Stories of floods appear in most ancient mythologies, manifested as apocalyptic events caused by a God or gods. The Mesoamericans, Chinese, ancient Greeks and Scandinavians1 all suffered the wrathful storms of a vengeful deity. Human civilisation grew around river systems, with the Amazon, Indus, Nile-Kagera2, Yellow River and Yangtze, and the Kızılırmak3 bearing some of the earliest, as humankind wrestled with the life-giving properties of fierce local waters, and created canals, flood plains and dykes. Gathering around the plains of their mighty twin rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates4, the ancient Sumerians of the 4th Century BC were probably the earliest civilisation of the Fertile Crucible5 in the Middle East and their tale of a great deluge is a prime example of poetic myth-making based on natural elements. It is also the earliest known story of apocalyptic literature, and embedded in our consciousness it’s a primary source for modern gothic, sf and dark fantastic fiction.
Sumeria and Babylonia
The earliest Sumerian legend is a written record (on tablets of clay) of much earlier oral traditions. It is described in the Eridu Genesis (c. 2300 BC)6, and is the source of the later Dream of Atrahasis (c. 1600 BC)7 from the Hammurabi’s Babylonians8, the inheritors of Sumerian knowledge. The subsequent flood story relayed by Utnapishtim9 in the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1200 BC) as the eponymous hero attempts to gain immortality, gives a more detailed account. Modern archeological evidence does point to a huge flood across the rivers10 of Ancient Near East from c. 3500 BC–2600 BC creating an event that certainly would have appeared world-ending to the emerging civilisations of the time. The King Lists from Ancient Sumeria11 show rulers with apparently long lives preceding the flood, entering the mythology and religion of a region ruled variously by the vying city states of Ur, Babylon, Akkad Uruk and others. Interestingly, the father of Atrahasis, Ubaratu, the last named King in the list before the flood, is listed as living 18,600 years, and is named in the Dream of Atrahasis when the god Enlil whispers to Atrahasis. Such rulers are referred to as Antediluvian12, adding to their legendary status, and they come from an era when history was recorded according to the life-length of individual rulers, rather than an objective standard of year lengths. Apocalyptic tales of floods derive from such times of myth-making, as humankind moved from Iron to Bronze ages13, battling with the natural world around them, casting tools and weapons, developing the means to record, describe and write, and slowly gathering control over their landscape.
Retelling the Myth
The retelling of this story has its challenges because the source material bears so many gaps. The three versions come to us on fragments of clay tablets and cylinders (especially from the great Library of Ashurbanipal14, the names are different, the gods and their relationships with each other vary and we experience the narrative through the emerging discovery of translations and the painstaking skill of scholars beach-combing and cross-referring, refining their understanding in much the same way that scientists find new answers to the questions of the beginnings of the universe by finding more evidence and asking yet more questions. Recent work about the dates of the Sumerian King List for instance, point to a possible misunderstanding about the calendar dating system used by Sumerians, with the pictograms of early language originally developed to describe measurements and quantities on a base 60 system15, rather than the rationalised systems introduced by the contemporaneous Akkadian Empire16, and modern Western decimal system, raising questions about the description of calendar year cycles used in Sumerian texts.
In Other Traditions
This Deluge story retells an event perhaps some 1000 years before any written record, and clearly informs the biblical tale of Noah and the Ark. But the Ancient Near East is not alone, for many early civilisations treat the apocalyptic events of local flooding in such terms, from India to China, the Phillippines to Mesoamerica, ancient Greece, and the Abrahamic tale of Noah and the Ark. It’s also worth noting that the Babylonian civilisation that brought us The Dream of Atrahasis thrived at roughly the same time as the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (c. 2030-1650 BC), the Shāng (商) Dynasty around the Yellow River in China (c. 1920-1200 BC), and the Olmec cultures of c. 1500 BC in Mesoamerica. Across the world peoples with little or no contact were developing their language and religions, wrestling with the same challenges brought by proximity to their own life-giving rivers.
The Tale Retold
The three main sources on which this new version is based were conveyed in a form of verse. It’s not the sort of poetry we’re used to: there are no rhymes and if there is alliteration or accented rhythm that’s lost in the translation. Each line does contain a whole idea though, and much repetition throughout adds to the sense of an epic retelling, highlighting the rhetorical nature of the original oral sources that informed the written texts. The tales are written in the first person, told to the listener as a story within a story, in the context of a longer myth.
This new version is written as prose, and in the third person. Some liberties have been taken with the original translated text in order to recreate a tale that’s satisfying to the modern ear, but an attempt has been made to retain the epic nature of the myth, and the key event-moments of a tale more well-known through reputation than actual reading. This is not intended as a scholarly exercise, but broadly represents the combination of sources and offers an internal consistency to the names of the gods and humans.
It’s also worth mentioning that the myth is firmly placed in a man’s world where the exercise of physical strength was dominant, a powerful relic of the hunter-gather epoch, and so it makes uncomfortable reading to a 21st century sensibilities, for here the women are only wives, mothers or slaves, and generally nameless, even the goddesses when named, are restricted to authority over fertility, birth, and the hearth.
