Legends of Babylon and and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

This suggestion has been gradually elaborated by its author, Professor
Elliot Smith, who has devoted much attention to the anatomical study
of Egyptian mummification. Beginning with a scrutiny of megalithic
building and sun-worship,[1] he has subsequently deduced, from
evidence of common distribution, the existence of a culture-complex,
including in addition to these two elements the varied practices of
tattooing, circumcision, ear-piercing, that quaint custom known as
couvade, head-deformation, and the prevalence of serpent-cults, myths
of petrifaction and the Deluge, and finally of mummification. The last
ingredient was added after an examination of Papuan mummies had
disclosed their apparent resemblance in points of detail to Egyptian
mummies of the XXIst Dynasty. As a result he assumes the existence of
an early cultural movement, for which the descriptive title
“heliolithic” has been coined.[2] Starting with Egypt as its centre,
one of the principal lines of its advance is said to have lain through
Syria and Mesopotamia and thence along the coastlands of Asia to the
Far East. The method of distribution and the suggested part played by
the Phoenicians have been already criticized sufficiently. But in a
modified form the theory has found considerable support, especially
among ethnologists interested in Indonesia. I do not propose to
examine in detail the evidence for or against it. It will suffice to
note that the Deluge story and its alleged Egyptian origin in solar
worship form one of the prominent strands in its composition.

[1] Cf. Elliot Smith, /The Ancient Egyptians/, 1911.

[2] See in particular his monograph “On the significance of the
Geographical Distribution of the Practice of Mummification” in the
/Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society/,

One weakness of this particular strand is that the Egyptians
themselves possessed no tradition of the Deluge. Indeed the annual
inundation of the Nile is not such as would give rise to a legend of
world-destruction; and in this respect it presents a striking contrast
to the Tigris and Euphrates. The ancient Egyptian’s conception of his
own gentle river is reflected in the form he gave the Nile-god, for
Hapi is represented as no fierce warrior or monster. He is given a
woman’s breasts as a sign of his fecundity. The nearest Egyptian
parallel to the Deluge story is the “Legend of the Destruction of
Mankind”, which is engraved on the walls of a chamber in the tomb of
Seti I.[1] The late Sir Gaston Maspero indeed called it “a dry deluge
myth”, but his paradox was intended to emphasize the difference as
much as the parallelism presented. It is true that in the Egyptian
myth the Sun-god causes mankind to be slain because of their impiety,
and he eventually pardons the survivors. The narrative thus betrays
undoubted parallelism to the Babylonian and Hebrew stories, so far as
concerns the attempted annihilation of mankind by the offended god,
but there the resemblance ends. For water has no part in man’s
destruction, and the essential element of a Deluge story is thus
absent.[2] Our new Sumerian document, on the other hand, contains what
is by far the earliest example yet recovered of a genuine Deluge tale;
and we may thus use it incidentally to test this theory of Egyptian
influence, and also to ascertain whether it furnishes any positive
evidence on the origin of Deluge stories in general.

[1] It was first published by Monsieur Naville, /Tranc. Soc. Bibl.
Arch./, IV (1874), pp. 1 ff. The myth may be most conveniently
studied in Dr. Budge’s edition in /Egyptian Literature/, Vol. I,
“Legends of the Gods” (1912), pp. 14 ff., where the hieroglyphic
text and translation are printed on opposite pages; cf. the
summary, op. cit., pp. xxiii ff., where the principal literature
is also cited. See also his /Gods of the Egyptians/, Vol. I, chap.
xii, pp. 388 ff.

