The Flood

Matsya - the fish avatar of Vishnu in the Indian Flood myth
Flood evidence has been excavated at Shuruppak and Uruk in the Jemdet Nasr period circa 3000 BCE; at Ur in the Ubaid (sometimes written as Obeid) period 500 years earlier; at Kish circa 2700. All of these were local floods, connected with the annual cycles of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and not universal, though the myths that evolved out of them are all universal.

The earliest known flood text was found at Nippur in 1895 and is known by the elegantly poetic name "Incantation 10673". Dated 1750 BCE, it finds the gods discussing the corrupt state of Humankind, with Enlil threatening a deluge to sweep them away. Enki plans to rescue Humankind. The cities to be destroyed are five (like the number in the Av-Rahamic version in Genesis 18:20-19:38), in this case Eridu, Larak, Bad Tibira, Sippar and Shuruppak, which just happen to have been the five royal cities of Sumer, each with its own patron god or goddess.

The Biblical account coalesces two separate versions, one a J (YHVH) legend from (probably) the 9th century BCE, the other a P (Priestly) legend from (probably) the 5th century BCE (both very late texts!). In the J, No'ach is told to take two of everything; in P seven of every clean and two of every unclean animal. In J the flood lasts 40 days, in P 120 days. In one, the bursting of the Raki'a (the firmament of the heavens - cf Genesis 1:6) causes constant rain, regardless of the swelling of the rivers; in the other the flood comes explicitly from the rivers.

In the "Incantation" text one good man is to be saved, King Zisudra of Shuruppak. His ark story exactly mirrors No'ach (see Campbell, "The Masks of God", Vol 2, p125), and parallels the (probably earlier) Akkadian tale of 
Atrahasis (or Atram-Hasis).

Another almost-identical Indian Flood legend has Manu for No'ach, and a fish who is really the god Vishnu who is not only responsible for the flood, but a very early prototype of both Jonah's whale and Melville's "Moby-Dick".

Greek and Akkadian legends are also worth comparing (see further down this page, after the illustration of the Latin Noah's Ark, for a fuller account). The Akkadian, also current among Hurrians and Hittites, was that of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim. Along with this myth there seem to be historical memories of the great flood of 3200 BCE, noted by Sir Leonard Woolley; and also elements of the vintage autumnal New Year feasts of Babylonia, Assyria and Canaan, where the ark was a crescent-shaped moon-ship containing sacrificial animals. The feasts took place at the New Moon nearest the autumn equinox with libations of new wine to encourage the winter rains: whence the moveable feast of Rosh Ha Shana.

A Midrash informs us that Ya'akov (Jacob) spent fourteen years in the ancient Semitic centres of learning, the schools of Shem and Ever (see also Shemever) which are believed to have been in Zefat (Safed) in upper Galilee; there he received the ancient traditions which record the primaeval tales of the Tanach, amongst them this flood legend. The Midrash also tells us that No'ach spent the years building his ark as a preacher of repentance, like John the Baptist later; this echoes the Babylonian version in which Utnapishtim (which possibly means "superlatively clever one") does the same.

In the Babylonian version the flood lasts six days and nights (reflecting the first version of Creation in Genesis 1); Utnapishtim sends out a dove on the seventh day (thus identifying it with a god), which comes back the same day, and immediately he sends out a raven which does not come back. They leave the ship that same day, making the whole story last just one week. This version was written down, albeit in cuneiform, by the time of Av-Raham. Most Biblical scholars reckon the Bible version post-dates Moshe, in written form anyway (there was no writing in Yisra-El before David's time; a statement which would make the Mosaic writing of the law impossible).

The Greek myth of 
Deucalion and Pyrrha is told by Robert Graves on pages 117/8 of his "Greek Myths"; and was probably imported to Greece from Kena'an.

Besides the No'ach story in Genesis 6:9-9:29, Ararat is also referred to in identical verses in 2 Kings 19:37 and Isaiah 37:38 (I mention the identicality because these parallels are vital clues to who wrote the various texts, and when), and is regarded as being the land of Urartu, on Lake Van; the mountain is actually named Judi, which sounds like it might be an early form of Yehudah/Judah, though the Turks pronounce it Chudi, which rather undermines that nice idea. If you want to follow up on Ararat and Urartu and Judi et cetera, check the Qur'an first, and follow some of the Moslem links, which look at the Flood from a very different perspective than either the Jewish or the Christian.

Besides the ones mentioned above, Flood stories are known from... well, actually, almost everywhere, and I am not going to list them, because Mark Isaak has already done it; just click here and be astonished!

