(posted 31 May 2011)

The opening scene of the novel The Last King of Babylon  www.lastkingofbabylon.com has the chief protagonist, Nabu Na’id, excavating a fictional city which he believed was founded by the legendary figure “Yuhan.”  Who was this “Yuhan,” and what connection, if any, did he have with the Biblical story of “Jonah and the whale?”


The Biblical version of the “Jonah” story opens by calling him “the son of Amitai,” next the Bible says that God commanded him to go to Nineveh (in Ancient Assyria) to prophecy against it.  Instead “Jonah” tries to flee from the Lord, takes a ship allegedly heading to Tarshish, but is thrown overboard and then swallowed up by a large fish.  Then, in chapter one verse seventeen it says that “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” 

The rest of the story has “Jonah” repenting for his disobedience unto the Lord, and then after he is freed from the fish, he emerges from the sea and then he prophecies unto the city of Nineveh which is then spared, and in the end everyone lives happily ever after.  Most of this story follows good fiction writing techniques as do most of the Biblical stories.  However, there are some interesting details that betray a much earlier Mesopotamian story, and it is to these that we will turn.


First off, we will take a look at the protagonist's name “Jonah” the son of “Amitai.”  The Hebrew BEN AMITAI means “the son of my truth,” or “the son of my authenticity.”  That is a rather strange name which immediately raises suspicion as to its “authenticity.”  In other Hebrew writings “Jonah” is called BEN NUN which means “son of the fish.”  In the Qur’an he is also called BIN NUN having the same meaning of “the son of the fish.”  In Arabic he is also sometimes called ZW NUN meaning simply “he of the fish.” 

Nowhere in the Bible, Qur’an, or any other ancient writing does it say “Jonah” was swallowed by a “whale.”  That is nothing more than a “whale” of a fabrication that Christians have attached to the story in order to try to make it more believable since whales are larger than fish.  We must admit, however, that the idea of being swallowed by a “fish” does seem rather “fishy.”  So, where did this idea come from?


The name of the city that “Jonah” was sent to gives us one clue.  The term “Nineveh,” actually NINEWEH, is derived from the same root as is the BEN NUN element of Jonah’s name.  NUNU or NINU, in ancient Assyrian meant “fish,” just as it did in ancient Hebrew and Arabic.  So, “Nineweh” really means “place of the fish.”  It was called “the place of the fish” because it was the center of an ancient fish-god cult where the priests dressed themselves up in fish suits in order to perform their rituals. 

This cult was popular throughout Mesopotamia, but nowhere so much as in Nineweh.  These fish suits, as represented in the artwork on the walls of ancient ruins throughout Mesopotamia, were rather complete including even scales and fins.  Only the hands and faces of the priests were visible under the fish suits giving the impression of a man having been swallowed up by a fish.  For a clear illustration of this check out the National Geographic Society’s “Everyday Life in Bible Times,” p. 52.


This fish god cult was also a fertility cult because one of the optional meanings of the Semitic word “nun” or “nin” is "to increase in abundance" and "to propagate."  Thus, “fish” became an important fertility symbol throughout all of the ancient Near East.  (Of course, fish heads and entrails have always made a great compost and in early agricultural villages along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers they helped increase the fertility of the soil and the production of their crops.  That is most likely where the linguistic connections with “increase in abundance” came from and reinforced the idea of “fish” as a fertility symbol).


The other clue to the Mesopotamian origin of the “Jonah” story is in the reference to him having been in the belly of the fish for “three days and three nights.”  Any time you see a reference to any prophet, messiah, god, king, or holy man, being locked up in a tomb, swallowed by a fish, the abyss of the deep, or otherwise being shut out from the light of day and from the face of the earth for a period of three days and three nights, you know that this is nothing more than a direct borrowing from the most ancient moon god cult of Mesopotamia and Arabia. 

Each month the moon disappears for three days and three nights when it is swallowed up by the great abyss—only to be resurrected (or emerge from the depths of the abyss)—after three days and three nights.  This is a religious concept that began at the very dawn of history, or even before, and has influenced mankind’s religious concepts ever since.  And, nowhere was this religious concept stronger than in Mesopotamia, particularly as connected with the Nanna-Suen moon god cult as depicted in the trilogy “The Last King of Babylon.”

Now that we have traced the origins of the “Jonah” story back to Mesopotamia it is time to search for a Mesopotamian equivalent to the “Jonah” story.


