The Benben Mystery
Margaret Morris Presents Supportive
Evidence for William Lauritzen's Idea
of the Volcanic Origin of the Benben
By Margaret Morris
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Part 1 - The Mysteries
Part 2 - The Solution
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William Lauritzen proposes the elegant idea that volcanic activity inspired the Benben of Egyptian creation mythology. He suggests that when ancient people witnessed rock masses or islands form due to volcanic eruptions, they acquired a concept of land formation that they incorporated into their creation mythology. He suggests that people embracing the concept migrated to Egypt and influenced religious beliefs.
William Lauritzen contacted me and informed me of his idea concerning the origin of the Benben. During our discussion, William Lauritzen indicated that he submitted his paper presenting his idea to an Egyptologist and received only negative feedback. However, some critics will isolate real or perceived flaws in a presentation and, based on that, reject the entire idea or theory without ever recognizing its value. I find William Lauritzen's idea intriguing and worthy of further investigation. I, therefore, offer supportive evidence in my paper below.
The Supporting Evidence
The sight of a volcano spewing a giant glowing plume of molten lava into the night sky must have made a powerful impression on the imaginations of ancient witnesses. After the danger subsided, the curious collected masses of what they recognized to be newly made volcanic rock. William Lauritzen suggests that people embracing the concept of volcanic land formation gradually settled closer to the Nile Valley until they entered the land and influenced early creation mythology.

In ancient Egyptian creation mythology, the Primordial Mountain called the Benben emerged from the primeval waters at the beginning of creation. Because there has been no volcanic activity in Egypt for about 10,000 years, Egyptological theories of the Benben did not develop along the lines that William Lauritzen contemplates. Egyptologists recognize that none of the natural mountains the Egyptians considered as representing the Primordial Mountain or Benben are volcanic. For instance, Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai represented the Primordial Mountain, but it is not volcanic.(1)
Theories hold that the Benben, which was re-created as mountainous pyramids, represents either a reed rising from the primeval marsh or a meteorite. Another theory suggests that the Benben represents solar rays, which were re-created in architecture as mountains. In general, the Benben was a representation of the Mountain of the Sun-god--the most sacred mountain with a peak that reached to the heavenly sphere. Here we will examine the possibility that the earliest expression of this solar mountain may have been of volcanic origin.
The Primordial Mountain theme was universal. The architecture of other very ancient cultures represented the Primordial Mountain design theme. Included are the ziggurats of Babylon, the burial mounds of China, the stupas of India and many other examples.(2) In the creation mythology of India, 33 deities lived on the Primordial Mountain. The Primordial Mountain theme is so ancient and widespread that it begs an exploration of the Egyptian Benben from a broad historical perspective.(3) In other words, because the god-on-the-mountain theme may appear outside of Egypt earlier than our knowledge of it within Egypt, it is logical to seek earlier examples and examine evidence of cross-culturization.
The Benben appeared in Egypt during the Archaic Period (pre 2920 BC), when it was represented as a conical or pyramid shaped stone with the Bennu (Phoenix) lighted upon its tip. Egypt built its first pyramid, a representation of the Benben, in about 2630 BC, whereas the first ziggurat was built in Sumer around 2100 BC. As early as 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, Catal Huyuk (Catal Hueyuek), built upon the Anatolian plateau (near modern Konya, Turkey), was among the first settlements known to have developed an agrarian society. According to art historian William Carl Eichman, painted scenes from Catal Huyuk depict an erupting volcano goddess. William Carl Eichman offers a description:
"The contours of the volcano are breast-like and the overall shape of the volcano closely matches schematized "bison-woman" paleolithic designs and other goddess representations; it looks distinctly like a body, much more so than like a mountain. The spots on the volcano's flanks, described as "glowing firebombs of lava," are very similar to the "leopard-skin spots" that are a characteristic sign of the Goddess of Catal Huyuk throughout the city's artwork. The painting is a vivid, nearly naturalistic rendering, and the spouts of lava pouring from the cone shapes at its base accurately portray the tendency of volcanoes to erupt from vents at their base. But the painting is also a shrine mural, an expression of religion, and clearly a representation of the Mother Goddess of Obsidian, and the city which was built and consecrated by Her graces."(4)
Figure 1
The Volcano Goddess
Art historian William Carl Eichman interprets this ancient image as an erupting Volcano Goddess.
The earliest known visual record of a volcanic eruption comes from Catal Huyuk and dates to about 6200 BC.
