Syllables A-MA-NI-TA, trip quite pleasingly off the tongue. Most people are aware of the name, that of the mushroom with extraordinary psychedelic properties. With its distinctive red and white cap, the amanita mushroom has long epitomised the winter solstice season. Plastic versions hang on Christmas trees, and its colourful image appears in Christmas card scenes. But it was more than a brightly coloured image that brought about the association of amanita and Christmas. The marriage of the mushroom and the winter solstice celebration is said to go way back to pre-Christian pagan times.
Out of pure curiosity, we might look up the origin of the name and discover, without being much the wiser, that amanita was first coined by the Ancient Greeks: amanitai, a plural with the meaning ‘a kind of fungus’. The Greeks coined many of their words, almost all of them, in fact. Either that or they inherited them from somewhere yet unknown; not given as ‘unknown’ in etymological dictionaries but often as sourced from PIE, proto-Indo-European. In other words, no precise origin is known. And PIE is no more helpful in explaining how the name came into being and what it originally signified. A few rare exceptions to the obscure PIE designation are deemed to come from recognised sources; Osiris and the ibis, bird of Thoth, for example, said to be directly from the Egyptians, but these are unusual, and the Greek names struggle to correspond to the Egyptian sounds.
Leaving Osiris and Thoth to one side for another day, I propose a hitherto undocumented source not only for Greek amanita but also for that other well-known gift of nature: cannabis. At the same time, a glimpse into the original reasoning behind those names. And yes, they are Sumerian, and they are found on clay tablets discovered in the region of modern-day Iraq.
Why is it only now that this information comes to light? It is my contention that the most dangerously informative of the Mesopotamian tablets were deliberately destroyed or hidden from sight somewhere along the way because they represented a threat to religious dogma. To stifle Gnostic teachings, to put an end to all real knowledge of the pagan culture in existence in pre- and early Christian times, to hide the true significance of the seasonal celebrations in existence long before the Jesus myth as we know it, two parallel methods: destruction of the writing accompanied by obfuscation of the teachings. Burn the books and distort the information provided to future generations, a tried and tested combination. Fortunately, clay is a relatively durable material and, buried beneath the sand, the writing on it can and did survive for thousands of years. Then the advent of the computer brought that hidden knowledge back into the public domain. What was it that someone was once so keen to hide? What secrets might a closer look at Sumerian expose?
Each discovery pulls in a new direction and leads to ever more intriguing paths. One of them – buried for too many years in the quasi-nonsensical translation of the earliest known literary text titled The Instructions of Shuruppak (1) – concerns the use of mind-altering substances. Given the age of that text, the matter should be of interest to quite a few. The lines in question, 55 to 59, re-translated in The Story of Sukurru, include repetitive phrases conferring an air of litany, an incantation not found elsewhere in the 280 lines of text:
- The native straw-turner establishes a fire
And on the spirit of the ark his cloud imposes.
- In the place sits the cannabis man whirling smoke on high.
- Leader of the people, leader of the people.
Spirit between the eyes,
The Brewer smokes on high.
- A sickly reed into a tree will grow,
Its mouth near milk spreads smoke on high for the Lord.
- Cream of the ocean, cream of the ocean,
Spirit between the eyes,
And the Brewer’s smoke.
There is a lot to be said about the symbols that make up those five lines of text. They were translated using the unorthodox monosyllabic method where each sign possesses inherent meaning, adapted according to the context but, for the most part, without straying far from accepted Sumerian lexicon definitions. While the earliest tablet containing The Story of Sukurru is dated to ca.2600-2500 BC, at a time when the symbols were becoming increasingly abstract, a study of 4th millennium pictograms from which they were sourced brings to the fore the existence of more than one layer of meaning and more than one riddle hidden in the text. A combination of known meanings, images and context lead to a completely new take on this and other sections of the earliest known literary text.
Beer and Reed
For example, BI, shown above on a tablet (2) from ca.3350-3200 BC, is the accepted symbol for ‘beer’ (and the source of our word for it) but the original name implies more than a straightforward alcoholic brew. My Brewer might equally have been written ‘alchemist’ and the shamanic nature of the scene made more explicit. BI/BE, more than just ‘beer’, is concerned with life and regeneration through the process of fermentation. It is symbolic of the first-fruit grain festivals (3) and source of Greek bios, ‘life’.
