The return of Ancient Astronauts; Zecharia Sitchin Rekindles an Old Pseudoscience

This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of everyone who has ever proposed the existence of ancient astronauts. It evaluates instead one author who seems to inspire a continued following even though von Däniken has faded.

by Eric Wojciehowski

Skeptic Vol. 5, No. 1, 1997, pp 30-33
Reproduced with permission

In 1968, Erik von Däniken released his book Chariots of the Gods?, which touched off a fire storm of debate between his admirers and those who had found his claims wanting. To refresh your memory, its thesis was that Extraterrestrials had come to planet Earth in ancient times and have been remembered in myths and legends as well as from the architecture they allegedly left behind. Despite the fact that von Däniken has lost much of his audience (at least in America), he still seems to have left an impression on the public that has not faded. Although academics have spent many hours showing the errors in von Däniken’s reasoning, the Ancient Astronaut notion remains alive. Why? Well, for starters, critics have spent most of their time on von Däniken’s theory of ancient astronauts and not on the general concept of extraterrestrial visitations. By this, I mean that although Erik von Däniken popularized the idea, the theory itself has largely been defined by a number of other people.

Sadly the usual approach taken against the Ancient Astronaut theory is akin to dismissing the “UFO’s-are space aliens” theory by only criticizing one of the many authors who have promoted this viewpoint. The skeptical community is very familiar with old claims resurfacing with different packaging. This is why each case must be addressed separately. It is related to what UFO researcher, Jacques Vallee has called, “The Ratchet Effect”:

(most amateurs of the paranormal never went back to a baseline of normal belief once they had become convinced of a certain weird fact, even if it was later proven to be false, [1991, 85]).

This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of everyone who has ever proposed the existence of ancient astronauts. It evaluates instead one author who seems to inspire a continued following even though von Däniken has faded.

Out of all the people who have ever claimed that aliens have been to planet Earth in the distant past, Zecharia Sitchin is the one man who deserves the most attention. To date, he has suffered little or no criticism (except Oberg, 1978). In following the Ancient Astronaut theory for many years (as well as being a member of the Ancient Astronaut Society), I have observed that Sitchin is cited time and again by believers as the definitive “expert” in this field (there are now even “study groups” forming in the hope of the construction of “Sitchin Centers” to continue his legacy).

During these events, an immense flood of biblical proportions occurred, Egyptian and Near Eastern civilizations were established, wars involving aliens and humans commenced (where flying machines and a nuclear missile were involved), and the pyramids of Giza and other monumental structures (including some of those in the Americas) were built.

In 1976, Zecharia Sitchin released the first of his books, The 12th Planet. Subsequently, more books followed along the same theme, including The Stairway to Heaven (1980), The Wars of Gods and Men (1985), The Lost Realms (1990),  Genesis Revisited (1990), When Time Began (1993) and his latest, Divine Encounters (1995). Taken together, Sitchin has chosen to call his work, “The Earth Chronicles.” Although all his books should be considered in evaluating his work, the first three are the most important. Briefly, Sitchin believes that approximately 450,000 years ago an alien race came to Earth from an as-yet-undiscovered 10th planet in our solar system. (The sun and moon were counted as 10 and 11, making this undiscovered planet the “12th” planet. Sitchin displays pictures from the ancient Near East where 11 or 12 orbs or “stars” appear in a circle. He then makes the claim that this, along with speculative references found in ancient scriptures, represents the fact that ancient people knew of all the planets we do now; see Oberg, 1978, for a critique of Sitchin’s claims in regards to astronomy.) These beings came here to mine gold and other materials. Approximately 250,000 years ago the aliens interbred with Homo erectus to create modem Homo sapiens, to be used as slave labor in mines, on farms, and in the homes of the aliens. As time went on, the aliens began to give privileges to humans as well as allowing them to run their own lives and affairs.

According to the blurb on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The 12th Planet:

Zecharia Sitchin was raised in Palestine where he acquired a profound knowledge of modern and ancient Hebrew, other Semitic and European languages, the Old Testament, and the history and archaeology of the Near East. He attended the London School of Economics and Political Science and graduated from the University of London, majoring in economic history. A leading journalist and editor in Israel for many years, he now lives and writes in New York.

