Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others - Atrahasis Summary & Analysis

Stephanie Dalley
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Atrahasis Summary and Analysis

The author begins by explaining the character of Atrahasis and the meaning behind the myth. Atrahasis, the savior of mankind, is much like the Babylonian character of Noah in that he builds an ark and saves mankind from destruction of the Flood. The author notes Atrahasis is, historically, referenced as the son of king of Shuruppak, and also as the king himself, as well as by the names Utnapishtim or Uta-na'ishtim in the story of Gilgamesh. The author believes the epic was written at that time to explain why the temple priestesses of the sun god Shamash were not allowed to bear children. The tale, he explains, is similar to that of the Epic of Creation and to Genesis, as well as to creation tales in Greek myth. He explains that the Flood, a proven event in history, was, in the epic, sent by the gods to reduce overpopulation.

The myth of Atrahasis begins with the gods tiring of their work and deciding to create man to bear their burden. Anu, king of the old gods, Ellil, god of earth and wind, Ninurta, the chamberlain, and Ennugi, the controller of the canals, seek out Ellil and threaten him until he and his father, Anu, agree to lessen their workload. Ea, the god of wisdom, instructs the other gods to find Belet-ili, the womb-goddess, and have her create man. Belet-ili, in the form of Nintu, tells them to ask Enki, god of civilization, for clay. It is important to note here that the text has shifted to the Babylonian version, and thus refers to "Enki", whereas the earlier text referenced "Ea". Enki tells them to purify one god and slaughter him, and to have Nintu then combine clay with the blood of the slain god. Ilawela is slain and mixed with the clay to form man. After a time, the population of the world becomes too numerous, and the noise begins to bother Ellil. He orders a sickness cast onto mankind. Atrahasis asks Enki how long the gods plan to make mankind suffer, to which Enki orders Atrahasis to make an offering to Namtara, the god of disease and pestilence. Namtara feels sorry, and halts the disease. Six hundred years later, mankind is again overpopulated, and Ellil orders a drought for the world to decrease food. Enki tells Atrahasis to again ignore the gods, and to make an offering to Adad, the storm god. Adad feels guilt and removes the drought. Three epochs later, Ellil orders Anu and Adad to stop the rains, Sin and Nergal, the god of seasons and the god of the netherworld, respectively, to halt the tides and the calendar, and Ea to keep the sea locked. With no water, Atrahasis prays for a dream. The people of the earth begin to starve, become diseased, and to slouch.

Here, thirty-two lines of text are missing, but based on the format of the rest of the story, one assumes the gods respond to Atrahasis and relent. Six hundred years later, Ellil again orders disease as a remedy for overpopulation. This time, however, Ellil assembles the gods and tells them to halt the disease. Instead, he orders drought, famine, and a death of all vegetation. The people again suffer, first depleting the stores, then appearing starved, slouching by the fourth year, selling children for food by the fifth, and eating one another by the seventh year. Atrahasis speaks again with Ea, who appears to take a message to the gods, although this text is missing from the tablets.

In the next section, however, Ellil is furious with the gods, as he has heard of their release of the torment of mankind. Ellil orders a flood to kill them all. Enki tells Atrahasis to build a boat and to save living things. Enki implies the flood will last seven days. Atrahasis tells his elders of the war between the gods. They work to build the boat, on which Atrahasis places all forms of animals. The flood rages through the land, placing the Earth into darkness. The gods are horrified at the result, and mourn for the dead. After a gap in the text, in which one can assume Atrahasis sends an offering to the gods, the gods gather together to eat the offering, blaming Anu and Ellil. When Ellil sees the boat of Atrahasis, however, he is furious, and tells the gods no life should have escaped. Anu blames Enki, who replies he did it to defy the order of the gods to ensure life would be preserved. The gods finally agree that, to control population, one-third of all women will not give birth successfully, another sect of women will not be allowed to bear children, and mankind will be limited to a specific life span, rather than be immortal.

This section contains 808 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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