Just as the bull was revered in Egypt and other parts of the Mediterranean world, a bull was also sacred at Catal Huyuk. William Carl Eichman continues:
  "The bull is always paired with the Goddess; when bull heads are found in shrines not apparently dedicated to the Goddess, they are surrounded by breast-like knobs -- the very walls of the shrine have become the body of the Goddess, from which the bulls emerge."(5)
An example of a volcano goddess at Catal Huyuk would arguably be the earliest known depiction of the god-on-the-mountain theme. Compare much later Egyptian art showing the Sun-god in the form of the Bennu (Greek: Phoenix) lighted on the Benben/Primordial Mountain.
Just as William Carl Eichman indicates that the volcano goddess at Catal Huyuk was represented as the mountain, the Egyptian creator-god Atum (who took the form of the Bennu) was the also the Primordial Mountain itself (according to Pyramid Texts Utterance 600--see below).
The Bennu also represented pharaohs in their role as the Sun-god ascended to earth to rule. In ancient thought, the Sun-god was the ruler of the whole universe. "Mighty bull" was a common pharaonic title of divinity denoting that the pharaoh was the husband of the great celestial cow whose milk is strewn across the heavens (the Milky Way).
Catal Huyuk was positioned to control access to the Hasan Dag volcano, the source of obsidian valuable to the society. Among the Neolithic ruins of Catal Huyuk, excavators found the portrayal shown above of the active volcano--the earliest known visual record of a volcanic eruption. The scene, rendered in about 6200 BC, shows a cinder cone spewing ash from its top vent and looming above a town near its base (Figure 1 above).
The people of Catal Huyuk collected black glassy obsidian and shaped it into various items. Because people of Catal Huyuk witnessed volcanic activity firsthand, it is logical to think that they held ideas about how rock formed in nature. Such information would naturally lead to a concept of how the world around them formed from volcanism.
Predynastic Obsidian in Egypt
Egyptological investigations prove that obsidian found its way into Predynastic Egyptian craftsmanship. The objects may lend support to William Lauritzen's premise. Alfred Lucas investigated obsidian objects himself, and he indicated:
  "So far as is known obsidian is not found naturally in Egypt, but it occurs in Abyssinia, in the Sudan, in Arabia in the Aden Protectorate, in the Hadramaut and elsewhere, in Armenia, in Asia Minor and in various Mediterranean lands.
  Obsidian was used in Egypt in small amounts from predynastic times, at first in the form of flakes for use as implements, and as weapons, such as lance-heads.
  The subject of the use of obsidian in ancient Egypt, with particular reference to its place of origin, has been discussed at length by Wainwright, and shortly by Frankfort, the later of whom gives some physical constants of obsidian from various sources. Wainwright concludes that the obsidian used in Egypt was obtained from Armenia."(6)
If G.A. Wainwright's conclusion is correct, it is entirely possible that obsidian made its way to Egypt from the land now called Turkey--from the area of Catal Huyuk or settlements in the Middle East where obsidian was traded by the people of Catal Huyuk. There are both active and extinct volcanoes in the Middle East. Furthermore, obsidian could have been transported to Egypt by people who witnessed active volcanoes, and embraced a concept of the formation of landmass due to volcanism. In fact, massive amounts of volcanic ash spewing into the air can cause the kind of impact on the ecology that forces migration to far away lands such as Egypt.
Old obsidian could have just as well been brought to Egypt by people who had no idea about how it formed. However, if obsidian transporters came from a volcanic region, beliefs about landmass formation from volcanism may have already been deeply entrenched in their creation beliefs.
Lucas believed that some obsidian used in Egypt, and perhaps the greater part, was brought to Egypt from Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a view shared by W.F. von Bissing (7) Lucas's idea that most obsidian came to Egypt through Ethiopia makes sense because of the closer proximity to the southern border of Egypt. Lucas does not exclude the possibility that some samples may have come from the mountains of Ararat in Turkey or other prominent volcanic regions above Egypt on the map.
Predynastic trade with Ethiopia is also established by the use of elephant ivory in Egypt. Ethiopia is a major area of volcanic activity. Thus, Ethiopian people might have held a belief, arising from their firsthand observations of erupting volcanoes, that the foundation of their world formed from volcanism. In that case, Primordial Mountain mythology could have been introduced into Egypt from the south of Egypt.
The ethnic origins of the Egyptians have not been determined, but in general scholarly consensus holds that two distinct ethnic groups formed the earliest basic population. The consensus holds that one group came from the Mediterranean regions, which embraced the Primordial Mountain theme for thousands of years and experienced volcanism. Scholars think that the other ethnic group came from other parts of Africa, with its many volcanoes. Thus, William Lauritzen's theory is compatible with the Egyptological consensus of the ethnic origins of the Egyptians.