According to the program of the Ancient Astronaut Society, 16th anniversary world conference:

Mr. Sitchin spent nearly 40 years in gathering and synthesizing the data (for his books). Mr. Sitchin is a member of the Israel Exploration Society, the American Oriental Society, and the Middle East Studies Association of North America.

It should also be noted that Sitchin is one of a handful who can read the Sumerian language and cuneiform script. This alone suggests long hours of study in ancient Near Eastern history and culture. It is no wonder that his work is trotted out by believers. He appears to be an educated man who has sided with them. His opinions have weight and therefore deserve attention. So with such credentials, what brought Sitchin to the conclusion that aliens had shaped much of human history?

Sitchin answers this by stating:

It was at school in Tel-Aviv; we reached in our bible studies Chapter VI of Genesis – the story of the Great Flood or Deluge. It begins with several enigmatic verses, undoubtedly the remnant of a longer text, that describe the circumstances on Earth prior to the Deluge. They tell us – in the familiar King James translation:

when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose … 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 bore children to them, the same became mighty men who were of old, men of renown (Freer, 1987, iii).

But Sitchin was studying the Bible in its original Hebrew and he noticed that the word “Nephilim” literally meant, “Those who had come down” and not (as translated in the King James version of the Bible) “giants” (Freer, 1987, iii). From this Sitchin began his quest to find out who the Nephilim were, taking their presence in the Bible as a literal truth of existence.

Sitchin traced this word back to the names of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian gods. By concentrating on these and Near Eastern texts Sitchin concluded that the Nephilim were really an alien race that, literally “came down” to Earth thousands of years ago.

So let us begin where Sitchin did and see if his claims bear out. Our starting point is in the ancient Near East, with the Sumerian words and pictographs they left behind to describe their gods.

According to Sitchin, if we trace back the word Nephilim we come to the Sumerian equivalent of DIN-GIR. The first syllable, DIN, according to Sitchin, means, “righteous”, “pure,” or “bright” (Sitchin, 1976,169); the second syllable, GIR, “was a term used to describe a sharp-edged object” (Sitchin, 1976,168). Expanding on this, Sitchin states that by putting these syllables together, “DIN-GIR as ‘gods’ or ‘divine beings’ conveyed the meaning of ‘the righteous ones of the bright, pointed objects’ or more explicitly, ‘the pure ones of the blazing rockets'” (Sitchin, 1976, 169). What is important here is how Sitchin came to his final translation. A literal translation of the word DIN-GIR should read (based on Sitchin’s translation) “pure sharp-edged object” or “bright sharp-edged object” This should lead one to the conclusion that the DIN-GIR was one object. But Sitchin claims that DIN-GIR should be read as “pure ones of the blazing rockets,” which insinuates two things: The “pure ones” and the “blazing rockets ” This part of Sitchin’s rendition does not justify his final translation. So why did Sitchin go from the DIN-GIR being only one object to two? And why did he choose to translate the syllable GIR from the more accurate description of “sharp-edged object” to the rather dramatic “blazing rockets”? It seems he was influenced by the pictorial signs for each syllable.

The pictorial sign (according to Sitchin) for DIN is and that of GIR is  (Sitchin, 1976, 170). To Sitchin their resemblance to a multistage rocket ship combined with the textual references to gods roaming and flying from heaven to Earth leads to the conclusion that they were indeed rocketships: “Sumerian and Akkadian texts leave no doubt that the peoples of the ancient Near East were certain that the Gods of Heaven and Earth were able to rise from Earth and ascend into the heavens, as well as roam Earth’s skies at will” (Sitchin, 1976, 128). Attentive readers will notice that Sitchin interprets the DIN to be two things at once: the “pure ones” (aliens) and part of the multistage rocket. This despite his pointing out that the word and the pictograph are supposed to represent one and the same thing! This shows that Sitchin is finding and using many unfounded meanings as well as creating double ones for each of these words and pictographs.

