christian influence in North America.
2/17/2021 12:25:55 pm
What are you talking about? Did you see one of the deceptive headlines about the 12th century monasteries Hearst shipped over in the 1920s ('the oldest church in America predates Columbus', etc) and didn't bother to read the whole thing?
2/17/2021 02:14:32 pm
Scott, he is buying into Wolter's sidekick Patrick Shekleton's (Phippsburg History Center) pareidolia nonsense, where he sees things in antique maps etc. Mostly he sees the Newport Tower.
2/18/2021 01:32:09 am
Jim...JIMMY... The Jimster...
2/18/2021 07:18:18 am
Just more nonsense from Anthony "It's all 'stronomy" Warren. Note the idiosyncratic use of the comma. "The Spanish found what was already a relic church in the 1400s." In Spain, perhaps. Pull the other one.
2/18/2021 10:49:51 am
Jim, let me help you out. Call me Clarice if that helps, for lo I have studied this one and his simpleton lore for many a couple of years!
2/18/2021 11:44:26 am
Anthony, there is simply no point debating your evidence free pseudo speculative crap that you put forth as facts.
2/18/2021 07:32:00 pm
So...The two of you have absolutely nothing.
2/19/2021 12:53:29 pm
"So...The two of you have absolutely nothing."
2/19/2021 03:14:29 pm
If Jim and I say "stop being such an idiot" it's worth considering.
2/19/2021 03:17:43 pm
What the hell, Jim? Are you suffering from vascular dementia? I point out the iconography from the 1025 Cotton World Map and you jump 534 years into the future to the 1559 Andreas Homem & Francisco Falerio. You obviously didn't look at the PDF for PowerPoint presentation. They BOTH contain the identical information. Either one will do, Jim.
2/19/2021 03:48:42 pm
"facts publicly available on Facebook"
2/19/2021 05:03:50 pm
Bless your heart Anthony.
2/19/2021 07:29:41 pm
2/20/2021 05:44:49 pm
No stars, dead Palestinian. Simple simple.
2/17/2021 05:12:42 pm
And that is why oral tradition can;t be trusted.
The author did not finish his archaeology studies because he "discovered that they were not practicing objective science". Finally he studied anthropology and religion (do they practice "objective" science?). And he has more nonsense articles on Ancient Worlds than only this one, each of them on a completely other topic, each of them claiming a very "alternative" explanation. This is simply too much, there is finally no credibility in the author himself.
2/18/2021 09:55:42 pm
Regardless of all the mindless blah blah blah above, I really like the new look of Jason’s site, and the new photo of the proprietor.
2/19/2021 03:43:40 pm
That's a much better picture you're now using Jason Colavito. I really like your stained glass window! If you zoom in on your eye, it looks like the floral pattern is growing from your pupil. I've actually managed to turn it into a work of digital art. Never to be published. It sure looks cool though.
2/19/2021 06:33:27 pm
It's my understanding that Patrick has already spotted the Newport Tower in the reflection from Jason's glasses.
2/19/2021 08:14:04 pm
How to create your own Jason Colavito Eye Artwork.
2/19/2021 07:53:11 pm
You don't see the person reflected in his eye you imbecile? You are really not good with images.
2/21/2021 02:39:34 pm
This is slightly off target but as Jason elsewhere has discussed the myth of the Pillars of Enoch as it morphed through the ages I might mention I am writing an article touching on that somewhat. The Welsh bard (and forger) Iolo Morgannwg in his book 'Barddas' wrote a mythical history of the origin of writing in the Celtic lands. His lengthy and intricate invented alphabets and writing boards have long been discounted, but the origin tale itself has been almost totally overlooked, except for those modern neo-druids and pagans who still believe it is genuine ancient Celtic lore. It is, to a point. He creates a pre-duluvian culture hero called Einigen the Giant who has a revelation and is inspired to carve all the arts and sciences onto a Stone of Wisdom. The figure does have some association to an Irish legend of a similar ancient giant who also carries a pair of stone tablets with all the knowledge of the past world engraved thereon. But there are also Christian echoes of Moses and his tablets, the True Cross, the Holy Grail, the Masonic Pillars (Iolo was a hereditary freestone mason by trade and a probable speculative freemason), as well as themes from the legends of the Hyperborean giants, and even some actual Druidic practices.
2/22/2021 08:25:21 am
The Tower of Babel story is in the same chapter in Genesis as Noah, yet there's no mention in the primary source of the notion that humanity was simply trying to establish terra firma beyond the floodline. It's interesting that the Cherokee text is more explicit about the relationship between building high and not drowning.
2/22/2021 08:04:59 pm
In Genesis the Tower of Babel is well After the Flood (a fine Grateful Dead album) but since the Flood never happened it doesn't really matter does it?
3/13/2021 12:24:58 pm
Just a point. The Great Pyramid of Cholula cannot have much to do, or anything to do for that matter with the Tower of Babel, given that it was built in stages between the 3rd century B.C.E. and the 8th century C.E., long after the dates given for the Tower of Babel. It is, apparently, the largest pyramid in the world with a volume of 4.45 million cubic meters. For comparison The Great Pyramid is 2.5 million cubic meters. Quite impressive!!
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