Ancient History & Civilisation


What is the Ark Tablet?

‘We may as well imagine the scene.’

‘No, my mind baulks at it.’

‘Mine does worse. It constructs it.’

Ivy Compton-Burnett

In pursuit of the Flood Story in its cuneiform incarnations we have subjected the Ark Tablet to prolonged decipherment, dissection and discussion. The time has come to face another question: what, in fact, is the Ark Tablet?

When the text as a whole is read over with the other versions now in mind – Atrahasis on the one hand, Gilgamesh on the other – a remarkable phenomenon becomes apparent: the Ark Tablet contains absolutely no narrative.

On the contrary, a succession of nine speeches takes up the entire quota of sixty lines of text. The god Enki delivers his key speech verbatim to our hero, and the subsequent lines break down very naturally into eight separate report monologues by Atra-hasīs. Each marks an important stage in the unfolding of the plot, but none of those moments is otherwise described or built upon. This is what the Ark Tablet looks like when analysed from that perspective:

Speech 1. Enki to Atra-hasīs: ‘Wall, wall … !’ (Lines 1–12)

Speech 2. Atra-hasīs: ‘I set in place …’ (Lines 13–17)

Speech 3. Atra-hasīs: ‘I apportioned one finger …’ (Lines 18–33)

Speech 4. Atra-hasīs: ‘I lay me down …’ (Lines 33–8)

Section 5. Atra-hasīs: ‘As for me …’ (Lines 39–50)

Speech 6. Atra-hasīs: ‘And the wild animals …’ (Lines 51–2)

Speech 7. Atra-hasīs: ‘I had …’ (Lines 53–6)

Speech 8. Atra-hasīs: ‘I ordered …’ (Lines 57–8)

Speech 9. Atra-hasīs to the shipwright: ‘When I shall have …’ (Lines 59–60)

Substantial, if not vital, plot elements (such as Enki’s telling Atra-hasīs what to say to the elders to explain his absence, or the strange and ominous rain that will be the sign of the Flood to come, or the rather important question of the boat-building time available, orthe punctual arrival of the workmen with their various tools) are completely left out. All we have is Enki’s famous address and Atra-hasīs telling him, and us, what he accomplished, step by step. What is more, Atra-hasīs speaks in the first person: mybuilding (past tense); my waterproofing, my troubles (past tense); my order to the shipwright (present tense).

From several standpoints this is quite remarkable. In the more or less contemporary Old Babylonian Atrahasis the corresponding elements of the story are couched in the third person by an unseen narrator. It is only in Gilgamesh XI that we find this narrative reported in the first person, and here it is perfectly understandable since Utnapishti, who had built the Ark and endured the Flood himself, is reminiscing to Gilgamesh. While it has always been clear that in recycling the old story this shift from third to first person was necessary for Gilgamesh, it is significant to encounter an Old Babylonian Flood Story tradition in which it occurs.

Because of this close perspective, there is certainly more emphasis in the Ark Tablet on Atra-hasīs the man and his predicament than is perceptible in Old Babylonian Atrahasis (even though this is incomplete at important points), while Gilgamesh XI has no time for that side of things at all beyond a rush of tears on landing.

Enki’s reassuring tone about boat-building, You know what sort of stuff is needed for boats, and Someone else can do the work (Ark Tablet 11–12), implies that Atra-hasīs had protested his inability to do what was wanted, as he does explicitly in Assyrian Smith13–15 (‘I have never built a boat … Draw the design on the ground that I may see the design and build the boat’). His suffering and address for mercy to the Moon cover the whole of lines 39–50, and when complete must have been a more affecting passage than we can now fully grasp. In Old Babylonian Atrahasis there are three terse lines in counterpart.

Side by side with the considerable detail about building and waterproofing there is clearly an attempt to develop the character of Atra-hasīs so that he emerges as a person, and to invite sympathy with his predicament.

Think again for a moment what this predicament was: the world and all its life forms were to be destroyed and Atra-hasīs alone had the task of ensuring the survival of all species for a post-Flood world. His instructions came from one god who had gone out on a limb to rescue life, while the gods as a body were intransigent and deaf to appeal. He has to get everyone on board, he has to get all living things up the gangplank and meanwhile the water clock is ticking. His boat springs a single leak and that’s the end of everything. This is a role for a hero as nerve-racking as that in any contemporary Action Film, in which charismatic actors are usually responsible for saving the world against all odds and under ludicrous time-pressure from something utterly appalling.

