Whatever Floats Your Ark
Le mythe est né
de la science; la science seule l'expliquera.
The claim of John McHugh (as recently discussed by Dr. Michael Guillen on ABC's Good Morning America, available here in text and RealVideo) that a esopotamian stamp-seal depicts a "flood" scene and is representative of a tradition which may extend back to c.5000 BCE, has once more focused attention on the gap between science and religion. We are, of course, free to "believe" whatever we wish, whatever floats your ark and all of that, but dropping anchor and establishing a tether to reality is always encouraged. Goethe, were he inclined, might add: "Entstehen Sie! Der Regen hat gestoppt und wir müssen gehen!" Well, maybe...
In 1872, while at the British Museum, George Smith joined fragments of tablets from a collection put together under the last known Assyrian king, Assurbanipal (668-626 BCE). The tablets described the tale of Gilgamesh and included mention of Gilgamesh's meeting with Utnapishtim, who survived a flood by building an ark. Smith was first to suggest a relationship between the Mesopotamian "flood" story and the "deluge" in Genesis. Archaeology has since uncovered copies of the epic of Gilgamesh which are traceable to c.1800 BCE, but though scholarship has repeatedly demonstrated correlations between such divers traditions as Hebrew and the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Greek, many sectarians continue to support the scriptural historicity of the tale of Noah and believe secular archaeologists and historians just don't get it.
McHugh, said by Guillen to be a "young archaeologist from Utah," argues the stamp-seal, which shows a couple of individuals and a crescent-shaped ship (the "ark"), represents the constellations Argo, Aquarius, and Orion, at some early, unspecified date in Sumerian history. As the Argo constellation now lies entirely in the southern hemisphere, with only a few of its least important stars visible from the northern latitudes, McHugh suggests around 700 BCE a switch was made from the crescent-shaped Argo to the box-like Pegasus. Nearly all representations of Noah's "ark" depict a box-like vessel laughable in regards to seaworthiness.
So, shall we use McHugh's claim as evidence Genesis is correct? Of course not... Claims, models, theories, and hypotheses need to be supported and tested according to the scientific method before anyone should state something is "correct," "true," or a "fact." Many things are possible, some are probable, but few usually turn out to be demonstrable. The Hebrew story of Noah, as well as Sumeria's Ziusudra and Babylon's Utnapishtim (and the related Atra-Hasis), have long been thought to refer to an actual flood remembered, but several scholars have argued for metaphor and find celestial observations in various "flood" myths. Could the story of Noah be history and metaphor? Difficult though it may be to straddle the fence, I must say ...maybe.
A fair overview of those who support the historicity of the myth of Noah is beyond the scope of a single column, yet it must be stressed efforts to locate the physical remains of the "ark," from medieval to modern times, have resulted in a sad admixture of failure, fraud, and foolishness. Now, this is not to say there isn't a modicum of "truth" in the story of Noah. Genesis 8:4 cites "Ararat" as the resting place of the "ark," a name which some philologists have connected with the kingdom of Urartu (fl. 900-585 BCE), encompassing parts of Turkey and Armenia, and this could be significant.
1) There's evidence
of a flood in the Black Sea area between 5460 and 4820 BCE, and though
the recent work of Bob
Ballard is promising, his claims of priority are petty and incorrect,
as the overflowing of the Mediterranean into the Black Sea has been known
for some time. [See: Neolithic Europe: A Survey, A.W.R. Whittle,
Cambridge, 1985, revised as Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation
of New Worlds (Cambridge World Archaeology), Cambridge, 1996.]
In much the same way as Plato's Atlantis is understood to be an allegorical protreptic, and according to the late Prof. Harald A. T. Reiche ("The Language of Archaic Astronomy: A Clue to the Atlantis Myth?" Technology Review, Vol. 80, Number 2, Dec. 1977, pp. 84-100, reprinted in Astronomy of The Ancients, edited by Brecher and Feirtag, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press 1979, second edition, corrected and privately distributed, 1993, shortly before his passing) is "an embellished version of what in original intention was a map of the sky, and the battle of Athens against Atlantis as but a pseudohistorical description of one aspect of a continuous process that becomes critical about every 2000 years -- and not a memory of lost islands or continents," the story of Noah may be reasonably argued as referring to events in the sky and not on Earth. While some continue to search for evidence of a great flood, catastrophic inundation, or the effects of the overflowing of large rivers on collective memory, the advances in archaeoastronomy suggest an alternative--the Deluge in Genesis is a literary remnant of exposure and knowledge of Sumerian/Assyrian/Babylonian astronomy and the "language" used to describe celestial occurrences.
Expanding on the earlier efforts of such scholars as François Dupuis, Franz Boll, and Leo Frobenius, two historians of science, M.I.T.'s Giorgio de Santillana and the University of Frankfurt's Hertha von Dechend, co-authored Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth & the Frame of Time (Gambit, Boston, 1969), in which they argued for astronomical phenomena being behind many myths and legends. Their explanation of terminology, though perhaps difficult for some, is worth quoting here:
First, what was the "earth"? In the most general sense, the "earth" was the ideal plane laid through the ecliptic. The "dry earth," in a more specific sense, was the ideal plane going through the celestial equator. The equator thus divided two halves of the zodiac which ran on the ecliptic, 23 ½° inclined to the equator, one half being "dry land" (the northern band of the zodiac, reaching from the vernal to the autumnal equinox), the other representing the "waters below" the equinoctial plane (the southern arc of the zodiac, reaching from the autumnal equinox, via the winter solstice, to the vernal equinox). The terms "vernal equinox," "winter solstice," etc., are used intentionally because myth deals with time, periods of time which correspond to angular measures, and not with tracts of space.
