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Atra-Hasis (18th-century BC) is an Akkadian epic, recorded in various versions on clay tablets, named for its protagonist, Atrahasis ('exceedingly wise'). The Atra-Hasis tablets include both a creation myth and one of three surviving Babylonian flood myths. The name "Atra-Hasis" also appears, as king of Shuruppak in the times before a flood, on one of the Sumerian King Lists.
The oldest known copy of the epic tradition concerning Atrahasis[i] can be dated by colophon (scribal identification) to the reign of Hammurabi’s great-grandson, Ammi-Saduqa (1646–1626 BC). However, various Old Babylonian fragments exist, and the epic continued to be copied into the first millennium BC.
The story of Atrahasis also exists in a later Assyrian version, first rediscovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal, though its translations have been uncertain due to the artifact being in fragmentary condition and containing ambiguous words. Nonetheless, its fragments were first assembled and translated by George Smith as The Chaldean Account of Genesis, the hero of which had his name corrected to Atra-Hasis by Heinrich Zimmern in 1899.
In 1965, Wilfred G. Lambert and Alan R. Millard published many additional texts belonging to the epic, including an Old Babylonian copy (written c. 1650 BC) which is the most complete recension of the tale to have survived. These new texts greatly increased knowledge of the epic and were the basis for Lambert and Millard’s first English translation of the Atrahasis epic in something approaching entirety. A further fragment was recovered in Ugarit.
In its most complete surviving version, the Atra-Hasis epic is written on three tablets in Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon.:8–15
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Taking place, according to its incipit, “when gods were in the ways of men," Tablet I of Atra-Hasis contains the creation myth of Anu, Enlil, and Enki—the Sumerian gods of sky, wind, and water. Following the cleromancy ('casting of lots'), the sky is ruled by Anu, Earth by Enlil, and the freshwater sea by Enki.[ii]
Enlil, god of Earth, assigned junior dingirs (Sumerian: 𒀭, lit. 'divines')[iii] to do farm labor, as well as maintain the rivers and canals. After forty years, however, the lesser dingirs rebelled and refused to do strenuous labor. Enki, who is also the kind, wise counselor of the gods, suggested that rather than punishing these rebels, humans should be created to do such work instead. The mother goddess Mami is subsequently assigned the task of creating humans by shaping clay figurines mixed with the flesh and blood of the slain god Geshtu-E ('ear' or 'wisdom'; 'a god who had intelligence').[iv] All the gods, in turn, spit upon the clay. After 10 months, a specially-made womb breaks open and humans are born.
Tablet I continues with legends about overpopulation and plagues, mentioning Atrahasis only at the end.
Tablet II begins with more human overpopulation. To reduce this population, Enlil sends famine and drought at formulaic intervals of 1200 years. Accordingly, in this epic, Enlil is depicted as a cruel, capricious god, while Enki is depicted as kind and helpful, perhaps because priests of Enki were writing and copying the story.
Tablet II remains mostly damaged, however it ends with Enlil's decision to destroy humankind with a flood, with Enki bound by oath to keep this plan secret.
Tablet III of the Atra-Hasis epic contains the flood myth. It tells of how Enki, speaking through a reed wall,[v] warns hero Atrahasis ('extremely wise') of Enlil's plan to destroy humankind by flood, telling the hero to dismantle his house (perhaps to provide a construction site) and build a boat to escape. Moreover, this boat is to have a roof “like Abzu” (or Apsi; a subterranean, fresh water realm presided over by Enki); to have upper and lower decks; and to be sealed with bitumen.
Atrahasis boards the boat with his family and animals, then seals the door. The storm and flood begin, and even the gods are afraid. After seven days, the flood ends and Atrahasis offers sacrifices to the gods. Enlil is furious with Enki for violating his oath, but Enki denies doing so: "I made sure life was preserved.” In conclusion, Enki and Enlil agree on other means for controlling the human population.
Alterations and adaptations
Lineage of Atrahasis
In Gilgamesh, the name of the flood hero is Utnapishtim, who is said to be the son of Ubara-Tutu, king of Shuruppak: "Gilgamesh spoke to Utnapishtim, the Faraway... O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu." Many available tablets comprising the Sumerian King Lists support the lineage of the flood hero given in Gilgamesh by omitting a king named Shuruppak as a historical ruler of Shuruppak, implying a belief that the flood story took place after or during the rule of Ubara-Tutu.
