The writing on the wall
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"The writing on the wall", or "the hand writing on the wall", or "the writing is on the wall" or "Mene Mene", is an idiom implying that a (usually) negative event is easily predictable based on the current situation. Often, the event is seen as hard to avert. A direness similar to an "impending doom" can be implied.
The expression originates from the Book of Daniel (Old Testament), Chapter 5, from the handwriting on the wall that was witnessed at a banquet hosted by King Belshazzar. As those at the feast profaned the sacred vessels pillaged from the Jerusalem Temple, a disembodied hand appeared and wrote on the palace wall the words, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." The visionary Daniel was summoned and interpreted this message as the imminent end for the Babylonian kingdom. That night, Belshazzar was killed and the Persians sacked the capital city.
|Chapters of the Book of Daniel|
During the drunken feast, Belshazzar uses the holy golden and silver vessels from Solomon's Temple to praise "the gods of gold and silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone." Soon afterwards, disembodied fingers appear and write on the wall of the royal palace the words:
מנא, מנא, תקל, ופרסין
Mene, Mene, Teqel, Upharsin
Although usually left untranslated in English translations of Daniel, these words are known Aramaic names of measures of currency: MENE, a mina (from the root meaning "to count"), TEKEL, a spelling of shekel (from the root meaning "to weigh"), PERES, half a mina (from the root meaning "to divide," but additionally resembling the word for "Persia").
The advisers attempt to interpret the meaning. However, their natural denotations of weights and measures were superficially meaningless: "two minas, a shekel and two parts." Therefore, the King sent for Daniel, an exiled Israelite taken from Jerusalem, who had served in high office under Nebuchadnezzar. Rejecting offers of reward, Daniel warns the king of the folly of his arrogant blasphemy before reading the text. The meaning that Daniel decrypts from these words is based on passive verbs corresponding to the measure names, "numbered, weighed, divided."
And this is the writing that was inscribed: mina, mina, shekel, half-mina. This is the interpretation of the matter: mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. —Daniel 5:25–28
That very night King Belshazzar was slain, and Darius the Mede became King.
Historical reconstruction of the fall of Babylon to Persia (539 BC) has been problematic due to the inconsistencies between the various source documents. Both the Babylonian Chronicle and the Cyrus Cylinder describe Babylon being taken "without battle" whereas the Greek historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, report that the city was besieged. The Book of Daniel implies that Babylon was taken in one night and that Belshazzar was killed.
The cuneiform texts – the Chronicle of Nabonidus, the Cyrus Cylinder and the so-called Verse Account of Nabonidus – were written after the Persian victory. They shed unfavourable light on the Babylonian king and present Cyrus II as the liberator of Babylon, the defender of the Babylonian gods and consequently as the legitimate successor to the Babylonian throne. Modern scholarship recognizes the Cyrus Cylinder as propaganda tablet designed to manipulate public against Nabonidus and to legitimatize Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon. Regarding its claim that Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians without opposition, Briant writes, “It appears prima facie unlikely that Babylon could have fallen without resistance”, and Piotr Michalowski comments “there is no contemporary evidence to support this suspicious claim.” The Nabonidus Chronicle continues this line of propaganda; it is a rework of history from the Persian court purporting to be a text from Nabonidus and its first part does relate events that can be verified from other sources. The latter part, however, especially when dealing with the seventeenth year of Nabonidus, illustrates the old adage that victors write the history: it describes the people of Babylon welcoming Cyrus by spreading green twigs in front of him.
The Cyropaedia is a historical romance, though it may contain a historical core. Xenophon had been in Persia himself, as part of the “Ten Thousand” Greek soldiers who fought on the losing side in a Persian civil war, events which he recounted in his Anabasis . It is also possible that stories about Cyrus were told (and embellished) by Persian court society and these are the basis of Xenophon’s text. Herodotus, though writing long after the events, had traveled in Mesopotamia and spoken to Babylonians.
Tolini has proposed a plausible reconstruction of how Babylon fell. A receipt for reconstruction work on the Enlil Gate demonstrates that there was a forced entry into Babylon. Tolini proposes that a portion of the Persian army under the command of General Ugbaru, penetrated the Enlil Gate, which is on the West side of the Euphrates, then crossed the river to take the eastern districts of Babylon. This may be source of the story, recorded by Herodotus, that the Persian army entered Babylon along the riverbed, having diverted the Euphrates. This surprise capture of Babylon is consistent with the story recorded in Daniel 5.
