The Story of Atrahasis

Atrahasis I: Creation of Humans

This story as we have it comes from an early Babylonian version of about 1700 BC, but it certainly dates back to Sumerian times. It combines familiar Sumerian motifs of the creation of mankind and the subsequent flood. On one of the Sumerian king-lists, Atrahasis is listed as king of Shuruppak in the years before the flood. The name Atrahasis means "Extra-wise,"and is thus, as Stepanie Dalley points out, quite similar in meaning to that of Prometheus ("Forethinker"), father of the Greek flood hero Deucalion (2). The story begins way before Atrahasis appears on the scene, however. It starts out with the gods digging ditches. Men have not been thought of yet, so the gods had to do the work:

The gods had to dig out the canals
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land,
The gods dug out the Tigris river bed
And then they dug out the Euphrates. (Dalley 9)
After 3,600 years of this work, the gods finally begin to complain. They decide to go on strike, burning their tools and surrounding the chief god Enlil's "dwelling" (his temple). Enlil's vizier Nusku gets Enlil out of bed and alerts him to the angry mob outside. Enlil is scared. (His face is described as being "sallow as a tamarisk.") The vizier Nusku advises Enlil to summon the other great gods, especially Anu (sky-god) and Enki (the clever god of the fresh waters). Anu advises Enlil to ascertain who is the ringleader of the rebellion. They send Nusku out to ask the mob of gods who is their leader. The mob answers, "Every single one of us gods has declared war!" (Dalley 12).

Since the upper-class gods now see that the work of the lower-class gods "was too hard," they decide to sacrifice one of the rebels for the good of all. They will take one god, kill him, and make mankind by mixing the god's flesh and blood with clay:

Belit-ili the womb-goddess is present,
Let the womb-goddess create offspring,
And let man bear the load of the gods! (Dalley 14-15)
After Enki instructs them on purification rituals for the first, seventh and fifteenth of every month, the gods slaughter Geshtu-e, "a god who had intelligence" (his name means "ear" or "wisdom") and form mankind from his blood and some clay. After the birth goddess mixes the clay, all the gods troop by and spit on it. Then Enki and the womb-goddess take the clay into "the room of fate," where The womb-goddesses were assembled
He [Enki] trod the clay in her presence;
She kept reciting an incantation,
For Enki, staying in her presence, made her recite it.
When she had finished her incantation,
She pinched off fourteen pieces of clay,
And set seven pieces on the right,
Seven on the left.
Between them she put down a mud brick. (Dalley 16)
The creation of man seems to be described here as being analogous or similar to the process of making bricks: tread (knead) the clay and then pinch off pieces that will become bricks. Here, the seven pieces on the right become males and the seven pieces on the left become females. The brick between the two may be a symbol of the fetus, for when the little pieces of clay are ready to be "born," their birth is described like this: When the tenth month came,
She [birth-goddess] slipped in a staff and opened the womb.
Just as you put a wooden spatula into a beehive-shaped brick oven to remove the bricks (like getting the pizza out when it's done), the womb-goddess or midwife uses a staff to check to see if the womb has dilated enough for birth. After the seven men and seven women are born, the birth-goddess gives rules for celebrations at birth: they should last for nine days during which a mud brick should be put down. After nine days, the husband and wife could resume conjugal relations.

Atrahasis, part I questions

1. How are the reasons for creating man (and woman?) different from those given in Genesis? What differences do you see in the relations between men and gods?

2. Compare Geshtu-e ("ear"), the god who is sacrificed to make mankind, to Kvasir.

3. Why bricks?

4. Can you find a "fall" or introduction of evil in this story?

5. How is the dispute between the gods like / unlike the war between Zeus and the Titans, or that between the Vanir and the Aesir?

Atrahasis II: Disease, Famine, and Flood

The gods' solution to their difficulties works well: men make new picks and spades and dig bigger canals to feed both themselves and the gods. But after 1200 years the population has increased so much that Enlil has trouble sleeping:

The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull
The God grew restless at their racket,
Enlil had to listen to their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
'The noise of mankind has become too much,
I am losing sleep over their racket.
Give the order that surrupu-disease shall break out.' (Dalley 18)
The plague breaks out, but the wise Atrahasis appeals to his god Enki for help. Enki advises Atrahasis to have the people stop praying to their personal gods and to start praying and offering sacrifices the plague god, Namtar. Namtar is so shamed by this show of attention that he wipes "away his hand" and the plague ends.

After another 1200 years, mankind has again multiplied to the point where they are violating Enlil's noise ordinances. This time Enlil decides on a drought to reduce their numbers, and gets Adad, the thunder-rain god, to hold back the rains. Again Atrahasis appeals to Enki, and again he advises concentrating worship on the one god responsible. Adad is also embarrassed, and releases his rain. (The text does not explain how Atrahasis has been able to live for 1200 years, but many legendary Sumerian kings had incredibly long lives.)

