The Atrahasis, Akkadian/Babylonian epic of the Great Flood

The Atrahasis

Atra-Hasis, also spelt Atrahasis, is an eighteenth-century B.C.E. Akkadian epic, named after its human hero. It contains both a creation myth, explaining how the gods created humankind and an early flood account which was later incorporated into the Epic of Gilgamesh and is also thought to have influenced the biblical flood story.

The Atrahasis is the Akkadian/Babylonian epic of the Great Flood sent by the gods to destroy human life. Only the good man, Atrahasis (his name translates as `exceedingly wise’) was warned of the impending deluge by the god Enki who instructed him to build an ark to save himself. Atrahasis heeded the words of the god, loaded two of every kind of animal into the ark, and so preserved life on earth.

The Sumerian pantheon, which was accepted and assimilated by the Semitic Babylonians, had a pyramid structure, with the god An, the sky, at its head, sharing power with his two sons Enlil and Enki, all having clearly defined areas of responsibility. A controlled the sky, Enlil the earth, and Enki the ocean depths.

In practice, whether because Enlil was the god of the earth or because his priests at Nippur were a particularly powerful social grouping, it was Enlil who gave Sumerian sovereigns their royal power. Enki had nothing to do with the Sumerian kingship, so his son Marduk was cut off from the decision-making process of which Enlil was in charge.

Written down in the mid-17th century BCE, the Atrahasis can be dated by the colophon to the reign of the Babylonian King Hammurabi’s great-grandson, Ammi-Saduqa (1646-1626 BCE) though the tale itself is considered much older, passed down through oral transmission. The Sumerian Flood Story (known as the `Eridu Genesis’) which tells the same story, is certainly older (composed c. 2300 BCE) and Tablet XI of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which also relates the tale of the Great Flood, is even older than that.

The Atra-Hasis Akkadian/Babylonian epic of the Great Flood
The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian,Written c. 1800 BC,Mesopotamia,Language-Sumerian,Media type-Clay tablet

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written c. 2150-1400 BCE but the Sumerian Flood storey it relates is older, passed down orally until it appeared in writing. While the story itself concerns a flood of universal proportions (even scaring the gods who unleashed it) most scholars recognize that it was probably inspired by a local event: flooding caused by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers overflowing their banks.

While archaeological and geological evidence has shown such flooding was a fairly common occurrence, it is speculated that a particularly memorable flood, c. 2800 BCE, served as the basis for the story. No recognized scholar working in the present day maintains the argument that there was ever a world-wide flood such as Atrahasis and the other accounts depict (including the story of Noah and his Ark in the Biblical book of Genesis). The Mesopotamian scholar Stephanie Dalley writes:

No flood deposits are found in third-millennium strata, and Archbishop Ussher’s date for the Flood of 2349 BC, which was calculated by using numbers in Genesis at face value and which did not recognize how highly schematic Biblical chronology is for such early times, is now out of the question.

The Atrahasis – Akkadian literature

The first centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE witnessed the demise of Sumerian as a spoken language and its replacement by Akkadian. However, Sumerian (much as Latin in the Middle Ages) continued to be taught and spoken in the scribal schools throughout the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE because of its role as a bearer of Sumerian culture, as the language of religion, literature, and many arts. New compositions were even composed in Sumerian. As time passed these grew more and more corrupt in grammar.

Akkadian Empire map c. 2350–2230 BCE
Akkadian Empire map c. 2350–2230 BCE

Akkadian, when it supplanted Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia, was not without its own literary tradition. Writing, to judge from Akkadian orthographic peculiarities, was very early borrowed from the Sumerians.

By Old Babylonian times (c. 19th century BCE), the literature in Akkadian, partly under the influence of Sumerian models and Sumerian literary themes, had developed myths and epics of its own, among them the superb Old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic (dealing with the problem of death; see below Epics) as well as hymns, disputation texts (evaluations of elements of the cosmos and society), penitential psalms, and not a few independent new handbook genres—e.g., omens, rituals, laws and legal phrasebooks (often translated from Sumerian), mathematical texts, and grammatical texts.

