One of the problems with fringe history is that there isn’t any quality control. Everything from the potentially interesting to the outright fraudulent all gets dumped into the same fetid pool in which fringe authors swim, splashing slime on one another and yelling to their readers to join them since the water is so fine. The internet is making this problem—already present in book form—that much worse as websites compete for clicks and page views with recycled content or a race to the bottom in launching outrageous claims.
Zakaria Bziker’s Ancient Origins article “The Ancient Civilizations That Came Before” is a good example of the trend. Bziker’ s article is a hodgepodge of old claims glued together with only a vague understanding of the topic at hand. Bziker wants to make the case for advanced civilizations before recorded history, and to do so he relies on dubious assumptions that I am not confident he recognizes as such.
He begins by accepting Plato’s Atlantis dialogues as literally true. He then accepts the work of Ignatius Donnelly as true, and identifies the former Minnesota congressman—who died in 1901—as a “more modern” researcher. He cites Brad Steiger’s 1978 book Worlds Before Our Own, already outdated in its own time, as “recent” research and slaps together claims about the Piri Reis map made by Charles Hapgood in the 1960s with creationist geology from the 1980s to argue for no specific case except that “uniformitarian” science is wrong, and our world should be understood as governed by catastrophes, primus inter pares Noah’s Flood.
But this is nothing more than David Childress or Erich von Däniken do every year or two in their freshly composted and recycled “new” books.
Ralph Ellis is on a plane of his own. Also on Ancient Origins this week the crackpot author of various bizarre claims about Jesus conspiracies has an article adapted from his 1997 book Jesus: Last of the Pharaohs. It begins, unpromisingly, with an assertion that the Epic of Gilgamesh is “a Sumerian epic,” displaying the author’s ignorance of its assembly in the Old Babylonian and Neobabylonian periods from a set of independent Sumerian poems. (The version translated in modern editions is a collated version of these texts, with pieces filled in from other sources.) The trouble is that Ellis starts with a few facts and scholarly inferences and then builds them out into a massive contraption extrapolated far beyond the evidence.
Ellis’s main idea is that references to bulls, sheep, and fish in Sumerian (i.e. Mesopotamian), Egyptian, and Hebrew lore prove that all three myth systems are related to each other through the zodiac, in which these animals represent Taurus, Aries, and Pisces. This is rather a silly claim on the face of it, since Aries only became a ram in Greek times, in honor of Jason’s Golden Fleece; the Babylonians identified it as “the Hired Man” or the “Farmhand” in the oldest texts (12th century BCE) before renaming it after the shepherd-king Dumuzi (Tammuz) and/or his ram after 1000 BCE. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh was compiled before the eighteenth century BCE, it would seem a bit difficult to argue that any sheep, rams, or shepherds in the poem were meant to be Aries.
He also quotes from Gilgamesh’s first tablet a passage of the dream vision of Gilgamesh, who dreamed that a star fell from heaven and that it was too heavy for him to lift. Although Gilgamesh’s mother interprets this dream as symbolically referring to the creation by the heavenly gods of his future boon companion Enkidu, and Gilgamesh’s next dream likens Enkidu to a man similar to Gilgamesh whom he embraced like a woman, Ellis concludes that Enkidu is “a stellar object.” (Craig Hines, investigating Nephilim in his 2007 Gateway of the Gods, takes issue with this and calls Enkidu “an important comet.”) Thus, he identifies Gilgamesh as Orion, Enkidu as Sirius or a meteor, and the things they kill—Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven—as the Pleiades and Taurus respectively. He says this is because Humbaba had seven enchantments (or the seven-fold terrors, or however you choose to translate them), representing the seven stars of the Pleiades. Thus, Ellis decides that the whole epic poem is really an account of the precession of the equinoxes and the slow drift of the stars.
This is rather selective reasoning. We might equally apply the Pleiades to the Seven Sages, the seven nights of dreams, the seven goblets of ale, Uruk’s seven gates, the seven years’ worth of wheat, Shamhat’s seven children, the seven floors of the Ark, or any other set of seven found in the Epic. It was a symbolic number, found in too many places to have any one particular meaning here. Worse, Humbaba doesn’t “guard” the Heavenly Bull as Ellis asserts the Pleiades guard Taurus from Orion. That said, the Bull of Heaven was identified with the constellation Taurus, which has been drawn as a bull since before the early Bronze Age. More interestingly, Ian Ridpath proposed in 1988 that the Sumerians envisioned Gilgamesh as Orion, and Taurus as the Bull of Heaven, a concept now widespread in fringe literature that lumps together every great hunter from Heracles to Nimrod as the same guy. However, Ridpath is probably wrong since in the Bronze Age, Orion was Si-zi-an-na, the sky shepherd, to the Babylonians, later identified with Dumuzi (hence Dumuzi-Aries became the ram of Dumuzi instead.) But, if you want to get freaky, there is this: According to Biblical scholar Matthew Black, in ancient Aram, now central Syria, the constellation was named for the Nephilim! (Cf. the Arabic name for Orion, al-Jabbar, the Giant.) But, then again, they also called meteors by the same name, Nephila.
The bigger point is this: The story of Humbaba and that of the Bull of Heaven were separate Sumerian poems, so they can’t be said to represent primordial knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes as Ellis asserts since they were not part of the same narrative at first, and they predate the formalization of the Babylonian zodiac.
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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