Or, just how High can the Water
Water, Water Everywhere
Tales of floods are one of the most prevalent myths, found in virtually every
The myth serves various functions; it falls within Campbell’s pedagogical
function in that it teaches a lesson: do not anger god! In many, many flood
myths, a deity decides to punish humans for being disrespectful. It is also
cosmological, explaining how remnants of ancient sea life is found on high
mountains (we now account this to tectonic plates shifting). As we have
seen with other myths, the flood tales retain similar aspects but change
over time according to culture and geography.
Although the flood myth exists in a plethora of mythoi in diverse
geographical locations, but there is no historical proof of a worldwide flood
in the fossil records. While the earth was covered with water at one time, it
was long before humans came on the scene!
A deity decides to punish humans: Ra/Atum, Enlil, Yahweh, Zeus, and in
Mayan myth, it is the collective gods.
Another deity often decides to intervene and save favored humans (or the
same deity decides to do so): Ra softens after his destroyer,
Hathor/Sekhmet, goes a bit overboard (his intervention of flooding the
streets with beer IS the flood!); Enki warns Utnapishtim; Prometheus warns
Deucalion; Yahweh warns Noah.
A big boat is often involved.
The surviving humans repopulate the earth; in some myths, a new race of
humans is created.
There are differences, of course! But the commonalities are truly the
interesting aspect of this tale.
Sumerian and Hebrew Scripture
Bierlein recounts flood myths and I provided links in the reading for
the module that offer opportunities to explore other myths, but I
want to do a stronger comparison of the Sumeria and Hebrew tales
of the flood.
Perhaps the most well known flood myth of the modern world is the
account of Noah in Genesis, but in comparing Noah and the
Sumerian account of Utnapishtim (aka Ziasudra and Atrahasis in
Babylon) in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the parallels are quite evident!
The names and some of the details are changed, but the gist of the
story remains the same.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gil goes on a quest
for immortality after he finds out how horrible
the “living” conditions are in Kur.
He is told that the only mortal who was granted
immortality was Utnapishtim; Gil sets out to find
this revered man, planning to fight him as he
did Enkidu. Instead, he is surprised to find that
the old man is “just like” him. Instead of
fighting, Utnapishtim tells him the tale of the
You may find the full account at:
All references in this PPT are to Tablet XI.
Utnapishtim and his
Utnapishtim explains that Anu and
Enlil decide to kill all humans: “The
hearts of the Great Gods moved
them to inflict the Flood. Their Father
Anu uttered the oath (of secrecy).”
But Ea/Enki warns Utnapishtim: “Tear
down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living
beings! Spurn possessions and keep
alive living beings! Make all living
beings go up into the boat.” Enki also
provides the dimensions for the craft.
When the boat is finished, everyone
who is to be saved is loaded: “All the
living beings that I had I loaded on it,
I had all my kith and kin go up into
the boat, all the beasts and
animals of the field and the craftsmen
I had go up.”
Utnapishtim in his Craft.
Not many animals would have
been loaded in THIS boat, but
it is the traditional style of
river boats in Mesopotamia.
There came a torrential rain and wind, lasting, “Six days and seven
nights came the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land.
When the seventh day arrived, the storm was pounding, the flood
was a war--struggling with itself like a woman writhing (in labor).
The sea calmed, fell still, the whirlwind (and) flood stopped up. I
looked around all day long--quiet had set in and all the human
beings had turned to clay!”
The people, being made of clay, returned to clay.
After the rain subsided, the boat came to rest on Mt. Nimash where it
stayed fast for seven days. At that time, Utnapishtim, “sent forth a dove
and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was
visible so it circled back to me. I sent forth a swallow and released it. The
swallow went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled
back to me. I sent forth a raven and released it. The raven went off, and
saw the waters slither back. It eats, it scratches, it bobs, but does not circle
back to me.”
Utnapishtim sacrificed to the gods: “Then I sent out everything in all
directions and sacrificed (a sheep). I offered incense in front of the
mountain-ziggurat. Seven and seven cult vessels I put in place, and (into
the fire) underneath (or: into their bowls) I poured reeds, cedar, and myrtle.”
Enlil was very angry that humans made it through his deluge, but he
softened and, “He touched our [Utnapishtim and his wife] forehead and,
standing between us, he blessed us: 'Previously Utanapishtim was a
human being. But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us, the
gods!” (Note the variant spelling of names—those are not typos.)
The story of Noah has two versions. The P version in Genesis 6 reads:
You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female,
to keep them alive with you. 20
Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of
animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will
come to you to be kept alive. 21
You are to take every kind of food that is to
be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”
But in Genesis 7, the “Y/J” author says:
2: Of all the clean beasts, take yourself seven pairs, man and his
woman; and of the beasts which are not clean, two, man and his
3: Also of the birds of the heavens seven pairs, male and female [ . . . ]
(The authors of the Pentateuch are classified linguistically and otherwise. P =
Priestly authors; Y/J = authors who use Yahweh/Jehovah instead of Elohim.
For our intent, the variations are not germane; it is the “big” picture—and some details
—that are important and show the relationship between the Sumerian and Judaic
Like Enlil, Yahweh becomes disenchanted with humans, saying in Genesis 6:5+:
The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the
earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all
the time. 6
The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his
heart was deeply troubled. 7
So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth
the human race [. . .].”
However, Noah found favor with Yahweh and the latter tells Noah to build a boat,
giving him the dimensions and instructions for construction. Noah is to take his family
into the craft and they will be the only survivors.
It is not only torrential rains that help inundate the earth, but the “springs of the great
deep,” as well; it rained for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7: 11,12). (Note that 40 is the
same number of years that the Jews wandered in the wilderness.)
Like Utnapishtim, Noah sent forth birds to seek land: a raven and a dove. A difference
here is that Noah sends the birds out before landing; Utnapishtim sends them forth
Also like Utnapishtim, after landing on Mt. Ararat, Noah subsequently sacrifices to
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean
animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it (Genesis 8: 20).
The tale of Noah has many facets of the
Sumerian/Babylonian tale from The Epic of Gilgamesh.
A deity decides to destroy the earth because of wicked
humans, but one man and his family is chosen to
The man is given instructions on how to build a big boat
and puts pairs of animals on board. After the earth is
flooded, the boat eventually comes to rest on a
The types if birds used to seek land are the same.
The men sacrifice when all is over.
And more Comparisons
Egypt’s flood myth shares the anger of a deity, but the flood takes a
In Greek myth, Zeus decides to annihilate humans but Prometheus warns
Deucalion. Deucalion builds a boat and lands on a mountain. He and his
wife, Pyrrha, repopulate the earth be throwing the “bones of their mother”
(aka “rocks”) over their shoulders.
In Mayan myth, the gods kept making disappointing creatures and
subsequently destroying them—including people made of clay who
dissolved in the rain. Ultimately, a flood wiped out a group who did not give
praise to the deities.
The possibility of worldwide flooding or living beneath the sea continues to fascinate
Ah, there’s the rub!
In a collegiate setting, religious explanations are not appropriate, and there is no
record of a worldwide flood—why so many myths?
I have provided some links in the module folder for you to peruse. After you do so,
give me some thoughts on possible causes of the widespread flood myth.