The Ancient Sumerian and Babylonian Myth of Apocalypse, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Dream of Atrahasis and the Eridu Genesis.
Retold by Jake Jackson.
The Great Deluge: Beginnings
Enlil, Fategiver, Lord of Storms and warrior god ruled the realm of Earth, creating kings and great temples for the pure worship and honour of the gods who lived alongside Earth in the great realms of Heaven. Enlil populated the lands with small human creatures made from the clay of the Euphrates, and these people lived long, serving their masters well. In time though they increased vastly in number, and became a source of great noise as they spread across the Earth.
Greatly disturbed, unable to think or sleep Enlil yearned for the eternity of silence that had prevailed across the waters of the deep before the separation of the Heavens from Earth. Where once he had celebrated his noble task, revelling in the worship from his bridge across the worlds, the burgeoning city state of Nippur, and the great harvests of food that were distributed to the gods by these bustling, proliferating creatures, now Enlil suffered in the long nights from the constant noise of busy endeavour. As humans populated the earth, making pots, and striking stoves for fire, clattering their instruments at harvest, carousing and fighting they talked, and talked, and in talking yet more they fuelled a gathering rage in the heart of the Lord of Storms until he could bear it no longer: he declared to rid the world of the pestilence of humankind.
Enlil called a council of the gods in Surupuk a mighty city along the Euphrates. The gods and the people of the earth did dwell in the same places as each other, but the separation of the realms had caused humankind a blindness to the presence of the ancient deities, and so the council of gigantic deities would swirl around and above the people of the city without their notice. Fired into life on the banks of the Euphrates by the hot blood of the gods, the humans otherwise would be terrified by the sight of their creators, their ears would burn in the hearing of the pure and powerful voices, and driven mad their fragile forms would melt back to the muddy rivers of the world. Only the very wise, the prophets and the visionaries, could learn to hear the whispers of the great inhabitants of the heavens, the capricious spirit-giants who sometimes gave instruction, or made demands, sometimes out of wicked amusement, through the form of dreams. Those who received such reports were revered, and became leaders of people, in tribes and cities across the land.
One such, a sage and humble ruler, was Atrahasis, the Lord of Surupuk where he lived amongst his people in the mansions and reed dwellings along the banks of the river. His wisdom was so great that not only was he admired by the people of the city, but the gods themselves acknowledged his exquisite abilities, one whose wisdom might match their own, if not for the fragility of his earthly form. The god Enki, he of the rivers and waters of the world, a virile god who perched under the earth, in the great ocean Abzu, and brother to Enlil, would whisper for hours to the gifted ears of Atrahasis. Although Enlil was worshipped in Surupuk, Enki too was venerated by many, as blessings were requested for their own creations, the mosaics and pottery, the little crafts of wonder that gave splendour to the streets and alleys, the wellsprings and hearths of humankind.
And so, the Gods gathered, hailing from the many realms of the heavens, Bel, Mnip, Ami, Ninurta and Ennugi came together with Hades too leaving his own dark caverns to join his fellows, the gods of rivers, canals, mountains, air and forests. The Great Father Anu presided, and after long discussions, with much regret, it was clear they too shared Enlil’s frustrations with the busy noise of humankind. They complained much about the clatter of the creatures fashioned to serve the needs of the gods, that the benefits of humankind no longer outweighed the sins of disturbing their masters, the gods. So, with heavy hearts, they agreed that Enlil should release his storms and together they would overwhelm the Earth with a great deluge, thus sweeping humans from their homes and ending the enemies of silence, returning them to the muds of the rivers, to leave a peaceful land and the Heavens no longer to be troubled. Great Father Anu, as always on such grave matters, required the gods swear a solemn oath to honour their dreadful judgement.
The god Enki, who had grown to enjoy his connections with the wise and sagacious grew regretful. He remembered the achievements of Atrahasis, and his people, and knew he would miss the gentle visions and dreams, the idle directions cast across the waters for the ears of Atrahasis. He would miss the fascination of watching the people of the city and the banks of the Euphrates as they grew in knowledge, taking the words from his visions, and applying them to the land, to their own creations. He wrestled with the oath he had sworn, and decided it would not stop him whispering at the reed walls of Atrahasis’s house, in the night, to tell of the terrors to come, and give instruction, leaving him to find the words by the subtleties of his own mind, for no other human would be wise enough to hear, still less, to understand.
