Ancient History & Civilisation


Flood Warning

If the centre of the gall bladder is inflated with water a flood will come.

Babylonian liver omen

The Ark Tablet starts with no preamble: the Flood warning speech is delivered just like that, and it is only by investigating the other cuneiform accounts that we can understand the background and realise that it is the god Enki who is speaking and that he has to make two attempts, using distinct devices, to get the urgent message across.

First, then, we turn to the classic Old Babylonian Atrahasis version:

Atra-hasīs opened his mouth

And addressed his lord …

Just when the narrative is satisfactorily under way, as often happens with cuneiform stories, there are nine lines completely missing. Then the tablet resumes the narrative, from which it can be surmised that the missing lines contained some explanation of a worrisome dream:

Atra-hasīs opened his mouth

And addressed his lord,

“Teach me the meaning [of the dream]

… that I may look out for its conclusion.”

[Enki] opened his mouth

And addressed his slave:

“You say, ‘What am I to seek?’

Take note of the message I am going to send you:

20              Wall, listen to me!

Reed wall, observe all my words!

Destroy your house, build a boat,

Spurn property and save life …”

Old Babylonian Atrahasis: iii 1–2, 11–23

Enki thus has a very urgent set of instructions – such as no human had ever heard before – for the unwitting hero-to-be: many details would have to be got right. Enki’s message-dream attempt was unsuccessful. It was probably too obscure or complicated, and no Frances Danby vision of a Deluge sweeping away the world with Atra-hasīs the only man who could save it. Mesopotamian dreams were an important means of communication from god to man and, like omens, could arrive spontaneously or be induced by ritual. (There is a manual of procedure, dating from around 450 BC, for this sort of thing in the British Museum: it explains how to procure a personal message dream, which is brought up from the underworld by Wind Messengers, with the help of a Dream Ladder, to the client waiting on the roof, stupefied with incense.) Either way dream messages often needed unravelling, and a specialist class of interpreters was to hand; message-laden dreams requiring exposition are a classic device in Mesopotamian stories.

The other Flood Story versions back up this dream-boat picture. Middle Babylonian Nippur is very damaged but one revealing word survives. Enki says, in the Akkadian, apaŠšar, ‘… I will explain …’, using the verb that is always employed for expounding dreams (pašāru). From Middle Babylonian Ugarit we learn more: that Atra-hasīs is in Ea’s temple:

When the gods took counsel concerning the lands

They brought about a flood in the world regions.

… hears …

5           … Ea in his heart.

“I am Atra-hasīs,

I have been staying in the temple of Ea, my master,

And I know all.

I know of the counsel of the great gods,

10        I know of their oath, although they should not have revealed it to me.”

Line 7 in the version from Ugarit suggests that Atra-hasīs had stayed overnight in the temple hoping for a message dream, which was evidently successful and the dream informative. If so, some anxiety must have prompted his enquiry originally. (This procedure was favoured by rulers, and known rather curiously to Assyriology as incubation. King Kurigalzu tried it once at the great temple at Babylon in about 1400 BC, anxious to know whether his anorexic wife Qatantum was ever going to get pregnant, and the gods looked her entry up in the Tablet of Sins, but we never find out what happened.) Line 7 can equally well be translated ‘I lived’ or ‘I was living in the temple of Ea’, and some scholars have thought that Atra-hasīs must have been a priest, like Ziusudra in the Sumerian version. The Assyrian Recension shows Atra-hasīs waiting in the temple for Ea to tell him in some way of the gods’ decision. (The scribe dutifully informs us in line 11 that some signs were broken in the text he was copying.):

“Ea, master, [I heard] your entry,

[I] noticed steps like [your] footsteps.”

[Atra-hasīs] bowed down, he prostrated up … himself,

he stood.

He opened [his mouth], saying,

5           [Master], I heard your entry,

[I noticed] steps like your footsteps.

[Ea, master], I heard your entry,

[I noticed] steps like your footsteps.”

“…  like seven years,

10         … your … has made the weak thirsty,

(new it-was-broken) … I have seen your face

… tell me your (pl.) decision(?).

In the Sumerian Flood Story, however, Ziusudra’s message came to him in some other way:

Day by day, standing constantly at the … of Enki, the wise lord.

It was no dream, coming out and speaking …

Our slightly scrappy tablets, taken together, present a convincing picture of Enki’s first attempt to warn Atra-hasīs through a dream, but there is unexpected confirmation from the very latest Mesopotamian witness, the Greek Babyloniaka of Berossus. In this, the dream tradition was a crucial part of the story, and proved to be the only message conduit needed. Cronus, the father of Zeus, is to be equated with the Babylonian god Marduk, according to Berossus. So Cronus corresponds to Ea, Marduk’s father:

Cronus appeared to Xisuthros in a dream and revealed that on the fifteenth day of the month Daisios mankind would be destroyed by a flood.

