THE FALL OF MOUNT MERU
A number of years ago, while reading Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill, my attention was caught by one of the illustrations, a painting from a Buddhist shrine in Chinese Turkestan representing the fall of Mount Meru. Meru is the world-mountain of Indian mythology, and in this moment of apolyptic collapse the mountain breaks apart and the sun and moon roll down its slopes as the stars fall from the sky.
What caught my attention was the feeling that I had seen a picture very like this one in a completely different context. But where? I suddenly realized that it was strangely similar to the Tarot card variously named the Tower of Destruction, the Tower of God, or the Tower Struck by Lightning. Could this be the original image underlying that card?
If so, much has been altered. The hourglass-shaped mountain has become a stone tower with an unlikely-looking crown being knocked off its top, the sun and moon have changed into the heads of two men who seem to be falling from the tower (although they are drawn almost as large as it is), and the gemlike stars are simplified to colored circles. And yet the essential elements, and even their placement within the picture, remain the same. The crown is shaped like the mountain-top and similarly falls towards the left, pivoting at one point. The head of the man below it overlaps the edge of the tower, as the moon does the mountain, while both the sun and the head on the right are placed a bit higher and further out. Even the arched forms of the windows in the tower seem to echo the scallops on the mountain.
I once read an essay by Robert Graves which suggested that iconic images alter gradually as they pass through the hands of a succession of artists, reflecting changes in the local culture, ideology, and information-base. He was formulating an argument that certain familiar mythic scenes -- Eve receiving the apple from the serpent or Perseus seizing the single eye of the Graeae -- had begun as icons of a goddess-cult, their significance later distorted by the patriarchal societies of ancient Greece and Israel. But it had always seemed to me that his idea might have wider applicability. I now began to wonder whether the Tarot had once been a consistent mythic statement that was badly misunderstood and muddled as it found its way into medieval Europe.
(The fact that the image of the Tower of Destruction also bears an uncanny resemblance to the fall of the World Trade Center is thought-provoking. It suggests that the changes were not merely the result of misunderstanding, but were subject to a prophetic "pull" from the image of that great collective trauma. However, that is a discussion for another time and place.)
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