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ATRAHASIS . Atrahasis, "the surpassingly wise," is the name of the Mesopotamian hero of the Flood in the myth of the same name (corresponding to the biblical Noah), recorded in Assyro-Babylonian literature from the Old Babylonian period up until the New Babylonian period. In Sumerian his name is Ziusudra (which becomes Xisuthros in Berossus), whereas in the Epic of Gilgamesh he is called Utanapishtimmeaning, respectively, the one who "has a long life" and the one who "has found life."

The Sumerian pantheon, which was accepted and assimilated by the Semitic Babylonians, had a pyramid structure, with the god An, the sky, at its head, sharing power with his two sons Enlil and Enki, all having clearly defined areas of responsibility. An controlled the sky, Enlil the earth, and Enki the ocean depths. In practice, whether because Enlil was god of the earth or because his priests at Nippur were a particularly powerful social grouping, it was Enlil who gave Sumerian sovereigns their royal power. Enki had nothing to do with the Sumerian kingship, so his son Marduk was cut off from the decision-making process of which Enlil was in charge.

The Babylonian priests showed their bitterness here. The antagonism been Enlil and Enki was well known, so some scholars have thought the two gods may represent two different religions, a chthonic one and a heavenly one, fused in the Sumerian religious system. In their writings, the Babylonians emphasized the rivalry between the two gods, naturally favoring Enki, demonstrating not so much the worthless nature of Enlil but certainly his lack of wisdom and his ill-will toward the human race.

The Atrahasis Story

This is the theme of the poem Atrahasis, one of the masterpieces of Babylonian religious literature. Atrahasis is the hero of the Flood, a worshiper of Enki, who is told of the intended catastrophic fate for humankind proposed by Enlil. Three tablets describe the buildup, the catastrophe itself, and the aftermath of the Flood. The first tablet, describing the situation before the Flood in the world of gods and people, is particularly revealing; the story of the Flood itself is also known from a Sumerian poem and from Tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The outlook displayed in the first part of the poem is entirely a product of Semitic Babylonian thought. The gods have been allocated various tasks and functions and then have assigned the lesser gods the task of working the land to produce the food that is needed. However, the effort required is too great, and the lesser gods are unable to bear the hard work this onerous task requires. So they rebel, embarking on the first strike in the history of the world. When the greater gods gather in assembly, summoned by Enlil, the god of the earth, the lesser gods make it clear that they do not intend to work anymore because this work requires too much effort.

The wise Enki next proposes to create humankind to carry out the work and provide sustenance for the gods. After describing the way the human race was created, the writer recounts the new situation. Humankind has multiplied, and the human clamor is rising heavenward more and more loudly because the work the lesser gods had refused to carry out is equally onerous for humans. An impromptu assembly of the gods is convened, and Enlil's proposal to punish the arrogance of humankind, first with plague, then with famine, and finally with flood, is accepted. However, the punishments prove worthless because Enki intervenes on behalf of humankind on all three occasions.

The moment for the final drastic decision draws near. Enlil proposes to finish off the human race with the Flood. The discussion has been heated, and Enki does not agree with what is proposed, considering it unjust and senseless. But the will of the majority prevails, and thus the plan for the Flood is approved. Enki, however, will save humankind by revealing the impending tragedy to Atrahasis and telling him to build an ark. From this point the narrative does not differ greatly from previously known accounts. The one new feature is a phrase the writer uses, momentarily becoming personally involved in the dramatic events to condemn the decision of Enlil as "an evil act, a wicked deed towards mankind" (Tav., II.viii.5).

This is not the place to start a discussion on the ethical values of the Babylonian world but simply to emphasize the hostile and critical attitude of the author toward Enlil, the head of the Sumerian pantheon, in contrast with the repeated demonstrations of devotion and gratitude to Enki, the father of Marduk. The latter is not mentioned in the Atrahasis myth. Indeed he plays no active part in the myths of earlier Sumerian literature or Babylonian literature of the first period.