Volcanoes dotting the Central Anatolian Plateau of Turkey erupted over millions of years and spread volcanic material over the land we think of as the cradle of civilization. In more recent geological history, numerous volcanic eruptions occurred all across the Mediterranean world over the last many thousands of years. As for Africa, Ethiopia and the Red Sea have over 100 volcanoes, and there are many more in the area from Kenya to the Congo and in West and North Africa.
Before humans walked the earth, forerunners were coping with volcanic eruptions in Africa: Researchers studied fossil remains of a forerunner of humans (called Proconsul) found in rock deposits near the once active Kisingiri volcano, in Kenya. The find suggests to the researchers that entire populations were simultaneously engulfed by massive glowing volcanic clouds--18 million years ago.(8) In 1978, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey discovered sets of hominid footprints at Tanzania, Africa, which were hardened in volcanic ash. The footprints date to 3.6 million years ago. The earliest memories of humankind involved rock formation from volcanism.
Scholarship holds that the earliest religion was closely associated with volcanoes because they contain fire. Historians believe that the first people to use fire collected it from trees ablaze from lightning strike and/or from spouting volcanoes, rather than learning to kindle it. Fire and Sun worship became closely associated--fire having been considered the earthly flesh of the Sun-god. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans tended sacred fires in their temples, and Greek mythology tells of how the first fire was stolen from the Sun.
Benben Design
The Egyptian Benben takes the shape of either a pyramid or cone. The pyramid became the predominant shape by the 4th Dynasty, when it was featured in the desert Necropolis as large pyramids with smaller pyramidal capstones.
The cone shaped Benben brings to mind the conical top of a volcano. In general, the edifice of a volcano is a cone-shaped structure made of a fairly symmetrical mass of lava and other volcanic material accumulated around its central vent. Sometimes volcanic eruptions can issue cone-shaped accumulations called parasitic cones (also called secondary cones) made of volcanic material.

The Oxford Old English Dictionary states that one suggestion for the etymology of the Greek word "pyramid" is fire. Some sources translate the word "pyramid" as meaning "fire in the middle." The imagery brings to mind an active volcano with its fiery interior. All of this would intimate that the Bennu or Phoenix was originally a volcano spirit rising from its ashes, in addition to its known role as the solar spirit. The two concepts are not incompatible. Many ancient people believed that a tree being blasted by lightning was proof that it was the Sun god's habitat.(9) In ancient Egypt, the Apis bull (the soul of Ptah, another name for the Atum or Bennu) was believed to have been conceived by lightning strike.
Comparative Mythology
The Benben represented the foundation and center of the world, the place where Atum (Atum-Ra, the Sun-god) alighted as the Bennu and set forth all of creation with a cry from his beak. There is a close comparison with mythology from other cultures. For instance, the mythology associated with the domed rock called the Omphalos (naval of the world) of Delphi, in ancient Greece, is related to that of the Egyptian Benben. Seated near the Omphalos (Figure 2) in the Temple of Apollo, the Pythia (High Priestess) uttered the oracle of the Sun-god Apollo.
Figure 2

The Omphalos of Delphi
Photograph by Pamela Russell

The Omphalos stone near the Boeotian Treasury. The Omphalos was set into a special base in the inner sanctum of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, seat of the most venerated oracle of the ancient Greek world.
Just as the Benben was Egypt's most sacred stone, the Omphalos (Greek: Baetyl; Latin: Baetulus, from the Semitic Bethel) was the most sacred stone of Delphi. Like the Benben, the Omphalos was considered the first matter to emerge from the receding waters of chaos. Legend accounts that the Sun-god Zeus sent two eagles from the ends of the earth to locate its center. Their beaks met at the Omphalos.
Similarly, Livio Stecchini, an expert in ancient measurements, performed surveying work on Egyptian monuments and concluded that ancient Egyptian architecture was constructed to split the entire country in half longitudinally by a prime meridian.(10)
According to Stecchini, every geodetic center built in Egypt possessed a geographical 'navel of the world' or, to use the Greek word, Omphalos. Each Omphalos was situated to represent the northern hemisphere from equator to pole, and was designated with meridians and parallels that showed the direction and distance of the other navels. In Thebes, an Omphalos was placed in the central chamber of the temple of Amun, and there the meridian and parallel actually cross. The national construction design had religious meaning relative to the ancient Egyptian concept of the cosmos.
