Go to Procursus, Chapter 5, 7, 9

E.A . Wallace Budge

Babylonian Life & History

Chapter Five

The Babylonian Story of the Flood
As Told in the Gilgamish Epic

Dramatis Personae

Page Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. The Story of Gilgamish
  3. Babylonian Story of the Flood
  4. The Subsequent Adventures of Gilgamish

A. Introduction

1 The account of the flood given in the Book of Genesis is not borrowed from the Babylonian Version, as has so often been stated. It is quite true that the Accounts in cuneiform and Hebrew agree in many places very closely, but the variations in them show that their writers, or editors, were dealing with a very ancient legend which had found its way among all the Sumerians, Semites and other peoples in Western Asia.

Exactly how old the legend is cannot be said, but there is reason for thinking that it was in existence before the Sumerians overcame the aboriginal inhabitants of Lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerian scribes treated the old indigenous legend in one way, the Babylonians in another, and the Hebrews in yet another, and it is pretty clear that variant versions of it existed among the Sumerians and Babylonians in the third millennium BC. Scheil has published (Recueil de Travaux, vol. xx., pages 35 ff.) the text of a part of a Babylonian Version from a tablet dating from the reign of Hammurabi, and Poebel has edited and translated (Hist. Texts and Hist. and Gram. Texts, Philadelphia, 1914) a portion of a Sumerian Version which was written in the reign of Ammisaduga, about 2000 BC. The scribes who wrote these texts did not invent the Legend of the Flood, and they must have had archetypes to copy, and how old these were no man can say.

In its simplest form the legend described what was probably only a local flood in Lower Babylonia, due to a wide-spread inundation of the Tigris or Euphrates, or both, which coincided with torrential rains in the district. Such floods have occurred in Lower Mesopotamia from time immemorial, and they have not been unknown during the last fifty years. In primitive times the reed-huts and mud-houses were swept away, whole villages were destroyed, and men and cattle were drowned.

The flood which is referred to in the legend must have been peculiarly destructive, for to both Sumerians and Babylonians it served as a sort of never-to-be-forgotten chronological landmark in their King Lists. Berossos (ed. Schnabel, page 261) states that ten kings reigned before the Flood for 120 sars, i.e., for 432,000 years; and of some of the kings whom he mentions the cuneiform equivalents are forthcoming. Thus, Enedôrachos is Enmeduranki, Opartes is Ubara-Tutu, and Xisûthros is Atrakhasis, The Legend of the Flood has nothing to do with the exploits of the mythical hero Gilgamish, and it is difficult to see why it is included in the history of them. It is possible that its incorporation in the Epic of Gilgamish is due to the scribes of Ashur-banipal.

One fact is worthy of note: every editor of the Legend tries to inculcate a moral lesson in his version. The city of Shuruppak was destroyed because of the wickedness of its people, which brought down upon them the wrath of Bêl, the god of middle heaven; and Uta-Napishtim being, like Noah, a righteous man, was warned by a divine power of the destruction that was to fall upon mankind; the sinner and all his possessions were to perish, but the righteous man should be saved alive; the gods see and know everything. The great moral lesson of the Epic of Gilgamish is that the greatest and mightiest king must die, for all men are born to die; no man can enjoy immortality on earth.

But this lesson is not what the Legend of the Flood as told by Berossos teaches. For, according to him, when Xisûthros found that the ark had come to a standstill he looked out and saw that it was resting on a mountainside. Therefore he and his wife and daughter and the pilot left the ark, made adoration to the earth, and built an altar and offered up sacrifices to the gods and then disappeared. When those who remained in the ark found that he and his wife and daughter and the pilot did not return to them they left the ark with many lamentations, calling continually on the name of Xisûthros. They saw him no more, but they could hear his voice in the air and his admonitions to be religious. The voice told them that it was on account of his piety that he had been translated to live with the gods, and that his wife and daughter and the pilot had received the same honour. The voice also told them to return to Babylonia, to search the writings at Sippara, which they were to make known to mankind. They offered sacrifices to the gods and journeyed towards Babylonia (see Cory, Ancient Fragments, London, 1832, pages 26 ff.).

