The Confusion of Languages
The sequence of events as presented in the Book of
Genesis places the catastrophe of Babel next after the Deluge.
And the whole land was of one language and of one
speech. . . . And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower
whose top may reach unto heaven. . . . And the Lord said, behold, the
people is one, and they have all one language. . . . 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.(1)
The rabbinical sources explain that the purpose of the
Tower was to secure a shelter for the city of Babel in case the Deluge
should occur another time:
The men who were before us God has destroyed with a
deluge; if he shall again think fit to be wroth with us, and seek to
destroy us even with a deluge, we shall all perish to a man. But come,
let us prepare bricks and burn them with fire, that they may withstand
the waters and building them together with asphalt, let us make a high
tower the top of which shall reach to heaven, in order that being
delivered from the deluge we may find safety in the tower.(2)
This purpose of the builders is found also in an account
of this catastrophe which the aborigines of Central America transmitted
from generation to generation. Ixtlilxochitl, after narrating the story of
the Deluge which brought to a close the first world age, Atonatiuh, and
destroyed most of mankind, described the catastrophe which ended the
second age or Ehecatonatiuh—"the sun of wind.”
And as men were thereafter multiplying they constructed
a very high and strong Zacualli, which means “a very high tower”
in order to protect themselves when again the second world should be
destroyed. At the crucial moment their languages were changed, and as
they did not understand one another, they went into different parts of
The same author also gives another version of the same
When 1715 years had passed since the Deluge [men] were
destroyed by a violent hurricane (Uracan) which carried off trees,
mountains, houses and people, and great buildings, although many men and
women escaped, especially those that were able to take refuge in caves
and places where this great hurricane could not reach.(4)
Similarly wrote Gomara (ca. 1510-1560): “The wind which
occurred at that time was so great and of such force that it overthrew all
buildings and trees, and even broke mountains apart.” (5)
Many of the sources which recount the destruction of the
Tower of Babel maintain, in close accord with the Mexican account, that
the catastrophe was caused by a violent wind. Thus the Sibyl is said to
When are fulfilled the threats of the great God With
which he threatened men, when formerly In the Assyrian land they built a
tower, And all were of one speech, and wished to rise Even till they
climbed unto the starry heaven, Then the Immortal raised a mighty wind
And laid upon them strong necessity; For when the wind threw down the
mighty tower, Then rose among mankind fierce strife and hate. One speech
was changed into many dialects, And earth was filled with divers tribes
In the Book of Jubilees it is said that “the Lord
sent a mighty wind against the tower and overthrew it upon the earth.”
The Babylonian account, as transmitted by Abydenus, tells
that once men “built a high tower where now is Babylon, and when it was
already close to heaven, the gods sent winds and ruined the entire scheme.
. . . and men, having till then been all of the same speech, received
[now] from the gods many languages.” (8)
Other accounts give the impression that a strong
electrical discharge—possibly from an overcharged ionosphere—found a
contact body in the high structure. According to a tradition known to the
twelfth century traveler Benjamin of Tudela, “fire from heaven fell in the
midst of the tower and broke it asunder.” (9)
In the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud it is said: “A
third of the tower was burnt, a third sank [into the earth] and a third is
still standing.” (10)
The Tower of Babel story was found in the most remote
parts of the world prior to the arrival of missionaries in those places,
thus before the Biblical account became known to the aborigines.
For instance, on the island of Hao, part of the Puamotu
(or Tuamotu) islands in Polynesia, the people used to tell that after a
great flood the sons of Rata, who survived, made an attempt to erect a
building by which they could reach the sky and see the creator god Vatea
(or Atea). “But the god in anger chased the builders away, broke down the
building, and changed their language, so that they spoke divers tongues.”
The question of Biblical influence was discussed by the
folklorist: “They [the natives of Hao] declared that this tradition
existed already with their ancestors, before the arrival of the Europeans.
I leave to them the responsibility for this declaration. All I can certify
is that this tradition contains many ancient words which today are no
longer understood by the natives.” (12)
Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Mayas,
narrates that the language of all the families that were gathered at Tulan
was confused and none could understand the speech of the others.
The Kaska (Indian) story makes the result into the cause.