When the Greeks occupied Egypt, they recognized that their religion was compatible with that of Egypt (or that both came from a common source), and identified the Greek gods with those of ancient Egypt. For instance, the Memphite Ptah (Atum or the Bennu) was identified with the Greek volcano god Hephaestus. In this way, the mountain sacred to Ptah and his sky-goddess consort Hathor--Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai--was associated with volcanism although Serabit el-Khadim is not volcanic. Depending upon the ethnic origins of the Egyptians and Greeks that afforded their common religious ground, the old volcano religion may have come full circle.
For a long time, scholarship assumed that Mt. Parnassu, upon which the Temple of Apollo in Delphi was located, is volcanic. Ancient Greek accounts indicate that the Pythia sat near the Omphalos on a tripod, which was situated over a deep gorge in the earth, breathing in divine vapors. For instance, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites indicates:
  "Here were the tripod, set over the mouth of the prophetic cleft or chasma ges, the Omphalos, the sacred laurel, the suppliants' waiting chamber, Dionysos' tomb, and the golden statue of Apollo."(11)
After geologists confirmed that Mt. Parnassus is not volcanic, historians began to question the validity and meaning of the mysterious ancient Greek accounts of the Pythia's practice of breathing vapors from a deep crack in the mountain to attain divine speech. Then geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, of Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, made a discovery. He determined that the Oracle of Delphi was built over a major geological fault zone, at an intersection where fractures run in different directions. Under this condition, subterranean gases can surface even without a mountain being volcanic.(12)
That this particular Omphalos was not associated with a volcanic mountain does not necessarily mitigate against William Lauritzen's volcanic theory of the Benben or its precursor. Just as the Benben concept--if it had its origins in an older volcanic culture--was adapted by the dwellers along the Nile to suit the beliefs of a culture devoid of active volcanoes, the same could be true for other later examples of the Omphalos. In fact, the accounts of the Pythia appear to inform us of an ancient oracular system--and fissures in volcanic mountains are the most likely spots for subterranean gases to escape.
Ancient literature may offer accounts of attempts to synthesize such an oracular system. For instance, accounts speak of the ancient Greek Mysteries, for which the cauldron of the goddess Ceres (identified with the Egyptian Isis and the Greek goddess Demeter) was ritually prepared by nine divinely inspired maidens who volatized the brew with their breath. The maidens represented the nine muses, the divinely inspired daughters of Zeus of Greek mythology worshipped all over ancient Greece.
The geographer Strabo associated the Druidesses with the priestesses of Dionysos (Roman: Bacchus). The Celtic myth of the Cauldron of Gerridwen speaks of an elixir that afforded oracular speech. According to Llyfr Taliesin's poem titled The Spoils of Annwn, the elixir was heated or vaporized by the breath of nine maidens (who represented the nine muses).
Modern research has shown that chemicals naturally occurring in the human brain can be manipulated to produce extraordinary experiences similar to those testified to by participants in the Mystery rites. The famous Roman orator and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) was such an initiate.(13) As we consider the ancient mystical practices, we can keep in mind that the root word for cauldron is "caldera," meaning a volcanic crater.
The mystical context is certainly correctly associated with the Benben. The Benben stone and Delphi Omphalos represented the creative mind responsible for making all of the universe. Greek artifacts show the Sun-god Apollo (son of Zeus) on the Omphalos, and a second Omphalos at Delphi (the one that the Titan Cronus swallowed) represented Zeus (father of the gods).
Just as the Omphalos was considered the center of the world, in Predynastic times the Egyptian priests erected the Benben In the center of the holy city of Heliopolis (called Annu in Egyptian and On in the Bible). The sacred context is provided in Utterance 600 of the Pyramid Texts (so called because the texts are inscribed on the walls of 5th and 6th Dynasty pyramids):
  *"O Atum! When you came into being you rose up as a High Hill,
  *You shone as the Benben Stone in the Temple of the Phoenix in Heliopolis."(14)
Clearly, the verse equates the creator of the universe Atum (Ptah) as the Primeval Mound itself. The holy city of Heliopolis, where the Benben stood, was located near Egypt's first capital city of Memphis, the main center of Ptah worship. When the Romans occupied Egypt and saw in the nature of Ptah their volcano god Vulcan, the two gods were identified so that the magnificent Temple of Ptah in Memphis became known as the Temple of Vulcan. As mentioned, the old Italian fire god was also identified with the Greek volcano god Hephaestus. Mythology held that the workshop of Hephaestus was under Mount Etna, a volcano in Sicily.
