Gilgamesh Flood Tablet
The Gilgamesh Flood Tablet contains the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The flood story was added to the Gilgamesh Epic utilised surviving Babylonian deluge stories from older Sumerian poems which inspired the flood myth.
“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
― The Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh’s reign is believed to have been about 2700 BCE, shortly before the earliest known written stories. The earliest Sumerian Gilgamesh poems date from 2100–2000 BCE. One of these poems mentions Gilgamesh’s journey to meet the flood hero, as well as a short version of the flood story. The flood story was included because in it the flood hero is granted immortality by the gods and that fits the immortality theme of the epic. Gilgamesh, having failed to discover the secret of eternal life, returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls inspires him to praise this enduring work of mortal men. The moral is that mortals can achieve immortality through lasting works of civilization and culture.
A flood or deluge myth is a narrative in which a great flood, sent by a deity destroys civilisation. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primaeval waters found in certain creation myths, The flood waters are often described as a measure for the cleansing of humanity, in preparation for rebirth.
The flood myth is found among many cultures including:
- Mesopotamian flood stories,
- Genesis flood narrative,
- Greek mythology,
- Chinese mythology,
- Norse mythology,
- K’iche’ and Maya peoples in Mesoamerica,
- Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa tribe of Native Americans in North America,
- Muisca, and Cañari Confederation, in South America, Africa,
- and the Aboriginal tribes in Australia.
The Mesopotamian Flood Myth
In the 19th century, Assyriologists started translating the first Babylonian accounts of a great flood. Discoveries produced several versions of the Mesopotamian flood myth, with the account closest to that in Genesis was found in a 700 BC Babylonian copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Sumerian King List relies on the flood story to divide its history into pre-flood and post-flood periods. The pre-flood kings had enormous lifespans, whereas post-flood lifespans were much reduced. In some of the Sumerian flood myth, a hero is warned of the impending flood who then builds a boat so that life may survive.
Book of Genesis
In the c. 6th century BC Book of Genesis, God who created man out of clay, decides to flood the earth because of the sinful state of humanity. It is also God who then gives Noah instructions to build an ark to preserve life. Noah, his family, and representatives of all the animals of the earth are called upon to enter the ark. When the destructive flood begins, all life outside of the ark perishes. After the waters recede, humanity was given God’s promise that he will never judge the earth with a flood again. He causes a rainbow to form as the sign of this promise.
Hindu Flood Story
In Hindu mythology, texts dated to around the 6th century BC contain the story of a great flood, “Pralaya”. Also in the Matsya Avatar of the Vishnu warns the first man, Manu, of the impending flood, and also advises him to build a giant boat.
Ancient Greek Flood Story
Plato in about 360 BC, describes a flood myth in which, the Bronze race of humans angers the high god Zeus with their constant warring. Zeus decides to punish humanity with a flood. The Titan Prometheus, who had created humans from clay, tells the secret plan to Deucalion, advising him to build an ark to be saved. After nine nights and days, the water starts receding, and the ark lands on a mountain.
Reflections on Gilgamesh Flood Tablet
- Why can the flood myth motif be found in so many cultures, including Mesopotamian, Greek, Hinduism, Chinese, Mayan and Australian Aboriginal?
- Imagine how many thousands of written documents we have lost because documents were written on material like paper, papyrus, parchment or vellum which are all degradable and fragile. What documents would you hope are discovered one day?
- Can mortals achieve immortality through lasting works of civilisation and culture?
- The earliest civilisations were created near large river systems that were prone to flooding, is this why the flood story is so pervasive?
- Agrarian societies found that floodplains were highly productive, but at what risks?
Gilgamesh Flood Tablet
- Title: Gilgamesh Flood Tablet
- Date: 7th century BCE
- Culture: Neo-Assyrian
- Writing: Cuneiform
- Language: Sumerian
- Find Spot: Nineveh
- Materials: Clay
- Dimensions: L: 15.24 cm; B: 13.33 cm; D: 3.17 cm
- Museum: The British Museum
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