Fake news is one of the catchphrases and new realities of the Trump presidency. While the public is misled by fake stories, politicians dismiss credible inquiries and investigations as “fake news.” It might seem like we live in an Orwellian era of doublespeak but a new study from a University of Cambridge academic claims to have found the earliest example of fake news on some 3,000-year-old clay tablets.
The ancient text in question is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains an earlier version of the flood story retold in the Bible. When Gilgamesh was first discovered in the late 19th century it caused a media sensation: though the characters had different names and the gods are more deceptive than the God of the Bible, all of the basic plot elements of the two flood stories are the same. People heralded it either as evidence for the historical reality of the great flood or as a sign that the ancient Israelites had copied (you might say “stolen”) the mythology of the ancient Babylonians.
Now, Dr. Martin Worthington, a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, has offered a new analysis of the flood story. According to Worthington, the god Ea uses “fake news” or doublespeak to trick the Babylonian Noah, Uta–napishti, into building the Ark. The statement that Ea makes (“ina šer(-)kukki / ina lilâti ušaznanakkunuši šamut kibati”) is usually translated as a promise that God “will rain down upon you a shower of wheat.” All of which sounds unusual but, for ancient people who worried about harvests and grain supply, pretty great. In his new book on the subject, Worthington argues that the verses can also be translated as “ he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.” A similar statement, but crucially different. What seems to be happening here is that Ea is using the linguistic ambiguities in order to manipulate humanity into building the Ark. It’s a somewhat deceptive play on words.