September 1, 2013

Walter Burkert On The Epic of Atrahasis

Atra-Hasis ("exceedingly wise") is the protagonist of an 18th century BC Akkadian epic recorded in various versions on clay tablets. The Atra-Hasis tablets include both a creation myth and a flood account, which is one of three surviving Babylonian deluge stories.
Below are excerpts from Walter Burkert's book, "The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age." 1992. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pgs. 88-89 & 100-103.
"Since the rediscovery of the Akkadian epics and of Gilgamesh in particular, there has been no shortage of associations between motifs in these and in the Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey. These motifs can be highlighted and used to surprise, but hardly to prove anything: Approximately the same motifs and themes will be found everywhere. Instead of individual motifs, therefore, we must focus on more complex structures, where sheer coincidence is less likely: a system of deities and a basic cosmological idea, the narrative structure of a whole scene, decrees of the gods about mankind, or a very special configuration of attack and defense. Once the historical link, the fact of transmission, has been established, then further connections, including linguistic borrowings, become more likely, even if these alone do not suffice to carry the burden of proof.

Not until 1969 was the text of an Akkadian epic published for the first time in anything approaching its entirety: The story of Atrahasis "outstanding in wisdom"---a telling name in Akkadian---or rather a "Story of Mankind" beginning, as the opening line says, with the paradoxical primordial situation "when gods were in the ways of men." Up until then it had been known only from a few not very characteristic fragments. The first version in three books is dated to the time of Ammisaduqa, a few generations after Hammurapi, in the seventeenth century B.C. Various Old Babylonian examples have survived in fragmentary form; the library of Ashurbanipal also contained other, slightly varying editions. A fragment of another recension has been found in Ugarit. We are therefore dealing with a text which had been in circulation and popular for over a thousand years, a text astonishingly original in conception. "When gods were in the ways of men" and there were no humans yet in existence, the gods had to do all the work themselves; this led to a rebellion by the younger gods against the senior gods and especially Enlil, the acting chief. Fortunately Enki the cunning god came to their aid, and together with the mother goddess he created men to act as robots for them: They should bear the burden of the work. But soon, "after 600 [and?] 600 years," these creatures became too numerous and a nuisance to the earth, and so the gods tried to destroy them. They made three attempts, apparently at formulaic intervals of 1,200 years, by sending first a plague, then a famine, and finally the great flood. However, the cunning god of the deep, Enki, in league with the man "outstanding in wisdom," Atrahasis, frustrated these attacks. He played the gods off against one another, and finally had Atrahasis build his ark. The final part of the text, as can now be seen, is an older parallel version to the famous Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic, the well-known story of the flood, which in turn influenced the story of Noah in the first book of Moses. The Atrahasis text, however, far from being an example of Old Testament piety, is imbued with a remarkably human, if not a slightly cynical optimism: Whether for or against the gods, mankind, for all the hard work and all the afflictions it has to bear, is indestructible. "How did man survive in the destruction?" the great god Enlil finally asks, baffled as he is (III vi 10). Beyond doubt, survive he did." [Pg. 88-89].

"The basic concept of the ancient Babylonian Atrahasis epic is almost disconcertingly modern. Humans multiply, the land feels oppressed by their multitude, the outcome can only be catastrophe to annihilate mankind; yet man survives the attempts at destruction; and so, ultimately, the only effective method is found: birth control. To achieve this, though, the poem has only one method to offer: the institution of priestesses who are not allowed to bear children.

The suffering of the earth is expressed in verses which recur at the beginning of each new act of Atrahasis: "Twelve hundred years had not yet passed, when the land extended and the peoples multiplied. The land was bellowing like a bull. The gods got disturbed with their uproar. Enlil heard their noise and he addressed the great gods: 'The noise of mankind has become too intense for me, with their uproar I am deprived of sleep . . .' Hence he proceeds to orchestrate the catastrophes of plague, famine, and flood.

This cannot but remind of a passage of Greek epic, of an extremely prominent text in fact, the very beginning of the Trojan cycle, which tells about the ultimate cause of the Trojan War. This is the opening of the Cypria, an epic that was still quite well known in the classical period but subsequently fell into disregard and got lost; already Herodotus doubted the authorship of Homer, which Pindar still accepted. The opening lines have been preserved as a fragment, albeit in a corrupt textual form. They are quoted in order to explain the "decision of Zeus" mentioned right at the beginning of the Iliad.

The Cypria began in the style of a fairy tale:
Once upon a time, when countless people moved on the face of the earth . . .
[lacuna; they oppressed?] the breadth of the deep-chested earth.
Zeus saw this and took pity and deep in his heart
He decided to relieve the all-nourishing earth of mankind
by setting alight the great conflict of the Ilian War.
In the same scholia there is also a prose narrative:
Earth, being oppressed by the multitude of men, since there was no piety of men, asked Zeus to be lightened of this burden. And first Zeus caused at once the Theban War by which he destroyed many men thoroughly. Afterwards he caused again the Trojan War, consulting with Momos---this is called the "decision of Zeus" by Homer; he could have destroyed them all with bolts of lightning or floods, but Momos prevented this and suggested rather two measures to him, to marry Thetis to a human and to generate a beautiful daughter. 
Thus Achilles and Helen are born and, with them, the seeds of the Trojan War.

The two texts cannot directly be combined. In the verses quoted, Zeus reacts directly to the conditions on the earth, "seeing" and feeling pity at her plight, and immediately plans the Trojan War. As the excerpts from the Cypria in Proklos indicate, Zeus discussed further details with Themis. In the prose version, however, the earth is not a dumb object of pity, but a speaking partner. The decision involves first the Theban War, and this is followed by a remarkable discussion with Momos. We are clearly dealing with two competing versions. In fact a third version comes from the end of the Hesiodic Catalogues. Here Zeus makes his decision all alone which the others "did not yet fully comprehend." His aim is to bring an end to the confusion of the human and divine spheres and thereby to bring the age of heroes to a close. "He sought to destroy the greater part of mankind" through the catastrophe of war. According to Hesiod's Erga it was both the Theban and the Trojan wars that mark the end of the age of heroes (163-165). The text of the Catalogues is so badly preserved in this section that it is not fully comprehensible; but it is clear that the catastrophe is linked to Helen.

Here are, therefore, three variations on the basic concept of a catastrophe affecting mankind through the decision of the ruling god. Both the Cypria and the Catalogues, even if we cannot give them an exact date, must belong to the archaic period, whereas the source of the prose version can hardly be fixed in time. Yet it is precisely the prose version which has a particular affinity with the Atrahasis text. Here plans for different catastrophes, though not carried out, are still considered in a systematic fashion, and, somewhat surprisingly, it is the flood which appears as the most radical measure." [Pg. 100-103].