It is a historical fact that a great deluge once destroyed every human being on earth except a single family. The book of Genesis contains the only reliable account of this earth-shaking event.
However, this traumatic experience left its mark on the oral traditions of a wide variety of people. Some late accounts of the flood bear little resemblance to what actually happened. However, an early account of the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians is much closer to the truth.
The account of the deluge forms a portion of a larger work known as the “Gilgamesh Epic.” Enkidu, a friend of Gilgamesh, had died. This reminded Gilgamesh of the fact that he too would die some day. He decided to pay a visit to an ancestor named Utnapishtim, who had been admitted to the ranks of the immortal gods. He was hoping that Utnapishtim might reveal to him the secret of immortality.
When Gilgamesh asked Utnapishtim how he managed to enter the assembly of the gods with immortal life, Utnapishtim answered by telling Gilgamesh about his experiences in a great deluge that the gods once sent to destroy mankind.
Utnapishtim used to be king of Shuruppak, a city situated on the banks of the Euphrates River. During his reign, five gods (Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea) took counsel, and it was decided to send a flood to destroy mankind. Enlil was the deity that was most eager to send the deluge. Ea probably opposed the measure, but all were sworn to secrecy.
Ea was a cunning god, and he managed to divulge the secret to Utnapishtim without talking directly to him He addressed his words to a reed wall, while Utnapishtim was on the other side of the wall and could easily hear him.
In this way, he told Utnapishtim to tear down his house and build a large boat. Its length was supposed to correspond to its width, and it was supposed to be covered with a roof. He was to make all living things come into the boat.
If the citizens of Shuruppak wanted to know why he was building such a large boat, Ea instructed Utnapishtim to say that Enlil had rejected him and he had to leave the city. Utnapishtim was to assure the people that the gods would shower them with blessings, giving them plenty of bread and wheat. (In Akkadian, the word for “bread” is almost identical to the word for “darkness,” and “wheat” is similar to “misfortune,” according to Spark Notes. By this pun, Ea was inserting a measure of veracity into the lies that he was putting into Utnapishtim’s mouth.)
With the help of the people, the boat was rapidly completed. It was a tall structure with six decks, so that the boat had seven levels. Launching the boat proved to be difficult.
Utnapishtim loaded the boat with gold and silver, and brought animals into the boat. His kindred also went on board. Just before the flood came, the god Shamash told Utnapishtim to enter the boat and seal the entry.
Various deities worked together to create the deluge. Adad rumbled inside a black cloud. Ninurta made the dikes overflow. Anunnaki set the land ablaze with torches. In the torrent, it was so dark that no one could see his neighbor.
The gods were frightened by the devastation. They fled upward to the heaven of Anu, where they cowered like dogs. Ishtar screamed. She complained that her dear people were swimming in the sea like so many fish.
The storm raged for six days and seven nights. Then it became quiet. After a while, the boat became firmly lodged on Mt Nimush.
When the boat had rested on Mt. Nimush for seven days, Utnapishtim sent out first a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. The dove and swallow returned to Utnapishtim, but the raven did not. Then Utnapishtim sent the animals out of the boat and sacrificed to the gods. The gods were hungry because they had not received any sacrifices for several days, so they flocked around Utnapishtim’s offering like flies.
When Enlil arrived and saw the boat, he became very angry. He did not like it that Utnapishtim and his kin were still alive. Ea told Enlil that instead of sending a flood that would destroy everyone, he should have devised punishments that would fit the crime. He should have sent a lion, a wolf, a famine, or a pestilence that would punish the violator for his violation
Enlil was evidently convinced by the argument of Ea. He entered the boat and declared that Utnapishtim and his wife would henceforth be immortal gods.
After telling Gilgamesh how he became immortal, Utnapishtim devised a test to convince Gilgamesh that immortality was beyond his reach. He told him not to go to sleep for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh failed the test. Since Gilgamesh could not even conquer sleep, it was obvious that he could not avoid death.
Utnapishtim did direct him to a plant on the bottom of the sea that could restore his youth. Gilgamesh managed to obtain the plant, but a snake stole it from him before he reached his homeland.
Since the Sumerians and Akkadians had forgotten the one true God and had adopted a polytheistic religion, mythical elements have intruded themselves into their account of the great deluge. The passage of time had also dimmed their recollection of the event, so many inaccuracies found their way into the Sumerian-Akkadian account.
Nevertheless, it is remarkable that they remembered that a large boat saved one family plus animals from the waters of the flood. They also remembered that the boat came to rest on a mountain. They also remembered that birds were sent out to test whether the waters had subsided.
However, while Noah’s ark was eminently seaworthy, the boat of Utnapishtim was a clumsy affair. Moreover, the Sumerians and the Akkadians did not remember how long the flood lasted. In addition, although they remembered that a raven and a dove were sent out, they thought that they were sent out after the boat had lodged on a mountain, whereas in reality Noah sent them out while the ark was still floating on the water. Above all, the Sumerians and Akkadians replaced the majesty of the one true God with a number of whimsical non-existent deities. (The sending out of a swallow might be another inaccuracy. However, Noah may have sent out other birds besides the ones mentioned in the Genesis account.)
Ancient Texts: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Wikipedia: Epic of Gilgamesh
Wikipedia: Gilgamesh Flood Myth
Spark Notes: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Jason Colavito: The Epic of Gilgamesh