In the most ancient stories of the Flood the gods are annoyed by humans making a racket and keeping them up at all hours: these gods are unreconstructed adults who don’t hold with negotiating but relish inflicting punishment, while humans are lawless, partying teenagers. The poem Atrahasis, written down at some point between 1702 and 1682 BCE by ‘Ipiq-Aya, Junior Scribe’ (we know his name!) tells how Enlil, the father god, starts his regime of terror against humanity by plugging the springs and bolting the earth and the air and the sea. The ground dries up, the seed corn rots, and famine and plague are visited on the nuisance noisemakers:
The dark pastureland was bleached,
The broad countryside filled up with alkali …
Their faces [become] cover[ed] with scabs (?) like malt,
Their faces looked sallow,
They went out in public hunched
(Stephanie Dalley’s translation.) The poem is uncannily prescient about extreme weather events around the world (storms, droughts), the rise in global mean temperature and the threat to water resources in so many places.
Myths, like inquisitive children, keep asking: why? They answer with stories of origin and destiny, luck and catastrophe. In the epics from Mesopotamia, which are written in Akkadian (the script that looks like wading birds’ skittering feet on the ebb tide sand), a prolonged drought precedes the great flood which Enlil and his fellow deities then decree. The story seems to have originated in the fertile basin of the Tigris and Euphrates, where locals were accustomed to swelling rivers and rising tides, rich in alluvial deposits. It dramatises the symbiosis of land use and water flow, and the danger to survival if that relationship is disturbed. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the king is a culture hero, who builds a magnificent walled city, founds a library and, above all, digs wells.
In other epics from Babylon and Sumer, the gods set out expressly to cure overcrowding by exterminating (almost) everybody – a religious rationalisation of disaster. In other, less nasty stories, the Deluge brings to an end the immortality that human beings once enjoyed in the image of the gods. The book of Genesis seems to know its antecedents, and although the mortalising aspect has disappeared from the surface of the Bible version of the Flood, traces of the plot seem to linger on in the extreme longevity of Adam (930 years). Noah, who is the favoured survivor in the Judeo-Christian version, is already 600 years old at the time of the Flood and he carries on afterwards (as do Methuselah et al), for the Bible, unlike its Babylonian forerunners, doesn’t establish in so many words that post-diluvian life expectancy has been shortened. From this angle, the myth of the Flood is another attempt to understand the reality of death, and the dangers of extreme weather are metaphorical means to tell a just-so story about ordinary human lifespan, not the subject of the myth itself (the story of the Fall isn’t about the apple).
Andrew George, the editor of the Oxford Classics Epic of Gilgamesh, writes that ‘in the main the function of the poem is not to explain origins. It is more interested in examining the human condition as it is.’ For Thorkild Jacobsen it is a ‘story of learning to face reality, a story of “growing up”’. In this respect Gilgamesh is existential in spirit, whereas the flood story in the Bible is religious: God is put back into the picture and his actions justified in ways not found in the ancient epics. The gods are called dogs and flies, like ‘parasitical scavengers’, Andrew George writes; their eternal realm clogged with dust.
Versions of the Flood from around the world record memories of different disasters, not one single universal deluge – this is accepted now even by Biblical scholars. But the different accounts share several dramatic elements: the figure of the one man who is chosen to survive, the extraordinary hope placed in the building of a boat, its measurements and vast size, and the processes of caulking and stocking it. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ark is a six-decker vessel; in the Bible, the specs seem so exact they inspired many believers to attempt to make models. Atrahasis is the name of the hero who is spared and wins eternal life in the poem that Ipiq-Aya, Junior Scribe, pressed into the wet clay with his reed pen. In Gilgamesh, the survivor is called Uta-napishti, and Gilgamesh meets him when he is travelling to the underworld in order to bring back from the dead Enkidu,the wild man whom he loves. But the half-divine hero fails, and although he is told how to pick a magic coral-like plant from the seabed, which will guarantee his immortality, he loses it when he is bathing in a pool: a snake comes by and takes it.
The Babylonian Noah tells Gilgamesh how he survived the rains; in Atrahasis he sees in a dream that he must build an ark; in the later Gilgamesh, the counsellor god Enlil whispers the warning in secret:
Load the seed of every living thing into your ark,
The boat that you will build.
(John Gardner’s version, 1984.) The animals do enter two by two in some versions, but here the ark is a sperm bank, a granary. The Epic of Gilgamesh was deciphered from cuneiform tablets in the British Museum which had been excavated in the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Thousands of chunky manuscripts, chipped, friable and defaced, more like knapped flints than books, were dug out of the alluvial strata by Henry Layard and Homuzd Rassan in the 1850s and laid out on trays in the museum. George Smith was an engraver of banknotes for Bradbury’s, the printers, which specialised in playing cards and had the commission from the Mint to issue banknotes. The workshop was near the museum and the story goes that George took to haunting the Assyrian collections in his lunch hour, until he caught the eye of the keeper, who asked him what he was doing, coming so regularly. ‘I am reading,’ he replied. So this startling decoder was set to work on the jumble of stone bits and pieces until one day he cried out in ecstasy and ran round the room tearing off his clothes. George Smith had found Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which told the story of the Flood, and his joy was occasioned above all by the independent corroboration the poem offered to the historicity of the Bible. He was a fervent Christian and longed, as many did, for archaeology to prove the scriptures’ reliability. Later that year, 1872, he delivered a paper to the Society for Biblical Archaeology, and read out the account of the flood from the epic. This was the first time the Epic of Gilgamesh had been heard and understood after an interval of two thousand years: the longest sleeper ever among the world’s great poems. Four years later, Smith died in Aleppo at the age of 36.
The work’s interrupted chronology, so different from the destiny of the Upanishads or even Homer, gives Gilgamesh a double history, as an ancient epic and a modern narrative poem. The most recent rendering, by the OuLiPian poet Philip Terry, is simply called ‘DICTATOR’. Terry has pared it down, in keeping with cuneiform’s prime usage in legal documents and accountancy, to the bare life of contemporary business-pidgin, known as Globish.
Six day | and sev | en night
the wind | cry and | the storm | roll through | the land
After | seven | day … | the storm |
break off| from the | battle
which like | a wo | man la | bour to | give birth
The sea | grow qui | et the | storm still | the big | water | stop …
I look | out at | the day | and all | be still
All the |
people| lie dead| … in | the dirt* (?)
The ground | be like |
a great| flat roof
I op | en the | window | and light | fall on | I face
I sit | down and | cry …
The tear | flow down | I face
More of the epic would be discovered under the sand as time went on. In 1990 Stephanie Dalley added more lines to her edition from newly recovered pieces, but most of what’s left has probably been smashed in the course of the Iraq wars. It seems proper that a place of fire and dust, its skin scarred by warfare, should be the origin of the story of the Flood today: devastation in negative, flood and drought bound together.
In Genesis, Yahweh resolves to exterminate man, since ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’ The judgmental tone doesn’t help clarify current thinking about managing water, or the stewardship of resources in general. On the one hand, it gives the impression that floods have always happened so no need to act differently now; on the other, only nutters believe that floods are visiting vengeance from heaven upon us. The secretary of state for the environment can play the calm, pragmatic rationalist who refuses to be swayed by superstitious fanatics. This is a case in which the underlying blueprint for a narrative – the story of the Flood – is sending the wrong signals.
The tablets dug up at Nineveh happen in shape and size to resemble mini-iPads. If our ‘tablets’ are still there in the mud in four thousand years’ time, and humans are still around, they’ll have a hard puzzle in front of them, should they wish to recapture our words, our laments, our tweets.