The novel’s title, Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper comes from the ancient Canaanite epic of Baal and Anat, which tells the love story between Baal, the storm god from the North, and Anat, the daughter of El, the father god of the Canaanites (who, I am inclined to believe, was adopted by the Jews and transformed into the monotheistic god of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition).
This phrase appears in Baal’s plea to Anat in which he declares his love for her and implores her to rush to him and thus set in motion what will emerge from their union. His instructions to his messengers are as follows (with the variant spelling of Anat’s name, “Anath,” and including her epithet, “Yammat Liimmim”):
At Anath’s feet bow and fall down,
Prostrate you, do her honor.
And say unto Maiden Anath,
Declare unto Yammat Liimmim:
Message of Puissant Baal,
Word of the Powerful Hero:
Take war from the earth,
Banish strife from the soil;
Pour peace into earth’s very bowels,
Much amity into earth’s bosom.
Hasten! Hurry! Rush!
To me thy feet shall trot,
To me shall sprint thy legs,
I’ve a word I fain would tell thee,
A speech I would utter to thee:
Speech of tree and whisper of stone,
Converse of heaven with earth,
E’en of the deeps with the stars;
Yes, a thunderbolt unknown to heaven,
A word not known to men,
Nor sensed by the masses on earth.
I first encountered this passage of the Canaanite epic in James B. Pritchard’s Ancient Near East Texts Relating to the Old Testament (translated into English by H.L. Ginsberg, from the tablets found at Ras Shamra-Ugarit between 1930-33). I was immediately smitten by what this somewhat archaic translation conveys—from the winsome image of the goddess of war and love in “To me thy feet shall trot” to Baal’s grand utopian vision of pouring “peace into earth’s very bowels.” But it was the line “Speech of tree and whisper of stone” that most intrigued me.
Since then, I have read these lines in a number of English translations, and although I have not (and cannot) read the Ugaritic poetry in the original, I chose to render the phrase as a simple imperative: “Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper.” For me, this phrase taken in context reveals the heart of Shechem’s vision: how the coming forward of the organic (Speak, wood!) and the drawing back of the inorganic (Stone, whisper!) might summon a new communion “of heaven with earth,” and the emergence of a utopian order in which “strife will be banished from the soil, peace poured into earth’s bowels, and amity into earth’s bosom.” For me, this phrase also hints at the balancing of the feminine (softer, wood) and masculine (harder, stone) embodied in the proposed marriage of the powerful Prince Shechem and Dinah, the shepherd girl from Paddan-aram, and even prefigures the duality expressed in the yin and yang symbols of Chinese philosophy. Then, as I say in “About the Book,” my Dinah speaks as a witness for the silenced, the vanquished, and the dead—both gods and mortals. For me, this too is conveyed by the phrase “Speak, Wood; Stone, Whisper.”