Do you remember the Ancient Aliens episode about prophets and prophecy from a couple of weeks back (S05E07 from February 8)? The one where they claimed that Moses, Enoch, and Elijah were carried off by aliens for a spell and met with them in their spaceships? Good. Because you’re getting it all again. Tonight’s Ancient Aliens promises to review how and why the Hebrew Bible contains accounts of alien abductions, including the stories of all the aforementioned prophets. They aren’t even waiting a month between recycling material anymore.
But just when I thought it couldn’t get more ridiculous, Ancient Aliens is prepared to pull out a claim that surprised even me. According to the episode description for tonight’s show on alien abductions, the program will claim that Jonah (of whale fame) was abducted by aliens, with the whale (or, rather, giant fish) a mistaken interpretation of a UFO.
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights… And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 1:17, 2:10).
Regular readers will recall that I discussed the story of Jonah over the summer when I described the theory that the Jonah tale was created as an intentional parody of the Greek myth of Jason, who in a variant version recorded in ancient art was swallowed by the dragon just as Jonah was swallowed by the great fish.
But the Jonah story is one of a great number of stories of heroes swallowed by beasts, and certainly nothing in the story indicates a spacecraft. Consider the parallel stories. First, Heracles was swallowed by a sea monster and killed it from within in order to rescue Hesione outside the walls of Troy. Ancient art depicts this creature as a skeletal monster, possibly the fossilized remains of an Ice Age mammal, as Adrienne Mayor suggested. (See here, with correction.)
An extremely similar tale is that of Perseus and Andromeda. While the most common version of the story shows Perseus simply slaying the sea monster who threatens the maiden, Lycophron, in the Alexandra (834-42), records a variant version where Perseus is swallowed by the monster and kills it from the inside out:
And he shall visit the towers of Cepheus and the place that was kicked by the foot of Hermes Laphrios, and the two rocks on which the petrel leapt in quest of food, but carried off in his jaws, instead of a woman, the eagle son of the golden Sire – a male with winged sandals who destroyed his liver. By the harvester’s blade shall be slain the hateful whale dismembered…
Scholars for centuries have noted the clear similarities between these stories of Jonah, Jason, Perseus, and Heracles, even if, like Sir George Cox, the Victorian who believed all myths were stories of the sun, they didn’t quite understand why they were similar. A further, and more ancient, parallel involves the battle of Marduk and Tiamat. Although Marduk is not swallowed by the great primal sea monster Tiamat in the Enuma Elish (4.101-104), he does cleave open her belly, extract the organs, and dismember her from the inside out.
Marduk grasped the spear, he split up her belly,
In none of these cases is the sea monster considered a spaceship, a flying chariot, or anything else mechanical. In fact, the story of Jonah happened at Joppa (Jaffa), the same place Perseus fought the sea monster to rescue Andromeda, and for centuries the very bones of this monster were on display. Pliny (Natural History 9.4) records that they were taken to Rome in 58 BCE, and from his description of them it is apparent that they were very likely the fossilized bones of a whale:
M. Scaurus, in his ædileship, exhibited at Rome, among other wonderful things, the bones of the monster to which Andromeda was said to have been exposed, and which he had brought from Joppa, a city of Judæa. These bones exceeded forty feet in length, and the ribs were higher than those of the Indian elephant, while the back-bone was a foot and a half in thickness.
Ancient astronaut writers constantly tell us that we need to be taking ancient myths and texts literally as true accounts of real events of the past, and yet in practice they create bizarre symbolic interpretations that bear little connection to the original texts. Given Pliny’s testimony that the land where Jonah met the whale was home to a giant fossilized whale skeleton, whose massive rib cage could easily give rise to the idea that the whale’s interior was hollow, would the “literal” interpretation of the Jonah tale be that the Biblical writer was describing an actual sea creature, not a spaceship from another world?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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