Last night I got the exciting news that the Wavelengths anthology edited by Jessica Augustsson and containing my long short story (almost a novelette!) “The Platform Between Heaven and Earth” has been published! Here are purchase links: paperback, US; kindle, US; paperback, UK; kindle, UK.
I thought I’d devote a post to talking about what went in to writing this story. I wrote it during Camp NaNoWriMo April 2017, with an original goal of 15k, reduced to 11k about 3 weeks in, and the story ended up being ~10975 words. The inspiration came from an off-hand comment a friend made, when we were visiting the first weekend of the month, about how “language was made for us to miscommunicate with each other”. Well, what is that if not inspiration for a tower of Babel story? It made me think, what must it have been like, to have been present at the shift from everyone being able to speak to each other, to suddenly having a communicative rift. What would it be like to no longer be able to speak with those who spoke with just the night before?
Then began the research. The single most important thing for me was to get the names of the characters right, so my research started with looking up info on feminine names in the Old Babylon period. The first thing I found was Marten Stol, “Old Babylonian Personal Names”, Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici sul Vicino Oriente antico 8 (1991), which had an amazingly detailed collection of information, including a number of examples of women’s names. One of the footnotes in that article led me, inadvertently to W. F. Leemans, Foreign trade in the Old Babylonian period as revealed by texts from southern Mesopotamia, which proved to be one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time — and one of the few that I’ve read cover to cover without having been contracted to write a review of it! It was full of vocabulary and anecdotes and letters and information about temple practices; pretty much all of the little details in the story come from that book, such as the use of silver, carnelians, and “fish-eyes” (not known what these are; perhaps pearls?) as temple tithes; burasu, a type of incense made from juniper; and most satisfying of all was that from the information in Stol’s article — specifically: “Similarly, in a cloistered community of priestesses, Amat-Beltani considered the priestess Beltani as her ‘matriarch’.” (p. 203) — I had hypothesized the name Amat-Ninkarrek, for someone dedicated to the goddess Ninkarrek, and then I found an example of that name in Leemans’ book. I was wicked smug about that. All of the other names found in the story are actual documented names, and Selebum does indeed mean ‘fox’.
The gods and goddesses mentioned are all ones especially venerated at the towns/cities they were connected with, and for this I found Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses a very helpful starting point for my research.
Significant research was done regarding the history of the Babel myth itself, the surrounding geography, and the relative chronologies and timelines. For this, Wikipedia was invaluable, particularly with locating the various cities and estimating distances between them, and providing older forms of their names, and giving me basic information about the construction and decoration of ziggurats. As far as I was able to determine, current scholarship identifies the zuggurat Etemenanki, dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon, was either the inspiration for the tower of Babel story, or the tower itself. The title of the story comes from the translation of the name, “the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”, also translated house of the platform between heaven and earth.
One of the things I learned while researching the history of the myth is that the idea that the confusion of languages was God’s punishment for our hubris was quite a late interpretation, and that in a pre-Christian context or rather a pre-Greek context, ‘hubris’ was not really a concept that made sense to speak of in this context. (For more info on the former, see Sabrina Inowlocki, “Josephus’ Rewriting of the Babel Narrative (Gen. 11:1-9)”, Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2006), pp. 169-191). This meant I had to find another reason for why these events would occur that couldn’t be predicated on a vengeful, punishing God. I’m still rather pleased with how I managed to do this in the end.
The game that Belti and her friends play in the evenings is a variation of the Royal Game of Ur.
This was an immensely satisfying story to write, and I learned so much from the research — this post covers only a few of the sources I read, or the links that I’ve saved in my notes.