Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Ziusudra

Posted on Friday 7 May 2004

This stela comes from the Temple of Marduk in Babylon and dates from around 800 BC. It is a commemorative monument set up in honour of a private individual called Adad-etir. He was an official in the temple, known as 'the dagger bearer', and this stela was erected by his son Marduk-balassu-iqbi.


The figures carved in relief on the front represent the father and son together. Their shaven heads show that they are both priests, it being normal in ancient Mesopotamia for a son to adopt his father's profession.


There are three divine symbols above the two priests: a winged solar disc representing the sun-god Shamash, a crescent of the moon-god Sin and a lion-headed mace on a pedestal.

The cuneiform inscription includes a curse upon anyone who defaces the stela. It translates:

"May Marduk, the great lord, in anger look upon him, and his name and his seed may he cause to disappear.


May Nabu, the scribe of all, curtail the number of his days.


But may the man who protects it be satisfied with the fulness of life."


One of the last authentic voices of the ancient Mesopotamian culture was a Babylonian priest by the name of Bel-re'ušunu. He is better known to posterity as Berossus.

He was a priest at the Temple of Marduk in Babylon and held high office within the temple organisation. Having direct access to temple archives, he was in a position to be able to write a history of Mesopotamia starting from its earliest days and running right up to his own time (a period covering more than three thousand years). His history was named Babyloniaka and was written in Greek. In it he sought to explain Mesopotamian culture and religion to the new Hellenistic rulers of his country. He dedicated his book to Antiochus I Soter (323-261 BC).

Unfortunately, none of Berossus' books have survived and what we know about his writings has only come down to us from quotations made by later authors. One of these was Abydenus who, as a disciple of Alexander the Great's one time teacher: Aristotle, was probably a contemporary of Berossus. Another was Alexander Polyhistor, a native of the Anatolian kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea coast. He had originally came to Rome as a slave captured during the war with Mithradates of Pontus but he was eventually freed and became a Roman citizen. As indicated by his name, Polyhistor wrote numerous history books and he quoted extensively from Berossus when he came to write about Mesopotamia.

Alas, none of the works of these two authors has survived either except in the form of quotations from later authors. Chief amongst these was Eusebius Pamphilius (264 - 338 AD), Bishop of Caesarea, delegate to the Council of Nicea and one of the most eminent scholars of his time. Through this remarkable chain of writers and despite being heavily edited and summarised according to the agendas of his preservers, the voice of Berossus the priest of Marduk can still be heard. He speaks of stories and traditions that have only been confirmed in modern times through the work of archaeologists.

One story in particular (via Polyhistor), undoubtedly would have made Eusebius sit up and pay attention:

After the death of Ardates, his son Xisuthrus reigned eighteen sari. In his time happened a great Deluge; the history of which is thus described. The Deity, Cronus, appeared to him in a vision, and warned him that upon the fifteenth day of the month Dæsius there would be a flood, by which mankind would be destroyed. He therefore enjoined him to write a history of the beginning, procedure, and conclusion of all things; and to bury it in the city of the Sun at Sippara; and to build a vessel, and take with him into it his friends and relations; and to convey on board every thing necessary to sustain life, together with all the different animals; both birds and quadrupeds, and trust himself fearlessly to the deep. Having asked the Deity, whither he was to sail? he was answered, "To the Gods:" upon which he offered up a prayer for the good of mankind. He then obeyed the divine admonition: and built a vessel five stadia in length, and two in breadth. Into this he put every thing which he had prepared; and last of all conveyed into it his wife, his children, and his friends.
After the flood had been upon the earth, and was in time abated, Xisuthrus sent out birds from the vessel; which, not finding any food, nor any place whereupon they might rest their feet, returned to him again. After an interval of some days, he sent them forth a second time; and they now returned with their feet tinged with mud. He made a trial a third time with these birds; but they returned to him no more: from whence he judged that the surface of the earth had appeared above the waters. He therefore made an opening in the vessel, and upon looking out found that it was stranded upon the side of some mountain; upon which he immediately quitted it with his wife, his daughter, and the pilot. Xisuthrus then paid his adoration to the earth: and having constructed an altar, offered sacrifices to the gods, and, with those who had come out of the vessel with him, disappeared.

They, who remained within, finding that their companions did not return, quitted the vessel with many lamentations, and called continually on the name of Xisuthrus. Him they saw no more; but they could distinguish his voice in the air, and could hear him admonish them to pay due regard to religion; and likewise informed them that it was upon account of his piety that he was translated to live with the gods; that his wife and daughter, and the pilot, had obtained the same honour. To this he added, that they should return to Babylonia; and, as it was ordained, search for the writings at Sippara, which they were to make known to all mankind: moreover that the place, wherein they then were, was the land of Armenia. The rest having heard these words, offered sacrifices to the gods; and taking a circuit, journeyed towards Babylonia.

The vessel being thus stranded in Armenia, some part of it yet remains in the Corcyræan mountains of Armenia; and the people scrape off the bitumen, with which it had been outwardly coated, and make use of it by way of an alexipharmic and amulet. And when they returned to Babylon, and had found the writings at Sippara, they built cities, and erected temples: and Babylon was thus inhabited again.


--- Berossus from Alexander Polyhistor.


Xisuthrus is a rendering into Greek of the ancient name Ziusudra (or Ziudsara), the last king mentioned in the Sumerian King List before the Great Flood. According this list, several versions of which have been found, he did indeed reign as a king of the city of Shuruppak on the Euphrates for eighteen saris. A sari is equivalent to 3,600 years so his reign was said to be a mere 64,800 years long! It's worth recalling at this point that Noah was said to be 600 years old when he set sail on his boat.


