I have a few odds and ends to discuss today, beginning with the exciting news that a new fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been found! The Neo-Babylonian fragment comes from a piece of the epic looted from somewhere in Iraq and acquired by Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdish region of Iraq. It has now been recognized as a previously unpublished portion of Table V, telling the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting the giant Humbaba. The twenty heretofore unknown lines provide two new details: First, that there were “monkeys” present in the Cedar Forest, and second that Humbaba was not a rampaging ogre but rather was depicted as a king of gigantic stature who presided over a sort of natural court. It also adds additional information about Enkidu’s childhood tutelage at the court of Humbaba, whom he returns to kill. The text and translation are available here.
It should probably not come as news that the latest book examining the legend of Atlantis contains no roadmap to the lost city, and no new evidence for its existence. However, the destination is not always as important as the journey, and the trip to Atlantis can be fun and fascinating in its own right. Mark Adams is a New York Times bestselling author whose previous travel book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu (unread by me), earned praise for its light tone and entertaining examination of the history of Peru’s most famous tourist attraction. His new book is called Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, and it pulls something of a bait and switch on the reader, though not without reason. While the book’s title suggests that it’s about his search for Atlantis, this isn’t really the case at all. At its core, it’s a book about the people who devote their lives to finding—and failing to find—Plato’s city.
Before we begin today, some good news: I’m mentioned in the Washington Post! And of course the writer gets a few details wrong. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to build a mosque in Cuba because he wrongly believes Columbus sighted one there in 1492. The Post article by Ishaan Tharoor, a former senior editor for Time, cites my blog in noting that the actual textual support for this claim, Bartolomé de Las Casas’s transcription-summary of Columbus’s journal, clearly states that Columbus saw a hill that looked “like a graceful mosque”—a metaphorical description. But Tharoor mistakes Las Casas’s work as Las Casas’s journal rather than Columbus’s, and he spells Las Casas’s name wrong.
Indiana Jones is the patron saint of cable TV history hosts. His grizzled ghost influences the clothes they wear, their stylish stubble, and the very aesthetics of their programs. Expedition Unknown is no exception, and while host Josh Gates is too goofy to be Indiana Jones, that doesn’t stop the Travel Channel from using Raiders of the Lost Ark as a template. Or, rather, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, since this episode is actually titled “Temple of Doom.”
Earlier this year Princeton University Press launched its new line of books called “Turning Points in Ancient History.” These volumes are written by leading scholars for a general audience, with the dual purpose of being both accessibly readable and possessed of scholarly rigor. The first book in the series is 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline of George Washington University. I’ve been eager to read the book since it came out earlier this year, but it took me a while to get around to it. I’m glad I read the book, but I’m not sure that it entirely succeeded in making the case that 1177 BCE (I’ll use the more neutral dating system) was the specific year civilization collapsed. Even the author seems to think it is a bit of an exaggeration.
I have sad news to report this morning. Last night my grandfather died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 97, or at least as unexpectedly as one can at that age. I find it difficult to eulogize my grandfather since, like so many men of his generation, he tended toward silence and stoicism.
We can add another name to the growing list of famous and semi-famous people who have publicly declared their allegiance to Ancient Aliens. Today’s contestant is George Groves, a British boxer and amateur standup comedian, told the Telegraph yesterday that he’s a huge fan of Ancient Aliens and a believer in ancient astronauts:
I am a big fan of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. I have been known to watch that just before I go to bed sometimes. I’m a believer in alien intelligence and that programme has taught me so much over the years. It’s very thought-provoking. Paddy [Fitzpatrick, his trainer] also watches it, and we’ve had many discussions on the subject.
In case you’re interested in Mormon archaeology, I discovered that I’m not the only one to have noticed the FIRM Foundation’s efforts to claim Scott Wolter as having proved the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Apparently FIRM’s Rodney Meldrum sent out a newsletter that “loudly trumpets” America Unearthed as verifying the existence of Paleo-Hebrew in America. You can read more discussion of this at the Mormon Heretic website, itself run by a devout Mormon.
Now on to today’s topic…
On the advice of Mike Heiser, I read Amar Annus’ “On the Origin of Watchers” from the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 19 (2010), and it was a fascinating look at the deep background of the Watchers’ myth in the Seven Sages, or apkallu, of Mesopotamia, best known to most readers from the myth of Oannes (Uan-Adapa) in Berosus—the amphibious fish-man Robert Temple said was a space alien from Sirius. These sages, like the Watchers, descended from heaven to bequeath civilization, angered the gods with their sins, begat gigantic semi-divine apkallu on human women (Gilgamesh being one of their last giant descendants), and were condemned to the underworld. Also interesting was Annus’ footnotes, which noted the similarity with Ugaritic and Phoenician sources (Sanchuniathon) and noted at transfer of motifs between Syria and Mesopotamia to the extent that the mountains of Anti-Lebanon, where Sanchuniathon places the giant sons of the gods and 1 Enoch houses the Watchers, were also the domain of the Anunnaki in the Old Babylonian version of Gilgamesh.
In the world of American television, ancient mysteries inevitable descend into efforts to prove that the Bible is literally true. You could choose to read this as pandering to the audience, or you might see it as part of a society-wide convulsion over the decline of traditional Christian religion (which often embraced symbolic, or at least nuanced, interpretations) and the rise of secularism and biblical literalism in oppositional tandem. The underlying theme of all the documentaries that explore such topics is the same: If we can prove the small details of the Bible true, then the larger narrative must be true, and you are warranted in planning for life everlasting. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved S04 “Star of Bethlehem” is about what you’d expect from a documentary that wants to combine astronomy with the most famous appearance of a star in ancient literature. The documentary opens by asking if the Star is “faith, fable, or fact,” which already puts it a cut above most H2 documentaries. Nevertheless, the promised question of whether the Star of Bethlehem “will return” makes me a bit uneasy. This gets into some strange theological territory that seems a bit beyond an astronomy documentary. In time, the show will debunk this claim, but it will go on to endorse another that is not without its problems so that it, too, can conclude that the Bible is true not just spiritually but factually and historically.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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