There was a significant amount of translation from Sumerian; translations include incantation series such as the Utukki lemnuti (“The Evil Spirits”), laments for destroyed temples, penitential psalms, and others. The prestige of Sumerian as a literary language, however, is indicated by the fact that translations were rarely if ever, allowed to supersede the original Sumerian text. The Sumerian text was kept with an interlinear translation to form a bilingual work.

The Akkadian myths are in many ways dependent on Sumerian materials, but they show originality and a broader scope in their treatment of the earlier Sumerian concepts and forms; they address themselves more often to existence as a whole. Fairly close to Sumerian prototypes is an Akkadian version of the myth of “Inanna’s Descent.” An Old Babylonian myth about the Thunderbird Anzu, who stole the tablets of fates and was conquered by Ninurta, who was guided by Enki’s counsel, is probably closely related to the Sumerian story of Ninurta’s contest with Enki.

Also important is an Old Babylonian “Myth of Atrahasis,” which, in motif, shows a relationship with the account of the creation of human beings to relieve the gods of toil in the “Enki and Ninmah” myth, and with a Sumerian account of the Flood in the “Eridu Genesis.” The Atrahasis myth, however, treats these themes with noticeable originality and remarkable depth.

It relates, first, how the gods originally had to toil for a living, how they rebelled and went on strike, how Enki suggested that one of their number—the god We, apparently the ringleader who “had the idea”—be killed and humankind created from clay mixed with his flesh and blood so that the toil of the gods could be laid on humankind and the gods left to go free.

Detail of Enki from the Adda Seal, an ancient Akkadian cylinder seal dating to circa 2300 BC
The Adda Seal, an ancient Akkadian cylinder seal showing (from left to right) Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud (circa 2300 BC)

But after Enki and the birth goddess Nintur (another name for Ninmah) had created humans, they multiplied at such a rate that the din they made kept Enlil sleepless. At first, Enlil had Namtar, the god of death, cause a plague to diminish the human population, but the wise Atrahasis, at the advice of Enki, had human beings concentrate all worship and offerings on Namtar.

Namtar, embarrassed at hurting people who showed such love and affection for him, stayed his hand. Next Enlil had Adad, the god of rains, hold back the rains and thus cause a famine, but, because of the same stratagem, Adad was embarrassed and released the rains.

After this, Enlil planned a famine by divine group action that would not be vulnerable as the earlier actions by individual gods had been. Anu and Adad were to guard the heavens, Enlil himself earth, and Enki the waters underground and the sea so that no gift of nature could come through to the human race.

The ensuing famine was terrible. By the seventh year, one house consumed the other and people began eating their own children. At that point Enki—accidentally he maintained—let through a wealth of fish from the sea and so the humans were saved. With this, however, Enlil’s patience was at an end and he thought of the Flood as a means to get rid of humanity once and for all.

The Story of the Atrahasis

This is the theme of the poem Atrahasis, one of the masterpieces of Babylonian religious literature. Atrahasis is the hero of the Flood, a worshiper of Enki, who is told of the intended catastrophic fate for humankind proposed by Enlil. Three tablets describe the buildup, the catastrophe itself, and the aftermath of the Flood.

The first tablet, describing the situation before the Flood in the world of gods and people, is particularly revealing; the story of the Flood itself is also known from a Sumerian poem and from Tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh is divided into 12 tablets, the longest of which is more than 300 lines; this “Flood Tablet” (the 11th) is virtually intact and comes, like almost all Assyrian-language Gilgamesh texts, from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (7th century BCE). From the 2nd millennium, there are fragments of a Hittite version from Boǧazköy, as well as minor traces of a Hurrian translation.

Old Babylonian correspondences to tablets 1–3 and 10 are found on a tablet from Sippar (c. 1800 BCE). The 12th tablet is a literal translation from Sumerian, whereas the rest amounts to a self-contained Akkadian epic original, based on Sumerian motifs but with a thrust of its own. The most complete reconstruction involves a combination of Assyrian, Old Babylonian, and Hittite versions.