The success of Ugbaru's strategy in taking the city may owe something to the timing of his attack. Herodotus, Xenophon and Daniel 5 all record that Babylon was in the midst of a festival on the night it was taken. The Babylonian Chronicle records that Babylon was captured on 16th Tašrîtu, which was the night before the akitu festival in honour of Sin, the moon-god.
Xenophon describes how Gobryas (the Greek form of Ugbaru) led a detachment of men in the capture of Babylon and that it was he who slew the king of Babylon. In the Cyropaedia the capture of Babylon is described (7.5.26-35) in a way that makes military sense; the “whole city is given over to revelry” (Cyropaedia 7.5.25), including to some extent the guards. Those who opposed the forces under Gobryas (Ugbaru) were struck down, including those outside the banquet hall. The Cyropaedia (7.5.26-30) describes the conquest as follows:
“(26) Thereupon they entered; and of those they met some were struck down and slain, and others fled into their houses, and some raised the hue and cry, but Gobryas and his friends covered the cry with their shouts, as though they were revelers themselves. And thus, making their way by the quickest route, they soon found themselves before the king’s palace. (27) Here the detachment under Gobryas and Gadatas found the gates closed, but the men appointed to attack the guards rushed on them as they lay drinking round a blazing fire, and closed with them then and there. (28) As the din grew louder and louder, those within became aware of the tumult, till, the king bidding them see what it meant, some of them opened the gates and ran out. (29) Gadatas and his men, seeing the gates swing wide, darted in, hard on the heels of the others who fled back again, and they chased them at the sword’s point into the presence of the king. (30) They found him on his feet, with his drawn scimitar in his hand. By sheer weight of numbers they overwhelmed him: and not one of his retinue escaped, they were all cut down, some flying, others snatching up anything to serve as a shield and defending themselves as best they could” .
Therefore both Xenophon and Daniel 5 describe the demise of Belshazzar as occurring on the night that the city was taken. Xenophon, Herodotus, and Daniel agree that the city was taken by surprise, suddenly, at the time of a festival, and with some (but apparently not much) loss of life. Another detail found in the Cyropaedia (4.6.3), but not in Herodotus, is that there were two kings reigning over the Babylonian kingdom when the city fell, father and son, and it was the younger king, who was reigning when the city was taken and who was killed that night. The Cyropaedia does not name either king, and the silence of other classical sources regarding Belshazzar led to the denial of the historicity of Daniel’s naming Belshazzar as the king who was slain, until cuneiform evidence was found corroborating the existence of Belshazzar as the king reigning in Babylon.
Babylon found itself under a foreign rule for the first time. A new system of government was put in place and the Persian multi-national-state was developed. This system of government reached its peak after the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses during the reign of Darius I, thereafter receiving its ideological foundation in the inscription of the Persian kings.
Some Rabbinic interpretations (see especially Sanhedrin 22a in the Babylonian Talmud) have sought to explain why Daniel could read the writing when no one else could and suggest that the words were written in code. One possibility offered is that it was an atbash cipher, another being that the written Aramaic and Hebrew looked very different, even though they were pronounced similarly. Another idea given was that gematriyatic equivalents for the words were written. Others offered the opinion that the words were written backwards or vertically in classic Jewish tradition.
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- The incident is both recounted and illustrated during the Middle Ages, perhaps most notably in the Pearl Poet's poem Cleanness.
- Belshazzar's Feast (Walton) is a cantata by the English composer William Walton. The work has remained one of Walton's most celebrated compositions and one of the most popular works in the English choral repertoire.
- In John Cheever's short story "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," the narrator encounters graffiti (one example running several pages) in various public washrooms.
- In Robert Louis Stevenson's book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll explains that his experience as Mr. Hyde was "like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgment . . . "
- In the musical revue Pins and Needles, a song entitled "Mene, Mene, Tekel" uses the tale as allegory describing contemporary social injustices.
- In Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Hamm asks of Clov, "and what do you see on your wall? Mene, mene? Naked bodies?"
- In Voltairine de Cleyre's last poem, "Written in Red," the first verse begins:
Written in red their protest stands,
For the Gods of the World to see;
On the dooming wall their bodiless hands
Have blazoned "Upharsin," and flaring brands
Illumine the message: "Seize the lands!
Open the prisons and make men free!"
