Noah Sails Where No Rock Ever Sailed Before

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Myth has been defined as “a story, often employing superhuman figures and supernatural events, that attempts to explain something about the world and that expresses some important value or belief of a culture or society” (Howard Canaan, Tales of Magic from around the World). Myths have simple plots with few specific details; their meaning can evolve over time to represent changing cultural values. This is what director Darren Aronofsky has done with his epic new film, Noah — he has created a myth like that.

Audiences who want to see the biblical story of Noah will be disappointed. Judeo-Christian believers, indeed, will be offended and outraged by the laughable inaccuracies in this movie, from the biblical point of view. (Believers will know they’re in trouble when they see the film begin with the words, “In the beginning there was nothing.”) Darren Aronofsky has rewritten a new myth, for modern times. It is no longer the story of a prophet who was chosen by God to build an ark and repopulate the earth after everyone else drowns. The conflict is no longer between God and Satan but between humans and Rock People (representing Earth — but more below). Rock People communicate with a Creator, but humans do not communicate with God. The purpose of religion is not to forge a relationship between God and people but to protect the earth and the animals. “If anything happens to one of these creatures, it will be lost forever,” Noah warns his sons, but he has no similar concern for humanity. As Noah walks among the wicked community that is about to be destroyed by the flood, he observes many gruesome acts, but the pinnacle of their depravity is presented as they cleave animal carcasses for cooking. Methuselah explains, “Men will be punished for what they have done to this world,” not for what they have done to one another. Noah is a modern myth that represents the hegemonic values of today.

Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah.

Maybe it was because I had just seen the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, but Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales kept coming to mind while I was watching Noah. Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah, including Eve’s attraction to the serpent, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Elisha’s army of angels, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It’s the most bizarre concoction, yet I’m sure that many gullible filmgoers went home saying, “Wow! I didn’t know Noah almost killed his granddaughters!” You see, in order to understand Rocky’s Fractured Fairy Tales, you had to know that Sleeping Beauty did not eat a poisoned apple.

And here’s another thing you probably wouldn’t know was in the Bible if you didn’t see this movie: God did not create humans — some crazy giant Rock People did. These Rock People look like piles of boulders until they pull themselves together, Transformer-like, and start stomping around the earth. They have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God. They create an eerie static hum whenever they’re close by, and they strike fear into the hearts of men. Except the hearts of the ones they like.

According to the Book of Aronofsky, these Rock People came from outer space as meteors of light and got stuck in the muck of primordial creation. They made humans out of the dust of the earth, and as the film opens they’re really mad at themselves for doing it because humans really suck. But you already know that, if you’ve been reading the newspapers lately.

See, it turns out that animals are “the innocents” and “man broke the world.” Eve’s real treachery wasn’t curiosity or disobedience or a desire for wisdom; it was that she brought children to the earth and allowed her descendants to wreak havoc there. Now Noah’s wife wants to do the same! But Father Noah Knows Best. He is determined to put all the animal pairs onto the ark and save only his three sons, his post-menopausal wife (Jennifer Connelly), and one barren girl (Emma Watson) so that humans cannot repopulate the earth and ruin it again. His job is simply to keep the animals safe until the flood subsides, and then quietly let humans become extinct.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that in this movie, Noah never communicates with God, or vice versa. So where does he get the idea of building the ark? From the dregs of a psychotropic tea given to him by Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah, by the way, has supernatural powers, but when he uses them to cause a wonderful and necessary miracle, Noah gets pretty ticked off and starts grabbing for daggers. Actually, there is very little to set Noah apart from the wickedness around him. He wields an ax and a bludgeon with the best of them, and he can be pretty heartless.

Despite the assertion that “in the beginning there was nothing,” there are deists in the movie. They just aren’t the prophets. The Rock People talk directly to a Creator, and so does Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the leader of the wicked nomads and a descendant of Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was forced to bear a mark on his forehead as the first murderer. Tubal-cain doesn’t actually appear in the biblical story of Noah, but Aronofsky throws him in, probably because he became a blacksmith (Genesis 4:22) and is credited by many scriptorians with inventing weapons of war. While Noah is drinking the psychedelic Kool-Aid, Tubal-cain is calling out to God, “Speak to me! I am a man, made in your image. I am like you — I give life and I take it away. Why will you not converse with me?” Meanwhile, the priesthood that has been passed from Adam to Methuselah to Noah is embodied in the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden. This is no mere fracture of the tale; Aronofsky delights in making the godly evil and evil godly.

The Rock People have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God.

Sure, I get it: Hollywood doesn’t like references to God (approving ones, anyway). And yes, I know the difference between Sunday School and the Cineplex; I wasn’t expecting a sermon. But why make a movie about Noah if you are going to leave out the driving force behind the story? It’s like making Clash of the Titans without Zeus or Poseidon. Why not just make a movie about Rock Giants that duke it out with brutal nomads while one family escapes in a boat with a bunch of animals? Let those of us who know how to read leave the theater saying, “Wow, did you catch those references to Noah?” instead of “Man, did he ever get that wrong!”

What drew Aronofsky to the story of Noah in the first place? I suspect it was the same characteristics that have kept myths alive for centuries. Archetypal characters, iconic conflicts, and simple truths about human nature resonate with us. One does not have to be religious to experience the resonance of biblical stories, nor should religious people be offended that I categorize biblical stories as myth. Contrary to popular opinion, “myth” does not mean “a lie,” or “a story that is not true.” Myths express “not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth. They are the shared stories that express insights about human nature, human society, or the natural world” (Canaan). Myths are so profound that they transcend the need to be factual. In fact, they can even transcend Hollywood’s need to be cynical.

Despite my criticism of the first two hours of this film, I found the conclusion profoundly satisfying. After all the fracturing and twisting and pushing away from humanity, Aronofsky ends with a cathartic moment of transformation and hope. It probably isn’t worth the two-hour journey to get there, and it’s totally out of whack with the source material. But Aronofsky creates a lovely scene of redemption at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 138 minutes.



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The Land where the Statues Walked

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Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




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Which Is the Real One?

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This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky's iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.

This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company's upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn't know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?

Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who has given up her own career in the ballet so she can have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina's alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.

Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn "seeming into being," as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.

Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.

Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn't really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cross Creek Pictures/Fox Searchlight, 2010, 108 minutes.



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