Study: ‘Trickster’ Babylonian god used puns in ancient flood story
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Study: ‘Trickster’ Babylonian god used puns in ancient flood story

British researcher says tablet telling the Epic of Gilgamesh contains the ‘earliest ever example of fake news’

A clay tablet dating back to the Neo-Assyrian Period, 7th century BC, that narrates the Babylonian Flood Story transliterated by George Smith. From the Library of Ashurbanipal II at Nineveh, northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. March 16, 2016. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A clay tablet dating back to the Neo-Assyrian Period, 7th century BC, that narrates the Babylonian Flood Story transliterated by George Smith. From the Library of Ashurbanipal II at Nineveh, northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. March 16, 2016. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-4.0)

In the biblical account of Noah and the flood, Noah builds the ark by himself after failing to convince humanity of the doom that awaits.

In the Babylonian account told in the Gilgamesh Epic, all the people help out in building the giant boat, but only after being tricked by a god with promises of delicious cakes raining from the sky and other goodies, only to drown anyway, according to a new study.

According to Cambridge senior lecturer Dr. John Worthington, promises made by the god Ea to Uta–napishti, recounted in the Assyrian Flood Tablet, make use of clever wordplay that can either be read as promises of abundance that await the people if they build the ark, or predictions of horrible death by flooding.

In other words, the world’s first pun was so bad, it may have literally wiped out humanity.

“While Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood,” Worthington said in a statement. “Once the ark is built, Uta–napishti and his family clamber aboard and survive with a menagerie of animals. Everyone else drowns. 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.”

In this July 5, 2016, file photo, visitors pass outside the front of a replica Noah’s Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park during a media preview day, in Williamstown, Kentucky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The study is based on a new reading of nine lines in the story and are included in a book by Worthington published last week titled “Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story.”

The 3,100-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the earliest surviving work of literature and the second-oldest religious text after the Pyramid Texts. It caused a global sensation when its significance was first discovered by Assyriologist George Smith in 1872.

Worthington is an Assyriologist who specializes in Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian grammar, literature and medicine.

Worthington calls Ea “a master wordsmith who is able to compress multiple simultaneous meanings into one duplicitous utterance.”

In one example he gives, the story can be read as “At dawn there will be kukku-cakes/in the evening he will rain down upon you a shower of wheat.”

But it can also be interpreted as “By means of incantations/by means of wind-demons, he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.”

Basically the difference between “ice cream” and “I scream,” said Worthington.

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