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Atrahasis Epic: The Flood Story, 18th century BCE


Three different Babylonian stories of the flood have survived- the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Atrahasis Epic. Of these, the best known is Gilgamesh XI, which was one of the earliest cuneiform texts to be discovered and published. In 1872 George Smith read a paper called “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge” in which he presented fragments of the flood story from the Gilgamesh Epic. These fragments, dating from the seventh century B.C., were discovered in the library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. However, other examples of tablets of this epic date from about 1000 years earlier than the fragments from Nineveh. These earlier tablets are evidence that the composition of the epic and the flood story contained in it occurred no later than the beginning of the second millennium B.C.; also, many of the episodes included in the epic have prototypes in the Sumerian language which are much older than the composition of the Gilgamesh Epic.

The other Babylonian telling of the flood, that of the Atrahasis Epic, is the most recently discovered. Although later versions of the flood episode from the Atrahasis Epic had been known for a long time, the structure of the epic, and therefore the context of the flood story, was not understood until Laessoe reconstructed the work in 1956. In 1965 many additional texts from the epic were published, including an Old Babylonian copy made around 1650 B.C., which is now our most complete surviving recension of the tale. These new texts greatly increased our knowledge of the epic and served as the foundation for the English edition of the Atrahasis Epic.

As is true of other Babylonian compositions, the Atrahasis Epic utilizes many old mythical motifs and episodes, and many of the elements of the creation story found in the first tablet of the Epic can be traced back to earlier Sumerian compositions. We do not, however, know whether the story of the deluge ultimately dates back to Sumerian sources, or whether originally it might have been composed in Akkadian, the Semitic language of Babylonia. The single example of the telling of the flood in Sumerian that we have is the Sumerian Flood Story, found on only one extant tablet, most probably dating from the Late Old Babylonian Period (ca. 1650–1600 B.C.). We do not know if there were earlier Sumerian versions of this story.

The Atrahasis Epic presents the flood story in a context comparable to Genesis. Both are primeval histories.

The Atrahasis Epic begins with a description of the world as it existed before man was created- “When the gods worked like man … ” At this time, the universe was divided among the great gods, with An in possession of the heavens, Enlil the earth and Enki the great deep. Seven other gods established themselves as the ruling class, while the rest of the gods provided the work force. These working gods, whose “work was heavy, (whose) distress was much,” dug the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and then rebelled, refusing to continue to work. On the advice of the wise god, Enki, the gods decided to create another creature to do the work, and Enki and the mother goddess created man from a mixture of clay and the flesh and blood of a slain god. The slain god was “We-ilu, a god who has sense,”; from this characteristic of We-ilu, man was to possess rationality.

This epic, ancient though it is, is already the product of considerable development. The author has utilized old motifs and has united them into a coherent account of Man’s beginnings. The purpose of Man’s creation is to do the work of the gods, thus relieving the gods of the need to labor. In the Atrahasis Epic, the creation of man causes new problems. In the words of the Epic (I 352f. restored from II 1–8)-

Twelve hundred years [had not yet passed] [when the land extended] and the peoples multiplied.

The [land] was bellowing [like a bull].

The gods were disturbed with [their uproar].

[Emil heard] their noise

[and addressed] the great gods.

The noise of mankind [has become too intense for me] [with their uproar] I am deprived of sleep.

To stop the noise created by too many people, the gods decide to bring a plague. Enki advised man to bring offerings to Namtar, god of the plague, and this induces him to lift the plague. Twelve hundred years later, the same problem again arises (Tablet II 1–8)- The noise from so many people disturbs the gods. This time the gods bring a drought, which ends when men (upon Enki’s advice) bribe Adad to bring rain.

Despite the fragmentary state of Tablet II, it seems clear that the same problem recurs. This time the gods bring famine (and saline soil).

However, this does not end the difficulties either. Each time the earth becomes overpopulated. At last Enlil persuades the gods to adopt a “final solution” (II viii 34) to the human problem, and they resolve to bring a flood to destroy mankind. Their plan is thwarted by Enki, who has Atrahasis build an ark and so escape the flood. After the rest of mankind has been destroyed, and after the gods have had occasion to regret their actions and to realize (by their thirst and hunger) that they need man, Atrahasis offers a sacrifice, and the gods come to eat. Enki then presents a permanent solution to the overpopulation problem. The new world after the flood is to be different from the old; Enki summons Nintu, the birth goddess, and has her create new creatures who will ensure that the old problem does not arise again. In the words of the Epic (III vii 1)-

In addition, let there be a third category among the peoples,

Among the peoples women who bear and women who do not bear.

Let there be among the peoples the Pasittu-demon to snatch the baby from the lap of her who bore it.

Establish Ugbabtu-women, Entu-women and Igistu-women

And let them be taboo and so stop childbirth.

Other post-flood provisions may have followed, but the text now becomes too fragmentary to read.

Despite the lacunae, the structure presented by the Atrahasis Epic is clear. Man is created; there is a problem; remedies are attempted but the problem remains; the decision is made to destroy man; this attempt is thwarted by the god Enki; a new remedy is instituted to ensure that the problem does not arise again. The problem that arose and that necessitated these various remedies was overpopulation.5 Mankind increased uncontrollably, and the methods of population control that were first attempted (drought, pestilence, famine) only solved the problem temporarily. This overpopulation led to an attempt at complete destruction (the flood). When this failed, permanent countermeasures were introduced by Enki to keep the size of the population down.

The myth tells us that such social phenomena as non-marrying women, and such personal tragedies as barrenness and stillbirth (and perhaps miscarriage and infant mortality) are in fact essential to the very continuation of man’s existence, for humanity was almost destroyed once when the population got out of control.

This Babylonian tale, composed no later than 1700 B.C. points out what, by the clear logic of hindsight, should have been obvious to us all along- there is an organic unity between the creation story and the flood story.

The structure of the Atrahasis Epic also tells us to focus our attention not on the deluge itself but on the events immediately after the rains subside. In Genesis, as in Atrahasis, the flood came in response to a serious problem in creation, a problem which was rectified immediately after the flood. A study of the changes that God made in the world after the flood gives a clearer picture of the conditions prevailing in the world before the flood, of the ultimate reason that necessitated the flood which almost caused the destruction of man, of the essential differences between the world before the flood and the world after it, and thus of the essential prerequisites for the continued existence of man on the earth.

Excerpted from “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood,” Tikva Frymer-Kensky, BAR Nov-Dec 1978.

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