(And so this is solstice. A time when humans, over many tens of thousands of years, have devoted themselves to Deep Thoughts. In the spirit of which, a piece that examines the “Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.” That is: 42. An earlier version of this piece rambled on to red here.)
In the cosmology of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the “Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” is, as determined by a computer that devotes more than 7 million years to the task, the number 42.
The computer then informs its programmers that the precise nature of the ultimate question, however, is still unknown. At the urging of the agitated programmers, the computer then agrees to construct an even more sophisticated computer (subsequently known as Earth), which, after 10 million years or so, will come up with this question. To which the answer is 42.
Unfortunately, the Earth is destroyed by Vogon workmen, constructing a new Hyperspace Bypass, about five minutes before the question is due from the computer to arrive.
Douglas Adams, who came up with this delightful nonsense, always vowed that there was nothing special about his selection of the number 42 as the “Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.” He consistently maintained variations around the claim that he decided the Ultimate Answer “should be something that made no sense whatsoever—a number, and a mundane one at that.” That he lit upon 42 “at random.” That 42 is “a completely ordinary number, a number not just divisible by two but also six and seven . . . the sort of number that you could without any fear introduce to your parents.”
But you know: he could be lying. Because it is a fact that brains lie all the time, and Adams was, so far as is known, an Earth creature, and one with a brain. So even if he was not consciously lying, his brain could have been lying to him.
I’m pretty sure now that this is the case—that Adams, or his brain, knew what the number 42 represented, and employed it as The Answer intentionally. I believe this because of what I’ve found in The White Goddess.
Now, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess is one of the most endlessly fascinating but poorly indexed volumes in all of publishing. I recurrently rotate it in and out of the throne room, for idle perusal while recycling wastes, because you never know what you might find in there, to which the index offers nary a clue.
And so one morning, I arrived unexpectedly at Graves’ discourse on the number 42.
Which indicates that Adams, or his brain, was indeed bullshitting us, or him. Because there is no doubt that Adams, and therefore his brain, was familiar with The White Goddess. And in it Graves asserts that 42 is the key to the Real name of the Divine.
The White Goddess is impossibly dense. Trying to pluck one section from it, while still retaining context, is a fool’s errand: to truly provide context generally presents the risk of inscribing as many words as are in the 500-some-page book itself.
So I’ll just dive right in and note that in this particular section of his tome, Graves is concerned with the eightfold Name of God, known only to the most adept of Jewish priests, though Graves asserts that somehow or other the anonymous ollaves who composed what became the 13th Century riddling Welsh minstrel poem “Hanes Taliesin” managed to get hold of it.
As an aside, ollaves iz pretty smart and learny people. They don’t much make ollaves any more, at least not for public consumption. Here’s why:
The ollave in ancient Ireland had to be master of one hundred and fifty Oghams, or verbal ciphers, which allowed him to converse with his fellow-poets over the heads of unlearned bystanders; to be able to repeat at a moment’s notice any one of three hundred and fifty long traditional histories and romances, together with the incidental poems they contained, with appropriate harp accompaniment; to have memorized an immense number of other poems of different sorts; to be learned in philosophy; to be a doctor of civil law; to understand the history of modern, middle and ancient Irish with the derivations and changes of meaning of every word; to be skilled in music, augury, divination, medicine, mathematics, geography, universal history, astronomy, rhetoric and foreign languages; and to be able to extemporize poetry in fifty or more complicated metres.
Some people, including Graves, believe that William Shakespeare was such a prolific witty brainiac because his Welsh tutor was an ollave.
Anyway, Graves recounts that in the mystic tradition the true and real Lofty Name of the deity was always intentionally obscured. “The disguised official formula,” as is commonly known, is “Jehowih, or Jehowah, written JHWH for short.”
Meanwhile, the Real name was “conveyed from one High Priest to another” by “a description of the alphabetical process which yielded it.”
(Another aside: Graves notes that “the Heads of the Pharisaic academies also claimed to know [the Real name],” and we know from Hyam Maccoby that Jesus of Nazereth was a Pharisee, one of many True things about Jesus obliterated by the Saulites who hijacked Jesus and his teachings after his death.)
Back on track, Graves concludes that “the Name taught in the Academies is likely to have been a complicated one of either 42 or 72 letters. Both forms are discussed by Dr. Robert Eisler in the Jubilee volume for the Grand Rabbi of France in La Revue des Etudes Juives. The calendar mystery of 72 has already been discussed; that of 42 belongs to the Beth-Luis-Nion system.”
“The Beth-Luis-Nion system” is a tree-alphabet originally Cretan, surviving as “a genuine relic of Druidism orally transmitted down the centuries,” and “latterly used for divination only.” It “consists of five vowels and thirteen consonants,” one of which, N—Nion—representing in this alphabet the ash tree, was later conjured up by Alexa for her once and future Never In Our Names (NION) blog.
As in this post I am already down deep in serious White Goddess gumbo, I’ll just go ahead and reprint some of what Graves says about the ash, or Nion, tree:
In Greece the ash was sacred to Poseidon, and the Meliai, or ash-spirits, were much cultivated. In Ireland the Tree of Tortu, The Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Usnech, three of the Five Magic Trees whose fall in the year AD 665 symbolized the triumph of Christianity over paganism, were ash-trees. A descendant of the Sacred Tree of Creevna, also an ash, was still standing at Killura in the nineteenth century; its wood was a charm against drowning, and emigrants to America after the Potato Famine carried it away with them piecemeal. In British folklore the ash is a tree of re-birth—Gilbert White describes in his History of Selborne how naked children had formerly been passed through cleft pollard ashes before sunrise as a cure for rupture. The custom survived in remoter parts of England until 1830. The Druidical wand with a spiral decoration, part of a recent Anglesey find dating from the early first century AD, was of ash. The great ash Yygdrasill, sacred to Woden, or Wotan or Odin or Gwydion, was taken over from the Triple Goddess who, as the Three Norns of Scandinavian legend, dispensed justice under it.
Back now to 42. So Graves says that in the Beth-Luis-Nion tree-alphabet the Real name of the divine can be apprehended in 42 letters. Graves then, in footnote, goes on to briefly note other magical mystery tours involving the number 42.
42 is the number of the children devoured by Elisha’s she-bears. This is apparently an iconotropic myth derived from a sacred picture of the Libyo-Thraco-Pelasgian “Brauronia” ritual. The two she-bears were girls dressed in yellow dresses who pretended to be bears and rushed savagely at the boys who attended the festival. The ritual was in honor of Artemis Callisto, the Moon as Bear-Goddess, and since a goat was sacrificed seems to belong to the Midsummer festivities. 42 is the number of days from the beginning of the H month, which is the preparation for the midsummer marriage and death-orgy, to Midsummer Day. 42 is also the number of infernal journeymen who judged Osiris: the days between his midsummer death and the end of the T month, when he reached Calypso’s isle, though this is obscured in the priestly Book of the Dead. According to Clement of Alexandria there were forty-two books of Hermetic mysteries.
So. The Real name of the Divine is expressed in 42 letters. And that is why Adams, or his brain, selected the number 42 as the “Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.”
As I noted here, the martyred Christina Taylor-Green, a September 11, 2001 baby whose photograph appeared in a slim volume called Faces of Hope: Babies Born On 9/11, appeared in that book on page 42. With inscribed thereon a wish that “I hope you jump in rain puddles.” Jumping in rain puddles, I think, also a 42. Or a question to which 42 is the answer.