National Geographic : 1951 Jan
The Mesopotamian Noah Paints an Appalling Picture of theGreat Flood T HE EPIC tale of Gilgamesh is one of the great creations of world literature. In his struggle against the fate of all mortals the hero seeks out at long last the survivor of the Great Flood, in order to learn from him the secret of immortality. The quest proves unsuccessful, but the end finds Gilgamesh at peace with himself and his surroundings. The impact of the epic may be gauged by the fact that as early as the second millennium B. C. it was known in at least four languages. Its influence on art and thought spread to many lands and cultures. Because of its close Biblical associations, the episode chosen for illustration has been taken from the epic's account of the Flood. After a long and fateful journey, Gilgamesh is at last in the presence of Utnapishtim, Mesopotamia's counterpart of Noah. Utnapishtim has just reached that point in his tale which finds the Ark come to rest on Mount Nisir, while the slowly receding floodwaters present a pic ture of bleakest desolation. To be sure, the distance between Mount Nisir-an 8,489 foot peak near modern Sulaimaniya, 175 miles north east of Baghdad-and the place of Utnapishtim's permanent retreat "in the faraway" was imagined to be far too great for compression into a single picture. But so vivid is the tale which is being unfolded to Gilgamesh that the reader should have no more difficulty than did Gilgamesh himself in seeing the distant outlines of the Ark with his mind's eye. The Ark is described as a perfect cube consisting of seven stories, each divided into nine compartments. Since the description in the epic is quite specific, ourmodern notions as to what is seaworthy had tobediscarded. Nothing is said, however, about theappearance ofUtnapishtim, and the artist re-created him according tohisown inspiration. As for the figure of Gilgamesh, noMesopotamian monu ment is definitely known to depict him. We have chosen as a prototype the supernaturally conceived figure ofNaram Sin, one of the kings of thedynasty ofAkkad, asportrayed on that ruler's celebrated Stele ofVictory. The dynasty of Akkad,founded bythegreat Sargon of Akkad, flourished toward the end ofthethird millennium B.C. It marks the end of the Early Dynastic period and thebegin ning of a new era in Mesopotamia. The Akkadian age accomplishes thegradual integration of the new elements, which arepredominantly Semitic, with the inherited cultureas developed by theSumerians. It is a period of rapid political and geographic expansion, tremendous vigor, and bold adventure. Naram-Sin pictures himself onhisgreat stele asawarrior clad in sandals and knee-length garment, and armed with bow and quiver, a battle-ax, and amace. But itisnoordi nary warrior that he affectstobe, noreven just aregal hero. His horned crown marks him asadivine being. If we look for a worthysuperhuman model that this king would be likely to copy ashis counterpart, wecould scarcely suggest a better one thanthe epic hero Gilgamesh, "two thirds of whom was god and one-third man." Itwas he"who scaled the mountains andcrossed theseas" insearch ofthe life that he was not to find.