The Sumerian Flood Story
The Original Flood Myth
The story of Noah’s Ark first appeared around 1,000 B.C. in compositions that became part of the Jewish Torah and the Old Testament. Over a thousand years prior to this depiction, scholars from the ancient Sumerian civilization authored a remarkably similar account of the flood.
In the Sumerian flood story, a hero builds an ark to preserve the species of the Earth from the Deluge (flood). This myth appears in the epic tales of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh around 2,000 B.C, bringing the veracity of the later Biblical account into question.
The Sumerian civilization emerged from what is now called Iraq in 3,200 B.C., but in the period prior to the Jewish Noah it was also known as Akkade, Assyria, and Babylon. The Sumerians worshipped a diverse pantheon of gods, of which a supreme triad ruled over myriad lesser deities. Anu was the supreme sky god, Enlil presided over Earth, and Ea (or Enki) dwelt in the ocean below. These gods sent a great flood to wipe out mankind, which is referred to as the Deluge in ancient Sumerian literature. The hero warned by the gods to build an ark and preserve the beasts of the wild was called Ziusudra, Atrahasis, or Uta-Napishti depending on the era.
Noah in the mythology of Mesopotamian civilizations
- Ziusudra, Sumer, 2,150 B.C.
- Atrahasis, Akkade, 1,800 B.C.
- Uta-Napishti, Babylon, 1,300 B.C.
- Noah, Israel, 1,000 B.C.
Generally, the changes in name reflect the evolving language of the region rather than changes in the story. The story was only changed significantly in the Old Testament version (1,000 B.C.) to reflect the beliefs and traditions of the Hebrew peoples.
Atrahasis also appears in the Babylonian version. Uta-Napishti is the name he adopts after being granted immortality by the gods. The name means "he found life".
The Sumerian Creation Story
The epic tale of Atrahasis begins with the creation of mankind and the series of events that led to their destruction by the supreme triad of gods. It is preserved in its most complete form in the Epic of Atrahasis.
The epic depicts the gods as living on Earth before the time of man. The supreme triad had ordered the less powerful gods to work the land, maintaining the temples and growing food. Eventually the lesser deities rebelled, refusing to continue with their laborious assignment. The supreme triad was sympathetic, and decided to appease their subordinates by ordering the Mother Goddess, Mami, to create humans to do the work for them. The humans were fashioned out of clay, and to give them reason and an immortal soul, the intelligent young god, Geshtu-E, was sacrificed, and his blood mixed with the clay.
However, Geshtu-E was leader of the rebels, meaning the first humans shared his deceitful and pugnacious character. As the human population grew, the gods began to regret their decision. The noises made by the throngs of people disturbed their sleep. Enlil attempted to cull the population by sending plague, famine and drought. When his efforts failed, he sent the Deluge (flood) to destroy mankind.
The other gods pledged to keep Enlil’s plan secret, but the clever Ea (Enki) decided to warn one of his followers. Atrahasis was told to build a boat and to take on board all living things. When the flood came, Atrahasis. his family, and the species of the Earth survived. After seven days the boat came to rest on Mount Nimush, and Atrahasis released a dove, a swallow, and a raven to search for land.
The gods recognized the imprudence of their actions. They were starving without humans to produce their food, and when Atrahasis made them an offering, they swarmed to the scent. Atrahasis was blessed with immortality and settled far away from the next generation of humans on a remote island.
Enlil was angry with Ea for betraying his trust, but realized Ea’s wisdom. A new batch of humans were created with a number of deliberate flaws. To control overpopulation, the humans were made to suffer from stillbirth and infant mortality. Some women were made to be priestesses (nuns who refrain from sexual activity). Most importantly, the Angel of Death was unleashed, drastically reducing the human life-span. This explanation for the evils of the world is an important and clever part of the Sumerian flood story as it solves the problem of evil inherent to more recent religions.
Flood Stories Comparison
The following are direct quotes from the stories of Atrahasis and Noah that illustrate their profound similarity. These quotes come from the Epic of Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Old Testament.