The Sumerian writings give a new perspective on the stories and figures of both Old and New Testaments. A good example of that is GI/GE, the reed reaching upwards and becoming a tree in line 58, evoking a Bible verse which is surely describing a more intense experience than a mere dream:
The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, And in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, And all living creatures fed themselves from it. I was looking in the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed, and behold, an angelic watcher, a holy one, descended from heaven.… Daniel 4:11.
GE, the reed, becomes GEŠ, the tree, and the tree is everywhere in Sumerian, arguably the most important symbol of them all. It has a limited array of phonetic possibilities with closely similar sounds: Gish, Gesh, Giz, Jis, Jez, etc. It appears in the opening lines of The Story of Sukurru as the ‘Tree of Consciousness and Knowledge’ and provides a pivotal clue to the Solstice Riddle (4) which, by the way, has not yet ceded all of its secrets.
The translation ‘cannabis’ on line 56 is found in a combination of three symbols, KA-NA-AB, which led directly to Persian ‘Kanab’, in turn, an accepted etymological source. There are several ways in which to understand the collocated symbols:
NA, the stone, also appears in the humorous version of the weighing of the heart for truth, an Egyptian ritual attributed to Osiris. It appears in that context on line 40, played off against the Feather of Truth, with an unfair advantage. With that in mind, it is possible to interpret the phrase as ‘the weight of the Father’s words’, and the use of cannabis as a method of becoming aware of them. NA-AB implies the presence of a stone shrine, while KA-NA might give ‘words on stone’. It also offers up the ultimate etymological source of Greek Kanna, the reed.
The Alchemist’s Crucible
The individual meanings given in the breakdown of KA-NA-AB all appear in conventional Sumerian lexicons. However, the fact that KA-NA is found opposite KAN/GAN in the lexical lists provides additional information. This is the alchemist’s crucible, the womb and the Milky Way. Sumerian lexicons give it as ‘child-bearing’ while the image can be seen as a pot on its stand with crisscrossing indicating that it is full:
KAN/GAN appears with AL on a tablet (5) from the Uruk IV archaeological period, ca.3350-3200 BC. The two together represent the alchemist’s crucible and the bellows used to make the fire burn fiercely, an unorthodox conclusion based largely – but not entirely – on the image. These are surely the oldest references to alchemy and should bring to mind Hermes Trismegistus whose name was cited by practitioners with extreme reverence throughout history up until the 17th century. KAN-AB, crucible of the Father (6).
Beautifully executed, these pictograms provide essential visual information about the intentions of the scribe or scribes who created the Sumerian language. Later abstract cuneiform could not fully convey the depth of meaning provided by such images, leading to the conclusion that certain phrases might well be considerably older than the tablets on which they were found written. Another symbol, phonetic KAN₂, carries the meaning ‘gate’.
Milk and Cloud
Modern-day perception of cannabis use sees it rolled into a joint and passed around. Ancient methods of inhalation are shown to have been less individualistic and carried out within more ordered rituals. I discovered the following image in Chris Bennet’s article titled Biblical Cannabis (7) in which he discusses the discovery of traces of cannabis and frankincense on an ancient altar in modern-day Israel:
GA (of GAN from GA-AN) has the given meanings ‘milk’ and ‘cream’. It appears with the reed and the tree on line 58 of The Story of Sukurru. GA refers both to the cosmic Mother’s nurturing milk and, in context, to a more literal cloud of white smoke, becoming a metaphorical meeting of above and below. My interpretation is that, in this case, it also refers to the canopy of the tree mentioned by biblical Daniel and that Sumerian GA, the milk and the cream, is the original symbol of Gaia, one epithet of Mother Earth. At the same time, appearing twice in line 59, it is the white foam of the ocean waves, creating the ‘cream of the ocean’, as the waters are churned. The existence of a connection to the Hindu ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ is too obvious to be ignored.
