The Last of the Star Whales

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Marcel Griaule was a French anthropologist born at the end of the Nineteenth century. Beginning in 1931, he spent several years in the Mopti region of Mali in West Africa, studying the indigenous Dogon people.

The Dogon are renowned for their adherence to their old ways, ways that have been surprisingly resistant to change over the millennia. Their traditions offer a rare glimpse in to life as it was a long, long time ago.

In 1946, Griaule spent a month in the company of a man named Ogotemmeli, a blind hunter who divulged the astronomical beliefs of his people, beliefs that amazed the French anthropologist. According to Ogotemmeli, the Dogon had knowledge of the star Sirius B, a white dwarf that is invisible to the naked eye, as well as the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter, alongside other cosmic information that is apparently inherent to their views of the Universe and their place within it.

In later years, various authors would jump on the work of Griaule and use it as proof of the ‘Ancient Astronaut’ theory, a line of thought postulating that early man was visited by beings from other worlds. According to this theory, those beings guided humanity to build such wonders as the pyramids of Giza and the stone heads of Easter Island, as well as introducing us to art, literature and other facets of high culture.

I have no time for this theory. I believe it is a mistake to belittle early man by ascribing his great works to extra-terrestrial sources. Besides, prior research suggests that it was Griaule himself who introduced the idea of Sirius B to the Dogon people.

But all this is but background noise.

In 1948, one Germaine Dieterlain, a student of Griaule’s who had accompanied him on his trips, was preparing to leave Mali and return to France. On the day she left, a Dogon elder handed her a series of stone tablets, tablets that were inscribed with a strange writing the likes of which Dieterlain had never seen before. The elder explained that even he could not read the words on the tablets, but local legend had it that these words detailed a creation myth that was even older than his people’s. Indeed, the tablets were considered ancient even when the Dogon themselves were young.

Unable to find anyone capable of translating these tablets, Dieterlain donated them to the Université de Paris, where they elicited no more than uninterested grumblings. They remained there until 1976, when they found their way into the hands of the British Museum in London, gathering dust in a vault for fifteen years.

In 1991, they were stumbled upon by one Paul Cortez, a linguistics expert working on a hypothetical universal translation system. To test his creation, Cortez required a document in an unknown language that had never been deciphered.

At this point considered untranslatable, the Dieterlain tablets were just that document.

A decade of hard work later, Cortez believed he had cracked the code inscribed upon the ancient stone. In 2001, he published his findings in the academic journal British Historical Review*.

Here is his translation:

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In the beginning, there were only two things: the Darkness and the Silence.

The Darkness was so deep that it went beyond even forever, and the Silence so quiet that even if there were things to speak, they would not have dared to utter a sound.

Then the Star Whales came, great herds of majestic beasts that roamed through the voids of space. And their call echoed throughout the Universe, a chorus of love and hope. The Darkness retreated and the Silence surrendered, and the stars and the planets took their places in the heavens.

Life was born to that sound, the song of the Star Whales.

The cycles came and went, and the people of the young races began to prosper under the sound, a song that would warm even the coldest of souls. These young races gave names to the voices in the chorus, adding the new calves as they were born, and celebrating the elder whales as they moved on, into the Great Ever After.

The young races passed this practice on to their children, and their children did the same; on and on, down through the generations. First with sounds, then with symbols, and finally with the written word. 

As is the way, the customs of the old eventually became the traditions of the new, and many an infant on many a land sat up at night listening to the great concert in the heavens. 

As time passed, and civilisations rose up and crashed down like so many waves on the shore, the chorus of the Star Whales grew weaker, as one by one they moved into the Great Ever After. No more calves were born, and the song of love and hope that once echoed through the heavens began to grow silent, until only one voice remained. A quiet voice, unlike the others.

And the song grew sad.

The wisest of the wise men amongst the young races named the whale to whom this voice belonged: ‘Akhtumara Shem, the Lonely One, for whom time is Short’. After all, the laws of survival as understood at the time declared that one being, all alone, cannot possibly live for long.

But the Universe is a strange place, and sometimes it cares not for the laws of those that reside within it. And so the lonely whale sang on.

The young races grew old, ancient even, and eventually they began to leave the Universe, taking their ways with them, and new races appeared, spreading out across the lands. Tales of the great chorus lingered, an imprint on the collective memory of all life that ever was or ever will be.

Still the lonesome whale sang. And even now, it is said that if you can find a deserted plane and stand atop its highest mountain on a quiet night, you will hear it. The song  of Akhtumara Shem, the Lonely One, for whom time was not short.

Akhtumara Shem, the last of the Star Whales. 

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The translation was roundly mocked by the stuffed shirts of historical academia. After all, there are no other documents that speak of anything even vaguely like such a creation myth in any other culture on Earth.

This fact was considered enough to brand Cortez’s universal translation system, at best, a grandiose folly, and at worst, a description I have no desire to repeat here.

Unable to gain further funding, Paul Cortez died of pneumonia in 2003, discredited and penniless.

The tablets themselves were returned to the vault in the depths of the British Museum, no doubt to gather dust once more.

Cortez’s daughter has kindly donated her father’s work to me. I have forwarded it to a colleague of mine based at the University of Cairo, an old friend who is an expert in the translation of long dead languages.

Perhaps she can shed some light on the history of this ancient, yet unique, tale of a lonely astral cetacean.

Dr Thomas Gotobed

 * I have attempted to trawl through every copy of the British Historical Review  for 2001, but it is quite a dry publication for a layperson such as myself. I’ll endeavour to carry on, but I do have a life to live outside of fact checking the good doctor’s notes – C.R.