ATRAHASIS: The boat you will build. her dimensions all shall be equal: her length and breadth shall be the same, cover her with a roof, like the ocean below. (Atrahasis speaking:) Three myriads of pitch I poured in a furnace.
NOAH: Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.
ATRAHASIS: Take on board the boat all living things' seed!
NOAH: To keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.
ATRAHASIS: I sent on board all my kith and kin, the beasts of the field, the creatures of the wild, and members of every skill and craft.
NOAH: Thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark.
ATRAHASIS: For six days and seven nights there blew the wind, the downpour, the gale, the Deluge, it flattened the land.
NOAH: And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
ATRAHASIS: It is I who give birth, these people are mine! And now like fish, they fill the ocean!
NOAH: And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.
ATRAHASIS: On the mountain of Nimush the boat ran aground.
NOAH: And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ar'arat.
ATRAHASIS: I brought out a dove, I let it loose: off went the dove but then it returned, there was no place to land so it came back to me. I brought out a swallow (same result). I brought out a raven, it saw the waters receding, finding food, bowing and bobbing, it did not come back to me.
NOAH: He sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground. But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot ... again he sent forth the dove out of the ark ... and lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off.
ATRAHASIS: I brought out an offering, to the four winds made sacrifice.
NOAH: And Noah built an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
ATRAHASIS: The gods did smell the savor sweet, the gods gathered round like flies around the man making sacrifice.
NOAH: And the LORD smelled a sweet savor; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake.
ATRAHASIS: He touched our foreheads, standing between us to bless us.
NOAH: God blessed Noah and his sons.
ATRAHASIS: You, birth goddess, creator of destinies, establish death for all peoples!
NOAH: My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.
Differences in the Flood Stories
Despite the striking similarity between the Sumerian flood story and the Biblical account of Noah, there are a number of small differences. Details such as the number of days the flood lasted, the name of the mountain, the types of bird sent from the ark, and the ark's dimensions are slightly different. However, the major events are all the same, and in some places the Noah story appears to have lifted entire phrases from the Sumerian story.
There are some more pronounced differences that were necessary to adapt the story to the Hebrew religion. Due to the different notions of heaven, Atrahasis is blessed and granted immortality like the gods, whereas Noah is blessed and allowed to live longer than his descendants. The Sumerian religion was a polytheistic one, so the god that warned Atrahasis was a different god to the one that brought the Deluge.
Finally, the Hebrew god couldn't have starved without human providers because the Book of Genesis describes an omnipotent god who created humans for other purposes. While the Hebrew god destroyed mankind for being wicked, the Sumerian gods may have had other reasons. The humans were rebellious and loud, but the Sumerian gods appear to have been annoyed with the noise rather than any specific immorality.
The Epic of Gilgamesh contains one account of the Sumerian flood story.
Did the Jews Change the Sumerian Flood Story?
Genetic studies show the Hebrew peoples originated in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, which principally includes Mesopotamia (Sumer), as well as Northern Egypt, Syria and Israel. Indeed, Abraham, the proposed ancestor of all Jews, was born in the Sumerian city of Ur. Thus, it is likely that the founders of Judaism were familiar with the specifics of Sumerian religion, including the story of Atrahasis.
It is common for religious stories and traditions to be borrowed from earlier versions. For example, the supernatural myths about Jesus have their origins in the Egyptian religion and other ancient belief systems. Likewise, it appears that the Hebrew peoples made the Epic of Atrahasis compatible with the beliefs and ideals of their religion.
Successful religions employ this tactic because original myths and fables are less believable for populations familiar with the existing ones. Thus, religions that survive and prosper will borrow and modify, rather than invent. The Hebrews would have been familiar with the story of the great flood, and it would have been far more credible to make a few corrections to the story than to claim there was no flood at all.
If one wishes to contend the historical accuracy of Noah or Atrahasis, the original source must hold greater value. However, when religious convenience overcomes this disadvantage, myths will endure under a new guise. The Sumerian flood story is the original version of Noah's Ark, and without the former, the latter may never have existed.
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© 2012 Thomas Swan