Sunday, 28 August 2011

Before Noah came Gilgamesh

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written stories, and it predates the Old Testament significantly.  Gilgamesh was almost certainly a real man, King of Uruk in about 2500BC.  He is said to have been buried in a surprising place, under the bed of the River Euphrates, which was temporarily diverted for the purpose.

In this short and quite charming tale, (find a copy of the full text here) you find all the ingredients of a great story.  It  includes themes that (oddly?) are also to be found in the bible.  Gilgamesh gets to fight almost invincible creatures, outsmarts his enemies, make alliances with unlikely characters, conducts heroic quests, searches for eternal life, finds it and then loses it to a cunning serpent.

If you wonder how Lord of the Rings was inspired I suspect that you will find some ideas here.  Tolkein must have been aware of Gilgamesh and he took some aspects of a nice short story and turned them into a seemingly interminable work of literature.  (You might notice that I am not exactly a fan of Tolkein - sorry!)

But the main reason why I mention Gilgamesh today is the account of the flood.  Just before revealing the secret of eternal life to Gilgamesh, the man-become-god Utnapishtim tells him the story of the flood, and how it had been sent by the gods because they could no longer stand the clamour from all the people in the world.  One of these gods, Ea, came to the rescue and tipped Utnapishtim off (in the usual way in a dream) that the waters were coming.  (Does this sound familiar?)  Utnapishtim had just enough time to make a boat - surprisingly a square boat with an area of about one acre.  He says:

I loaded into her all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. I sent them on board . . . entered the boat and battened her down.

And after only 7 days of rain, the rest of creation had been destroyed and a little while later the boat ran aground on a convenient mountain top and stayed there.  Utnapishtim then went through the routine of sending out a dove, (which came back) followed by a swallow (which also returned) and then a raven.  When the raven didn't return he knew it was safe to abandon ship.

So much of this story sounds familiar doesn't it.  This is another example of why the Old Testament really mustn't be taken too literally.   The story of the flood is just one of those truly ancient myths handed down through the generations, and like all good stories it was too good to waste.  Rather than bother with the real origins of the myth the whole thing gets attributed to Yahweh.  After all, who was going to complain about breach of copyright?

Those who have been following Something Surprising for a little while might remember two other similar situations that I have described.  Ancient stories seem to have a habit of getting incorporated into newer holy texts..
Here are links to them anyway:
A family of Old Testament gods?
Historical Jesus?

Coming very soon:  Kangaroos - the final evidence against Noah?

Small (and condescending) note: Feel free to leave your comments so that others can join in and make fun of them.  I'm pretty sure that I will get messages telling me that I don't understand the culture of the region at the time of the Old Testament, and that just because this story is older than the Old Testament it doesn't mean that the Old Testament is not true. 


Hilary said...

I'm curious as to why you would be so certain that there was a real Gilgamesh when the evidence is so scant and certainly much more scant than the historical evidence for the person of Jesus Christ, including his birth, death and resurrection of which there are over 5000 greek manuscripts and in total at least 24,000 manuscripts if other languages are included such as latin.

Added to this, the dating for the flood portion of the Gilgamesh story is dated much later than the rest of the story.

Added to this is the fact that the differences in the story of Utnapishtim (see 'Canaanite Myths and Legends' by Prof John Gobson - who taught me Biblical Hebrew and OT studies during the time I studied all these particular topics at Edinburgh Uni)are significant and cannot be glossed over as trivial (as tends to be the habit of arguments from those who would claim The Genesis Flood account to be some kind of myth)

It is both possible and reasonable when all the manuscripts are studied in the same light, to suggest that there was such a global flood, and there were many copies of the true account. A 'noisy' mankind(as told in the Gilgamesh story) is very different from a 'sinful' mankind as accounted for in Genesis. Other such differences such as the multiplicity of gods and goddesses are clearly significantly different from the Biblical account.

Throughout the Bible, God's people are called out from among those who believed in multiple gods and godesses and called out from the practices of those people.

