The legend of the flood is common to almost human cultures, in one shape or another, and probably tells the story of some ancient prehistoric catastrophe.
But a Cambridge academic has claimed that the Babylonian account of the story, preserved on a 3,000-year-old clay tablet, represents the first example of “fake news.”
Dr Martin Worthington says that the inscription on the 11th tablet of Gilgamesh, a clay tablet with dates back to at least the 7th Century BC and is currently held in the British Museum, has a secret double meaning.
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In the Babylonian version of the Flood story, Noah is called Uta–napishti and God is known as Ea. And Ea, it seems, was not above a little deception.
“Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news,” Dr Worthington, a fellow of St John’s College, told the Telegraph that Ea’s promise that “food will rain from the sky” if people build the Ark can be read two ways: “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,” he says “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. “
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“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.”
Dr Worthington gives several examples of how the promises of good fortune Ea makes to Uta–napishti are also threats of disaster.
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Asked why this sneaky Babylonian god would have deceived his followers, Dr Worthington says: Why he has to do it is more evident. “Babylonian gods only survive because people feed them. If humanity had been wiped out, the gods would have starved. The god Ea manipulates language and misleads people into doing his will because it serves his self-interest.”
It’s a technique that gods, and politicians, have been using ever since.
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The Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is thought to be the oldest work of literature and, after the Pyramid Texts, the second oldest religious text.
While the 11th tablet is one of the newer chapters, the first surviving version of the epic, known as the "Old Babylonian" version dates to the 1800 years BC
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