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The great Flood: the Babylonian story


The 'flood tablet'. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
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.

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

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.
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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: 7 June 2007
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