In the Sumerian creation myth, first recorded in the 17th century BC (i.e. the Old Babylonian Empire), the hero is named Ziusudra, who also appears in the Instructions of Shuruppak as the son of the eponymous Shuruppak, who himself is called the son of Ubara-Tutu.
The Sumerian King Lists also make no mention of Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, or Ziusudra. Tablet WB 62, however, provides a different chronology: Atrahasis is listed as a ruler of Shuruppak and a gudug priest, preceded by his father Shuruppak, who is, in turn, preceded by his father Ubara-Tutu, as in The Instructions of Shuruppak. This tablet is unique in that it mentions both Shuruppak and Atrahasis.
Gilgamesh and the flood myth
Subsequent versions of the flood myth in the Ancient Near East evidently alter (omit and/or editorially change) information about the flood and the flood hero found in the original Atra-Hasis story.:xxx In particular, a lost, intermediate version of the Atra-Hasis flood myth seems to have been paraphrased or copied in a late addition of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI). This modern addition of Gilgamesh, known as the 'standard version', is traditionally associated with the Babylonian scribe Sîn-lēqi-unninni (c. 1300–1000 BC), though some minor changes may have been made since his time.:xxiv–xxv
Regarding the editorial changes to the Atra-Hasis text in Gilgamesh, Jeffrey H. Tigay comments: "The dropping of individual lines between others which are preserved, but are not synonymous with them, appears to be a more deliberate editorial act. These lines share a common theme, the hunger and thirst of the gods during the flood."
Examples of alterations to the Atra-Hasis story in Gilgamesh include:
- Omitting information, for example:
- The hero being at a banquet when the storm and flood begins: "He invited his people...to a banquet.... He sent his family on board. They ate and they drank. But he [Atrahasis] was in and out. He could not sit, could not crouch, for his heart was broken and he was vomiting gall."
- "She was surfeited with grief and thirsted for beer."
- "From hunger they were suffering cramp."
- Editorial changes, for example:
- Weakening of anthropomorphic descriptions of the gods, for example:
- The variant versions are not direct translations of a single original.
- Walter Burkert traces the model drawn from Atrahasis to a corresponding passage, the division by lots of the air, underworld and sea among Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon in the Iliad, in which “a resetting through which the foreign framework still shows” (pp. 88–91). Burkert, Walter. 1992. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Harvard University Press.
- Green, Margaret Whitney. 1975. "Eridu in Sumerian Literature" (PhD dissertation). University of Chicago. p. 224. The Akkadian determinative dingir (𒀭) primarily translates to 'god' or 'goddess'. However, it may also mean 'priest' or 'priestess', even while other Akkadian words (e.g. ēnu and ēntu) also translate to such. The noun 'divine' is thus used to preserve this ambiguity in dingir.
- On some tablets the under-god Weila or Aw-ilu, was slain for this purpose.
- Suggestive of an oracle.
- Bottéro, Jean. 2000. Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226067155. p. 40.
- Lambert, Wilfred G., and Alan R. Millard. 1965. Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum. London.
- Lambert, Wilfred G., and Alan R. Millard. 1999 . Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. London: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 1-57506-039-6.
- Atra-Hasis III, iv.7–9.
- "Sumerian King List." WB 62. c. 2000 BC.
- Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, trans. 1998. "The Story of the Flood." Epic of Gilgamesh XI (electronic ed.), edited by W. Carnahan. Academy of Ancient Texts.
- Zólyomi, Gábor, trans. 2003 . "The instructions of Šuruppag." The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (2nd ed.), edited by G. Zólyomi, J. A. Black, E. Robson, and G. Cunningham. London: Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
- Zólyomi, Gábor, trans. 2001 . "The Sumerian king list: translation." The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (2nd ed.), edited by G. Zólyomi, J. A. Black, G. Cunningham, and E. Robson. London: Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
- George, Andrew R., trans. 2003 . The Epic of Gilgamesh (reprint and corrected ed.), edited by A. R. George. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044919-1.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H. 1982. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7805-4. pp. 238–39.
- Atra-Hasis III, ii.40–47.
- Atra-Hasis III.iv.
- Atra-Hasis III.iv 6–7.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh XI 123.
- Atra-Hasis III 30–31.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh XI 113.
- Best, Robert M. 1999. Noah's Ark and the Ziusudra Epic. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 0-9667840-1-4.
- Laessoe, Q. 1956. “The Atrahasis Epic: A Babylonian History of Mankind.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 13:90–102. ISSN 0006-1913
- English text of The Epic of Atraḥasis: https://www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/104-106-the-epic-of-atrahasis/