All we can really say is that we are dealing with a “pure” or “bright” ”sharp-edged object” All the other elements Sitchin applies to the DIN-GIR, like making each word stand for two things at once, are not justified. The pictograph for DIN-GIR does not necessarily represent a rocket ship from antiquity. This only occurs through speculation.

It has been noted that DIN-GIR is somewhat like the Egyptian word for god which is Neter (Morenz, 1973, 19). It is dear that although many different interpretations have been given for Neter, none are absolute. However, the most likely explanation seems to be that the Neter (complete with its own pictograph  ) could be nothing more than a sort of flag (Morenz, 1973, 9). This would then suggest a clear sign of totemism, a sort of “banner” which stood for each group of people who rallied around it. If DIN-GIR can be said to be similar in meaning to Neter, then it is possible that the word and its pictograph are of the same sort. Only in this case, the “banner” would be a “bright” or “pure” sharp-edged object somewhat akin to an obelisk or spear-like construction. Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer states that the peoples of the ancient Near East thought of their gods as the assumed powers which operate behind the natural order of the world (Kramer, 1981, 77-78). Thus it is possible that the DIN-GIR was a totem used to symbolically represent these assumed forces and nothing more.

Sitchin repeatedly argues throughout his work that the aliens were anthropomorphic and human-like in design. And it is true that some cylinder seals reveal the gods in this type of form. But aside from the difficulties in explaining how two species, separated on different planets, came to be so similar (so similar that they were able to interbreed), the engravings which display the anthropomorphism of the gods are not the oldest forms. The majority of the oldest existing drawings show us the ancient Near Eastern gods are more animalistic in design. It was only in later times that the gods began to be drawn as erect-standing, two-armed, two-legged beings with a body and a head (Jacobsen, 1976, 9). If the aliens were really the gods, and if they were human-like in characteristics, then the oldest drawings should bear this out. They do not. (Jacobsen does state that in the early periods the human forms may have been a competing characterization of the gods. Regardless, this was not the dominant form. Some may say that this is purely a metaphorical way of expressing the attributes of real historical beings. But the error in this thinking is easily discerned. By claiming such, one would have already concluded that these beings did exist. But since we are dealing with a multitude of forms, we must treat them as a whole when attempting to evaluate the religious aspects of the ancients.)

To fully understand Sitchin’s claims about aerial objects, we must also examine his interpretation of the Sumerian word MU. According to Sitchin, this word (equal to the Hebrew word shem) should be properly translated as a “skyborne vehicle” (Sitchin, 1976, 139-167). He spills much ink telling the reader that the MU was described as “lights up as a fire” and of an enclosure specifically created to “protect” the MU “which in a fire comes forth” He also quotes from a text which describes the goddess Inanna flying in her MU (Sitchin, 1976, 42). He then shows how the word MU evolved in later times to describe obelisk-type structures and believes that the obelisks were erected in memory of multistage rocket ships that humans once saw when the aliens were here. However, as with the DIN GIR, Sitchin has not made a very strong case. We do not have to assume that just because the gods were said to have been flying in their MU’s or because the MU’s looked like rocket ships (notice that an obelisk gives such an appearance) that they actually were. We must ask, how were the MU’s perceived to have been used by the ancients? Were they used in connection with rituals performed to create symbolic flights as shamans worldwide have been known to conduct? Or were they really technological wonders? The fact remains that until the spade of an archaeologist uncovers the corroded remains of a buried rocket, a more mundane, orthodox interpretation should be sought in connection with the DIN, GIR, and MU.

We can now move on to some of Sitchin’s other reworkings of the historical texts to reveal his other blunders. The biggest problem with Sitchin’s work is that although he lists an extensive bibliography at the end of his books, he rarely gives specific references to individual works when he quotes a particular text. I have attempted to track down many of his references to see if his retelling of the tales matches what was actually written. For those that I have found, some of the texts that Sitchin uses seem to have been taken out of context, or abbreviated, leading to a loss of the intended meaning.

