The civilization of Babylonia and Assyria

Its remains, language, history, religion, commerce, law, art, and literature

by Morris Jastrow | 1915 | 168,585 words

This work attempts to present a study of the unprecedented civilizations that flourished in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley many thousands of years ago. Spreading northward into present-day Turkey and Iran, the land known by the Greeks as Mesopotamia flourished until just before the Christian era....

Part II

The Babylonian Story Of The Deluge

'As of the Creation story, so of an account of a great flood that destroyed the world and mankind we have a number of versions in Babylonian literature. The oldest of these versions is in Sumerian and is told as part of a story of the beginnings of things leading from creation to flood myths and thence to the oldest traditions of the earliest dynasties of the states of the Euphrates Valley, [1]  while the latest version is embodied in the great Babylonian epic, recounting the adventures of a semi-mythical hero Gilgamesh. [2] 

This epic, known to us from numerous fragments in the library of Ashurbanapal, is a composite production containing a number of independent tales, loosely strung together, and all brought into connection with the favorite hero Gilgamesh. Some of the tales embody dimmed historical traditions centring around the ancient centre Uruk, while others are nature myths, associated with occurrences in nature and in which the gods appear as the actors.

The epic in its final form comprised twelve tablets, corresponding to the months of the year, with at least some of the episodes told on tablets the number of which in the series is correlated to the season of the year to which the myth belongs. Thus on the sixth tablet marking the end of the summer season, [3]  there is told the story of Gilgamesh 's rejection of the marriage offer of the goddess Ishtar symbolizing the loss of nature's charms.

In the same way, the Deluge story is recounted in the eleventh tablet, corresponding to the month when the rainy season is at its height and the winter storms reach their climax. Gilgamesh himself, however, has nothing to do with the Deluge. He is somewhat artificially introduced into it by the accident of his encountering the hero who has escaped the general destruction of mankind.

Gilgamesh, smitten with painful disease as a punishment for the insult offered to the goddess Ishtar, and fearing death, wanders about in search of healing and to secure immortality. He learns of a remote ancestor Ut-napishtim, who has been granted the boon of immortal life. After long and weary wanderings with many adventures he at last finds himself face to face with Utnapishtim, whose name signifies "He who has experienced life."

Amazed to find Utnapishtim looking like an ordinary mortal, Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim how he came to secure immortality. In reply, Utnapishtim tells him the story of a great deluge which destroyed mankind, and from which he and his family were rescued through the contrivance of Ea, the god of humanity.

The Deluge was suggested, as was the picture of primeval chaos, [4]  by the climatic conditions prevailing in the Euphrates Valley, which before the perfection of an elaborate canal system experienced a destructive overflow at each recurring rainy and stormy season. The tradition of a particularly destructive flood entailing much loss of life may have been an additional factor in giving to the deluge myth its definite form. The eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh epic [5]  begins as follows:

"Gilgamesh speaks to him, to Utnapishtim, the far-removed:

'I gaze at thee, Utnapshtim!
Thy appearance is not different. As I am, so art thou.
And thou are not different. As I am, so art thou.
Thou art completely ready for the fray.
. . . thou hast placed upon thee.
(Tell me) how thou didst enter into the assembly of the gods and secure life.'"

In reply Utnapishtim tells the following story :

"I will reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a secret story,
And the decision of the gods I will tell thee.
The city Shuruppak, [6]  a city which thou knowest,
(The one that) lies on the Euphrates,
That city was old, and the gods thereof
Induced the great gods to bring a cyclone over it;
It was planned (?) by their father Anu,
(By) their counsellor, the warrior Enlil,
(By) their herald Ninib,
(By) their leader En-nugi.
The lord of brilliant vision, Ea, was with them.
He repeated their decision to the reed-hut.[7]

'Reed-hut, reed-hut, wall, wall,
Reed-hut, hear! Wall, give ear!
O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu,
Break up the house, build a ship,
Abandon your property, seek life!
Throw aside your possession and preserve life!
Bring into the ship seed of all living things!
The ship that thou shalt build,
Let its dimensions be measured, (so that)
Its breadth and length be made to correspond.
On a level with the deep, provide it with a covering.'" [8]

In another version the name of the hero of the Deluge is given as Atrakhasis, signifying "the very clever one.' This alternate name is introduced also at the end of our version of the tale, where Ea says that he sent Atrakhasis a dream which the latter correctly understood. Evidently two traditions of the manner in which the hero of the deluge was warned of the coming destruction were current. Both were embodied in our tale, which thus is revealed as itself a composite production.

Utnapishtim continues his narative:

"I understood [9]  and spoke to Ea, my lord:
(The command) of my lord which thou hast commanded,
As I have understood (it) , I will carry out.
(But what) shall I answer the city, the people, and the elders?
Ea opened his mouth and spoke:
Spoke to me, his servant.

