Atra-hasis and the Flood
(This tale from Babylonia, dated ca. 1700 BCE, is the longest
and most comprehensive of the Mesopotamian Flood stories.)
Retold and Condensed by James W. Bell
In the beginning, before men were created, the Anunnaki – the gods living on the earth – had to till the land and water it to grow their food. They found the work tiresome and too much trouble.
So they gave Enlil lordship of the earth. He summoned the Igigi, calling down from heaven the lesser gods, lower divinities without names, to do the work.
Besides tilling the soil, Enlil assigned to the Igigi the additional tasks of digging canals, river beds and keeping their channels clear. For thousands of years, the Igigi toiled for the Anunnaki. It was too much! They downed their tools and went as a group to the Ekur, Enlil’s citadel at Nippur, to demand relief.
When the Igigi arrived before Enlil’s stronghold, he ordered his doorkeeper, Nusku, to bar the gate to keep them out. But Nusku asked, “Why has your face become as pale as the tamarisk? Why do you fear your sons? Call the other gods and let them help solve this thing.”
So Enlil summoned the others, including Anu from heaven, and Enki, lord of the Abzu. Together, they stood on the ramparts of the Ekur and addressed the besiegers. “Why do you attack us?”
The Igigi answered as one, “The work you have assigned us is killing; we can no longer bear it. We have put a stop to digging and declared war.”
Then Enki took the gods inside to counsel them. “Why do we blame the Igigi? Their tasks are too hard.
“Look,” he continued, “the goddess Mami is with us. Let her create mortals, creatures to be our servants and to do our work. Then we can put the yoke of Enlil on these beings and let the Igigi return to heaven.”
The gods agreed and asked Mami to produce such creatures. But the Goddess of Midwifery demurred. “It is not prudent for me to attempt all this. Choose Enki instead, because he is wise and makes things right. If he will prepare clay suitable to the task, I will birth it.”
Enki responded, “If we use pure clay to make these new creatures, they will be like the animals, without intelligence. To make them capable of bearing the yoke of Enlil, we must slay one of the gods so his flesh and blood can be mixed with the clay to be made into a man. Then what we create will be god and man mixed together.”
The gods seized Geshtu-e, a god of wisdom, and slaughtered him. When his flesh and blood were taken and mixed with the clay, a ghost came into being so that none should ever forget him, or fail to remember that the new creature called man was part mortal and part divine.
Mami took the mixture and pinched off fourteen pieces, to create seven males and seven females. She presented them to the Anunnaki, saying, “I have done all you asked. You have slain a god of intelligence and mixed his flesh and blood with clay so I could engender men. I relieve you of wearisome work by imposing your yoke upon them. I have also bestowed upon them the ability to use the spoken word, so they may call to one another to help fulfill their tasks. Let each man choose a woman to wive so Ishtar can bless them with healthy children, to fill the earth with generations upon generations of servants.”
It was in this manner and for these reasons that man was created.
Twelve hundred years went by and the people grew numerous. The land became filled with them and their unceasing clamor. Enlil said, “The noise men make has become too much; I am losing sleep. Let Namtar come up from the depths of the Netherworld and distribute disease among them, so that their numbers and uproar may be reduced.”
The Herald of Death strewed sickness back and forth across the countryside and many died. A wise man in Shuruppak, by name of Atra-hasis, called upon Enki. “How long are the gods going to plague us? Will illness and death afflict us forever?”
Enki advised Atra-hasis, “Call together the elders. Speak to them; tell them to not worship their gods or take them offerings. Instead, let them build a house for Namtar in Shuruppak and let each household bake a loaf of fresh bread and take it to his door.”
The people listened and did as Enki advised. Namtar’s house was filled with fresh bread and surrounded with its pleasant aroma. The Herald of Death was shamed by the multitude of offerings. He drew back his hand so that disease abated. The people regained their health and the land returned to prosperity.
Another twelve hundred years passed and the people again became numerous. The Earth grew crowded and filled with a terrific din. Enlil said, “Once more, the noise made by men is causing me to lose sleep. Let’s cut off their food. Let my son, Ninurta, shut the sluice gates of heaven so that drought comes. Let crops fail and the people perish.”
When drought had held the land in its grip for six years and the people had become famished, Atra-hasis again went to Enki for help. “Call together the elders,” the god said. “Tell them not to worship their gods or make offerings to them. Instead, build a house for Ninurta. Then let each household take of what flour they have and bake a loaf of fresh bread to take to his door.”
Again, the people followed Enki’s advice. Ninurta’s house was filled with fresh bread and surrounded by its pleasant aroma. The young god knew bread was scarce and, though he was Enlil’s son, he was greatly shamed by the precious offerings given him by starving men, so he opened the clouds and let the rain fall. But nothing grew, for the land turned bitter and became encrusted with salt.
In the seventh year, when people began to eat their young, Atra-hasis went to Enki again. “We have no more flour to make bread. It rains, but the land no longer grows our crops. Will this scourge never end?”
“Call together the elders. Tell them to not worship their gods, nor make them offerings nor say prayers nor sing them songs of praise. Let the earth be as it was in the beginning; before men existed, when the gods struggled to grow their own food. Let the gods pick up their tools again and go back to tilling the land, without offerings or praise. Let them suffer.”
It was too much for the gods. Faint with hunger, they yearned to hear prayerful supplications and listen to sweet songs of praise. They relented and allowed Enki to cleanse the earth with sweet water drawn from the depths of the Abzu. With his pure water, he washed away the salt and made the land fertile again.
