Against Superheroes, Section 7 (Chapter 5)

coverar-v3-2-10-2015Section 7

With Chapter 4 we see a combination of narrative forms. There is, first, the factual discussion of the details of the archaeological dig itself. There are the problems that arise from the details of the ground, the water, the shaft, the descent. These problems and the detailed resolution of them lend to a sense of consistent realism concerning the tasks at hand in the everyday lives of the protagonists. The level of detail is strikingly at odds with the other primary narrative form: Sinister’s soliloquy on the symbolism and history of other deities. The position of these paragraphs juxtaposed amongst the more detailed discussion has produced several potential explanations, the most important of which was the requirement for presaging the unknown technology and its role in past conflicts. While there is an element of that, as a memoir presenting a linear sequence of developments (remember that he was concerned about that presentation), it is equally plausible that his recollections were merely jumbled and possessed of a certain confused emotional state.

The content of the soliloquy is worth further analysis. The primary descriptions are of conquest of people and their gods against others. There is a spreading out of the various factions, Hellenists, Israelites, Romans, etc. They are constantly at war with one another and the more powerful gods subjugate the less powerful. The subtle indication that amongst at least some of them, the Hellenists, that the gods were somewhat distant to them is of particular interest because it begs the question of how, amongst all the spirits and entities that are referenced, they were applied during war? What means of attack and influence did they have that apparently led to them conquering Yahweh and others? This is where we see some light shining through our subthesis that not only was Sinister real and his narrative also real, but that he represented a line of descent in his use of the Baal technology. If the gods were not factually present on the battlefields, then they might have been merely metaphorical for the hopes and beliefs.

We are against this theory for several reasons. First, Sinister may be simply reporting his state of understanding at the time in the narrative flow. He had not yet developed his greater insights into the flow of history and believed that this was a conundrum among the ancient peoples as to whether they believed or did not believe in the actual existence of their gods. Second, the fact that some groups may have been victorious but the historical record merely had certain traceries of ideas that limited the role of their gods does not rule out a broader influence. Third, the referential period for the reporting on the belief system of the Hellenist may have been after the primary period of influence. Allah, for instance, is highly influential among the Muslims as we later see, yet Sinister does not encounter Allah in his terrorization of the lands during and after The Oasis. We presume, however, based on the descriptions of early Islam that Allah was strongly influential. Finally, and most critically, the widespread existence of worshipful sites like the Baalic one at Mt. Hasan combined with their elaborate design and construction efforts, seems unlikely to comport with mythos. The idea that a constructed fantasy shared among an extremely large number of believers would influence the expenditure of massive resources to the described levels seems wholly implausible.

In this final point, we must draw out some nuances. We certainly can imagine that a powerful entity possessed of transhuman powers could be briefly present but then wane in influence. These gods were somewhat destructible, especially by others like them, and their emotional influence over humanity via the various mechanisms Sinister describes could conceivably last a generation or two, but the lack of repeated re-seeding of the imaginations of the believers by a contemporaneous presence lends more to the theory that in the interregnums between their strong influence the people wandered off to other gods, until perhaps their original gods returned and tried to reclaim their attentions. But if some of these beings died, some left, some hibernated, some were broken in pieces and then resurrected (as per Baal and Mot), there we see the possibility of this variegated and perplexing history. There was no one deity who was ultimately victorious, just roving, regional spontaneous events that led to the eruption of worship and legends, with the lack of consistency in the reporting associated with this complex landscape of cultures and customs.

In this respect Sinister can himself be seen as achieving what these others could not or did not want to do, finalizing Ragnarok, Frashokereti, the cycles of Shiva, and some of the other end-of-days predictions that apparently accompanied worship of these entities. His realization of this continuous current of eschatological ideation among recorders of religious ideals in many ways fulfills those other prophesies. The predecessor deities were not, in other words, incorrect in their transmission of a strong likelihood of utter destruction of humanity. They were as disturbed by their capacities for pettiness, power, anger, and selfishness as Sinister himself, but for purely contingent reasons they simply didn’t achieve that end state.