Flame out the living words of the dead
- In Jose Rizal's second novel El Filibusterismo, Crisostomo Ibarra, disguised as Simoun, planted an explosive disguised as a kerosene lamp in a reception party in Captain Tiago's house in an attempt to kill all high-ranking officials of the society and the church attending. He also leaves a note behind, "Mene, Thecel, Pares," plus his name in his own handwriting.
- In the novel City of Ashes, part of The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Clary uses her stele to write a rune on Valentine's boat. Although the rune simply means "Open," Clary's extraordinary powers amplify it so as to destroy the ship by ripping apart its bolts. Valentine looks on in awed horror and says, "mene mene tekel upharsin," because he realizes that Clary's powers represent a massive change in the order of things, which will lead to the Clave's, or his own, doom.
- In Philip K. Dick's novel A Maze of Death, Seth and Mary Morley lived in 'Tekel Upharsin Kibbutz' before moving to Delmak-O.
- In V. by Thomas Pynchon, Rachel leaves a written note on a wall to the schlemihl Benny Profane. In response to it, Stencil states to Profane, "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin," implying his impending demise. (Chapt. 15, pg 448)
- The Einstürzende Neubauten song Wüste also has the line "mene, mene tekel, upharshin" in the lyrics.
- "The Writing on the Wall" is the finale song of the musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
- The characters of Bertie and Aunt Dahlia discuss a reference to Belshazzar's Feast in chapter 9 of the novel Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
- The song "Kodachrome", also by Paul Simon, includes the lyric "... my lack of education hasn't hurt me none / I can read the writing on the wall."
- In Chapter 119 (The Candles) of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Ishmael ominously describes the appearance of St. Elmo's Fire ("The corpusants!") on their whaling ship, the Pequod, when he writes, "...when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship, when His 'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin' has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage."
- In Defrage's song "Save Us from Religion," the first song on their album Jackal, 'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin' is sung at 3:01.
- In Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, the Writer says "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" while talking to the Professor (around 01:14:00).
- The song "The Last Ship" by Sting hyperbolically narrates the pilgrimage to Newcastle carried out most notably by the risen Jesus of Nazareth, and other guests haunted by the significance of the last ship sailing from Newcastle's morbid shipbuilding industry, understanding the occasion as though it were "that strange moving finger at Balthazar's feast."
- Elwell, Philip Comfort, Walter A. (2004). The complete book of who's who in the Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers. p. 113. ISBN 0842383697.
- note to Daniel 5:25, The New American Bible, November 11, 2002, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Histories I.191; Cyropaedia VI.5.15–16; Gaston 2009, pp. 88–89.
- IsIAO, edited by A. Panaino; G. Pettinato. With the collaboration of G. P. Basello; A. Piras. Università di Bologna & (2002). Ideologies as intercultural phenomena : proceedings of the Third Annual Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project ; held in Chicago, USA, October 27–31, 2000 ; [Melammu symposia, vol. III]. Milano: Ed. Mimesis. pp. 144, 149–150. ISBN 8884831075.
- Paul-Alain Bealieu, The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-339 B.C. (New Haven CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), p. 143.
- Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, trans. Peter T. Daniels (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002), pp. 41-43).
- A. Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaeminid Imperial Policy” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983) pp. 83-94.
- Yamauchi, Edwin M. (1990). Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker. p. 88.
- Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire tr. Peter T. Daniels (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002), p. 41.
- Bill T. Arnold and Piotr Michalowski, “Achaemenid Period Historical Texts concerning Mesopotamia,” in The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation, Mark W. Chavals ed.. Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006, p. 12.
- Pritchard, ed., James B. (1969). Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed.). Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press. p. 306b.
- Hirsch, Steven W. (1985). The Friendship of the Barbarians: Xenophon and the Persian Empire. Hanover and London. pp. 76–84, 88.
- Tolini, Gauthier (2005). "Quelques elements concernant la prise de Babylone par Cyrus". ARTA.
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 86–105. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- Wolters, A (1995). "Belshazzar's Feast and the Cult of the Moon God Sin". Bulletin of Biblical Research 4: 199–206.
- Translation is that of Henry Graham Dakyns, available online.
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 81–84. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- Melammu Symposia Vol.3, Ideologies, p.143
- Kennedy, p. 302
- Ward, David (15 July 2002). "David Ward, "The six greatest works of William Walton". ''The Guardian'', 15 July 2002". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
- Towner, W. S. (1984), Daniel: Interpretation Commentary, Atlanta: John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-3122-2.
- Goldingay, J. E. (1989), Daniel: Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word Books, ISBN 0-8499-0229-0.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version, Oxford University Press, 1972.