Myths from many different cultures seem to tell the same story. Themes from Babylonian myth can be seen in Egyptian stories; elements of Christian theology are evident in some ancient Chinese texts, and so on. How is this possible? How can cultures that have had little physical contact present us with such analogous narratives? These questions grow more perplexing when time is considered. Many of these tales are not only from separate corners of the earth, but also seem to have been written in vastly disparate time periods. This being said, it is still a fact that these cultures do rely on a number of shared stories. The hero exists universally; and often shares a number of elements across cultural boundaries. All cultures have a creation story. Many also possess a mother goddess who relates to fertility. These seemingly universal tales all share one significant element: they answer a fundamental question. How did we get here? Why do our fields yield us a bountiful harvest one season and leave us to starve the next? However, there is one common tale that does not answer any such question- the flood myth. This tale is told around the world, but the reason for its commonality is not as clear. Both the Christian and the Babylonian cultures recount to us a story of a great flood. These stories possess many similar ideas, but also differ in numerous ways.
The fundamental idea behind the flood myth is the extermination of man from the face of the planet. This comes as a result of the anger and disappointment of a deity. Both the Babylonian and Christian stories share this element. The Babylonian story states that mankind was becoming a nuisance to the gods. The increasing numbers of men on earth were making so much clamor that the gods became aggravated. The Christian story paints a picture of an earth totally lacking morality. Yahweh looks down upon the men and women he has created and is saddened by their lack of values. He decides to rid the earth of this corrupt age and begin anew. Both versions then have a god choosing to save one man. The Babylonian version tells us of Utnapishtim. He is warned of Enlil’s plan by Ea, through a dream, and is instructed to build a great boat. Noah was the only man on earth still in Yahweh’s favor. So he came to Noah and told him to also build a boat.
The men are then instructed to take with them certain people, animals and possessions. Ea tells Utnapishtim to bring with him family and kin, gold, beasts, both wild and tame, and craftsmen. Noah is advised to take only his family and a pair of each of the earth’s animals onto his boat. The items each man is directed to take says a great deal about the culture associated with each story. The Christian world is focused on piety and stresses the importance of denying oneself material wealth. Noah is not told to bring with him any worldly possessions unlike Utnapishtim who is told to take gold. Utnapishtim is also told to bring craftsmen, which emphasizes the important role they played in Babylonian culture.
As the flood begins each man is warned that it will soon be time to board his boat. However, the amount of time each man is given to prepare varies considerably between the two stories. Noah is given seven days to load all of the animals onto the ark, while Shamash comes to Utnapishtim and tells him that the Rider of the Storm will be coming that same night to begin the flood. The duration of the flood is also very different. In the Christian description of the flood, it was said that it lasted forty days and forty nights, not the single week as was stated in the Babylonian account. The Babylonian story also states that the assistance of the gods of the Underworld was procured to help release the waters of the flood. Yahweh is able to create the flood entirely on his own. This emphasizes his place as the one true Christian god. Christianity emphasizes the supremacy of Yahweh as the only true divinity. This story is one of a number from the Bible that acts to illustrate his absolute power over the earth. However, Babylonian religious beliefs do not take this monotheistic view. The Babylonian story also states that the flood was so frightful that even the gods of the heavens were in fear of what the gods of the Underworld were doing, and that they retreated to the highest level of the heavens. In the Hebrew description of the flood it was God’s fury that man was suffering, Lucifer was in no way involved, as man had brought this punishment upon himself with his own iniquity.
In the Babylonian myth, on the seventh day of the flood, the rains finally came to a halt and the waters grew still. Utnapishtim searched for land, and saw only the peak of Mount Nisir. It is here that he set his boat aground and waited a week before beginning to look into the level of the waters. First he let a dove loose to see if the flood had receded, but it returned when it found nowhere to land. Utnapishtim then let a swallow loose, but it too returned. He then set a raven free. The raven discovered that the water had since withdrawn and did not return. In the Christian story Noah lands his boat atop Mount Ararat. He first let a raven loose, it did not return. Noah then let a dove free, it returned but only because it found nowhere to land. He then waited seven days and released the dove yet again. This time it came back with an olive leaf. Noah waited seven more days, and released the dove a third time. This time it did not return because it had found land. The parallels between the discoveries of land in both of the stories are intriguing. The use of birds, the time spent waiting for their return, and the discovery of a mountainous summit are seemingly analogous. The only evident disparity regarding this aspect of the story would be the birds used and the length of time required for the waters of the flood to recede.
As man returns to dry land he chooses to express thanks to the gods for safeguarding he and his family from the torrents of the flood. Utnapishtim and Noah both make a sacrifice to illustrate how thankful they are. In the Babylonian account of the myth, Utnapishtim makes a sacrifice to the gods after freeing all of the people and animals from the boat. All the gods came to his sacrifice. Ishtar proclaims that all of the gods should remember the anguish caused by the flood. She then calls all of the gods, except Enlil, to her side. Enlil was barred from the sacrifice because it is he that brought about the deluge. Enlil still manages to find the sacrifice and is infuriated that Utnapishtim and his family did not perish in his flood. Ea is able to quell his anger and convinces Enlil that their survival was for the best. Enlil then blesses Utnapishtim and his family and grants them all long life. In the Christian account, Noah releases all of the animals from the Ark, and then makes a sacrifice to God, just as Utnapishtim did. God comes to the sacrifice, blesses Noah, his family, and all the animals and birds, and tells them all to be fruitful and multiply in number. God then creates a covenant with Noah. He states that he will never again release the earth’s waters in such a destructive manner. As a symbol of this promise, God creates the first rainbow. He explains to Noah that in the future he will create a rainbow whenever clouds unleash rain onto the earth to act as a reminder that, although it may rain, he will never again destroy mankind. The Babylonian myth offers no such promise.
These two stories are surprisingly similar. The floods both stem from an iniquity perceived by a deity and both lead to the destruction of almost all of mankind. Both accounts hold that one man was saved from the wrath of the gods, and that it is this man who then repopulated the earth. The survival of animals, and the use of birds to ascertain when it was safe to return to dry land, is yet another parallel. Both the Babylonian and Christian accounts also have the one preserved man offering a sacrifice to the gods upon his return to dry earth. All of these chief facets of the stories are analogous. It is only in the details, such as the length of the boat or the time necessary for the waters to recede, that they are dissimilar. These seemingly trivial differences, though, tell us much about the culture that each of these stories stems from. It is only through a thorough study of both stories that we are able to make these insights. This comparative approach allows us to deep into the beliefs of both the Babylonian and Christian cultures, and leaves us with a better appreciation of both.