Flood Myths: Mesopotamia and The Bible

Flood myths have developed independently in many cultures around the world. The Mesopotamian and Biblical accounts of the flood are just two more examples of this independent development. Discuss.

The Holy Bible’s deluge story, or more commonly known as Noah’s Ark and the Mesopotamian flood story involving a similar figure named Atrahasis, are rather alike in many ways and yet, have some very important differences from one another. The concept of Genesis’ flood story stemming or at least being heavily influenced by Atrahasis is definitely not a new theory and is still debated until contemporary times. Though of course, these two are not the only flood myths existing, as there are also many others in the world, beyond the geographic area of the Middle East, where Noah’s story originally takes place. Some follow the same motifs, but others vary on a greater level. Considering these factors, it can be assumed that deluge stories are a worldwide phenomenon amongst many cultures across various time periods and their connections are rather remarkable.

Generally, it is believed that one of the Mesopotamian Atrahasis Epic’s key characters, the immortal Atrahasis, is an earlier version or at least a great inspiration to the creation of Noah of Genesis in the Holy Bible. The Atrahasis Epic which features Atrahasis and his wife, is commonly dated in the early 7th century BC, in terms of literary written form as a tablet in cuneiform[1], though it is assumed that it had been orally transmitted for a long time before being recorded. This is not the first connection between a Mesopotamian myth and a myth from the Holy Bible, since the Enuma Elish has also been connected to the Genesis’ creation story due to similarity, as both creation stories follow a fairly linear format, with a sequence of events that are very alike to each other. Due to the creation and the deluge myths’ similarities, most theories assert that the Bible heavily takes from Mesopotamian narratives. This is further supported by the strongest dating background of the Bible, the oldest manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew, to be roughly created by 200 BC, which is nearly five centuries younger than Mesopotamian texts, not considering the duration of its circulation by word of mouth. The connection between Mesopotamian texts such as the Atrahasis Epic and many of the stories in the Holy Bible’s Old Testament can also be attributed to the close proximity of the areas where many of both texts’ narrative events occur, which is in the Middle East. There is plenty of common geographical ground shared. Acknowledging this connection, it is not only Atrahasis’s story that bears similarity to Noah’s Ark, but also the Gilgamesh Epic’s Utnapishtim and the Sumerian flood story as well, though the Atrahasis has the strongest parallel[2].

The famous flood story in the Holy Bible is usually related or identified with the Atrahasis Epic’s due to the striking amount of parallels that the two both have. In the Holy Bible’s deluge myth, the main character is Noah, whom, along with his wife and children (as well as the couplings of animals) were chosen by God to be spared when he decided to eliminate all living things with a flood in the world, mainly humans, to punish them for their sins[3]. Atrahasis was also spared from a flood by one out of several Mesopotamian gods, as well as his family, due to analogous reasons[4]. The gods, especially Enlil, wanted to punish their human labourers for being too noisy and irritable and the god Ea then assists Atrahasis and his wife to safety, which was through advising them to build a boat to escape the worldwide flood. This Noah also does, and by the flood’s recession, both Noah, Atrahasis, their family and animals survive, and rest their boats on a mountain. The manner in which both characters act after the flood are also very similar, as they release birds in order to test the land’s safety, a dove for Noah, and for Atrahasis a raven. In other versions of the deluge myth, such as the Gilgamesh Epic’s Utnapishtim, the bird was a swallow. Noah and Atrahasis also offer a sacrifice to please their corresponding gods, with Noah providing burnt offerings and Atrahasis an unspecified sacrifice. At the end of both flood stories, the god/s show a sign of their promise not to flood the Earth again. With Yahweh, he creates and shows Noah the rainbow in the skies, while Nintu gives Atrahasis a lapis lazuli necklace- which, notably, are two things that share something a common element: color.