Another 1200 years goes by and the noise becomes tremendous. This time, Enlil wants to make sure that no one god can weaken his/her resolve, so he declares "a general embargo of all nature's gifts. Anu and Adad were to guard heaven, Enlil the earth, and Enki the waters, to see that no means of nourishment reach the human race" (Jacobsen 119). In addition, Enlil decrees infertility: "Let the womb be too tight to let the baby out" (Dalley 25). Things get pretty bad:

When the second year arrived
They had depleted the storehouse.
When the third year arrived
The people's looks were changed by starvation.
When the fourth year arrived
Their upstanding bearing bowed,
Their well-set shoulders slouched,
The people went out in public hunched over.
When the fifth year arrived,
A daughter would eye her mother coming in;
A mother would not even open her door to her daughter. . . .
When the sixth year arrived
They served up a daughter for a meal,
Served up a son for food. (Dalley 25-26)
Though the tablets are broken and the text is fragmentary here, it seems that Enki foils the complete starvation plan by letting loose large quantities of fish to feed the starving people. Enlil is furious with Enki for breaking ranks with the rest of the gods and going against a plan that all had agreed to. Determined to wipe out mankind, Enlil decides on two things: Enki will create a flood to wipe them out and he will be forced to swear an oath not to interfere with the destruction. Enki resists creating the flood ("Why should I use my power against my people? . . . / This is Enlil's kind of work!"[Dalley 29]), but apparently he does take the oath.

After another break, the text resumes with Enki addressing Atrahasis (still alive after all these years!) to warn him of the impending flood. Actually, Enki speaks to the walls of Atrahasis' reed hut so as not break the letter of his oath:

Wall, listen constantly to me!
Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!
Dismantle the house, build a boat, . . .
Roof it like the Apsu
So the sun cannot see inside it!
Make upper decks and lower decks,
The tackle must be very strong,
The bitumen [a kind of tar] strong . . . (Dalley 29-30)
Atrahasis gathers the elders of Shuruppak and makes up an excuse to leave town: he says that Enki and Enlil are angry with each other and that Enki has commanded him to go down to the water's edge. Which he does, and there he builds his boat and fills it with every type of animal (the text is fragmentary here) and his family. Adad begins to thunder, and sick with impending doom ("his heart was breaking and he was vomiting bile"), Atrahasis seals up the door of the boat with bitumen (Dalley 31). The storm and flood turn out to be more than the gods bargained for: Like a wild ass screaming the winds howled
The darkness was total, there was no sun. . . .
As for Nintu the Great Mistress,
Her lips became encrusted with rime.
The great gods, the Annuna,
Stayed parched and famished.
The goddess watched and wept . . . (Dalley 31-32)
The great mother goddess complains bitterly about Enlil and Anu's shortcomings as decision-makers, and she weeps for the dead humans who "clog the river like dragonflies." Also, "she longed for beer (in vain)." Now it is the gods' turn to go hungry: "like sheep, they could only fill their windpipes with bleating. / Thirsty as they were, their lips / Discharged only the rime of famine" (Dalley 33). After seven days and nights of rain, the flood subsides, and Atrahasis disembarks and offers a sacrifice. The hungry gods smell the fragrance and gather "like flies over the offering." In a mutilated passage, the great goddess swears by the flies in her necklace that she will remember the flood. Enlil spots the boat and is furious, knowing that only Enki could have been clever enough to come up with this new trick. Enki admits that he warned Atrahasis, "in defiance" of Enlil: "I made sure life was preserved" (Dalley 34). The text is fragmentary at this point, but apparently Enki persuades Enlil to adopt a more humane plan for dealing with the population and noise problem. Enki and the womb-goddess Nintu decide that henceforth one-third of the women will not give birth successfully: a pasittu demon will "snatch the baby from its mother's lap" (Dalley 35). They also create several classes of temple women who are not allowed to have children.

Atrahasis, part II questions

1. Why do you think would Enlil want to wipe out men relatively soon (1200 years) after they were created? (Is it just the noise?) Compare Enlil's motives for wiping out mankind with Yahweh's in the Genesis flood story.

2. Why do you suppose Enki champions men? Compare him to Prometheus ("forethought"). How is the end of the story like / unlike the Pandora story?

3. Thorkild Jacobsen writes: "The modern reader may well feel that Enlil, easily frightened, ready to weep . . . insensitive to others, frustrated at every turn by the clever Enki, cuts a rather poor figure. Not so! The ultimate power of Enlil, the flood, stuns ancient imagination and compels respect" (121). What do you think of Enlil's actions?

4. Contrast this image of a supreme being with the god depicted in Genesis.

5. What do you think it means that the gods "gathered like flies" around the sacrifice? If this is a story about the relations between gods and men, is there a moral to it?

6. Why do you suppose it is the mother-goddess who is particularly appalled at the destruction?

7. What do you think of Enki's solution to the noise problem? In what ways can you relate the end of the story (flies, controlling childbirth) to the beginning about the creation of humans?

8. What facts of life does this story explain?

Works Cited

Atrahasis LINKS

Exploring Ancient World Cultures: The Near East:

Christopher Sirenís Sumerian Myth site:

Christopher Sirenís Babylonian Myth site:

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago:
 [Authoritative, impeccable scholarship, if a bit puzzling to navigate--check out their ABZU index to Ancient Near Eastern Resources on the web.]

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