As with other Ancient Astronaut theorists Sitchin carefully selects evidence that matches his preconceived notions. He documents the texts that seem to support his claims but fails to mention those that contradict them. For instance, in The 12th Planet Sitchin argues that the extraterrestrials genetically created modem humans for slave labor from the already existing Homo erectus. He quotes from various texts to show that the ancients believed that the gods created man and then launches into more word play as he substitutes modern technological terms for the descriptions of the actions of the gods who performed this alleged feat of genetic engineering. What Sitchin fails to mention is that many different versions of how mankind came to be exist among the ancient sources. There is not one coherent belief system working here. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade has noted, “There are at least four Sumerian narratives that explain the origin of man. They are so different that we must assume a plurality of traditions” (1978, 59). Not only do we have stories that humans were created by gods, we also have stories that suggest that humans sprouted from the Earth like plants! Also, within the Babylonian creation story known as the Epic of Creation, also known as the Enuma Elish, it is said that the god Ea (Enki) created humans from the blood of the god Kingu. In Sitchin’s discussion of the Enuma Elish, he considers Kingu to be our present day moon.

Additional texts reveal Sitchin’s shortcomings for lack of attention to detail. There is a tale from the ancient Near East entitled the Etana myth. It begins where the gods are looking for some human worthy of sitting on the throne of the city of Kish. A man by the name Etana is chosen for such an honor. The tale then takes a strange turn when an eagle and a snake make an oath not to operate outside the rules and laws handed down by the sun god Shamash. Shortly after, the eagle breaks this part of the bargain and snatches the snake’s young to feed his own babies. Because of this crime, the eagle is punished by being imprisoned in a deep pit until its natural death. The story then returns to the life of Etana. He pleads to Shamash, asking that the god help him procreate, for what concerns Etana most is his inability to have children. This is where the two, seemingly independent, stories converge. Shamash tells Etana where to find the entrapped eagle. With the eagles help, Etana may journey to heaven to obtain the “plant of birth.” As they travel higher and higher, the eagle repeatedly asks Etana to look back and see how the land and the sea look smaller. As can probably be guessed, Sitchin argues that the eagle was actually a spacecraft that took Etana to the god’s planet. His proof seems to come from Etana’s observation, preserved in the texts, of how the land and sea seem to grow smaller with distance (Sitchin, 1976, 161-163). What is most interesting is that Sitchin completely ignores the fact that the eagle is never described as anything other than an actual eagle. No references appear in the Etana myth to indicate anything technological. For instance, when Etana “boards” the eagle and prepares for flight, the eagle instructs Etana and Etana follows. The eagle states: “put your chest over my breast, put your hands over the quills of my wings, put your arms over my sides.” And Etana follows, “He puts his chest over its breast, put his hands over its feathers…”

It is not difficult to see that Etana supposedly travels into space on the outside of the eagle! What about Etana’s observation of the appearance of the receding land and sea as he flew higher? Well, so what? The peoples of the ancient Near East were surely aware that as something moved further away, it appeared to be smaller. The writer (or writers) of the Etana myth probably assumed (correctly) that the same illusion would occur if one were to travel skyward. This observation of distance is no proof of an actual journey to the sky.

Finally, Sitchin’s blatant “pick and choose” method is illustrated by his silence about the serpent’s role in the story, as well as the conflict between it and the eagle. The story must be dealt with by examining all elements of it. And this story presents us with a very poetic account of Etana and the snake-eagle oath which is purely a mythological-poetic account, not a historical one.