We continue with the new translation.


We spent more than two weeks working on the shaft and the room, documenting, translating, photographing. We had to report our find to the Head of Curation at the museum, and I became concerned that he would want to take over the site and insert himself into the new find. Nildag expressed concern over the same but found out that Dr. Terzi’s daughter was getting married within the month and that he was suitably distracted that he merely congratulated us and requested that we keep him informed. The Chief of Police came around, as well, and spent some time looking over our trucks and tent areas, as if looking for contraband. We covered over the main shaft when we saw his jeep rolling up the path and he seemed completely uninterested in the few physical finds that we showed him, including potsherds and flakes from Neolithic tool production.

The translations required a fair amount of speculation. Ugaritic dialects are typically gendered and the grammar is VSO[1] or SVO. This was similar and appeared mostly SVO but there was also an occasional SOV construct that was highly indicative of Indo-European influences from the proto-Iranian language group and others. The content, as best we could tell on initial reading, was not radical for Ugaritic texts, focused on Baal riding the clouds, the worship of the people, their strong feelings for him, and their forsaking of other gods in his honor. There were oddities, however. A singular section declared that the clouds had fallen from the heavens, that El and Ashera were merely companions of Baal, and that the power of the world emerged from the spirits or tendencies of the gods. There was even an introductory collection of verses that paralleled Genesis in declaring that El and his Host had come to the world and created mankind in their own images, and that they had wrested the giant creatures like lizards in the earth to establish a garden for creating man and woman, who were infused with the wills of the gods but not given their powers. Touching the snake or coiled bracelet or belt that adorned Baal was the only thing forbidden to the new creatures, for it would poison them and set their minds on fire.

The woman tried to seduce Baal, however, because in her creation the Host had infused all the best attributes of beauty among the gods themselves, and then she reached for the snake bracelet and was shocked by it, and her purity was lost and corrupted for she knew the desires and powers of the gods in small measure. She longed to be the consort of Baal but was trapped as a worshipper, consumed by the want of that which she could not have. And her husband was jealous of her love and still innocent in the world, and so he wandered the earth and longed for her, in turn. The world was formless and empty outside the garden they had created but there were rogue gods who summoned seas and urged life out of the chaos. The interplay with Mykenaen civilization should not have been a significant surprise to us, nor the mention very clearly of Dian-e, or of Chronos and Prometheus, rendered into transliterations that preserved the consonants but were obvious in their juxtaposition. There was a continuous war among the gods, powers incalculable that rended the lands and irrupted islands of life, designed as competitions of creative stakes and claims. There were the Jotuns and the Aesir, and other attributional epithets for Shiva and Rudra; the gods were all at war for the land, the air—especially the air—and the want of the people.

The spirals of cuneiforms began at the panels, at the doors, and swirled down into the ground and up along the ceiling, then tightened into the shaft, until finally announcing the rebirth of Baal from the stomach of Mot and of the return to power in the world in the final blocks near the capped hole. The image paint layers were gently sampled and Faruk drove down to the town to post the tiny plastic bags back to the lab at the museum for analysis and testing. Dark ochres, blues, grays, oranges, and saffrons were piled up in dense formations on the surfaces, remarkably well-preserved and with little damage from the ambient moisture in the room.

I finally met Nildag in front of the final image showing the twin rooms and suggested it was time that we proceed where the evidence was taking us. He agreed and two students lowered digging tools down to us. Blowing out the cracks around the panels with an air compressor, I inserted a thin crowbar into the dividing chink and began pushing and pulling, but with little effect. We continued this process for more than an hour, then moved to larger crowbars with lever extensions. Faruk descended and provided additional muscle, but with no clear impact other than some unfortunate scraping along several of the edges. We decided to set up an electric winch in the space, using extendible aluminum beams to anchor the winch between the floor and ceiling in an area where there was no writing. Thin wire hooks were fashioned for us by a machine shop in town and arrived the next day. We slid one into the seam vertically and tested rotation until we discovered a void six inches in, allowing us an additional four inches before the opposing hook for securing to a block harness. With eight hooks secured to the interior edge we fired up the generator up above and slowly eased the edge of the block back. Our greatest fear was that it would fall over, smashing the cuneiforms of the floor, so several of the grad students worked with Faruk to fashion a frame out of heavy lumber that had a seventy degree angle at the top and would support the block if it fell towards us as the block rotated outward. Rough calculations supported this theory, but the timber wasn’t uniform in quality and we were all fairly concerned that the block might just pancake the arrangement.

