The bare altar, the words stamped in stone. Open the victim’s throat. Its blood belongs to no man—it belongs to a nameless, invisible recipient. Who has been waiting. Skin the lambs and scrape their hides, with an owl-feather scratch these signs into the skins, cover them in knotless meshes of ink to say: this is the word which has been spoken…
With a pestle, crush the fistfuls of cochineal beatles in the bowl’s stone hollow, mix the juice with blood from the lamb whose throat you opened beneath an eyeless gaze. And write these words.
Even in ancient times: the threshold between the revolution and the institution is sopping wet with blood. Always there is the downbeat, during which time, the revolution turns in on itself before moving forward under the newly established hierarchy.
There’s this story, this rumor of how it all got started, this terrifying new regime—these nightmare tidings of about a Night of Long Knives, of the purge when the new leadership had asserted its control. They’d thrown their god into the fire, and the leader had told the elite cadre he’d selected to go home and kill their families. To go through the camp killing at random after they’d accomplished this first task. In this way they’d cut themselves off, set themselves apart. Kadosh: ‘holy,’ ‘cut off,’ ‘set apart.’ They hadn’t replaced the god that they’d thrown into the fire. Now their altar was bare. They worshipped the blank socket of empty space from which the god had been removed. Now that was their god. A bare surface on which to open the throat of the victim, the sacrifice. Their leader, up on the mountain: he claimed that their god—this god of no object—had spoken to him. He’d beaten the words into slabs of stone. A voice without a body. Words without sound. A god without image or likeness. Without a face.
Their leader, too: faceless. He’d worn a veil that he never removed. They said that beneath the veil his face was on fire, was burning, with a light that was too terrible to look at.
He was dead, though. Or at least one hoped that he was dead. He’d walked up a mountain just across the Jordan. He hadn’t come back down. But no one knew where the body was buried.
I think of how terrifying it must have been for the Canaanites. Years ago, rumors had come from the south when Egypt was sliding into its collapse. No enemy, no army could have breeched their borders, or come near them. But they’d fallen apart from within. Stories of plagues, natural disasters. The terrifying precision of a pestilence which killed only the firstborn. A legion of chariots decimated by—by what? Accounts varied. An avalanche of water? A tsunami? A flood? An ocean, somehow, had closed in on them and buried them at its bottom.
A thronging army of slaves just gets up and walks away. Walks north. Now, they’re out there in the wilderness, hiding out up in the hills.
They’re organizing. After the bloodshed which inaugurated the new administration, they’re massing, making ready for war.
When the leader hadn’t returned, his general—already battle-hardened—had read this is as a sign to move. Butcher of the Amalekites, of the Edomites, of the Midianites: he’d already established a rhythm of incomparable viciousness out there in the desert. Under his command, obedient to the directives of their veiled leader, they’d adopted an alien, senseless modus operandi: the sheerest terrorist tactics. And very successful, if the object was to frighten neighboring tribes far in advance. They would often kill everyone—including the women and children. Apparently they didn’t bother with taking the populations they’d defeated on as slaves. Even the virgins, they killed–although sometimes they saved them as wombs. They would even kill the livestock and leave them to rot or burn them. They would burn the altars and the gold out of which the gods had been fashioned to slag without evening taking any of the booty when they left. Just–nothing. Somehow there seemed to be a resonance between the totalizing way in which they wasted their enemies—why? why fight if you’re not going to take the bounty?—and the god of their empty altar.
The general: his name meant ‘savior.’ Savior of whom? From what? It would be as well to call a wild dog ‘lamb,’ or name a woman ‘Man.’ To call the angel of death ‘midwife.’
They claimed that their ancestor had been Abraham, whose tribe had disappeared centuries ago. They called themselves after his grandson: Jacob, who’d sloughed off that name like a snake-skin after fighting with an angel and walking away with his life. He’d taken another name, by which they called themselves: Israel.