In Sitchin’s book The Stairway to Heaven, we see another example of his selective methods. Sitchin charts what he thinks was the journey and final destination Egyptian Pharaohs believed they would undertake after death. He uses the Egyptian writings and texts and concludes that Pharaohs believed they would exit their tombs, travel east and then proceed through an underground base made up of 12 levels and end up aboard a rocket ship bound for the “Imperishable Star” (which Sitchin identifies as the aliens’ home planet). In one instance Sitchin quotes Utterance 422 from the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. When I checked this quote against the one found in R.O. Faulkner’s book, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (which Sitchin lists in his bibliography and which is known to be the best English translation of these writings), the actual Utterance 422 is almost five times as long as Sitchin’s quote! He never reveals that he is abbreviating. From reading both versions, it can be shown that Sitchin’s lack of attention to detail damages his position. Within the original Utterance 422, it is proclaimed to the king, “may he do what he was wont to do among the spirits, the Imperishable Stars.” Note that the “Imperishable Stars” appears in plural form. This would suggest that the king is to be among the many Imperishable Stars (or the stars we see in the sky today) and not on any particular star. In fact, many of the Utterances speak of a plurality of Imperishable Stars. This detail, which Sitchin fails to document, completely changes where the Pharaoh was believed to go after death. Sitchin’s claim that Pharaohs envisioned themselves boarding a rocket ship to fly to space is also flawed. In Utterance 508, it states:

O Re, I have laid down for myself this sunshine of yours as a stairway under my feet on which I will ascend to that mother of mine, the living Uraeus which should be upon me….

Here Re is clearly identified as the sun and the sun’s rays are what the Pharaoh plans to use to get to him. Where was the king believed to go among the stars? Part of Utterance 471 states:

and I (Pharaoh) ascend the sky, I will go aboard this bark of Re, it is I who will command on my own account those gods who row him. Every god will rejoice at meeting me just as they rejoice at meeting Re when he ascends from the eastern side of the sky in peace….

In other words, Re (the sun) is said to go from east to west, carried on a boat. It is this mythological boat that Pharaohs are said to have gone to, not another planet. These concepts are purely mythological and nothing more.

We should also note that despite Sitchin’s interpretation, the 12 levels of underground passages through which Pharaoh supposedly traveled after death were most likely not a real place. The main reason for this is that we clearly have not uncovered such an immense underground base nor have we found any rocket launch pads or anything of the sort.

This points out the most damaging flaw in Sitchin’s theory – the lack of physical evidence. Not one trace of evidence exists anywhere in the world for such a high technology in the not too distant past. Some have claimed that since all this supposedly happened a long time ago it is no wonder that this technology has probably eroded away or been destroyed by the natural process of time and the deeds of men. However, Sitchin has argued in The 12th Planet that our alien visitors arrived here approximately 450,000 years ago and in his book The Wars of Gods and Men, he argues that the aliens were still on Earth at the time of Alexander the Great, circa 333 B.C.E. Even if our visitors left around 300 B.C.E., that means that they were here for about 448,000 years! Yet there is none of the “waste” one would expect to find from such a highly advanced civilization residing on this planet for so long. By comparison, we have only had a space program since the 1960s and hundreds of pieces of junk material remain in orbit around the Earth. We have only been a technological society for about 100 years and we can see the scars upon the planet from the extensive mining, farming and building. If a technological society existed on this planet for about 448,000 years and left a mere 2,000 years ago, we would know it from more than rock pyramids and legendary tales.

Some other fine points to note are Sitchin’s interpretations of various pictures and art from the ancient sites. On page 93 of his book The Stairway to Heaven he remarks that the picture labeled Figure 49 displayed on page 94 is that of the sun, sky, and the aliens’ home planet. However, it probably better represents the sun, sky and the moon instead. On page 35 of The 12th Planet, in referring to Figure 15 on page 36, Sitchin claims that this is a picture of “a man lying on a special bed; his face is protected by a mask, and he is being subjected to some kind of radiation.” There really is no proof that this is what is occurring. Not only that, but the picture does not suggest a “mask” but suggests instead that the man lying on the table has two heads!

Although Zecharia Sitchin is an educated man in a different category from most authors promoting the Ancient Astronaut theory, he still employs the same faulty logic as the rest. Sitchin’s work delves into astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, ancient history, geology, genetics, biology, mythology, linguistics and more. I have chosen to deal particularly with Sitchin’s use of legend and myth and other texts because he quotes them extensively as “proofs” of his thesis. The elements I have examined, specifically the lack of physical evidence to support Sitchin’s claims, demonstrate the pseudoscientific nature of his work.


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