'(As answer) thus speak to them:
(Know that) Enlil has conceived hatred towards me,
So that I can no longer dwell (in your city).
(On) Enlil's territory I dare no longer set my face.
Therefore, I go to the "deep" to dwell with Ea, my lord.
Over you he will cause blessing to rain down.
(Catch of) bird, catch of fish,'

And . . . rich crops,"

At this point the tablet is defective. Utnapishtim must have told Gilgamesh how he completed the ship, first drawing a plan and building according to it. Thereupon the text proceeds:

"On the fifth day, I designed its outline.
According to the plan ( ?), the walls were to be ten Gar [10]  high.
Correspondingly, ten Gar the measure of its width.
I determined upon its shape (and) drew it.
I weighted it six-fold. [11]
I divided (the superstructure?) into seven parts.
Its interior I divided into nine parts.
Water-plugs I constructed in the interior.
I selected a pole and added accessories.
Six [12]  Sar of asphalt I poured on the outer wall.
Three Sar of pitch (I poured) on the inner wall.
Three Sar the workmen carried away in their baskets. [13]  Of oil,
Beside one Sar of oil which was used for the sacrifices,
The boatman secreted two Sar of oil." [14]

Utnapishtim then proceeds :

"All that I had I loaded on her.
All that I had of silver I loaded on her.
All that I had of gold I loaded on her.
All that I had of living beings of all kinds I loaded on her.
I brought to the ship all my family and household;
Cattle of the field, beasts of the field, all the workmen I brought on board."

The ship draws water to two-thirds of its bulk. The description of the storm which now follows is one of the finest passages in the narrative.

"Shamash had fixed the time,

'When the rulers of darkness (?) at evening time shall cause
a terrific rain-storm, Step into the ship and close the door !'

The fixed time approached,
When the rulers of darkness (?) at evening time were to cause a terrific rain-storm.
I recognized the symptoms of (such) a day,
A day, for the appearance of which I was in terror.
I entered the ship and closed the door.
To steer the ship, to Puzur-Kurgal, the boatman,
I entrusted the palace [15]  together with its cargo. As morning dawned,
There arose on the firmament of heaven black clouds,
Adad thundered therein;
Nabu and Lugal marched in advance,
Ira [16]  tears out the ship's pole.
Ninib marches, commanding the attack,
The Anunnaki [17]  lift torches,
Illuminating the land with their sheen,
Adad's roar reaches to heaven,
All light is changed to darkness.
. . . . .
One day the hurricane raged . ., .
Storming furiously. . .
Coming like a combat over men.
Brother sees not brother:
Those in heaven [18]  do not know one another.
The gods are terrified at the cyclone,
They flee and mount to the heaven of Anu; [19]
The gods crouch like dogs in an enclosure.
Ishtar cries aloud like one in birth throes,
The mistress of the gods howls aloud:

'That day be turned to clay, [20]
When I in the assembly of the gods decreed evil;
That I should have decreed evil in the assembly of the gods!
For the destruction of my people should have ordered a combat!
Did I bring forth my people,
That like fish they should fill the sea!'

All of the Anunnaki weep with her.
The gods sit down, depressed and weeping.
Their lips are closed . . .
Six days and nights
The storm, cyclone (and) hurricane continued to sweep over the land.
When the seventh day approached, the hurricane and cyclone ceased the combat,
After having fought like warriors ( ?).
The sea grew quiet, the evil storm abated, the cyclone was restrained.
I looked at the day and the roar had quieted down.
And all mankind had turned to clay.
Like an enclosure . . . had become.
I opened a window and light fell on my face,
I bowed down and sat down (and) wept,
Tears flowed over my face.
I looked in all directions of the sea.
At a distance of twelve (miles) [21] an island appeared.
At mount Nisir the ship stood still.
Mount Nisir took hold of the ship so that it could not move.
One day, two days, Mount Nisir etc. [22]
Three days, four days, Mount Nisir, etc.
Five days, six days, Mount Nisir, etc.
When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth a dove letting it free.
The dove went hither and thither;
Not finding a resting-place, it came hack.
I sent forth a swallow, letting it free.
The swallow went hither and thither.
Not finding a resting-place, it came back.
I sent forth a raven, letting it free.
The raven went and saw the decrease of the waters.
It ate, croaked ( ?), but did not turn back.
Then I let (all) out to the four regions (and) brought an offering.
I brought a sacrifice on the mountain top.
Seven and seven adagur jars I arranged.
Beneath them I strewed reeds, cedarwood and myrtle.
The gods smelled the odor,
The gods smelled the sweet odor.
The gods like flies gathered around the sacrifices "

The gods now realize what havoc had been wrought by their decision and begin to regret it. Ishtar, more particularly as the mother goddess, bitterly laments the destruction of mankind.