2 The History of Gilgamish was written upon a Series of Twelve Tablets which were preserved in the Library of Nabû at Nineveh; the Eleventh of the Series contained the Legend of the Flood. According to a King List, Gilgamish, was the fifth king of a Sumerian Dynasty that ruled at Erech, and he reigned 126 years (see Gadd, Early Dynasties of Sumer and Akkad, London, 1921, page 36).

The contents of the tablets describing his exploits may be thus summarized:

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B. The Story of Gilgamish

Gilgamish was a great, wise and learned king, and was well acquainted with antediluvian history. He was a great traveller and a mighty hero, and he had a record of his deeds inscribed on a stone stele. He built the great wall of Erech and the temple E-Anna. He was part-god and part-man, two-thirds of him being god and one-third man.

His people suffered so greatly from the corvée which he imposed upon them that they cried out to the gods to send them a deliverer, and the gods ordered the goddess Aruru to create one. She washed her hands, took some clay, spat upon it, and made a man, who was covered with hair; he lived in the forests with the beasts, which he ruled by reason of his mighty stature and strength. He was called Enkidu. This name was formerly read Eabani.

When Gilgamish heard of him, he sent out a woman to the forest, and she lured him into Erech, where he and Gilgamish became great friends. One day the two friends quarrelled because Gilgamish wished to go to visit the goddess Ishkhara, and in the fight that took place between them Enkidu was the victor.

3 It was reported to Gilgamish that a mighty being called Khumbaba lived in the Forest of Cedars; his voice was like the roar of a storm, his breath was a whirlwind, and his mouth was like that of the gods. Gilgamish and Enkidu set out to attack Khumbaba, and having reached the Forest of Cedars, they overthrew him there.

When Gilgamish returned to Erech he arrayed himself in royal apparel, and the goddess Ishtar saw him and fell in love with him and promised him a gold chariot and horses, the service of kings and nobles, abundant flocks and herds, and the tribute of foreign nations, if he would become her lover.

Gilgamish rejected her advances, reviled her for her inconstancy, and hurled abusive words at her. Ishtar went to Anu, the Sky-god, and Antu, her mother, and having complained bitterly of the insults of Gilgamish, she entreated Anu to make a bull that would destroy him. Anu created a fire-breathing bull which went to Erech and killed many people in the city. Then Gilgamish and Enkidu went out and killed the bull and presented his horns to the god Lugalbanda.

Soon after this Gilgamish had a dream in which it seemed that disaster was about to fall upon Enkidu, and shortly afterwards that mighty hero fell sick, and died on the twelfth day of his illness. When Gilgamish saw his dead body he thought at first that Enkidu was asleep, but when he found that he was dead his grief made him roar like a lioness robbed of her cubs, and he bitterly lamented his brave friend, the “panther of the desert.”

When his burst of grief was over and he was wandering about the country, the thought struck him that he himself would die one day, and would then be even as was Enkidu. He dreaded the very idea of death, and determined to consult his ancestor, Uta-Napishtim, who had become immortal, as to the means he must take to escape from it. Where this ancestor lived he did not know, but it was somewhere in the West, and he set out without delay. He marched to Mount Mashu, fought with animals and men, talked with the Scorpion men, and then went on through a region of darkness, until he arrived in a beautiful garden, in which he saw the tree of the gods.

Here he met the goddess Siduri-Sabitu, and he asked her how he was to find the way to Uta-Napishtim. The goddess told him that the immortal lived in a place beyond the Waters of Death, which no one except the Sun-god had ever crossed, but that Ur-Shanabi, the boatman of Uta-Napishtim, was in her dwelling, and that he should see him. Gilgamish sought and found the boatman and, having followed his instructions, set out with him in his boat, and reached the abode of Uta-Napishtim in one month and fifteen days.