For my own writing, the world building of the Sumerians, the codifications of the Babylonians and the fragmentary access to their beliefs and their determination in the face of powerful natural forces, create a vivid space for exploring our place in the universe, arguably more so than the well-trodden paths of the Romans and the Greeks. I’m fascinated by all points of origin, from scientific explorations of dark matter and the Big Bang, to the mythic evocations of pre-eternity and creation. Such themes are expressed in terms of chaos and darkness, light and shadow, the arrival or creation of creatures who come to dominate or threaten this world or the universe itself. With the Earth of humans and the Heavens of the Sumerian gods co-existing in time and space the apocalyptic effect of events across all realms affect the existence of all things and offers so much opportunity for exploration. My fiction, in the forthcoming series These Fantastic Worlds, with characters who cross the divides of time, returning demons and creatures to their proper places, explores these mythic connections to the dark fantastic, the other-worldly, the horrors and fears of dark, ancient spaces.
The full text of the new prose version of The Great Deluge (Retold) will appear in here.
- Eridu Genesis link. At earth-history.com
- Link to the original fragments of verse Epic of Atrahasis at Livius.org
- Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by R. Campbell Thomson, here. At the Sacred Texts.
- More about Gilgamesh: https://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/
- Information about Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, at the British Museum.
- More about the wonders of the Ancient Library of Ashurbanipal.
- Map of the Fertile Crucible (from the Linking to Thinking blog)
- Archeological evidence for the flood.
- A version of the Sumerian King List on show at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.
- Here’s a clear explanation of the mathematical basis of base 60 and its origins in Sumerian cuneiform.
- Norse mythology, including the Prose Edda, and the finish sagas collected in the Kalevala.
- At 6719 km long the Nile is the longest river in the world, it reaches up from the Egyptian delta in the Mediterranean, becoming the Kagera further South to Uganda, Tanzania and on the borders of Kenya to Lake Victoria. It was home to the great dynasties of the Ancient Egyptians.
- River around which the ancient Hittites built their warrior civilisation, and once part of Ancient Anatolia. The English name is the Red River, in modern Turkey.
- Mesopotamia, the name given by Western archeologists and colonial explorers means the Land of Two Rivers.
- also known as the cradle of civilisation this covers the lands of Egypt, across the shores of the mediterranean down the rives of the Tigris and the Euphrates, grazing Anatolia along the way. The Links section below will take you to a map.
- This is the earliest story containing the story of the flood, although only a third of it has been discovered in excavations in the city of Nippur, Iraq. It covers the creation of the universe, humankind, invention of cities and the great deluge. The hero Ziusudra (known as Atrahasis and Upnapishtim in later versions) from Eridu was instructed by Ea (Enki) and granted immortality for his faithful service. Nippur, in Ancient Summeria was a city state who woeshipped Enlil, the god who cause of the great deluge.
- Atraḥasis is Utnaspishtim in later versions, and Noah in the Abrahamic tale. A number of different versions have been excavated at Ugarit in Syria and Sippar in Southern Iraq, with clay tablets written in Assyrian and Babylonian.
- Hammurabi was the sixth king of the Amorite First Dynasty of Babylon. He conquered all lands of the Tigris and Euphrates, including the city states of Kish, Sippar, and Borsippa. He is best known today for his code of laws of living and beaviour which came to be adopted by many other cultures.
- Also known as Ziusudra, Atrahasis in later versions of the flood story, and the Noah figure of the Torah. In the Epic of Gilgamesh he is the mortal made immortal by the gods because he carried out the faithful instructions of the god Ea (Enlil), built the vessel that rescued the future of humankind. Gilgamesh seeks Utnapishtim for advice on how to achieve immortality for himself, and hears the tale of the great flood.
- Shuruppak, Ur and Kish are the sites of the main sites of excavation.
- The Weld-Blundell prism sits in the Ashmolean Museum and is said to be the most complete of the discovered Sumerian King lists. It’s just 8 ins/20cm tall with cuneiform on all four sides in 2 columns.
- i.e. before the flood.
- In the Sumerian regions the Bronze age occurred broadly from 3500 BC, ended from c. 1200 BC) The advent of Bronze, a mix of 90% copper and 10% tin allowed more sophisticated measuring instruments, and, of course, weaponry.
- A collection of thousands of cuneiform clay tablets, detailing the records, literature, science and history across the region of Ancient Near East. Located in Ninevah, then capital of Assyria, The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal is named after the last king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The library itself is dated in the 7th Century BC but contains tablets up to 1500-2000 years older, including versions of the Epic of Gligamesh.
- This is derived from astronomical observations of the passage of the sun, and the phases of the moon and resulted in the 360 day year being the basis of the calendar for many centuries. It survives in our modern use of 360 degree measurements, the divisions of our clock into 12 and the use of the imperial foot as 12 inches
- The Akkadian language was used as the official form of communication between rulers, priests and high class officials, much as Latin was employed in Europe by the Roman Empire in its conquest of many lands, and their many languages.