The Atrahasis myth, an entirely Assyro-Babylonian creation, is the high point of Semitic thought on the divine world and human reality, from the origins of the world to the present time, through various stages of existence, such as the Flood and the new creation. The text has a long history. Created in the Old Babylonian period, it is also recorded in the Middle Babylonian period, then with significant changes in the neo-Assyrian period, and finally in the neo-Babylonian period. It should be stressed that, although the original outline of the work has undergone significant external changes, it has features that readily lead to the conclusion that there were different versions of the myth in the neo-Assyrian period. It should not be forgotten that the myth has a long editorial history, existing in documented form for over thirteen hundred years.

As regards the structure of the myth, the scheme of the Old Babylonian version shows that the three tablets copied by the scribe Ku Aja may be divided into three clear sections. The first tablet deals with the situation in the world of gods before the creation of humankind. The divine pantheon is still Sumerian and is subdivided into two groups, the Anunnaki and the Igigithe greater and the lesser gods. The problem troubling the gods is how to deal with the lesser gods, who have rebelled after forty years and refuse to put up with the burden of hard work. When the greater gods understand the extent of the revolt and the just reason behind it, they decide to make arrangements to create a substitute for the gods, so the creation of the first human beings, a new species entrusted with the task of working and providing food for the gods, is undertaken by the god of wisdom Ea with the help of the mother goddess Mami.

In the second tablet, humankind begins to multiply, carrying out the assigned task, and puts up with the burden of working for over six hundred years. When also exhausted, humankind resorts to the same weapons employed by the lesser gods, namely causing a commotion and going on strike. The gods are unable to accept humanity's rebellion from the established order, and they decide to punish it. Three times they inflict various woes upon the human race, but on each occasion the human race is saved through the kindly intervention of Ea.

The final act of the tragedy is approaching. The gods, particularly Enlil, the ruler of the earth, cannot accept the insubordination of the creatures that they have made, so they decide to punish the whole of humankind. The gods meet in assembly and swear an oath to accept a unanimous decision and not to frustrate it by their actions. They all go along with the new decision except for Ea, who reveals what is going to happen to Atrahasis in a dream and at the same time encourages him to build a boat to save himself.

In the third tablet, the hero of the universal Flood, Atrahasis, builds a boat that will not be submerged by the waters but will save him, his family, and various types of animals. When the Flood is over, there is a furious argument among the most powerful gods, especially Enlil and Ea, following which the hero of the Flood is raised to the status of a god. Humankind will have to put up with serious hardships, such as illnesses, which will always be with them in this vale of tears.

Other Documents

Preceding the Akkadian myth of Atrahasis is the document that contains the oldest version of the Sumerian Flood, already mentioned in Sumerian King List. It predates the Assyro-Babylonian version of the Atrahasis poem by more than a century, but it is completely fragmentary. The events preceding the Flood are described, starting from the observation that the human race in primordial times was not doing well, hence the need to create the Sumerians and allow them to raise livestock, then the gift of kingship and agriculture. In the antediluvian period, however, the kings chosen were not human but actually gods, and the five locations of the kingship are taken from the information provided by the Sumerian King List.

When the text resumes after a lacuna, some of the gods seem perplexed by the decision that has been taken. At this point the hero of the Flood, the king Ziusudra, according to a plan, receives advance warning of the forthcoming catastrophe. The passage concerning the construction of the ship has been lost. When the text resumes, there is a description of the storm, which lasts for seven days and seven nights. At the end of the Flood, Ziusudra disembarks from the ship and offers sacrifice to the gods. The final part of the story describes the decision of the gods to grant immortality to Ziusudra and his wife because they have been the means by which the human race has been saved.

Alexander Polyhistor, an ancient Greek historian, gives a description of the Flood as set down by the above writer (the Babiloniaka of Berosus, a Chaldean priest). After the death of Otiartes, his son Xisuthros ruled for eighteen Sares (one saros corresponds to 3,600 "human" years), and under his rule came the great Flood. Polyhistor set out the details:

