God or gods warning
A mass of water bringing people in danger has always spoken to the imagination of people. As such we can find a great flood as a mythic theme in many ancient religions that describes a primordial destruction of man and the world by a universal deluge because of man’s wickedness, with a faithful remnant being allowed by God (or gods) to survive. Because of such stories of a very Great Flood to be found in lots of cultures we should be wondering if there is not much more than just a story or fairy tale to it. Among the best known Flood myths are the Epic of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamian) and the story of Noah in the biblical book of Genesis.
Religions of ancient Near East
The religions of the ancient Near East (extending geographically from Iran to Egypt and from Anatolia and the Aegean Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, and temporally from c. 3000 to 330 BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered much of the area) are the antecedents of the major Western religions; i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The religious beliefs of those religions their stories, attitudes, and practices developed in the ancient Near East have had an enduring effect and influence on Western civilization. Among the many peoples whose religions contributed to this influence were the Egyptians, Hebrews, Moabites, Phoenicians, Ugaritians, Arabians, Aramaeans, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Iranians. In their cultures we do find the history of a very great flood, a deluge of their world.
Mesopotamia (Akkad, Assyria, Isin, Larsa and Babylonia) in their oldest known copy of the epic tradition concerning Atrahasis, the “exceedingly wise” protagonist of an 18th-century BCE, brings a similar story like the older Sumerian Gilgamesh poems, where the hero Utnapishtim is granted immortality or being granted eternal life. In the story Utnapishtim had to work on a large boat. There is spoken of three times 3,600 units of raw bitumen that were melted in a kiln and three times 3,600 units of oil were used in addition to two times 3,600 units of oil that were stored in the boat to which were loaded all the living beings that he had. Utnapishtim boarded the boat when the god Shamash stated that it was time to seal the entry door. The thunder god Adad rumbled in the cloud and storm gods Shullar and Hanish went over mountains and land. Erragal pulled out the mooring poles and the dikes overflowed whilst the Annunnaki gods lit up the land with their lightning. The gods were frightened by the flood, and retreated up to the Anu heaven. They cowered like dogs lying by the outer wall. Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth. The Mistress of the gods wailed that the old days had turned to clay because
“I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods, ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people who fill the sea like fish.”
Like in many other deluge stories we can find here also the other gods weeping with the master or mistress god and sat sobbing with grief, their lips burning, parched with thirst.
The flood and wind lasted six days and six nights, flattening the land. On the seventh day, the storm was pounding [intermittently?] like a woman in labour. The sea calmed and the whirlwind and flood stopped. All day long there was quiet. All humans had turned to clay (or dust, which means they were all death except those who had listened to the god of warning).
Like the many other flood stories here too comes the boat to rest on a plane, lodged firmly on mount Nimush which held the boat for several days, allowing no swaying. On the seventh day Utnapishtim released a dove which flew away, but came back to him. He released a swallow, but it also came back to him. Afterwards he released a raven which was able to eat and scratch, and did not circle back to the boat, for him it being a sign that water had descended again and dry land was there again to become ground to live on.
In this story the man of the boat Utnapishtim’s hand, helps him and his wife aboard where they kneel. Standing between Utnapishtim and his wife, the god comes to touch their foreheads and blesses them. The story tells us
“Formerly Utnapishtim was a human being, but now he and his wife have become gods like us. Let Utnapishtim reside far away, at the mouth of the rivers.” [The Akkadian determinative dingir is usually translated as “god”, but can also mean “priest” and Dingir-kabtu or ‘god’ literally means “divine important-person”]
In those cultures the rising and subsiding of the rivers was connected to their gods and their religious calendar. In Mesopotamia though, where the Twin Rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) conveyed the concept that flooding was catastrophic — there was nothing like the beneficent inundation of the Nile.
In Mesopotamia a man might move from Cuthah (in central Iraq), the cultic centre of the underworld deities Nergal and Ereshkigal, to Ur (in southern Iraq), the cultic centre of the lunar (moon) deities Nannar and Ningal. Each centre in Mesopotamia had its own cultic calendar, but the pantheon and the religious ideas were the same from one end of the sub-ecumene to the other.
In those cultures it was considered that the land was owned by their gods. Those gods governed it and used the winds, clouds and waters to give signs to the peoples.
The Sumerian inscriptions of Gudea (c. 21st century BCE) depict the local god Ningirsu as the owner of the city-state of Lagash. The human ruler, or ‘ensi’, was the god’s agent, governing in accordance with the god’s decrees as revealed through dreams interpreted by qualified religious personnel. In the Bible, Lev. 25:23 expresses the theory plainly; God says
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.”
Next: The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 3 Mythic theme 2 Hebrew story of the flood
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