The All-Seeing Eye
The ‘spirit between the eyes’ found on lines 57 and 59 was the other leading clue to the overall meaning of this section. It is, of course, a reference to the third eye, the pineal gland, and the translation was literal: the spirit symbol placed between two symbols of the eye. The spirit symbol takes the form of a capital T read as phonetic ME, which I also translate to ‘magic’. That is not a matter of opinion. Sumerian lexicons concede that there is a ‘magician’ or ‘sorcerer’ in symbol ME. It appears as part of the threefold collocation three times in all in The Story of Sukurru – twice in this section. The original trio would have been visually similar to the form of a nose and eyebrows (the T shape) between two eyes. Below is my rendering of the way they would once have appeared together:
I looked long and hard for an early example of the Sumerian ‘eye’. It turns up numerous times in the transliteration of The Story of Sukurru, but I could not find an original version dated to before 2900 BC, i.e. a truly pictographic form. Was there really no use for an ‘eye’ alongside the many pictograms that appear on 4th millennium tablets? Or did the Sumerian eye have such great significance that its earliest appearances were hunted down and successfully forced out of public view? I turned to the drawing in L’Ecriture Cunéiforme (8). It is an unusual representation of an eye, perhaps the result of a choice made by the original scribe, seeking to infuse the written word with a spiritual aspect, the ocular globe looking upward to the sky, but still… easy to see that this symbol is more reminiscent of a mushroom than a human eye. The vertical ‘stalk’ might give the clue to that enigma. Also interesting to note is that the Egyptian eye sports a similar vertical line. This one on a plaque in the Louvre Museum:
More trawling through the tablets displayed on the CDLI site led to a discovery which, in my view, goes a long way to confirming the existence of a Sumerian mushroom pictogram and, from there, potentially to an ancient synonymity between ‘eye’ and ‘mushroom’. Given as a version of SAG, the ‘head’ (see NISAG in note 3), it appears next to symbol EDEN on two tablets (9), both from the 4th millennium. Here is one of them:
A comparison with numerous pictograms of SAG, the head, from around the same early period reveals a considerable difference between the two:
A comparison to Sumerian ŠI, the eye, copied from L’Ecriture Cunéiforme, strongly suggests that the symbol on the left belongs to the same category.
The Magic Mushroom
Was the disembodied combination of forehead, nose and lips shown in this bizarre detail on an Akkadian seal impression the original form that led to ŠI-ME-ŠI?
Cannabis and the third eye are both quite clearly referenced in the Sumerian text, but I have to admit that the mushroom is not found there in such an obvious guise. On the understanding that the Greek language is at least partially sourced here, a straightforward division of ‘amanita’ throws up the two symbols AMA, ‘mother’, and NITA, ‘male’:
Both of them appear on more than one occasion in The Story of Sukurru, but not together and not in such an easily definable context. That does not mean that they never did.
AMA is a combination of MAL, the basket which is also a cosmic sailing vessel, enclosing AN, eight-pointed symbol of the sky. AMA appears in all its pictographic splendour on a number of tablets during the 4th millennium BC. Seen here next to another rendering of GAN, the crucible (10):
AMA has the given meanings ‘Mother’ and ‘wide’ as attested in orthodox Sumerian lexicons. This is the source of Latin amare with the meaning ‘love’. AMA is the Great Cosmic Mother who is the container of the sky. How could she be anything other than pure love? The magnificent Egyptian Hathor at Dendera whose wide body also contains all the elements of the sky flowing along on their boats, was surely a manifestation of the same theme.
NITA, seen here on a tablet (11) from the 4th millennium is simply another phonetic form of symbol UŠ which, as some will have noticed, I have already proposed as a source symbol of Greek Osiris. UŠ has given meanings which include ‘penis’, ‘male’, ‘side’, ‘path’ and ‘to lean’. It is the source of the Greek suffix ‘us’ used for male names. Symbol UŠ₂ with the meaning ‘die’, appears in line 40 of The Story of Sukurru which refers to the weighing of the heart at the time of death, a ritual associated with Egypt and Osiris.
