Colonial perceptions on the global account of the Flood myth. Examples on the primacy of biblical understanding of ‘otherness’ from Ancient Mesopotamia to 16th century Nahua culture

by María Bendito


Keywords:
 myth, religion, flood, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Gilgameš, Judeo-Christian, Bible, Genesis, Noah, Berossus, Greco-Latin, Deucalion, pre-Hispanic, Nauha, transmission, acculturation, interpretation, appropriation.

How can we explain how multiple cultures from different times and distant places have very similar myths? And moreover, how can museums present what we know about these phenomena using a global understanding rather than a hierarchical and nationalist one?

One example of this matter is a universal story found in such different cultural milieu as Mesopotamian religion, the Bible, classical antiquity, and pre-Hispanic America. This is the mythical story about a universal flood that once ravaged the earth, and it appeared for the first time in one of the oldest literary works of humankind, and the most unique of Mesopotamian literature, the Epic of Gilgameš. 1

The epic tells the story of Gilgameš, the mythical monarch of the ancient city of Uruk, in today’s southeast of Iraq. One day he decided to undertake the last of his adventures and vital purpose: the quest for immortality. This journey became an enlightenment ritual: Gilgameš faced his own experience, understood the arbitrariness of the divine plans and the weakness of human will (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Scene form the Gilgameš epic, 8th century BC. Cylinder seal, Neo-Assyrian period. BM: 89763. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

At the end of the epic Gilgameš meets a character named Ūta-napišti who tells him that he survived a great flood sent by the gods and, eventually, became immortal. Thanks to the god Ea, Ūta-napišti became aware of the divine project and built a boat. He boarded his family along with animals of every species and, after 6 days of deluge, the boat grounded. It is this story, which recalls the biblical story of Noah and the building of the Ark, that is found on item K.3375, a clay tablet of the British Museum that was presented in their podcast series.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

This Mesopotamian chronicle became a useful legend to narrate and understand the relationship between gods and humanity. Due to its exemplarity, it ‘travelled’ over long periods and transcended its origins to be told by other cultures, which adapted it for other purposes. But most of the approaches, interpretations and museum exhibitions to date have marginalised the historical itinerary and cultural dispersion of this fragment on a global scale, choosing to interpret its discovery with the Bible as the prevailing religion. Yet like any museum object, this tablet yields 100 histories of 100 worlds. Could we approach its inscription from a more universal point of view?

The Flood Tablet in the British Museum.

In 1861, a frequent visitor to the British Museum named George Smith, was invited to organise the Mesopotamian tablets kept in the collection. While translating the cuneiform inscriptions in them, Smith made an unexpected discovery that was to be providential for the understanding of religion, and he presented the results to the public on 3 December 1872.2 He revealed that one of the tablets taken from the excavations of Assurbanipal’s Library in ancient Nineveh, in the outskirts of today’s Mosul, contained a literary fragment whose plot revolved around the story of a universal flood that predated the Genesis account. The tablet, catalogued as K.3375, became known as the Flood Tablet (Figure 2).3

Figure 2: The Flood Tablet, 7th century BC. Clay tablet, Neo-Assyrian period. BM: K.3375. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Smith’s discovery had a huge impact and the announcement of the text’s significance was crucial on many levels. Firstly, it meant the discovery of one of the oldest literary works in human history. Consequently, it was followed by a fervent interest in reconstructing Mesopotamian culture. In doing so, scholars observed that a careful reading of other Mesopotamian literary pieces revealed more concepts also present in the Bible’s Book of Genesis: the single origin of civilization, attempts of social rebellion to revert divine order, or the multiplicity of languages as divine punishment. Concepts that for centuries were thought of and recognized as the basis of Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian religion.

To this day, the story of the Flood Tablet continues at the British Museum. This small piece of clay is now in a display case next to a short description and a photograph of George Smith. Visitors can see it in Room 55 within a collection of thousands of objects systematically arranged in chronological order. Despite this tidy classification, the Flood Tablet, as well as the rest of objects kept in the museum, is an active artifact that determines a cultural discourse that goes beyond what is shown there. This potentiality can be rewarded while exiting the museum, as visitors can purchase a hand-cast replica of the tablet for £45.00.4  Then, they can be reminded about its value as one of the earliest literary human productions, the birth of writing, and the collapse of religious historiography from home.

The Flood Tablet in A History of the World in 100 Objects

In 2010, the Flood Tablet was presented in the BBC Radio 4 programme A History of the World in 100 Objects.5 The narrator and then director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor recalled the moment of discovery in 1872 and addressed its role in the scientific revolution of the late nineteenth century, as Smith’s lecture took place only 12 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. However, despite noting its value as a universal object, no cultural intersection was carried out to explain the history of its transmission from Mesopotamian to Judeo-Christian religion, nor even the appearance of the flood account in other cultures with different beliefs. How come different peoples around such vast geography all believed that at some point in history a flood had occurred? Was there an original account? If so, how could it have been transmitted from one society to another?

