Phys90: Introduction to Astronomy
EthnoAstronomy: Star Myths
Deluge Stories


The story of a devastating flood is a notable aspect in several existant Mesopotamian mythic compositions. From the early second millennium BC, the Sumerian King List notes that a flood separates antedeluvian dynasties from a longer list of dynasties, the first after the flood being Kish. After Kish, kingship was transferred to Uruk where figures well known from Mesopotamian literature include Gilgamesh as king.

Another second century story, the Akadian epic of Atrahasis, also features a great flood. In this epic, the great god Enlil, plots to eliminate humans, who were so noisy a creation that Enlil could not sleep. After using various unsuccessful means of plagues and pestilence, Enlil decides on a flood. Enki, the god of fresh water, secretly reveals Enlil's plan to Atrahasis, the king, who saves his family, as well as animals and birds. They survive seven days and nights of flooding in a reed boat coated with pitch, and finally make offerings to the gods once beached, a key element in the stories.

In the Sumerian flood story, preserved on the Nippur Tablet dated to the late 17th century BC, the god Enki reveals the gods' plan to eradicate the human race with a flood to Ziusudra and urges him to build a boat. Again the flood lasts for seven days and nights after which Ziusudra emerges from his boat and offers sacrifices in return for which the pantheon grant Ziusudra life like a god's.

The story of the flood in the Gilgamesh Epic (Tablet XI), known from first millennium copies, is probably derived from Atrahasis. In seeking to learn the secrets of eternal life, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, seeks out Utnapishtim, the only human to have lived forever. In telling Gilgamesh how he achieved eternal life, Utnapishtim relates a secret story of the flood. Again, the great gods decide to destroy humans with a flood, the plans are revealed to Utnapishtim, and he is told to build a great vessel. For six days and nights the fury rages on, subsiding on the seventh day when Utnapishtim comes out to release a dove and then a swallow, both of which return, having found no place to rest. Three days later he sends out a raven, which does not return, so Utnapishtim then offers sacrifice, which pleases the gods, who make Utnapishtim and his wife immortal.

The Biblical flood story (Genesis 5: 28 - 9:17) was likely derived, directly or indirectly, from the Gilgamesh version. And the story of the flood was carried down in later Jewish, Christian, and even Muslim traditions, where it occurs in the Koran (Sura 11: 25-48).

Now the archeologist, C. Leonard Woolley began digging into a early level at the site of Ur in 1928-29 and made a remarkable discovery. Nearly 4 meters of mud covered earlier layers of painted pottery of the Ubaid period, the earliest known phase of occupation in southern Mesopotamia. He quickly associated the strata with the flood known from the Sumerian King List, the Akkadian Epic of Atrahasis, the Sumerian flood story, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the likely source for the Biblical flood narrative. However, other evidence of flooding at a later date was also found at Kish. In reassessing the evidence for Wolley's sensational flood, others argued that neither the Ur flood, dating as it did to a remote prehistoric period, nor the upper Kish flood, so late in time, could be the source of the Mesopotamian narratives. Rather, they appear to be a natural consequence peculiar to the flat plains of Mesopotamia.

But new evidence points to a deluge from the Black Sea. Geologists Pitman and Ryan of Columbia University have investigated the possibility of a large-scale prehistoric flood originating in the Strait of Bosporus, a narrow channel of water that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Pitman and Ryan hypothesized that melting ice from an interglacial period could have swollen the Mediterranean beyond its limits which have tried to relieve pressure on its northeastern shore by expanding into the Black Sea. Now, because of glaciation, geologists recognize that the Black Sea has fluctuated many times over millions of years from a saltwater sea to an isolated freshwater lake marking alternate episodes connection and quarrantine from the Mediterranean.

What Ryan and Pitman were looking for was recently found from sediments showing a uniform layer of saltwater shellfish overlaying freshwater mollusks testifying to a massive inflow, turning the Black Sea from fresh to saltwater in a single human lifetime. The Mediterranean ripped through the Strait of Bosporus some 7,500 years ago, arriving with more than the force of Victoria Falls, innundating the settlements surrounding the once placid lake with an inexorable rise of the water, by half a meter a day, slowly turning fresh water to brine. Near the Bosporus source, people would have witnessed an awesome cataract fleeing before a stunning rush of waters. The north shore exodus would send its diaspora into and across Europe, while many southern refugees would come finally to the land between the rivers and tell of the boat that had saved them. Is this rebirth of a whole sea the source of the deluge tales of Mesopotamia? Perhaps these tales were also recorded in the ancient legends from the sky, from those pictoral mnemonics we call the Constellations.

Look at the constellation Argo Navis, often shown in early representations as though atop a mountain. Coming from the vessel is the Centaur, half-man, half-beast, sacrificing an animal upon the Altar (Ara). We see, too, the Water-Snake (Hydra), with a Raven (Corvus) eating its flesh. There can be little doubt that here we have, in human imagination and pictured on the sky, a version of the story of the Great Flood. The picture is complete with the Milky Way seemingly rising as smoke from the altar.

Consider the following quotation, with which many of us are familiar: "And Noah built an altar unto the Lord, and took of every clean beast and of every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings at the altar... And God said "This is a token of the covenent which I make between me and you for perpetual generations. I do set my bow in a cloud, and it shall be a token of a covenant between me and the earth."

Now, the Bow of Sagittarius is fixed pointing to one of the most obvious rifts in the Milky Way. Of course, this association of the Southern Constellations with the Deluge story is not a new insight, for when the stars were mapped in the southern hemisphere by the Jesuit Lacaille, Columba the Dove was chosen to complete the panel of constellations representing the myth.

While Pitman and Ryan's core samples demonstrate a massive flood around 5600 B.C., their hypothesis that it was the same flood that gave rise to the Biblical and Babylonian legends is in dispute by scientists who think that memory of the flood could not have survived intact through oral history for 2,500 years until writing was invented by the Sumerians in 3000 B.C.

But we have the Constellations, those visual mnemonics whose origins are indeed ancient. Perhaps we have here in these constellation names and placement a faint memory of human witness and perhaps history. Did the constellations inspire the myth or did the myth inspire the constellations? Perhaps the latter is the case, for what better way to aid the memory, and establish a truth-kernel, than to associate the constellation star-patterns with these ancient stories.

Return to Main Menu