Flood Myths. Stories about a great flood are known from many civilizations, both ancient and modern. The first written mention of a great deluge is found in Sumerian literary sources dating to the end of the third millennium b.c.e. Some versions of the Sumerian King List include a list of eight kings of five cities from the beginnings of kingship to the time of the flood. The last antediluvian ruler was a sage named Ziusudra (“Life of Distant Days”), who in other Mesopotamian sources is called Atra-hasis (“Exceedingly Wise”) or Uta-napishti (“I Found Life”). The king list continues in the postdiluvian era with semihistorical and historical rulers. Because it is possible to approximate the regnal dates of known historical kings on the list, scholars have deduced that the Sumerians believed the flood to have been a localized event dating to early in the third millennium b.c.e.
The Sumerian Flood Myth. The annual spring flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, or possibly changes in ancient sea levels, may have given rise to stories about the beginnings of the Flood. Unfortunately, no Sumerian version of the flood myth survives from the third millennium b.c.e. A Sumerian Flood Myth dating to the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e. begins after the gods have created the black-headed people (the Sumerians) and animals that have multiplied everywhere, lowered kingship from heaven, and assigned gods to rule over the main cities of the land of Sumer. At this point, the tablet on which the text was written is broken. When the story resumes, the gods have given an order to destroy mankind, possibly as a result of displeasure with mankind’s deeds or as a result of man having multiplied like the animals. A storm begins, and a great flood sweeps over the land for seven days and seven nights. Only Ziusudra survives the flood in his ark, together with animals and the “seed of mankind.” When the floodwaters recede, Ziusudra disembarks on land and is granted eternal life by the gods An and Enlil. He then settles overseas in the faraway land of Dilmun, where the sun rises.
The Epic of Atra-basis. Sumerian stories of the flood probably influenced the creation of later Babylonian versions. In the myth known to the ancients as Enuma ilu awilum, “When the gods were (like) men,” the hero is called Atra-hasis. This myth begins before the creation of mankind, at a time when the junior gods, the Igigi—on the orders from the higher gods, the Anunnakki—have the task
of configuring the earth by digging rivers, canals, and marshes. Feeling exploited, the Igigi deities complain about the difficulty of their work and decide to revolt. They put down their tools and march in protest to the dwelling of the senior god Enlil, the chief god of the earth. In order to resolve their complaints, Enki suggests that the gods create humans to relieve the junior gods of their burden. The birth goddess is summoned, and she creates man out of clay. Clay may have been chosen because, like mankind’s bones, it dries out when it becomes old and ultimately turns to dust. At first, mankind is not subject to death. Since humans can reproduce, however, an explosion of the human population occurs. Enlil becomes greatly disturbed by events on earth. The noise of mankind is so overwhelming that he cannot obtain his needed rest. An aloof deity with little concern for humankind, Enlil decides that the creation of humanity was a mistake, an error to be remedied by a drastic solution. In order to decrease the numbers of mankind, Enlil orders a plague, but the god Ea intervenes on behalf of man and tells the hero Atra-hasis to placate the plague god with offerings. After the plague ends, the human population does not diminish but becomes more numerous than before. Enlil decides he must take action. He orders the rain to stop and reduces the food supply, inducing famine. Again, Ea comes to the aid of mankind, and rain ends the drought. Frustrated that his designs are not working, Enlil decides to bring about a flood to destroy all mankind. This time Ea advises Atra-hasis to build a boat, roof it over, and make it waterproof with pitch. Animals and family board the ark as the weather changes. Just as the bolt is slid to close the ark, the storm begins. For seven days and nights it rages. After the flood subsides, Atra-hasis makes a sacrifice to the gods. When Enlil sees the vessel, he becomes enraged and demands to know how man survived. Enki once again says that he was responsible for saving life. At the end of the story, Enlil decides that only Atra-hasis and his wife will be granted eternal life. As for the rest of mankind, their days will henceforth be numbered, and human population will be controlled through the creation of women who do not bear children.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. A better-preserved and more-detailed version of the Flood story, possibly composed at the end of the second century b.c.e., is found on Tablet 11 of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. In this version of the story, the gods decided to bring about a flood to destroy mankind. The hero, here named Uta-napishti, son of Ubar-Tutu of the city of Shuruppak, tells Gilgamesh how he was forewarned by the god Ea, who told him to abandon his property and wealth and build a ship. Uta-napishti built an ark, six decks high, and waterproofed it with pitch. He then loaded onto the ship everything he owned, including all his gold and silver, and sent aboard his animals, family, and artisans. Uta-napishti had the hatch sealed by a boatman and gave the man his palace and all his remaining goods as a going-away gift. The next morning the storm began. For six days and seven nights the wind blew, and the Deluge flattened the land. On the seventh day the storm ended, and the ocean grew calm. Uta-napishti scanned the horizon. His boat had run aground on a mountainside. After seven days he let loose a dove, which returned because there was no other place to land. He then sent forth a swallow, but it too returned. Finally, he released a raven, which—because the waters had receded—found food and did not return. Uta-napishti then made an offering to the gods. Enlil was seized with anger when he saw that people had survived. Calmed by Ea, Enlil came inside the boat, where he decreed that from then on only Uta-napishti and his wife would be like gods, endowed with eternal life. The two were sent to settle far away, in a land where the rivers flow forth.
