The beginning of summer seems to be a slow period for fringe theorists. With no new episodes of Ancient Aliens and no major fringe claims on the horizon, I’m running out of topics to write about! So this week I think I’ll dip into the archive to look for some of the weirder claims that have been proposed over the past few centuries.
Today’s weird claim is one that was actually rather popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idea that ancient peoples worshiped Noah and the Ark, which formed the basis for most pagan religions. I wrote about one example of “Arkite” nonsense back in March.
This claim emerged from scholars reasoning backward from a pre-determined conclusion. In those days, it was widely accepted that the Biblical account of creation and the Flood was literally true. Since it was literally true, it must therefore be the case that all other religious beliefs were false. To the degree that they were similar to the Bible it could only be due to the pagans corrupting the Biblical truth.
Thus, when scholars like Jacob Bryant read the fragments of Berossus, the Babylonian priest who described the Great Flood in detail similar to that of the Bible, it proved that the Babylonians had recorded a corrupt tradition of Noah’s Flood. From there, it was a short hop to identifying Jason and the Argonauts as Noah and the Ark (for Argo = Ark, they thought, assuming English to be a universal language), and seeing the Babylonian fish-god Oannes as Noah himself, Oannes being a corrupt form of Noah’s name.
This belief was taken to absurd levels of spurious detail, seeing in every random word syllables related to “Noah” and the “Ark” (in English, of course) and in every boat or floating container the ship of Noah. Henry Lee outlined the theory, which he took very seriously, in his Sea Fables Explained in 1883, and it is laughable reading today. He first outlines the story of Oannes, half-fish and half-man, who rose up from the sea to teach the Babylonians civilization:
None of this was true; it was nothing more than a figment of a scholarly imagination that had forced evidence to a predetermined conclusion in service of religious ideology. Dagon was never a fish god; his name derives from dagan, a Canaanite word for grain, of which he was the god. The legend of Dagon as a fish-god derives from a misinterpretation of 1 Samuel 5:4, in which the top half of a statue of Dagon breaks off and falls before the Ark of the Covenant, “and only the stump of Dagon was left to him.” The phrase translated as “the stump” in the King James Version and literally reading “only Dagon” was wrongly glossed as “his fishy part” in the eleventh century on analogy with the Hebrew word for fish, dag, and associated in biblical commentary with Horace’s description of the Sirens in Ars Poetica 1.4 as human above the waist and fish below it. The best answer is that the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 5:4 is corrupt and missing a word; other texts such as the Septuagint and the Syriac translation interpolate “the trunk” into the phrase. Nevertheless, from this, the myth of Dagon as the fish god (conflating him with Oannes) was born. It was from this that Lovecraft took his Dagon for the story of the same name.
From a few scraps of dubious philology, false analogies, and assumed conclusions an elaborate mythology of universal Noah worship was created. There is precious little difference between the processes that yielded this theory and those at work in the ancient astronaut theory.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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