Figure 3
Het Benben Temple of Heliopolis
Reproduction by author Alan F. Alford.

Margaret Morris remarks:


Aldred cites the Benben as meaning literally: "The-Stone-which-flowed-out," but he does not provide his source. Perhaps he is alluding to Pyramid Text 527 (see below). Although Aldred thinks the Benben must have been a meteorite, the stone that flowed brings lava flow to mind.

For instance, Livy spoke of the pumice stones ("In monte Albano lapidibus pluit") that rained down on Alba Longa from volcanic eruptions. In Latium religious practice, a ceremony was performed whenever an eruption was announced from the Alban hills ("Quoties idem prodigium in monte Albano nunciaretur, feriae per novem dies agerentur").

The reproduction above agrees with standard Egyptological opinion: "The most sacred object within the temple was the benben, probably a conically shaped stone which was thought to symbolize the first phenomenon in the creation of this earth."-- I.E.S. Edwards (page 6 The Pyramids of Egypt, 1985 reprint)
William Lauritzen's volcanic theory of the Benben competes with the theory that the sacred rock was a meteorite. Both the Benben and the Omphalos were said to have fallen from heaven, leading to assumptions of meteoric origin. However, the ancient Omphalos on display in the Delphi Museum is not a meteorite, and the original Benben of Heliopolis is lost. The legends saying that the sacred rocks were heaven-sent can simply have meant that they represented the heavenly god (called Atum, Ptah, Apollo, Zeus, Jupiter, etc.). The concept of a fiery stone falling from heaven can relate to volcanic ash falling from the sky and turning to rock. In that case, there is no conflict between the Benben that "rose" (Pyramid Text Utterance 600) in Heliopolis from the waters of chaos and the rock from heaven.
Some have argued that a meteorite of the size of the Benben and Delphi Omphalos would have shattered into small fragments on impact. Furthermore, sometimes the heaven-sent Baetyl (Omphalos) is not stone at all, but wood. In Greek mythology, Zeus sent the wooden statue of the goddess Athena (called the Palladium) down from heaven when the city of Troy was founded.
The connection with the celestial realm is clear in Egyptian religious tradition: the pharaohs embodied the Bennu and their souls were the stars in the sky. When a pharaoh was crowned, he was celebrated as the newly incarnated Sun-god (conceived of as ruler of the whole universe) descended to earth. His spirit descended from the cosmos to rule. Similarly, the Bible carries references showing that in the ancient Middle East a star signified a deity (a god-king). When dead, the tyrant king of Babylon was depicted as a star:
  Isiah 14:12: "How did you come to fall from the heavens, Daystar, son of Dawn?"(15)
Thus, we should be cautious about taking legends about sacred relics falling from the sky literally and then making the leap of assuming that they are meteoric. In an article in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, G.A. Wainwright observed that in ancient religion, meteorite, Omphalos and thunderbolt were all one and the same.(16) The equation of rocks with lightning was very persistent.
In about AD 450, the Roman prelate Sidonius Apollinaris (c.430-487) asserted that Neolithic tools were made by lightning (lapides fulminis or lightning stones). When Neolithic axeheads and arrowheads (made of flint or quartz) were found, they were called Thunderstones and considered the oldest relics of the first war in heaven. Later, in Scandinavian lore, when quartz-like rocks, sharp crystals and flints were found by farmers plowing their fields, they attributed the rocks to lightning strikes. Their tradition held that the objects were missiles shot at trolls by the god Thor. History offers a great many examples of stones believed to have fallen from the sky that are not meteorites.
The Pyramid Texts
The Pyramid Texts relate that other Egyptian gods were the divine seed of Atum, personfication of the Benben. Mark Lehner describes the symbolism:

"According to Pyramid Text 527, 'Atum is the one who developed, getting an erection in Heliopolis. Other texts relate Atum's erection and ejaculation to the ben-ben pyramidion through a cosmic pun on the root, bn, which is associated with procreation and could mean 'become erect' or 'ejaculate.'"(17)

We must be cautious about reading too much into ancient descriptions of the creation of the cosmogonic gods because of unknown cultural nuances. Even so, it is certainly hard not to recognize the analogy between a stone that ejects and an erupting volcano with its enormous creative and destructive powers. Although the stylized Benben does not have an open center on top like a volcano, we detect this feature in the descriptive passages of the above-quoted Pyramid Texts. They emphasize the creative powers of the male regenerative organ of Atum, and how he personified the Benben Stone as he brought the world into existence.
