FLOODS OF BOTH THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH AND BERESHIT – MYTHS
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MARCH 18, 2008
FLOODS OF BOTH THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH AND BERESHIT – MYTHS
Myths are pieces of color that add to our history and culture, don’t you think? A myth may be generally defined as a storyline that through countless retellings has become an accepted custom within a civilization. Myths are worldwide, taking place in roughly all cultures. They usually date from a time previous to the beginning of writing, when they were passed verbally from one generation in a subsequent manner. Myths deal with essential questions in relation to the temperament of the world and human experience, and because of their inclusive nature, myths can shed light on many aspects of a culture.1 Even though it is complicated to draw unyielding distinctions amongst an assortment of various traditional tales, the general public who study mythology unearthed the idea that is generally useful to classify them. When a tale is based upon an immense historical or close-to historical event, it is commonly identified as a saga. Despite a saga’s source in remote historical events, its impressive structure and characters are the creation of storytellers’ imaginations. Two such myths are The Epic of Gilgamesh and the flood story Bereshit within the Hebrew book Tanakh.
Many early Middle Eastern cultures have legends of a great flood. The reality that many of these cultures include famous stories of a grand flood justifies, in my opinion, a great prominent idea that in all likely a flood did exist sometime. These floods, within these tales, generally were sent from a superior power in order to punish humans for their impurities and cleanse the world of such who are not worthy2.
An epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh,narrates the story of a prominent king of the past of once primordial Mesopotamia, which includes eccentric men and creatures alike. However, one important key to remember throughout this tale is that it does not focus on these peculiar men and creatures, but more importantly upon the relationships between the coexistence of connection between the human feelings and relationships. The author is unknown; however, many cultures including the Babylonians, Sumerians, Assyrians, and the Akkadians incorporated this story within their culture3. In addition, it was written around the time of King Gilgamesh of Uruk (2,700 BC). It was originally written on clay tablets, preceding even The Iliad or The Odyssey. It was initially in the beginning passed orally, but was first written down onto these clay tablets by the Sumerians sometime approximately around 2,000 B.C.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the tale of King Gilgamesh of Uruk who tyrannizes and dominated the people of his land. This angered the gods, so as chastisement, the gods sent him a companion, Enkidu. He was his exact mirror image in a parallel sense, eventually becoming his superior companion. Simultaneously, these two comrades, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, disobey the gods by rebelling in their actions: they killed the giant Humbaba, slashed down the gods’ sacred cedar forest which Humbaba had once guarded, and in the end, killed the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu has threatening dreams of the destiny of tyrants who become slaves in the House of Death. Enkidu eventually depart his life as a result of an illness sent by the gods. Appalled by Enkidu's death and the viewpoint of his own future potential demise, Gilgamesh embarks on a quest for immortality. This brings him to the residence of Utnapishtim, a virtuous and honorable man who willingly obeys the gods and was saved by them from the Great Flood.4
The gods inflicted the Great Flood as a way to punish mankind. However, they deemed Utnapishtim immoral from this Flood, allowing him to build a ship. Utnapishtim was not the only man, as he requested that a few skilled men and a pilot work the ship. The Flood came in the form of rain, and only lasted six days. When the Great Flood was over, they landed on Mt. Nisir to observe all that had occurred.
Utnapishtim puts Gilgamesh to an assortment of tests, which he fails. Utnapishtim, assured that Gilgamesh cannot escape death by the gods, is sent away. A modest and humble Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and orders his story to be emblazoned in stone.
