What are the Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence

Steadily, I am reading through T.E. Lawrence’s military memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had to ask myself, “What are these seven pillars of wisdom anyway?” Nowhere in the text does he ever mention these seven pillars. What were they and what could they possibly mean?

My quest lead me down an interesting path of discovery, into the Bible and the works of Robert Graves, whose nonfiction book The White Goddess will have interest to readers of fantasy literature, since it is a source text behind much of the druid and bardic lore that went into making classic Celtic fantasy, and, I imagine, still goes into more recent fantasy as well.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a detailed, factual account of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s stint as liaison officer between the British forces and the Arabs in the Eastern theatre of the First World War. Arab officers rebelled against their Turkish commanders in order to declare open revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and win their national independence from their mismanaging provincial oppressors stationed in Damascus. Lawrence–better known as Lawrence of Arabia–fought a manoeuvre war with the Arab commanders, rallying disparate tribes of nomads to fight as a united nation.

In this memoir, poetic observations of the harsh, magnificent landscape accompany an account of the day-to-day marches across the land to outflank and outmanoeuvre the Turks. Lawrence instructs the rebels to lay charges and detonate explosive gel under the train tracks that ferry supplies to the Turkish garrisons and towns. Moments of still peace and contemplation of strategy accompany moments of sudden violence, all described with the highest literary sensibility. It reads like an epic fantasy novel in its length and description of Lawrence’s extensive journeys, but the content is cold, hard fact written in a masterful style.

The twenty-first century is an age that that has not only seen a revival of an independent, but brutally medieval caliphate, but also one that has seen the struggle of multiple Middle Eastern peoples for national independence, such as the Kurds, who continue to fight ISIL. Some Kurds even fight the Turks from whom they desire to wrest independence–much to their chagrin. Such struggles have diversified and grown infinitely more complicated since 1917, but the struggles happening today may be traced to that much-rued Paris treaty signed after the conclusion of the Great War.

But enough historical background. Down to business. The most well-known reference to the seven pillars of Wisdom is in the Bible:

Wisdom has built her house, / she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9.1)

The purpose of the reference is to characterize the persona of Wisdom as a woman who has prepared a feast. Only the wise are invited to this banquet; the foolish are unworthy.

This reference makes sense in relation to the jewels of profundity spread throughout the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Arab viewpoint on the war, on religion, and on life itself, picking up on the wisdom of the Bedouin and Howeitat elders:

“Why are the Westerners always wanting all?” provokingly said Auda. “Behind our few stars we can see God, who is not behind your millions. […] If the end of wisdom is to add star to star our foolishness is pleasing.” (289)

While this captures something of the dynamic between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, what do seven pillars have to do with this wisdom?

Wikipedia makes clear that Seven Pillars of Wisdom was the title for a previous book Lawrence had been planning to publish before the war broke out. It was to be a scholarly work about the seven greatest cities of the Middle East: Cairo, Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout (Beirut), Aleppo, Damascus, and Medina. This manuscript never saw the light of publication. Lawrence destroyed it. To worsen matters, he would also lose his first manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919, at Reading train station. Just in time for Christmas. It has never been recovered and would have been 250,000 words in length. And I thought losing a USB key was rough.

In the memoir that eventually saw publication–painfully rewritten by a shellshocked Lawrence overwhelmed by the demands of his own celebrity status as a war hero–the author makes reference to these seven cities, either in one way or another. Damascus, for instance, was the centre of Turkish control over the Arab Middle East and one of the Arab Revolt’s main targets. Even today, age-old Damascus is the capital of war-ravaged Syria and the headquarters of Bashar al-Assad. Owing to the new focus of his book, Lawrence skims over any further significance he may have attached to these seven cities.

Now, while I acknowledge the poetic value of calling the seven cities “pillars of wisdom,” the phrase does strike me as unconventional. Why was Lawrence so insistent on this title for his memoir? Did the seven pillars of Wisdom carry some other kind of meaning?

To provide an answer to this question–or the beginnings of an answer–it might be pointed out that the seven pillars of Wisdom are also mentioned in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

Graves was a renowned war poet, just as Lawrence was a wartime writer. Their connection and sharing of ideas deserves to be excavated deeply by scholars. Perhaps they already have written studies of which I’m unaware.