The important thing from the Babylonian story point of view is that the dream technique was ineffective in getting the message clearly across to Atra-hasīs. This is hardly surprising: it was a heavy matter and there were many details that would have to be got right. Ea, therefore, had to try another form of undercover speech.

Talking to the Wall

It is at this point that the text of the Ark Tablet (with which this book is so concerned) actually begins:

“Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!

Atra-hasīs, pay heed to my advice,

That you may live for ever!

Destroy your house, build a boat;

5           Spurn possessions and save life!”

From the moment when George Smith stepped into the limelight in the London of 1872 to declaim ‘Wall, wall! Reed fence, reed fence!’ these dramatic words, god speaking to man, have been perhaps the most famous in cuneiform. Five flood-story versions, including our own Ark Tablet, preserve this speech or part of it. Enki gets the message to his servant this time by talking to the wall, by which means Atra-hasīs learns what will happen.

In the Sumerian Flood Story Ziusudra actually overhears the god Enki talking to the wall:

153       “Side-wall, standing at the left side … ;

154       Side-wall, I want to talk to you; [heed] my words,

155       [Pay attention to] my instructions … ”

The speech in Old Babylonian Atrahasis:

Pay attention to the message that I will speak to you:

20         “Wall, listen to me!

Reed wall, observe all my words!

Destroy your house, build a boat,

Spurn property and save life.”

And in Middle Babylonian Ugarit:

12         “Wall, hear … ”

And in Assyrian Recension:

15         “…  ! Reed hut! Reed-hut!

pay attention to me!

make a boat (?) … ”

And in Gilgamesh XI:

“Reed fence, reed fence! Brick wall, brick wall!

Listen, O reed fence! Pay heed, O brick wall!

O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar-Tutu,

Demolish the house, build a boat!

25         Abandon riches and seek survival!

Spurn property and save life!

Put on board the boat the seed of all living creatures!”

Recruiting Atra-hasīs’s reed walls and fences as a kind of jungle telegraph enables Ea to persist with the claim that he didn’t actually tell Atra-hasīs himself what was going to happen. He just happened to murmur it out loud near the great reed walls, and it is not really his fault if some echo reached Atra-hasīs. How is this image to be understood?

The answer comes from the injunction to pull down the house in order to build the boat from the raw materials. As Lambert put it, and I entirely agree with him,

We are to conceive Atra-hasīs as living in a reed house such as are still found in southern Mesopotamia where reeds grow to an enormous height. No doubt the wind might whistle through the reed walls, and Enki seems to have whispered to his devotee in the same way, since it was no longer himself but the wall that transmitted the message. Since reed boats were as common as reed houses, the obvious course was to pull up the bundles of reeds which composed the walls of the house and to fasten them to a wooden framework as a boat.

Reed architecture: a mid-twentieth century mudhif of Abdullah of the Al-Essa tribe, in the marshes of S. Iraq.

(picture acknowledgement 6.1)

Reed boats: the characteristic fishing boat of the marshes that dates back to the time before the Flood.

For the original readers of Atrahasis the events of the story were of course unfolding in the remotest antediluvian past, and this reed-and-water landscape of the southern marshes with its characteristic houses and boats would be how urban Babylonians of the second millennium BC imagined their own aboriginal world to have been in its entirety. For them this was the ultimate backdrop to the story of Atrahasis and Enki’s inspiring speech. What is extraordinary is that we can still look in on this life in the wetland marshes of southern Iraq, for it survived more or less unchanged from primeval times right down until the murderous interference of Saddam Hussein twenty years ago. Many authors have written on the Iraqi marshes and their people and have drawn attention to what has happened there. Recently, the return of surviving families, who had fled east for their lives, offered the first sign that the original environment might one day be restored. Perhaps in no other area of Mesopotamian studies has it been possible for the modern world to bring things to life by virtue of an almost unchanging ancient landscape; many photographs show traditional reed houses, floating as though comprising a small island, with livestock happily milling about inside the fence roundabout. The same skilful use of plaited reeds can engender cathedral-like buildings of extraordinary beauty, as well as slim, almond-shaped boats high in prow and stern, which navigate the shallows like minnows to allow the leisured spearing of fish.

Atra-hasīs in this incarnation does not live in a mud-brick house in a city with temples and palaces; his house is made of reeds, strong and willowy, that can easily be recycled to plait a lifeboat if that is what is needed. By the time the story surfaces in first-millennium Gilgamesh the house is of mud-brick with a reed fence; the old resonant wording endures.

The elegant shape of the marsh boat is very ancient. There are examples pictured on seals; one of Woolley’s graves at Ur included a model of one in bitumen. Two of the known Flood Story tablets enshrine a reed ‘ark’ constructed in the tradition of this antediluvian long marsh boat. It is old-fashioned, dysfunctional and, to be frank, of little more use than a prototype, but we had better have a look at it.