Mother and Child
The number of ‘coincidences’ between monosyllabic Sumerian and Greek words is too great to be ignored, and the existence of both AMA and NITA can be added to that list. However, without finding the mother and the male (child) together on a clay tablet, that assertion would understandably be met with little enthusiasm. Fortunately, and, in my view, unsurprisingly, there is just one entry on just one ancient lexical list serving to prove that these two symbols were knowingly collocated at some point. The ePSD site (12) shows it as:
ama-nita (Proto-Lu 325a)
The entry appears on a tablet from the Old Babylonian period, ca.1900-1600 BC, found at Nippur. How probable is it that those four syllables A-MA-NI-TA found together as AMA-NITA be totally unrelated to later Greek amanitai, the mind-altering fungi of unknown original source? Perhaps there is a statistician somewhere who can do the calculation. I would be interested in the result and, in the meantime, will add the following image into the mix. In my view, it should tip the balance even further in favour of the Feather of Truth:
Thanks to the Sumerian meanings and explanations given above, the scene on this Mesopotamian seal (13) might be decrypted using referenced linguistic sources. AMA, the cosmic Mother, seated on her tree-trunk throne, holds NITA, a childlike figure who appears to have a cord sticking up from his head or perhaps a ponytail. He is not seated on her lap but appears to float or is being held out to the figures on the left. Whichever it is, this is not mundane mother and child interaction, not a scene of ordinary comforting and nurturing. His head is turned towards her, and he looks into her eyes, an indication of confidence and/or questioning. Meanwhile, his body faces the other ‘brewer’ figures and, most importantly, his hand is held out to receive their potion. This is one possible interpretation of the scene, and my imaginary caption would read, “Go ahead. Take it. Have no fear.” But of course, I could be wrong.
The scene also calls to mind the drawing of a mushroom found on one of the two tablets from the Uruk III period, ca.3200-3000 BC and mentioned here above (9). This one is collocated on one side with EDEN, source symbol of the biblical garden of Eden, and on the other with an unidentified symbol pretty much identical to the three vessels on display in the above seal. Unfortunately, there is no photo of the original tablet on CDLI:
Abundance of Oils
According to the ancient lexical lists, phonetic NITA stems from a combination of two symbols: NI, seen here on a 4th millennium tablet (14), with TA:
NI has the given meaning ‘oil’, and I have also identified it as ‘abundance’ in the context of fertility and harvesting. It is a central element of the Solstice Riddle (4) which begins on line 223 of The Story of Sukurru. NI appears there three times in sixth position over three consecutive lines. There was nothing haphazard about the positioning.
While the duo AMA-NITA appear as such only once, the three signs that give AMA-NI-TA appear together on at least three tablets from the Old Babylonian period. There are also two known examples of the four-symbol phrase AMA-A-NI-TA, so more than one case where ‘amanita’ would have been an acceptable pronunciation. Add into the mix that AMA-NI appear together numerous times over various archaeological periods, some with symbol A between them:
In this case, the central A between ‘mother’ and ‘oil’ indicates flow. Perhaps an abundant flow of love would be an apt interpretation where no other defining context is available. But it could signify a flow of oil, perhaps the type of mind-altering oil allowing a voyage in the basket of the sky. Of course, AMA might also be read as a cosmic vessel in the manner of Zechariah Sitchin’s understanding of the early Sumerian culture. As an aside, it is my contention that symbols A-NI were the source of Latin animus and anima, leading to ‘animate’, ‘give life to’ amongst others. It would be a mistake to rule anything out without a full investigation. Unfortunately, Sitchin did not give precise references to back up his assertions.
Symbol TA of NI-TA is both ‘death’ and ‘question’: the question that is posed at the moment of death, the question of life and death, the questioning of the oil when found with NI and in the context of divination, of prophecy… TA as the ‘questioning at death’ is, I would say, relevant to the role of Egyptian Osiris, to the shamanic use of psychedelics, and to the sun’s apparent hesitation at the winter solstice.