The book of Tanakh includes many books, especially Genesis, or Bereshit. The primitive Hebrew people believed in a strict religious belief of monotheism, which were then recorded into the book of Tanakh5. These documents circle around the idea in the early hours of Hebrew history. However, the most important and recognized document within this book is Genesis/Bereshit. This book includes a major fraction of what was believed to have happened within our lives, including a great flood and the washing away of impurity amongst humanity.6
This biblical Great Flood story starts off as Noah living within a particular era of time when all the people of the earth were sinful. God, or the greater being, became mad at all the people of the world because they did not live the way He had told them. He was so angry by this disobedience that he decided to have a Great Flood to annihilate all of the sinful people in a global fashion; all with the exception of Noah and his family. God told Noah to build a very big boat, best known as an “ark”; built out of gopher wood. This ark only had enough sufficient room for Noah, his wife and their three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) and their wives. This Ark also housed two of every unclean animal (which are animals that were not permitted as edible by God, such as pigs, dogs, and bears) as well as seven of every clean animal (chickens, cows, and sheep). It took Noah approximately 120 years for the completion of the Ark. After its completion, all of the animals came abroad this Ark safely alongside Noah and his family. God sent a great rain that lasted for forty days, which rose the water to the highest lengths until all of what once the earth was covered by this water. Only Noah and his family and all the animals that were in the Ark were deemed immoral from this Great Flood. This Flood subsisted for five months until it landed on the mountains of Ararat. However, this was not the end, as they had to stay there for another seven months until the water’s recession was completed and the ground had dried out. When Noah believed the seven months were up, he sent out a raven and a dove to search for a place to rest. The raven did not return, but the dove came back after finding no place to land. Another seven days passed and Noah once more sent out the dove, this time returning with an olive branch in its beak. Noah then lifted the covering off the Ark and saw dry ground. Noah and his wife and his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth and their wives and all the animals went out of the Ark. God saw that Noah built an altar in which he sacrificed many of the animals as thanks for safely returning to dry ground. God saw this and sent a rainbow as a sign that he would never again send a flood to kill all of humanity.
There are striking similarities in both The Epic of Gilgamesh and Bereshit in which a common flood takes place. This flood obliterates most of all creation as representation of a symbol in which they embody rebirth and a new beginning for creation, as well as the powers that god or the gods have at their disposal. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods decided to demolish and devastate humanity by flooding earth for six days and six nights7. Utnapishtim was chosen to build a boat in order to resurrect humanity after the flood. In Bereshit, God was decisive in his belief to flood the Earth for forty days and forty nights8. God chose Noah to build an Ark to save two of each animal and resurrect life after the flood had ended.
In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and Bereshit, these stories compare and contrast in several significant ways. Babylonian values were based on one’s duration of life and even immortality. However, in Bereshit, Noah was the only solitary man whom had found grace in the judgment of God. Utnapishtim was chosen to endure the Great Flood because he was a true worshipper of the god Ea, who came to advise Utnapishtim about the flood9. In contrast, Noah was set apart by God from the rest of the population, and was rewarded in a sense that all of the food that he and his family would need would be provided for. Because of Noah’s confidence and assurance within his God, God came to him to caution of the forthcoming flood and tell him to build an Ark if he planned to survive this upcoming devastation.
Although both stories are similar in structure, it is in the reward where differences stretch out between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Bereshit, a difference that characterizes the two cultures from each other. The difference amongst Hebrew and Babylonian cultures is proposed by these stories in the sense that what these people value as a reward differs from one another. In each story mankind is destroyed because of its evilness. Utnapishtim and Noah both survived by staying on their respective boats throughout the extent of time, which existed as the Flood continued to thrive. Salvation laid with a simple man, who was appointed to do the will of its God or gods. Utnapishtim and Noah approached their personal journeys by constructing a massive boat, and bringing their families, as well as two of every animal, on board.
Despite the evident inconsistencies of many flood stories, each culture's description of a “Great Flood” are all quite comparable in structure: a god distinguished mankind to be exceedingly blemished, and as a result, drove a flood which was to destroy all of humankind, with the exception of one person or even a group of people10. These individuals manage to carry on to thrive and begin to repopulate the earth. These discriminating similarities tend to necessitate that there are universal meanings to the suggestion and proposal of the Flood.
