Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

The tide, the tempest and the apocalypse

~ 1500 words

lede - noun - the opening paragraphs of a print article

litany - n - a ceremonial or liturgical form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations or supplications with responses that are the same for a number of successions.

exchequer - noun - the treasury of a state or nation

In the vein of my previous post on the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in an effort to reverse this blog's transformation into a shrine to Fyodor Dostoevski, I would like to ramble at length on a subject I find interesting. In particular, I will be comparing Sumerian, Semitic and Roman accounts of one particular event in very early human history that nearly snuffed civilization out in its infancy. I am speaking of course about the great flood. I`ll be comparing and contrasting the the accounts in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Genesis, and Ovid`s Metamorphoses.

While we are trying to make up our minds as to whether the great flood really happened or not, the fact that the theme occurs from italy to india suggests that it was based on actual events. Some theorize that a tsunami could have provided the ancients sufficient material to write about, or perhaps a flooding river, but by far the most interesting theory is the so-called Ryan-Pitman theory, which explains how, around 5600BC, the Black Sea had it`s coastline expanded enormously in a very short time. The theory goes as follows: Before the flood, the Black Sea is a freshwater sea that flows into the mediterranean. When the glaciers retreated at the end of the last iceage, all the feeder rivers for the Black Sea dried up, and at the same time ocean levels rose. Thus, the flow reverses, and dumps water into the black sea at a rate of 20 times that of niagra falls. If you`d like to see more about this please check out this article. Archeological evidence suggests that early human settlements were displaced (read anihilated) by this great flood, and it is not inconcievable that some of the survivors may have settled in Sumeria a couple of thousand years later.

I will tackle these in reverse chronological order.

The Roman flood started as an enormous rain concocted by Jupiter (aka Jove) that does little more than cause some agricultural discomfort. Jove then entices Neptune to aid with all the water in the oceans and you get the following passage:

"Delivered from their courses,/ the rivers rush across the open fields/ and bear away not only figs and flocks/ but folks who tend them, with their dwelling places;/ the also sink the shrines of the household gods!/ If any roof has managed to resist,/ untoppled, this unnatural disaster, / the waves embrace above it nonetheless;/ its highest turrets lie beneath the flood. "

This would seem to suggest rivers in flood, rather than a sea expanding, and the description is mild (relatively speaking). This passage goes on to describe how there was so much sea that there was no longer land, and that two people survive on a mountain top. These two having invoked an oracle that somehow survived the flood, the Gods create the human race by animating stones, which is the story about how human beings came into their enormous capacity for hard labour (which is, all things being equal, a very Roman thing to say).

Of the three this is more likely the story that you've heard. Noah builds a gigantic ark to carry past the cataclysm the seed of the new world. God lets loose the heavens and drowns the corrupt and sinful men. I'd just like to quote here because the style of the story is half the point (NRSV).

"In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights [...] and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits [approximately 7.5 metres] deep. [...] everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died."

Whereas the best Ovid could manage was "it washed away houses... then covered them!" and people survive on a mountain, in the biblical account we have references to the waters of the abyss (one of the mythological bases of Sumerian myth, see: Gilgamesh. A very interesting topic on its own that I will not enter into here), forty days and nights of rain that floods the earth, and the mountains were covered "up to fifteen cubits deep". It might also be worth mentioning that the Romans have far less affection in their account for fuzzy forest creatures (who not being saved presumably all perish).

So now to Gilgamesh, and by far the most violent depiction I have seen. It's my interpretation that it attempts to induce fear. And I quote:

"For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts. When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea gre calm, the flood was stilled"

And of the gods gathering the storm:

'With the first light of dawn a black cloud came from the horizon; it thundered within where Adad, lord of the storm was riding. In front over the hill and plain Shullat and Hanish, heralds of the storm, led onThen gods of the abyss rose up; Nergal pulled out the dams of the nether waters, Ninurta the war-lord threw down the dykes , and the seven judges of hell, the Annunaki, raised their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame. A stupor of despair went up to heaven whent the god of the storm turned daylight into darkness, when he smashed the land like a cup. One whole day the tempest raged, gathering fury as it went, it poured over the people like the tides of battle; a man could not see his brother nor the people be seen from heaven. Even the gods were terrified at the flood, they fled to the highest heaven the firmament of Anu; they crouched against the walls, cowering like curs. Then Ishtar the sweet-voiced Queen of Heaven cried out like a woman in travail [which I assume to mean labour]; "Alas the days of old are turned to dust beacause I commanded evil; why did I command this evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean." '

I apologize for quoting nearly an entire page, but I thought the whole thing rather poigniant. Please note the frequent comparisons to war and bloodshed, at the time probably the pinnacle of the human experience of chaos. We have another reference to the waters of the abyss, this time called the nether waters. This account literally pulls out all the stops, invoking pretty dang close to the full force of the underworld. The world is also consumed in flame (which seems a bit out of place and reminds me inexhorably of Ragnarok), and the gods themselves are forced to retreat from the forces they have unleashed. That right there is the detail that distinguishes the sumerian account. Zeusjove (Jupizeus?) casts his thunderbolts from olympus with impunity. God holds a similar position, never once being threatened by the flood (and how could He be? He is the one true God after all). The sumerian pantheon retreats by necessity to their final fortress, the firmament, or ether, or the medium in which the stars are hung.

Anyways, long blog post, but I had lots to say.

Today's image is courtesy of Jean-Genie of the ever popular An excellent composition in every respect.


  1. Thanks for comparing these. I had never heard of the Black Sea theory. The Sumerian account sounds like a massive storm surge from an off-the-scale hurricane from Hell lasting six days.

  2. That's a very interesting comment, because in those days you essentially had the firmament, the overworld, the underworld and the abyss (compare our thoughts of heaven, earth, and hell). In our modern mythology, hell is a sort of abyss of fire, but in Sumeria the abyss was deep water (to which there was in those days no evidence of a bottom), so your comment could be taken very literally.