Gilgamesh and the Bible. The Gilgamesh version of the Flood myth, with several major differences, parallels the biblical accounts found in Genesis 6:5–8:22. The biblical versions, probably composed during the first half of the first millennium b.c.e., begin with Israel’s God, Yahweh, taking account of mankind’s wickedness and regretting that he created man. He instructs Noah, the only human with whom he finds favor, to build an ark, providing him with its exact dimensions. Noah, in one version, is instructed to take into the ark pairs of animals, male and female, as well as birds of every kind, and every variety of creeping thing. Noah also places on board his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law. The Flood lasts for forty days, and all existence on earth is destroyed, except for Noah and those with him in the ark. When the ark finally comes to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah opens the hatch and releases a raven, which returns, and then a dove, which also returns. Days later he releases the dove once again. This time the dove returns with an olive leaf in its bill, showing that the flood waters are beginning to subside. Seven days later, when Noah again releases the dove, it does not return. The biblical account concludes with Noah making an offering to God Yahweh, and Yahweh sealing a covenant with Noah in which he promises never again to destroy the world as a result of mankind’s evil.
Comparison of Biblical and Babylonian Versions of the Flood. In several of its details, such as the setting forth of birds, the biblical story closely parallels the Babylonian Gilgamesh story. Yet, the biblical version also includes theological elements not found in any of the Mesopotamian versions. In Genesis, the Flood results from man’s evil rather than from overpopulation. In the aftermath of the Flood, instead of limiting man’s days or granting the hero immortality, Yahweh promises never again to destroy his creation. He favors Noah and his family with divine blessing and tells them to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”
Berossos’s Flood Myth. The latest Mesopotamian version of the Flood story was written in Greek by Berossos, a priest of the god Marduk, in about 275 b.c.e. The original composition, now lost, is preserved only in a version copied by the fourth-century C.E. Church historian Eusebius. In this story, the Flood hero is called Xisouthros, an obvious Hellenized rendering of the Sumerian hero Ziusudra’s name. The Greek god Kronos appears to Xisouthros in a dream and tells him that mankind will be destroyed by a flood. The hero is ordered to dig a hole and bury all the writings in the city of Sippar. He is then to build a boat and fill it with his kin, friends, birds, and animals. The description of the flood is not preserved in Eusebius’s copy. After the flood subsides, Xisouthros sends forth some of the birds on the vessel, who find no food or place to rest and come back. A few days later the hero lets out the birds again, and they again return to the ship, their feet covered in mud. The third time they are sent forth, they do not return. Seeing now that the boat is moored on a mountain, Xisouthros disembarks and makes a sacrifice to the gods. Soon he and his family disappear, leaving behind those who have stayed on the boat. A voice tells the survivors that Xisouthros, his wife, and the boat pilot will henceforth dwell with the gods. The others are told to return to Babylon, rescue the buried writings from Sippar, and pass them on to mankind. The survivors obey, and after digging up the writings, they found many cities and shrines and re-establish Babylon.
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Foster, ed. and trans., The Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Norton, 2001).
Andrew R. George, trans., The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (London: Allen Lane, 1999).
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