The myth begins by explaining how the lesser gods tired of their labours on the canals and farms of Mesopotamia and instigated a rebellion. Enlil, the god of the sky and earth, wanted to punish these gods, but Enki, the god of the waters, argued that humans should be created to do the work instead. The womb goddess, Nintu, was appointed to create humankind by mixing clay with the blood of a junior god who was killed as a sacrifice. However, human overpopulation soon became a problem. Enlil sent various disasters to diminish humankind, but Enki persistently foiled his plans

The moment for the final drastic decision draws near. Enlil proposes to finish off the human race with the Flood. The discussion has been heated, and Enki does not agree with what is proposed, considering it unjust and senseless. But the will of the majority prevails, and thus the plan for the Flood is approved. Enki, however, will save humankind by revealing the impending tragedy to Atrahasis and telling him to build an ark.

From this point, the narrative does not differ greatly from previously known accounts. The one new feature is a phrase the writer uses, momentarily becoming personally involved in the dramatic events to condemn the decision of Enlil as “an evil act, a wicked deed towards mankind” (Tav., II.viii.5).

The Atrahasis, Akkadian/Babylonian epic of the Great Flood
Enki is the Sumerian god of water, knowledge (gestú), mischief, crafts (gašam), and creation (nudimmud), and one of the Anunnaki.

This is not the place to start a discussion on the ethical values of the Babylonian world but simply to emphasize the hostile and critical attitude of the author toward Enlil, the head of the Sumerian pantheon, in contrast with the repeated demonstrations of devotion and gratitude to Enki, the father of Marduk. The latter is not mentioned in the Atrahasis myth. Indeed he plays no active part in the myths of earlier Sumerian literature or Babylonian literature of the first period.

The Atrahasis myth, an entirely Assyro-Babylonian creation, is the high point of Semitic thought on the divine world and human reality, from the origins of the world to the present time, through various stages of existence, such as the Flood and the new creation. The text has a long history.

Created in the Old Babylonian period, it is also recorded in the Middle Babylonian period, then with significant changes in the neo-Assyrian period, and finally in the neo-Babylonian period. It should be stressed that, although the original outline of the work has undergone significant external changes, it has features that readily lead to the conclusion that there were different versions of the myth in the neo-Assyrian period. It should not be forgotten that the myth has a long editorial history, existing in documented form for over thirteen hundred years.

As regards the structure of the myth, the scheme of the Old Babylonian version shows that the three tablets copied by the scribe Ku Aja may be divided into three clear sections. The first tablet deals with the situation in the world of gods before the creation of humankind. The divine pantheon is still Sumerian and is subdivided into two groups, the Anunnaki and the Igigi—the greater and the lesser gods.

The problem troubling the gods is how to deal with the lesser gods, who have rebelled after forty years and refuse to put up with the burden of hard work. When the greater gods understand the extent of the revolt and the just reason behind it, they decide to make arrangements to create a substitute for the gods, so the creation of the first human beings, a new species entrusted with the task of working and providing food for the gods, is undertaken by the god of wisdom Ea with the help of the mother goddess Mami.

In the second tablet, humankind begins to multiply, carrying out the assigned task, and puts up with the burden of working for over six hundred years. When also exhausted, humankind resorts to the same weapons employed by the lesser gods, namely causing a commotion and going on strike. The gods are unable to accept humanity’s rebellion from the established order, and they decide to punish it. Three times they inflict various woes upon the human race, but on each occasion, the human race is saved through the kindly intervention of Ea.

The final act of the tragedy is approaching. The gods, particularly Enlil, the ruler of the earth, cannot accept the insubordination of the creatures that they have made, so they decide to punish the whole of humankind. The gods meet in assembly and swear an oath to accept a unanimous decision and not to frustrate it by their actions. They all go along with the new decision except for Ea, who reveals what is going to happen to Atrahasis in a dream and at the same time encourages him to build a boat to save himself.

The Atrahasis, Akkadian/Babylonian epic of the Great Flood
Old Babylonian clay tablet III "Atrahasis."

