Flood texts from Mesopotamia

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The Sumerian King List

The text may be found at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, produced by Oxford University. Sumer is the land of Lower Mesopotamia (southern Iraq).

The SKL gives the names and reign lengths of Sumer’s kings from the beginning of kingship down to Damiq-ilisu (1720-1698 BC). Since it is a compilation of dynastic lists from many cities, some of its sources will have been much older than Damiq-ilisu. In its final form the document began with a list of 8 priest-kings, the last of whom was Ubartutu, ruler of Shuruppak. Then ‘the Flood swept over’ the land and there followed 134 more kings, one after the other.

The compilation as a whole requires a large amount of interpretation. Many of the reign lengths, hundreds, even thousands, of years long, are greatly exaggerated. Archaeological finds have shown that, contrary to the impression given, certain of the dynasties reigned at the same time rather than consecutively. And the kings who first ruled Sumer were not the antediluvian kings mentioned at the beginning of the list but the dynasties of Uruk and Kish, which appear in the list immediately after the flood.

The flood of the SKL was an event which took place in historical times and interrupted the sequence of Sumerian kings. As such, while it may have had a major impact on some cities, notably Shuruppak, the catastrophe cannot have been a global one. There is some evidence to associate it with the end of the Jemdet Nasr period (Brückner 2003).

Does that mean that there was no tradition of a global flood in Sumer, and that the much later Genesis account, with which the Sumerian account has many elements in common, must have borrowed from it and universalised it?

Not necessarily, for there are elements in the Sumerian traditions which make no sense in relation to a purely local inundation (see The tradition in ancient Sumer). As exemplified in the exaggerated reign lengths, the SKL reflects an ideology which glorified Sumerian kingship. Sumer was portrayed as the primeval Eden, the land through which the primeval rivers Tigris and Euphrates flowed and where human kingship was an institution ordained by the Creator himself. As the SKL maintains in its opening words, kingship came down from heaven.

People knew about such an Eden, and of a devastating cataclysm that had once destroyed the whole earth, because of an oral tradition that long predated the earliest Sumerian kings. The flood which devastated much of Sumer in the third millennium was conflated with this earlier, global cataclysm, and represented as though it were the same event, so that the kings who came afterwards could be seen as restorers of divinely appointed rule on earth. It was this more ancient tradition that was the basis for dividing time into before and after the flood.

The Sumerian flood story

This text consists of five fragments, all of which are damaged. It was found in the city of Nippur and dates to the mid second millennium BC. An, Enlil (or Ellil) and Enki are the “high gods” of Mesopotamia, with jurisdiction respectively over heaven, earth and the watery abyss (the Apsu) under the earth. Ziusudra, a godly priest-king of the city of Shuruppak, son of the SKL’s Ubartutu, is the Sumerian equivalent of Noah, being warned in a dream that An and Enlil are determined to destroy “the seed of mankind” in a flood.

Translation from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.

Segment C
……seat in heaven. …… flood. …… mankind. So he made ……. Then Nintur …… Holy Inana made a lament for its people. Enki took counsel with himself. An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursag made all the gods of heaven and earth take an oath by invoking An and Enlil. In those days Ziusudra the king, the gudug priest,……. He fashioned ……. The humble, committed, reverent ……. Day by day, standing constantly at ……. Something that was not a dream appeared, conversation ……, …… taking an oath by invoking heaven and earth. In the Ki-ur, the gods …… a wall. Ziusudra, standing at its side, heard: “Side-wall standing at my left side, ……. Side-wall, I will speak words to you; take heed of my words, pay attention to my instructions. A flood will sweep over the …… in all the ……. A decision that the seed of mankind is to be destroyed has been made. The verdict, the word of the divine assembly, cannot be revoked. The order announced by An and Enlil cannot be overturned. Their kingship, their term has been cut off; their heart should be rested about this. Now ……. What ……. ” …
Segment D
All the windstorms and gales arose together, and the flood swept over the ……. After the flood had swept over the land, and waves and windstorms had rocked the huge boat for seven days and seven nights, Utu the sun-god came out, illuminating heaven and earth. Ziusudra could drill an opening in the huge boat and hero Utu entered the huge boat with his rays. Ziudsudra the king prostrated himself before Utu. The king sacrificed oxen and offered innumerable sheep. …
Segment E
“They have made you swear by heaven and earth, ……. An and Enlil have made you swear by heaven and earth, …….”
More and more animals disembarked onto the earth. Zi-ud-sura the king prostrated himself before An and Enlil. An and Enlil treated Ziudsudra kindly ……, they granted him life like a god, they brought down to him eternal life. At that time, because of preserving the animals and the seed of mankind, they settled Ziusudra the king in an overseas country, in the land Dilmun, where the sun rises. …

Like the Sumerian flood story, the Atrahasis epic dates to c. 1600 BC, and like Genesis chapters 2-8, it describes the creation of man, the world before the flood, and the flood itself. The genre, however, is dramatic poetry rather than historical prose.

