Animal Planet scored its highest ratings ever last year with its mockumentary special on mermaids, which pretended to have discovered a mermaid body and used this “discovery” to present the “aquatic ape” hypothesis of human evolution which was momentarily en vogue thirty or forty years ago. They reran the documentary Sunday night with a follow-up special adding additional silliness to their program. Last year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration responded directly to the show by announcing mermaids were not real, and it seems that another debunking is in order, if the astonishing credulity of Twitter users is any guide to the views of those who watched the show.
As the author of the decidedly untruthful Cthulhu in World Mythology (which I swear the publisher will be actually getting out any week now—stay tuned), I can hardly criticize Animal Planet for creating a pseudo-serious fake documentary meant to use fantasy to explore a genuine (if not likely true) scientific idea, the aquatic ape hypothesis. That is, after all, the essence of science fiction. I can, however, criticize them for doing so in a way that seemed designed to intentionally fool a segment of the audience into falling for it. TV has a higher standard to uphold because it is a uniquely persuasive medium, and one where disclaimers aired before a program starts or during commercials are likely to be missed by large swaths of the audience tuning in for a few minutes or a single segment.
But I’m more interested in the mythological dimension of the mermaid story, and one of the most fascinating sidelights into this story was the nineteenth-century effort to make Noah into a merman. Yes, Noah from the Ark.
The story begins with the Arkite speculators, particularly Jacob Bryant, who identified Noah’s Ark as the progenitor of all world myths on the assumption—the false assumption—that Genesis was the world’s oldest book, written by God, and therefore all other religious texts must be inferior corruptions of Genesis. For him, culture heroes were universally Noah and boats were universally the Ark. Most famously, he declared Jason’s Argo the Ark and insisted that the constellation of Argo Navis was Noah’s Ark translated to the stars.
Bryant’s ideas were paralleled by George Stanley Faber, whose Dissertation on the Mysteries of the Cabiri (1803) attempted to prove that pagan creator gods engaged in orgies because they were mistaken conflations of the tale of Noah’s Ark with that of solar worship; thus, gods were mixtures of Noah and the sun and goddesses the Ark and the moon, engaging in orgiastic rites of union to symbolize the Flood. The “triads” that ruled ancient pantheons (think Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) were the three sons of Noah, and he concluded that the Bible predicted and demanded the rise of the French Second Empire, conveniently deciding on this after Napoleon III seized power.
Anyway, Faber had a weird idea about Noah, namely that he was identical with Dagon, the Philistine deity who at the time was mistakenly thought to be a fish god. Dagon was mistakenly thought to be a fish due to a mistake from the eleventh century CE, when a Jewish writer named Rashi decided that Dagon was related to the Hebrew word dag, or fish. When two centuries later David Kimhi misinterpreted the text of 1 Samuel 5:2-7 as saying that the “fish part” of Dagon rather than his “body” had remained standing when the rest of his statue fell before the Ark of the Covenant, Dagon’s fate was sealed. Until the twentieth century, he was considered a man with a fish tail.
Faber also knew that Sanchuniathon, the nebulous name for an allegedly ancient Phoenician source quoted by Greek writers, had declared that Dagon “signifies Siton (Bread-corn)”—which is actually the real etymology of the name, from a word (Ugaritic dgn, Hebrew dagan) for grain. Faber compared this to Genesis 9:20, “And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.” Thus, Noah was Dagon QED.
He supported this identification by claiming that Dagon was identical with the god Nebo on the authority of the Greek Septuagint, which substitutes the name Dagon for Nebo in Isaiah 46:1. Faber then falsely etymologizes Nebo as “Nah-Bo,” or Noah the Bull. Similarly, he finds that the Hebrew text of the Book of Tobit, as published at Munster in 1542, identifies Dagon with Nisroch. This is a bit complicated, so I’ll try to make it as simple as possible: The text of Tobit printed in modern Bibles (as canon for Catholics and apocrypha for Protestants) is a partial and faulty translation via Greek of the original Hebrew. After the Biblical Tobit 1.21, the Hebrew text published in 1542—believed to be accurate because of partial texts found with the Dead Sea Scrolls—adds some text parallel to 2 Kings 19:37, describing the death of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king:
2 Kings: And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.
Thus, Dagon must be Nisroch. (Modern scholars speculate that Nisroch might have been Nusku or Marduk.) Faber etymologized Nisroch as “Nus-Aroch,” or Noah’s Ark! Of course in Hebrew the word for “ark” is not “ark”—an Indo-European word—but tevat. Not that Faber cared. The eleventh century CE commentary of Rashi seemed to back Faber up because Rashi claimed that Nisroch was actually “a board from Noah’s ark” (comment at 2 Kings 19:37) which was mistakenly worshiped as a god, in the manner of other wooden idols of the day. He seems to have gotten the idea from falsely etymologizing Nisroch as Nesra-Noacha, “the plank of Noah.” He added to this the idea that Vishnu, in his fish form, was Vish-Noah. Charles Taylor would do him one better and say in his edition of Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible that Dagon derives from Dag-Aun and that “Aun” was a transposed misspelling of Noah!
So, if Dagon could be linked to Noah, then Noah had to have been thought of as a man with a fish’s tail, just like Dagon. Thus Faber and others like him began to identify any fish-tailed figure as a Noah, and when they ran out of fish-tailed figures, they expanded to serpent-tailed figures on the notion that serpent tails had been substituted for fish tails. Naturally, Dagon as fish-man became identified with Berossus’ Oannes, the fish-man who rose from the sea and civilized mankind, canonized in Taylor’s edition of Calment’s Dictionary, which declared them the same. Oannes, it was said, was sometimes written Oan, which had to be Noe or Noah. Today we know that Oannes is a Greek form of Uan, a late form of Adapa, who was one of the Seven Sages.
But in the nineteenth century this wasn’t known and Noah thus became the “first” merman, the father of mermaids.
This idea, though rejected by mainstream scholars after the discovery of the cuneiform Flood story suggested that the Biblical narrative was not chronologically first, lingered on well into the nineteenth century. It famously appeared in Henry Lee’s influential Sea Fables Explained and from there into alternative history literature. And, Scott Wolter, take note: George Oliver included it as evidence for the ancient origins of Freemasonry in his Historical Landmarks and Other Evidences of Freemasonry on the foundation that non-Hebrew peoples had a corrupt version of Freemasonry alongside their corruptions of Genesis, with Noah tying it all together as the accidental father of both!
The last major gasp of the Noah-as-merman idea came with the ancient astronaut writers, specifically Robert Temple, who reversed Faber and Bryant and elevated the Argo to a position of primacy but retained the idea that fish-man imagery related to a single ancient source. Instead of Dagon as fish-Noah, Temple made this into amphibious aliens from Sirius, whom he considered to be the originals of Oannes.
Now here’s the fun part: One of the tenets of the ancient astronaut theory is that the Biblical Deluge was caused by aliens who were angry at sinful humans and chose to save just one human, Noah; yet here we have Temple adopting an idea that makes Noah one of the aliens!
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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