The darkness is near total. Only a small torch, carried by my sister Atakilla, illuminates the way. The rancid scent of the tallow that fuels her candle disturbs me. The light from the irregular flames sputter against the smooth stone walls of the passageway. I am the Queen of my people, strong and honored. I have no fear. I have brought myself to this; navigating through a narrow cave on the night of a full moon. As we move, shadows shift around us. My world is filled with mystery. But I tell myself that I am not afraid.
We squeeze through a narrow gap in the rock, and then we are where we need to be. The place is a small cavern, but the sounds within it will carry far beyond the walls of the mountain. And the lights from within it will cast ominous and frightening shadows on the valley below. I lay down my bundle of wood, ready for the most important moment of my life. And then I look to my sister, who holds the flame. Her dark skin and black hair seem to flicker in the light of the candle. Both of us are wrapped in the course-woven garments of our people. I look at her, and then I see it, the small and sharp obsidian knife in her delicate hand. Its blackness seems to eat the light that surrounds it. She holds it dangerously, threateningly.
Her smile is twisted with self-congratulation.
And I know, in that moment, that she intends to kill me.
My own face fills with an expression of shock and surprise.
“What?” I sputter, confusion carried by my voice. Her smile deepens.
“What’s going on?” I ask, almost demanding an answer.
“You, my darling sister Teluklik, are gullible,” Atakilla says. Her voice is light and playful and joyous. It is a voice of peace and conciliation, not backstabbing deceit.
I think about throwing myself on the stone floor of the cave, begging for her mercy. But she might attack then. My sister is faster than I am. And her knife, I am sure, is laced with poison.
I’m not ready to die.
“Do you remember when your husband died?” Atakilla asks.
I nod, as sadness overwhelms my expression. The memories flood my mind.
“I do,” I say.
“The morning after you were wed, you woke up, but he did not. His heart had stopped. He had been poisoned in his own bed.”
“I remember,” I say, reluctantly. My chance to be Queen had been robbed from me. At one time, that seemed like all that mattered. I wanted to be Queen, the rescuer of my people. Only a hundred winters before, my people had lived in the wilderness, surrounded by beautiful mountains and blessed by nature. Our men were fierce warriors famous for their prowess in battle. But we battled one another. We fought, clan against clan, to defend the lands we hunted. Our Chieftains were proud men, and this was the cause of our wars. We were blessed by nature, but cursed by ourselves.
But all of that changed. It changed because we did not work the lands, but only stole from them. The rivers began to dry and the rains stopped falling. Game vanished and wild plants died. And our people began to die. We were cursed by nature and cursed by ourselves. We continued to war, fighting over land that did not produce the natural bounty we needed. We could not forage for our foods.
We were helpless in the face of catastrophe.
Our redemption came in the form of a Queen. Our first Queen: Pallua. She stood alone among our people. Her parents were of two clans. Her grandparents of two more. And her husband of a fifth. She alone belonged to all the clans. And, in their moment of need, they turned to her. They made her Queen. And she united them in peace. And she taught them to terrace the land and to plant crops. She taught them to use the water we had. And soon, we were blessed; blessed by nature and blessed by man. Because we did not war after that, we had no need for warriors or fortresses or weapons. And in every generation since, a Queen has been chosen.
The Queen of the Five Clans; belonging to all and subservient to none.
The Queen of the Five Clans, who would lead them to peace and prosperity.
Of course, every clan sought to raise a Queen in their midst. They married among each other, combining four clans. I was born to be a Queen. I had the blood of four of the clans within me. But it was the Council of Chieftains who chose their husbands; the representative of the fifth clan. Queens had to be unifiers. They had to create consensus and peace. They did not so much lead as unite. And so, the Council assigned husbands to those who would be Queen. They chose men who were not only disagreeable, but also rough and violent. It was the final test of a Queen. If she could tame such a man, she could tame our people. We were the people of peace. And in a hundred winters, peace had come to define us.