[2] The undoubted points of resemblance, as well as the equally
striking points of divergence, presented by the Egyptian myth when
compared with the Babylonian and Hebrew stories of a Deluge may be
briefly indicated. The impiety of men in complaining of the age of
Ra finds a parallel in the wickedness of man upon the earth (J)
and the corruption of all flesh (P) of the Hebrew Versions. The
summoning by Ra of the great Heliopolitan cosmic gods in council,
including his personified Eye, the primaeval pair Shu and Tefnut,
Keb the god of the earth and his consort Nut the sky-goddess, and
Nu the primaeval water-god and originally Nut’s male counterpart,
is paralleled by the /puhur ilâni/, or “assembly of the gods”, in
the Babylonian Version (see Gilg. Epic. XI. l. 120 f., and cf. ll.
10 ff.); and they meet in “the Great House”, or Sun-temple at
Heliopolis, as the Babylonian gods deliberate in Shuruppak.
Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hebrew narratives all agree in the
divine determination to destroy mankind and in man’s ultimate
survival. But the close of the Egyptian story diverges into
another sphere. The slaughter of men by the Eye of Ra in the form
of the goddess Hathor, who during the night wades in their blood,
is suggestive of Africa; and so too is her drinking of men’s blood
mixed with the narcotic mandrake and with seven thousand vessels
of beer, with the result that through drunkenness she ceased from
slaughter. The latter part of the narrative is directly connected
with the cult-ritual and beer-drinking at the Festivals of Hathor
and Ra; but the destruction of men by slaughter in place of
drowning appears to belong to the original myth. Indeed, the only
suggestion of a Deluge story is suggested by the presence of Nu,
the primaeval water-god, at Ra’s council, and that is explicable
on other grounds. In any case the points of resemblance presented
by the earlier part of the Egyptian myth to Semitic Deluge stories
are general, not detailed; and though they may possibly be due to
reflection from Asia, they are not such as to suggest an Egyptian
origin for Deluge myths.

The tablet on which our new version of the Deluge is inscribed was
excavated at Nippur during the third Babylonian expedition sent out by
the University of Pennsylvania; but it was not until the summer of
1912 that its contents were identified, when the several fragments of
which it was composed were assembled and put together. It is a large
document, containing six columns of writing, three on each side; but
unfortunately only the lower half has been recovered, so that
considerable gaps occur in the text.[1] The sharp edges of the broken
surface, however, suggest that it was damaged after removal from the
soil, and the possibility remains that some of the missing fragments
may yet be recovered either at Pennsylvania or in the Museum at
Constantinople. As it is not dated, its age must be determined mainly
by the character of its script. A close examination of the writing
suggests that it can hardly have been inscribed as late as the Kassite
Dynasty, since two or three signs exhibit more archaic forms than
occur on any tablets of that period;[2] and such linguistic
corruptions as have been noted in its text may well be accounted for
by the process of decay which must have already affected the Sumerian
language at the time of the later kings of Nisin. Moreover, the tablet
bears a close resemblance to one of the newly published copies of the
Sumerian Dynastic List from Nippur;[3] for both are of the same shape
and composed of the same reddish-brown clay, and both show the same
peculiarities of writing. The two tablets in fact appear to have been
written by the same hand, and as that copy of the Dynastic List was
probably drawn up before the latter half of the First Dynasty of
Babylon, we may assign the same approximate date for the writing of
our text. This of course only fixes a lower limit for the age of the
myth which it enshrines.

[1] The breadth of the tablet is 5 5/8 in., and it originally measured
about 7 in. in length from top to bottom; but only about one-third
of its inscribed surface is preserved.

[2] Cf. Poebel, /Hist. Texts/, pp. 66 ff.

[3] No. 5.

That the composition is in the form of a poem may be seen at a glance
from the external appearance of the tablet, the division of many of
the lines and the blank spaces frequently left between the sign-groups
being due to the rhythmical character of the text. The style of the
poetry may be simple and abrupt, but it exhibits a familiar feature of
both Semitic-Babylonian and Hebrew poetry, in its constant employment
of partial repetition or paraphrase in parallel lines. The story it
tells is very primitive and in many respects unlike the Babylonian
Versions of the Deluge which we already possess. Perhaps its most
striking peculiarity is the setting of the story, which opens with a
record of the creation of man and animals, goes on to tell how the
first cities were built, and ends with a version of the Deluge, which
is thus recounted in its relation to the Sumerian history of the
world. This literary connexion between the Creation and Deluge
narratives is of unusual interest, in view of the age of our text. In
the Babylonian Versions hitherto known they are included in separate
epics with quite different contexts. Here they are recounted together
in a single document, much as they probably were in the history of
Berossus and as we find them in the present form of the Book of
Genesis. This fact will open up some interesting problems when we
attempt to trace the literary descent of the tradition.

But one important point about the text should be emphasized at once,
since it will affect our understanding of some very obscure passages,
of which no satisfactory explanation has yet been given. The
assumption has hitherto been made that the text is an epic pure and
simple. It is quite true that the greater part of it is a myth,
recounted as a narrative in poetical form. but there appear to me to
be clear indications that the myth was really embedded in an
incantation. If this was so, the mythological portion was recited for
a magical purpose, with the object of invoking the aid of the chief
deities whose actions in the past are there described, and of
increasing by that means the potency of the spell.[1] In the third
lecture I propose to treat in more detail the employment and
significance of myth in magic, and we shall have occasion to refer to
other instances, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian, in which a myth
has reached us in a magical setting.