In the case of Mesopotamia, the constant appearance of the flood motif across its literature can be related to the geological condition of the region. The valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates was a place where rivers frequently broke their banks. Therefore, the flood might have become a popular metaphor for life, destruction, and seasonal cycles. However, the real precedent did not justify the similarity between the Mesopotamian story and the one in the Bible.

Currently, it is believed that the adaption of the Mesopotamian flood to the Biblical Genesis took place in a context of imperialism, which was especially strong from 587 BC onwards when the troops of Nebuchadnezzar II entered the city of Jerusalem, sacked the temple, kidnapped its cultural elite, and took them back to the city of Babylon. The Jews in exile became familiar with Mesopotamian traditions and, eventually, adapted certain elements to their own beliefs. Accordingly, the story of the flood became part of Genesis when the official canon of the text was settled around the 1st century CE and, in that form, reached Europe.6 

Apart from this specific context, there is another fact that can help us understand its transmission. Like oral tradition, the tablets, with their accessible size, could easily move throughout Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean, and, in doing so, their narratives could be known in distant places outside their original context. Moreover, if the stories had been written down, they could be translated by those who, knowing the cuneiform script, were interested in producing a version in their own language.

100 Histories of 100 Floods. The flood account beyond Biblical culture

The Bible was by no means the only place where the flood narrative ended up. It is also present as a chapter of Greco-Latin mythology.7 How exactly could this transmission take place?

One key example is Berossus. Born in Babylon in the last third of the 4th century BC during the rule of Alexander the Great, Berossus was a priest of the Esagil temple at Babylon. He was also a historian committed to the transmission of Eastern culture to the Greek world. At the beginning of the 3rd century BC, his History of Babylonia emerged. It described the political history of the city aligned to religious accounts of the Mesopotamian world, amongst which we find the story of the flood. This work was known and cited by important authors in Latin culture and late antiquity—Cicero, Flavius Josephus, Augustine of Hippo or Isidore of Seville, among others 8—and this seems to be the reason why the memory of the flood remained and adapted its original content into new names, for which the protagonist of the account in Latin culture was no longer Gilgameš nor Noah but Deucalion.

Evidence of the transmission into the Latin world is not only preserved in literature, but also in material records. Some coins minted in the first centuries AD within the imperial Roman world also refer to the flood (Figure 3). On one side of the coins, two people can be seen within a cubicle. On the left, the same characters are standing on firm ground, and in the upper part, a dove is represented. In better-preserved coins, even the Greek formula for Noah -NΩЄ- can be seen. As if they represented an intermediate step before the Greco-Latin conversion, they cite Noah rather than Deucalion. Why? One explanation could be the contact with Jewish communities; another the geographical proximity between the place where coins were minted —Apamea Cibotus, in today’s province of Afyonkarahisar, Turkey— and the location of the end of Genesis’ episode—Mount Ararat, in today’s Eastern Anatolia region—; eventually, an etymological relation, as Cibotus, from Greek kibotos, means ark. This museum object does not only recapture a distant culture, but also helps us reconstruct worldwide history as it is a testimony of cultural interactions and mutations in a precise time and a place.

Figure 3: Noah’s Ark coin, c. 244 – 249 AD. Alloy coin, Roman period. BM: 1885,0606.284. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

100 Floods of 100 Worlds. The flood account overseas

In addition to the presence of the myth in the Eastern Mediterranean basin and its dissemination throughout Western Christianity, the flood narrative can also be found in pre-Hispanic America and survives in codices of the early colonial period. One example is the Codex Vaticanus A,a manuscript on the cosmovision and history of Nahua people, a large Indigenous group of Mesoamerica.9 The document is an hybrid object as it was carried out by two different worldviews: it was written by Spanish settlers but illustrated by locals.

On folio 4v (Figure 4), it is told that a flood once devastated humanity. In the upper part of the folio, a deity descends from the sky accompanied by water as a destructive element. Beneath, a naked man and woman, perhaps a Biblical prototype of Adam and Eve, shelter from the water. The lower half of the folio, which contains a description of the episode, was drawn up by a Spanish glossator based on Nahua oral tradition. In it, the Nahua account is adapted into a Catholic worldview that paraphrases not only the Biblical episode of the flood but also the Tower of Babel. The text says he was told that only a couple could escape from the deluge. It moreover states  that other Nahua believed that some others survived, amongst whom there was one who built a tower to prevent a future flood, a tower that was later destroyed when it had reached a great height.

Figure 4: Reproduction of The Flood, Codex Vaticanus A, fol. 4v, 1st half of 16th century. In: Ferdinand Anders and Maarten Jansen, Religión, costumbres e historia de los antiguos mexicanos. Libro explicativo del llamado Códice Vaticano A. Graz, México: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996, 58.