And so he thought greatly, of wood and tar, and methods unknown to the peoples of the land, then he sneaked across and spoke:
“Reed Wall, Reed Wall, hear my words,
And if you happen to listen, oh man of Surupak,
oh son of Ubar-Tutu you must attend, for we gods
have laid an oath so dread to destroy
all of man and woman born, to destroy
all who are deemed to have sinned
against the gods, and so by their very nature,
all of mankind born, is destined to be drowned.”
Atrahasis felt the rush of words in his dreams, and woke to visions all of destruction if he did not listen.
“You must leave now, forsaking all possessions,
and build, and when the time is right seek all living creatures.
You must make a vessel, in which such seed of life
must be caused to enter. And the boat, she be roofed
from fore to aft, for those you gather must shelter,
as the earth roofs the eternal ocean. And so you must
make a perfect shape, with 600 cubits along its length,
and 60 cubits the measure of its breadth and height.
And once gathered all to its heart, you must launch it forth
and I will shower it with a windfall of birds and a spate of fishes.”
Enki shook the reed wall with his urgent whispers, and reaching through he opened the water clock, filled it and showed Atrahasis that the deluge would last seven days and seven nights, and wash all humankind into the seas, and return them to mud.
Atrahasis was frightened, and said, “ But how shall I answer the city, the people and our elders? What shall I say to them as they see me build, as you command and gather? They will deride me, young and old alike.”
And Enki’s voice drifted through the vision, perceived by the wisdom of his servant Atrahasis,
“You will say to them, the gods Enki and Enlil are severed,
and as you are known to follow Enki, Enlil has rejected me,
Say, ‘I can reside no longer in this great city, nor in the lands of his creation.
I will go down to Apsu, to the caves below the seas and live with my Lord,
As a great deluge descends upon these lands.”
Atrahasis was thoughtful, and listened further as his lord Enki continued,
“Once the vessel is made you will it enter and open the door wide
so to bring in thy grain, thy furniture, and thy essential goods,
thy female servants, thy slaves, and the young men,
the beasts and the animals all as I will gather and send to thee,
and they shall all be enclosed within thy doors.”
Atrahasis sighed. His head did not feel that a single vessel could rescue him, for surely the Earth was fixed, and from where could all the waters come? But he stilled the doubts and decided to trust the word of the Lord who had yet to mislead or betray him.
Enki whispered on, ignoring the doubts of his servant,
“And while you make the vessel I have commanded of you,
I shall bring you a harvest of true wealth, in the morning
loaves of bread shall shower down, and in evening a rain of wheat.
You shall have your fill while building, and more besides to store.”
And so Atrahasis turned and brought about him his family and friends, explaining they must trust his word, for he in turn trusted the whispers of his vision, as they are spoken by his Lord Enki. Even as the vision seemed too fanciful, and beyond the imagination of all around they agreed to obey the instructions, and set about the foundation of the boat amidst a great field. The carpenter brought his hatchet, the reed worker brought his stone, children brought the bitumen to bind the wood, and the weak of limb and breath, they too brought whatever was needed else for all to complete the task.
By the fifth day the framework had been laid, as large as the field; 14 measures all round, 14 measures in height, with walls and frames fixed within its long roof. Six decks, each divided into seven levels were divided further into nine compartments, and so it was ready to be tested.
Atrahasis studied it from within on the sixth day, examined its exterior on the seventh, then once more the inside he checked on the eighth, placing plugs against leaks where they might spring, and where he saw all manner of rents he noted the mends required.
And so in the purpose of this vast task raw bitumen was poured into specially constructed kilns and melted. 3 measures of the blackest pitch were then poured over the outside of the vessel to seal the wood, and 3 more poured over the inside. 3 times 3600 porters carried baskets of vegetable oils where they laid down two thirds for storage and kept out the balance for the dedication of the great work. Huge boxes were constructed so that one third of the oxen could be slaughtered for the craftsmen, and a third of the sheep, ready for sacrifice to Enki. And the two thirds then was kept for storage upon the boat.
And so, Atrahasis caused to be gathered beer and wine as free-flowing as the river, and food so plentiful as the grains of dust across the earth. Two thirds were taken into the vast construction, and one third retained for a party of the exhausted, to honour the end of their labours, to celebrate as wild and the joyful as the New Year festival, at the end of all things.
Atrahasis watched the as reed oars too were brought aboard, and saw the final preparations as the sunset saw the boat was finally completed. He fell into deep contemplation about the mighty efforts of all, wondering at the chests of silver and gold hauled in, reflecting the strength and metal of his own purpose, as he had gathered the seed of life into the vessel, his kith and kin, the servants and the beasts, the sons and daughters, the craftsmen, all hailed in. And as night pulled across the skies the huge boat was rolled along long poles until two thirds rested in the waters, awaiting the truth of Atrahasis’s vision from his precious Lord.