There is a much more solid reason to associate volcanoes with a Sun-god such as Atum (Ptah): Gold formation is closely associated with volcanism. Gold is found in volcanic deposits and rocks. Gold was considered the flesh of the Sun-god.
In fact, a report in CSIRO Exploration & Mining (July 4, 2001; Ref 2001/165) explains that a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers might have actually watched the formation of a gold deposit at an active underwater volcano off of northeastern Sulawesi, in Indonesia. The researchers collected rocks bearing metal sulfides, rocks altered by volcanic fluids to produce minerals commonly associated with gold deposits. Equivalents can exist on land.
Ancient people could have found gold in old volcanic deposits and rocks and began to associate volcanoes with gold, and, therefore, with the Sun-god. Whereas the tip of the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian desert exhibit some very old volcanic rock, there are no volcanoes in Egypt. We are dealing with the possiblity that the Benben concept was introduced into Egypt from a volcanic region. The close association between both fire and gold with volcanism is the strongest argument in favor or William Lauritzen's volcanic theory of the origin of the Benben.(18)
The Black Stone of Mecca
The Ka'ba sanctuary at Mecca contains the venerated Black Stone (Greek: Baetyl, Arabic: Alhajar Al-Aswad) of Islam. The object is often said to be a meteorite. However, some who have observed the relic hold the opinion that it is a special glass, perhaps impact glass made by a meteor strike. A matching impact crater, however, has not been found. The real nature of the Black Stone will remain a mystery because scientific investigation is not permitted on so sacred an object.
Tradition holds that the Black Stone fell from heaven, and this can suggest a number of possibilities, including: 1) the venerated stone is a meteorite, 2) it is glass formed by a meteor strike, 3) it is an exquisite man-made glass that denotes sacred alchemical learning. Reports that it has a scent lasting for many centuries suggests this, if they are literal instead of traditional accounts (19), 4) the Black Stone is volcanic glass, and 5) the tradition signifies nothing about the type of material of the Black Stone, and instead means that it is a very special gift from Allah or that it represents Allah (just as the Benben represented Atum/Ptah and the Omphalos represented Apollo/Zeus). It is common for the sacred traditions of many ancient cultures to hold meaning that is not literal, whereas the traditions were well understood by the ancient hiero-grammateus versed in the sacred arts and sciences.
The Old Testament
Some scholars suggest that the biblical descriptions indicate that Mt. Sinai was a volcanic mountain.
  Exodus 19:18-21: "Mt. Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke rose like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain shook violently. Louder and louder grew the trumpeting. Moses spoke and God answered him in the thunder. Yahweh descended on Mt. Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and Yahweh called Moses to the top of the mountain; and Moses went up."(20)
  Exodus 20:18: "Seeing the thunder pealing, the lightning flashing, the trumpet blasting and the mountain smoking, the people were all terrified and kept their distance."(21)
  Judges 5:5: "The mountains melted before Yahweh of Sinai, before Yahweh, god of Israel."(22)
In the 1800s English geographer Charles Beke published a pamphlet titled Mount Sinai a Volcano. Beke searched the Sinai and found no volcanic mountains. Beke discovered enormous ash and lava beds in Northwest Arabia. The black top of Jebel el Lawz in the land called Midian in Moses' day shows that it was once volcanic.
A number of scholars, including Archibald H. Sayce, Abraham S. Yahuda, Sir E.A.W. Budge, Cyrus H. Gordon, and Umberto Cassuto demonstrated clear parallels between the religion of Moses and that of dynastic Egypt. My work goes even farther along these lines.(23)
However, given that the accounts of Moses were complied from oral and written traditions about 500 years after his death, it is possible that any volcanic associations in the above-quoted passages date to later cultural influences. The biblical accounts bring us to the metaphorical theory of the Benben. The motif of the god-king on the Primordial Mountain appears in the biblical account of the Fall of Man:
  Ezekiel 28:12-14: "You used to be a model of perfection, full of wisdom, perfect in beauty; you were in Eden, in the garden of God. All kinds of gem formed your mantle: sard, topaz, diamond, chrysolite, onyx, jasper, sapphire, garnet, emerald, and your ear-pendants and spangles were of gold; all was ready on the day you were created. I made you a living creature with outstretched wings, as guardian, you were on the holy mountain [Primordial or Cosmic Mountain] of God; you walked amid red-hot coals [the stars]."(24)
Verses like these might provoke the question of whether the Benben shape derived from myth or metaphorical ideas, rather than having been inspired by a physical object. However, ancient people animated their mythology: elements of the natural world symbolized elements of the divine kingdom of heaven, which their nation sought to mirror. Religious holidays celebrating and mourning the life cycles of the gods are an example of such animated mythology.