It is also vital to keep in mind that though the two myths are very much alike, that they also have some major differences. For one, a fundamental difference is that in Noah’s Ark, Genesis depicts a monotheistic religion, and one god, Yahweh, whom decides to punish mankind, but at the same time showed benevolence towards Noah and his family and later on makes the covenant with him. In the Atrahasis Epic, there are several gods in a pantheon and as a result, there is one god who expresses his wrath, Enlil, but a different god that shows kindness to Atrahasis- Ea, as well as another separate god makes the covenant with him, which was Nintu. It is also specifically mentioned that in both deluge stories not only the cause for the god/gods’ anger were slightly different, but Noah and Atrahasis were spared for different reasons as well. Noah and his family were deemed to be the only ones righteous enough by Yahweh, while Atrahasis was saved merely by the mercy of the god Ea[5]. Additionally, the Atrahasis Epic highlights the theme of mistake and regret, which is demonstrated by the end of the tale, where the instigator of the flood, Enlil, is reprimanded by the other gods, who have come to regret drowning humanity. As for Yahweh, his decision saddens him, but it is maintained that the flood was his will and was necessary. Another notable difference is that while Noah is revealed to have been over six hundred years old, by debatable measures of time in the Bible, he eventually dies. Though this is unclear with Atrahasis, in another Mesopotamian deluge myth, the Gilgamesh Epic’s Utnapishtim and his unnamed wife both are granted immortality. Utnapishtim and his wife are then situated to live at the ‘edge of the world’, where they lived away from the rest of mankind, while Noah is urged by Yahweh to settle where he was, multiply and repopulate the world.

There are common motifs and themes between Atrahasis and Noah, but there are plenty more deluge myths that harbor the same or similar elements, but are not as well known. There is the ancient Greek deluge of Deucallion, where by the aid of the god Prometheus, whom was his father also, Deucallion and his wife Pyrrha survive a worldwide flood. The flood was brought down by Zeus in his anger towards the Pelasgians and especially the Arcadian king, whom insulted him with his sacrificial offering. A much more varied deluge myth is also a Scandinavian Viking deluge myth, where an ice giant named Ymir was slain and had melted, thus his body became water that drowned most of the Giants that lived in the land[6]. A particular giant, Bergelmir, safely escaped with his family as he had built a boat as well from a hollowed tree trunk. Once the flood had dwindled, the waters became the ocean and the seas. In this version, humans were not explicitly mentioned, but the common motif of a flood wiping out life in the world, and typically a man, along with his wife or whole family being the only survivors due to a boat, exist in all these stories. It is an outline that not only the Atrahasis Epic and Noah’s Ark in Genesis follows, but many other deluge myths worldwide do as well. Though there is no ultimate conclusion as to why all these deluge myths are so parallel, there has been a hypothesis that all these cultures had been, at one point, one people as a single nation.

It has been established that while it is likely that Genesis’ Noah’s Ark could be taking elements from the Atrahasis Epic, and even the Gilgamesh Epic, but then again, so do many other deluge myths. Noah’s story and Atrahasis’ story only happens to illustrate the strongest connection and similarity, though of course, they also have their differences that cannot be discounted. Whatever may the explanation or the origins of all these flood stories may be, especially Genesis and the Atrahasis Epic, it is undoubtedly a phenomenon that deserves more speculation and study.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clines, D. 1973. “Noah’s Flood I: The Theology of the Flood Narrative,” Faith and Thought 100:2, 128-142.

Foster, B R. 1997. “Epic of Creation.” In The Context of Scripture. vol.1, Canonical compositions from the biblical world, edited by W.W. Hallo and K.L. Younger, 450-52. Leiden: Brill.

Frymer-Krensky, T. 1977. “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1-9.” Biblical Archaeologist 40: 147-55.

Roux, G. 1993. Ancient Iraq, 3rd Ed. USA: Penguin History, 123.

Sturluson, S. 1954. The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young. Berkeley: University of California Press, 45-9.

The Bible, Revised Standard Version, Canberra: Bible Society, 1971.

[1] Roux 1993, 123

[2] Frymer-Krensky 1997, 147-8

[3] Within Genesis 6:5-7

[4] Foster 1997, 451

[5] Clines 1973, 128-42

[6] Sturluson 1954, 47


-The Musing Mestiza, 2nd Year

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