"As soon as the mistress of the gods [23] arrived,
She raised on high the large necklace (?) which Anu had made according to his art.

'Ye gods, as surely as I will not forget these precious stones at my neck,
So I will remember these days never to forget them.
Let the gods come to the sacrifice,
But let Enlil not come to the sacrifice.
Because without reflection he brought on the cyclone,
And decreed destruction for my people.'

As soon as Enlil arrived,
He saw the ship, and Enlil was enraged.
Filled with anger at the Igigi, [24]

'Who now has escaped with his life!
No man was to survive the destruction!'

Ninib opened his mouth and spoke,
Spoke to the warrior Enlil,

'Who except Ea can plan any affair!
Ea indeed knows every order.'

Ea opened his mouth and spoke,
Spoke to the warrior Enlil:

'Thou art the leader (and) warrior of the gods.
But why didst thou, without reflection, bring on the cyclone!
On the sinner impose his sin,
On the evil-doer impose his evil,
But be merciful not to root out completely, be considerate not (to destroy altogether)!
Instead of bringing on a cyclone,
Lions might have come and diminished mankind.
Instead of bringing on a cyclone,
Jackals might have come and diminished mankind.
Instead of bringing on a cyclone,
Famine might have come and overwhelmed the land.
Instead of bringing on a cyclone,
Ira [25] might have come and destroyed the land.
I did not reveal the oracle of the great gods,
I sent Atrakhasis a dream and he understood the oracle of the gods.
Now take counsel for him.'"

Enlil is moved by this eloquent appeal and is reconciled. He himself accords immortal life to Utnapishtim and his wife, and with this act the story ends.

"Enlil mounted the ship,
Took hold of my hand and led me up, [26]
Led me up and caused my wife to kneel at my side,
Touched our foreheads, stepped between us (and) blessed us.

'Hitherto Utnapishtim was a man;
Now Utnapishtim and his wife shall be on a level with the gods.
Utnapishtim shall dwell in the distance, at the confluence of the streams.'

Then they took me and settled me at the confluence of the streams."

The remainder of the tablet is taken up with Gilgamesh's sojourn with Utnapishtim and his wife who care for the weary wanderer. He is refreshed by a deep sleep, is given guidance for a safe return across the waters of death which he had to pass in order to reach the dwelling place of Utnapishtim, but the hero returns without having secured from his remote ancestor any hint of how to attain the boon of immortal life. The story merely shows that some favorite of the gods may escape the general fate of mankind, but that is all. Immortality is the privilege of the gods.

Man must be resigned to his fate, to pass to Aralu, the general gathering place of the dead after life has fled, and there to lie inactive but conscious, imprisoned in a dark and gloomy prison, time without end.

Footnotes and references:


See Poebel, Historical and Grammatical Texts (University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, Philadelphia, 1914), Plate I and pp. 9-24) . On this and other versions, see Jastrow, Hebrew and Babylonian Traditions (Philadelphia, 1914), pp. 335-348.


See for a summary of the epic, with copious extracts, Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston 1898), Chapter XXIII; and for a complete translation of all the fragments, Ungnad-Gressmann, Das Gilgamesch-Epos (Goettingen, 1911).


The Babylonian year began in the spring.


See above, p. 427.


The text of this tablet will be found in Rawlinson IV.(2d, ed.), PI. 43-44; the full text of the Gilgamesh Epic in Haupt's Das Babylonische Nimrodepos (Leipzig, 1891), supplemented by Haupt, "Die Zwolfte Tafel des Babylonischen Nimrodepos" in Beitrage zur Assyriologie, I, pp. 48-80.


Now identified as the site of the mound Fara. The name also appears as Shurippak, but the spelling with u is more correct.


In which Utnapishtim dwells. The reed hut points to the primitive conditions in which man lived when the Deluge came on.


The first part of the line is obscure. I believe that the covering here meant is the deck of the framework.


Referring, evidently, to the mysterious dream, and not to the explicit command, which is so clear that it could not be misunderstood.


A Gar is 12 cubits.


 A somewhat obscure line to indicate, perhaps, the strong substructure so as to be capable of holding seven stories.


 A variant text has "three".


I.e., "graft" taken by the workman.


 More "graft."


Note this designation given to the structure an indication of its large size, with its many stories and compartments.


God of pestilence.


A collective name for the minor gods.


I.e., the gods in general.


The highest part of heaven.


I.e., be cursed with destruction.


Or "after a space of twelve double hours."


Sign of reduplication, i.e., "Mount Nisir took hold of ttie ship so that it could not move". Nisir means "salvation" — a symbolical name therefore.




Here a collective name for the gods, though generally designating, like Anunnaki, a lower group of divine beings ; see above, pp. 331 seq.


God of pestilence.


I.e., brought me on land.

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