As the wire hooks pulled back, dust fell from the sides and top of the panel, but it rotated slowly and without snagging until we had a two feet of clearance into the space beyond. Everyone cheered and there were high-fives[2] all around, the Turkish kids enjoying being able to show off their hip Americanism. I was fast in moving in with a flashlight to peer into the space, giving a cursory overview of the block to make sure it was not wobbling. The space beyond mimicked the wall painting with a twenty foot hall opening into a larger room beyond. The passage was devoid of the cuneiforms of the larger room, however, lined with simple basalt and thin joins between them. Nildag cautioned me that the block needed to be shored up before further action, but I shined the flashlight at him, briefly causing him to recoil at the bright flare. I slipped inside and was ten feet down the hall when I heard him curse and yell my name.

The air inside was warmer than in the outer hall, I recall, and seemed to grow slightly warmer as I moved towards the inner room. As I closed in, my expectations were hopeful for a continuation of the incredible find that we already had; there had to be some significance to this place other than merely a shrine to Baal dressed in odd pre-Ugaritic linguistic constructs. I would be mildly disappointed, though, as I emerged into the inner room. There was a small dais and some skeletal remains. It was a tomb, after all. It was well preserved, appearing to have been untouched by graverobbers, which was significant, but the bones were mostly alone except for a small bronze bracelet near the right wrist, and a small statuette in the center of the torso where the ribcage had collapsed to dust in parts. The statuette was very similar to regular finds of hearth Astartes or Asheras in the region and throughout the Middle East.

Nildag arrived moments later, unable to restrain himself after I slipped through, and scanned the area with his headlamp. His reaction was a bit of a letdown, too, but he quickly recovered and said that it was still significant, even if it was just a tomb. The elaborateness of the antechamber meant that this was a person of significance, and the linguistic evidence supplied a new opportunity for scholarship. The bones would need to be dated. There might be DNA analysis opportunities. The lack of preserved cloth or other jewelry or offerings required a new reading of how wealth and power were interpreted by the minds of these people.

I agreed but had hoped for much more, and sat down on the floor, casually flicking my light around at the space, looking for anything more of interest. There was little to be seen, however. The space was smooth, the dais was smooth, the blocks were solid with minimal seams. There were the bones, about average height, maybe a bit bigger. I was not a specialist in that area. It was a good and interesting find, Nildag kept assuring me, realizing I was in a minor doldrums. I was. Academic pursuits were in many ways distractions from what I would subsequently label an elaborately empty core. Forced to value myself based on the opinions of those around me, to grovel for grants to study an imperfectable lens onto the fog of historical chance, to feel the fleeting exuberance of my enhanced life with Ela, and then to realize that each of these things were just the next arduous rung on an infinite ladder that terminated in death and only a temporary solidity in the memories of family, friends, and the scholarly community, was an unobservable dark variable in the watershed of momentary experiences that together flowed as my experience of being, my qualia. That unobservability would emerge later in the passions of emotional maelstroms that accompanied the transformation, would become a central and unquenchable fire that sustained me straight through the uncontrolled phase of gathering and oppression, but that also became the central spark by which I became reconfigured, if you will, and aligned with positive goals.

But there I was in my little imperfect world, unfulfilled by random possibility, but I quickly recovered and began the diligent cataloging efforts that I was trained to do, already discussing a few of the publishing options that we might pursue with Nildag. There was the linguistic evidence that suggested a proto-Ugaritic Northern Semitic influence in potential creole or patois arrangements with some Indo-European Slavic dialects derived from interactions with Black Sea tribes. There was the linkage to Çatalhöyük manifest in the twin volcanoes imagery and the Ugaritic poetry. There was the artistry and unusual representational stylizations of the wall murals. There was the design of the crypt itself. There was the simplicity of the tomb room, the lack of adornment, the two remaining artifacts, and the nature of the bones. It was a lot, but I had built it up into potentially more.