There is a further and related oddity that must be registered. There is no indication in the Ark Tablet as to who is speaking. We have to know that it is the god Enki who speaks at the beginning. From line 13 onwards it is up to us to understand that the man Atra-hasīs is speaking since the change of speaker goes unmarked. But to whom is he talking, in recounting his achievements? And who would guess from the tablet alone that the last two lines are addressed to his (unmentioned) shipwright?

This unusual situation is due to the fact that the tablet omits all outbreaks of the conventional literary structure – Anu opened his mouth to speak, saying to the lady Ishtar … followed by Ishtar opened her mouth to speak, saying to her father, Anu

Gilgamesh VI: 87–88; 92–93

– with which Babylonian narrative literature is, not to put too fine a point on it, slightly tiresomely littered. In fact, I cannot come up with another example of Babylonian mythological or epic literature that is devoid of this characteristic speech-linking device. Its repetitive nature at first sight looks like a remnant of oral literature, where things are repeated more than we would repeat them today, which the modern connoisseur of cuneiform literature just has to accept, or appreciate as atmospheric and authentic. On reflection, however, it is just the opposite. The characteristic dependence on this formula originates in the very transition from oral to written literature, for who is speaking at any one time will always be clear in a storyteller’s presentation, but the process of writing down what has previously been spoken aloud creates ambiguity for the reader unless each speaker is clearly identified.

Assyriologists have long convinced themselves that the stories of which we have written versions circulated for a very long period as oral literature, enjoying a level of freedom and improvisation that was shut off once the process of formally recording them swung into action, with its inevitable inhibition of literary creativity and variety. The arrival of the second millennium BC was probably the period when the writing down of stories got a substantial push. Before that major step, the story of the Flood was the province of storytellers, although we can feel confident that the arrival of written versions of the stories in urban contexts did not spell the end of storytelling as an art.

Let us imagine one of these Old Babylonian storytellers. Such people surely existed on many levels, from penniless itinerants who followed their muse from village to village, telling stories for a place by the fire and a mess of pottage, to plumper professionals, patronised by proper kings for when they had had enough of blind harpists, dancing girls and snake charmers or wanted to impress visitors.

Our storyteller is recounting the Story of Atra-hasīs, with the Ark, and the Flood. Probably everybody knew the rudiments, but in the hands of a skilled storyteller its power and magic would know no bounds. For he is dealing with the largest possible issues: the life and death of mankind, the narrowest of escapes, how all eggs were entrusted to one big basket, buffeted above heaving waters, all living things crying in terror (or because they were seasick or being squashed). The narrative could be supported with props; a small reed fence for Ea to whisper through, a horned head-dress for the speaking god, a toy coracle for Atra-hasīs, a stick to draw in the dust. A popular narrator might muster a simple drummer, a flautist, a boy assistant. With these tools he could transport his audience, telling a story that was always the same but always different; sometimes terrifying with the unswayable cruelty of the gods and the onrush of deathly waters, sometimes soothing with everything turning out all right, maybe sometimes even funny, when a dreamer who has never got his hands dirty is told by a god that he has to achieve the impossible right now and he doesn’t want to. Why pick on me, already?

The Ark Tablet, however, did not belong to such a wanderer with a head full of narratives learned by heart. It begins at a very dramatic moment, ‘Wall, wall! Reed fence, reed fence!’ imparting the worst news in the world, and ends equally dramatically with everyone sealed in their capsule, waiting for the Deluge. Here we have the words extracted from a much broader sequence of high drama, packaged in such a way as to commence with and pivot on moments of maximum storytelling tension. This cannot be coincidence. On the contrary, it seems to me to underline the use of this narrative in real storytelling circumstances, a sixty-line, pocket-sized episode that will leave the listeners, by the end, agog. The sound of the first raindrops would be like the closing theme tune for a television series, followed by the announcer’s infuriating explanation that everyone will have to wait a whole week for more.

This is not to say that we have here the ‘script’ of a traditional storyteller, for such things are incompatible. It is rather a note of the essential spoken parts for the roles of Enki – one voice – and Atra-hasīs – the other – which, rationally speaking, can hardly derive from any other use than some kind of public performance. We know from cuneiform texts of street performers, clowns, wrestlers, musicians, people with monkeys; we know of formal cult processions with the boats of the gods in the street; and the public recitation of the Creation Epic at the New Year Festival. Perhaps, in between all these, we might sandwich the Big Babylonian Atrahasis Show. Can we not imagine some clear-voiced narrator, our hero swaying between fright, despair and confidence, declaiming his speeches, upright by the end of the story in his travelling boat, with his unspeaking, unnamed wife and sons and a quantity of tame livestock immune to stage-fright? What else, indeed, can our Ark Tablet be?