Uta-Napishtim saw the boat coming and went down to meet Gilgamish. When they had talked together and Gilgamish had told him that he did not wish to become dust like his friend Enkidu, and asked him how he could escape death, Uta-Napishtim told him that the gods had decreed the fate of every man, and that death was the lot of all men. Then Gilgamish asked him how it came about that he had obtained immortality, and in answer Uta-Napishtim told him the:

C. Babylonian Story of the Flood

4 The gods who dwelt in Shuruppak, a city on the Euphrates, persuaded the great gods Anu, Enlil (Bêl), Enurta, Ennugi and Ea to make a mighty storm. The god Ea spoke in a dream to Uta-Napishtim, who was sleeping in a reed hut, and told him to tear down his house, to build a ship, to abandon his goods and possessions and to save his life by means of the ship. It was to be as broad as it was long, and to have a roof, and he was to load the ship with all kinds of grain.

Uta-Napishtim replied that he heard and understood his lord’s commands and would fulfill them, but he asked Ea how he was to explain his action to his fellow-townsmen. Ea told him to say that he had incurred the wrath of Enlil, that he must leave Shuruppak and never see it again, and that he was going to sail on the ocean to his lord Ea.

The next morning Uta-Napishtim made men bring him bitumen and other materials for building the ship; it was 120 cubits high, and the roof had the same dimensions. He plastered it with bitumen, made a steering-pole and its fittings, and provided water-bolts. He slaughtered oxen and sheep for the workmen and supplied them with beer, oil and wine, and celebrated the completion of the ship by making a great feast like that held on New Year’s Day, and anointed himself with unguent.

He then loaded the ship with all his goods and possessions, gold, silver, grain, and sent into it his family and kinsfolk and servants and cattle.

The god Shamash warned him that the great storm would break at eventide and, when the night fell and the storm drew nigh, Uta-Napishtim went up into his ship and shut the door, as Shamash had commanded him; and his pilot Puzur-Bêl took charge of the ship. At dawn the storm was raging, black clouds covered the sky, lightnings rent the heavens, thunders pealed, and the whirlwind carried away the post of the ship. Darkness was everywhere, and torrents of rain poured down, and the waters reached to the mountains.

The flood swept away the people, who struggled against it as if they were fighting a battle. The gods themselves were terrified at the storm and fled to the highest heaven and cowered by the wall like dogs. Ishtar lamented bitterly when she saw the bodies of the drowned folk filling the sea “like little fishes,” and the gods joined their wailings to hers and sat down and wept. The rains descended and the cyclone raged for six days and six nights, but they ceased on the seventh day.

When Uta-Napishtim looked out through the air-hole of the ship he saw water everywhere, for the land was laid flat and men had become mud; and he sat down and wept.

Twelve days later they saw an island, and the pilot steered the ship to the land of Nisir, and when it reached the slope of Mount Nisir it grounded and remained fast for six days. On the seventh day Uta-Napishtim sent out a dove from the ship, and though it flew away it came back, for it could not find land on which to alight.

He then sent out a swallow, which flew away, but, like the dove, finding no land on which to alight, came back to the ship.

Next he sent out a raven, which flew away, and, finding ground from which it could peck food, it did not return.

Then Uta-Napishtim came out of his ship and offered up a sacrifice, and poured out a libation on the top of the mountain. The gods smelt the sweet savour of the sacrifice, and gathered together about it like flies. At this moment Ishtar came, and, lifting up her necklace of lapis-lazuli (i.e., the rainbow), which her father Anu had made for her, she swore that she would never forget the days that had just passed, and invited all the gods to partake of the sacrifice, except Enlil, who had made the flood and destroyed her people.

But Enlil came, and when he saw the ship and the man who had escaped alive from the flood, he was filled with wrath, and declared that the man should die. Then Ea asked Enlil how it came about that he refused to be advised and made the flood. Let the man, he said, who is a sinner suffer for his sin, and the transgressor pay for his transgression; Enlil should be merciful and compassionate, otherwise man and everything else would be destroyed.

