The Atrahasis Epic: The Great Flood and the Meaning of Suffering

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by Joshua J. Mark
published on 06 March 2011

The Atrahasis is the Akkadian/Babylonian epic of the Great Flood sent by the gods to destroy human life. Only the good man, Atrahasis (his name translates as `exceedingly wise') was warned of the impending deluge by the god Ea who instructed him to build an ark to save himself. Atrahasis heeded the words of the god, loaded two of every kind of animal into the ark, and so preserved human and animal life on earth.

Written down in the mid-17th century BCE, the Atrahasis can be dated by the colophon to the reign of the Babylonian King Hammurabi's great-grandson, Ammi-Saduqa (1646-1626 BCE) though the tale itself is considered much older, passed down through oral transmission. The Sumerian Flood Story (known as the `Eridu Genesis') which tells the same story, is certainly older (written down early 17th century BCE) and Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which also relates the tale of the Great Flood, is even older than that (2150-2000 BCE, though this is the date of the writing of Gilgamesh and it may well be that the Sumerian Flood story, in oral form, is actually older).  While the story itself concerns a flood of universal proportions (even scaring the gods who unleashed it) most scholars recognize that it was probably inspired by a local event: flooding caused by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers overflowing their banks.

While archaelogical and geological evidence has shown such flooding was a fairly common occurence, it is speculated that a particularly memorable flood served as the basis for the story. No recognized scholar working in the present day maintains the argument that there was ever a world-wide flood such as Atrahasis and the other accounts depict (including the story of Noah and his Ark in the Biblical book of Genesis). The Mesopotamian scholar Stephanie Dalley writes, "No flood deposits are found in third millennium strata, and Archbishop Usher's date for the Flood of 2349 BC, which was calculated by using numbers in Genesis at face value...is now out of the question."

The Atrahasis begins after the creation of the world but before the appearance of human beings:

When the gods, instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads
The god's load was too great, the work too hard, the trouble too much. 

The elder gods made the younger gods do all the work on the earth and, after digging the beds for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the young gods finally rebel. Enki, the god of wisdom, suggests the immortals create something new, human beings, who will do the work instead of the gods. One of the gods, We-Ilu (also known as Ilawela or Geshtu/Geshtu-e) known as "a god who has sense" offers himself as a sacrifice to this endeavor and is killed. The goddess Nintu (the mother goddess, also known as Ninhursag) adds his flesh, blood and intelligence to clay and creates seven male and seven female human beings.

At first the gods enjoy the leisure the human workers afford them but, in time, the people become too loud and disturb the gods's rest. Enlil, the king of the gods, is especially annoyed by the constant disturbance from below and so decides to lessen the population by sending first a drought, then pestilence and then famine down upon the earth. After each of these plagues, the humans appeal to the god who first conceived of them, Enki, and he tells them what to do to end their suffering and return the earth to a natural, productive state. Enlil, finally, can stand no more and persuades the other gods to join him in sending a devastating flood to earth which will completely wipe out the human beings. Enki takes pity on his servant, the kind and wise Atrahasis, and warns him of the coming flood, telling him to build an ark and to seal two of every kind of animal within. Atrahasis does as he is commanded and the deluge begins:

The flood came out...No one could see anyone else
They could not be recognized in the catastrophe
The Flood roared like a bull
Like a wild ass screaming, the winds howled
The darkness was total, there was no sun.

The mother goddess, Nintu, weeps for the destruction of her children ("she was sated with grief, she longed for beer in vain") and the other gods weep with her.

After the waters subside Enlil and the other gods realize their mistake and regret what they have done; yet feel there is no way they can un-do it. At this point Atrahasis comes out of his ark and makes a sacrifice to the gods. Enlil, though only just before wishing he had not destroyed humanity, is now furious at Enki for allowing any one to escape alive. Enki explains himself to the assembly, the gods descend to eat of Atrahasis' sacrifice, and Enki then proposes a new solution to the problem of human overpopulation: create new creatures who will not be as fertile as the last. From now on, it is declared, there will be women who cannot bear children, demons who will snatch infants away and cause miscarriages, and women consecrated to the gods who will have to remain virgins. Atrahasis himself is carried away to paradise to live apart from these new human beings whom Nintu then creates.

The story would have served, besides simply as entertainment, to explain human mortality, those misfortunes attendant on childbirth, even the death of one's child. Since overpopulation and the resultant noise had once brought down the terrible deluge which almost destroyed humanity, the loss of one's child could, perhaps, be more easily borne with the knowledge that such a loss helped to preserve the natural order of things and kept peace with the gods. The myth would have served the same basic purpose which such stories always have: the assurance that individual human suffering has some greater purpose or meaning and is not simply random, senseless pain. The Atrahasis, like the story of Noah's Ark, is finally a tale of hope and of faith in a deeper meaning to the tragedies of the human experience.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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  • Humbahaha wrote on 15 April 2011 at 02:20:

    'Just a short note on dating. This article states incorrectly that tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh epic dates to the late third millennium. While the original sumerian Gilgamesh poems probably date to this period, the standard version of the epic, which first incorporated a full blown flood story based on Atrahasis, is usually dated to 1300 - 1000 BCE.

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