The Mesopotamian story containing a “Jonah-like” character who emerged from the sea is connected, like so many of the other earlier Sumerian tales, with Dilmun, their legendary stand-in for a “Garden of Eden” and the origin of civilization.  (Please refer to the essay on the “Garden of Eden.”)  This Jonah-like account comes down to us only in the Greek version, which the Greeks believed came from a Babylonian historian named “Berossos,” who in turn got his information from earlier Babylonian sources. 

This man from the sea, called “Oannes” in the Greek account (corrupted from the cuneiform UANNA-ADAPA) came to the Sumerians from Dilmun via the Arab/Persian Gulf, which was the only way you could get there if one were traveling from Bahrain (the location of classical Dilmun) to Sumer.  After emerging from the sea and arriving in Mesopotamia, this “Oannes,” or “uanna-adapa,” taught the people there the arts of civilization including astronomy, medicine, and agriculture.


This figure “Oannes,” (uanna-adapa) was often represented in Mesopotamian art work as having the head and arms of a man, and the body and tail of a fish.  In Assyria he was worshiped as a fish god (which is why their priests dressed up in fish suits).  The Greek-speaking Gnostic Christian sect of the Naassenes listed “Oannes” as having been among the “first men,” and in Gnostic lore was often co-equated with “the Son of Man,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Adam.”  Thus the symbol of the fish became the symbol for Christianity (Gaffney, Mark H., Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes, 2004, p. 45). 

The Greekified name of “Oannes” was sometimes rendered as “Yunis” in Gnostic accounts, and that is exactly how the name of “Jonah” is spelled in the Arabic Qur’an (Qur’an 10:97), since the “Jonah” story in the Qur’an was lifted directly from the Gnostic Christian accounts.  The Greekified “Oannes,” is an obvious corruption of an earlier “Yohan,” or “Yuhan,” as is the transliterations from the cuneiform “uanna-adapa.”  All the Greeks did was to drop the weak consonants of “Y” and the soft, or weak, “h” replacing them with glottal stops, and then added “es” at the end as they always did.  The missing “Y” of course comes back in, in the Hebrew (younah) and Arabic (younis/yunis) versions of the name, and gets mangled into a “J” in the English version (Jonah), which is typical of English. 

The Akkadian, also, would have been pronounced the name as “yuhan-adapa,” or just “yuhan.”  In the writing of the cuneiform weak consonants such as “h,” “y,” “w,” “glottal stop,” and “ayin,” were often not written, or at least not transliterated by the Assyriologists and Sumerologists.  However, those missing consonants would have been pronounced by the native speakers of the language even if they were not rendered in their writing system.   


This Yuhan, or Yohan, is also the origin for our modern English name of “John,” from an earlier “Johan,” or “Johannes,” which came from “Oannes/uanna,” or “Yuhanna.”  Remembering the original Yuhan’s association with fish, and water, it is no accident then that Christian mythology should give us a figure such as “John” the “Baptist,” always messing around with water.


What the Biblical writers of the book of “Jonah” did, then, was to take a myth and its associated concepts that were well-known throughout the Ancient Near East, reworked it into a story having the protagonist depart from Yaffa, rather than Dilmun, and made the  Mediterranean the pertinent sea instead of the Arab/Persian Gulf.  Then the Biblical scribes added a few instructions from Yahweh which created a moral dilemma for the protagonist (excellent story-telling technique), dumped him into the sea which added to his problems and increased story tension—while providing the story tellers the opportunity to work in the part about being swallowed by a “fish” as a play on the Assyrian priests dressed in fish suits. 

Then, in the story’s resolution the protagonist finally (after spending three days and three nights in the “abyss of the tomb”) re-emerges like the new moon (is resurrected) and makes his way to Nineweh, the well-known seat of the fish-god cult—there to provide the people of the city with some sort of knowledge (the arts of civilization in the case of Oannes/Yuhan/uanna-adapa, and a prophecy from God in the case of Yuhan/Jonah). 

So, why did the writers of the Biblical story of Jonah/Yuhan alter it so from its original?  To illustrate a moral principle as many other Biblical stories did:  You disobey Yahweh, and bad things happen to you—you get caught in a bad storm, you get tossed overboard into the sea, etc.  The Biblical story also illustrates the principle of forgiveness.  If you repent, as the people of Nineweh did in the Biblical story, God will forgive you and spare you from perdition.

For more on the Moon god origin of the concepts of resurrection after three days and nights of “death,” or in the “abyss of the deep,” please read “The Last King of Babylon” trilogy.  www.lastkingofbabylon.com


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