I think it is logical to suggest that the Benben served as the point of a sundial and, therefore, symbolized the workings of cosmic order. The book titled Timetables of Science, by A. Hellemans and B. Bunch dates the first use of the obelisk (which is a pillar with a Benben on top) as a sundial to the much later 18th Dynasty reign of Pharaoh Thuthmosis III.(25) However, it is well established that the 18th through the 26th Dynasties were a time of reawakening to Egypt's glorious past. Thus, when the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Tuthmosis III had obelisks built at Heliopolis, he may have been reviving the Benben's function as a sundial.
Experts do not fully agree on when the 365-day calendar was developed in Egypt. Estimates range from as early as 4241 BC to as late as 2773 BC. Humankind's interest in charting the workings of heavenly bodies dates much earlier on the African Continent. A marked bone from Zaire, dating to perhaps as late as 6500 BC, is thought to record lunar phases.
Although most surviving obelisks date to Egypt's New Kingdom, the 5th Dynasty pyramid complex of Unas possessed two small obelisks, and Sixth Dynasty Sun Temples included small obelisks. It is logical to think that the predynastic Heliopolitan priests who build the primordial Benben, which was capable of serving as the point of a sundial, also had the presence of mind to use the monument to measure shadows for the purpose of studying the solar cycle.
The interpretation of the Benben as a sundial does not conflict with William Lauritzen's Volcanic theory because the Benben was represented by pyramids and certain natural mountains. One might argue that the Benben concept evolved into the mountain theme as pyramids were built increasingly larger. However, one could counter that mountains were seen in relation to sunrise and sunset since the dawn of human intelligence, and were, therefore, considered primeval markers of time that eventually inspired the Benben or sundial shape. Besides, the Egyptian religion was a blend of traditions.
Scientific Testing
The geopolymeric theory of the Benben suggests that the Stone was, like the pyramids, made of sacred alchemically-made rock.(26) William Lauritzen's theory of the volcanic origin of the Benben concept is not incompatible because of the ease with which volcanic ash can be geopolymerized at ambient temperatures by mixing it with simple materials, including slaked lime. The use of lime dates all of the way back to Catal Huyuk, as we know from obsidian mirrors set in lime plaster. In Tell Ramad, Syria, lime was used 9,000 years ago to make pots that desalinate water.(27)
Similarly, the Romans made high-quality pozzolanic cement from the powdered volcanic rock near Mt. Vesuvius. Pozzolan is a finely divided siliceous or siliceous and aluminous material that chemically reacts with slaked lime at ambient temperature to make high-quality hydraulic cement. The most impervious Roman cement called Opus Signinum has been shown to be geopolymeric.(28)
In this alchemical scenario, early ritual stones of the type that came to be known as Benben or Omphalos were shaped like the mountain from which the vital ingredients (silico-aluminates) came. To a certain extent, further investigation is possible because the Delphi Omphalos, and objects in which Apollo is shown with the Omphalos, survive. The Benben of Heliopolis has not. Ancient Baetyl or Sun Stones survive from ancient Palestine and Assyria, and their symbolism may have been similar to that of the Benben.
Herod's Tomb
Margaret Morris remarks:
In traditional god-king on the mountain style, King Herod the Great built his conical tomb called the Herodium in the wilderness of Judaea. Its shape brings to mind a number of the elements discussed above--the conical Benben, a volcano, and art historian William Carl Eichman's remarks about a volcano goddess of Catal Huyuk.
 "Herod...built a fortress upon a mountain towards Arabia, and named it from himself, Herodium and he called that hill that was of the shape of a woman's breast, and was sixty furlongs distant from Jerusalem, by the same name. He also bestowed much curious art upon it, with great ambition, and built round towers all about the top of it..." -- Flavius Josephus (The Jewish Wars, Book I, xxl, William Whiston translation)
Summary and Rationale
William Lauritzen's alternative theory of the volcanic origin of the Benben is based on this rationale:
1. It is logical to think that if the earliest Egyptians were migrants, as scholarship holds, some migrants came from volcanic regions.
2. The Egyptian Benben mythology may have ancient cultural roots outside of Egypt, given that a god-on-the-mountain theme may date all of the way back to Catal Huyuk. The Mythical Mountain of the Gods also has roots in other ancient civilizations like Sumer and India. Thus, it is possible that the earliest god-on-the-mountain concept was introduced into Egypt.
