The Atrahasis Deciphered

An Atrahasis Retell as Understood, Retold and Questioned by Steven Q




Enki Warns Atrahasis of the Pending Flood

Now Atrahasis sought his master Enki, hunting for him day and night.  As Enki had been forced to swear an oath of silence he could not speak to any person of the pending catastrophe, so he refused to answer Atrahasis and deliberately avoided him.  Instead of addressing Atrahasis directly, Enki decided to approach him in a dream instructing him to wait outside his bedroom at his temple and he would reveal the troubled consequences that were planned.  Peering out of his bedroom window Enki then waited and watched Atrahasis arrive.  When he was sure Atrahasis was waiting outside on the other side of his bedroom wall, he directly addressed the wall from the inside.  With a loud and stern voice he instructed, “Reed wall, pay attention to all the words I say!” (1) Confused, Atrahasis placed his ear next to the reed wall and in a loud voice responded and asked, “Lord Enki, what is the meaning of the dream and how will I overcome the consequences planned?”  Enki, now knowing that his faithful servant and friend was on the other side of the reed wall then continued to speak, saying, “Reed wall, I have been forbidden by oath to speak to a living soul and will continue to speak to you while I’m in my bedroom.  Reed wall, you need to listen and pay attention to all of my words and take note”

Enki continued speaking to the reed wall with Atrahasis on the other side of it, saying, “Flee your house and dismantle it to build a sealed boat of considerable size.  You need to forego all worldly possessions and flee for your life.  The boat that you build needs to be roofed and the roof sealed to not let in a single bit of light from the sun.  The boat also needs to be strong and sturdy and covered in bitumen tar to seal it from water coming in from all directions.  I will shower on the boat at a later date stocks of birds and fish”.  Enki opened up a water clock and while filling it continued speaking in a raised voice to the reed wall explaining that a seven day flood was about to happen and that the water clock should be observed.

  1. Addressing the reed wall and not a “living soul” was Enki’s way of keeping his oath. His future planned argument (if needed) was probably it wasn’t his fault that someone happened to be on the other side of the wall while he was addressing it. The swearing by oath not to tell anyone or a “living soul” was Enki’s way of yet again defying his brother.  This part of the ancient texts is thought to be one of the biggest jokes ever in these sad circumstances and was the reason that the total annihilation of mankind was said to have been prevented.


Atrahasis Builds a Boat and Escapes the Flood

Understanding Enki’s warning, Atrahasis sped off and gathered the Elders of Shuruppak to his home.  Speaking clearly, he addressed them saying, “My god Enki does not agree with your god Enlil, the two of them are constantly bickering and angry with each other.  Since I’ve always supported Enki I’ve now been told by Enlil to leave his city and move down to the Abzu and live in Enki’s land and never set foot in Enlil’s lands again. (1) I need help to build a boat to take me there”.

The elders listened to what Atrahasis had said and called together carpenters and various other workers to assist in the building of their king’s boat on the edge of the Euphrates river bank.  The rich men provided equipment and workers, the poor men provided their labour and carried the equipment.  When the boat was sealed at its completion, pure animals were brought to it and a few were slaughtered and prepared for food.   The rest of the cattle, sheep and birds were stored on-board for their king’s journey.  Satisfied that his boat was built in time, Atrahasis then threw a huge feast for the city of Shuruppak to celebrate and there was an abundance of food and drink for everyone.  While the citizens of Shuruppak were eating and drinking, Atrahasis couldn’t sit still and was constantly moving between the boat and the feast.  Guilt ridden, upset and heartbroken with what he’d done and also what was about to occur he was sickened to the extent that he was vomiting bile. (2)  Knowing what was about to happen, Atrahasis gathered up his family members and brought them on-board as the weather slowly started changing.  With the livestock and his family safely on-board Atrahasis cut the mooring ropes and returned to the boat.  He climbed on-board and closed the main door and with buckets of pitch he sealed the boat from the inside.

