Monday on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Philip Coppens discussed Ancient Aliens Debunked and the “very clever” ways Chris White attempted to make criticism of Ancient Aliens: The Series as synonymous with debunking the ancient astronaut hypothesis as a whole. Coppens specifically told host Joe Rogan that White’s biggest omission was his failure to address the Babylonian tale of Oannes (which he mistakenly claims was known to the Sumerians; this cannot be proved). Coppens claims this story is the “amongst the best evidence that we might have potentially been visited by” extraterrestrials in prehistory.
Coppens told Rogan:
OK. Fair point. So let’s look at Oannes to see just why this Babylonian fish-man is not an ancient astronaut. Fair warning: Because Coppens identified this issue as essential to the ancient alien hypothesis, this post is very long.
The story of Oannes is told only by Berossus, a late Babylonian priest who related the tale in his Babylonian History, which does not survive. Summaries were made by Apollodorus, Abydenus, and Alexander Polyhistor, but of course none of these survive either. Extracts from these Greek summaries were recorded in Late Antiquity by Eusebius of Caesaria and in the Middle Ages by George Syncellus, whose books are the sole surviving record of Berossus’ work. We know Berossus existed because he is mentioned by other writers, such as Pliny, whose work survives. (Unrelated fragments of Berossus’ astronomical works were also preserved by Seneca.)
But this isn’t the end of the story. The Greek fragments of Berossus are known to modern readers in the form given them in the early 1800s by I. P. Cory, whose Ancient Fragments (an edition of which I recently edited) freely ran together material from Eusebius and Syncellus while excising the presumed contributions of the Greek authors to produce relatively linear narratives. (I have made this text available online here.) These fragments were further adapted by Robert Temple, who published them in the appendix to his Sirius Mystery from Richard Hodge’s 1876 revision of Cory’s Fragments. This is the form of Berossus’ work ancient astronaut hypothesizers know.
Now, Berossus is generally an accurate writer, but the form of his work that comes down to us does not perfectly match cuneiform records where such records exist. For example, the Greek summarizers make Berossus state that Belus (Marduk) “cut off his own head, upon which the other gods mixed the blood, as it gushed out, with the earth; and from thence men were formed.” However, the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish, differs on this detail in the cuneiform text. In tablet six, Marduk decrees that the god Kingu must be beheaded and his blood used by Ea to create man. Now, had the work of Berossus—a priest of Marduk—come down to us perfectly, it is very unlikely we should see such a profound mischaracterization of a sacred act of the god himself. As a result of such mistakes, we simply cannot be certain that the Oannes passage is uncorrupted.
Nevertheless, reading the passage on Berossus as it currently stands gives us no confidence that it describes an extraterrestrial. In fact, it says nothing about outer space at all:
Such legends prompted Carl Sagan to write in the 1960s that “stories like the Oannes legend, and representations especially of the earliest civilizations on Earth, deserve much more critical studies than have been performed heretofore, with the possibility of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization as one of many possible alternative explanations.” Sagan later discounted this when he learned more about myths and legends and why they are unreliable.
Note that contra Coppens, Berossus clearly states that this event happened at Babylon (not Sumer), which was only founded in 1894 BCE, many centuries after the arts and sciences the creature claimed to bring with him were already in use at Sumer, Eridu, and Ur. (You can claim Berossus is wrong here, but if so, why trust anything else?) Note, too, that Oannes is described as a fish-man (and depicted in “literal” ancient art as a man in a giant fish suit) who lives in and returns to the sea. This is not outer space, and the only reason anyone ever thought it had anything to do with space is because at one particular moment in history—the 1960s and ’70s, when Sagan and Temple wrote—spacecraft routinely “splashed down” in the ocean, thus leading to an erroneous—and artificial—assumption of a connection between space and water.
But the story is hardly unique. In the book of 1 Enoch (7:1-8:4), the Fallen Angels do exactly as Oannes and his brethren did:
The Hebrews got the better end of the deal, apparently, since Azazel gave them makeup and jewelry in addition to boring things like seeds and math.
Nor is 1 Enoch the only parallel. Osiris, in his role as civilizer of Egypt, did exactly the same thing, as recorded in Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 13.1:
Now, you can be like Atlantis theorizers and assume that these are all independent stories of civilizing agents coming from a lost civilization (Graham Hancock does) or an ancient astronaut hypothesizer proclaiming them all aliens. (That the same evidence is found in both claims does little to boost our confidence in the correctness of either.) But I think it should be fairly obvious that this is a widespread cultural myth of the “civilizing hero” to whom the various accomplishments of society are retroactively attributed. Wikipedia lists dozens upon dozens of such heroes, for example, and their list is incomplete.
Now, if we might like some facts about Oannes—which, of course, spoil the fun—we can begin by noting that Oannes isn’t his real name. This is a Greek rendering of Uanna, a name found in the cuneiform Library of Ashurbanipal as an alternate name for the better-known hero Adapa, whose oldest reference dates from 1335 BCE at Amarna in Egypt, in cuneiform materials supplied to Akhenaten. This figure was held to be the (human) son of Ea (Sumerian: Enki), the man who brought civilization to Eridu and who broke the wings of the wind when it overturned his boat. He later was tricked out of immortality but took his place among the Seven Sages. “Ea,” the tablets state, “anointed Adapa … to fish for his temple in Eridu.”
The word used for “sage” comes from the Sumerian for “Great Water,” thus associating Adapa-Oannes with the sea, as Berossus seems to have confusedly remembered, an association strengthened by the memory that Eridu had been located at the head of the Persian Gulf, where Oannes supposedly operated. In the Erra and Ishum, the Seven Sages are banished to the underground sea, the Apsu, the home of Adapa’s father Ea, because they angered the gods (cf. Fallen Angels). From this watery abyss, whose entrance was believed to be beneath Ea’s temple at Eridu, they became described as “pure puradu-fish,” a type of carp still held sacred in the region, thus yielding the literalized description of Oannes as a hybrid fish-man, when hero and symbol became identified. (This is like the way Jesus is sometimes depicted as the Lamb of God, or Moses with ram’s horns.)
In short, Berossus’ description (as related by the Greeks) is a very late, somewhat confused synthesis of the earlier myths of a human hero who was banished to the underground sea (which of course does not actually exist), took a fish as his symbol, and returned from the sea to teach wisdom. It’s worth noting that Adapa is paired in myth with Tammuz, another who ended up in the underworld (this time the realm of the dead) and returned.
Since we can trace in historical texts and iconography the evolution of Adapa from human figure in the ancient Library of Ashurbanipal (as well as at Akhenaten’s city of Amarna!) to fish-man much, much later in Berossus, and from banished sage to risen denizen of the waters, we have no warrant for assuming the final, jumbled Greek summaries of Berossus are in any way historical. If the Babylonians failed to tell Akhenaten that Adapa was an alien from space in 1335 BCE, or their own king in the 600s BCE, why should we trust a demonstrably corrupt Greek summary of a text written centuries later?
This is the “best evidence” of ancient astronauts?
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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