The women of the Canaanites, dawdled anxiously, pouring out their nervous affections on their children, afraid for the lives of their sons in the coming days. Afraid of what would happen to their daughters. Their husbands were already on the move, circling the far perimeters of their territory in anticipation. The women were afraid, too, of what would happen to them, if their sons went out to fight and fell to the swords, of these…these…monsters. Could they be called men? Could their wives be called women, whose offspring were so heartless, so brazen, careless of the gods? Why should they live? For what? They wanted to empty the land of inhabitants and empty the altars of gods. They seemed to have no objective aside from this drive to erase, to delete, to subtract, to burn away and leave nothing behind.
At Gilgal, the scouts reported, they’d halted and set up a circle of twelve stones. An altar without a god standing at its axis. Nothing. Twelve stones: like a sunclock of Babylon without a dial in its center. As if they could amputate themselves from time as well, core the clock like an apple. They’d gathered there and to a man, they’d taken sharp stones to their genitals. Who were these men? These Israelites? Not men. Not gods. They had no gods. They could not be called men. They’d cut themselves off.
After crossing the Jordan, the Israelites circled the walls of Jericho for seven days, marching in silence.
When they raised their trumpets to sound them, the blaring was like the sound of the earth opening, like a howling out of a fissure rent in the bedrock, wordless like the threnody of women in labor, of men lying gutted on the field. This sound, announcing subtraction, erasure, effacement; heralding a new age of terror and death.
How the West Was Won
After they’d crushed Carthage, Rome brought Egypt to its knees. For the next half-millenium and more, the grain from Egypt was fuel for the Imperial machine. Having secured the basic needs of its citizens, many thousands of whom would now longer be shackled to their ploughs, they beat scythes into swords, and turned their attention towards more creative tactics of aggression and expansion. Like a flowering cancer, Rome spread out over the earth.
It came to pass that three decades after the public execution of a certain Galilean exorcist, the Roman economy slumped and its lower rungs of free citizens found themselves largely unemployed. Manufacturing had been outsourced, and most of the other sorts of work was being done by imported slave labor. There were a number of other factors. Problems brewing at the perimeters of the empire. Problems with the way currency was being managed. But the grain still came by the ton from Egypt. In that sense, the trains were still running on time, even as an abyss of uncertainty seemed to yawn beneath the institutions around which the city had organized itself.
Since there was plenty of grain and no one could find work, the Emperor announced and open-endedly prolonged festival of bread and circuses. The jobless citizens would go to the arena where they would be fed and entertainment by men opening one another up with the manifold array flesh-slicing, bone-severing instruments which centuries of artistic ingenuity under a martial state had dreamed up.
There was a devastating fire, followed by a season where the entertainment that had been blocked out primarily involved an endless of sequence of executions performed by increasingly lurid and abberant means. A certain cult had been scapegoated after the fire. The Emperor—an effeminate Opera-singer of notoriously bizarre sexual proclivities—was possessed of a perverse ‘artistic’ bent, and the strangeness of those days, not least the surpassing ‘artistry’ practiced in the torture and execution of the targeted population whose deaths were on display, seemed infused with his sadistic aesthetics, marinated in his singularly sick sense of humor. Victims of torture will testify that the laughter of their tormentors might sometimes frighten and disturb them quite as badly as a blade pressed to their throat. Blaring music outside the cell barring the prisoner from escaping into slumber: this was the tenor and spirit of Rome in the late 60’s first century AD.
Languishing without work, the citizens of Rome literally didn’t know what to do with themselves. They managed, though. In the end, they managed to find ways of keeping themselves occupied.
Suetonius tells us that Nero would have victims tied to stakes in the arena for his own private amusement. He would dress in the skin of a recently butchered leopard, and crawl out across the arena’s dusty platform. He would prowl back and forth before the line of bound victims before selecting his prey. He would crawl towards the unluckiest one of them and tear and devour their genitals with his teeth ‘like a beast.’ Such was Nero.
Despite the economic doldrums, late 60’s were exciting times in Rome. Everything seemed to be moving so fast: accelerating. Accelerating towards what? What hellish momentum had snowballed into these florid fetishes, these exotically perverse expressions of power?