  1. This was an outright lie that Atrahasis felt was necessary to bestow on the good nature of his people to save himself. Saying what he did, and not even warning the people was bad enough.  As we see, he not only fails to offer a hint of a warning, but even employs the city people’s help to make his getaway craft, leaving them all to perish.
  2. I think I’d be more than guilt ridden and be vomiting bile, imagine having the knowledge that you were the reason of mankind’s demise on your conscious. I still can’t see why Atrahasis didn’t warn his people of the upcoming catastrophe and recommend that they “head for the hills” or build boats for themselves.  There was no mention in the texts that he was sworn to secrecy to Enki about mentioning the planned disaster.

Figure 18 – Ancient cylinder seal from around 3,000 BCE possibly indicating Atrahasis escaping the flood with family and cattle by boat.

Enlil’s Flood Kills Mankind and Enki Exposes Nintu’s Guilt

As commanded, Adad caused the weather to roar in the clouds and the gods could hear the noise from their safe place. (1)  While the winds roared and raged, the storm cut into the dykes breaking them like clay pots.  The uncontrollable flood then rushed out over the people like an army of water.  The sun was blacked out by the storm and the wind screamed like an eagle.  In the complete darkness of the storm and in the onslaught of water, no one could recognise each other in the catastrophe.  Dead bodies of men, women and children floated on the water.

Watching this happen, Enki was extremely upset and beside himself to see the death of his beloved people and turned to his sister Nintu saying, “Birth goddess, creator of mankind and his destiny, you have assisted with this destruction of all people.”  Nintu was scared and also upset as she wailed and gnawed her lips in agony waiting thirsty and hungry for the storm to end.  Weeping, Nintu spoke, saying, “Let the day grow dark and let it turn to gloom.  How did Enlil convince me to agree with him and the other gods to help with this annihilation?  Was Enlil so strong that he forced me to agree to this?  Did he make my speech confused?  No!  It is of my own doing!  My children that I created are dead because of me and I’ve made no effort to save them as they wash up upon the shores like dead dragon flies.  Due to this and my choice to remain silent, I now have to live in grief regretting this for the rest of my days.  Shall I go and live with Anu in heaven in a house that has everything I need?  Where has Anu gone, the chief decision maker of his sons that heeded his every command?  Inadvertently, by giving them this control he brought the flood on himself!” (2) Nintu continued to wail and the other gods joined her and also wailed for their land.  Uncomfortable and huddled together, Nintu longed for the taste of beer again and like the other gods was suffering from hunger and had lips agonising with thirst.  For seven days and seven nights the great Anunna gods sat huddled together, thirsty, scared and with pains of hunger they waited the storm out.  When the seventh day had past, the earth fell silent and the sun came out.

  1. There’s no indication in the texts where the “safe place” was. It can be assumed that they had a retreat either in a cave or building further up near the top of one of the hills or mountains.  Whatever it was, they could definitely witness the power of Adad’s storm from where they were.
  2. It’s interesting here that Nintu moves the blame onto her father for giving full control to Enlil and the gods. It may be that as Anu was also a warrior and close to his son Enlil that he shared his son’s dislike and fear of the humans.  Regardless of this, Nintu obviously wasn’t scared to blame her father, the king, in front of the other gods.


Atrahasis Exits the Boat

Hearing the silence, Atrahasis removed some of the pitch and opened a small window on the top of his sealed boat and the brilliance of the sun shone in.  He then took a raven and released it through the small opening and waited.  It didn’t return.  Slowly, the occupants of the boat felt the waters receding and the boat stopped moving, gently settling on firm land amongst some mountains.  After waiting for further movement and when convinced there wasn’t any, King Atrahasis dropped open the main door of his sealed vessel and let the animals and his family out.  Safely on dry land they all took deep breaths of fresh air and relaxed, enjoying the warmth of the sun on their skin.  Thankful for his lord Enki’s help, Atrahasis organised the slaughter of one of the cattle and prepared a burnt offering to his god.  The smell of the cooked meat filled the air and the gods were drawn to it like flies. (1)

When the gods had eaten their fill, Nintu got up and addressed the great Anunnu gods, blaming them for the catastrophe saying, “Whatever came over Anu to agree to Enlil’s plan of devastation and agree to the destruction of mankind? (2) What kind of decision maker instead of sorting out a problem situation, chooses to rather resolve it by annihilation?  The happy faces of our children are now gone forever.”

