Ark shows up in a lot of places. Most of the time it’s a reference to Noah’s ark, that very large wooden box (that’s really what it was – an epic parallelepiped) that, the Bible tells us, held eight people, seven pairs of each species of clean animal, one pair of each species of unclean animal, and seven (individuals, not pairs) of each kind of bird. It was like an enormous treasure chest preserving the future of dry-land life, bobbing on the waves like a message in a bottle: each entity a word, or, really, many many words. It puts me in mind of the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, which is preserving the vegetal biodiversity of the planet (especially its food crops) – see the article in the July 2011 National Geographic.
Ark often appears in science fiction, as the idea of an interstellar ship carrying the few survivors of a planet through the dark oceanic void of space is an appealing one and can present quite a few possibilities. (Not all such tales use ark; I’m put in mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and of the ill-fated TV series Starlost.) There is typically the idea of a ship or an analogue of one, perserving all life. But, really, it’s not a ship that one navigates from one place to another – it simply floats like a message in a bottle, or rather a treasure chest floating on the water with the hope for the future inside it.
Did you know that the little vessel of bulrushes in which the infant Moses was placed so that he could float down the stream and be discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter was also an ark? Not all translations of the Bible use the term, but that is the time-honoured term, and is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew teiva (compare tebhath Noah, “Noah’s ark”). That little vessel, most likely made of papyrus reeds, carried the hope of Israel – and of all its words; the words were later themselves written on papyrus, but the man traditionally given as the origin of the first books of the Bible was Moses, who was carried to safety in a boat of papyrus.
But an ark is not a boat, not really. No, it is a box. A treasure chest or any other kind of chest. Noah’s ark was an exceptionally large one; the ark of bulrushes was smaller, but not really closed like a usual box. But the sea vessel image is so pervasive that when I first heard of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (shortly before it was released in theatres), I assumed it had to do with Noah’s ark.
It didn’t, of course; it had to do with that third ark, the Ark of the Covenant: the holiest vessel in the Biblical Hebrew religion. It contained the tablets on which God inscribed the commandments – the words that they took as their guide. Of course, they didn’t open it and look in all the time; it was far too holy for that. They knew the words; the box preserved the originary text, but while it held the cold stone the words were alive outside it, and even after it disappeared they survived. (In the here and now, there are many people who have things to say about the value of those words and their effect, but I am not here to enter into that debate; I’m tasting the word ark, and this is an important influence on it.)
I would be remiss if I did not mention also the sense of promise and covenant following on these three arks. You may remember what sign God gave to Noah as a promise not to flood the planet again: a rainbow, a great arc in the sky (arc-en-ciel in French, in fact). Moses, of course, brought promise and the covenant with God in the form of the commandments, and it is those commandments that were in the Ark of the Covenant. So an ark holds treasure, holds words, brings promise, brings covenant.
That’s quite a bit for such a small, plain word, isn’t it? Ark comes to us from Latin arca, “box” – nothing more arcane than that. Our English ark is a short, sturdy word, almost a fragment; it shows up in so many other words (and its sound in even more). It’s quite popular in its role as abbreviation for Arkansas. You may remark on the marks you read on the page, or hark to the words you hear spoken. It is not a seed of these words, or a root, but it is carried in them and keeps them afloat. I will not even begin a list of words with the letters or sound in them; that’s an exercise you can occupy yourself with in your spare time.
But I will mention the photo with which I illustrate this note. This ARK is obviously scratched with many more words, the etchings (in Italian, “etchings” is graffiti) of the masses passing by. In fact, this ARK was hidden behind a metal sign for some time, and was revealed by the sign’s removal. To see it (I believe it is still there), you must travel through the dark void in a box, in this case a metal box, not made of rushes but used during rush hour; it holds words in many languages, some printed or etched but many more spoken and heard by the mingled masses of humanity carried safely to their futures in it. The box itself embodies something of a covenant with nature: if you’re in it with the others of humanity, sharing their words, you are not alone in a metal box by yourself, clogging up the streets and polluting the air.
Of course the box is a subway car. The sign is on a subway platform. In full, it reads QUEEN’S PARK. But at the end is a word, and the word is ark.
On arcs rather than arks, Suetonius’ life of Domitian cites a nice pun on the emperor’s vainglorious building of triumphal arches celebrating his own achievements: ‘He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: “Arci” (… ut cuidam Graece inscriptum sit: “Arci.”).
Arci, of course, means ‘arches’, but what the person wrote was ἀρκεῖ, ‘It is enough.’