The expression may be new, but the practice of issuing “fake news” appears to go back much farther in history than one would expect. A new study dates the earliest example of fake news back to one of the earliest and most epic stories – the Gilgamesh Flood story written on clay tablets three thousand years. Say it isn’t so, Noah!
“This volume opens up new perspectives on Babylonian and Assyrian literature, through the lens of a pivotal passage in the Gilgamesh Flood story. It shows how, using a nine-line message where not all was as it seemed, the god Ea inveigled humans into building the Ark.”
Dr. Martin Worthington, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, is the author of a new book, “Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story (The Ancient Word),” in which he researches the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the earliest surviving great work of literature and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts and well before the Hebrew Bible, where another of the well-known flood stories is told. Scholars have shown that the Gilgamesh flood, written about around 2000 BCE, and Genesis flood, written about around 500-100 BCE (these dates are not agreed upon by all but are useful to put the time difference in perspective) are nearly identical, with a few variances such as the number of days of the deluge the name of the mountain where the ark landed. What Worthington found in his research, summarized in a University of Cambridge press release, is sure to be a controversial interpretation of Ea’s (the God in Gilgamesh) message to Uta–napishti (the Noah in Gilgamesh).
“He (Ea) tells the Babylonian Noah, known as Uta–napishti, to promise his people that food will rain from the sky if they help him build the ark. What the people don’t realise is that Ea’s nine-line message is a trick: it is a sequence of sounds that can be understood in radically different ways, like English ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’.
While Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood. Once the ark is built, Uta–napishti and his family clamber aboard and survive with a menagerie of animals. Everyone else drowns.”
What Worthington is saying in his book is that Ea (God) played a trick on Uta–napishti (Noah), using a long phrase with two interpretations that to get Uta–napishti to do what he wanted – a trick that Worthington relates to a modern trick:
“With this early episode, set in mythological time, the manipulation of information and language has begun. It may be the earliest ever example of fake news.”
If it’s true, why hasn’t anyone figured this deific trickery out before? Dr. Worthington is an Assyriologist who specializes in Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian grammar. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on a Flood Tablet (now in the British Museum) that was only discovered in 1872, is written in Assyrian, a complex combination of languages and dialects that is difficult to understand and interpret, with the epic poem being the oldest example of it – thus having nothing before it to compare to or learn from. Thus, it’s easy to see how misinterpretations have been made by scholars. But a God?
“Ea’s lines are a verbal trick which can be understood in different ways which are phonetically identical. Besides the obvious positive reading promising food, I found multiple negative ones which warn of the impending catastrophe. Ea is clearly a master wordsmith who is able to compress multiple simultaneous meanings into one duplicitous utterance.”
Ea, also known as Enki, is the god of the ocean and associated with wisdom, magic, incantations, arts, and crafts. He’s also one of many Mesopotamian deities, and Worthington explains that they survive by humans feeding them. Thus, killing off all of the humans would have been suicide for Ea.
“The god Ea manipulates language and misleads people into doing his will because it serves his self-interest. Modern parallels are legion!”
We don’t need any help with parallels, Dr. Worthington. This trickster god obviously differs from the Hebrew God in many ways. The Noah story in Genesis doesn’t indicate any trickery in English, but what about in the original Hebrew? Perhaps that’s food for Worthington’s next book.
In the meantime, let’s not forget that dating the birth of fake news back a few thousand years still doesn’t make it right.