My sister speaks again, “The Council knew they had chosen a man a wife might kill. It was not unexpected. And you told them that you had killed him. All it cost you was your chance to be Queen. They knew you were not a woman of conciliation, but a bringer of death.”
“But my husband had not been the kind of man a wife would kill,” I say.
“I know,” my sister answers. And she does. She was there when he first saw me. Like all those who might become Queen, I roamed through the wilderness, coming to know the world that existed before the time of Pallua. I was exploring the hills near a mountain pass. Atakilla travelled with me. As I roamed, I would find interesting plants and explore their properties. And my sister, three years younger than I, would follow behind me. She watched all that I did and we spoke often. I loved her. It happened that the Chieftain of the clan I had to marry into was travelling through the pass. And he was not alone. His son Parikia was with him. The boy saw us. He saw me. And in that moment, he fell in love with me. He asked about me and learned I was the elder of two sisters, two sisters who could be Queen.
Up until that day, Parikia had been a good and pleasant young man. But a good and pleasant man could not have me. And so, he changed. He became boorish, and aggressive, and violent. And soon, all who knew him could swear to his poor character and his mean-tempered soul.
He loved me so much he was willing to be hated.
And, when the time came, the Council made him my betrothed. We would be married in a year’s time.
In public, Parikia remained the violent person he seemed to be. But in private, with me, he was different. He adored me. He loved me. We had, between us, respect, honor and peace. Not the peace of the Five Clans, imposed by nature and treaty. But true peace, peace which could not be shattered.
I lived to serve him and he lived to serve me.
We had it all worked out. My betrothed would change slowly, converted by his wife into the man the Council needed to see. It was a simple deception. And when the time came, I would be chosen as Queen and I would lead my people. My sister knew this truth. My sister knew how happy I was to be.
My sister also married from his clan. If I died or if I failed, my family would have another candidate for rule. Atakilla’s husband was chosen by our parents and there was no one-year betrothal. His family rewarded ours handsomely for the opportunity to marry a potential Queen. We gained many obsidian tools. We gained the knife she carries this night. But my sister’s husband was unlike my own. He had the reputation of a good man. He was smart and diligent. But I knew that behind the stone walls of my sister’s house he would beat her. She had no peace.
My year of betrothal passed quickly and then Parikia and I were married. He scowled as we wed under the light of a full moon. All thought they knew the challenges of our relationship. But as we came into our home, a new stone house, the malice disappeared from him. All that remained was love. As the gentle night breeze flowed through the passages of our small house, all that remained was love. And in the morning, he was dead.
“I remember that morning well,” Atakilla says, “You told me what you believed had happened. You had been eating from a root that granted prophecy and you had confused reality and fiction. You saw your husband as others saw him. And in that world of half-reality, you killed him.”
I nod, allowing regret to pass over my face.
“But this is not what happened,” Atakilla says, “You may have eaten of the root, but I killed him. I poisoned him. And I made it look like you had done it. I did it so that I could be Queen.”
My sister is grinning as she says this, like she’s been eager to share this truth for many years.
I just look at her, shock seeming to overwhelm me. But it is anger that I feel. Deep, malevolent anger.
“I thought about killing you too,” Atakilla says, “But you were no threat. You believed me. You trusted me. And you felt guilt over a crime you had not committed. When I was elevated to be Queen, you did not protest. You celebrated with me, acknowledging before all that I was the choice that was best for our people.”
“I did,” I say, my voice quavering.
“But then,” a note of bitterness enters her voice, “You deposed me.”
“No,” I say softly, “I did not. The Council chose me.”
“You deposed me,” my sister insists, her voice flat. “The Council was manipulated by your allies. All they needed was an enemy. We heard reports of another people’s warriors, with women and children, colonizing our lands. And so, manipulated by your allies, the Council chose the assassin over the conciliator. They replaced the Queen they thought too peaceful with the gullible sister who they imagined had the will of death within her. But they were not kind to you. They made you marry the brother of your dead husband. I was delirious with the knowledge of how much he must have hated you. They imagined they would bring out the worst in you and that you would save them; fueled by your wrath. They did not see the power of my wrath.”