The deity who came to visit him was, of course, not the Greek god Cronos but a Sumerian one, Enki (it was a common practice in the syncretic world of antiquity to replace the names of foreign gods with more familiar ones). Enki had come to warn Ziusudra that the lord of the gods, Enlil (Lord Air, later Marduk or Bel) had become so annoyed by the constant racket being made by the people on the Earth that he had decided to destroy them all.


Ziusudra (who in other texts is known as Atrahasis "Exceedingly Wise" or Ut-napishtim "He Who Saw Life") already knew about this because this was the fourth time that the gods had attempted to wipe out the entire human race. The first time was by disease, the second time was by drought, the third time was by famine. In each case Enki foiled Enlil's plans by either getting his servant on Earth, the king Ziusudra, to instruct his people to pray to various gods in order to shame them into helping them or by directly intervening himself.


Enlil became so enraged by Enki's continual meddling that he demanded that Enki should be the one to create a great flood to wipe out humanity. To this Enki refused saying, "Why should I use my power against my people?...This is Enlil's kind of work!" but he did agree to be bound by an oath not to interfere the plan.


Knowing that this time he would not be able to save everyone, Enki decided that he must try a different approach. He was bound by an oath to Enlil so he knew that he would have to find another way to warn Ziusudra. He did this by exploiting one of the lamest loopholes imaginable. The King of Shuruppak lived in a reed house (probably one quite similar to the mudhifs of the modern Marsh Arabs) and Enki, fully within earshot of Ziusudra, directed his instructions to the walls of his house!


Wall, listen constantly to me!
Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!
Dismantle the house, build a boat . . .

Enki addressed Ziusudra's wall and gave the precise dimensions of a vessel and instructed that it should be filled with every kind of animal. Ziusudra explained to the the elders of the city of Shuruppak that Enki was at war with Enlil and that as a partisan on the side of Enki he would have to leave immediately. The people of the city built him a vessel and he selected the best examples of every animal.


He then held a feast for his people but he became so upset about what he knew was about to happen that he felt ill. It was then that the weather changed and Ziusudra brought his family inside the vessel with him. He sealed it shut with bitumen.


The [violent storm] went against the people like an army.
No one could see anyone else,
They could not be recognized in the catastrophe.
The Flood roared like a bull,
Like a wild ass screaming, the winds [howled]
The darkness was total, there was no sun.


When the gods saw the magnitude of the disaster they had wrought they began to weep. How could they have so wantonly destroyed their own creation? Worse still, the gods had created people for a specific purpose: so that they would never have to toil again. Who was now going to do their work? Who was now going to sacrifice and make offerings in their name?


And just what kind of smart decision maker was this Enlil, anyway?


The world was now completely covered in water and like reeds floated the corpses people. After seven days and seven nights the waters had begun to recede and Ziusudra's vessel became grounded on top of a mountain in the country of Nizir (later tradition places this in the mountains of Urartu or Ararat. George Smith, however, thought it was more likely to be somewhere east of Assyria).


I sent forth a dove, and it left. The dove went and searched and
a resting place it did not find, and it returned.
I sent forth a swallow, and it left. The swallow went and searched and
a resting place it did not find, and it returned.
I sent forth a raven, and it left.
The raven went, and the corpses on the waters it saw, and
it did eat, it swam, and wandered away, and did not return.
I sent the animals forth to the four winds...


When Ziusudra started laying out food and burning offerings of thanks for his survival the gods, who were now hungry and thirsty, began to gather "like flies over the offering" and inhale its sweet fragrance.


But just then the shit really hit the fan:


The warrior Ellil spotted the boat
And was furious with the [the other gods].
"We, the great Anunna, all of us,
Agreed together on an oath!
No form of life should have escaped!
How did any man survive the catastrophe?"


Anu made his voice heard
And spoke to the warrior Ellil,
"Who but Enki would do this?
He made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order."


Enki made his voice heard And spoke to the great gods,
"I did it, in defiance of you!
I made sure life was preserved...
Exact your punishment from the sinner.
And whoever contradicts your order


Enki then went on to explain why the gods should never have tried to destroy humanity. People were useful servants who were essential for keeping the gods living in the lap of luxury. If the problem was that there were too many of them then this could be easily fixed through a smart policy of birth control. Enki made a deal with Nintu, the goddess of birth and fertlity, that the human infant mortality rate would be made much higher and that one in three women would not be able to give birth successfully. He also established a caste of women priests who would not be allowed to have children.


Enlil thus satisfied went down to Earth to greet Ziusudra and his family and he gave them his blessing. He made a covenant never to try to destroy them again. Ziusudra, his wife and the ship's pilot (but not the rest of his family) were declared immortal and were taken away to live in a far off country, in the good and pure land of Dilmun (the island of Bahrain), the place where the sun rises.


Never again would the gods try to destroy mankind. The goddess Nintu made a memento of lapis-lazuli to wear as a necklace so that they would never forget.


The Sumerian Flood Story (1800 BC)
Babylonian version: Atrahasis (1700 BC)


Many centuries later, Ziusudra and his wife were visited by a great and illustrious king from Uruk. His name was Gilgamesh, the famous hero of Mesopotamian legend (although according to the Sumerian King List there really was a king by that name who ruled Uruk around 2700 BC). After the death of his close friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh travelled across the ocean to meet Ziusudra (Ut-napishtim) and to ask him how he obtained immortality.

The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI
The Chaldean Account of the Deluge by George Smith





Athanasius Kircher, Arcanae; printed in Amsterdam in 1675 - a delightfully imaginative book, suitable for children.
The dedicatee, Charles II of Spain was himself only 12 at the time.

In other news:

A Gilgamesh movie is in production
National Geographic: Noah's Ark Found?
(better file that one next to Scientist believes Atlantis found off Cyprus. Thanks again, Pete.)