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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

a question for an artist

Temperatures have dropped even lower here--around −7° C--but it is sunny and brilliant. I trudged out on errands--get cash, buy a ham hock, drop book and DVD at the library, and down Lonsdale to the liquor store for scotch and wine. When I pay attention, I'm quite sure-footed and not given to falling. I trod carefully over the patches of smooth, hard-tramped ice, mainly at intersections.

Still embroiled in my copywriting assignment, I am still drifting with The Mission. Not entirely: I'm still keying notes first thing in the morning (after switching on the heat throughout the house and making the coffee), from Uriel's Machine, which I bought at this time last year.

"Uriel's machine" is their name for a device the authors theorize was specified in the "Book of the Heavenly Luminaries" portion of the Book of Enoch--a simple observatory that can be set up at any latitude to create an accurate calendar for that latitude. (Uriel was the angel who enlightened Enoch about the heavens.) The depth of the astronomical understanding underlying it, coupled with the great simplicity of its design (a matter of setting vertical sticks in holes along an arc), point to the sophisticated engineering intelligence behind it.

Lomas and Knight, the authors, believe that devices like "Uriel's machine" were used at the henge-type megalithic monuments of the British Isles--of which there are remains for more than 40,000. There is strong evidence that the so-called Grooved Ware People, a seemingly quite advanced culture that lived in Western Europe about 5,000 years ago, used observatories and may even have built scientific stations--which is what the complex at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands appears to be (dated to 3215 BC), with thoughtfully made uniform apartments for occupants who apparently neither farmed nor hunted, but ate meat that had been specially transported to the site.

All of this is of keen interest to me. Enoch was of special interest and importance to the Essenes, who feature prominently in my story. I chew through the material, comparing it to what I already know, slowly working toward my own theory of what happened.

In all, I sense that a great deal of knowledge has been lost over the millennia. And while we're smug about our scientific progress, we should remember that the kinds of knowledge we seek--the very questions we ask--would have been considered uninteresting to people in the ancient world.

This is illustrated with a great example by the Frankforts, quoted by David C. Lindberg in The Beginnings of Western Science. If I keeled over now at my keyboard, my body would be taken to a morgue and autopsied to find the cause of death. The doctor would discover evidence of, say, a massive heart attack, and write this on the death certificate. Problem solved.

An ancient person looking at the situation would be very dissatisfied. The question asked by the modern doctor is not interesting to him. The modern scientist is looking for an answer to this: "To what general class of phenomena does this particular case belong?" When he finds that, he regards his job as done.

The ancient person asks a different question: "Why did this man die in this way at this time?"

It's a very different question. The ancient person is interested in the meaning of an event--its significance. Science has very little to say about this. It's a question for an artist. Or perhaps for a shaman. But it deserves to be answered, don't you think?

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