The theme is always a) Mankind offends the gods; b) punishment by universal flood; c) one man chosen to survive and repopulate.

The Babylonian and Biblical Floods, in more detail

The first account of the Babylonian flood was written by Berossus, a priest of Marduk or Bel (a variant of Ba'al; cf Jeremiah 51:44 et al; also Bel-Marduk appears in scripture as a single name, and as two different deities, e.g. 
Jeremiah 50:2) in Babylon, writing in Greek around 275 BCE; it was dedicated to Antiochus 1 (279-261 BCE) and entitled "Babyloniaca" or "Chaldiaca"; Berossus told in three books the whole history of Babylonia from its origins to its "liberation" by Alexander of Macedon. Berossus' book is mostly lost (what there is is at this link), but the rest is known through quotations in Alexander Polyhistor, Abydenus, Eusebius, Syncellus, Josephus and the Armenian Moses of Khoren.

No'ach's equivalent in that story is Utnapishtim (the Hebrew word NEPHESH = "soul" or "spirit" is connected, and if the root were ever used in the Hitpa'el or reflexive form it would yield LEHITNAPESH - להתנפש and would mean "to restore the soul"). In Babylonian it is taken to mean "I have found Life". The Akkadian version calls him 
Atrahasis (Atram-Hasis - "exceedingly wise") as well, whence Berossus names him Xisuthros, the same in Greek. In fact the original comes from the Sumerian Zi-u-sudra, meaning "life of long days", which most of the characters in the Biblical Toldot also experienced (Genesis 4 and 5). In the Sumerian king list Zi-u-sudra is the last antediluvian king; the son of King Ubar-Tutu he reigned 36,000 years. His capital was at Shuruppak, modern Fara, 95 miles south-east of Baghdad and 40 north-west of Ur.

Gilgamesh (in Sumerian Bilga-mes) appears as the 28th post-diluvian king, ruler of Uruk for 126 years. Uruk is Biblical Erech. Gilgamesh later became deified (an oracular king turned god, 
à la grec), and was credited with building the walls of Uruk and the temple at Nippur ("the holy city"). Some texts say he was a son of the goddess Nin-sun and her husband Lugal-banda, but the king list makes him a son of a Lilu-demon (cf the Hebrew Lilit/Lilith), a sort of incubus just like Merlin. Aelian, in Rome in the 2nd century CE, tells how Seuechoros king of Babylon heard prophesies that his grandson would deprive him of his realm, and kept his daughter confined in the Akropolis so she would not know a man. But a spirit made her pregnant. Her guards hurled the boy to his death, but an eagle saved him, and placed him in an orchard; the gardener brought him up to be Gilgamos. This echoes some of King Sargon's origins and the myth of Etana (not to be confused with Mount Etna) who flew into heaven on an eagle. In the king-list Gilgamesh is the grandson of Seuechoros, who in Sumerian was En-merkar. If nothing else, this demonstrates yet again how similar the myths and cults of the ancient world were, and how easily they translated and were transferred from one cult or tribe or nation to another. Sargon is probably the true name of Nimrod, hence his naming immediately before the No'ach story.

The King list has En-merkar; Lugul-banda (a shepherd); Dumuzi (a fisherman); Gilgamesh. The latter three were all later deified, Lugul-banda as the husband of the goddess Nin-sun; Dumuzi as Tammuz; and Gilgamesh as one of the infernal judges. Dumuzi's origins as a fisherman are immensely significant when we consider the Galilee version of the Jesus story.

Babylonia was the region of what is now southern Iraq, from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf; its capital from the 11th century BCE was Babylon. Southern Babylonia was Sumer, northern Babylonia was Akkad (Akkadia). Southern Akkadians spoke Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian; northern Akkadians spoke Assryrian, the language of Ashur (Assyria) or Mesopotamia. Akkadian is a Semitic language, linked to Yehudit, Arabic etc. The root of Sumerian is unknown.

In the Sumerian version Enlil, angry with Humankind decides to punish him by means of a flood. Innana wails in protest; Enki decides to save king Zi-u-sudra; speaking through the reed wall of his house (he is the wind) he tells him to build a boat for his family. The flood lasts 7 days and nights; then Utu the sun-god appears and brings back light. Zi-u-sudra prostrates himself before Utu and sacrifices an ox and a sheep. The gods recompense him by immortalising him, making him live in Dilmun - the place where the sun-god rises - probably Bahrein.

