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The great Flood: the Sumerian story


A giraffe in a modern reconstruction of Noah's Ark. Schagen (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
A giraffe in a modern reconstruction of Noah's Ark
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.

Bible Sumer Babylonia Greece Archaeology
Full text Eridu Genesis Atrahasis Ovid
Reconstruction
Gilgameš Hyginus
Quran
Berossus Apollodorus

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.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

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Eridu Genesis Atrahasis Gilgameš Bible Berossus Greece Quran
Date 3d millennium BCE c.1640 BCE c.1100 BCE c.1000-500 BCE 278 BCE c.700 BCE? c.600 CE
Revolt ? lesser gods ? giants? monsters? giants -
Hero Ziusudra Atrahasis Ut-napištim Noah Xisuthrus Deucalion Nuh
Country Šuruppuk Šuruppak Šuruppak - Sippar Thessaly -
Destroyer Enlil Enlil Enlil YHWH Enlil Zeus Allah
Warning Vision Dream Indirect order Direct order Dream ? Direct order
Reason Noise? Noise ? Sin, giants ? Sin, giants Sin
Cause Stormflood Rain Stormflood Rain, fountains - Rain, waves "from the valley"
Savior Enki Enki Enki YHWH Enki Prometheus Allah
Period 7 days 7 days 7 days 150/40 days "quickly" 9 days ?
Birds ? ? raven, dove, swallow doves/raven "several" none -
Destination ? - Nimuš Ararat Gordyene Parnassus Al-Gudi
Fate Eternal life Eternal life Eternal life Three sons Eternal life Three grandsons -


Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 13 May 2007
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