“Enlil organized his assembly, he addressed the great gods, ‘The noise of mankind has become too much, I am losing sleep over their racket.’” — The Epic of Ziusudra
The ancient tale of Ziusudra is one of the ancient deluge narratives, one upon which the biblical story of Noah and his ark was likely based. The writers and redactors of what became the Hebrew scriptures adapted it in ways to match their concept of Yahweh, once he had ascended to the role of supreme and only deity in their imaginations. With that sanitization, a certain vividness of emotion was lost, I think. Ziusudra’s story is too long to include here in its entirety, so I’ll begin with a very quick summary, and invite you to read the full text here.
Originally, the gods worked the land. They toiled hard on the Earth, while the greater gods enjoyed a peaceful existence. This lasted for a while, until there was a rebellion. As a solution to the matter, a young god was sacrificed, and through a ritual involving his body, blood, and some clay, humans were made. The humans were then set to work the land. Generations passed, the human population grew, and they became too noisy. The god Enlil called for their destruction through disease. Many died before an intervention saved them.
Then, Enlil once again called for their death, this time through drought. Again, many people died before they were spared with rainfall and a good harvest. Finally, the gods obligated Enki, who had orchestrated the salvation of humans twice already, to bring a flood upon the earth and wipe out humanity. Enki was made to swear an oath to that effect. However, he whispered through the reed wall of a temple into the ear of Ziusudra, instructing him to make the temple into a boat, and take into it friends, family, and animals. Ziusudra, with the help of others, did so.
All manner of life was placed aboard the boat, Ziusudra selected the best of all species and placed them on the boat. He invited his people to a feast. He put his family and friends on board the vessel. They were eating, they were drinking, but Ziusudra went in and out, pacing the decks of his boat, he could not stay still on his haunches, his heart was breaking, and he was vomiting bile.*
How could his heart not break? The emotion someone would feel in a situation like this, knowing that friends and family were safe, but that so many others were about to die, must have been overwhelming. It was so bad Ziusudra was having dry heaves. As bad as that was, I can only begin to imagine the survivor’s guilt for him, and everyone else on board, once this was all over.
The face of the weather changed. Ishkur bellowed from the clouds. When Ziusudra heard this noise, bitumen was brought to him, and he sealed up the door with it. While he was closing the door, Ishkur kept bellowing from the clouds, the winds were raging even as he went up and cut through the ropes, he released the boat. Anzu was tearing at the sky with his talons, the bolt of Abzu broke open and the Flood came out.
Did people left to the merciless elements pound on the vessel, hoping for mercy? The door was shut and sealed by Ziusudra’s own hand, sealing the fate of his neighbors. Shivering men, women, and children soaked to the bone and then swept away to their deaths.
The Flood went against the people like an army. No one could see anyone else clearly, none of them could be recognized in the catastrophe. The Flood roared like a bull, like a wild ass screaming the winds howled. The darkness was total, there was no sun. The bodies of man and the children of the gods floated on the surface like fat white sheep, their corpses pushed by the Flood into heaps like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh. The earth was inundated with the power and noise of the Flood.
The baying of terrified animals and the pleas to the gods from anguished people were lost in the howling storm and darkness. In the end, silence. Just the splashing of water amidst thousands and thousands of corpses.
This is imagery that is left out of the Hebrew version, but which was captured in the illustration of a children’s Bible I had when I was little. That’s the image at the top of this post. While Genesis makes no direct mention of this scene, the artist captured it in all its horror. Before I could even read I found this picture and stared at it, fascinated and disturbed. I asked my mother about it, and especially about the animals, and as I recall she said something about God ‘taking care of them.’ It’s been so long that I can’t remember.
Some time back I had the great misfortune of standing in line with an avid Fox News viewer. What began as a plain vanilla chat became a roaring debate about climate change. He thought he was clever by pointing out that the climate has changed many times in the past billion or so years. I responded that this time it’s caused by humans, and will harm humans. Mentioning the islands being lost to their native inhabitants got nowhere with him, but when I mentioned the North Carolina farmers dealing with salt-poisoned fields due to rising sea levels, he quickly changed the subject.
He could relate to the presumably white farmers.
There are many ways that climate change is going to impact our species, and every other species on the planet, and virtually nothing is being done about it. By the time the deniers admit there’s a problem, it will be too late, and they’ll insist that we just have to deal with the situation. The cost in human life is simply too high. Lost farmland, homes destroyed by storms and floods, drought, and other consequences will push more to become refugees, fueling the xenophobia of certain citizens of the various nation states. This, despite the fact that populations are facing certain decline in developed nations, could well continue to drive efforts to build walls and kick otherwise productive members of society out.
Enlil was fetched, and made to stand upon the holy mound. Upon this mound did Enlil swear to the covenant known as Duranki, the Bond of Heaven and Earth, never again to harm the people of the land, and never again to allow the Anunnaki to cohabit with the children of man. And so the years passed, and mankind flourished, and the gods were made happy by the people of the land.
These are ugly times, and it wasn’t any gods that got us here, or that can save us. This one is entirely on us. The future is not closed, however. We still have the opportunity to take action now with protests, environmental advocacy, and political action. We also have the means to come up with technological and engineering solutions for the many to survive this oncoming crisis, rather than settle for a quick fix that will only save the privileged few. This also requires our direct and concerted effort, because otherwise the plutocratic oligarchy will only work for its own preservation, and not for that of the people.
If we don’t want our ‘corpses pushed by the Flood into heaps like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh,’ we must be Ziusudra and Enki.