WHAT'S IN A SHEM?
© Ian Lawton 2000
Sitchin claims that although the word shem - which is used repeatedly in both Sumerian and Akkadian texts - is translated as 'name' by orthodox scholars, it in fact refers to a far older derivation which originally implied some form of 'sky-chamber'. To quote Sitchin himself:[i]
The Mesopotamian texts that refer to the inner enclosures of temples, or to the heavenly journeys of the gods, or even to instances where mortals ascended to the heavens, employ the Sumerian term mu or its Semitic derivatives shu-mu ('that which is a mu'), sham or shem. Because the term also connoted 'that by which one is remembered,' the word has come to be taken as meaning 'name.' But the universal application of 'name' to early texts that spoke of an object used in flying has obscured the true meaning of the ancient records.
He goes on to describe how the etymology of the term can be traced from 'sky chamber' to 'name'. He argues that original stone sculptures of gods inside oval rocket-shaped chambers, which were used to venerate them in places remote from their temples, were eventually copied by kings and rulers and their own images placed thereon in order that they could associate themselves with the 'Eternal Abode', and have their 'name' preserved even if they were only mortal. These objects are what we now refer to as stelae. He further examines the words used for such objects in a number of languages, arguing that they all share common connotations of 'fiery stones that rise'.
Mesopotamian scholars have indicated that this analysis is highly misleading because the term mu is a Sumerian verbal prefix which does not require translation. For once Sitchin admits to being aware of this criticism, and counters that scholars have deliberately invented this grammatical construct precisely because they 'sense that mu or shem may mean an object not "name"… and have thereby avoided the issue altogether.'[i]
What are we to make of all this? As most of us are not scholars of Mesopotamian language we can hardly comment definitively on this element of the debate, although it is interesting to note how easy it is to add yet more fuel to the fire to obscure the picture still further. For example Thorkild Jacobsen notes, quite independently of this theme, that shem can also be used to denote a 'tambourine-like drum'.[ii] It would be perfectly justifiable for me then to argue that its use as 'name' or 'reputation' developed from association with this meaning of the word via the concept of 'banging one’s own drum'. This example serves to show how the use of words with multiple meanings, especially in the Sumerian language, can allow all manner of interpretations and associations to be made.
As we have seen this is true of many words on which Sitchin places great emphasis. Accordingly I have chosen the word shem as a case study for evaluating his interpretations, mainly because in this case he backs his argument up with a large number of extracts from texts which apparently support his case. My own approach was to examine these usually condensed extracts and see if his interpretations made sense in the context of the texts from which they came.
Of the twelve main textual extracts which Sitchin uses, three are taken from the Bible, three are from Sumerian texts, four from Akkadian texts, while I have been unable to trace translations for the remaining two due to the lack of referencing. They are presented in this order below.
I have used the following notation in presenting the extracts: words in square brackets represent the (sometimes assumed) original word in the source text, while those in upper case represent those omitted from the beginning, middle or end of quotes by Sitchin which can distort the full context. The italics used in the extracts themselves are mine, for emphasis. For each extract I have also added my own analysis.
Genesis 6:4 [iii]
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown [shem].
Sitchin’s quoting here appears to be perfectly accurate, and it has to be said that the use of the word shem here could equally well reflect either his or the orthodox interpretation.
Genesis 11:2-8 [iv]
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plane in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name [shem], lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Again, although he uses a different translation of the Bible, there is nothing wrong with Sitchin’s quoting here. However he stresses the impact the actions of mankind had on the gods, especially their fear that 'nothing will be restrained from them', and goes on to suggest that the building of a shem would have prevented mankind’s being 'scattered abroad' because, as their population increased and they spread out, a 'sky-vehicle' would have allowed them to stay in contact with one another. Although there are undoubtedly enigmatic aspects to this piece of biblical text, I would suggest that it is far simpler and more reasonable to suggest that mankind might wish to build an impressive tower to make a lasting reputation for itself.
Isiah 56:5 [v]
Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place [yad] and a name [shem] BETTER THAN OF SONS AND DAUGHTERS: I WILL GIVE THEM AN EVERLASTING NAME [shem], THAT SHALL NOT BE CUT OFF.