The Akkadian version was written (we know from the colophon on the clay tablet of the third section, now in the British Museum) by Ellit-Aya, a junior scribe of King Ammi-saduqa in 1692 BCE, 439 lines (of which only 50 are left), written on the 28th day of the month Shabat (Hebrew Shevet: usual links to Shiva, Lishbo'a, 7 etc). It begins "Inuma ilu awilum - when the man of god" - the title, like Hebrew book titles, taken from the opening words. Note that Ilu = god = El.

The second section of the Epic of Atram-Hasis was written by same scribe in month of Ayyar (Hebrew Iyar) of same year. It states that the text of the second section had 390 lines and whole thing 1245; as we know the third section had 439 lines, the lost Tablet 1 must have had 416 lines. 170 in total are left.

Tablet 1: The gods create the world; the mother-goddess Mami, also called Nin-hursanga (Our Lady of the Mountain) and Nin-tu (Our Lady of Birth) creates Lullu, the first man, to "bear the yoke of the world" (an obvious link to Lilith here). A minor god is slain; his flesh and blood mixed with clay to fashion the first man; Man founds cities and establishes the kingship.

Tablet 2: The world has too many people and is too noisy, upsetting Enlil. He calls an assembly of the gods and decrees famine, drought, other plagues. When these fail he decrees a flood. Some of the gods oppose this since how would the gods fare without human sacrifices? Enki persuades Enlil to let him organise the flood, and secretly tells Atram-hasis, the pious king of Shurupak.

Tablet 3: Enki cannot tell men the secrets of the gods, so he tells the reed wall instead. Enki gives explicit instructions on the building of the ship; Atram-hasis goes aboard with his family and possessions plus various beasts of the field and survives.

The third flood story is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. 12 cantos entitled "He who saw everything", from the opening words. It consists of tales of Gilgamesh and his faithful friend Enkidu (a variation perhaps of the god Enki). Enkidu is killed, Gilgamesh is devastated, and pursues eternal life. He goes to see Utnapishtim, the only known immortal man, in his home beyond the Waters of Death where he has lived since the Flood. Utnapishtim tells his secret by recounting the story of the Flood. There is no mention of why there was a flood, simply Utnapishtim is told by Ea that the flood will hit Shuruppak. The same reed-hut speaking is described. Utnapishtim's ship was 120 cubits per side (200 feet), divided into 7 storeys each with 7 compartments. It was made of bitumen pitch, like No'ach's, and used oil to seal it. There was a door, one window and a rudder; a boatman went with. The whole was a cube, which is perfect, but strange, since it couldn't float (was it really a temple?). The whole structure was 3000 feet (5 stadia) long and 2 stadia (1200 feet) high; the Biblical ark was 300 cubits in length by 50 wide and 30 high = 450 feet by 75 by 45 which is better proportioned for sailing. Utnapishtim took with him silver and gold, cattle and beasts of the field, plus several wild creatures of the field, and craftsmen, as in the Atram-hasis version. The boatman was named Puzur-Amurru. Adad (a variation of Amorite Hadad) the storm god rumbled. Shullat and Hanish - other gods, probably wind-gods - led the onslaught; Irragal wrenched out the bollards; the god of Chaos Ninurta and the fire god Anunnaki joined in, and the boat rose to the Heaven of Anu. Ishtar cried for her lost progeny, exactly as Rachel would for her lost children in a passage of Isaiah (31:15) that clearly alludes to this tale (and which, incidentally, reinforces our identification of Rachel with the moon-goddess). 7 days of flood follow, before the ark comes to rest on Mount Nisir above the Tigris. Utnapishtim waits 7 more days, then sends out birds to reconnoitre: first a dove, then a swallow, finally a raven which did not return. Sacrifices of thanksgiving are made as they disembark. Ishtar tries to prevent En-lil from sharing the sacrifice, at which En-lil is at first angry, but the gods rebuke him. He goes on board the ship, makes Utnapishtim and his wife kneel before him, and bestows immortality and a dwelling place beyond the waters of death. Utnapishtim then tells Gilgamesh of a plant which gives eternal life. Gilgamesh eventually finds it but while bathing in a stream a serpent steals it.

Shittim wood, of which No'ach's ark was made, was probably the (waterproof) wild acacia; the same was used for Osher's (Osiris') ark and the Ark of the Covenant. Wild acacia is a host tree of the loranthus, a form of mistletoe, whose flaming buds are suggested as a possible for the burning bush. Mistletoe is a very significant plant in mythology.

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
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