3. The Egyptian pyramids evolved from ziggurat-like structures to true pyramids. The Benben mythology, like other religious mythologies, was very likely an evolved form of an earlier mythology. If Egypt adapted the mythology from volcanic origins, those volcanic associations may have been subdued or lost because Egyptian history has known no active volcanic mountains.
4. The Benben is sometimes depicted as cone-shaped, and this brings to mind the conical edifices of volcanoes.
5. Massive volcanic eruptions can cause a prolonged blackening of the sky followed by drought. Such conditions can force people to migrate to other regions.
6. The presence of obsidian in Egypt in Predynastic times lends some support to William Lauritzen's theory.
Further Research
William Lauritzen hopes to test his Volcanic Benben theory in cooperation with Egyptologists, volcanism experts, and experts in other relevant disciplines. Information and data can be databased and extracted for use in developing a consensus. Such professional input will allow William Lauritzen to link back to original sources so as to enable a judgement of accuracy. I hope interested people will contact William Lauritzen with relevant data and information.
1. Clifford, R.J., The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard.
2. Lyle, E. (ed.), Sacred Architecture in the Traditions of India, China, Judaism, and Islam, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh (1992), 220 p; Scully, V. J., The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods; Greek Sacred Architecture, Yale University Press, New Haven (1962), 257 p.
3. For more on the Primordial Mountain theme, see Morris, M., The Egyptian Pyramid Mystery Is Solved!:
6. Lucas, A., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications (1999 1962), pages 415-416.
7. Lucas cites F.W. von Bissing, Archiv fur Orientforschung, v (1928-9), p. 75, n. 2. See Lucas, A., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, Mineola, N.Y, Dover Publications (1999 1962), page 73.
8. BBC News Monday, May 3, 1999, based on a report from the Journal of the Geological Society.
9. Frazer mentioned that the oak sacred to the Sun-god Jupiter was struck by lightning more times than any other tree of the European forests, a phenomenon that ancient people perhaps also observed. See Frazer, Sir J.G., The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, I vol. abridged Edition, New York, Macmillan Pub., Inc. (9th Printing 1978), page 821.
10. Livio Stecchini reported his observations in an appendix in Peter Tompkin's Secrets of the Great Pyramid, Harper and Row (1971).
11. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites (edited by Richard Stillwell, William L. MacDonald, and Marian Holland McAllister, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. (1976): D: DELPHI Phokis, Greece.
12. Piccardi, L., "Active faulting at Delphi, Greece: Seismotectonic remarks and a hypothesis for the geologic environment of a myth" Geology, The Geological Society of America (June 2000), page 651.
13. Strassman, R., DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, Park Street Press, Rochester, Vt. (c2001), 358 pp.
14. Clark, R.T. Rundle, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London (1978) page 37,
15. The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, page 1211.
16. Wainwright, G.A., "The Emblem of Min," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (1931) pages 190ff.
17. Lehner, M., The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries, New York, Thames and Hudson (1997), 34-35
18. For more on the association between gold and volcanoes, see Richard Herrington, Chris Stanley & Robert Symes, Gold, NHM Publishing (1999)
19. Pliny, Natural History, Book 37.8 states that Murrhine had a scent. Murrhine was determined to be natural fluorite by the French Academy of Scientists in 1883, but clearly the exquisite Murrhine described by Pliny was synthetic if it gave off a scent.
20. The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, page 105.
21. The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, page 229.
22. The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, page 324.
23. For Morris, M., The Real Identity of Moses, please visit:
24. The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1440-1441.
25. Hellemans. A., Bunch, B., The Timetables of Science: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in the History of Science, Simon & Schuster: New York (1988), 16.
26. For Morris, M., The Egyptian Pyramid Mystery Is Solved!, please visit:
27. For the desalination pots, see Morris, M., The Egyptian Pyramid Mystery Is Solved!, available from Davidovits, J., Courtois, L., "Differential Thermal Analysis (D.T.A.) Detection of Intra-Ceramic Geopolymeric Setting in Archaeological Ceramics and Mortars," 21st Symposium on Archaeometry, Brookhaven N.Y. (1981), Abstracts, page 22.
28. Davidovits, Frederic , A la Recherche du Carbunculus, Voces, Vol. 5, (1994), 35-46. See also in Frederic Davidovits's thesis titled Les Mortiers de Pouzzolanes Artificles chez Vitruve, D.E.A. Thesis, University of Paris X - Nanterre (1993).
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