And while he watched, Great Shamash, known as Utu by some, the God of Justice and Day, of the Sun and Truth Revealed, spoke quietly from behind the reed walls of night into the ears of Atrahasis,
“I will cause it to rain so heavily,
You must not linger at the perimeter of your ship.
But flee to its midst; seal all thy doors
And be ready for the crash of waters.”
As the day approached Atrahasis watched with such fear in his heart, and doubt. For his final act he gave his mansion, its goods and lands to Puzur Amurri, a boatman who had decided to stay, and so to seal the final door from the outside, with bitumen.
And so, at the appointed hour, the moment of Enlil’s rage arrived. The gods gathered to execute the purpose of their oath and cleanse the lands of noisy humankind; they rose, from the horizon of the Heavens extending and wide arranged themselves, revealed into the realm of Earth to cause utter devastation. Yul in the midst of it thundered, and Nebo and Saru bore ahead, the throne bearers heaved over mountains and plains, the destroyer Nergal burst forth, Ninip surged in front and cast down, the ancient spirits hauled destruction in their glory as they swept across the Earth. Erragal then pulled at the mooring ropes of the world and made the dykes of the Heavens flow, Adad hurled his torrential rain and all the gods set the land ablaze as the light of the emerging day turned to deepest, blackest night.
The bright earth was turned quickly to waste, the surface of the land obliterated by the thunderstorms and floods, with all people blinded by the onslaught draining from the skies, so none could see their fellows sliding from existence all around, or hear them above the roar of the hurricanes.
Everywhere, life was swept from the face of the Earth, overwhelming all people, all creatures, all lands, and so powerful was the cataclysm that it reached to the Heavens and threatened even the gods themselves. Now they too began to fear the tempest, anxious that its wild intensity might destroy them, so they sought refuge and ascended to the highest Heaven of Anu to protest. Like frightened dogs the gods, in droves, fell prostrate at the walls of Anu’s Heaven; Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and desire spoke out, distraught as a child, and appealed to the Father of the Gods:
“All to corruption is turned! I too, in the presence
of the gods at our Council, professed against evil,
As evil against us was vent, as sin against us caused
but now I profess thus: no sooner have I begotten
my people on the land like the young fishes
They are scattered as they fill the seas with death.”
And the ancient of spirits, the Anunnaki, the lofty redeemers of Fate, echoed Ishtar, and sat lamenting too, their lips covered with evil, slithering, they wretched with distress and regret.
Six days and nights passed, the winds, the deluge, and storm had overwhelmed humankind and swept all away; the waters had closed across and made a single stretch of ocean, with no mountains, islands, and no place for land creatures to dwell, all was lost, but for the single vessel tossed high and higher by the devastating waves.
On the seventh day, with the terrible deed now consummated, the writhing agonies of the deluge began to subside: the whirlwinds abated, the storms retreated, and soon all turmoil fell away to silence.
Atrahasis perceiving the throw of the vessel to have steadied, so ventured to open a hatch, and found daylight breaking across his upturned face. He allowed himself a moment of joy, and relief, before opening his eyes, to observe the whole of mankind, once turned evil to the gods now reduced to clay, and like reeds, corpses floated long on the seas, into the horizon.
Atrahasis fell to his knees and wept, a deluge of his own, his face flowing with tears. Through exhausted eyes he looked out once more and blinked, seeing there a distant shore some twelve leagues away. Land perhaps, he thought, or a cruel illusion.
And so sailed Atrahasis’ vessel to the place where once the country of Urartu resided and where, as the seas withdrew slowly, the tips of mountains halted further progress. The first day, and the second, the mountain held the vessel. So too the third day, and the fourth, followed by the fifth, an sixth, the vessel could not move further.
So on the seventh day Atrahasis opened the hatch once more and sent forth a dove. It flew off, but did not find a resting-place, and so returned all to soon.
Next Atrahasis released a swallow into the sky. Joyfully it spun across the air, but did not find a place to rest, so too it returned.
Undeterred, finally Atrahasis sent a raven and watched it leap into the skies. It flew on, across waters that now more visibly slithered back, revealing slowly emerging lands. So, the raven stopped, filled its aching belly, and wandering happily away, did not to return to the one remaining vessel of life on the Earth. Now, Atrahasis saw the great god Utu rise in the sky at last spreading light and warmth once more across the face of the drowned world, revealing the rapid withdrawal of the seas. And Utu, seeing the vessel perched now on a patch dry land, reached out to break the seal on the doors of Atrahasis’s huge boat.
