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This story as we have it comes from an early Babylonian version of about 1700 BC, but it certainly dates back to Sumerian times. It combines familiar Sumerian motifs of the creation of mankind and the subsequent flood. On one of the Sumerian king-lists, Atrahasis is listed as king of Shuruppak in the years before the flood. The name Atrahasis means "Extra-wise,"and is thus, as Stepanie Dalley points out, quite similar in meaning to that of Prometheus ("Forethinker"), father of the Greek flood hero Deucalion (2). The story begins way before Atrahasis appears on the scene, however. It starts out with the gods digging ditches. Men have not been thought of yet, so the gods had to do the work:
The gods had to dig out the canals
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land,
The gods dug out the Tigris river bed
And then they dug out the Euphrates. (Dalley 9)
After 3,600 years of this work, the gods finally begin to complain. They decide to go on strike,
burning their tools and surrounding the chief god Enlil's "dwelling" (his temple). Enlil's vizier Nusku
gets Enlil out of bed and alerts him to the angry mob outside. Enlil is scared. (His face is described as
being "sallow as a tamarisk.") The vizier Nusku advises Enlil to summon the other great gods,
especially Anu (sky-god) and Enki (the clever god of the fresh waters). Anu advises Enlil to ascertain
who is the ringleader of the rebellion. They send Nusku out to ask the mob of gods who is their
leader. The mob answers, "Every single one of us gods has declared war!" (Dalley 12).
Since the upper-class gods now see that the work of the lower-class gods "was too hard," they decide to sacrifice one of the rebels for the good of all. They will take one god, kill him, and make mankind by mixing the god's flesh and blood with clay:
Belit-ili the womb-goddess is present,
Let the womb-goddess create offspring,
And let man bear the load of the gods! (Dalley 14-15)
After Enki instructs them on purification rituals for the first, seventh and fifteenth of every month, the gods slaughter Geshtu-e, "a god who had intelligence" (his name means "ear" or "wisdom") and form mankind from his blood and some clay. After the birth goddess mixes the clay, all the gods troop by and spit on it. Then Enki and the womb-goddess take the clay into "the room of fate," where
The womb-goddesses were assembled
He [Enki] trod the clay in her presence;
She kept reciting an incantation,
For Enki, staying in her presence, made her recite it.
When she had finished her incantation,
She pinched off fourteen pieces of clay,
And set seven pieces on the right,
The creation of man seems to be described here as being analogous or similar to the process of
making bricks: tread (knead) the clay and then pinch off pieces that will become bricks. Here, the
seven pieces on the right become males and the seven pieces on the left become females. The brick
between the two may be a symbol of the fetus, for when the little pieces of clay are ready to be
"born," their birth is described like this:
Just as you put a wooden spatula into a beehive-shaped brick oven to remove the bricks (like getting the pizza out when it's done), the womb-goddess or midwife uses a staff to check to see if the womb has dilated enough for birth. After the seven men and seven women are born, the birth-goddess gives rules for celebrations at birth: they should last for nine days during which a mud brick should be put down. After nine days, the husband and wife could resume conjugal relations.
differences do you see in the relations between men and gods?
2. Compare Geshtu-e ("ear"), the god who is sacrificed to make mankind, to Kvasir.
3. Why bricks?
4. Can you find a "fall" or introduction of evil in this story?
5. How is the dispute between the gods like / unlike the war between Zeus and the Titans, or that
The gods' solution to their difficulties works well: men make new picks and spades and dig bigger canals to feed both themselves and the gods. But after 1200 years the population has increased so much that Enlil has trouble sleeping:
The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull
The God grew restless at their racket,
Enlil had to listen to their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
'The noise of mankind has become too much,
I am losing sleep over their racket.
Give the order thatsurrupu-disease shall break out.' (Dalley 18)
The plague breaks out, but the wise Atrahasis appeals to his god Enki for help. Enki advises Atrahasis to have the people stop praying to their personal gods and to start praying and offering sacrifices the plague god, Namtar. Namtar is so shamed by this show of attention that he wipes "away his hand" and the plague ends.
After another 1200 years, mankind has again multiplied to the point where they are violating Enlil's noise ordinances. This time Enlil decides on a drought to reduce their numbers, and gets Adad, the thunder-rain god, to hold back the rains. Again Atrahasis appeals to Enki, and again he advises concentrating worship on the one god responsible. Adad is also embarrassed, and releases his rain. (The text does not explain how Atrahasis has been able to live for 1200 years, but many legendary Sumerian kings had incredibly long lives.)
Another 1200 years goes by and the noise becomes tremendous. This time, Enlil wants to make sure that no one god can weaken his/her resolve, so he declares "a general embargo of all nature's gifts. Anu and Adad were to guard heaven, Enlil the earth, and Enki the waters, to see that no means of nourishment reach the human race" (Jacobsen 119). In addition, Enlil decrees infertility: "Let the womb be too tight to let the baby out" (Dalley 25). Things get pretty bad:
When the second year arrived
They had depleted the storehouse.
When the third year arrived
The people's looks were changed by starvation.
When the fourth year arrived
Their upstanding bearing bowed,
Their well-set shoulders slouched,
The people went out in public hunched over.
When the fifth year arrived,
A daughter would eye her mother coming in;
A mother would not even open her door to her daughter. . . .
When the sixth year arrived
They served up a daughter for a meal,
Served up a son for food. (Dalley 25-26)
Though the tablets are broken and the text is fragmentary here, it seems that Enki foils the complete
starvation plan by letting loose large quantities of fish to feed the starving people. Enlil is furious
with Enki for breaking ranks with the rest of the gods and going against a plan that all had agreed to.
Determined to wipe out mankind, Enlil decides on two things: Enki will create a flood to wipe them
out and he will be forced to swear an oath not to interfere with the destruction. Enki resists creating
the flood ("Why should I use my power against my people? . . . / This is Enlil's kind of work!"[Dalley
29]), but apparently he does take the oath.
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