The excerpt below comprises most of the third tablet and is taken from the translation by Stephanie Dalley, an invaluable anthology that also includes Gilgamesh and Enuma elish (“The Epic of Creation”). The similarity of Atrahasis to the first chapters of Genesis is discussed in The tradition in ancient Sumer.
Atrahasis made his voice heard
And spoke to his master,
“Indicate to me the meaning of the dream,
[ ] let me find out its portent (?)”
Enki made his voice heard
And spoke to his servant,
“You say, “I should find out in bed (?)”.
Make sure you attend to the message I shall tell you!
Wall, listen constantly to me!
Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!
Dismantle the house, build a boat,
Reject possessions, and save living things.
The boat that you build
[ ]
[ ]
Roof it like the Apsu
So that the Sun cannot see inside it!
Make upper decks and lower decks.
The tackle must be very strong,
The bitumen strong, to give strength.
I shall make rain fall on you here,
A wealth of birds, a hamper (?) of fish.”
He opened the sand clock and filled it,
He told him the sand (needed) for the Flood was
Seven nights’ worth.
Atrahasis received the message.
He gathered the elders at his door.
Atrahasis made his voice heard
And spoke to the elders,
‘My god is out of favour with your god.
Enki and [Ellil (?)] have become angry with each other.
They have driven me out of [my house].
Since I always stand in awe of Enki,
He told (me) of this matter.
I can no longer stay in [ ]
I cannot set my foot on Ellil’s territory (again).
[I must go down to the Apsu and stay] with (my) god (?).
This is what he told me.’
(gap of about 14 lines)
The elders [ ]
The carpenter [brought his axe,]
The reed worker [brought his stone,]
[A child brought] bitumen.
The poor [fetched what was needed.]
(9 lines very damaged)

Everything there was [ ]
Everything there was [ ]
Pure ones [ ]
Fat ones [ ]
He selected [and put on board.]
[The birds] that fly in the sky,
Cattle [of Shak]kan,
Wild animals (?) [ ] of open country
[ he] put on board
[ ]
He invited his people [ ]
[ ] to a feast.
[ ] he put his family on board.
They were eating, they were drinking.
But he went in and out,
Could not stay still or rest on his haunches,
His heart was breaking and he was vomiting bile.
The face of the weather changed.
Adad bellowed from the clouds.
When (?) he (Atrahasis) heard his noise,
Bitumen was brought and he sealed his door.
While he was closing up his door
Adad kept bellowing from the clouds.
The winds were raging even as he went up
(And) cut through the rope, he released the boat.
(6 lines missing at beginning of column)

Anzu was tearing at the sky with his talons,
[ ] the land,
He broke [ ]
[ ] the Flood [came out (?)].
The kasusu-weapon went against the people like an army.
No one could see anyone else,
They could not be recognized in the catastrophe.
The Flood roared like a bull,
Like a wild ass screaming the winds [howled]
The darkness was total, there was no sun.
[ ] like white sheep
[ ] of the Flood.
[ ]
[ ]
[ ] the noise of the Flood.
[ ]
Anu (?) went berserk,
The gods (?) … his sons … before him
As for Nintu the Great Mistress,
Her lips became encrusted with rime.
The great gods, the Anunna,
Stayed parched and famished.
The goddess watched and wept,
Midwife of the gods, wise Mami:

