Stories about a great flood are known in many civilizations. The earliest written example is in Sumerian literary sources that date to the end of the third millennium B.C.E.

The Sumerian kings list, a literary composition probably written in the twenty-first century B.C.E., contains a list of eight kings of five cities from the presumed beginnings of kingship to the time of the flood. The last ruler was a sage named Ziusudra, who is called Atrahasis or Uta-napishti in other Mesopotamian sources. The kings list indicates that the Sumerians believed the flood to have been a localized event that occurred early in the third millennium B.C.E.

Sumerian Flood Myth

Stories about the beginnings of the flood may be attributable to the annual spring flooding ofthe Tigris and Euphrates rivers, or possibly changes in ancient sea levels. A Sumerian flood story dating to the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E.begins after the gods created the black-headed people, the Sumerians. Animals multiplied everywhere, and gods were assigned to rule over the cities of Sumer.

The gods were displeased with the people and set out to destroy them. A storm began and a great flood swept over the land for seven days and seven nights. Ziusudra, whose name means “life of distant days,” was the only Sumerian to survive the flood. He and the animals were safe in his ark. When the floodwater receded, Ziusudra was granted eternal life by the gods An and Enlil. Ziusudra settled in the land of Dilmun.

The final story in the epic of Gilgamesh, called The Death of Gilgamesh, includes an excerpt about the flood. According to this myth, in remote days the divine assembly created the deluge in order to destroy humankind. Only one human, Ziusudra, survived the onslaught. From that time forward, human life was finite. Only the gods possessed eternal life.

Babylonian Myth

Sumerian stories of the flood probably influenced the later Babylonian versions. The story of the hero Atra-hasis begins before the creation of the human race.

The junior gods had the task of configuring the earth by digging rivers, canals, and marshes. These deities felt that their work was too difficult and decided to revolt. They marched to the dwelling of Enlil, the chief god of Earth. The senior god Enki suggested that the gods create humans to relieve the junior gods of their burden. The birth goddess was summoned, and she created humans out of clay. The people were able to reproduce but were immortal, so an explosion of human population occurred.

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Enlil became even more disturbed by events on Earth. The noise from the people was so overwhelming that he could not obtain his needed rest. Enlil decided that the creation of humans had been a mistake, and a drastic solution was needed. Enlil sent a plague, but
the god Ea intervened on behalf of humans and told the hero Atra-hasis to placate the plague god with offerings. The plague ended, and the people became more numerous than before.

Enlil ordered the rain to stop and induced famine. But again, Ea came to the aid of humankind and sent rain to end the drought.
Frustrated, Enlil decided to bring about a flood to destroy all of humankind. This time, Ea advised Atra-hasis to build an ark. The animals and Atra-hasis’s family were placed on board, and the storm began.

For seven days and seven nights, the storm raged. After the flood subsided, Atra-hasis made a sacrifice to the gods. When Enlil saw the vessel, he demanded to know how the humans had survived. Ea confessed that he was responsible.

At the end of the story, Enlil decided that only Atra-hasis and his wife would be granted eternal life. As for the rest of humankind, their days would be numbered, and the human population would be controlled through the creation of women who were unable to bear children.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

A detailed version of the flood story is found in the eleventh tablet of the Babylonian text The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed at the end of the second millennium B.C.E. The hero in this version is called Uta-napishti, which means “I found life.” He was warned about the flood by the god Ea and told to abandon his property and wealth and build a ship. Utanapishti built an ark six decks high. He loaded everything he owned onto the ship, including all of his gold and silver. He allowed his animals, family, and artisans to join him on board.

The storm began the next morning. For six days and seven nights, the wind blew, and the deluge flattened the land. On the seventh day, the storm ended, and the ocean grew calm. Uta-napishti’s boat ran aground on a mountain.

After seven more days, Uta-napishti sent out a dove that returned after finding no other place to land. He then sent forth a swallow, but it, too, returned. Finally, a raven was sent out. The bird discovered that the waters had receded, found food, and did not return. Utanapishti made an offering to the gods.

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When Enlil discovered that people had survived the deluge, he was furious. Calmed by Ea, Enlil decreed that from that time forward only Uta-napishti and his wife would be endowed with eternal life. The time of all other humans on Earth would be limited.

Biblical Flood

The Gilgamesh version of the flood closely parallels the biblical accounts found in the book of Genesis. The story of Noah’s ark, however, contains unique theological elements not found in any of the Mesopotamian versions.

In Genesis, the flood was sent to punish humans for their evil behavior, rather than for overpopulating the earth. In the aftermath of the biblical flood, the hero, Noah, is not granted immortality. Also, the Bible emphasizes the Hebrew god Yahweh’s promise to never again destroy his creation. Noah and his family were favored with divine blessing and told to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

Greek Myth

The most recent Mesopotamian version of the flood story was written in Greek by Berossos, a priest of the god Bel, in about 275 B.C.E. The hero in this version is called Xisuthros, echoing the name of the Sumerian hero, Ziusudra. The Greek god Kronos appeared to Xisuthros in a dream and warned him of a flood. The hero was ordered to dig a hole and bury all the writings in the city of Sippar. He was then to build a boat and fill it with his kin, friends, birds, and animals.

After the flood, the boat was moored on a mountain. Xisuthros disembarked and made sacrifices to the gods. Xisuthros and his family disappeared, leaving behind those who had accompanied them on the boat. A voice told the survivors that Xisuthros, his wife, and the boat pilot would henceforth dwell with the gods. The
others were instructed to return to Babylon, rescue the buried writings, and pass them on to their descendants. This idea of protecting wisdom is unique to the Greek version of the story.

There are countless other flood myths from other cultures. Most share the common element of a hero and an ark. In some more mountainous regions, such as the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the hero and his companions survive by climbing to the top of a mountain.