  1. It’s interesting that the gods were in smelling distance of the cooking meat. Does this mean that they were waiting the storm out at the top of the same mountain that the sealed boat settled on?  If the boat was moored on the Euphrates River as mentioned in the texts and with the enormous avalanche of water that hit it, logical assumption would be that the sealed vessel would speed down the Euphrates River at great velocity, probably ending up in the Persian Gulf.  The fact that the gods were so near to where Atrahasis’ vessel settled appears strange to me.
  2. Nintu again blames her father, King Anu, in front of the other gods. She obviously understands her brother Enlil’s character, but can’t understand why her father would agree to Enlil’s evil plan and questions his judgement as a leader.  This to me seems like a personal escape plan to help clear her own conscience for not supporting Enki.


Enlil & Enki’s Fury

Enki quietly went down to the water’s edge and seeing the bodies of his people on the shore wept in sorrow with the carnage Enlil had caused.  Nintu slowly moved to join her brother, turning to the watching gods she said, “Enki’s pain is also mine and from now on my destiny is as his and I will wear a dragon fly pendant around my neck forever to remind me of this”.

It was then that Enlil and his father Anu arrived. (1)  Seeing Atrahasis’ boat, Enlil was furious with the other gods.  In a furious state he addressed them shouting, “We the Anunna gods had an agreement and made an oath.  How did this life escape from and survive the catastrophe?”  Anu then spoke up and answered Enlil, “Who but Enki would do this and disclose the order?”  Seeing there was no getting out of the situation and still very upset, Enki aggressively jumped up and shouted back at Enlil, “Yes, it was me who defied you all and decided to preserve life!  Punish me as you will, but I have made a conscience decision and have vented my feelings to you.  Where is the logic of killing everything that lives?  Yes, it was me who saved mankind and I did it to save not only them, but also for your sakes.”

Feeling the power of his brother’s wrath and fearing that Enki would be supported by the other gods, Enlil relaxed and backed down.  Not knowing of the previous discussions between the gods and also Nintu’s pledge to support Enki before his and Anu’s arrival, he answered Enki saying, “Okay Enki, let’s see if the birth goddess, our sister, Nintu agrees with you.  I’m happy for the two of you to discuss the issue and I’ll go along with whatever Nintu decides.”  Enki then turned and addressed his sister and with a softened voice said, “Nintu, you are the birth goddess.  The creator of destinies of the people and of all the gods, whatever you now say will be made so.  I feel we should make a bond between Heaven and Earth and also make Enlil swear to behold it as he made us swear to his oath.”

  1. The question that needs to be asked here is, where did Anu and Enlil arrive from? They obviously weren’t with the other gods in their hide-away from the storm, otherwise King Anu would have heard what Nintu had said about him and his leadership.  Both King Anu and Enlil would have also been aware of Nintu’s pledge to support Enki.


Nintu Makes Enlil Swear an Oath

Nodding in agreement, Nintu sprung up and immediately drew a circle pattern on the ground in some spilt flour. (1)  Adding a heaped mound of it in the centre of the circle she instructed Enlil to stand on it and swear a bond between Heaven and Earth.  True to his word and without question, Enlil stood on the heaped flour in the circle and swore to withhold the bond between heaven and earth and never again to harm the people of the land.  He also included his own addition, adding that the Anunnaki and Igigi will never again be allowed to cohabit and breed with the children of the humans. (2) 


The Priestess-Hood and Procreation Ruling is Introduced

Nintu then added, that among the people one third of the woman born will be sworn to priestess-hood and serve the temples of the gods as priestesses and high priestesses.  These priestesses will be respected by all and it will be unacceptable by law for a man to interfere with them.  The majority of the classes of priestesses will also remain childless, with any children that may be born to them to be considered as nameless and also without a family name.  Nintu also said that there should be amongst the people, a woman that snatches a girl baby from the woman who bore it without a husband. (3)  This woman will then introduce the infant girl to a high priestess where she will be trained from birth to become a priestess.  Nintu finally added that the terrible story of the great flood and the survival of the human race should be written down to be remembered forever and enthusiastically praised in song and verse for all to hear. (4)