There Is Always More
This is how the relevant signs in the lexical list are reproduced on the Oracc website (15) from the numerous tablet fragments. I have added translations:
ama gal (OB Nippur Lu: 325) Great Mother
ama nita (OB Nippur Lu: 325a) Mother and Male (Son)
ama munus (OB Nippur Lu: 325b) Mother and Female (Daughter)
ama ibila (OB Nippur Lu: 326) Mother and Heir
Here is my interpretation of how that section of list might have appeared in Sumerian pictographic symbols of the 4th millennium BC:
The ‘heir’, given as Akkadian ‘ibila’ in the transliteration of the Proto-Lu tablet, is sourced from two symbols: TUR-UŠ, the male child. TUR, which has the given meanings ‘child’ and ‘to nurture’, appears in the Solstice Riddle (4) as does SAL. Briefly, the pictographic forms of TUR vary somewhat but basically appear to represent the mother’s breasts, hence the meaning. However, looking long and hard at this version, it seems to me to have an air of the torcs worn and carried by the levitating figure in this scene from the Danish Gundestrop Cauldron (16). There is always more…
When Terence McKenna discussed John Marco Allegro’s 1970s book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, he pointed out that Allegro was a scholar of Aramaic and that he had studied the Dead Sea scrolls. To my knowledge, McKenna did not say that Allegro was a scholar of Sumerian – not the same thing at all. He knew Greek and Hebrew. The philological claims made in that book, supposedly based in Sumerian, were said to be the primary reason for his paradigm-changing theory about the origins of Christianity being so roundly rejected by his academic peers.
Unfortunately for all, Allegro misunderstood the old clay tablets and their message; shoehorning elements of the one language that he obviously did not master into a pre-existing theory – seeing Sumerian mushrooms all over the place so to speak. Did the distinguished linguist realise that, in the process, he was potentially re-burying (discrediting) a fundamentally important gift from our ancient past? I can’t imagine that he did. He had sussed the importance of the Sumerian language as the foundation of later texts but did not have in hand the necessary tools of analysis to prove it. In a pre-computerised world, how could he have known? His basic premise was not wrong. John Marco Allegro was the first to point out that Sumerian was the source for Greek – but in at least one of the examples in his book, he made the mistake of placing Hebrew, a language that he did know, in between them. He also correctly identified the original scribes as ‘word-spinners’ but, based on his perception of them after studying biblical writings, considered that to be only through their extensive use of the ‘trivial literary device’ of punning, as he put it. In truth, the ancient Sumerian riddles go way deeper than that. Sadly, Allegro took the right subject matter down the wrong garden path.
1. The Instructions of Shuruppak on ETCSL under ref.5.6.01.
The errors in that translation were explained in my article:
2. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) detail from ref. P000744.
3. Sumerian NISAG, first fruit offering, appears in the context of a riddle on line 14 of The Story of Sukurru. This is the source of Hebrew Nisan. It appears as NI-SAG, ‘oil’ and ‘head’, in the lexical lists. Symbol SAG also carries the phonetic value SAN.
4. The discovery of the Solstice Riddle was documented in February 2020 on Graham’s site: http://grahamhancock.com/phorum/read.php?8,1225004
5. CDLI detail from ref. P002178,
6. Mircea Eliade’s The Forge and the Crucible (Flammarion) gives an in-depth explanation of the importance of the ancient crucible.
7. Chris Bennett, Biblical Cannabis https://grahamhancock.com/bennettc2/
8. Lucien-Jean Bord and Remo Mugnaioni, L’Ecriture Cunéiforme (Geuthner Manuels 2002).
9. CDLI ref. P000523 and P471688. On both tablets, the mushroom form referenced as SAG@n appears next to EDEN, source of biblical Eden. The vessel on P471688 is given as ZATU707 indicating that the phonetic value and meaning are unknown. https://cdli.ucla.edu/
10. CDLI detail from ref. P001757, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
11. CDLI detail from ref. P001261, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
12. The Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (ePSD) now incorporated into Oracc. See 15.
13. This is a drawing of the Sumerian seal claimed by Zechariah Sitchin to represent the creation of Adam. His imagined caption reads ‘My hands have made it’. At least we can agree on the place being Eden.
14. CDLI detail from ref. P001136, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
15. The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (Oracc).
16. Cernunnos, the horned god, appears on the Gundestrop Cauldron, National Museum of Denmark.