Codex Vaticanus A is a bicultural object and colonial artifact. Nahua culture survives through its symbols and iconography—i. e., the pictographic calendar, anthropomorphic deities—, while the text executes Eurocentric cultural imperialism. That can not only be seen in the process of interpreting Nahua accounts according to the colonial cultural heritage—mainly the Bible—but also in the politics underneath it. The settlers operated with the idea in mind that finding a ‘new’ culture meant that it had no previous history, so there was a need to record and misinterpret it, as if locals were not aware of their own ancient traditions. The reference to Nahua oral tradition demonstrates that there was a native voice that was silenced, and the manuscript is an example of how the cultural confrontation evolved from a possible dialogue into a monologue.10 This was a usual practice during the evangelization of the so-called ‘New World’, a long painful process now recognized as a human attack and cultural appropriation.

Conclusions 

Reinterpreted and altered over time, these different versions of the flood narrative depended on the ideology of each of the ‘discovering’ agents and their needs in appropriating other cultures. While the Spanish settlers silenced Nahua culture in favour of a Catholic vision, the Flood Tablet was excavated by the British Museum under Ottoman rule with an orientalist and colonial world view in mind. So was read the Gilgameš translation. In any of these cases, the revelation of ‘different’ cultural voices was felt as an internal challenge. Yet they are just one example of how prevailing Western methods and approaches in studying objects of ‘the other’ has perpetuated a monolingual reading of cultural objects and historical myths of ‘origin’, when in fact they refer to multiple and developing cultures. Similarly, the view provided in A History of the World in 100 Objects remained on the surface, without pointing to alternative versions of the flood narrative.

But there is another way of looking at museum objects considering the global dimension of mythical traditions. Our responsibility lies in connecting these cultural traditions and their relations with one another through global mapping that promotes a deeper understanding of the processes of transmission, one which reassesses each object with its potential global dimension. This will enable us to dismantle hierarchical interpretations that have historically positioned themselves as the dominant, and only versions of objects’ biographies, and point to 100 Histories of 100 Worlds.


1 See the last critical edition: Andrew R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. Introduction, critical edition and cuneiform texts. 2 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

2 The transcription of George Smith’s talk can be found in: George Smith, “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge”, TSBA (Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology), 2, 1873, 213-234. Available online, accessed 12 May 2021: https://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/chad/chad.htm 

3 The British Museum offers a technical and curatorial description in its webpage, accessed 11 May 2021, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_K-3375

4 Link to the tablet replica: https://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/flood-tablet-replica.html

5 Neil MacGregor, “A History of the World in 100 Objects: Flood tablet, The Beginning of Science and Literature (1500 – 700 BC)”, BBC Radio 4. Accessed 9 May 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qg5my

6 See: Jan Christian Gertz, “The formation of Primeval History”, in Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr and David L. Petersen, The Book of Genesis. Composition, Reception and Interpretation. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012, 61.

7 For instance, in Apollodorus’ Library, Book I, VII: 2. See: Apollodorus, The Library, Vol. 1. The Loeb Classical Library. London-New York: William Heinemann, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921, 53-55. Also in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book I, verses 274-310. See: Ovid, Metamorphoses, Vol. 1. The Loeb Classical Library. London-Cambridge: William Heinemann, Harvard University Press, 1951, 20-25.

8 See: Paul Schnabel, Berossus und die babilonisch-hellenistische Literatur. Leipzig–Berlin: Teubner, 1923.

9 See: Ferdinand Anders and Maarten Jansen, Religión, costumbres e historia de los antiguos mexicanos. Libro explicativo del llamado Códice Vaticano A. Graz, Mexico: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996. Reference to the codice: Codex Vaticanus A, Vat. lat. 3738, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. A diguitalised version can be found on Digital Vatican Library. Accessed 11 May 2021, https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.3738

10 See: Teresa Martínez Terán, “El imaginario del colonizador”, Argumentos. Estudios Críticos De La Sociedad, vol. 53, 2007, 145.


Bibliography

Anders, Ferdinand and Maarten Jansen, Religión, costumbres e historia de los antiguos mexicanos. Libro explicativo del llamado Códice Vaticano A. Graz, México: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996.

Apollodorus, The Library, Vol. 1. The Loeb Classical Library. London-New York: William Heinemann, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921, 53-55.

George, Andrew R., The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. Introduction, critical edition and cuneiform texts. 2 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gertz, Jan Christian, “The formation of Primeval History”, Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr and David L. Petersen, The Book of Genesis. Composition, Reception and Interpretation. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012, 61.

Martínez Terán, Teresa, “El imaginario del colonizador”, Argumentos. Estudios Críticos De La Sociedad, vol. 53, 2007, 145.

MacGregor, Neil, Neil MacGregor, “A History of the World in 100 Objects: Flood tablet, The Beginning of Science and Literature (1500 – 700 BC)”, BBC Radio 4. Accessed 9 May 2021,  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qg5my

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Vol. 1. The Loeb Classical Library. London-Cambridge: William Heinemann, Harvard University Press, 1951, 20-25.

Schnabel, Paul, Berossus und die babilonisch-hellenistische Literatur. Leipzig–Berlin: Teubner, 1923.

Smith, George, “The Chaldean account of the Deluge”, TSBA (Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology), 2, 1873, 213-234. Available online. Accessed 12 May 2021: https://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/chad/chad.htm

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