So I had concluded, with this chapter written and virtually ready to send off to my editor, when a colleague notified me of the existence of the following most helpful book:

Claus Wilcke, The Sumerian Poem Enmerkar and En-suḫkeš-ana: Epic, Play, Or? Stage Craft at the Turn from the Third to the Second Millennium B.C. with a Score-edition and a Translation of the Text (American Oriental Series Essay 12. Newhaven 2002).

The author, Claus Wilcke, has argued in this book that this early Sumerian composition, which reflects tension between the ancient precursors of Iraq and Iran, has a cast of gods and mortals and built-in stage directions. Action varies between Sumer, in the cities of Uruk and Kulaba – at a cattlepen and sheepfold near the city of Eresh, then a gate facing sunrise and on the banks of the Euphrates – after which at Aratta in mountainous Iran – in a priestly residence and at the so-called ‘Sorcery Tree’. The demonstrative role of the narrator can be seen in the grammar, which is full of elements called, in a self-explanatory way, ‘demonstratives’. Wilcke derives the action from real events, locating court performance early in the reign of the Sumerian king at Ur, Amar-Sin (c.1981–1973BC).

As Wilcke very reasonably put it, ‘ancient Near Eastern theatre seems at first sight difficult to imagine’, and this had troubled me, too, in proposing public performance behind the text of the Ark Tablet, but now each case – the one Sumerian, the other Babylonian – reinforces the plausibility of the other. With the Ark Tablet, in fact, I think there can be no other possible interpretation.

What can we deduce further? Even formally speaking, the Ark Tablet is unusual for a literary document; it looks more like a letter or business record. Literature usually comes larger, with more than one column of writing per side and more text. As literary compositions evolved, the component tablets became fixed in content, so that eventually everyone knew with Gilgamesh I how many lines there should be, and how much of the story it covered. With a large composition, tablets recorded as a catchline the first line of the subsequent tablet, assuring the reader of what came next. Tablet 1, line 1, also served as the name for the whole composition, so the Epic of Gilgamesh was known to librarians as He Who Saw the Deep.

The Ark Tablet, in comparison, is small, with one column of text per side, and its total of sixty lines of writing completely fill both obverse and reverse. This is no complete chapter from within a conventional tablet sequence but a very specific and unusual kind of extract, so it is important to try and establish where the underlying full narrative that must lie behind this fits within the tradition.

The tablet begins very abruptly with the celebrated ‘Wall, wall! Reed fence, reed fence!’ speech (Old Babylonian Atrahasis III, col. I 21–2, and Gilgamesh XI: 21–2). Behind it probably stands a ‘Tablet no. III’ of some edition of the full Atrahasis story.

(Old Babylonian Schøyen in Chapter 5 has four columns of text and its content crosses over from Old Babylonian Atrahasis Tablet II to III, so it represents a really different structure. From its shape there might have been originally thirty lines per column, giving a rough line total of 120 lines. From several standpoints the Schϕyen tablet is maybe a century or more older than the most well-known Sippar edition of Old Babylonian Atrahasis and can be regarded as the oldest version of the story we have had. For the same reasons it is probably also slightly older than the Ark Tablet, but while sign shapes, spelling and other details rule out their being contemporaneous or even the work of a single scribe, it is quite likely that the Ark Tablet represents the same Old Babylonian version of the Atra-hasīs story.)

The story of Atra-hasīs, the Ark and the Flood is, by any criteria, literature. It is mythological in nature and eventually epic in proportion, but certainly literature. From this standpoint the detailed practical boat-building data embedded in Atra-hasīs’s Ark Tabletproclamations also comes as a surprise, all the more so given that the technical and practical specifications that we have disentangled in Chapter 8 are not arbitrary or ‘mythological’ but practical and realistic.

What are technical specs doing in the middle of an exciting story? For most listeners, What was going to happen next? was surely more pressing for the listener than do-it-yourself waterproofing!

Two factors could have contributed to the inclusion of the very technical boat-building material.

The primary factor could well be audience demand. Recounting the Atrahasis story to fisher- or river-folk who built and used boats for their livelihood is likely to have provoked questions from listeners such as, What did the boat look like? How big was it?Where did all the animals sleep? This seems to me inevitable, and would demand that any good storyteller had answers ready; a giant coracle would be best because they never sink, everybody would have been in one, animals often rode in them, and each listener could easily imagine ‘the biggest coracle you ever saw’, portrayed with outstretched arms and gaping eyes. There was no need for dimensions or detail: The world’s biggest coracle which would need buckets and buckets of bitumen … The shape, size and interior construction of the vessel could be developed and exaggerated at will, depending on the audience.