This is our first example of Sitchin foreshortening a quote to lose the context. As soon as one reinstates the remainder of the verse, we must ask why god would wish to provide a 'space-vehicle' 'better than that of sons and daughters'? Unless rampant material one-upmanship had already infiltrated biblical society, his interpretation makes no sense whatever, and - far more disturbing - this could not have been anything other than entirely obvious to him when he selected the extract.
Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living, lines 4-7 [vi]
'Enkidu BRICK AND STAMP HAVE NOT YET BROUGHT FORTH THE FATED END,
I would enter the land, would set up my name [shem],
In its places where names [shems] have been raised up, I would raise up my name [shem],
IN ITS PLACES WHERE NAMES [shems] HAVE NOT BEEN RAISED UP, I WOULD RAISE UP THE NAMES [shems] OF THE GODS.'
Taken from one of the original Sumerian Gilgamesh texts and not the composite Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh (which does not contain this passage), this extract finds Sitchin on highly selective form once again. When the missing bulk of the first line is reinstated (at least Sitchin gives us a clue by providing an ellipsis to indicate something has been left out), we can immediately see the connection with 'brick and stamp', that is monument building and printing - the conventional method of preserving one’s name. Then, with the reinstatement of the last line, it appears more likely that Gilgamesh is being mindful to respect the reputations of the gods than deciding when to use his own rocket as against theirs.
Hymn to Inanna [vii]
I cannot find this extract per se in Jacobsen’s composite version of the Inanna hymns, so the following is Sitchin’s version:
Lady of Heaven:
She puts on the Garment of Heaven;
She valiantly ascends towards Heaven.
Over all the peopled lands she flies in her mu.
Lady, who in her mu to the heights of Heaven joyfully wings.
Over all the resting places she flies in her mu.
However Jacobsen’s version does contain multiple references to Inanna as the Evening and Morning Star (Venus) which involve her 'lighting up', 'stepping up onto', and 'wandering in' the sky. Consequently it is possible that Sitchin has provided his own interpretation of one of these passages - and if so it may be as inventive as many of his other extracts. Since as usual he provides no reference as to his source, it is impossible to comment further.
Gudea Temple Inscriptions
Again the following extract, being so short, is hard to trace in Jacobsen’s translation; this is Sitchin’s version:[viii]
Its mu shall hug the lands from horizon to horizon.
One passage towards the end of Jacobsen’s version reads as follows: 'He (Ninurta) has indeed established your (Gudea’s) name from the south to the north'.[ix] However it is hard to identify this as the same passage with any certainty, and further comment is useless without a proper source reference. Adapa, Tablet II, lines 57-59
In this case Sitchin himself does not quote an extract proper, merely reporting that 'An demanded to know who had provided Adapa with a shem with which to reach the heavenly location'.[x] I have found two translations of this text, the first by Alexander Heidel and the second by Stephanie Dalley. To place the extract in context, An wants to know why Adapa has been allowed to visit heaven (per Heidel’s translation), or alternatively how he obtained the powers to 'stop the south wind' (per Dalley’s translation). Dealing with each in turn:[xi]
'Why has Enki revealed to an impure man
The heart of heaven and earth?
He has made him strong and has made him a name.'
This older translation appears to support Sitchin in as much as it contains the word name at the end, but that is about all. Meanwhile Dalley’s more recent translation bears little resemblance to this older version, and does not even contain the idea of a reputation or name:[xii]
'Why did Enki disclose to wretched mankind
The ways of heaven and earth,
Give them a heavy heart?
It was he who did it!'
Unless progress on the translation of this Akkadian text has gone backwards in recent years, or another set of tablets entirely was used by Heidel, we can assume the later translation is the more accurate - and once again it does little to support Sitchin’s interpretation.
Epic of Etana, Tablet II, last column [xiii]
This extract sees Etana asking the god Shamash (Utu) to help him obtain the plant of birth:
'O Lord, let the word go forth from your mouth
And give me the plant of birth,
Show me the plant of birth!
Remove my shame and provide me with a son [shem]!'
Sitchin’s extract is sufficiently close in this case for it to be clear that the word he suggests is shem in the original is here translated by Dalley as 'son', which is slightly confusing. Nevertheless, although she does not say as much her translation would appear to use the phrase 'plant of birth' as a sign that Etana is infertile, in which case it would be quite understandable that he would want to change the situation and establish a lasting reputation by way of offspring. Despite the fuss that is sometimes made about Etana's subsequent description of how the earth gets smaller and smaller as he ascends towards heaven on the back of an eagle, this is separate and in any case only common sense, so once again Sitchin's interpretation appears by far the less likely and obvious.
