Atrahasis, the Babylonian Flood


Short Cuts by Marina Warner

Most ancient stories of the Flood,  the gods are annoyed by humans making a racket and keeping them up at all hours: these gods are unreconstructed adults who don’t hold with negotiating but relish inflicting punishment, while humans are lawless, partying teenagers.

The poem Atrahasis, written down at some point between 1702 and 1682 BC by ‘Ipiq-Aya, Junior Scribe’ (mirable dictu, we know his name!) long after  Noah’s Flood btw,  tells how Enlil, part of the triad of gods  — the others are Anu and Ea.,  starts his regime of terror by plugging the springs and sending a series of lightening bolts to the earth,  air and sea. This makes the ground dry up, seed corn rot famine resulting, and plague then visiting upon the noisome noise-makers:

The dark pastureland was bleached,
The broad countryside filled up with alkali …
Their faces [become] cover[ed] with scabs (?) like malt,
Their faces looked sallow,
They went out in public hunched

(Stephanie Dalley’s translation, see here for more on Prof Dalley.)

The poem is uncannily prescient about extreme weather events around the world (storms, droughts), the rise in global mean temperature and the threat to water resources in so many places. Enlil meants Lord of the Winds so he represents both the hurricane and the gentle winds of spring both which were thought of as a breath issueing from his mouth and eventually became just a word or command. Sometimes as the poem continues, he is simply called the Lord of the Air.

Anu was the highest god in the Sumerian pantheon but Enlil had a more important role because he was the enbodiment of energy, force and authority. The center of his cult was Nippur– modern day Nuffar Iraq– and so Enlil was also the god of agriculture. The Myth of Creation of the Hoe describes how Enlil separated heaven and earth to make room for seeds to grow and then invented the hoe to break the hard crust of earth, from which men sprang forth fully formed. Later he was replaced by Marduk in the Babylonian pantheon but Enlil managed to linger on.

The epics of Mesopotamia, are written in Akkadian (the script that looks like wading birds’ skittering feet on the ebb tide sand), and a prolonged drought precedes the great flood which Enlil and his fellow deities decree. The story seems to have originated in the fertile basin of the Tigris and Euphrates, where locals were accustomed to swelling rivers and rising tides, rich in alluvial deposits. It dramatises the symbiosis of land use and water flow, and the danger to survival if that relationship is disturbed.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh the king is a culture hero, who builds a magnificent walled city, founds a library and, above all, digs wells.In other epics from Babylon and Sumer, the gods set out expressly to cure overcrowding by exterminating (almost) everybody – a religious rationalization of disaster. In other, less nasty stories, the Deluge brings to an end the immortality that human beings once enjoyed in the image of the gods.

The book of Genesis traces of the plot seem to linger on in the extreme longevity of Adam (930 years). Noah, who is the favored survivor in the Judeo-Christian version, is already 600 years old at the time of the Flood and he carries on afterwards (as do Methuselah et al), for the Bible, but unlike its Babylonian counterparts doesn’t establish that post-diluvian life expectancy has been shortened, but neither do we we read again of men living so extremely long.

Andrew George, the editor of the Oxford Classics Epic of Gilgamesh, writes that ‘in the main the function of the poem is not to explain origins. It is more interested in examining the human condition as it is.’ For Thorkild Jacobsen it is a ‘story of learning to face reality, a story of “growing up”’. In this respect Gilgamesh is existential in spirit, whereas the flood story in the Bible is religious: God is put back into the picture and his actions justified in ways not found in the ancient epics. The gods are called dogs and flies, like ‘parasitical scavengers’, Andrew George writes; their eternal realm clogged with dust.

Versions of the Flood from around the world record memories of different disasters, not one single universal deluge but the different accounts share several dramatic elements: the figure of the one man who is chosen to survive, the extraordinary hope placed in the building of a boat, its measurements and vast size, and the processes of caulking and stocking it.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ark is a six-decker vessel; in the Bible, the specs seem so exact they inspired many believers to attempt to make models. Atrahasis is the name of the hero who is spared and wins eternal life in the poem that Ipiq-Aya, Junior Scribe, pressed into the wet clay with his reed pen. In Gilgamesh, the survivor is called Uta-napishti, and Gilgamesh meets him when he is traveling to the underworld in order to bring back from the dead Enkidu, the wild man whom he loves. But the half-divine hero fails, and although he is told how to pick a magic coral-like plant from the seabed, which will guarantee his immortality, he loses it when he is bathing in a pool: a snake comes by and takes it.

The Babylonian Noah tells Gilgamesh how he survived the rains; in Atrahasis he sees in a dream that he must build an ark; in the later Gilgamesh, the counselor god Enlil whispers the warning in secret: Load the seed of every living thing into your ark, The boat that you will build. (John Gardner’s version, 1984.) The animals do enter two by two in some versions, but here the ark is a sperm bank, a granary.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was deciphered from cuneiform tablets in the British Museum which had been excavated in the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Thousands of chunky manuscripts, chipped, friable and defaced, more like napped flints than books, were dug out of the alluvial strata by Henry Layard and Homuzd Rassan in the 1850s and laid out on trays in the museum.

George Smith was an engraver of banknotes for Bradbury’s, the printers, which specialized in playing cards and had the commission from the Mint to issue banknotes. The workshop was near the museum and the story goes that George took to haunting the Assyrian collections in his lunch hour, until he caught the eye of the keeper, who asked him what he was doing, coming so regularly. ‘I am reading,’ he replied.

So this startling decoder was set to work on the jumble of stone bits and pieces until one day he cried out in ecstasy and ran round the room tearing off his clothes. George Smith had found Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which told the story of the Flood, and his joy was occasioned above all by the independent corroboration the poem offered to the historicity of the Bible. Smith was a fervent Christian and longed, as many did, for archaeology to prove the scriptures’ reliability.

 Later that year, 1872, he delivered a paper to the Society for Biblical Archaeology, and read out the account of the flood from the epic. This was the first time the Epic of Gilgamesh had been heard and understood after an interval of two thousand years: the longest sleeper ever among the world’s great poems. Four years later, Smith died before reaching Aleppo at the age of 36 which was speculated to actually be the plague sweeping the lowlands of Syria and Iraq.  You can read about his tragic end here at the UK Telegraph.

The work’s interrupted chronology, so different from the destiny of the Upanishads or even Homer, gives Gilgamesh a double history, as an ancient epic and a modern narrative poem. More of the epic would be discovered under the sand as time went on.

 In 1990 Stephanie Dalley added more lines from newly recovered pieces, but most of what’s left has probably been smashed in the course of the Iraq wars. It seems proper that a place of fire and dust, its skin scarred by warfare, should be the origin of the story of the Flood as well as its end.

Fire and Ice by Robt Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice is also great
And would suffice.