It took two weeks of diligent work before we were ready to move the bones. We fashioned a large cardboard box to accommodate the find and carefully drew locations and silhouettes onto the surface before transferring each piece, raising them with tweezers, photographing them, placing them on a 3D scanner, then carefully attaching a small label and wiring them to the cardboard surface. The figurine and the bracelet were examined and catalogued. Like many of the figures from the first milennia BC and before, she was mostly shapeless but with a widening of the hips that suggested female, She also resembled common Astarte figurines, Astarte who was syncretized with Ashera, who became Ishtar, and who probably carried down the female goddess tradition from earlier still. The bracelet was unremarkable, a bronze circle broken by a one inch opening with a flaring and roundness to the ends. There were some faint scores in an undulating pattern along the edge of the bracelet. We scanned it, measured it, and bagged it with the rest of the site.

I was mostly done with the site at this point and I invited Ela to come down for the weekend. She took off early on Friday and wanted to see the site. I was cataloging images on my laptop that morning, I recall. The sun was the relentless yellow of late summer days as I worked in my tent. I got a text from Ela around 10AM. She was halfway, gassing up her Volkswagen along the highway. But by noon I was concerned. She wasn’t responding to texts at all and I called and left voicemails that were unreturned. And then I finally got a call. It was her image on the phone but when I answered it was a man’s voice that opened in Turkish. I caught part of it, something about the woman and the ancient people or relics. I asked him to slow down and he paused at my accent, then asked me if I spoke English. His English was good enough and he explained in a high-pitched, nasally cadence that Ela had been taken and that they wanted the relics found at the site. I asked him first if she was alright, to which he said she was unharmed and nearby. He repeated that he wanted the gold and artifacts from the site, which told me he had no idea what had been found there. I didn’t let on and agreed to bring him what we had. Where were they? He said he would call back in a few minutes and sent me a picture SMS[3] with Ela, looking terrified, in the back seat of a car, a gag over her mouth and her hands bound in front of her. It was her Scirocco and I could see a bruise along her cheek.

I hurriedly called Nildag and Faruk up from the shaft and they sensed immediately something was very wrong. Nildag paused as I described the scene and blurted out that it had to be the police captain. He seemed too interested and now he wanted to profit from the find. I agreed that it had to be someone with detailed knowledge, but unless they had just staked out the access road, it had to be someone at the museum or a grad student. Nildag thought that unlikely. The kids couldn’t have set it up. None of them were from this area of the country, and they knew what had been recovered. It wasn’t gold. We processed the details with intense fury, Nildag translating details to Faruk between frantic interchanges. We could go to the regional or national police. We could call the head of the museum and get the government and military involved. There were so many options and I felt helpless.

The phone rang. Ela’s young grin behind big, fashionable shades popped up. The picture was from a day trip to the Black Sea at the beginning of summer. She had worn a bikini under her top and shorts, jumping into the water at the first opportunity, unafraid of the mud flats or uncertainties of rocks, squawking when she lost those glasses in the shallow, muddy waters and couldn’t find them again. I waded in slowly, cautiously, feeling the bottom with uncertain toes, repelled by the cold of the water in bands downward, until finally dropping my head under at her urging. The rush of the icy edge around my torso was intense and I erupted back out of the water with a whooshing sound from my lips. Ela had laughed but then pulled me against her to warm me and herself.

I answered the phone, Nildag huddled close by. The kidnapper spoke in English and demanded that we drive to a crossroads in Obruk and they would meet us there. He repeated that we needed to bring the gold and I started to tell him there was no gold but Nildag waved his hands rapidly in front of him. I said OK and hung up. Nildag said it was better that they think there is value. That way Ela was valued too. It made sense but I wondered briefly why I should trust Nildag in these matters. He was an academic like me, and while Turkey had its share of corruption issues, reading out a uniquely local perspective was unlikely for a man who had grown up in Istanbul in a family of automobile importers.

