The Sumerian Flood Story
In the beginning, all roads lead to Sumer; until recently, it was the earliest recorded civilization (currently, the oldest extant documents are from Egypt). The Sumerians were a non-Semitic people. The remains show them to be generally short and stocky, with high, straight noses and downward sloping eyes. Many wore beards, but some were clean-shaven. Most, though, looked like Francis Shaeffer, with a clean-shaven upper lip, but a beard around the chin.
They wore fleece and finally woven wool. The women draped the garment from the left shoulder, while the men bound it at their waists and left the upper half of their body bare.
Styles changed gradually over time, and later on, the male clothing moved up toward the neck, at least among the upper class. Slaves, from beginning to end, both male and female, went about naked from the waist up, however.
On their heads, the Sumerians wore a cap; on their feet, they wore sandals; wealthy women sometimes wore shoes of soft leather, lacking heels, that they laced up.
Bracelets, necklaces, anklets, finger rings and ear rings made the women of Sumer into show windows of their husband’s prosperity.
When the civilization of Sumer was already a thousand years old, around 2300 BC, we find written accounts of creation, a primitive paradise, and a flood that destroyed the world:
After Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursag
had fashioned the black-headed people,
Vegetation sprang from the earth,
Animals, four-legged creatures of the plain,
Were brought artfully into existence
[37 lines are unreadable]
After the….of kingship had been lowered from heaven
After the exalted crown and the throne of kingship
Had been lowered from heaven,
He perfected the rites and exalted the divine ordinances…
He founded the five cities in pure places,…
Then did Nintu weep like a….
The pure Inanna set up a lament for its people,
Enki took council with himself,
Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursag….
The gods of heaven and earth uttered the name of Anu and Enlil
Then did Ziusudra, the king, the priest of…,
Build a giant…;
Humbly obedient, reverently he…
Attending daily, constantly he…,
Bringing forth all kinds of dreams, he…,
Uttering the name of heaven and earth, he…[…]
the gods a wall…,
Ziusudra, standing at its side, listened.
“Stand by the wall at my left side…,
By the wall I will say a word to you,
Take my word,
Give ear to my instructions:
By our…a flood will sweep over the cult-centers;
To destroy the seed of mankind…,
Is the decision, the word of the assembly of the gods.
By the word commanded by Anu and Enlil…,
Its kingship, its rule will be put to an end.
[about 40 lines missing]
All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful,
Attacked as one,
At the same time, the flood sweeps over the cult-centers.
After, for seven days,
the flood sweeps over the cult centers.
After, for seven days and seven nights,
The flood had swept over the land,
And the huge boat had been tossed
About by the windstorms on the great waters,
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven and earth,
Ziusudra opened a window of the huge boat,
The hero Utu brought his rays into the giant boat.
Ziusudra, the king,
Prostrated himself before Utu.
Utu is the Sun god, equivalent to Akkadian Shamash. The translation above is based on the translation by Poebel in ANET. The text was found in Nippur.
The Sumerians formulated lists of their ancient kings, and gave them extremely long reigns. The time before the flood was said to be a period of 432,000 years. Two kings from after the flood that are listed were Gilgamesh and Tammuz. Legends told about these two kings were so impressive that Tammuz entered the pantheon of Babylon and later became known as Adonis to the Greeks.
Gilgamesh became the hero of the Babylonian epic poem which bears his name, and which also contains an account of the flood. Until recently, these king lists and the names in them were thought to be purely fanciful. But in the 1930’s, Sir Leonard Woolley, while excavating a building at Ur on the Ubaid level, found an inscription indicating that the structure had been erected by the son of the founder of the First Dynasty of Ur, a person up till that time regarded as fiction.
Gilgamesh, too, has been found to be a real person, with inscriptions telling of the buildings he built.
The earliest written documents were found in Uruk and are dated to 3100 BC. These texts are not deciphered and perhaps are not decipherable. Fifty to seventy percent of the signs cannot be recognized at all, and so defy analysis.
Those few signs that are recognizable appear to be logographic. There are none that represent syllables. There are no grammatical markers. There are no mood markers. Those handful that can be puzzled out take the form:
5 sheep PN receive.
Therefore, the best guess is that these earliest documents are mostly administrative and economic in nature.
When the signs are examined, they are clearly mostly abstract: that is, they have lost their supposed original pictographic form. This implies that these earliest of known tablets do not represent the first attempts at writing; the nature of the writing on them indicates considerable previous evolution in the writing system. These tablets are simply the earliest that have so far been discovered, nothing more.
In the traditions of most ancient civilizations there can be found a legend concerning a flood of such enormous proportions that it is believed to have covered the whole Earth. Such was the destructive force of this flood that few land animals and plants survived it. For readers in Western society the most famous version is the story of Noah and the Ark as recounted in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Although it may be the best known, the account of Noah’s adventure is neither the only nor the oldest such legend.
Legends of a flood can be found in the folklore of such diverse places as the Middle East, India, China, Australia, southern Asia, the islands of the Pacific, Europe, and the Americas. But the best-known flood legend–that on which the story of Noah is based–had its origins among the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley.
Excavations in Mesopotamia have led archaeologists and other scientists to conclude that a number of serious floods occurred there between 4000 and 2000 BC. It is possible that one of these floods was so destructive that it made a lasting impression on the population and became a subject for the ancient literature of the period.
In a fully developed form, the Mesopotamian flood myth appeared in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, one of the first literary masterpieces, which relates the adventures of a hero-king of Sumer. The earliest versions of the epic derive from the first part of the 2nd millennium BC. The story of the flood is told to Gilgamesh by Utnapishtim, the counterpart of Noah in the story. Advised by the god Ea that his city is to be destroyed by flood, Utnapishtim is told to build a ship for his family, servants, and animals. After a seven-day flood, the vessel comes to rest on a mountaintop. The wrath of the gods has been appeased, and Utnapishtim and his wife are granted immortality.
Parallel legends were told in other parts of the Middle East at an early date. The Mesopotamian version was probably brought to Canaan, the land where the Israelites settled, by the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The tale was reshaped by later Hebrew writers into a narrative about God and his purposes for mankind. In this version it is the whole Earth that is to be flooded. Only Noah, his family, and the animals he collects are to be saved. The flooding lasts 40 days, and afterward Noah’s Ark settles on top of a mountain.
In Greek mythology the flood was first mentioned by the poet Pindar in the 5th century BC. In this legend Zeus has decided to destroy the Earth. Only King Deucalion and his family are saved by taking refuge in an ark well stocked with provisions.
Religious texts from the 6th century BC in India tell the story of Manu, meaning “man,” who is warned by a fish about a coming flood. In the legend Manu builds a boat and saves himself.
In China the flood myth had a different emphasis from the legends told in the West. The flooding of the land from time immemorial was seen as a hindrance to agriculture. The floodwaters were made to recede through the labors of a savior-hero named Yu the Great, who successfully dredged the land to provide outlets to the sea for the water. Thus was the great central river valley of China made suitable for agriculture and the development of civilization.