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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 2 - Sacred Texts 


The Babylonian Flood Story in The Epic of Gilgamesh

All the peoples of the ancient Near East, among them the Sumerians, Akkadians, Egyptians, and Hittites, told tales of a great flood. These fictions apparently attempted to explain and justify a catastrophic deluge that ravaged Mesopotamia some time around the year 2900 B.C. The story of Noah in the Hebrew Bible, drawn from these earlier tales, reveals the uniquely moral orientation of the Bible. In contrast to other versions of the story, a just God in the Book of Genesis sends the flood to punish sin and follows the devastation with a rainbow, symbolizing a second chance for humankind.

Other than the biblical account, probably the most detailed and picturesque story of a deluge occurs as one episode in The Epic of Gilgamesh, originally an oral masterpiece likely to have been written down around 2000 B.C. This poem came to the attention of modern scholars when twelve tablets on which it was inscribed were discovered in the late nineteenth century during the excavation of an ancient Assyrian royal library. In the epic, the lone survivor of the flood narrates his experiences to Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk in southern Babylonia.

In his youth a selfish and abusive ruler, Gilgamesh is reformed by his friendship with Enkidu, a wild hunter civilized by the love of a woman from Uruk. Although the original plan of the city's priests had been to tame the unruly king by recruiting a man strong enough to be his rival, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become inseparable companions, venturing together into the cedar forest where they hunt down a monster and kill him. Shortly thereafter, Enkidu dies.

Despairing and lonely, Gilgamesh then embarks on a long voyage, determined to find the secret of eternal life. Along the way, he must discard the trappings of power as he struggles to survive. In effect, he reverses the process by which Enkidu, his alter ego, was humanized. Reduced to living like an animal, Gilgamesh rejects a goddess's offer of human comforts, and persists in his quest, wandering in the desert until he reaches Utnapishtim, the counterpart of the biblical Noah, who alone might tell him the secret of eternal life.

Unlike Noah, Utnaphistim attained immortality by surviving the flood. In the passage quoted below, however, the goddess who has observed Gilgamesh's frustration suggests why human beings cannot expect to live forever and urges him to give up his search before he comes upon Utnapishtim.

Tablet x iii 1-14
(Old Babylonian Version)

"Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?
The life thou pursuest thou shalt not find.
When the gods created mankind,
Death for mankind they set aside,
Life in their own hands retaining.
Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly,
Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance thou and play!
Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand,
Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom!
For this is the task of [mankind]!"

Gilgamesh, "he who saw everything," refuses to listen to this advice. He journeys onward, only to be disappointed. For though he meets Utnapishtim, whose name means "he found life," Gilgamesh ultimately loses the plant that Utnapishtim grudgingly offers him as a source of rejuvenation. Before relenting, he recalls for Gilgamesh the instructions he received from the Akkadian deities when the flood was imminent. As you read the passage below, compare the behavior and motives of the Sumerian gods (Ea, patron of fresh waters and the arts, is the most sympathetic of these gods; Enlil is the Sumerian god of earth and wind) with those of the biblical god, as they relate to the human communities they are about to destroy.

The Gilgamesh Epic
Tablet xi, lines 1-47

Gilgamesh said to him, to Utnapishtim the Faraway:
"As I look upon thee, Utnapishtim,
Thy features are not strange; even as I art thou.
Thou art not strange at all; even as I art thou.
My heart had regarded thee as resolved to do battle,
[Yet] thou liest indolent on thy back!
[Tell me,] how joinedst thou the Assembly of the gods,
In thy quest of life?"
Utnapishtim said to him, to Gilgamesh:
"I will reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter
And a secret of the gods will I tell thee;
Shurippak--a city which thou knowest,
[(And) which on Euphrates' [banks] is situate--
That city was ancient, (as were) the gods within it,
When their heart led the great gods to produce the flood.
[There] were Anu, their father,
Valiant Enlil, their counselor,
Ninurta, their assistant,
Ennuge, their irrigator.
Ninigiku-Ea was also present with them;
Their words he repeats . . . .

Here Utnapishtim quotes the words of Ea who spoke to him on behalf of the gods who were about to send the flood.

Man of Shuruppak (2), son of Ubar-Tutu,
Tear down (this) house, build a ship!
Give up possessions, seek thou life.
Forswear (worldly) goods and keep the soul alive!
Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things.
The ship that thou shalt build,
Her dimensions shall be to measure.
Equal shall be her width and her length.
Like the Apsu (3) thou shalt ceil her.'
I understood, and I said to Ea, my lord:
'[Behold], my lord, what thou hast thus ordered,
I will be honored to carry out.
[But what] shall I answer the city, the people and elders?'
Ea opened his mouth to speak,
Saying to me, his servant:
'Thou shalt then thus speak unto them:
"I have learned that Enlil is hostile to me,
So that I cannot reside in your city,
Nor set my f[oo]t in Enlil's territory.
To the Deep I will therefore go down.,
To dwell with my lord Ea.
[But upon] you he will shower down abundance,
[The choicest] birds, the rarest fishes.
[The land shall have its fill] of harvest riches.
[He who at dusk orders] the husk-greens,
Will shower down upon you a rain of wheat."'

Questions for Discussion

  1. Note that Ea instructs Utnapishtim to deceive the community by announcing that the coming rain is a shower of blessings. By contrast, the Jewish Sages, in their elaboration of the text, taught that for one hundred and twenty years before the Flood was brought upon the universe, God issued warnings for repentance, a premise repeated in the Koran's version of the story of Noah. What does this contrast suggest about the different attitudes toward divinity in pagan and monotheistic religions?
  2. What reward is given to Noah in the Hebrew Bible? How might this be viewed in light of the goddess's advice to Gilgamesh?
  3. All the ancient stories of floods treat the deluge as a catastrophe. Yet the biblical account is basically optimistic. How does the narrative perspective of The Epic of Gilgamesh shift the focus of the story to detract from the significance of Utnapishtim's survival?


1. This epic is preserved in different ancient languages. These passages are drawn from translations by E. A. Speiser from both the Akkadian and the Sumerian versions. Sections of the poem are identified by the number on the tablet on which they appear.

2. The name of the city appears in two different forms in the original; "Shurippak" is an uncommon spelling.

3. The Sumerian god of creation. The Apsu is also a personification of the primeval waters that the god "ceiled" -- compare this with the idea of the firmament in Genesis.