[1] It will be seen that the subject-matter of any myth treated in
this way has a close connexion with the object for which the
incantation was performed.

In the present case the inference of magical use is drawn from certain
passages in the text itself, which appear to be explicable only on
that hypothesis. In magical compositions of the later period intended
for recitation, the sign for “Incantation” is usually prefixed.
Unfortunately the beginning of our text is wanting; but its opening
words are given in the colophon, or title, which is engraved on the
left-hand edge of the tablet, and it is possible that the traces of
the first sign there are to be read as EN, “Incantation”.[1] Should a
re-examination of the tablet establish this reading of the word, we
should have definite proof of the suggested magical setting of the
narrative. But even if we assume its absence, that would not
invalidate the arguments that can be adduced in favour of recognizing
the existence of a magical element, for they are based on internal
evidence and enable us to explain certain features which are
inexplicable on Dr. Poebel’s hypothesis. Moreover, we shall later on
examine another of the newly published Sumerian compositions from
Nippur, which is not only semi-epical in character, but is of
precisely the same shape, script, and period as our text, and is very
probably a tablet of the same series. There also the opening signs of
the text are wanting, but far more of its contents are preserved and
they present unmistakable traces of magical use. Its evidence, as that
of a parallel text, may therefore be cited in support of the present
contention. It may be added that in Sumerian magical compositions of
this early period, of which we have not yet recovered many quite
obvious examples, it is possible that the prefix “Incantation” was not
so invariable as in the later magical literature.

[1] Cf. Poebel, /Hist. Texts/, p. 63, and /Hist. and Gram. Texts/, pl.
i. In the photographic reproduction of the edges of the tablet
given in the latter volume, pl. lxxxix, the traces of the sign
suggest the reading EN (= Sem. /šiptu/, “incantation”). But the
sign may very possibly be read AN. In the latter case we may read,
in the traces of the two sign-groups at the beginning of the text,
the names of both Anu and Enlil, who appear so frequently as the
two presiding deities in the myth.

It has already been remarked that only the lower half of our tablet
has been recovered, and that consequently a number of gaps occur in
the text. On the obverse the upper portion of each of the first three
columns is missing, while of the remaining three columns, which are
inscribed upon the reverse, the upper portions only are preserved.
This difference in the relative positions of the textual fragments
recovered is due to the fact that Sumerian scribes, like their later
Babylonian and Assyrian imitators, when they had finished writing the
obverse of a tablet, turned it over from bottom to top–not, as we
should turn a sheet of paper, from right to left. But in spite of the
lacunae, the sequence of events related in the mythological narrative
may be followed without difficulty, since the main outline of the
story is already familiar enough from the versions of the Semitic-
Babylonian scribes and of Berossus. Some uncertainties naturally
remain as to what exactly was included in the missing portions of the
tablet; but the more important episodes are fortunately recounted in
the extant fragments, and these suffice for a definition of the
distinctive character of the Sumerian Version. In view of its literary
importance it may be advisable to attempt a somewhat detailed
discussion of its contents, column by column;[1] and the analysis may
be most conveniently divided into numbered sections, each of which
refers to one of the six columns of the tablet. The description of the
First Column will serve to establish the general character of the
text. Through the analysis of the tablet parallels and contrasts will
be noted with the Babylonian and Hebrew Versions. It will then be
possible to summarise, on a surer foundation, the literary history of
the traditions, and finally to estimate the effect of our new evidence
upon current theories as to the origin and wide dispersion of Deluge

[1] In the lecture as delivered the contents of each column were
necessarily summarized rather briefly, and conclusions were given
without discussion of the evidence.

The following headings, under which the six numbered sections may be
arranged, indicate the contents of each column and show at a glance
the main features of the Sumerian Version:

I. Introduction to the Myth, and account of Creation.
II. The Antediluvian Cities.
III. The Council of the Gods, and Ziusudu’s piety.
IV. The Dream-Warning.
V. The Deluge, the Escape of the Great Boat, and the Sacrifice to
the Sun-god.
VI. The Propitiation of the Angry Gods, and Ziusudu’s Immortality.

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