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The Sumerian Flood Story That Is Older Than Noah

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

In the Sumerian flood story, the gods unleash the Deluge, a terrible storm that floods the world.

In the Sumerian flood story, the gods unleash the Deluge, a terrible storm that floods the world.

The Original Flood Myth

The story of Noah’s Ark first appeared around 1,000 BCE in compositions that became part of the Jewish Torah and the Old Testament. Over a thousand years prior to this account, 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 a great "Deluge" (flood) that is sent by the gods. This myth appears in the epic tales of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh around 2,000 BCE, bringing the veracity of the later Biblical account into question.

The Sumerian civilization emerged from what is now called Iraq in 4,000 BCE, but in the period prior to the Jewish Noah, it was also known as Akkade, Assyria, and Babylon, based on various city-states that achieved dominance in the region. The geographical region (see below) is often called Mesopotamia.

Between 3,500 BCE and 3,000 BCE, the Sumerians developed what may be the oldest form of writing (likely older than Egyptian hieroglyphs), called the cuneiform script, which they carved into clay tablets. It is on these that they recorded their story of the Deluge.

Ancient Sumer (in modern-day Iraq) was a civilization based around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Ancient Sumer (in modern-day Iraq) was a civilization based around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Noah in the Mythology of Mesopotamian Civilizations

The Sumerians worshiped a diverse pantheon of gods, of which a supreme triad ruled over myriad lesser deities. Anu was the supreme sky god, Enlil presided over the Earth, and Ea (or Enki) dwelt in the ocean below. In the Sumerian flood story, these gods sent the Deluge to wipe out mankind.

The story's protagonist is warned by the gods to build an ark and preserve the beasts of the wild. He was called Ziusudra, Atrahasis, or Uta-Napishti depending on the era.

  • Ziusudra, Sumerian era, 2,150 BCE
  • Atrahasis, Akkadian era, 1,800 BCE
  • Uta-Napishti, Babylonian era, 1,300 BCE
  • Noah, Israel, 1,000 BCE

Generally, the changes in name reflect the evolving language of the region rather than changes to the story. The story only changed significantly in the Old Testament version (1,000 BCE) to reflect the beliefs and traditions of the Hebrew peoples (e.g., one god instead of many).

Atrahasis also appears in the Babylonian version, but Uta-Napishti is the name he adopts after being granted immortality by the gods. The name means "he found life."

The Epic of Atrahasis was written on clay tablets in the cuneiform writing style of Sumer. Noah's Ark was written on parchment about a millennium later.

The Epic of Atrahasis was written on clay tablets in the cuneiform writing style of Sumer. Noah's Ark was written on parchment about a millennium later.

A Summary of the Sumerian Flood Myth

The Sumerian account begins with the creation of mankind and follows the events that led to their destruction by the supreme triad of gods in the Deluge. It is preserved in its most complete form in the Epic of Atrahasis but also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic states that the gods lived 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, these lesser deities rebelled and refused to do any more work.

The supreme triad was sympathetic and ordered the Mother Goddess, Mami, to create humans to do the work instead. 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.

Geshtu-E happened to be the leader of the rebels, meaning the first humans shared his deceitful and pugnacious nature. As the human population grew, the gods began to regret their decision. The noises made by the throngs of people disturbed the gods' sleep. The Earth god, 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 Deluge (1840) by Francis Danby, in the Tate Gallery.

The Deluge (1840) by Francis Danby, in the Tate Gallery.

The other gods pledged to keep Enlil’s plan a secret, but the clever Ea (also known as 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 he realized Ea’s wisdom. A new batch of humans were created with a number of deliberate flaws. To control overpopulation, humans were made to suffer from stillbirth and infant mortality. Some women were also made to be priestesses (nuns who refrain from sexual activity). Most importantly, the Angel of Death was unleashed, drastically reducing the human lifespan.

This explanation for the evils of the world is an important and clever part of the Sumerian flood story because it solves the problem of evil inherent to more recent religions.

The Discovery That Noah's Ark Was Unoriginal

A Direct Comparison of the Flood Stories

What follows are direct quotes from the stories of Atrahasis and Noah to 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 sent out a swallow (pictured), dove, and raven in the Sumerian flood story.

Atrahasis sent out a swallow (pictured), dove, and raven in the Sumerian flood story.

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 Between the Flood Stories

Despite the striking similarity between the Sumerian and Biblical flood myths, there are several small differences. Details such as the reason for mankind's destruction, the number of days the flood lasted, the name of the mountain, the types of birds sent from the ark, and the ark's dimensions are all slightly different.

However, the major events are identical and, in some places, the Noah authors appear to have lifted entire phrases from the Sumerian story.

Some of the differences between the stories appear to have been necessary to adapt it to the Jewish religion. For example, the Abrahamic god is omnipotent, so he couldn't have starved without humans to provide for him, although he still "savored the sweet smell" of the offering.

