Atrahasis and the Babylonian Flood Story

The Babylonian flood story dates to 1600 BC.  The version that I read is a compilation of several different versions, which have been pieced together to form a more cohesive narrative. The story is more about the background of the gods’ decision to bring about the flood rather than the flood itself.  And it brings a lot of light to the view that Mesopotamians held of their deities: that they considered humans a necessary nuisance.  They were necessary because they kept them fed and labored for them; they were a nuisance because they were loud and unruly and kept the gods from their rest.  And so the gods planned to downsize the human race when it became too annoying, and wipe it out completely when they just couldn’t stand them anymore.

Here is a quick summary of the narrative:

The gods (at least, the lesser gods) used to have to work, as humans do.  And they were miserable.  The lesser gods were burdened by the greater gods with forced labor.  They slaved away digging rivers and wells and heaping up mountains.  After a while, the lesser gods started to complain.  And then they plotted.  They decided to go to war against Enlil, counselor to the greater gods.  Beseiged by the lesser gods, Enlil called a counsel of the greater gods.

Enlil allowed the lesser gods to air their complaints.  After they were heard out, the greater gods had sympathy for them.  It was decided that their complaints were valid, and their misery really was too much.

So, Ea (the god of wisdom and – in my opinion – sneakiness) suggested that they let Mami, the midwife, create a human and let him bear the yoke and assume the drudgery of the gods.  All of the gods thought this was a fantastic idea.  Mami was provided with the clay to make the humans.  A god was slaughtered and his flesh and blood were mixed with the clay.  Then all of the lesser gods spat on the clay.  Their yoke was released and, restored, they ran to kiss Mami’s feet.  Mami broke the clay into 14 pieces.  Seven+seven birth goddesses were summoned.  Seven pieces of clay became males and seven became females.  Then Mami laid out the designs for the human race.

The first fetuses grew to adolescence and when they were mature enough to reproduce, the birth goddesses were again assembled.  The first human baby was delivered!  Mankind, now reproducing, was put to work to feed the gods.   Their list of jobs included making tools, building canals, and raising food for the people and the gods. Mankind began producing continuously.  Too continuously.

1200 years later….

The land was now so full of humans that it was “bellowing like a bull.”  The gods were disturbed!  Enlil, very unhappy with how things had turned out, decided to send disease to decrease the human population.

During this tumultuous time lived a man named Atrahasis (the Babylonian version of Noah).  He was loyal to the god of wisdom, Ea (good choice, Atrahasis).  Atrahasis and Ea often spoke together, and when Enlil sent disease, Atrahasis consulted Ea regarding how long the disease will be imposed upon them, and wondered if Ea could offer any help?  Of course Ea could help!  Ea told Atrahasis to bring offerings to Namtar, the god of plague.  So he did, and Namtar was pleased and lifted the plague.

And then the humans resumed their clamor.

Enlil was disturbed.  He convened his assembly for a second time.  This time, he called for a famine.  He told the rain god Adad to make rain scarce.  He told the grain goddess to turn aside.  A  severe famine fell upon the earth, so severe that people sold family members as slaves and ate their own children.  And Ea decided to once again help Atrahasis.  Ea told Atrahasis to bring offerings to Adad, so he would bring rain.  Atrahasis followed Ea’s directions, and the offerings caused Adad  to be both pleased and ashamed of himself.  He brought back the rain and the famine ended.

And then the humans resumed their clamor.

After this, Enlil was enraged at Ea.  He blamed him for restoring the human race.  Then he  convened the great gods for a third time and reprimanded Ea in front of them all.  This time, he warned the other gods not to help Ea.  He reminded the other gods of their places and of the place of mankind. And, in the end, Enlil decided that it was time to flood the earth.  The other gods (somewhat reluctantly) agreed with him that the time had come for the annihilation of the human race.

And then Atrahasis had a dream.  When he asked Ea what it meant, Ea told him he must flee his house, build a boat, forsake his possessions, and save his life.  He told him how to build the boat and that a seven day flood was on the way.

Atrahasis assembled the elders.  He told them about the warning that Ea had given him.  Carpenters, reed workers, rich men and poor men helped him build the boat.  Then Atrahasis brought the animals on board.  He brought his family on board.  Brokenhearted, he had a final feast.  Then the clouds came in and he sealed the door shut and released the boat.

And then Enlil sent the flood.

