Atrahasis: Epic Summary & Explanation

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  • 0:00 A First Look at 'Atrahasis'
  • 0:19 The Story of Atrahasis
  • 3:01 Why Is 'Atrahasis' Important?
  • 4:09 Parallels in Literature
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jonathan Reich
'Atrahasis' is an epic narrative from ancient Mesopotamia. In this lesson, we'll discuss the plot and themes of the story as well as the connection between Mesopotamian culture and the literature of other cultures.

A First Look at Atrahasis

'Atrahasis' is an epic from ancient Mesopotamia. The story exists in many versions, though the most complete text dates from about 1700 B.C. from Babylonia. It is written in the Cuneiform alphabet on several clay tablets.

The Story of 'Atrahasis'

The story of Atrahasis begins during the time before humans. In the narrative, the universe is divided amongst three high gods: Anu, the father and king of the gods, gets the sun and the heavens; Enlil rules over the land; and Enki, the smartest of the three, rules the seas and the underground waters. The gods also include a host of lesser, subservient deities who are responsible for the maintenance of Earth and, in particular, for digging out the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Under the burden of hard labor, the gods decide to create humans to take care of the land for them as well as to provide the gods with sustenance through worship and through the sacrificing grain, wine, and animals.

This plan works well at first but eventually hits a snag. The humans multiply, and the people begin to make too much noise as the population increases. The god of Earth, Enlil, can't bear the racket and decides to eliminate the source of the noise by destroying all humanity. First, Enlil sends a plague, but his plan is foiled by the cleverest of the people, Atrahasis, whose name means 'very wise.' Atrahasis is assisted by Enki, who is well-disposed to humanity. Atrahasis shows people how to defeat the plague - by sacrificing to the specific god that Enlil has put in charge of spreading the deadly disease. In a similar fashion, he leads the people in defeating Enlil's attempts to kill off humans by drought and famine.

Finally, Enlil proposes to flood the world and drown all of the noisy humans. This time, he forces all the gods to swear that they will go through with the plan, not warn Atrahasis, and not be swayed by people's sacrifices. Enki manages to get word to Atrahasis without technically breaking his oath; he delivers the message to the walls and roof of Atrahasis' house, where Atrahasis cannot help but overhear. Atrahasis builds a boat large enough for himself, his family, and animals. The entire earth is flooded for seven days and nights; only those aboard the boat survive.

While Enlil does get relief from humanity's noise, the flood is not a positive experience for the gods. They are shocked at the carnage and are starving by the end of the seven days, since there is no one to sacrifice to them, at least until Atrahasis gets off his boat and resumes worship. The gods resolve to let humanity remain on Earth, but Enlil, in an attempt to keep the population down, decrees that, from now on, one-third of all children would die. The gods also deemed that several types of female temple-attendants were not allowed to have children.

Why Is 'Atrahasis' Important?

The Atrahasis epic gives us insight into the worldview of the people who told and retold it. Parallels between this story and a number of other works demonstrate the interaction of ancient cultures. The different ways that these stories were used or recast can help us highlight the uniqueness of those cultures.

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