Graves reviewed Lawrence’s memoir and edited the poem that opens Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The poem is “To. S.A.” and may have been addressed to Selim Ahmad, a young Syrian boy. It is written in such a way that it could address the Arab nation as a whole:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands

and wrote my will across the sky in stars

To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,

that your eyes might be shining for me […]  (ln. 1-4)

Freedom is a word seven letters long. Each letter represents one pillar in Wisdom’s house. Thus, Freedom is a kind of wisdom, or perhaps it is wisdom that makes you free.

Although I am not certain how Robert Graves edited this poem, he may have left the mark of his own ideas upon it, either directly in the editing process or by influencing Lawrence in other ways, such as through their correspondence. Since Lawrence was a bookish man as well as a soldier, he might have read Graves’s poetry and nonfiction works himself. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s poetic use of the seven pillars motif and his correspondence with Graves cannot be entirely coincidental. Not when Chapter 15 of The White Goddess is entitled “The Seven Pillars.”

Any deeper connection between Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The White Goddess evades me. I’m going to call the connection suggestive and leave it at that. But in case you were curious about what Graves does say in “The Seven Pillars,” let us hear it:

the seven pillars of Wisdom are identified by Hebrew mystics with the seven days of the Creation, with the seven days of the week. (259)

But since this is a book about ancient druid rituals and Welsh bards, a miscellaneous trove of Celtic lore, Graves finds a correlation with Irish tree symbolism.

The seven sacred trees of the Irish grove are “birch, willow, holly, hazel, oak, apple and alder” (259). Each tree corresponds to a day of the week and a deity of the classical pantheon. Alder corresponds to Saturn (Saturday), apple to Venus (Friday), oak to Jupiter (Thursday), willow to the Moon, or Circe (Monday), holly to Mars (Tuesday), birch to the Sun (Sunday). The seventh tree, hazel, corresponds to Mercury and its day falls in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. Wednesday in English is named after Odin (Woden), the Norse god of wisdom, which means his sacred tree, the ash, may be substituted for Mercury’s hazel. Not accidentally, Mercury is also a god of wisdom. Hence, you have the seven pillars of wisdom. You might imagine each tree in Wisdom’s house being carved from one of each type of wood–provided Irish trees could grow in ancient Israel.

Is there any connection between these gods, the days of the week, the planets, the sacred trees, and the seven greatest cities of the Middle East? The numerical symbolism is certainly striking and suggestive. What it means is anyone’s guess.

To conclude, it is interesting to casually note that Graves provides a classical Latin message hidden within the acronym of the first letters of the sacred Irish trees. Perhaps this will give us our final hint about the connection of Graves to Lawrence of Arabia.  “Benignissime, Solo Tibi Cordis Devotionem Quotidianam Facio.” In English, this reads, “Most Gracious One to Thee alone I make a daily devotion of my heart” (260).

A line that Lawrence could well have spoken to his dear Selim, as a message to the Arab people.

 

Appendix:

 

Thank you, llamaladysg, for providing T.E. Lawrence’s original poem:

Most of Robert Grave’s changes were in the third stanza. This is the original version as written by T. E. Lawrence. I much prefer this one.

To S.A.

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.

Death was my servant on the road, till we were near
and saw you waiting:
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me
and took you apart:
Into his quietness.

So our love’s earning was your cast-off body,
to be held one moment
Before earth’s soft hands would explore all your face
and the blind worms transmute
Your failing substance.

Men prayed me to set my work, the inviolate house,
In memory of you:
But for fit monument I shattered it unfinished, and now
the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
In the marred shadow
Of your gift.

The third stanza in the version that Robert Graves edited runs as follows.

“Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage

ours for the moment

Before earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind

worms grew fat upon

Your substance.”

While I agree that the first lines of the third stanza in Lawrence’s original poem flow more easily, I agree with Graves’s call to concretize Lawrence’s original verb, “transmuting,” into the more vivid verb clause, “grew fat upon.”

20150610_182531

The tooling on the hard cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom reads “the sword also means cleanness and death.”

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How T.E. Lawrence Came to Many-Pillared Iram

Could the Artificial Paradise of the Assassins be a Fairy Otherworld?

 

Works Cited

The Bible. New Revised Standard Version.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber & Faber, 1988.

Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph. 1926. London: Penguin, 1962.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6 February 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Pillars_of_Wisdom.

 

 

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.

A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.

As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.

Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.

cockroachThough I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.

Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.

I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:

“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).

The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:

“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).

Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.

At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.

Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?

Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.

drain

Montreal, view from Mount Royal.

Montreal, view from Mount Royal.

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Photo Credits:

Cockroach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokybrown_cockroach

Montreal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_Skyline_winter_panorama_Jan_2006.jpg

Drain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kitchen_sink_drain.jpg

Rawi Hage and What his Work Means to Me

Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads

Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads.

I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.

Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.

In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.

Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”

I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.

Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.

Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.

I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.

Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.

One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.

Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.

His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!

If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.

What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?

Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.

Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.

Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.

deniro

Robert DeNiro: an inspiration for Rawi Hage?

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Photo Credits:

Canada Reads: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/12/samantha-bee-and-rawi-hage-talk-canada-reads.html

DeNiro: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

foucault's pendulum

A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?

The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.

The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.

However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.

Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.

Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.

A Knight Templar.

A Knight Templar.

Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.

Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:

“The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).

The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.

This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.

I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.

We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.

On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.

And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.

Foucault's Pendulum, in Paris

Foucault’s Pendulum, in Paris

Photo Credits:

Foucault Pendulum:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum cover:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17841.Foucault_s_Pendulum

Templar: http://boltzmann.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/a-templar-in-his-habit/

Umberto Eco: http://politics-prose.com/event/book/umberto-eco-prague-cemetery

Quotation taken  from  Harcourt paperback edition, translated by William Weaver.

Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted: Historical Reality and the Creation of the Myth behind Assassin’s Creed

Horseback altair

A white-robed hooded rider spurs his stallion to the castle of Masyaf to receive an assassination contract from his master Rashid al-Din, the infamous leader of the Assassin Brotherhood. The rider’s name is Altaïr ibn la-Ahad. They meet in a library, and the assassin receives his instructions: Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, a Templar crusader, must die.

A

If this sounds like a video game you’ve played, then you might be aware of how the creators of Assassin’s Creed conduct thorough historical research. Although they take liberties in inventing a fanciful storyline, there are historical realities behind the famous video game.

The fida’is, brave soldiers of the Ismaili sect of Islam, are the real-world historical source for the Assassin myth. In Crusader-era Syria and Iran, they would infiltrate the social circle of political targets and wait, keeping up appearances, before threatening them by thrusting a dagger beside into their pillow at night.

Often, the threat would be enough to deter the enemies of the Ismailis, but occasionally they used real violence against targets, as a last resort. One such a target was Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, assassinated in 1192 in a courtyard at the port-city of Tyre just before his coronation as King of Jerusalem—by figures disguised as Christian monks. Wearing robes reminiscent of these assassins, Altaïr is the character that players of Assassin’s Creed guide through multiple levels, conducting similar assassinations. However, the names of the real assassins are lost to history.

Rashid al-Din Sinan (left) was a real leader of the Ismaili.

Rashid al-Din Sinan (left) was a real leader of the Ismaili.

As for the castle of Masyaf, it actually does stand in Syria, though not in the location specified in the game. Sinan Rashid al-Din, Altaïr’s master, was the actual legendary Ismaili leader who once called it home. Called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” he was lame in one leg, a learned alchemist, and was said to have had telepathy, clairvoyance, and the ability to communicate with spirits. Perhaps the Apple of Eden, Assassin’s Creed‘s illusion-creating artefact, had had something to do with that .. but once again, these stories are lost to history.

The truth of the Ismaili Assassins is often difficult to separate from myth.

Modern-day Masyaf castle.

Modern-day Masyaf castle.

One of the first myths is from Marco Polo’s account of the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins in his Travels. Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations has sequences that play off Niccolo Polo’s supposed encounter with the Brotherhood.

A painting of the Old Man of the Mountain receiving assassins in his castle within the garden of the Earthly Paradise.

A painting of the Old Man of the Mountain receiving assassins in his castle within the garden of the Earthly Paradise.

Supposedly, the Old Man of the Mountain had command of a fortress called Alamut (in Polo’s account not Masyaf), where he had an exceptionally beautiful garden. Milk and honey flowed in rivers through his garden, which was filled with fragrant fruits and flowers, appearing as the Qur’an’s vision of Paradise. The Old Man would bring men into the garden and have young virgins entertain them, before serving them wine laced with hashish. He would then bring them into his presence.

