Ads 468x60px

joi, 11 aprilie 2013

The great Flood: the story from the Bible

The  'flood tablet' from 
the Epic of Gilhameš (British Museum)
The Great Flood: mythological story about a great destruction that once befell the earth. There are several variants; the Biblical version is the most famous. The possibility that there is a historical event behind the story (a local flood in southern Babylonia in the twenty-eighth century BCE) can not be excluded.


The famous story about the Great Flood is best known from the Bible (Genesis 6-9). It has always been known that there were similar stories from Greece and Rome (like the ones by Apollodorus, Ovid, and Hyginus), but in the nineteenth century, several texts from ancient Iraq were added. The first discovery was Tablet XI of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš (in 1872), the second the Sumerian original, now called the Eridu Genesis (1914), and the third the Epic of Atrahasis (1956). It is now clear that the Biblical account stays close to a Babylonian model.
Genesis 6-9 and its Source

This can best be recognized when we scrutinize the Biblical Flood Story and reconstruct the original text. Throughout the Biblical book of Genesis (and in fact the entire Torah) discrepancies and doublets can be recognized. For example, at the very beginning, there are two Creation stories (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2), and in the story of the Great Flood, we can find several contradictions:

  • animals enter the Ark in couples (6.19-20, 7.9, 7.15) and in sevenfolds (7.2-3)
  • the waters of the Flood are from below the earth (7.10) and by rain (7.4, 7.12)
  • Noah and his family twice enter the Ark (7.13 and 7.7)
  • the Flood lasts one year (7.11 with 8.13); the Flood lasts forty days (7.17)

As early as the eighteenth century, it was proposed that the author of the Torah had used at least two sources. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, this idea, called the Documentary Hypothesis, was elaborated, but no two scholars have agreed upon the exact attribution of every verse, and by the end of the twentieth century, most scholars returned to more modest ambitions. However, the idea that the story of the Great Flood is based on two sources remains more or less agreed-upon.

A possible, perhaps even likely, reconstruction of these two sources can be found here. What matters is the original text, the older of the two sources, which is sometimes called "Priestly". This is the text in which the animals enter the Ark two by two and in which the Flood is caused by primordial waters - the waters that were separated when God made the firmament (Genesis 1.6-7).

General Pattern

The Priestly Text began -or may have began, according to many scholars- with the First Creation Story (Genesis 1), continued with the names of the incredibly long-lived descendants of Adam and Eve, and stories about human sin that makes God decide to destroy the greater part of mankind.

The Flood story itself is well-known: Noah builds an Ark, boards the ship with seven relatives, survives the Flood, lands at a mountain called Ararat, sends out birds from the Ark to check if there is dry land, sacrifices, and concludes a Covenant with God, in which God promises that mankind will never be destroyed again and live forever. (The final anecdote, in which Noah gets drunk, is an addition to this story, not from the Priestly Text.) The entire story is interlaced with precise chronological indications, which enable us to establish that the day on which God "remembered Noah" (Genesis 8.1) is the Day of Atonement.

Pir Magrun (Mount Nisir) looking from the road

This pattern is similar to stories from Babylonia. The main difference is, of course, that in those texts, we encounter more than one God. However, the similarities are striking: in texts like the Eridu Genesis, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Epic of Gilgameš, we read how the gods created earth and man, encounter the names of the first people (who are incredibly old), and read about the decision to destroy mankind. One man is ordered to build an Ark, survives the Flood, lands at a mountain called Nisir or Nimuš, leaves out birds from the Ark, sacrifices, and obtains immortality.

The same pattern can be found in the Greek texts. Generally speaking, the parallels between the Priestly Text and the texts from Babylonia are closer: several times, the author of Genesis actually quotes a Babylonian model. But on two points, the Bible and the Greek texts resemble each other more: these two versions refer to giants in the section immediately preceding the decision to destroy mankind, and in the end, the survivor does not obtain immortality, but many children.


The parallels are remarkable, and even when there are differences, they are not what they appear to be. For example, the Biblical Ararat Mountains -plural!- is not at odds with the Mount Nimuš/Nisir from the Epic of Gilgameš. The Hebrew word "Ararat" refers to the country directly north and northeast of Mesopotamia (cf. Jereremiah 51.27), a region that is also known as Urartu or Gordyene (Kurdistan), where we can indeed find a Mount Nisir.[1]

The similarities are easy to explain: it was a good story, and people must have told and retold it very often. In fact, we must imagine the written texts as exceptional - the main tradition was, no doubt, oral. Still, there are too many verbal similarities to say that there was no written tradition at all. We can follow the development of the story for more than two millennia. It started in Sumer.

The Eridu Genesis

The story of the Great Flood has its origins in Sumer, the southern part of ancient Babylonia. Even though the younger Epic of Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgameš, written in Babylonian, change many details, they continue to refer to Šuruppak as the city of the hero of the Flood story, even though the Sumerian name of the hero, Ziusudra, has been changed into Atrahasis or Ut-napištim. In the youngest Babylonian version, by Berossus, we see the origal name return: testimony to the vitality of the Sumerian story, which has been called Eridu Genesis by modern scholars.