Approximately 5000 years ago the horse is domesticated. This opens a door: enter the conquest state. Before the wheel and the wild horse beaten into a beast of burden: before these things came to pass, the plunder-and-govern model of warfare had not been profitable due to the fact that soldiers would have to carry loot on their backs.
Now it was fantastically profitable. Plunder: the trinkets, the metals, the weapons, the tents, the livestock of men murdered in the plains, cut down beneath the swords swinging low from the backs of these beasts. Also included in the plunder: women. 3000 BCE: we begin to encounter evidence of warfare on a grand scale. In the wake of this new trend male populations are decimated, and plummet, globally. This brings about a numerical excess of women, depreciating the value of all females.
Thus in the earliest documented effort to establish basic legal rights for citizens, Urukagina’s edict (c. 2300 BCE, Mesopotamia), declares, “If a woman speaks…disrespectfully to a man, that woman’s mouth is crushed with a fired brick.” Every class had two tiers, one for men, and a lower one (in the same class) for women. Power lost by men through submission to a ruling elite was compensated for by power gained over women, children, hired workers, slaves, and the land. In the increased violence and brutality of the new order, it was in the interest of women to seek out a male protector and economic supporter. But the price they paid was sexual servitude, undervalued domestic labor and subordination to their husbands in all matters, even those once regarded as the domain of women were permitted to exploit men and women in races or classes lower than their own.
The organization of power in human populations begins to coalesce into rigid hierarchies: authoritarian, and patriarchal. A wedge is driven down the middle of populations which had previously been virtually horizontal. The powerful few, the defeated multitudes who serve them. A new concept: defeat is institutionalized so that people spend their whole lives serving their new masters without ever putting up a fight. They exchange their service for the tacit assurance that they won’t be murdered or banished. These innovative systems of organizations are what we now refer to as ‘early economies.’
New myths and priesthoods legitimated the new organization and distribution of power. Evil was blamed on women. In one place after another, for one people group after another, we see human destiny driven in a direction that few would have consciously chosen. Plunder gave rise to a class of aristocrats and priests who produced nothing. Their survival in turn depended on ever new conquests. Societies got locked into a struggle for dominance from which no one could ever escape. Defense against a powerful aggressor required a society to become more like the society that threatened it. No one person or group of people imposed this system on us; it came wholly uninvited. People simply stumbled into a struggled for power beyond their ability to avoid it or to stop participating in it. The means to exploit the earth’s resources at a clip that outpaced the environment’s ability to self-regenerate develops coextensively with the successive elaborations of this societal model.
Chronologically the advent of the conquest state dovetails with the date supplied for the creation and fall of mankind that is insinuated by Biblical genealogies. 5000 years.
3000 years later a man lives at the axial node of world conflict, a patch of ground that had, with monotonous regularity, been besieged and conquered and occupied by a relentless sequence of successive armies and alien peoples—the crossroads and graveyard, so to speak, of empires. He is from the line of an ancient King, who’d ruled there during a brief lull when all of the surrounding nations and armies had exhausted themselves in some apically transcendent climax of mutual bloodshed and so had temporarily withdrawn from the region. The reign of this King’s son had apparently seen a short cessation of violence in the area, but on either side of that window, the tribal history of this people had been a monotonous and constant sequence of civil wars, defeats, occupations, exiles, demolitions, incinerations and so forth.
The mythology characteristic of the tribal confederacy over which this man’s ancestor, this longed for, long-gone King, had ruled over had apparently grown out of events surrounding a slave revolt in Egypt. It involved an bare altar—no statuary. It forbade the crafting of objects to refer to the deity. It denied the existence of other deities, it implied that idols had no spiritual referents. It forbade the representation of the deity, it forbade the invocation of the deity’s name.
What little we know about his career involves the time he’s spent as an itinerant exorcist in Galilee, apparently speaking, on occasion, to large groups of people in bizarre riddles which were often perceived as outrageous, blasphemous, and offensive. There is a lot of lee-way in terms nailing down just what exactly he was doing during this period and what exactly the people thought of him, what were their real impresseions, what they wanted from him, what they expected. He is said to have had the power to heal the blind and to raise the dead.