We huddled and decided that the bones, the figure, and the bracelet weren’t worth Ela’s life. Her car was probably more valuable than the finds on the open market, though the structure and cuneiforms of strange proto-Ugaritic were in a sense priceless, though not in a way that mattered to kidnapping bandits from the Anatolian countryside. Faruk pounded his fist into his hand and grunted something I had never heard before to Nildag, who rolled his eyes and told me that Faruk didn’t have any weapons and so his bravado was probably misplaced. We put the cardboard box with the bones and the figurine and bracelet in the back of a transport van and headed down to the meeting place, checking our phones against the description given by the kidnapper until we had resolved that we were in the right place. The nearest structure was a quarter mile away and traffic was almost nonexistent. No one was around and we sat in nervous silence, playing with our phones while we waited. Finally a text came in from Ela’s phone and instructed us to move to another location. We were being watched it added in strangely capitalized English, ending with an angry emoticon.

Arriving at the second location, even more remote than the first, we waited until we saw headlights moving towards us. They were more modern looking, in the bluer part of the spectrum, and I was hopeful that it was Ela’s car. It stopped fifty feet from us and the door opened. I was pretty sure it was Ela’s car from this distance and started to walk towards the shadowy figure. He told me to stop in Turkish, which was simple and clear enough. I asked him for Ela in English and he responded by rearranging his clothes, or so I initially thought in the dim light. I soon realized that he had a fat revolver in his hand and he asked where the treasure was. I told him we had everything we had collected from the site, but that it was mainly interesting to archaeologists. He waived the gun at me and walked to the back of the truck, surveying the contents with the flick of a flashlight before demanding it be moved to the car. Faruk and I picked up the box of bones and walked it over to the car. As we approached, I  could see Ela’s struggling form in the back seat. We lowered the box into the trunk and the kidnapper opened the rear car door and dumped Ela onto the dirt, closed the door and walked back to the passenger’s side. Dropping into the seat he gunned the VW in reverse and was quickly gone.

I ran to Ela and ungagged her. I could barely see in the dark, but Nildag brought a flashlight from the truck and we had her untied and free after a short period. Ela was enraged, yelling in English, Turkish, cursing in French. She had been so stupid, seeing the car paralleling her and not turned around, not driven evasively. She had been stupid and she yelled that she knew better. She apologized to me about the bother and loss of the artifacts, but I was just clutching her and telling her it was alright. Nildag yelled over to us that we had forgotten the statuette and bracelet. They had fallen off the cardboard in the dark. All he got was the bones. And the car, I mentioned. We went to the local police station and spent several hours waiting and reporting the events. They told us we should have come to them immediately, but I was still concerned the chief or his extended family were somehow involved. We were finally released and I took Ela to a hotel and we got the night clerk to get us some food from the kitchen. Ela hadn’t been harmed but had been groped a bit while being bound. At one point she kicked her kidnapper and he slugged her in the mouth. I laughed a bit at her bravado and she laughed too, especially after learning that he had gotten nothing more than some bones. Her VW was worth more but would probably show up again according to the police detective we had talked to. Cars are too trackable in the EU to be good targets.

I had the figurine and bracelet in a small plastic bag and Ela felt their textures through the bag. That was it, I told her. It was all a great find, an interesting find, but not as great as I had initially expected when we uncovered the shaft. She was sorry for me and the waves of contingency that surrounded my field. Ridiculous, I said, and I held her late into the night, glad she was still alive.

[1] We believe the V (Verb), S (Subject), O (Object) language hypothesis remains correct here, but add that the lack of definition accompanying first mention plys well into the supposition that the manuscript is a factual account. Sinister simply didn’t bother to explain something technical because he was deeply in the milieu of the explanatory framework.

[2] Literal juxtaposition from other individual occurrances. We assume a celebratory action or gesture, possibly symbolically drawing the character for the number five in the air.

[3] Unknown reference, assumed to be image communications over the portable communications “phone.”

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