A bitumen boat model of the mid-third millennium BC from a Sumerian grave in the city of Ur.

(picture acknowledgement 6.3)

The Prototype Ark

Two later second-millennium Flood versions from the old Sumerian city of Nippur (in southern Iraq) espouse this basic prototype form: the Sumerian Flood Story and Middle Babylonian Nippur. That both these tablets originated at Nippur does not force us to conclude that there was a strong-minded boat club there with its own ideas of what constituted a proper ark, but it is intriguing that the tradition only survives in Nippur sources.

In the Sumerian Flood Story the Ark is called a giš.má-gur4-gur4, which Miguel Civil, the Sumerologist whom I would follow anywhere, translated simply as ‘huge boat’. It occurs three times within four lines, so we can be in no doubt as to the reading:

After the flood had swept over the land for seven days and seven nights

And the destructive wind had rocked the huge boat

(giš-má-gur4-gur4) in the high water

The Sun god came out, illuminating heaven and earth.

Ziusudra made an opening in the huge boat

And the Sun god with his rays entered the huge boat.

Sumerian Flood Story: 204–8

The Sumerian word for boat is giš.má, where giš shows that it is made of wood, and má means boat. In Akkadian the corresponding word is eleppu, like its English equivalent a feminine noun.

There is a common, everyday kind of Sumerian river boat called a má-gur, which gave rise to the Akkadian loanword makurru. The name literally means a ‘boat that gurs’. Unfortunately, no one is absolutely sure what this verb ‘gur’ means, or how a má-gur differs from a plain má. We can say, if it is helpful, that any makurru is an eleppu but not every eleppu is a makurru. Whatever technically distinguishes a makurru from eleppus in general, the two words are often regarded as synonymous in literature; in Old Babylonian Atrahasis the Ark is referred to both as an eleppu and as a makurru, much as we might say ‘ark’ and ‘boat’ of the same vessel in English.

The Sumerian Flood Story mentions a super version of the giš-má-gur called the giš.má-gur4-gur4, evidently a special, outsized form of the same. This giant makurru-boat does not seem to be mentioned in any of the numerous documents from daily life concerned with boats, and perhaps it only took to the water in the world of mythology. Nevertheless it did warrant inclusion as line 291 of the cuneiform boat list, part of the ancient dictionary list-of-words project upon which we so often depend, in which old Sumerian words for boats and their parts are matched with their more modern equivalents in Akkadian. Line 291 records for us that the Sumerian word giš.má-gur-gur, like the giš.má-gur, also gave rise to a Babylonian loanword, makurkurru. It is this loanwordmakurkurru that is the type of ark in Middle Babylonian Nippur, and we are expressly told that it is made of reeds:

“[Fine reeds], as many as possible, should be woven (?), should be gathered (?) for it;

… build a big boat (eleppam rabītam)

Let its structure be [interwoven (?)] entirely of fine reed.

… let it be a makurkurru-boat with the name Life-Saver.

… roof it over with a strong covering.

Middle Babylonian Nippur: 5–9

This ‘big boat’ of makurkurru type could be roofed over. I particularly like the fact that the makurkurru in Middle Babylonian Nippur has the name ‘Lifesaver’, Nāṣirat Napištim. It should have been painted on the prow in 3D luminous cuneiform signs, even if they skipped the champagne at the launch.


We can identify the characteristic shape of the makurru with the help of a geometrical diagram from the world of cuneiform educational mathematics, much like that illustrated in the following chapter. This shows two circles, drawn with one overlapping the other. Here a Babylonian teacher is expounding the mathematical properties of the pointed almond or biconvex shape generated by such intimate circles. We learn from him at the same time that this shape is called makurru, which will therefore evoke or correspond to the outline of a contemporary makurru boat, seen from above.

This is a boat that is, broadly speaking, in the same family as the traditional ancient craft from the marshes. I think it is fair to conclude that this is what the Nippur boat-builders had in mind, and that these mid-second-millennium accounts preserve a narrow almond-shaped reed-boat tradition that has been associated with the Flood Story from the moment it came into being. Enlil’s speech is the hallmark of the Atrahasis story, probably honed to a pithy brevity and dramatic effectiveness through a long oral history, refined even into a kind of Mesopotamian mantra. The flood hero has been informed by Enki, in traditional terms, that a horrible watery end is nigh. He must encapsulate and safeguard the very germ of life, animal and human, so that the familiar planet can be revivified when it is all over. He must build a lifeboat. Perhaps, with the passage of time, or even the odd outbreak of uncomfortable flooding, people began to think that a makurru, however large, might not hack it when it came to saving the whole world. It is under those circumstances – in my view – that the prototype came to be replaced by a model that was superior in every way, ideal for world conservation purposes, namely the biggest rope and bitumen coracle the world had ever seen.

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