Oh, Atrahasis wept as he descended from the mighty vessel, pausing only to kiss the ground before the light of Utu. There he built an altar on the peak of the mountain of Urartu: by sevens herbs he cut, at the base of them he placed juniper, the flower of the mountain, with reeds, cedar, and myrtle, then gave sacrifice of oxen and sheep, crumbled barley cakes into the fire, and offered the fragrant libations to the four winds.
Shuddering still in their heavens, quelled by the rage of the deluge the gods received the tribute, and it revived them; they lifted themselves up, shuffling from their hideaways, and gathered like flies over the sacrifice, huge, unseen, consoled, swaying as trees amongst the flickering flames of the sacrifice, casting their shadows, in a ring across the mountain. Atrahasis gazed with wonder at the lights and shadows, the glory of the gods as he perceived them, reflected in the charm of lapis-lazuli around his neck. And so he felt comforted and in those moments he desired with all his being that forever he might not leave them, these strange and complicated gods, and so he spoke in their kind,
“May the gods come to my altar,
Though not dread Enlil for he did not consider
Our worth and made such a deluge,
So many of my people he consigned to the deep.”
Indeed the ancient god Enlil finally observed the vessel, and, filled with anger went to the gods and spirits assembled, casting his fury amongst them,
“Let not any one come out alive,
let not a man be saved from the deep.”
But, instead of agreeing as before the gods who had cowered from the storms, and saw the world cleansed of humankind, but for these few in the ship and the seeds of fruitful growth within, they resisted Enlil’s fury. Before the assembled deities Nintu, the goddess of birth, raised her head and spoke to the warrior Enlil, gesturing to the highest heaven of the Anu:
“Who then will ask our Father Anu,
for he knows the Truth of all things,
and the rightness of all deeds done.”
Anu, weary and wise, surveyed the devastation of the land, the people and the creatures of the Earth, then looked to his fellows Utu, Innana, Ishtar and the others, then spoke with great prophesy, and said to the fierce Lord Enlil :
“Thou prince of the gods, oh warrior,
when thou art angry a deluge thou makest ;
the doer of sin was felled by his own sin,
the doer of evil was felled by his own evil.
But the just survivor let him not be cut off,
The faithful let him not be destroyed.
Instead of thee making a deluge once more,
May lions increase and men be reduced ;
Instead of thee making a deluge once more,
May leopards increase and men be reduced ;
Instead of thee making a deluge once more,
May a famine happen and the country be destroyed ;
Instead of thee making a deluge once more,
May pestilence increase and men be destroyed.”
Enlil, nodded slowly understanding the words of his father. His own anger was pacified at least that the noise of humankind was abated, that as his father further decreed short lives would also constrict the plague of humankind, that a class of priestess too could remain now celibate, to honour the gods, and further keep down the spread of humanity. Enlil and Enki, with their father, looked across the lands deluged by storms, and saw the bodies clinging to the mud, slowly returning to its succour. Enlil, like the floods he had created, closed his fierce eyes, submitted to the judgement, and withdrew his objections, much to the quiet joy of the gods and spirits gathered there.
Atrahasis could not hear the great debate, but in time Enki sent a dream to him, and the verdict was heard. It made him wonder at his good fortune, and the kind instruction of Enki who had whispered through the reed walls that separates the Heavens of the gods and lands of humankind.
And so in a vision, mighty Enlil, Fategiver and Lord of Storms, made himself appear on the mountainside, huge, contrite and thoughtful as he reached into the midst of the boat. He took the hand of Atrahasis, and gestured him to rise, to bring his wife and all those within to flow out into the lands. With Atrahasis Enlil made a great and rare covenant, and gave this blessing, in the presence of the people and the creatures who had sailed and survived,
“So Atrahasis, and your wife, and kin,
to be like the gods will be carried away;
then shall dwell you in a remote place
At a bridge between worlds, at the mouth of the rivers.
And no more shall the gods move to end humankind,
For we have set in motion our means,
So we may have peace and you, life.”
Atrahasis indeed was brought to a remote place at the mouth of the rivers and given a seat amongst the gods, who now he could see and with whom he could converse and there to watch the activities of the people of the Earth, honoured as he was both by his sons and daughters, and by the gods themselves.
And so ends the tale of Atrahasis and The Great Deluge of humankind.