Anzu, Tablet I, column 3 [xiv]
Here, while Enlil is taking a bath, the evil god Anzu steals the 'Tablet of Destinies':
He gained the Tablet of Destinies for himself,
Took away the Enlil-power. Rites were abandoned,
Anzu flew off and went into hiding.
Again Sitchin does not quote here, simply suggesting that 'Anzu fled in his mu (translated "name", but indicating a flying machine.)' There is no direct mention of 'name' in Dalley’s translation as above, and since this is undoubtedly the same passage one may possibly conclude that here she has taken the word mu as a verbal prefix. It would appear therefore that once again Sitchin is on weak ground.
Epic of Creation, Tablet VI, lines 57-62
Dalley’s translation reveals how, after Marduk has vanquished Tiamat and asked Enki to create man, Babylon is constructed (originally by the Anunnaki themselves):[xv]
'Create Babylon, whose construction you requested!
Let its mud bricks be moulded, and build high the shrine!'
The Anunnaki began shovelling.
For a whole year they made bricks for it.
When the second year arrived,
They had raised the top of Esagila in front of the Abzu.
Meanwhile Sitchin translates the word Babili (Babylon) as 'gateway of the gods' to arrive at the following translation of the first two lines of the same passage:[xvi]
Construct the Gateway of the Gods
Let its brickwork be fashioned. Its shem shall be in the designated place.
He goes on to use the subsequent lines to argue that this mirrors the subsequent attempt by mankind to build a stage tower for launching rockets at the same site in the biblical Babel story (see above). However, once again we can see that the context is far more likely to refer to the construction as being something to enhance or revere 'names' and 'reputations'.
I have been unable to trace translations of the texts from which the final two extracts used by Sitchin are taken. The first, supposedly from a Hymn to Ishkur, apparently contains the line: 'Thy mu is radiant, it reaches heaven's zenith'.[xvii] The second, taken from what Sitchin describes loosely as a Poem to Ninhursag, supposedly contains detailed descriptions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, including the lines: 'House which is great landmark for the lofty shem', and 'Mother of the shems am I'.[xviii] Unfortunately neither of these texts is mentioned by Kramer, Jacobsen or Dalley in their major works which I have used as my main sources throughout.
We can see that much of Sitchin’s textual 'evidence' in support of his claim that the words shem and mu refer to 'sky-vehicles' is badly referenced and, to say the least, somewhat creatively interpreted. His tendency in certain cases to leave out surrounding lines which would render his interpretations impossible in the context rings alarm bells which should put any reader on their guard, even if they do not intrinsically discount the possibility of flesh and blood gods with advanced technology.
[i] Sitchin, The Twelfth Planet (Bear & Co, 1991), Chapter 5, p. 136.
[ii] Jacobsen, The Harps that Once… (Yale University Press, 1987), Introduction, p. xiv.
[iii] Authorised King James Bible; Sitchin’s comments can be found in The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, pp. 159-160.
[iv] Ibid.; Sitchin’s comments can be found in The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, pp. 139-140.
[v] Ibid.; Sitchin’s comments can be found in The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, p. 138.
[vi] Kramer, The Sumerians (University of Chicago Press, 1963), Chapter 5, p. 192; Sitchin’s comments can be found in The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, pp. 146–7.
[vii] Sitchin, The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, p. 134.
[viii] Ibid., Chapter 5, p. 136.
[ix] Jacobsen, op. cit., p. 444.
[x] Sitchin, The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, pp. 144–5.
[xi] Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (2nd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1951), Appendix, p. 151.
[xii] Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 187.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 196; Sitchin’s comments can be found in The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, p. 151.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 207; Sitchin’s comments can be found in The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 4, p. 104.
[xv] Ibid., p. 262.
[xvi] Sitchin, The Twelfth Planet, Chapter 5, p. 141.
[xvii] Ibid., Chapter 5, p. 136.
[xviii] Sitchin, The Wars of Gods and Men (Avon, 1985), Chapter 7, pp. 143–5.