“But I have done well,” I say, earnestly.
“You had a single great idea,” she acknowledges with a tip of her head. “On the night of a lunar eclipse you would drug one of our enemy’s encampments with hallucinogens. Then – amidst screams of terror and the growl of the jaguar and the shadows of the gods – our men, dressed in the skins of wild animals, would steal their women and children. You would take them to remote villages, distributing them so they never see others of their kind. And you would leave their men behind. You would leave them convinced the jaguar god itself is the ally of our people. Their terror at what they thought they had seen would spread far and wide. And rather than seeking to pillage or attack us, they will bring us offerings. They would sacrifice to us, desperate to harness our power and fearful of our wrath. And we would remain peaceful, as we have been for a hundred winters.
“Is it not a good plan?” I ask.
She smiles, “It was good, up to a point. You imagined that we, in this cave, could fill the valley before us with shouts and cries of complete terror. But play acting will never do. There is no sound like the sound of real terror. There is no sound like the sound of real death. And without that, all you have planned might fail. So, I am completing your plan. I will kill you, slowly. And you will scream. In real terror. And the sounds of your terror and your suffering will fill the night and the nightmares of our enemies. And I will live forever, as the Queen who brought peace and power to our people. And you? You will be honored. I will tell the Council you made the sacrifice willingly. But you will die, brought low by your own willingness to trust.”
She smiles then, a smile of pure evil and of pure triumph. Then she steps forward, ready to carry out her attack. In that instance, I wipe the fear and confusion and sadness from my face. And I allow the edge of a smile to touch the corner of my face.
She hesitates for a moment, confused. And then she stumbles, falling to her knees.
And now it is her turn to look up at me, baffled.
Now, it is my turn to speak. My heart jumps at the opportunity.
“You were always jealous of what I had. And it blinded you. You saw me, destined to be Queen and you assumed that only you could deserve it. You saw me, marrying for love when a Queen could not do that. You saw me getting all that I wanted. And you were jealous.
“You didn’t know it then, but I saw you the night you killed my husband. I was only seeing reality, not the world of the root I said I had consumed. I saw you fleeing after you poisoned the man I loved. I should have stopped you before you killed him, but I did not think you would stoop so low.
“After my husband lay dead, I lied about what happened. I lied to you so that you would trust me. I told the truth only to Parikia’s brother. He also knew that I loved my husband. He knew I did not kill Parikia. The two of us drew close; united by a desire for revenge. I watched as your court was filled with corruption. It seemed to be a court of peace and conciliation. But it was a court of theft and lies. And I knew that if I were to rescue our people I would have to repair what you had done. I would have to strip away the evil. And so, I sent Parikia’s brother away. I sent him to find an enemy and tell them of our wealth and our treasures and our weakness. He would claim to have been a slave for us, plotting his revenge.
“My sister Atakilla, the enemy came because I sought them out. And the Council made me Queen because I knew they would. And they married me to the brother of my husband, because I left them all convinced that he was my enemy.
“And as the enemy came, I knew what they would do. The plan is years old, that is how I could plan it around the eclipse of the moon. I knew that you would plan to kill me. But you trusted me, Atakilla. You are the gullible one. You let me travel behind you, believing that I would never attack you. You did not even recognize the moment when I did. But I did. I nicked your back with the same venom you used to kill my husband. I did not nick your neck, stopping your heart. I struck the bottom of your spine. It took a few minutes, but I immobilized your legs.
“And, now, you will not strike me. Instead, I will make you scream. And the terror will be real. And your legacy will be a thousand years of peace. Atakilla, you will die soon, but you will live forever as the goddess of our people and as the story our enemies tell of the night they thought to challenge us.
“But I, Teluklik, will be Queen. I will be just and kind, but others will not see it. They will imagine me hateful and fearsome. But I will wipe away the corruption you have engendered. And I will bless them. And they in turn will rule others through terror and through peace. And they will bring peace and prosperity to the world.”
