Friday, September 03, 2010

The Story of the Flood

The following was an assignment for my Classical & Medieval Humanities class. The class is online so the assignments are posts on a message board. The assignment consisted of a series of questions, of which we were to choose one and answer it. Below is the question I selected and my answer.

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Question: Choose one of the selections from The Epic of Gilgamesh to discuss in more depth. Show how the story illustrates the Sumerian culture and how later epics and stories must have borrowed from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Story of the Flood

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not only one of the oldest, but probably one of the most important works of ancient literature. This story not only predates the epics of Homer but it also predates the Bible and this section specifically parallels the story of Noah and the Ark.

The theme of the entire epic is the search for immortality. In his quest, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim who tells him the story of the great flood. According to Utnapishtim, the god Enlil became extremely angry with humanity and convinced the gods that man needed to be purged from the world. Ea warned Utnapishtim in a dream that he must build a boat if he is to survive the coming storm. Utnapishtim did as instructed and built a boat onto which he loaded all of his family, kin, and gold, along with animals—wild and tame—and all of the craftsmen. The storm came and for six days and nights they stayed on the boat while the storm raged around them. On the seventh day the storm subsided and the boat eventually ran aground on the mountain Nisir. For six days the bot help steady. On the seventh day Utnapishtim released a series of birds in hopes of finding land (one being a dove). Finally a raven was sent out who discovered that the waters had retreated, found food, cawed, and left never to return.

This parallels the story of Noah in three extremely significant ways. First like Utnapishtim, Noah was visited by God and given a warning to build a boat.
From the Wikipedia entry Noah’s Ark
Further exploration and discoveries brought to light several versions of the Mesopotamian flood-myth, with the closest to Genesis 6-9 in a 7th century BC Babylonian copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh: the hero Gilgamesh meets the immortal man Utnapishtim, who tells how the god Ea warned him to build a vessel in which to save his family, his friends, and his wealth and cattle from a great flood by which the gods intended to destroy the world.
The second major parallel is the use of birds by Utnapishtim and Noah to discover if the flood waters had receded. Both Utnapishtim and Noah used doves in their search for land. Interestingly though, it wasn’t a dove that found land for Utnapishtim but a raven. The types of birds aside, the method for releasing the birds and the results for Noah in Genesis 8:8-8:12 are nearly identical to that of Utnapishtim.

The third parallel is the sacrifices in worship made by both Utnapishtim and Noah upon leaving their respective boats. Utnapishtim “made a sacrifice and poured the libation on the mountain top” and mixed that with some burning wood, the smell of which made the gods very happy (Readings in the Western Humanities, 13). Like Utnapishtim, Noah built an alter and “worshiped the Lord with burnt offerings from some of the clean animals.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh was hugely important and probably greatly influenced the ancient Hebrews as they developed their own religion. The story of the great flood is not an isolated one. There are flood myths found throughout the world (see the Wikipedia entry Flood myth) probably because flooding is something that most cultures have experienced in one fashion or another. Why this specific flood story is so important is that it predates the Bible and comes from the same part of the world (according to the Bible, the first Jewish patriarch Abraham was born in the Sumerian city of Ur). Although it can never be known for certain, it is a logical conclusion that The Epic of Gilgamesh had a major influence on the early Hebrews as they developed their own religious traditions.

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