Editor's Note: I am taking today off to work on projects other than my blog. Please enjoy a repeat of a classic blog post from my archive. This piece originally ran in July 2012.
In Twelfth Planet (1976), Zecharia Sitchin first proposed his theory that there was a wandering planet named Nibiru. He seems to have based this entirely on a pair of weird misconceptions. The first was the translation of the word nibir or nibiru, which meant either "wandering stars" or "planets," not "wandering planet." This is because the ancients did not understand that the planets were distinct in substance from the stars, only that they were lights in the sky like the stars but which moved differently (i.e. wandered). George Smith understood this distinction as far back as 1876 in his Chaldean Account of Genesis:
I have translated one of these names nibir, “wandering stars” or “planets,” but this is not the usual word for planet, and there is a star called Nibir near the place where the sun crossed the boundary between the old and new years, and this star was one of twelve supposed to be favourable to Babylonia.
Sitchin, reviewing the very same passage of the Enuma Elish that George Smith worked on and understood a century earlier, instead argued that "The Sumerians called the planet NIBIRU, the 'planet of crossing,' and the Babylonian version of the epic retained ... astronomical information."
It sure looks like Sitchin purposely distorted the original meaning to make his theory work, and it looks very much like he used George Smith's explanation of his early translation of the Enuma Elish to do so, something that seems clear when we see that Sitchin calls it the "Epic of Creation" most of the time rather than its scholarly name, implying that he used a source like Smith. Or, let's be more direct. Sitchin actually cites Smith's Chaldean Account of Genesis as a source in Twelfth Planet and takes from it everything he knows about the Greco-Roman discussion of Babylonian myth. I wonder if Smith's explanation of nibir doesn't lay behind Sitchin's wandering Nibiru.
Sitchin takes the fact that we know what planets are and projects it into the past, and he purposely conflates Smith's "wandering stars," which is actually a Classical Greek way of describing planets, with planets to invent the idea that the Babylonians and Sumerians viewed Nibiru as a wandering planet (i.e. chunk of rock) rather than a "wanderer," i.e. a light in the sky that does not follow the path of the fixed stars.
To make this work, Sitchin has to do another piece of fancy footwork. He has to discount the clear evidence that the Babylonian Nibiru (capitalized) was identified with Jupiter, not a wandering alien planet. His arguments are utterly juvenile and deserve no elaboration here. Suffice it to say that Nibiru is clearly meant to be Jupiter in the MUL.APIN astronomical compendium, set down around the time of the Enuma Elish (except, of course, when it is sometimes Mercury--but never a wandering planet):
When the stars of Enlil have been finished, one big star – although its light is dim – divides the sky in half and stands there: that is, the star of Marduk (MUL dAMAR.UD), Nibiru (né-bé-ru), Jupiter (MULSAG.ME.GAR); it keeps changing its position and crosses the sky.
As the text indicates, Marduk was identified with Jupiter and Nibiru. That Marduk and Jupiter were identified is quite clear to everyone except Zecharia Sitchin and the sources he critiques, which were out of date even in 1976. But if this weren't clear enough for Sitchin, the ancients themselves understood the connection. Alexander Polyhistor, citing the Babylonian priest Berossus, had written of Marduk (under his title of Bel, the Lord): "This Belus, by whom they signify Jupiter..." (he meant the god), thus again reaffirming a connection.
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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