My sister looks up at me then. And I can see in her eyes that her screams will convince the enemy. In fear, her candle falls from her hand, igniting the dry wood I brought.
I watch as the flames lick upwards. They will cast magnificent shadows upon the world outside this cave.
Then, as the moon turns to blood in the sky, I step forward.
With sadness and joy and cold determination, I step forward. I will have my revenge. And I will be the Queen my people need.
And then, the terror of a little sister I once loved begins to fill the night.
The setting for this story is early years of the Chavin people of the central Andes. We do not know their actual name because they left behind no writing. The Chavin people had a major empire that existed from approximately 900 BCE to 250 BCE. But their empire was almost unique in that there were no signs of weapons or fortifications within their borders. It was like those who submitted to them lived in peace while those beyond their borders were too frightened to make war against them. The Chavin people had a central temple, their greatest artifact. It is a massive stone structure which has withstood countless earthquakes. It was designed to confuse. It used light and the sound of pressurized water and unusual instruments to create frightening effects. The temple was full of statues, statues that all had at least two faces. They were designed to confuse. They were male and female and animal and human; all at once.
Those subjects of the Chavin who made pilgrimage to their temple would partake of hallucinogens derived from cacti. And as they travelled the underground passages, their minds would be filled with awe and terror.
Their religion was one of deception.
A much later people in the same region, the Wari, buried their Queens with great pomp and circumstance. And the most famous of Andean people, the Inca, had a moon goddess, sometimes known as KaAtaKilla.
Lunar eclipses were said to be a sign that she was being attacked.
I brought all of this together to create an origin story for the Chavin empire.
But the story was not created in a vacuum. It is meant to illuminate the story of Noach.
When I look at the genetic and other physical records, the story of Noach – as commonly understood – seems impossible. There was no dramatic narrowing of life less than 10,000 years ago. The fact that many cultures record a flood reinforces the idea that a flood happened. But it also tells us that peoples all over the world survived it. If we read it carefully, the story implies a flood that kills all animal life outside the teva (Ark). But it never actually states it. Consider the core three verses of destruction (Bereshit 7:21-23)…
The first verse uses the root gavah. This word is a precursor of death, “Avraham gavah and then died”, “Jacob gavah and then was gathered.” It seems to mean to physically give out. The second verse uses mait, which means death – but it is only for those creatures which have nishmat ruach chaim – or a living spiritual soul. The last verse uses the root macha for the blotting out all established things. This word is used for a wife who must marry her husband’s brother so he isn’t macha. It refers to the ‘erasing of legacy’. The end of that verse says Noach and the animals with him were the only ones to remain, but this is in the context of macha.
The destruction described isn’t one of total death. Instead, it describes crushing hardship, the death of those with spiritual souls and the erasure of all legacies. The Chumash uses many descriptions of destruction, but they all contain ‘outs’. They all allow the image to be preserved even as the reality can be questioned.
Throughout, the language is intentionally frightening. More frightening than the reality. This concept is strengthened by another curious aspect of the story: there are five dates mentioned in the story of the Flood. The next time a precise date is mentioned involves the taking of the Pascal lamb during the Exodus from Egypt. These dates add an aura of immediacy and reality to the story; just as the rainbow does upon its completion.
Like the story of Teluklik, the story of the flood is initiated by a murder driven by jealousy. Cain kills Hevel and a world of corruption is unleashed – it is a world in which killers are rewarded. The story which follows, the story of the flood, is thus a precautionary tale, meant to curb the worst impulses of man. The great shadows cast by the flood do not lead to goodness, they only curtail evil. Their deception curtails those who deceive. And the violence of the flood rescues all of us from far greater Divine reminders.
The story of the flood saves us from the reality it implies.
Read this way, the story of Teluklik is a parallel to the story of Noach. Murder and corruption are battled by fear on a magnificent scale. Fear is used, even as it allows blessings to be granted to those who fear Hashem.
p.s. According to Incan legend, Parikia was a god who caused the flood because mankind did not respect him sufficiently.
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Image: B.K. Flickr, Blood Moon