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 there is evidence of an impending disaster. The event may be seen as difficult to avert. The expression refers originally to Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel, in which a disembodied hand writes an enigmatic message on the palace wall of Babylon.
Book of Daniel
In the Daniel 5, a disembodied hand is witnessed writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast in the palace of Babylon. The event occurs while those at the feast profane the sacred vessels that were pillaged from the Jerusalem Temple. The words that appear on the palace wall are "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." The prophet Daniel is summoned to interpret the message, which, as he explains, means the imminent end of the Babylonian kingdom. That night, Belshazzar is killed and the Medo-Persians sack the capital city.
Views in Judaism
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.
Art and popular culture
- The incident is both recounted and illustrated during the Middle Ages, perhaps most notably in the Pearl Poet's poem Cleanness.
- 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."
- In the episode "Season's Beatings," from season 7 of American Dad!, Steve becomes an Apostate of Satan and repeats the phrases, "Satana, Satana," and "Mene, Mene, Tekel," throughout the duration of his Apostasy.
- The song "Mene", by the American band, Brand New, references the idiom with the lyrics "Written on the wall, the letters plain and tall"
- In Alexandre Dumas' novel "The Count of Monte Cristo", the words "Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" are mentioned in the narrative thought of procureur Villefort.
- The song "Omen", by the British electronica group, The Prodigy, repeatedly mentions "the writings on the wall" as an omen of something that is inevitable.