Other changes reflect different notions of heaven. For example, Atrahasis was blessed and granted immortality, while Noah was blessed and allowed to live longer than his descendants (before going to heaven). Furthermore, the Sumerian religion was polytheistic, with the god that warned Atrahasis being different from the god that brought the Deluge. This aspect of the story could not be reproduced in the Biblical version.

Four Sumerian gods, including (left to right), Inanna, Utu, Enki (the sea god who warned Atrahasis), and Isimud (Enki's assistant).

Four Sumerian gods, including (left to right), Inanna, Utu, Enki (the sea god who warned Atrahasis), and Isimud (Enki's assistant).

Was the Sumerian Flood Story Plagiarized?

Genetic studies show that 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 accounts. For example, supernatural myths about Jesus may have their origins in earlier beliefs about Osiris, Horus, Sol Invictus, Mithras, and Dionysus (although the evidence is often overstated). Likewise, it appears that the Hebrew peoples made the Epic of Atrahasis compatible with the beliefs and ideals of their religion.

Successful religions presumably do this because developing new myths would be less believable to populations that already have their own myths. To survive and prosper, a new religion must borrow and modify rather than invent; it must show why the old myth actually means something different. The Hebrew peoples would have been familiar with the story of the great flood and it would have been more credible to make a few alterations to the story than to claim there was no flood at all.

The similarities and necessary alterations to the Sumerian flood story that appear in the Bible version make it almost indisputable that the latter plagiarized the former. In other words, the Sumerian flood story is the original version of Noah's Ark and, without the former, the latter may never have existed.

Sources

  • Lambert, W. G., & Millard, A. R. (1999 [1969]). Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. London: Eisenbrauns.
  • Kramer, S. N. (1972). Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (Rev. ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Kramer, S. (1983). The Sumerian Deluge Myth. Anatolian Studies, 33, 115-121.
  • The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.



© 2012 Thomas Swan

Comments

Serbona on May 07, 2017:

I do not understand why is Sumer so big enigma? Genealogy proved that the Sumer was established by Celts, Kamrian Celts or Kamri, Kimeri, Kumeri, Sumeri, Kimbri.., 5000 years ago;The official history is one big lie; Kamri of Kimeri they was a part of great Koloven's people and Koloven's civilisation..

miraculoso on February 13, 2017:

This is merely the same story told from two different cultures in two different languages.

John T. Hutchinson on July 29, 2015:

First, the Sumerian flood story is not all that alike with the Hebrew.

Secondly, almost every people in all four corners of the world have a flood story (except notably the Egyptians. But the Egyptians are well known as the first propagandists to scrub historical events and peoples away). And in proportion to geographical distance from the Levant, there is correlation in how dissimilar their accounts are from theirs, except in places where it appears obvious that Christian missionaries reintroduced the Noahic account. The notion of sin as cause for the flood extends only to Indian accounts.

On the basis of forensic evidence, and in having no logical and necessary theological reason why each of these various peoples have a flood story; at minimum, this evinces that a sufficiently traumatic flood did occur upon the face of the earth, whose experience was handed down through oral traditions in each of the various tribes and nations. If a flood only occurred in a limited locale, it would indicate that these various ethnics were at one time more concentrated in a local spot (giving the Babel story more plausibility).

Elizabeth from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions on December 09, 2014:

I'm not sure at all that the supposed witnesses to the events depicted in Jesus' life are as credible as people would like to believe. First, there is no contemporary record of Jesus' life at all. Secondly, the gospels were written between forty and one hundred years after he supposedly died, not by eyewitnesses, nor do they claim to be, and the of the gospels (the synoptic) copy each other and make changes. The first writings we have are the seven authentic Pauline letters, who admittedly never met him at all. So what reliable, corroborating sources do we have really? The answer of course is none.

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on December 05, 2014:

This is most interesting. As a Christian I have never doubted that a lot of the stories in Genesis were written as a counter to the other myths. As you say they were adapted to suit the Hebrew religion and as such they hold truths for us. Mostly the idea was to show One almighty God instead of many gods. The stories about Jesus though I do not think are myths as there were witnesses to the events.

Mel92114 on September 26, 2014:

Such revelations in your work, Thomas! The last paragraph really, really hits home with me as I couldn't agree more! The similarities and commonalities are striking, indeed. Excellent, excellent work here. I cannot wait to read more of your hubs!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on December 28, 2012:

Thanks Angie, I appreciate the comment and kind words!

Angie Jardine from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on December 28, 2012:

Hi Thomas … many thanks for this fascinating hub.

As is usual with your hubs I found it riveting.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on December 24, 2012:

Cheers for the comment World Religion! Yes, I've researched this quite a bit; glad you found it helpful.

World Religion from the Cosmos on December 23, 2012:

Wow, that was a revelation. Very helpful, indeed. I'll need to get back to this in the future for reference.