Today’s Great Moment in Ancient Astronautics comes from Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods (1968). The esteemed author discusses the Epic of Gilgamesh in which he claims the following scene occurs in Tablet 3:
And the third tablet goes on to tell us about a cloud of dust which came from the distance. The heavens roared, the earth quaked and finally the 'Sun God' came and seized Enkidu with mighty wings and claws. We read in astonishment that he lay like lead on Enkidu's body and that the weight of his body seemed to him like the weight of a boulder.
Von Däniken claims this is an accurate depiction of acceleration-induced mass increases, something ancient people could not have known. The problem? This passage does not occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh’s third tablet, or anywhere else in the epic. In the third tablet, Queen Ninsun offers prayers to Shamash for Gilgamesh, but that’s about it. (The tablet is fragmentary and many lines are missing. No, von Däniken does not have special access to the missing lines.)
It seems von Däniken is conflating the story of Gilgamesh with that of Etana, who in an ancient legend rides a giant eagle up to the highest heavens at the urging of the sun god Shamash, gazing down periodically to see the shrinking earth below. (Incidentally, Etana sees not earth as it would really be seen from space but instead the ancient concept of the earth as a rocky island girdled by the River Ocean.) I can’t say how the conflation happened, but in early printings of the stories, both were often included in the same volume or even chapter, as in chapter VIII of MacKenzie’s Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915).
Now, to be fair, there is one possible ancient text that might have spawned this confusion: Aelian's On Animals 2.4 in which the stories of Etana and Gilgamesh were, very late in history, confused and conflated:
"[…] When Euechorsos was king of the Babylonians, the Chaldeans predicted that a grandson would be born to his daughter, and he would deprive his grandfather of his kingdom. Fearing this thing, and if I may utter something of a joke, he acted as Acrisius toward his daughter; for he ordered the strictest of watches kept over her. But yet the daughter (for fate had outsmarted the Babylonian king) gave birth to the child, having become pregnant by some uncertain man. But out of fear of the king, the guards threw the infant headlong from the citadel where the daughter was imprisoned. In truth, an eagle, seeing the falling infant with its very sharp eyes, before he could be dashed against the ground, flew under and received him on his back, and transporting him to some garden put him down with the utmost care. Moreover, he who cared for the garden, when he saw the beautiful little boy, loved him, and reared him; and he, called Gilgamos, was the king of the Babylonians. […]" (my translation)
Of course, von Däniken's claims were about Enkidu, not Gilgamesh, so this can't be his source either.
I don’t read German, so I can’t speak to von Däniken’s sources except to say that von Däniken only lists an undated copy of Gilgamesh from the Insel publishers under “General Reading,” and I have no way of knowing what edition he’s referring to. A literal German translation, by A. Ungnad and H. Greasmann had been published in 1911 by Gottingen, but this isn’t the right one. The best known German translation is Burckhardt’s, published in three editions by Insel-Verlag in 1916, 1920, and 1958, and this is probably what von Däniken used. This was a very loose and free adaptation of the original text.
If this is the case, it only reconfirms von Däniken’s sloppiness as a scholar, failing to recognize the difference between the original and its adaptation. This recalls immediately the problem of Robert Temple, who based much of his interpretation in The Sirius Mystery (1976/1998) on Greek mythology as related by Robert Graves, ignorant of Graves’ casual revision of the myths and their history. The point, of course, is that one must be careful when making claims for the importance of evidence to be sure that the evidence actually exists.
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