The Indians narrate that “a great darkness came on, and high winds which
drove the vessels hither and thither. The people became separated. Some
were driven away. . . . Long afterwards, when in their wanderings they met
people from another place, they spoke different languages, and could not
understand one another.” (14)
With this exception—the Kaska story may refer to any
great upheaval and is actually an effect of large-scale migrations—the
traditions of the peoples make the catastrophe the immediate cause of the
confusion of languages and the dispersion as well.
While the account in Genesis, and that given by Abydenos
and various other sources connect the story with a certain place in
Mesopotamia, other traditions localize it in many different countries.(15)
In each case the entire population of the world is said to have been affected.
If the nature of the catastrophe was cosmic, the same occurrence
could have taken place in different countries. In this case the existence
of similar traditions in many corners of the globe is of no avail for
tracing the migration of ancient tribes. The Arabic tradition makes South
Arabia the scene of the upheaval, followed by confusion of languages and
Similar experiences could have been brought about by one and the same
cause in many places.
It appears that after the Flood the plain of Mesopotamia
became one of the few cultural centers of the world. Another flood would
have caused the utter destruction of the human race, and this was feared
because the memory of the Flood a few centuries earlier was very vivid.
Observations of the movements of the heavenly bodies may have provided a
warning of a new catastrophe and large structures were built for refuge.
But when the event came, the structures were overwhelmed and destroyed by
hurricanes and powerful electrical discharges.
In the rabbinical concept of the seven earths, molded one
out of another in successive catastrophes, the generation which built the
Tower of Babel inhabited the fourth earth; but it goes on to the fifth
earth where the men become oblivious of their origin and home:(17)
those who built the Tower of Babel are told to forget their language. This
generation is called “the people who lost their memory.” The earth which
they inhabited was “the fifth earth, that of oblivion (Neshiah)
In the ancient Mexican traditions it is told that those
who survived the catastrophe of the “sun of wind” lost “their reason and
The characteristic of this catastrophe was its influence
upon the mental, or mnemonic, capacity of the peoples. The description of
it, as told by many tribes and peoples, if it contains authentic features,
arouses the surmise that the earth underwent an electromagnetic
disturbance, and that the human race experienced something that in modern
terms seems like a consequence of a deep electrical shock.
The application of electrical current to the head of a
human being often results in a partial loss of memory; also a loss of
speech may be induced by the application of electrodes to specific areas
of the brain.(20)
Genesis XI. 1-9.
Quoted in Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography
(Hakluyt Society: London, 1897). Cf. Josephus, The Antiquities of
the Jews, I. 4. 2. and sources in L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the
Jews, vol. V, pp. 199-200. [Some of the sources
assert that the builders of the Tower feared a world conflagration. Cf.
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.’ “].
Don Fernando de Alvara Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas
(Mexico, 1891), Vol. I, p. 12.
Ibid., loc. cit. [Similarly, the
sacred writings of the Burmese relate that “when the world is destroyed
by wind . . . the wind begins to blow and gradually increases. At first
it only raises sand and small stones; but at length it whirls about
immense rocks, and the summits of mountains.” F. Buchanan, “On the
Religion and Literature of the Burmas,” Asiatick Researches VII
(1799), p. 244.]
F. L. de Gomara, Conquista de Mexico (Mexico, 1870),
vol. II, p. 261. [The order of the “sun ages” of the
ancient Mexicans is given differently by different authors: but the most
reliable of the sources—the Vatican Codex, Ixtlilxochitl, and Veytia—all
agree that Ehecatonatiuh, or “the sun of wind” was the second age,
following after the “sun of water” or Atonatiuh.]
Quoted by Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus II.
xxxi, transl. by M. Dods in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II
(Grand Rapids, 1962); Cf. Josephus, Antiquities I. 109-121;
Bochart, Geographia Sacra I. 13; The Sibylline Oracles
III. 97-107 in R. Charles ed., Apocrypha and Pseudepographa of
the Old Testament (Oxford, 1913), Vol. I, pp. 380f.
The Book of Jubilees 10.26 in Charles ed., Apocrypha
and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Cf. also Midrash Rabba to
Genesis, and sources in Ginzberg, Legends III. 35.
Abydenus, quoted by Cyril, Adversus Julianum Bk. I,
and by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica IX, 14.
Quoted in Bochart, Geographia Sacra I. 13. Cf. M.