In the third tablet, the hero of the universal Flood, Atrahasis, builds a boat that will not be submerged by the waters but will save him, his family, and various types of animals. When the Flood is over, there is a furious argument among the most powerful gods, especially Enlil and Ea, following which the hero of the Flood is raised to the status of a god. Humankind will have to put up with serious hardships, such as illnesses, which will always be with them in this vale of tears.

Legends and other tales

Legends in the Hebrew Scriptures often embellish the accounts of national heroes with standard motifs drawn from popular lore. Thus, the Genesis story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife recurs substantially (but with other characters) in an Egyptian papyrus of the 13th century BCE.

The account of the infant Moses being placed in the bulrushes (in Exodus) has an earlier counterpart in a Babylonian tale about Sargon, king of Akkad (c. 2334–c. 2279 BCE), and is paralleled later in legends associated with the Persian Cyrus and with Tu-Küeh, the fabled founder of the Turkish nation. Jephthah’s rash vow (in Judges), whereby he is committed to sacrifice his daughter, recalls the Classical legend of Idomeneus of Crete, who was similarly compelled to slay his own son.

The motif of the letter whereby David engineers the death in battle of Bathsheba’s husband recurs in Homer’s story of Bellerophon. The celebrated judgment of Solomon concerning the child claimed by two contending women is told, albeit with variations of detail, about Buddha, Confucius, and other sages; the story of how Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish” but was subsequently disgorged intact finds a parallel in the Indian tale of the hero Shaktideva, who endured the same experience during his quest for the Golden City.

On the other hand, it should be observed that many of the parallels commonly cited from the folklore of indigenous peoples may be mere repetitions of biblical material picked up from Christian missionaries.

Other Versions of the Story

The Epic of Gilgamesh retells the story, with more or less the same details, but the hero is Utnapishtim (“He Found Life”) who is spirited away by the gods with his wife and lives forever in the land across the seas. Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality leads him eventually to Utnapishtim but his journey does him no good as everlasting life is denied to mortals. The Sumerian version of the tale has Ziusudra (“The Far Distant”) as the hero but tells the same story.

The best-known tale of the Great Flood, of course, is from the biblical Book of Genesis 6-9 in which God becomes incensed with the wickedness of humanity and destroys them with a flood, except for the righteous Noah and his family. The biblical work draws on the earlier oral version of the Mesopotamian flood story which is echoed in the works cited above and which may also have influenced an Egyptian text known as The Book of the Heavenly Cow, a part of which dates to Egypt’s First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE).

The Book of the Heavenly Cow tells how, after the sun god Ra had created humans, they rebelled against him and he decided to destroy them. He sent the goddess Hathor as an extension of himself (known as The Eye of Ra) to slaughter humanity but, after she had killed many, he repented of the decision. He then had massive quantities of beer dyed red to look like blood and ordered it placed in Hathor’s path. She drank the beer, fell asleep, and later woke up as the loving goddess and friend to humanity she is usually depicted as.

Almost every culture has some form of a Great Flood story and this is often cited as proof that there must have been some cataclysmic deluge at some point. This is not necessarily so, however, as it is just as possible that a popular flood story, repeated down through the ages, inspired storytellers in different regions. Dalley comments:

All these flood stories may be explained as deriving from the one Mesopotamian original, used in traveller’s tales for over two thousand years, along the great caravan routes of Western Asia: translated, embroidered, and adapted according to local tastes to give a myriad of divergent versions, a few of which have come down to us

Atrahasis, as noted, is not the oldest version of the Mesopotamian flood story and the earlier, oral version almost certainly influenced other culture’s versions including the Egyptian and Hebrew. In the Egyptian version, humanity’s rebellion and Ra’s mercy leads to a closer relationship with the gods and in the biblical version, the same is suggested by God’s covenant with Noah after the floodwaters subside. In the Atrahasis, the gods allow humans to continued existence with the stipulation that they will not live forever nor will they be allowed to reproduce as bounteously as before.

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