Sunday, January 3, 2010

Atramhasis' Circular Reed Ark

I'm a little behind on my Agade reading, but since I teach Gilgamesh (where the Noah character is usually called Uta-Nipishti--or Utnapisthim--but once called Atrahasis reflecting the older story of the flood), I thought this article from the Guardian was interesting (at least in parts):

According to newly translated instructions inscribed in ancient Babylonian on a clay tablet telling the story of the ark, the vessel that saved one virtuous man, his family and the animals from god's watery wrath was not the pointy-prowed craft of popular imagination but rather a giant circular reed raft.

The now battered tablet, aged about 3,700 years, was found somewhere in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, a largely self-educated Londoner who indulged his passion for history while serving in the RAF from 1945 to 1948.

The relic was passed to his son Douglas, who took it to one of the few people in the world who could read it as easily as the back of a cornflakes box; he gave it to Irving Finkel, a British Museum expert, who translated its 60 lines of neat cuneiform script.

There are dozens of ancient tablets that have been found which describe the flood story but Finkel says this one is the first to describe the vessel's shape.


In his translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who lived before the flood and who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story. "Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions And save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same."

The tablet goes on to command the use of plaited palm fibre, waterproofed with bitumen, before the construction of cabins for the people and wild animals.

It ends with the dramatic command of Atram-Hasis to the unfortunate boat builder whom he leaves behind to meet his fate, about sealing up the door once everyone else is safely inside: "When I shall have gone into the boat, Caulk the frame of the door!"

Much of the article tries to frame this in terms of archaeological searches for the artifacts of Noah's ark, seeing this as indications of what to look for--in my opinion an exercise in futility. The significance is not to use in terms of discovering the "facts" of the story, but understanding the development of the legend itself as a story and what the different variations of the story indicate or mean. For example, it is significant that the description of the ship in the (other) Babylonian versions that we know make the ark resemble a ziggurat--an important aspect of Babylonian temple architecture. In the Hebrew version, its spatial configurations recall/prefigure the temple. In both, therefore, it becomes a vessel of the sacred--a vessel that will preserve the sacred or its potential. The circular reed pattern does not tell us about the "real ark" but something about the people passing down this version of the story, something about their lifestyle--and, in fact, a great deal of people living in southern Mesopotamia lived (and still do to this day) among, upon, and from the reeds, building reed homes on reed foundations in their watery surroundings. I am not surprised that their boats may have been circular (as the article notes), but I also wonder about how it relates to their home-building and sanctuary-building. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the article locates those interested in finding the "real ark" as Victorians (in the past) and creationists (in the present).

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