The story survives on a cuneiform tablet from the seventeenth century BCE, of which only the lower third survives. However, this is sufficient to establish that the pattern described above was already present. However, there are small differences. The Eridu Genesis must have begun with the Creation of Man, but continues with the establishment of kingship and a list of cities. Then comes the list of antediluvian rulers, which confirms the pattern again, and the supreme god Enlil's decision to destroy mankind. The reason was recorded on a missing part of the text, but may have been the noise men created, as it is in the later, Babylonian texts.

Ziusudra is king of Šuruppak and a seer, who witnesses the gods' council and decision in a vision, and understands that something terrible is about to happen. After this, the god Enki, speaking from the other side of a wall, explains Ziusudra what he already has understood.

Enki's advice, to build a big boat, must have been mentioned in a large lacuna. The story continues with a description of the Flood, which lasts seven days and nights. After leaving the ark, Ziusudra sacrifices and meets the sun god Utu. In a lacuna, the wrath of Enlil, who has discovered the survivors, must have been described. The end of the story is a speech by Enki, and the apotheosis of Ziusudra, who will live forever in the mythological country of Dilmun, in the far east, where Utu rises.

The date of the poem's composition can not be established, but it is reasonable to assume that the anonymous author was not the first to describe the Great Flood. He appears to have used older traditions. For example, Ziusudra learns about the coming disaster through both divination and a revelation from Enki. One discovery would have been sufficient. The Eridu Genesis is not the oldest text on the Great Flood, and it is likely that we will one day discover fragments of its sources - the British Museum alone takes care of about 100,000 unpublished cuneiform tablets.

Still, we are not completely clueless about the origin of the story. The city of Šuruppak figures prominently in the Eridu Genesis, and this may not be coincidental, as we will see when we discuss the archaeological evidence at the end of this article. For the moment, we must turn to the Babylonian versions.

The Epic of Atrahasis

The Babylonian story of the Great Flood has come down to us in three versions, which contain so many echoes that it is likely that tradition was not oral, but written. The Biblical account can be seen as the fourth branch to this tree.

The oldest text is the Epic of Atrahasis (text), which survives on three tablets from the reign of king Ammi-saduqa of Babylonia (1647-1626 BCE). It follows the standard pattern. At the beginning, the world is created and the Lesser Gods are forced to work hard, digging rivers and erecting mountains. They are tired, however, and declare war upon the Great Gods, who decide to create mankind to make life easier for the gods.

This story of an insurrection, shortly after the Creation, by Lesser Gods, may be behind the revolt of the giants in the Greco-Roman version (e.g., Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.151ff) and the remarks about the giants in the Bible (Genesis, 6.1-4; more explicit in 1 Enoch, 7). It is true, the Biblical Giants are not explicitly mentioned as rebellious or bad, but knowledge about their acts is taken for granted by the author, who does not explain who were "the mighty men that were of old", and assumes that everyone understands that the giants were evil (6.5). The connection is made very explicit in the apocryphal Book of Watchers (= 1 Enoch, 6-11), which belings to the Enochitic literature and dates to the late third or early second century BCE.

Back to the Epic of Atrahasis. Mankind has been created but their population increases and their noise disturbs the gods. The supreme god Enlil decides to wipe out all humans with a Great Flood, but Enki, who has created mankind, betrays the secret to Atrahasis in a dream, and orders him to build a ship. There is a brief description of it, focusing on its roof, and a description of Atrahasis' speech to the Elders of Šuruppak, an element that was not copied by the author of Genesis, but returns in the Quran, where it has become the story's main element.

After a fragment on the building and departure of the ark, we still have some lines about the storm, and the very end of it, in which the gods make sure that the noise will remain within limits: they invent childbirth, infant mortality, and celibacy.

The Epic of Gilgameš

The second Babylonian text is the Epic of Gilgameš (text), which was composed in c.1100 BCE, and contains much information that was composed earlier. It tells the story of the king of Uruk, Gilgameš, who is on a quest for immortality, and meets Ut-napištim, the survivor of the Flood. He tells essentially the story of the Epic of Atrahasis, even quoting it, but this time, the story is told in the first person singular.

There are some interesting differences, though, which betray that the author had read more than just the Epic of Atrahasis. For instance, the story from the Eridu Genesis that Enki spoke to Ziusudra indirectly, through a wall, is incomprehensible in the Epic of Atrahasis, but has received a funny twist in the Epic of Gilgameš: Enki has sworn not to betray the secret to mankind, and therefore, he tells it to a house, and the wall speaks to Ut-napištim. We also read about the dimensions of the Ark, which is not a ship in our sense of the word, but a large cube, with a roof like the firmament that had once divided the primordial waters. In other words, the Ark is to be a copy of the universe.

This time, we have a long and beautiful description of the stormflood, and finally the famous story of the landing on a mountain in what is now Kurdistan. Like any Babylonian sailor would have done, Ut-napištim releases birds to check if there is land in sight, and indeed, it is discovered. He sacrifices, and the gods gather "like flies" - an insulting comparison that is not fully explained. In the end, Ut-napištim receives immortality, a gift that he cannot offer to the king of Uruk.