But, in another twelve hundred years, what had happened before occurred again. The people grew more numerous than ever and earth was filled with their shouting and curses. Enlil said, “I cannot sleep because of the bellowing of men, but I cannot bring them under control because of my brother, Enki. He protects them. Because he created them, they are his children. I will see him about this.”
So Enlil went to Enki and said, “You persuaded us to kill a god and used your power to create men. You imposed our yoke upon them but you also had Mami gift them with the spoken word. What you did was wrong, for men use their power to shout and curse and argue with each other. Now, you must swear an oath to correct the wrong you have caused. You must use your power against your creation and create a Flood to rid the earth of men.”
Enki replied, “Why should I swear an oath? And why should I use my power against my people? The Flood you mentioned, how do I have the power to give birth to such a thing? That’s work for you, Enlil, and your son, Ninurta. If you wish a Flood, then tell Ninurta to let it rain till the dams overflow and drown the land.”
Enlil was furious with Enki. “Then, I shall see it done myself; I will see that the Flood covers the earth. But, brother, you and all the Anunnaki, must promise not to try to obstruct what I am about to undertake; you must not warn men of my plan.”
With the other Anunnaki, Enki took an oath that he would not tell Enlil’s plan to any human.
That night, Enki went out and sat beside the reed wall of Atra-hasis’s house. He spoke aloud, saying, “Wall, listen to me! Reed hut, make sure you hear my words! Take this house apart and build a boat. Leave your worldly possessions behind and take aboard living things. Build the boat two stories high and pitch it with bitumen to make it strong and waterproof. For a flood will come that will last seven days and seven nights and the land will be under water.”
Now, as Enki spoke, Atra-hasis was inside his house and overheard everything the god said. The next day he hired carpenters and reed workers to tear down his house and build the boat the god described. The workmen ate and drank as they worked but Atra-hasis kept his distance, for his heart was breaking over those he knew would soon be drowned and he was vomiting bile.
The day arrived when Ninurta
bellowed from the clouds and the face of the weather changed. The winds came and Atra-hasis hurried his family and animals inside the boat. Then he cut the mooring rope and had bitumen handed up to seal the door.
The sky turned dark so no one could see anyone else. The flood roared toward them like a bull and, like a wild ass, the winds screamed overhead. There was no sun and darkness hid the land. Ninurta opened the clouds and water poured over the land. The goddess Mami watched the storm from above and wept for her people. “What father would have given birth to a raging sea?” she asked Enlil. The other gods and goddesses wept with Mami.
After the seventh night, Enlil ordered his son to stop the rain. As the waters receded, corpses were left strewn about like drowned dragonflies.
But, then, a sweet aroma from an offering went up and attracted the gods. They hovered overhead to catch the fragrance and Enlil spotted Atra-hasis and his boat. “How could anyone have survived the catastrophe?” he asked. “No form of life should have escaped. Who, but Enki, would have done this? My brother has broken his oath!”
Enki heard Enlil and answered, “Atra-hasis must have overheard me when worry caused me to talk aloud to myself. I did this in defiance of you, Enlil, to make sure life was preserved. But I never told him; I did not break my oath.”
“Men multiply continually,” Enlil said. “Again and again they crowd the earth and fill it with noise. I seek only to stop them so I’ll have peace. Why do you continue to defy me?”
“Because, brother, if you destroyed men to rid the earth of noise, who would be left to grow our food? It would be as it was in the beginning.”
Enlil perceived the wisdom in Enki’s answer and he was shamed. “Then, what is to be done?” he asked. “If nothing is changed, in another twelve hundred years, there will be too many people again.”
Enki said, “To prevent that from ever happening again, let the gods decree that a third of the women shall be barren and another third shall be unsuccessful in childbirth. In addition, let the women in the temples be made taboo, so they too will not bear children. By decreeing this, the gods will continue to have men for their servants but there will never be too many again, and the gods and men will live together evermore at peace.”
Enlil rejoiced at hearing his brother’s resolution and praised him for his astuteness.
James W. Bell’s
CHARACTERS AND PLACES
Abzu – (also Apsu) the fresh water in rivers and beneath the ground.
Anu – (An in Sumerian) the chief god in heaven, father of the gods on the
Anunnaki – (sometimes Anunna) the gods who lived on the Earth.
Atra-hasis – (also Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, Ziusudra) the wise man of
Shuruppak who saved mankind in the Flood.
Ekur – (literally “mountain house”) Enlil’s citadel in Nippur, located on the
upper Euphrates River.
Enki – (Ea in Akkadian) Enlil’s brother; God of the Abzu, the wisest and
craftiest of the major gods on earth.
Enlil – (Ellil in Akkadian) Enki’s brother; God of the Air, the most power-
ful of the major gods on earth.
Geshtu-e – an unknown god, possibly a Sumerian play on words.
Igigi – the lesser gods in heaven without individual names.
Ishtar – (Inanna in Sumerian) Goddess of Love and War, represented by
Venus, the evening / morning star.
Mami – (Ninhursag, Ninmah and Nintu in Sumerian) The Earth Goddess;
Namtar – (also Namtara) Herald of Death; son of Ereshkigal, Queen of the
Netherworld – a dark, dismal place underground where the dead spend
Ninurta – (also Adad) Enlil’s son, a young storm god who rode the clouds.
Nippur – an ancient Sumerian city on the upper Euphrates River; a holy
city much like today’s Mecca.
Nusku – Enlil’s vizier and doorkeeper of the Ekur.
Shuruppak – an ancient city on the Euphrates River, midway between Nip-
pur and Ur.
Return to the Mythology Index