Zecharia Sitchin and Cuneiform Script

One of the accusations levelled at the late Zecharia Sitchin was that he was not able to read and translate the cuneiform scripts of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and other ancient Mesopotamian cultures.  There aren’t that many people who can read cuneiform, and Sitchin was not a recognised linguistic scholar of ancient languages.  As a result, it’s easy for scholars to question his ability to read, transliterate and interpret the ancient Mesopotamian writings.

I came across this issue first-hand in 2003 when appearing in a short university project documentary alongside some noted British Sumerologists and astronomers, discussing Planet X (1).  The Sumerologists, curators from the British Museum in London, were sceptical of Sitchin’s knowledge of cuneiform, and his expertise with the ancient languages that used this script:

Christopher Walker (Deputy Keeper, Cuneiform Collection, British Museum): “It’s basically a very subjective interpretation of individual pictures, individual ideas. But he [Sitchin] doesn’t actually sit down and work with the texts.  And people think this is a nice idea, this is a nice story, let’s have the next chapter of the story…It’s like Harry Potter.” (2)

Dr Irving Finkel (Assistant Keeper, Cuneiform Collections, British Museum): It is very easy to use Sumerian and the Sumerian culture as your explanation for things because hardly anyone in the world can read Sumerian, and if you can give the impression you can read these texts you can say what you like. And I do think this is a factor. The number of people who can read Sumerian reliably and properly you could fit into this room. I think it would be a bit of a squeeze, you would have to move the furniture, but you could get everyone in the world onto this room.” (2)

There’s a general disillusionment with experts these days.  Sometimes, experts get it horribly wrong:  Economists failing to see a looming crash, or bursting of an economic bubble; environmental scientists cooking the books to solidify their stance on climate change; politicians expounding doom and gloom if a particular decision is made, only to see markets lift when it comes to pass.  This may be a similar situation. 

In order to attain the kinds of authorised credentials that Finkel and Walker require, students of ancient Mesopotamian languages must jump through a number of academic hoops, and then be accepted into the club of recognised scholars of cuneiform script.  Like democracy, this may simply be the ‘least bad’ way of doing things, but it does mean that budding scholars must toe the party line to be accepted into the halls of academe.  There is a system of self-perpetuating conformity at work here.  Certainly, there is no room in the Sumerology world-view for outsiders who independently master the script and languages, and then propose that the ancient accounts have been incorrectly interpreted this whole time.

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Sitchin’s translations, and his interpretations, are fiercely contested – to the point where accusations of fraud has been levelled at him.  It is often quoted on the Internet that Sitchin knowingly distorted translations of Sumerian phrases and words to fit his own theory.  The translations he presents in his books (3) are sometimes different from authorised texts.  These discrepancies provide ammunition for sceptics and scholars alike to dismiss his work, and allege that he knowingly misled his readership.  (This situation is not helped by the semi-fictionalised fill-ins he added in to his popular text ‘The Lost Book of Enki’ (4).) Such accusations have become common currency, and even maverick writers looking into ancient mysteries often distance themselves from Sitchin’s work.

But are they wrong to be so dismissive?  Furthermore, are their accusations of fraud actually libellous?

In 2015, Zecharia Sitchin’s niece, Janet Sitchin, published a book containing various articles, letters and book excerpts written by him (5).  Having noted on the inside cover jacket that her uncle was “known for his ability to read and interpret ancient Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets”, Janet Sitchin wrote the following in her postscript:

“Sitchin learned to read various types of cuneiform and researched and learned the ancient languages.  They were Semitic languages and, as such, he felt they were similar to the Hebrew that was his primary language. It was important for him to read and translate the languages for himself so that the nuance of meaning was not lost by a poor or incomplete translation.” (5)

According to members of his own family, then, Zecharia Sitchin really did read and translate the ancient Mesopotamian languages directly from the original cuneiform.  Is this so incredible?  People teach themselves languages all the time, using any number of resources to master them.  Sitchin’s problem, then, is that he didn’t learn these ancient languages the ‘proper’ way.  He didn’t write academic papers, setting his ideas forth in a peer-reviewable format where establishment Sumerologists could unpick his work through standard academic criticism.  Instead, he went straight to the masses, without bothering to check with them whether he was right.  You can see why they might get a bit miffed.

So, let’s say that Sitchin, being a pretty bright bloke (he obtained a degree in economic history from the University of London, and was a journalist and editor in Israel for many years before emigrating to the U.S.) taught himself cuneiform.  His translations are personalised, sure, but does that necessarily make them wrong?  Translating from any language is a subjective business, after all, and is reliant to some degree upon one’s world view.  The same argument can be made about academic scholars, whose own paradigms can be deeply rooted and conservative.  These experts may not always get it right, because their underlying assumptions about what constitutes Truth may be erroneous.  Herd instinct can drive these disciplines, just as it does economics, politics, science.  And sometimes, someone needs to come along to stir things up a bit.

Here’s an example of how Sitchin is often entirely dismissed for proposing a non-conventional translation:

“You’ll often read, especially in the writings of Zecharia Sitchin, that the annunaki means something like ‘they who from heaven came’ or some other description that makes them sound like aliens or extra-terrestrials. There isn’t a source on the planet by any Sumerian scholar that would agree with that definition. It’s not a difficult term. I personally don’t think that Sitchin knew Sumerian at all because if you’re going to get a term associated with a very group of important deities wrong, I have to wonder what else you’re going to get wrong.” (6)

Sitchin’s first description of the Anunnaki in “The 12th Planet”, p328, includes the following:

“Still, many texts persist in referring to the Anunnaki as “the fifty great princes”. A common spelling of their name in Akkadian, An-nun-na-ki, readily yields the meaning “the fifty who went from Heaven to Earth”. Is there a way to bridge the seeming contradictions?” (3)

This simple quote contains both his translation, and also a variation on the ‘princes’ translation more widely advocated.  Sitchin is making it quite clear in his book that he is deviating from the standard translation.  His critics argue that he knowingly misled people who know no better.  That accusation has stuck.  In fact, Sitchin quite carefully and openly offered a choice, setting out why he was proposing something different.  He may have been wrong, he may have been right – but he was no fraud.

 

Written by Andy Lloyd,  2nd January 2017

References:

1)  Andy Lloyd “Planet X and ‘Waiting for the Apocalypse'” November 2003 http://www.darkstar1.co.uk/videos.html

2)  The Clockwork Team & University of Westminster ‘Waiting for the Apocalypse’ 2003 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkeBGxlefqY

3)  Zecharia Sitchin “The Twelfth Planet” Avon 1976, and the subsequent Earth Chronicles series, by the same publisher as well as Bear & Co.

4)  Zecharia Sitchin “The Lost Book of Enki” Bear & Co., 2002

5)  Janet Sitchin (Ed) “The Anunnaki Chronicles: A Zecharia Sitchin Reader” Bear and Co., 2015, p350

6)  Ancient Aliens Debunked ‘Anunnaki’ quoting critic Michael Heiser http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/references-and-transcripts/anunnaki/

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