Eventually, though, a second phase is reached, when a good deal more ‘hard’ information than is strictly needed for telling a good story is incorporated. How did this come about? Such material can only derive from classroom investigation.

It is of the deepest significance that the quoted ‘specs’ in this literary document are not only realistic but actually mathematically accurate. Transposed into a modern technical drawing as a model for a building programme the vessel that emerges is lifelike, in proportion to a real coracle, and capable of construction. Such a state of affairs cannot for a moment be accidental. If a storyteller were to improvise figures for the world’s largest boat off the top of his head he would take recourse to fairytale measurements, as we have seen, like ‘a hundred double-miles’ or ‘ten thousand leagues’. The input of ‘exact’ coracle-building and waterproofing data into the story not only inevitably reflects a schoolroom background, but of itself implies that the same issues had been sensibly worked out in the classroom.

Measurement of a practical nature – the number of bricks in a wall, the quantity of barley to feed a gang of workmen – was the bread and butter of the scribal schools once apprentices had learned to read and write to a basic level. It is natural, moreover, that a teacher, attempting to interest inattentive schoolboys in dry mensuration, should light on one novelty or another to secure their attention. Probably it was often necessary. In one contemporary school composition the boys are set to recite Sumerian verbal paradigms, using as a model the verb ‘to fart’, and it is not hard to imagine that a teacher who opened his lesson with the announcement that Today we are going to learn ‘to fart’ would certainly have commanded full attention for the morning. So we might hear a teacher remark one morning: Given that the Ark – as every Babylonian knew since the cradle – was the world’s largest coracle, if it measured such-and-such a size across and its walls were of such-and-such height to accommodate all the animals, let us ask ourselves, What was its surface area? How many miles of ropes would you need to build it? How much bitumen would you need to waterproof its surfaces? All much more fun to work out than prosaic equivalents about canal dykes and mountains of cereal.

It is here that the great ŠÁR or ‘3,600’ measurements are so extraordinary, because, as was freely conceded earlier, any cuneiformist encountering such numerals in a literary context would immediately class them as huge round numbers and nothing more, whereas in the Ark Tablet each such numeral is to be taken absolutely at face value. Very large numbers written in bunched-up compounds of ŠÁR signs bring to mind the similar-looking numbers for the giant regnal years before the Flood recorded in theSumerian King List. It is not unlikely that advanced Old Babylonian pupils will have looked at this text with their teacher and discussed such huge numerals, while at the same time it could easily be understood that they might think that Atra-hasīs, being an antediluvian himself, would naturally use antediluvian numbers of this kind in his own calculations. It is surely for this reason that they are used in the Ark Tablet to communicate the great measurements needed.

From the school mathematical tablet illustrated on this page we can see that calculation of the area of circles or circles within squares was part of a well-ordered investigation of geometrical matters. We can assume, therefore, that whoever contributed this data to the flow of the Atrahasis story must have been put through this particular wringer himself, and that the circle-within-a-square image that underlies the passage in the story reflects his own classroom experience.

Despite the frequency with which boats and bitumen are mentioned in cuneiform texts there is no other text that even alludes to, let alone details, the way in which bitumen had to be applied to a completed boat. Such matters were second nature in the riverside boatyards where coracles were continuously in production and everybody knew inside out what to do, but the calculation of quantities here, crucially, is based on real facts.

Some specific need, or burst of inventiveness, must have led to the incorporation of hard data within this literature. Given our present knowledge, we cannot know whether it was taken up within Atrahasis in general, or whether a very human reluctance to cope with figures might not have meant that, for non-boatmen, these hard-won details were really otiose: the narrative of Gilgamesh XI at any rate was certainly happy to reduce them to a minimum.

From this standpoint the contrasting lack of detail about the animals that were supposed to be rescued is noticeable. In a different milieu one might have expected a full list, from cockroaches to camels, to assure listening farmers that no species was left behind. Perhaps we are to assume that if anyone called out Which animals do you mean? or What about all the different kinds of snakes? a good storyteller would have thought that through too and have the answers up their sleeve.

(a) Bunched-up šār signs in Ark Tablet line 12. (b) More in Ark Tablet line 21. (c) The immaculate calligraphy of the šār signs in the Weld–Blundell copy of the Sumerian King List.

(picture acknowledgement 13.1)

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