The story of Noah and the ark may not be as unique as you think. Curiously, we can find more than three hundred stories about a great flood around the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing about Noah’s story being a copy of a copy, I prefer to call it “preservation of traditions”, I see it as a very effective method to “keeping a great past event alive” among the people of different cultures and eras, or perhaps floods are a common disaster and people love to tell stories about them.
Of course, writing about 300+ flood stories in one article would be total madness. Let’s focus on three Floods narratives, three stories that may have a lot in common with Noah’s flood story.
Let’s start this journey with Ziusudra (“Life of Distant Days”), king of Šuruppak. The story of this Great Flood has its origins in Sumer, the southern part of ancient Babylonia.
The order announced by An and Enlil cannot be rejected, the gods were angry at mankind and the council decided to send a flood to destroy mankind.
Ziusudra, the hero of our first story, being a seer witnessed the god’s decision in a vision and understood that a terrible flood would sweep over the land.
The god Enki, lord of the underworld sea of fresh water, explained and confirmed to Ziusudra what he already witnessed. Enki gave instructions to build a large boat, in which Ziusudra would be able to survive the flood with his family, and representatives of the animals. The passage describing the directions for this boat is lost, unfortunately.
The terrible storm raged for seven days and seven nights while Ziusudra and animals rode it out in a sealed boat.
After a break, the original source consulted for this story resumes with the final events of the flood. Ziusudra drilled an opening in the boat and the sun Utu appeared. Being then on firm ground, the animals disembarked and Ziusudra prostrated himself before An and Enlil, and sacrificed an ox and a sheep.
The god Enlil then appeared and treated Ziusudra kindly. Ziusudra was gifted with “breath eternal” or eternal life for preserving the animals and the seed of mankind and settled in the land of Dilmun, a place at the end of the earth where the sun rises.
“… Be conjured by heaven and underworld, let… An (and) Enlil, be conjured by heaven and underworld…
He/they made come up the animals which emerge from earth.
The king Ziusudra
Prostrated himself before An (and) Enlil
(Who) gave him life, like a god,
Elevated him to eternal life, like a god.
At that time, the king Ziusudra
Who protected the seed of mankind at the time (?) of destruction,
They settled in an overseas country, in the orient, in Dilmun…”
Our second flood narrative evolves during the Old Babylonian period and the hero of the story is named Atra-hasis, a name that translates as “exceedingly wise”.
In this story the gods created humans to ease their burden in “building” the world but, they forgot to limit mankind’s years on Earth.
Humans then multiplied uncontrollably and the noise they created became overwhelming to the god Enlil.
Unable to sleep due to the noise, Enlil tried to control this surge in population. Plagues and famine failed, it was time for Enlil to order a flood as a way to destroy all human existence.
Atra-hasis is warned by Enki about the upcoming disaster, he was advised to build a boat in order to save his kin and a selection of animals.
The same way the story of Ziusudra goes, the storm raged for seven days and nights and after the storm concluded, Atra-hasis emerged from the ark and prepared an offering for the gods.
Enlil realized the horrendous crime committed against mankind, but it was already too late.
Enki then proposed to Enlil a new solution to the problem of human overpopulation: create new creatures who will not be as fertile as they used to be.
The third version of the flood narrative can be found in the 11th Tablet of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. The hero is named Uta-napishtim, son of Ubara-tutu.
Uta-napishtim is warned by the god Ea (Sumerian: Enki) about a great flood sent by a council of gods.
Ea instructed Uta-napishtim to demolish his house, abandon all wealth, and build a boat. Uta-napishtim is also instructed to take on board the boat the seed of all living things.
Luckily for us, in this story we can find part of the instructions, the boat is to be six decks high and shaped like a cube.
The storm went on for six days and seven nights, but on the seventh day, the ocean calmed.
Seven days later, Uta-napishtim lets loose a dove with the mission of finding land, but the dove returned, he dispatched a swallow, but it came back as well. A third try, a raven was set free and never returned, the probability of dry land is suggested.
Disembarking from the boat, Uta-napishtim made an offering to the gods, and with the convincing help of Ea, Enlil declared that Uta-napishtim and his wife shall become immortal.
How do these stories compare to the Noah flood story?
- The floods are brought about by divine intervention.
- The floods were for the express purpose to destroy mankind.
- The heroes built an ark to survive the flood.
- The heroes saved pairs of animals as well.
- The heroes concluded the journey with sacrifice being offered.
Where can Noah be positioned in the narrative of the diverse flood stories?
- Ziusudra, Sumer, ~ 2,150 B.C.
- Atrahasis, Akkad, ~ 1,650 B.C.
- Uta-Napishti, Babylon, ~ 1,300 B.C.
- Noah, Israel, ~ 1,000 B.C.
In my very personal opinion, the changes in the name could reflect the evolving language of the region rather than changes in the story. The story was only changed significantly in the Old Testament version to reflect the beliefs and traditions of the Hebrew peoples.
Citations, sources and further reading:
- Foster, Benjamin R., trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton, 2001.
- George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. London: Allen Lane, 1999.
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 189.”
- Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness
- Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character.
- Allan R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood, with the Sumerian Flood Story.