So I’ve been reading Mesopotamian myths, like you do, and this week I read Atrahasis I, II, and III, a very old story about a flood sent by the gods to destroy humanity.
So Atrahasis is old. Really old. The clay tablets it is inscribed on are dated around 1700 BC, during the reign of Amm-saduqa of Babylon, and the author is Ipiq-Aya, writing during that same time (Dalley 3). It’s written in Akkadian, the language of oooooooooooold Babylon.
For comparison, the oldest copies of the Bible are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were copied around 408 BC to 318 AD. The oldest pieces of writing ever found are from 3200 BC, also in Mesopotamia (ancient Sumer).
Fun Flood Fact: Atrahasis is also sometimes called Uta-na’ishtim, which, when abbreviated may have been pronounced as “Noah” (Dalley 2).Prometheus may also have originated from Greek translations of Atrahasis. Prometheus and Atrahasis both helped humanity survive in spite of the gods’ wishes. Noah was chosen by God to help humanity survive.
A Quick Guide to Mesopotamian Gods:
I’m really unfamiliar with this pantheon, and it’s really frustrating because I’m used to Greek/Roman and knowing everyone’s many, many names. Below is a list of the most significant gods in this myth. I also found this handy master-list online if you’d like to know more.
Enlil/Ellil: a warrior god; in this story he’s kind of a genocidal brat.
An/Anu: one of the oldest gods; sometimes the father of the gods like Zeus, in this story he’s one of the decision-makers.
Enki/Ea: god of wisdom/magic and lives under the ocean like a normal person; in this story, he’s very much on the side of humanity.
Belet-ili/Mami/Nintu: goddess of wombs; in this story she’s a pretty big deal and basically performs human transmutation by murdering another god.
Ishtar: goddess of marriage; in this story she comes up whenever the gods are putting limits on humanity.
A Concise and Irreverent Summary of Atrahasis:
Once upon a time, the gods had to do all the work and decided they were sick of it. So they did a group brainstorm and decided to create someone else that could do the work for them. Of course, the only one who can do that kind of creation nonsense is the “womb-goddess” Belet-ili/Mami/Nintu, and the only way she can do it is by using the body of a god. Slaughtering one of their own doesn’t slow the gods down, though. RIP Ilawela, we don’t know if you volunteered or not. Then Mother Mad Scientist mixes Ilawela’s flesh and blood with earth and, voila! Humans!
But then they have all of these humans, who are immortal because the gods didn’t think this through, and the humans do all the work, but they also keep having babies and not dying and all those little humans are so noisy. So the gods brainstorm together again because they can’t hear themselves think. They decide to send plagues to take down the noise level a notch or three.
This is where our boy Atrahasis comes in. He is pretty tight with one of the main gods, Enki. Between the two of them, they figure out a proper offering to give the gods to butter them up so they’ll stop sending plagues. Here is where the story falls into a bit of a pattern where the gods try to wipe out mankind every once in a while because they’re so noisy, using a variety of plagues, floods, and famines, and every time Atrahasis figures out an offering to appease them.
Finally the gods’ think-group comes up the next great hit: The Flood. The gods decide to send a massive flood to reduce the population. They try to bring Enki in on the plan, but he loses his chill and is like, wow, if you guys want to flood mankind out of existence, do it yourself (even though he’s the one who keeps the ocean locked up). Enki sends a dream to Atrahasis so that Atrahasis has a compelling urge to dismantle his own house and build a boat out of it. Totally normal dream-compelled behavior. So Atrahasis and whoever goes with him manage to survive, but everyone else is wiped out. Nintu (Mami/Belet-ili) regrets all of her decisions and mourns humanity, because they are her child made out of dead god-bits, after all, but Ellil spots Atrahasis’ boat and loses his mind.
ELLIL: “WHAT DOST MINE EYES SEE BELOW ME? A BOAT? THERE IS ONLY ONE OF US WHO WOULD DARE”
ENKI: “Yep I did it, it was me, come at me bro.”
Instead of beating up Enki, though, the gods’ think-group comes up with various population controls, such as risky childbirth, plague, and shortened lifespans, and humanity gets to live happily ever after. Sort of.
I’m told that the “story of the Flood was one of the most popular tales of ancient times” (Dalley 1). The editor of the Mesopotomian myth book I’m reading says that all of the many flood stories that exist might have started because various people (or just one person who spread it around) noticed all of the fossils of sea animals that were way above the waterline (Dalley 7).I’m going to throw out the crazy idea that the reason it was so popular was because everyone had been telling the story for generations because at least some aspect of it was true. I definitely subscribe to Tolkien’s view of true myths:
…just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.”
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Mariner Books, 2000.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford World Classics, 2008.