'Ismail-Ax': Breaking the Riddle

ByABC News
April 18, 2007, 4:13 PM

Apr 18, 2007 — -- "Ismail-Ax." These two words were scribbled in red ink on the arm of Seung-hui Cho, the 23-year-old Virginia Tech student who killed 32 others and then himself in a bloody rampage Monday.

Cho was an English major and poet whose writings had raised eyebrows in the past. But what could "Ismail-Ax" mean? Is the phrase spiritual, poetic or just a bizarre expression of a troubled student?

One "Nightline" viewer recognized "Ismail-Ax" from a poem he had read by Drum Hadley, the 1960s beat poet. The poem is called the "The Goat Ranchers" and in it Hadley, under the pseudonym Yonder Ridgeline, writes about "Ishmael's Ax." Here's the excerpt:

Went where they'd herded goats when they were kids,
Went where they were lovers,
Went where they were married here, those fifty years ago.
Traces of Ishmael's ax on the scarred trunks of the cedar trees,
Crossing the canyons and winding arroyos.

Do you know the meaning behind "Ismail-Ax?" Let us know on the "Nightline" message board.

While some may see a parallel, this poem does not have a disastrous ending like the tragedy in Virginia. Hadley writes of a couple, married 50 years, reflecting on their time together.

Others recognize the name Ismail for its religious significance . A similar name, Ishmael, is widely known as the name of the eldest son of Abraham, father of the Israelites. He appears in the Christian, Muslim and Islamic faiths, and his character is both revered and criticized throughout all three religions.

According to Strong's Dictionary, the name "Ishmael" literally translates as "God will hear."

With the origin of "Ismail-Ax" still unknown, the Internet has erupted with people trying to decipher its true meaning. Perhaps they hope that unlocking the secret behind "Ismail-Ax" will explain how a troubled kid could commit an act so terrible.