Anonymous said...

just wanted to give you a heads up, Tolkien based his story off the VERY well known myth, same myth Wagner wrote an 8 hour opera about. Tolkien is not an original, not in the least...

Plasma Engineer said...

Thanks Anon. I take that as a form of agreement that there are no new stories in the world. Does the ring represent eternal life by any chance? :) Stories and myths are never endingly circular and probably always have been as I think you might agree.

Plasma Engineer said...

Hilary - thanks again for all your input and for keeping me on my toes. Let's examine our differences in interpretation:
1/ I really have no interest in the truth of the character Gilgamesh, but if I did choose to, I think you would find that the life of the 5th King of Uruk is supported by contemporaneous (stone) manuscripts, whereas the life of Jesus is not. (I'm avoiding the claim of 24,000 documents - none of which were contemporaneous).
2/ Re the dating of the 'newer' flood portion of the epic - is it newer than the oldest Old Testament? I think you will find that the stone tablets of the complete story are somewhat older than any written. parts of the OT. Hence, your evidence is... ?? (Incidentally when I use the same argument for the parts of Josephus that appear to refer to Jesus - the forged parts written 2 centuries after Jesus - you choose not to answer.)
3/ The differences are there of course. That is the nature of story telling. My point is that this is all story telling - retelling very ancient myths
4/ The multitude of gods is indeed perpetuated throughout the OT as you well know. See the mini-series starting with
5/ Just in case of doubt - the world is almost certainly 4.6 billion years old and there was certainly no global flood, and indeed there wasn't enough water to achieve it. The evidence is there for you to read if you would just 'open your heart' to science.

Hilary said...

Hi ok let's take each of these points you have made here;
1) The evidence for Gilgamesh's existence in the form of contemporaneous (stone) manuscripts actually refer to other kings, not directly of Gilgamesh himself. These other kings were believed to have had to do with Gilgamesh. So it really isn't 'concrete' if you'll excuse the pun. I'm not arguing for his not existing, merely pointing out that it is not certain.
2) yes indeed, the younger 'flood portion' is generally accepted to be later than the Biblical account.
There is much discussion (as you well know) about the parts of Josephus' writing that refer to Jesus but in fact the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that these references are authentic and not forged. (and my apologies for not responding, I wasn't aware or I had simply forgotten, we have discussed so many aspects of faith and atheism.
3)Yes and studying the mythical stories and comparing them with the Biblical account actually has shown and is again generally accepted by most serious scholars to be radically different. The Hebrew account stands out a mile from the cultures mythical beliefs around them.
4) Ah yes, and the multiplicity of gods and goddesses as I stated in my last paragraph, was the culture from which the Hebrew people were called out from.
5)In fact, the Earth is certainly not 4.6 billion years old (see 'Creation's Tiny Mystery' by Robert Gentry and 'The Mythology of Modern Dating Methods' by John Woodmorappe)and there certainly was a global flood, and just for the record, neither is the Universe 13.7 billion years old, this is based on an assumption which is based on a belief that there is no God. The Big Bang is as mythical as all the other myths. The only true account is the Genesis account.
Thanks for your comments to my comments :)

Plasma Engineer said...

Good attention to detail thanks. Of course I care little for the existence of Gilgamesh himself but only wanted to point out what you agree in item 2. Then the differences are not surprising as stories get told and retold.

Aside from that, I think I rest my case.

Hilary said...

ah...just to clarify, 'later' as in the Biblical account of the flood in Gensesis is generally accepted to be older than the flood portion of the Gilgamesh story.

The Mash, the gilga-mash! said...

you will never get religious fools to look at the world through the lens of science and reason. They are too atatched to their magic stories from thousands of years ago, too scared of the idea of a world without some god to give their lives meaning. Its sad, but true. Hillary is merely the tip of the iceberg. Dont let her articulate response fool you, she is just as ignorant as the rest of the faithful.