“I would” (he said) “that a lion, or a wolf, or famine, or plague had come upon man rather than thy storm.”

And in order to save the life of Uta-Napishtim, Ea told Enlil that he had not revealed to Uta-Napishtim the decision of the gods to make a storm, but had only sent him a vision through which the man had found it out. Enlil apparently agreed to spare the life of Uta-Napishtim, for Ea went up into the ship and, taking him by the hand, led him out with his wife. Then Ea made them to kneel on the ground facing each other, and he stood up between them and blessed them, and pronounced the decree that Uta-Napishtim and his wife, who were mortals, should henceforward be immortal, like the gods, and he assigned to them a place at the mouth of the rivers in which they were to dwell. In accordance with Ea’s decree, Uta-Napishtim and his wife were taken to a remote place at the mouth of the rivers, and there they dwelt.

5 Thus Uta-Napishtim obtained immortality, not for any special merit of his own, but because Enlil, having promised the gods of Shuruppak that he would send a storm to destroy the city and its people, would not permit the man who had escaped from the storm which he sent to continue his life as a man. Enlil’s word and decree were absolute and must be held to be so by gods and men.

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D. The Subsequent Adventures of Gilgamish

6 We are not told what Gilgamish thought of Uta-Napishtim’s Story of the Flood, but it is clear that he was not content with the statement that all men must die at one time or another. And when Uta-Napishtim asked what god would unite him to himself and make him immortal, Gilgamish had nothing to say.

Knowing the weakness of man’s physical nature, Uta-Napishtim told him to do without sleep for six days and seven nights, but as soon as Gilgamish sat down he became drowsy and fell asleep, and slept for six days. When Uta-Napishtim pointed this out to his wife, she had pity on Gilgamish and asked her husband to help him to get back to his home; she baked bread and carried it to the ship, and Uta-Napishtim told Ur-Shanabi to take him back to the place whence he came.

During a conversation about death, Gilgamish asked his host for advice as to his future proceedings in his quest of immortality. Uta-Napishtim told him that a certain plant, which grew at the bottom of the sea, would, if he ate of it, renew his youth. Gilgamish tied stones to his feet and sank himself down to the bottom of the sea and found the plant, and pulled it up and returned to the boat. On his way back to Erech he and Ur-Shanabi passed a pool of cold water, and Gilgamish decided to take a bath. He placed the plant that renewed youth in a safe place before he entered the pool, but whilst he was in the water a serpent discovered its whereabouts by its smell and ate it. Gilgamish cursed and wept over his wasted labour and, tired and depressed, he continued his journey.

In due course he and Ur-Shanabi reached Erech. But the haunting fear of death continued to harass Gilgamish, and he still hoped to find a way to attain to immortality, and thought that he might discover it among the dead. He consulted the priests, who were ready to help him on certain conditions; what these were we know not, but it is clear that they were unacceptable to him, and that he could not enter the abode of the dead to find immortality.

Then he remembered that his friend Enkidu was among the dead, and he believed that, if only he could see him and talk to him, he might obtain some useful information. As the priests could not help him, he petitioned Enlil (Bêl) to permit the spirit of Enkidu to come to him, but the god did not answer; Gilgamish petitioned Sin, with the same result.

He then petitioned Ea, who, pitying him, ordered Enurta to bring the spirit of Enkidu up to earth. Enurta opened the ground, and the spirit of Enkidu came up; but such answers as it gave to the questions of Gilgamish afforded him very little satisfaction, and helped him in no way. Of the history of Gilgamish after this event nothing is known.

Interactive review questions are available covering the procursus and chapter 5 (this chapter). You can attempt them in a series of three "wimp" quizzes (1, 2, 3), or a pair of "normal" quizzes (1, 2), or a single hero version. The versions vary only in how many questions are blocked into a single quiz.

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Go to Procursus, Chapter 5, 7, 9