Berossus' Babylonian History

Berossus was a very important Babylonian official, the šatammu of the Esagila, or president of the main temple of Babylon, which in his age, the third century BCE, mean that he was the leader of the native Babylonians in a country ruled by Macedonians and Greeks. To explain his own culture to its foreign masters, be wrote a Babylonian History, which contains a description of the Great Flood as well.

A new element is that the hero Xisuthrus, who again has his Sumerian name (Ziusudra), has to take care of three tablets containing human wisdom, which he has to bury in the city of Sippar. They are not mentioned in any other text, except for two Jewish books, Jubilees and 1 Enoch. Another innovation is the reference to the day on which the Flood begins, 15 Daisios; this element can also be found in the Genesis account (Genesis, 7.11). Another similarity with the story in the Bible is that the dimensions of the ark are mentioned, and resemble a real ship.

It is not likely that many Greeks read the Babylonian History. In any case, they kept to their own version, which is a bit different from the Babylonian versions, but still has some remarkable similarities.

Woolley's excavations at Ur.
The Greek and Roman versions

The myth of the Great Flood was not among the most popular stories in Greece and Rome. We find hardly any pictures of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the two heroes of the western version of the myth. One reason is that the Greeks were not afraid of water in a way comparable to the Babylonians. Their rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, flooded when the wheat and barley were ripe: at the wrong moment. A river flood was a catastrophe indeed. Greek agriculture, on the other hand, depended on rainfall, and the Greeks hardly knew what a river flood meant.

The oldest reference to the Great Flood in Greek literature can be found in the works of Epicharmus, a comic poet from Sicily whose activity can be dated to the first quarter of the fifth century BCE (Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta in Papyris Reperta 85, fr.1).  Just as old is Olympic Ode 9 by Pindar. It is possible that Hesiod also referred to the Flood, because in a fragment from his Catalog of Women, he refers to Deucalion. If the Catalog is authentic, which we do not know for certain, the myth of the Flood was current in Greece before c.600 BCE.

In the second century BCE, the story was briefly retold in The Library, a work attributed to Apollodorus of Alexandria (text), and in the first century CE, the Roman author Hyginus did the same in a couple of lines (text). The longest version, however, was written by the Roman poet Ovid (text).

Like the the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Jewish version in 1 Enoch, 7, it starts with an insurrection by lesser supernatural beings -Giants in this case- and an account of human sin, which make Zeus/Jupiter decide to destroy the world. Deucalion, however, has been warned by his father Prometheus, the creator of mankind (cf. the role of Enki as creator and protector of humanity in all Babylonian versions). Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha build a wooden chest and embark; after the Flood, they find themselves on the summit of Mount Parnassus (Hyginus: Etna; Hellanicus: Othrys). During a visit to the oracle of Delphi (Plutarch, Life of Pyrhus, 1.1: Dodona) they learn how to recreate mankind: they have to throw stones behind their back, from which new people are born. Their 'real' son, Hellen, is the ancestor of the Greeks.

This story is far removed from the Near Eastern accounts, and contains no verbal similarities, but it is interesting to see that in both the Greek and Biblical versions, the heroes do not gain immortality, but live forever through their children.

In 1929, the archaeologist Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) announced that he had discovered a 3¾ meter thick clay deposit, which he believed had been laid down by the Great Flood. On top of this deposit was the stratum that contained the famous Royal Tombs, which belong to the period called Early Dynastic III (c.2600-2400 BCE); underneath it was a settlement from what is called the Late Ubaid period, which ended in c.3100. Unfortunately, no trace of a similar deposit was found at Eridu, 23 kilometers from Ur.

At the same time, the excavators of Kiš -situated more to the north- made a similar discovery. They announced evidence for two floods, the younger one contemporary with Woolley's Royal Tombs, the older one between the Jemdet Nasr period and Early Dynastic I (c.2900 BCE). Two years later, evidence for a fourth flood came to the surface at Šuruppak; this one was at the end of the Early Dynastic I period, in c. 2750. Finally, in Uruk, there is evidence for a flood between the layers known as Uruk-2 and Uruk-1, i.e., at the beginning of the Early Dynastic I period, roughly the same age as the older flood at Kiš.

Summing up: there are several large clay deposits, which can be dated to several periods, varying from the Late Ubaid period (in Ur) to the Early Dynastic III period (Kiš). This is a confused picture, but it proves that in southern Iraq, devastating floods were not unheard-of during the first half of the third millennium BCE.

We can be a bit more precise. Several of the kings mentioned in the Sumerian King List as rulers after the Flood, can be dated to the Early Dynastic periods II and III. This suggests that the rulers before the Flood can be dated to Early Dynastic I, and the Deluge, accordingly, to c.2750. The Šuruppak flood fits this date, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the hero of Eridu Genesis, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Epic of Gilgameš is a king of Šuruppak. It is likely, therefore, that the event that is behind the myth of the Great Flood can be dated to the end of Early Dynastic I period.

Niciun comentariu:

Trimiteți un comentariu