This could be neglected were it not for the fact that the equinoctial "points" -- and therefore, the solstitial ones, too -- do not remain forever where they should in order to make celestial goings-on easier to understand, namely, at the same spot with respect to the sphere of the fixed stars. Instead, they stubbornly move along the ecliptic in the opposite direction to the yearly course of the sun, that is, against the "right" sequence of the zodiacal signs (Taurus > Aries > Pisces, instead of Pisces > Aries > Taurus). [Hamlet's Mill, p. 58.]
Now, to be honest, though Hamlet's Mill is a weighty tome containing invaluable research and challenging ideas, the work is seldom quoted, as the authors' ideas are too vague, offered as fascinating puzzles, and are not presented in any systematic ways which may be tested. One of their central claims, that the phenomenon known as the Precession of the Equinoxes was known by the ancients long before Hipparchus (who is generally credited with its "discovery" around 130 BCE), is unfortunate, as they were surely familiar with Otto Neugebaurer's "The Alleged Babylonian Discovery of the Precession of the Equinoxes," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 70 (1), 1950, pp. 1-8, and the inescapable fact no such evidence exists of a mathematical understanding of "precession" before Hipparchus. It's probably a matter of terminology, language, and ...not abiding by the scientific method.
Hamlet's Mill follows the speculative spirit of Frazer's The Golden Bough, Robert Graves' The White Goddess, and just about everything written by the late Joseph Campbell, in being part of the "It's All Too Beautiful" school of research (named after the chorus in the Small Faces song, "Itchycoo Park"). Collecting many similar items, adding several mysteries, and tossing in a few suggestive avenues of future investigation, makes for great copy, but poor science.
Did the ancients have an interest in the stars and is it demonstrable? Sure... Alexander Marshack's The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation (revised and expanded, with many publisher errors, Moyer Bell Limited, New York, 1991) is a treasure-trove of Upper Paleolithic material of which many examples might well be notational tallies of phases of the moon and seasonal symbols. Willy Hartner's often cited "The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 24, 1965, pp. 1-16, presents credible evidence of a Sumerian envisioning of some stars as constellations with narrative attributes at c. 3300 BCE, with a proposed earlier formative period. Ushering in a better understanding of the growth of mathematical astronomy and the beginnings of horoscopic astrology, is B. L. van der Waerden's "Babylonian Astronomy II: The Thirty-Six Stars," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 8, 1949, pp. 6-26, which examined the emergence of the Assyrian mul.APIN series c. 700 BCE, its division of various "paths" of Ea, Anu. and Enlil, "zones" parallel to the equator and the apparent transit of the sun, and seems to be the last major development in pre-scientific astronomy before the invention of the mathematical zodiac and its twelve "signs" sometime during the Neo-Babylonian or Persian period.
The three references mentioned above are important, I believe, in considering the claims of John McHugh and the mention of a constellation tradition some 6000 or 7000 years ago and a change in tradition at 700 BCE. I suspect McHugh is appealing to our collective sense of wonder when it comes to the abilities of the ancients (Marshack), has selected the earliest date possible for a narrative constellation tradition (Hartner), and is aware of the impact of the beginnings of mathematical astronomy, the extant texts from the time of Assurbanipal, and the subsequent diffusion of Babylonian math and astrology (van der Waerden). Hey, it made it to Good Morning America! But, therein lies the problem, as morning television isn't the best place to pick up the latest in archaeoastronomy...
Guillen is described on an ABC site as: "Dr. Michael Guillen, Ph.D., instructor of physics and mathematics in the Core Curriculum Program at Harvard University, joined ABC's 'Good Morning America' as the program's Science Editor in February, 1988. He also became ABC News Science Correspondent in May, 1990, appearing regularly on 'Nightline'. In the past year, Dr. Guillen broke several high-profile new stories." Aside from the redundant Dr./Ph.D, the brief bio is helpful in understanding why the claim of John McHugh has been discussed on the Ancient Near East mailing-list and a couple of Usenet newsgroups (as well as serving as the topic of this column): because Guillen thought he was breaking another "high-profile" story.
Who is John McHugh? Where has he published? The stamp-seal shown on Good Morning America dates from when? The constellation names used by Guillen (Argo, Aquarius, and Orion) are Greek; the Sumero-Babylonians used GU.LA for "Aquarius," SIBA.ZI.AN.NA ("True Shepherd of the Sky") for "Orion," and "Argo" is a Greek envisioning unknown as such in Mesopotamian tradition, though its major star, Canopus, was regarded as NUN.ki, the "celestial likeness of 'Ea's city Eridu' (NUN.ki d.E-a)." [See : B. L. van der Waerden in Science Awaking II: The Birth of Astronomy, Noordhoff, Leyden, 1974, p.74.] Are there any other stamp-seals or cuneiform texts, statuary, artwork, or "border stones" which support McHugh's claim of a Mesopotamian "ship" constellation and a connection with a "flood" motif? So many questions and, at least for now, no answers.
In the RealVideo clip available from ABC, Guillen can be heard (and seen) mentioning an upcoming visit to the Black Sea to follow the ongoing efforts of Ballard. It's all about television, ratings, and ...being first. I'm more than a little disappointed in Guillen and his presentation of McHugh's claims.
There may well be a constellation tradition behind the Deluge story in Genesis. Dupuis suggested such in 1795 (also claiming that nearly every event, character, and narrative in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament was connected with celestial movements), Gerald Massey made a similar proposal connecting Noah with Egyptian mythology in 1881 (as mentioned by Gary Thompson in the sci.archaeology newsgroup), and if Saddam ever allows western archaeologists back to dig in the "Land Between the Rivers," we might one day have a better understanding of these matters. Until then? We wait...
hanging out with Euhemeros,