Adler, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (London, 1907).
Tractate Sanhedrin XI (fol. 109A) of
Seder Nezikin, transl. by H. Freedman, ed by I. Epstein (London, 1935),
p. 748. [The tradition that fire from heaven
destroyed the tower is also a feature of some of the Meso-American
accounts, e.g., 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.” (J. G. Frazer, Folk Lore in
the Old Testament Vol. I [London, 1918]. 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.” Cf. E. B. Tylor, Anahuac p. 277. Another Mexican
tradition, recorded by Diego Duran in 1579 (Historia de las Indias de
Nueva Espana y las Islas de Tierra Firme I [Mexico, 1867], pp. 6ff.)
tells of giants who built a tower that almost reached the heavens, when
it was destroyed by a thunderbolt.].
R. W. Williamson, Religious and
Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia (Cambridge, 1933), vol. I, p.
A.-C. Eugene Caillot, Mythes, legendes et traditions
des Polynesiens (Paris, 1914), p. 16, n. 1. The tradition was among
those collected by Caillot in 1912 or 1913; his publication contains the
story in the original Polynesian and in a French translation.
Brasseur de Bourbourg, Histoire des
nations civilises du Mexique (1857-59), vol. I, p. 72. [Cf. also the Andean tradition recorded by Pedro Sarmiento
de Gamboa in his Historia de los Incas, ch. 7. In common with
other accounts, it places the confusion of languages after the
“Kaska Tales,” collected by James A. Teit, Journal of
American Folklore, no. 30 (1917), p. 442.
Many different traditions were
collected by James G. Frazer in Folk-lore in the Old Testament,
(London, 1918), Vol. I, ch. V. Cf. H. H. Bankroft, The Native
Races of the Pacific States, Vol. V.
D. Reiske, De Arabum Epocha
Vetustissima, Sail Ol Arem, etc. (Leipzig, 1748). [The question of whether the Greeks transmitted an account
of the same events was debated by several writers in antiquity,
including Philo of Alexandria (De Confusione Linguarum), Cyril of
Alexandria (Contra Julianum, Bk. IV) and Origen (Contra Celsum
IV. 21). These writers saw a link between 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 Genesis XI. 3-8. The earliest allusion to these events is in
Homer’s Odyssey (XI. 315-316); Homer ascribes the destruction of
the giants to Apollo. Pliny N. H. II. 8. 30) and Macrobius
(Saturn. I. 19. 7) identified Apollo with the planet Mercury.
Apuleius wrote (De Mundo, 336) that Mercury and Apollo were
alternate names for “Stilbon,” the planet Mercury.
Hesiod described the battle with
the giants as an immense catastrophe involving the earth and heaven
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 also referred to the same
events in mentioning Jupiter’s thunderbolts “by which the threefold mass
of mountains fell” and a tradition held that this was the first occasion
on which Jupiter used his bolts (Ovid, Fasti III. 438). 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. One early writer, Eupolemus, 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.” (Eusebius, Praep. Evang.) 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. Cf. Bochart, Geographia Sacra, I.
This is told in allegorical form in the tale of the
wanderings of Adam. The myth of Man (Adam) traveling through all the
seven earths is a transparent allegory of the physical and human history
of the earth. See Sefer Raziel; cf. Ginzberg, Legends I.
90ff., V. 117f.
Midrash Rabba to Genesis, Exodus; Ginzberg,
Legends I. 114; Zohar Hadesh Bereshit 8a-8b, Zohar Ruth
97b, and other sources in Ginzberg, Legends, V. 143. [In Tractate Sanhedrin 109a it is said that the
place where the Tower once stood retains the peculiar quality of
inducing a total loss of memory in anyone who passes it.]
H. H. Bankroft, The Native Races (San Francisco,
1882), vol. III, p. 64.
The electro-convulsive therapy used in
psychiatry for the treatment of certain mental cases is administered by
passing current through electrodes on the forehead. Conducted through
the brain, the electric discharge causes a period of confusion and a
subsequent complete, though temporary, loss of memory of the events
immediately preceding the discharge. A number of patients complain also
of consequent disturbances of longer duration, and some of them suffer a
patchy, retrograde amnesia. See the article by Siskind in Archive of
Neurological Psychiatry (Chicago, 1941), p. 215, 223.