There, mission briefing would occur, and a promise. Since an assassination was essentially a suicidal job—it was assumed that the guards protecting the target would inevitably kill or capture an assassin—the Old Man offered Paradise itself to his minions. Since the drugged assassins thought they had truly found Paradise at Alamut, they believed the Old Man could offer that.

Through this method, the Old Man of the Mountain supposedly eliminated his political rivals and advanced his own interests.

Marco Polo’s account is a juicy myth. Essentially a result of Western fascination with the East, Europeans found in the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins a way to explore fantasies forbidden within their moralistic society. The myth gained popularity throughout the ages. According to Wikipedia, Friedrich Nietzsche in his Geneology of Morals considered the Assassins free spirits not bound by Western strictures of morality, operating according to the creed—now made famous by the video game—that states, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”

The Ismaili Assassins have captured the imagination of the West for centuries.

The Ismaili Assassins have captured the imagination of the West for centuries.

However, the historical reality behind the Brotherhood demolishes these Orientalist fantasies.

To begin with, there could never really have been a garden at Alamut. Peter Willey, in his book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, to which I am indebted in this article, describes the castle’s physical details at great length. Alamut, which means “Eagle’s Nest,” is perched above a steep and rocky ridge. It is a very narrow castle and is said to have once contained a great library. However, it is simply impossible to imagine a luxurious garden growing in such a narrow courtyard.

A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.

A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.

Marco Polo clearly had never seen Alamut, which leads scholars to suppose that his famous journey to the Orient never actually happened. He may never have left Constantinople, composing his Travels from hearsay and the stories of other travelers.

To debunk the myth that the Assassins took hashish before carrying out their murders, Peter Willey draws attention to how it is impossible to aim a blade with any accuracy while high. Dexterity takes a serious hit when the mind is clouded, and a successful assassination would require presence of mind to quickly slide a blade between a target’s plate armour or through chain mail—and sometimes the target would be on horseback.

It also must be emphasized that the fida’is did not always kill. Often, the mere threat of a dagger thrust in a target’s pillow would make him withdraw a siege from a castle, or pull back his troops from a strategic region. The fear caused by the fida’is had a real affect on the enemies of the Ismailis, who were much more powerful and numerous. It kept them away from strongholds and villages—and added to the paranoia that would launch the Assassin myth.

The Ismailis were considered heretics by many Muslim religious groups. Hunted like witches by enemies seeking to weed out the fida’is from their ranks, they became blamed for assassinations that they did not commit. Innocent people were accused of being Ismaili assassins. For these, the punishment could be severe: al-Ghazali suggested the death penalty for any Ismailis who remained apostates of the Islamic faith. Meanwhile, the political situation in the Middle East—so little has changed since—was volatile and paranoid, filled with many rival political groups, most of whom employed assassination as a tactic.

In such an environment of fear, myths can easily arise. The Ismailis were blamed for more assassinations than it would have been prudent to commit. Those who blamed them were either reacting out of paranoia, or seizing an appropriate scapegoat, to better mask their own political and military stratagems.

It is precisely through such times of paranoia that fantasies take root. The historical record today can only give us glimpses into the past, and those records may be contaminated with hearsay at best, if not a deliberate falsification of information. Today, you can immerse yourself in the myths that history has passed down to you, playing a part in them through your PS3 controller.

What the the Assassin myth tells us is that human beings prefer to indulge in great stories rather than seek the truth of history. Fiction and reality: these are opposed modes and people enjoy fiction more than reality. For a writer of historical fantasy such as myself, what an insight! “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”: the creed of the historical fantasist!

Photo Credits:

http://www.gamesradar.com/awordfromoursponsors/?page=2&zone=p3_pc_x3/reviews&sendMeBackTo=http%3A//www.gamesradar.com/assassins-creed-review/%3Fpage%3D2

http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/William_of_Montferrat

http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Rashid_ad-Din_Sinan

http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=101164

http://www.sickchirpse.com/2011/01/13/origin-and-myth-the-mashed-assassins/

http://simerg.com/special-series-i-wish-id-been-there/the-great-resurrection/