  1. I’ve never managed to work out what the significance of the heap of flour with a circle drawn around it was meant to be, and also why Enlil was instructed to stand in the circle on top of the mound of flour? It could possibly be a symbol of oath that the Anunnaki used in front of other gods, or it’s possible that the true meaning was lost in the cuneiform translation (maybe still to be discovered).  I’d assume that writing in flour or in meal like Nintu did to document the first child birth, was probably a way of recording the incident.  The circle in flour may mean that the swearing of the oath by Enlil was recorded as a treaty or as a contract would be.
  2. The section about preventing the humans breeding with the gods was not part of the oath that Nintu had instructed Enlil to swear to. It would appear that Enlil sneaked this part in as if it was Nintu’s idea.  As mentioned previously, if Enlil saw humans as animals, the thought that the Igigi and Anunnu gods were procreating with them probably sickened him immensely.  Even though the mating of humans and gods didn’t cease at that point (as we had Gilgamesh and many other demi-gods that later came to be born from god and human unions).  Enlil must have felt satisfied that he’d managed to add this little bit into his oath to Nintu and the other gods.
  3. There is no mention of what happens to male babies born out of wedlock, as only female babies were to be snatched away. I can’t see that the male babies would be cruelly left to die, so assume that they were either made into eunuchs to also serve in the temples, or left with the unwed mother and also remained nameless.
  4. Well… It looks like Nintu got her way. Here I am re-writing the whole story to share for everyone to read.  I’m not sure if I’m up to the verse and song bit though so my adaptation of the story in print will have to surmise.




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Acknowledgements and Some References to Ponder Over:

Benjamin R. Foster: Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Volume 1 – Archaic, Classical, Mature).  Atrahasis extract available at:

James B. Pritchard: Ancient Near Eastern Texts – Relating to the Old Testament

George Smith: The Chaldean Account of Genesis

W. G. Lambert & A. R. Millard: Atra-Hasis – The Babylonian Story of the Flood, with the Sumerian Flood Story

Samuel Noah Kramer: Reflections on the Mesopotamian Flood (Available to read at: )

Stephanie Dalley: Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others.  (Atrahasis extract available at: )

John A. Halloran: Sumerian Lexicon (Online version available at: )


Photos & Illustrations

Figure 1: Estimated Dates of Ancient and Historical Writings (Contributed Diagram by M Lewis)

Figure 2: Noah’s Ark (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain by Knut)

Figure 3: Ruins of the Temple of Jupiter (Source unknown)

Figure 4: Baalbek – Lone Stone left in Quarry (Flickr – Taken by Paul Saad)

Figure 5: Atrahasis Tablets in British Museum ME78941 (Wikimedia Commons, free use granted by jack1956)

Figure 6: Cuneiform Symbol for Anu (Wikipedia – Public domain by Geoff Richards)

Figure 7: Enlil & Ninlil (Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain)

Figure 8: The Adda Seal in the British Museum (Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain)

Figure 9: Okavango Delta 1 (Google Earth: Approximate Co-Ordinates -19.824346 21.714989)

Figure 10: Okavango Delta 2 (Google Earth: Approximate Co-Ordinates -19.824346 21.714989)

Figure 11: Okavango Delta 3 (Google Earth: Approximate Co-Ordinates -19.824346 21.714989)

Figure 12: Nintu in University of Chicago, USA (Wikimedia Commons – CreativeCommons, No Restrictions by Daderot)

Figure 13: Birth Goddess in the Iraq Museum (Source unknown)

Figure 14: Human + Chimp Chromosomes (Wikimedia Commons by JWSchmidt – Free to use, modify.  GNU licence)

Figure 15: Shu-ilishus Cylinder Seal (Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain)

Figure 16: Atrahasis (Source unknown)

Figure 17: Sumerian King List (Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain by Taiwania Justo)

Figure 18: God on Boat with Cattle (Source unknown)