Stuff from Way Back #28: Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Myth?

The early parts of the Biblical book of Genesis involve a great deal of water, which might seem odd in the mythic tradition of a society that emerged and evolved in the relatively arid environs of Palestine. There is of course the Mediterranean Sea, but the land itself is very dry, depending for the most part on rainfall for agriculture. The local rivers are mere rivulets compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile, which river systems witnessed the birth of the first urban civilizations, Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt. Yet the creation story in Genesis begins with a watery chaos, and later the first human society is destroyed in a world-wide flood, a somewhat unlikely proposition in a land that experienced only the very ephemeral flash floods common to desert regions. Such stories would make much more sense in the hydraulic societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

 

And indeed in the creation myths of these areas the emergence of the familiar universe involved aquatic beginnings. For the Egyptians the process was peaceful, reflecting the confidence of a culture whose world-view was shaped by an isolated, secure, bountiful and essentially unchanging environment. The primeval hill arose from the waters, and there Atum (or Ptah), a self-created god, generated other deities by spitting out or ejaculating them or in a later more sophisticated account simply speaking their names. They in turn produced more gods and ultimately men in an ordered world without end.

Atum

Atum

The Sumerians, on the other hand, lived in a far less hospitable environment: the Tigris and the Euphrates, unlike the Nile, were wild unpredictable rivers, there were extremes of weather and life was very insecure because of the constant warfare among the city-states and the periodic incursions of barbarians. Consequently, in their view (and that of subsequent societies in the region) creation was a struggle, and the forces of order under Enlil (later Marduk) had to wage an epic battle against Tiamat, the chaotic salt waters. Further, creation was not necessarily permanent and could collapse back into chaos, just as the Sumero-Babylonian societies were continually threatened with natural and man-made catastrophe.

Water world

Sumer

 

Enlil

Enlil

The Sumero-Babylonian tradition also features a global flood, a tale so ubiquitous that some actually hold the utterly nonsensical idea that there was indeed a planetary deluge. Southern Iraq, the location of Sumer, was frequently flooded by the Tigris and Euphrates overflowing their banks and the sea driven in by storms, natural disasters that early on gave rise to the tradition of a universal flood. Significantly, the Egyptians did not produce such a story, since while the Nile did flood, it did so on a regular annual basis, rejuvenating the farmland rather than creating havoc. Sumer was a land of natural and human conflict; Egypt was not.

 

Here then is the source of all that Biblical water. With the rise of empires, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian, communications between the Land of the Two Rivers and Syria and Palestine on the Mediterranean coast were greatly enhanced, and along with goods and people ideas and tales traveled eat and west. The story of Abraham coming from Ur, the most important of the Sumerian cities, is a reflection of this. As the Yahwists, the future Hebrews, absorbed Canaanite groups, many of the local traditions of these peoples were woven into the evolving tapestry of early Hebrew history. Very probably a group that had come from the east preserved a memory of its origins, and the birthplace of Abraham, himself a local cult figure from Hebron, was transferred to Ur. Thus the watery story from the Sumero-Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, traveled west to become, with many alterations, part of the mythic tradition of a distinctly non-watery people.

 

So also did the flood story make its way to the Hebrews. The tale is most fully recounted in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tablets of which date from the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, but there is a Sumerian version from about 1700 BC, and it undoubtedly draws upon even earlier accounts. Long ago the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, but the god Ea (Enki) took pity and warned Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) of Shuruppak to build a huge boat. He did so, and when the flood came, he boarded with his family and clan and “the beasts and the birds.” But the gods relented and the deluge ended, and the ark came to rest on Mt. Nimush. Utnapishtim released a “watch-bird,” which returned, then a swallow, which also returned, and finally a raven, which did not. Humanity was saved, and Utnapishtim was given the gift of eternal life.

 

Utnapishtim

Utnapishtim

Ea/Enki

Ea/Enki

And so a group of people in Palestine, who would never have seen any real flood, came to accept a universal deluge as part of their mythic history. That oral tradition was ultimately recorded and became part of the Hebrew testament, later accepted as valid by Christianity and Islam. As a result for almost two millennia half the population of the planet believed in the literal truth of a story created by a “pagan” people they had never heard of and would despise as unbelievers if they had. Even today there are those who ignore the overwhelming and obvious evidence of science, Biblical analysis and common sense and insist on the historicity of a flood, diligently searching the mountainous interior of Anatolia for traces of the ark of Ziusudra/Utnapishtim/Noah.

Rare photo of Noah

Rare photo of Noah

A sucker born every minute

A sucker born every minute

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