It may be that this man, born during a Roman occupation, midway through the reign of Augustus Caesar, has already put two and two together somehow. He can read the writing on the wall, see the direction that history is headed. People ask him if he is the Messiah, the Anointed. By this they mean: will you inagurate a kingdom like the kingdom from long ago? Like David’s kingdom? They mean: will you overthrow the Romans and take the throne.? He answer their questions with questions, “What do you think? Who do you think I am? Why do you call me good? There is only one who is good.” The only time—the single recorded instance— that he ever flatly and unambiguously states, “I am the messiah,” is the only time that knows for sure that saying it is going to get him killed. And then considering what ‘Messiah’ means—geopolitical liberator, geographic ruler, national savior, inaugurator of a new global supremacy for the land and its people—this in itself seems ambiguous. He says it at his trial. Sure enough: he ends up getting crucified a few hours later. It’s a mystery, a paradox.
As a part of the cruel spectacle of his public execution, of his crucifixion, his torturers—members of the occupying force—put a crown of thorns on his head. This is his coronation. It is said that he had known this was coming, that he knew that this was what he had to do to derail the terminal course of history, that he’d been talking about it in riddles ever since he’d appeared on the scene, practically ever since he’d come out of the desert where he’d been fasting.
There is a story that while he’d been in the desert he’d been offered these three opportunities: he could have the ability to transmute barren rock into life-sustaining bread—no one would ever starve. He’d been offered the world—he could rule the world as a political leader, if he wanted to. He could be the ruler of all the earth. He’d been offered invulnerability.
He’d refused these offers.
His followers, who remained devoted to him, after he was no longer ‘with them in the flesh,’ began to appropriate the imperial vocabulary that was characteristic of the ways in which their oppressors referred to their Emperor as a dream rebus of symbols and code words that they used to talk about him. They called him the Son of God, which had been the Emperor’s title. They said that his story was an ‘evangelion’—a gospel—a message of victory, of conquest. Just like victory announcements that the Emperor sent out through his empire when another nation had been crushed by his armies. It was the same word. When the Imperial army conquered a city they would set up an ekklesia—a church—where the conquered people would be compelled to pay tribute and bow down in worship to Emperor. As new cells and pockets of people throughout the empire heard of this man who had crowned in gruesome and crucified in Jerusalem, these pockets were called ekklesia—was this appropriation a parody or something else. Slaves in the house of the Emperor called themselves Kaisarianoi—Caeasareans, slaves of Caesar, dwellers in the house of Caesar. When these people who had begun to pledge allegiance to this crucified King were brought to trial, tortured, interrogated, executed, they refused to give their names. They called themselves Christianoi—Christians, slaves of the Crucified, dwellers in his house. The Emperor would always claim that the Emperor who had preceded, who had been deified in a state ceremony, was ‘at the right hand of Zeus, the Father God of Heaven.” This crucified man’s followers dropped the name out of this title, and they said their crucified King was “at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.”
This man, it seems realistic to believe this based on the records, had actually referred to the God of the bare altar–the God of the empty room, the Holy of Holies—had actually referred to this God as Father. He invited his followers to become the Sons of His Father, whose name couldn’t be spoken. Who had no name.
The message that passed between them, the word that they brought was:
That the King crucified in Jerusalem was God. That the God which had been spoken of all along as bodiless, imageless, as ‘one,’ cut-off, set-apart, holy–that all the time the whole story about that God had been a kind of prelude, a template describing this man crucified in Jerusalem. That the blood and shit and sweat that had dribbled down the stake that held him up, that the body nailed to the crossbeam, that the crying voice: that that was what God was. And had always been. That this was the culmination of eons. That the cross and the body nailed to it was the cul-de-sac of all mysteries. That the tenantless passage of the tomb was the opening from which all things flowed, past and future.
This gruesome mockery of the Empire—the thing that it referred to, the thing that it meant—would eventually infect, undercut, consume, outlive and transcend the object of its macabre parody.
And that is how the West was won.