“Let daylight (?) . …
Let it return and …!
However could I, in the assembly of gods,
Have ordered such destruction with them?
Ellil was strong enough (?) to give a wicked order.
Like Tiruru he ought to have cancelled that wicked order!
I heard their cry levelled at me,
Against myself, against my person.
Beyond my control (?) my offspring have become like white sheep.
As for me, how am I to live (?) in a house of bereavement?
My noise has turned to silence.
Could I go away, up to the sky
And live as in a cloister( ?)?
What was Anu’s intention as decision-maker?
It was his command that the gods his sons obeyed,
He who did not deliberate, but sent the Flood,
He who gathered the people to catastrophe
[ ]
(3 lines missing at beginning of column)
Nintu was wailing [ ]
‘Would a true father (?) have given birth to the [rolling (?)] sea
(So that) they could clog the river like dragonflies?
They are washed up (?) like a raft overturned,
They are washed up like a raft overturned in open country!
I have seen, and wept over them!
Shall I (ever) finish weeping for them?’
She wept, she gave vent to her feelings,
Nintu wept and fuelled her passions.
The gods wept with her for the country.
She was sated with grief, she longed for beer (in vain).
Where she sat weeping, (there the great gods) sat too,
But, like sheep, could only fill their windpipes (with bleating).
Thirsty as they were, their lips
Discharged only the rime of famine.
For seven days and seven nights
The torrent, storm and flood came on.
(gap of about 58 lines)

He put down [ ]
Provided food [ ]
The gods smelt the fragrance,
Gathered like flies over the offering.
When they had eaten the offering,
Nintu got up and blamed them all,

‘Whatever came over Anu who makes the decisions?
Did Ellil (dare to) come for the smoke offering?
(Those two) who did not deliberate, but sent the Flood,
Gathered the people to catastrophe,
You agreed the destruction.
(Now) their bright faces are dark (forever).’
Then she went up to the big flies
Which Anu had made, and (declared) before the gods,
‘His grief is mine! My destiny goes with his!
He must deliver me from evil, and appease me!
Let me go out in the morning (?) [ ]
[ ]
Let these flies be the lapis lazuli of my necklace
By which I may remember it (?) daily (?) [forever (?).”
The warrior Ellil spotted the boat
And was furious with the Igigi.
‘We, the great Anunna, all of us,
Agreed together on an oath!
No form of life should have escaped!
How did any man survive the catastrophe?’
Anu made his voice heard
And spoke to the warrior Ellil,
‘Who but Enki would do this?
He made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order.’
Enki made his voice heard
And spoke to the great gods,
‘I did it, in defiance of you!
I made sure life was preserved [ ]



Gilgamesh tablet XI (British Museum)Probably dating to the second half of the 2nd millennium, this epic, commonly regarded as ancient Mesopotamia’s greatest work of literature, comprises eleven tablets, the last of which includes an account of the flood as told to the hero by Utnapishtim (= Ziusudra). Gilgamesh was a historical king of Uruk who reigned in the Early Dynastic I period. The first tablet introduces him as the one who (re)built the city’s walls and restored the cult centres which the flood destroyed. He is therefore unlikely to have reigned more than a generation after the Sumerian flood.

In this version Ziusudra lives not in Dilmun (modern Bahrein) but at ‘the mouth of the rivers’, i.e. where the Tigris and Euphrates enter the Persian Gulf.

For a translation click on http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab11.htm

The translation by Andrew George (Penguin Books, 1999) is also recommended.

Erra and Ishum

This is another of the works translated by Stephanie Dalley. Extant texts date no earlier than the 8th century BC, but the original may have been composed in the 9th. In the house of the gods at Babylon the god Erra, lord of the Underworld, addresses the king of the gods, Marduk, and in reply Marduk recalls the time when he brought a great flood upon the earth. This version of the tradition is noteworthy for two elements that do not occur in other versions: (1) the reference to disorder in the heavens (cf Gen 7:11) that causes the positions of the stars/planets to be permanently changed, and (2) the statement that as a result of the deluge the “Craftsmen”, i.e. the legendary ‘Seven Sages’, who represented all the inhabitants of the old world (cf Gen 4:20-22), went down into the Apsu. ‘Erkalla’ is the city of the dead under the Apsu.

The king of the gods made his voice heard and spoke,
Addressed his words to Erra, warrior of gods,
“Warrior Erra, concerning that deed which you have said you will do:
A long time ago, when I was angry and rose up from my dwelling and arranged for the Flood,
I rose up from my dwelling, and the control of heaven and earth was undone.
The very heavens I made to tremble, the positions of the stars of heaven changed, and I did not return them to their places.
Even Erkalla quaked; the furrow’s yield diminished, and forever after (?) it was hard to extract (a yield).
Even the control of heaven was undone, the springs diminished, the flood-water receded. I went back, and looked and looked; it was very grievous.
The (remaining) offspring of living things was tiny, and I did not return them to their (former) state.  [some lines omitted](As for) the people who were left from the Flood and saw the result of my action,
Should I raise my weapons and destroy the remnant?
I made those (original) Craftsmen go down to the Apsu, and I said that they were not to come back up.