Chronos had appeared to him in a dream (he is called by some "the father of Aramazad" and by others "time") and told him that on the eleventh day of the month of Daisios (that is Mareri) humanity would be destroyed by the Flood. He had ordered him to bury the earliest writings, the most recent and those written in between, in the city of the sun of Sippar to build a ship and to go aboard, with his parents and his closest friends, to stock up with food and drink, to bring on board the wild beasts and birds and animals too, and to be ready to set off with all this gear. Xisuthros had asked where he would have to sail in the ship. He had been given the answer: to the gods and to pray for the salvation of mankind (or: to pray to the gods). He took care to build the ship, which was 15 stadia in length and 2 stadia in width. Prepared, forewarned about everything, after he had received his instructions, he took his wife, his children and his closest friends aboard. When the flood rose and then rapidly subsided again, Xisuthros had sent out some birds, which had found no food and nowhere to settle. They had returned back to the ship. After a few days he had sent more birds and they had returned to the boat a second time, with muddied clay on their claws. He released the birds a third time and they did not return to the ship. Xisuthros knew that the earth had reappeared and the surface was now accessible. He opened a section of the roof and saw that the ship had come to land on a mountain. He then disembarked and prayed on dry land. He raised an altar and sacrificed to the gods. Then he vanished from sight. Those who had remained on board then disembarked too. They wandered round shouting his name loudly, looking for him. Xisuthros was nowhere to be seen. There was a voice from the air, explaining that they should fear God, and that he had been carried up to heaven to the abode of the gods, because of his piety. He gave orders to return to Babylon to dig in the city of Sippar, to retrieve the books hidden there and give them to the human race. When they heard all this, they sacrificed to the gods and they went on foot to Babylon. (Troiani, 1984, p. 45)

A wisdom text, titled by scholars "The Ballad of Ancient Heroes," has survived via copies from Mesopotamia and Syria. In this text the vanity of human life is stressed because it does not endure forever. The text refers to previous kings, in particular to those famous for the lengths of their reign and for the feats they have accomplished. The end of the document differs according to the sources, but the essential point is to stress once more the futility of earthly existence: it is the very rule of human existence to prefer joy to silence, light rather than death.

The life of the human race has not been made to endure forever; some men have been swept away: Where is Alulu, the king who ruled for 36,000 years? Where is Etana, the king who ascended to heaven? Where is Gilgamesh, who tried to find life, like Ziusudra? (Alster, 1990, p. 23)

The myth of Atrahasis in Assyrian literature has received due attention, as can be seen from the bibliography on the subject. An essential theme is the meaning of the first line, "When the gods were men," which the Neo-Assyrian editor has interpreted as "When the gods were like men," precisely as certain modern translators have attempted to explain, avoiding the historical religious problem caused by the Babylonian writer. Another theme concerns the name of the god who was killed and with whose blood humankind was created, made from clay and the blood of "We, the god who has intelligence," which allows humans to have etemmu (life spirit). The reason for the flood is explained by Giovanni Pettinato and Wolfram von Soden as a "rebellion" like that of the Igigi, whereas others (including William L. Moran and A. D. Kilmer) interpret it literally as "uproar." Veronika Afanasieva has collated the various interpretations. Another theme is the new creation after the Flood, which foresees the existence of illnesses, intended to prevent the overpopulation of the earth.

See Also

Flood, The; Noah.


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Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 19." Biblical Archeologist 40 (December 1977): 147155.

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Moran, William L. "Atrahasis, the Babylonian Story of the Flood." Biblica 52 (1971): 5161.

Oden, Robert A., Jr. "Divine Aspirations in Atrahasis and Genesis 111." Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 93 (1981): 197216.

Pettinato, Giovanni. "Die Bestrafung des Menschengeschlechts durch die Sintflut." Orientalia 37 (1968): 165200.

Shehata, Dahlia. Annotierte Bibliographie zum altbabylonischen Atramæasis-Mythos. Göttinger Arbeitshefte zur Altorientalische Literatur 3. Göttingen, Germany, 2001.

Soden, Wolfram von. "Der Mesch bescheidet sich nicht: Überlegungen zu Schöpfungserzählungen in Babynien und Israel." In Symbolae Biblicae et Mesopotamicae Francisco Mario Theodoro de Liagre Böhl dedicatae, edited by M. A. Beck and A. A. Kampen, pp. 349358. Leiden, 1973.

Giovanni Pettinato (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis

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