Apparently yesterday saw an anniversary screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, hosted by Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. I can only assume that my invitation went missing in the post somehow, because I wasn’t there alongside Simon Pegg and Lost creator Damon Lindelof (who recently wrote a love letter to Raiders).
Raiders is an awesome film, of course, one of those movies where everything, from the direction to the story to the casting to Harrison Ford’s dysentery conspire to capture lightning in a bottle in a way that modern blockbusters often fail to manage. It’s a pure-blooded classic, from the opening scene (BOULDER!) to the ending (BOXES!) via divine retribution (GOD SMITING NAZIS!) and it’s fantastic. Ford could go mad and take the lead role in a new Catwoman movie and we’d still forgive him, simply because he’s Han AND Indy. The guy gets a pass just because of that. He’s even inspired the coolest Mr. Potato Head.
But part of the power of Raiders is that it’s rooted in religion and folklore, the stakes of the movie hanging on both the evil of the Nazis, and concepts of the Old Testament Wrath of God. The Ark has power beyonf human imagining and that raises it beyond a plot MacGuffin to something far scarier – frankly, none of the characters, good or bad, should be going anywhere near it.
This is pretty true to the Biblical accounts. Here’s the story: Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt after God rains down plagues on Pharoah and parts the Red Sea. Following this, God makes a covenant, or agreement, with the fledgling Israel – this is marked by the 10 Commandments and a box – ark – in which to keep them (I wrote a little about the guy who built the ark here). This Ark became a physical symbol of God’s presence with the Israelites, going before them in battle, infused by the holy power of God and impossible to touch with your bare hands.
This is where Raiders draws upon the biblical texts – there are stories of people dying after touching the Ark and, when it’s captured by the Philistines, they’re struck by a plague of, well, hemorrhoids. The Ark is not something to be messed with.
Anyway, eventually the Babylonians conquered Israel and the Ark disappears from view. No-one knows what happened to it, and it’s at this point that it passes from religious history into rumour, folklore and mythology. Raiders suggests it ended up buried in Egypt, waiting for some hubristic Nazis to dig it up. There are, however, other ideas…
One of the apocryphal (non-canonical) biblical texts, 2 Maccabees, says that the prophet Jeremiah realised that Israel was going down and buried the Ark in an unknown cave, not to be revealed until God Himself made it known.
Meanwhile, others lay claim to safeguarding the Ark, most famously Ethiopia. Apparently there is an artifact kept in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Axum, that may of may not be the Ark. The Glory of Kings, a text written in 1225 to legitimise the Ethiopian royal family, says that it’s there, and all Ethiopian churches contain a replica of the Ark. Interestingly, a while ago the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said he was going to reveal the truth about the Ark; the next day he changed his mind. This doesn’t exactly help quash speculation.
Then there are the Lemba people of southern Africa, who have a tradition of a mysterious but sacred artifact known as the Ngoma Lungundu, “the drum that thunders” (implying the voice of God). What may a replica of the Ark is on display in Zimbabwe, after being hidden away in a storeroom for years… Which sounds a little familiar.
It’s not just Africa making claims. At the turn of the 20th century there was even speculation that the Ark was in Ireland, with some enthusiasts starting to dig up the Hill of Tara until someone had the sense to stop them before they destroyed one of the country’s spiritual centres.
The fact is, we don’t know what happened to the Ark of Covenant, and that worked in the favour of Raiders – at the end of the film the Ark is lost again, this time to the forces of bureaucracy. Maybe it’s for the best – you don’t mess around with the infinite, to paraphrase another movie. For an archeologist, Indy doesn’t have much success with getting his finds back home – he’s not working with history, he’s working with faith, religion, the divine. “It belongs in a museum,” he says during another of his adventures, but that’s not always true – in the case of the Ark he has to close his eyes and stay out of the way. It’s not often that a movie has something visceral to say about the power of God.
Fortunately Raiders isn’t any old movie.