In Judeo-Christian mythology, one of the best recognized stories from the Old Testament is the story of Noah and the Ark, and how they survived God’s great flood. This story is a common one throughout many mid-east cultures, both past and present. The most notable of these is in the ancient Mesopotamian mythology, with the story of Utnapishtim and his story of survival of the gods wrath. Though both are telling what is assumed to be a tale of the same event, there are many similarities as well as differences in certain details of the story.
Although some of these differing aspects are for the most part, fairly trivial, some of them are quite drastic from one version to the other. The source of the myth in the two cultures is quite different, as well as the way the story narrated. In the case of the ancient Mesopotamian version of the myth, it is found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is told to Gilgamesh by Utnapishtim when Gilgamesh encounters him while on his quest for the plant of everlasting life.
Here we have a first hand account of the flood, by one of the sole survivors of the flood, the tale itself is found in an epic of a great king, which wasn’t exactly revered as a sacred book in the Mesopotamian culture, but was still treated with a great deal of respect. This is quite from the ancient Hebrew account of the flood. In the Old Testament, it is presumably Moses who is telling the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. In this case, we have a second hand account of the story, found in what is considered to be a sacred piece of scripture, as written by one of the most important figures of the religion.
The reason that man was to be exterminated from the face of the earth is also different in both myths. In the Mesopotamian version of the story, man was becoming an inconvenience for the gods he was so loud due to his numbers that he was keeping the gods up at night. Because man was causing this disruption, Enlil approaches the other gods and they agree to get rid of man by way of a great flood, so that they may sleep at night once again.
Utnapishtim is warned by Ea through a dream, and is instructed with a rough guide to the dimensions, to build a great barque for himself and his family, animals, craftsmen, and all of Utnapishtim’s belongings. This is an extreme contrast to what is found in the Hebrew version. In that account, man was becoming too evil for God to bear, and so it was decided by God that due to his wickedness, he should be wiped off the earth. In this case, man was not an inconvenience, he was just not in favour with God. Noah was the only one out of all of man who was still in God’s favour.
So God came to Noah and told him to also build a barque, also with the exact dimensions given, and instructed Noah to bring on board his family, their families, and two, a male and female, of all the animals of the world. However, there is no mention of this news of a flood coming to Noah in a dream, nor of him being permitted to bring with him any other humans besides his immediate family, and their wives. Also, the amount of detail regarding the dimensions of the barque is quite different. In the Biblical story, the dimensions are very explicit, with length, width, and height given.
However, in the Mesopotamian story, the dimensions are not as precise, giving only a rough guide as to what the boat should look like. The final warning before the flood is different in each version also. In the Hebrew account of the flood, once Noah has completed the construction of the Ark, God tells him to go out and collect a male and it’s mate from every type of animal and bird, and that in seven days, he shall bring forth the floodwaters and destroy man. In the Mesopotamian version of this aspect, there is not as much of an advanced warning given.
Shamash comes to Utnapishtim and says that when the Rider of the Storm arrives that evening, to enter the barque and batten it down. Though in both stories, the hero is given some advanced warning as to when the flood will begin, in the Mesopotamian version Utnapishtim is not given as great of a length of time as Noah was able to enjoy to get everything loaded aboard. The duration of the flood is different between the two versions also. In the Mesopotamian account, the flood is said to have began in the morning after the arrival of the Rider of the Storm, and lasted for six days and six nights.
It also states that the assistance of the gods of the Underworld was enlisted to help bring down the dykes and release the waters of the flood. Utnapishtim says to Gilgamesh that the flood was so dreadful that even the gods of the heavens were in fear of what the gods of the Underworld were doing, and that they retreated to the highest level of the heavens, that occupied by Anu. In the Hebrew description of the actual flood itself, it was said that it lasted forty days and forty nights, not the single week as was stated in the Mesopotamian account.
It was also God’s wrath that man was suffering, and the creatures of the Underworld were in no way involved in this destruction of man, as man had brought this upon himself with his own wickedness. In the Mesopotamian myth, on the seventh day of the flood, the rain stopped and the water grew calm. Utnapishtim looked around for land, and saw the summit of the Mountain of Nisir. Utnapishtim then set the boat aground on the top of the mountain and there it sat for a week before Utnapishtim began to see if the earth had dried off yet.
First he let a dove loose to see if the water had receded yet, but it returned when it had nowhere to land. Utnapishtim then let a swallow loose, but to no avail, as it too returned. He then let a raven loose. The raven saw that the water had since retreated, found something to eat, flew around, cawed, and then did not return. In the Hebrew story, Noah first set out a raven, which flew around until the waters had dried up. Noah then let a dove loose, but it returned because it had nowhere to land. Noah then waited seven days to release the dove again.
This time it came back with an olive leaf. Noah waited seven more days, and released the dove a third time. This time it did not return, for it had found somewhere to go as the water had since dried up. The only noticeable difference between these two aspects of the story, would be the birds used and the length of time required for the waters of the flood to recede to a point at which man is able to again walk on dry land. The last point regarding the two stories is that of the sacrifice to God or the gods after the floodwaters had retreated to a point that man was able to return to the land.
In the Mesopotamian account of the myth, Utnapishtim made a sacrifice to the gods on top of the Mountain of Nisir, after he let the animals and others free from the barque. All the gods were able to smell the sacrifice, and came to it. Ishtar was also able to smell the sacrifice and came to it. She then says that she will not forget these days of the flood, and instructed the other gods to remember it also. She then told all the gods except Enlil to gather around it. Enlil was excluded from the sacrifice by Ishtar because he brought about the flood and destroyed man.
Enlil, however, came and saw the sacrifice, and was filled with anger that man had survived. Ea then stands up to Enlil on behalf of Utnapishtim, and asks how Enlil could have brought about such destruction on to man. Ea then leaves Utnapishtim to the mercy of Enlil. Enlil takes Utnapishtim and his wife, blesses them, giving them longevity and places them at the mouth of the rivers to live. In the Hebrew version of this last aspect of the story of the flood, Noah lets all the animals off of the Ark, and then he makes a sacrifice to God, just as Utnapishtim did.
God smelled this sacrifice and came to it. God blessed Noah, his family, and all the animals and birds, and told them to be fruitful and multiply in number. God then established a covenant with Noah, saying that he shall never again curse the earth again with such a flood. As a sign of his intentions, God set a rainbow in the clouds, and said to Noah that when ever he brings clouds over the earth again, he will see the rainbow and remember his covenant with Noah. This is not much different from the Mesopotamian myth.
In both cases the gods or God said that they would remember the flood, and Utnapishtim or Noah, which ever the case may be was blessed. In the Mesopotamian myth however, there is no mention of a covenant with the land or Utnapishtim to never curse the earth in such a manner again. Though both of these stories are telling a tale of what was no doubt, the same event, there are many discrepancies between the two. From details surrounding the structure of the barque, to the actual length of the flood itself, there are many differences between the two accounts.
At the same time however, there are many similarities between the myths. The fact that both said that a bird was the way which the respective hero was able to tell whether or not the waters had receded, and the fact that both tales say that the gods or God would remember the flood are examples of this. The truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether or not there are discrepancies between the two tales, the fact that both are describing the same occurance is truly remarkable and definitely says something about the cataclysmic impact which this event must have had on the ancient world.