First and foremost, human beings within all cultures scrutinize themselves as lesser beings than the gods and recognize themselves to be at the mercy of the gods. This is revealed by the constant retold idea that the flood is a reprimand for mankind's extensive faults. Each of the individuals who are saved from the flood is people who are dedicated to their gods and are looked upon as virtuous people. This, in turn, puts an emphasis on the suggestion that all cultures understand and welcome the idea of religious dedication, respecting all those who have soaring moral standards. The reality that the tales specifically utilize a flood as means of devastation and annihilation brings upon the idea that water is painstakingly measured not only as a physical refinement, but also in a sense is internally a spiritual cleansing.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the reader can undoubtedly perceive the way the gods were thought of within the early Mesopotamian culture. During this point in time, we can distinguish that the gods at that time were not concerned about the lives of the Mesopotamian. This sort of philosophy is most likely a result of the form of life in which early Mesopotamians were supposed to live. The undependable food source was a result in the lack of a reliable source of farmland. Furthermore, this lack was contributed as a result of the constant change of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, had frequently changing banks. This ordeal caused much chaos in the lives of these early Mesopotamian people. These communities could not rely on a conventional flood pattern from the two rivers. This fact, above all others, is the main motive behind the view of “cruel and unsympathetic” gods came about for the lives of these primeval people. Living with many hardships, the people of these early civilizations blamed this upon on the gods. However, it must be noted that these people did not think that the gods were all bad though. They simply had the notion that the gods did not care about the existence and sustainability of humanity because they believed that the gods saw humans only as the sole service of the gods in which had created them. Moreover, the gods, as portrayed in The Epic of Gilgamesh, are always out to get the humans in whatever endeavor they may take up.
This representation is very dissimilar from that of the Hebrew God within Bereshit. The God of the Hebrews had a very different view in his actions towards his creation amongst Earth, and the Hebrews as well as everything else in the world where God's creation. This perception of God being the sole creator of all which existed was new to this part of the world. Not only did this God create everything, He also looked after His creations. By demonstrating to His creations a compassion in this division of the world, this God was not trying to trick the Hebrew people, but instead was there to aid the Hebrews through their endeavors. This God not only cared from afar but He also had a personal interest in the lives of his people. In Bereshit the reader can perceive that this God attempts to give His creation all that can be imagined, but it is the humans in all actuality that are the deceitful beings who are out to go against their own God. This is seen throughout Bereshit. In the conception and formation of mankind, mankind attempts to become like God through knowledge. Even though the humans try to mislead, ignore and become like God, this God still has sympathy for humans, as He can understand their pain and that it is their temperament to be so full of sin11.
Accordingly, the likelihood of a historical great flood actually existing advances in a huge manner with the idea that the same narrative is accounted in parallel fashions over the total world. On the whole, the a variety of flood legends throughout the world provide to unite intercultural beliefs and establish that what is normally dismissed as a myth may in all actuality contain a historical foundation in reality.
It would be a quite accurate statement to say that these two stories are intertwined and linked within each other. Either Bereshit or the myth of Gilgamesh was copied from one another, or both were copied from a universal foundation that predates them both equally. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that these stories have originated from some common culture, as there are other flood stories that exist as well, which is quite evidently comparable with each other with their apparent similarities. Ancient flood stories tend to exist within cultures around the world at approximately 300 tales12. It is highly plausible that the Hebrew story from Tanakh is the equivalence of one, which has found its way into the Mesopotamian culture and literature. Remember, the Hebrew tribes often found themselves in slavery more than once and some of the culture, including myths and legends, entered the Hebrew mainstream of life13. The Babylonian culture has been found to been intertwined within Hebrew literature. Flood stories are worldwide, which is not surprising since much of the narration of history is coming to terms with disasters and seeking moral and spiritual lessons from them.
1 David Adams Leeming, The World of Myth, Oxford University Press, 1992
2 Tchernichovsky, Saul. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Myth Revisited. Bolchazy Carducci Publications, 2002.