Ea was beside himself.  The goddess Ishtar was in agony.  And soon, all of the other gods began to doubt their decision. They were getting pretty hungry and thirsty now that there weren’t any humans left to bring them offerings.  One by one, the gods began to believe that the flood was a very irrational decision.  Ishtar created a necklace that she would wear to remember the tragedy every day and forever.

And then Enlil saw that the oath was broken.  A human and his family had survived.  How?

“Who could do this but Ea?”

Ea came forward and confessed.  He warned Atrahasis, for all their sakes.  He was responsible for guarding life.

And Enlil relented, but not completely.  He summoned Ishtar and had her establish death for all people.  He had her create women who will not be able to have children.  He had her establish priestesses and taboos and cut down on childbirth so the clamor of mankind would not grow so loud ever again.  And so while humans were allowed to live on, they lived on with shorter lifespans, and with the threat of barrenness, disease, and death hanging over their heads.

Some thoughts.

Sometimes as I read through Mesopotamian literature, the ridiculous antics of the gods make me want to laugh.  But after the stories have been read, after I have thought them over and processed them and compared them with my own worldview, I feel so incredibly sad.  Because these poor people believed that they were a nuisance to their creators.  They believed that they were something to be cast off when their makers grew annoyed with them.  They believed themselves to be an unloved creation, created to be slaves rather than sons and daughters, and to be disposed of when the gods were tired of them.

In many ways, the flood story is similar to Noah’s story.  In both stories, God or the gods has/have decided that human kind must be destroyed.  In both stories, one man finds favor and the human race lives on through him.  In both stories, there is regret associated with the creation of the human race.  And in both, there is a sort of covenant made to never destroy the earth that way again (represented by the rainbow in the Bible, and by Ishtar’s necklace in the Babylonian version).   But the reasons for the flood are different.  In the biblical story, God didn’t bring the flood because he was tired of our noise; rather, he was tired of our wickedness.  And he was troubled, not because we annoyed him and kept him from his rest, but rather because his creation had turned from him, had walked out of the relationship he had wanted to have with us.  His heart was troubled.  He regretted creating man because, apart from Noah, there was not one man left in the whole world who cared to know him and live the kind of life that he had created him to live.  This flood was brought about because we turned away from God, not because he tired of us in spite of our offerings, prayers, and labors for him.

This creation myth, like many ancient myths, gave the Mesopotamians background information that helped them answer big philosophical questions.  Why must humans die?  Why are some women barren?  Why are there plagues and famines and sickness and disease?  Here, the answer has nothing to do with human wickedness, or a fallen world.  It has nothing to do with luck or a random universe.  In Mesopotamia, the gods themselves inflicted these things on their people, and their motivation was population control.  It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless belief system.

The story of Atrahasis is narrated in more detail in the Gilgamesh epic.  In the epic, Gilgamesh meets and talks to Atrahasis on his quest for immortality, and so we get to hear about the events of the flood from Atrahasis’ point of view.  I will be writing up my thoughts on that epic soon (my favorite of all of my Mesopotamian readings).

5 CommentsLeave a comment »
  • September 19, 2011 Reply
    cara said:

    Didn’t god create us with weakness to sin and do wicked things? And if he is all-knowing, wouldn’t he know what we’d do and that he’d have to wipe everyone out with a flood for doing precisely what he knew we’d do? It seems silly to me that he can get upset about something happening that he ultimately planned out in advance. And then punish the human race for it. So, both versions of the story seem pretty much the same to me.

    Just my heathen 2 cents. 😉

    • September 19, 2011 Reply
      Virtual Pilgrim said:

      You’ll have to give me more than 2 heathen cents if you want me respond to all those loaded questions, lady. 😉

  • September 19, 2011 Reply
    cara said:

    As the Epic of Gilgamesh was written before the book of Genesis, what do you think the correlation between the two is? Do you think the epic inspired the story of the biblical flood? Do you personally believe that the biblical flood literally happened?

    • September 20, 2011 Reply
      Virtual Pilgrim said:

      You might find this article an interesting read. My beliefs on whether the first 11 chapters of Genesis should be taken as literal or figurative truth (or some combination of the two) are currently in flux. Right now I don’t feel like I am expert enough to speak on it with much authority….so I’m not going to try. 🙂 But regardless, I think the two accounts (Enuma Elish/Atrahasis vs. Genesis) present remarkably different theologies.

      • September 20, 2011 Reply
        cara said:

        Interesting article, thanks. 🙂

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