An Abnormal Interest in Gilgamesh

I’ve written about Gilgamesh and ancient Mesopotamia several times in the past, but my articles and posts are nothing near the original work that Duane is doing at Abnormal Interests in translating ancient texts.

I’m a frequent reader of his blog (but one of the worst, I’m afraid, since I rarely post comments) and I highly recommend reading his work if you have even a passing interest in the translations of ancient texts.

His latest post is a translation of The Letter of Gilgamesh. In the letter, Gilgamesh, the King of of Ur, citizen of Kullab, creation of Anu, Enlil and Ea, favorite of Shamash, and the beloved of Marduk, makes a “gentle” request ruler of another land: “send me a large portion of your wealth and come visit me. If I have to come to you, it won’t be pretty and I’ll not only take everything I want but pulverize your cities.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. Here’s a quote:

I[f ]on the fiftieth day of Teshrit, I do not meet you in the gate of my city Ur, (then) I swear by the great gods, whose oath can not to be revoked, (and) I swear by my gods, Lugalbanda, Sin, Shamash, Palil, Lugalgirra and Meslamtaea, (that) I will send (35) to you Zamana, and the divine lord of my person (‘head,’ my personal god?), the aggressor(?), whose name you honor. He will pulverize your cities. Your [palac]es he will pillage (and) your orchards he will [plunder(?)].

You gotta love Gilgamesh! He was two-thirds god and one-third human, so his threats weren’t to be taken lightly!

One of the things that I found so compelling about the Gilgamesh story is the love and friendship he had with Enkidu. Thousands of years have passed since the story was written, and yet the emotion of loss still comes through loud and clear in a tale written in a language long since dead, forgotten then deciphered and translated thousands of years later.

Gilgamesh was clearly pressuring this ruler, and probably other rulers in the region, to align with him. The demonstration of their alignments and their commitments was a substantial sacrifice of their national wealth, but what they received in return was the protective umbrella of his Empire.

Dilmun and Punt: Part III

This is the third in a three part series on the subject of Dilmun and Punt: Two Mythical Origins for Two Early Civilizations. In this final segment, I wrap up with discussion of Dilmun and Punt as places of origin for their respective civilizations and offer a bibliography for students or those interested in researching the topic further. I’ll also include links to the other two parts which I’ll add above the folds and at the ends of each part for convenience:

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography


Kramer (1944) concluded that Dilmun isn’t in Bahrain as the majority have suggested, but rather southwestern Iran, based primarily on the information in texts that describes Dilmun at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates. Cornwall (1952) cites at least two others that, likewise, agree that Dilmun is located in Iran, but presents evidence to the contrary in the form of two letters from Nippur that mention Dilmun as being reached by sea. Cornwall previously argued (1946) that the Assyrian use of the term for “in the midst of the sea” (in qabal tam-tim), which referred to islands such as Tyre, Arvad, and Cyprus provided evidence in favor of Bahrain as Dilmun. Another possible location that has had its favor with scholars is the eastern Arabian coast near Dhaharan and Howard-Carter (1987) describes archaeological finds which include steatite vessels with Mesopotamian motifs, un-worked blocks of steatite, lapis, copper ore and other tradable commodities as well as tumuli-tombs.

The tumuli-tombs are, as Lamberg-Karlovsky (1982) suggests, an enigma. Such a large cemetery population created in such a short period of time should have evidence of a large settlement center or centers surrounding it. Yet, as Lamberg-Karlovsky points out, the archaeological surveys of Bahrain do not support such an expectation. He draws a comparison between the Bahrain cemetery complex and that of other cemeteries of antiquity surveyed by modern archaeologists, such as Shahr-i Sokhata. This community spanned 350 acres, which was over twice that of Bahrain, but only had 20,000 burials (p. 46) to Bahrain’s 172,000 – 450,000, depending on if each tumulus contained a single body or an average of three (p. 48). Lamberg-Karlovsky refers to this as “a phenomenon in search of an explanation” and suggests that the island may have held significance in antiquity as a “ceremonial center of pilgrimage,” and, as Dilmun, was a place that interment would provide the eternal life and immortality that was promised Ziusudra. The people buried at the Bahrain complex were not of Bahrain but “from a large geographical area sharing only the fundamental belief in the manner of assuring an after-life.” Such a central place of pilgrimage then provided the basis for the establishment of a trade center (p. 49).

The similarities between Dilmun and Punt are many, but the evidence linking the two directly is thus far missing in the archaeological record. That ancient civilizations of Sumer and Egypt both record in their myths and histories far away lands of sacred and divine significance may be an expectation since both the Egyptians and the Sumerians emerged at a time when the climate was still undergoing changes. The switch from wet to arid conditions following the inundation of the Persian Gulf at around 15,000 BCE finally came at about 4,000 BCE when the sea stopped rising. Egypt, too, experienced similar conditions at around the same time, and early Egyptians eventually abandoned the Nabta Playa perhaps for the Nile Valley.

Both Dilmun and Punt may have begun as points of origins for the Sumerians and Egyptians, respectively. Both of these civilizations have origins that predate writing, so the memory of their ancestral homes must have been orally transmitted until they could be recorded as “the land of the gods” and the “land of the living” –the place “where the sun rises.” If such paradises existed, as two separate places or as one, they may very well have been along coasts or the basin of the Persian Gulf, long since inundated by rising sea levels. The pilgrimages and expeditions to the “lands of the gods” may have been the best attempts that these two societies could offer to reach a now submerged homeland they were forced to abandon several millennia before. Both Dilmun and Punt may have been trade centers (or a single center) that emerged as a result of pilgrimage and geologic circumstance which favored natural harbors and fresh water.

Bibliography and References

Aldred, C. (1987). The Egyptians. London: Thames and Hudson.
Bibby, G. (1969). Looking for Dilmun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Breasted, J. H. (1906). Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. I, The First to the Seventeenth Dynasties. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Breasted, J. H. (1906a). Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. II, The Eighteenth Dynasties. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Brewer, D. J., & Teeter, E. (1999). Egypt and the Egyptians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Caspers, E. C. D., & Govindankutty, A. (1978). R. Thapar’s Dravidian Hypothesis for the Locations of Meluhha, Dilmun and Makan: A Critical Reconsideration. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 21(2), 113-145.
Cornwall, P. (1946). On the Location of Dilmun. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 103, 3-11.
Cornwall, P. (1952). Two Letters from Dilmun. Journal for Cuneiform Studies, 6(4), 137-145.
Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Books.
Fagan, B. M. (1994). In the Beginning: An Introduction to Archaeology, 8th ed.. New York: Harper Collins.
Gupta, A. K., Anderson, D. M., Pandey, D. N., & Singhvi, A. K. (2006, April). Adaptation and human migration and evidence of agriculture coincident with changes in the Indian summer monsoon during the Holocene. Current Science, 90(8), 1082-1090.
Harvey, S. P. (2003). Interpreting Punt: Geographic, Cultural and Artistic Landscapes. In D. O’Connor & S. Quirke (Eds.), Mysterious Lands: Encounters with Ancient Egypt (pp. 81-91). London: Institute of Archaeology, UCL.
Howard-Carter, T. (1981). The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 33(3/4), 210-223.
Howard-Carter, T. (1987). Dilmun: At Sea or Not at Sea?: A Review Article. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 39(1), 54-117.
Ingman, M., Kaessmann, H., Pääbo, S., & Gyllensten, U. (2000, 7 December). Mitochondrial genome variation and the origin of modern humans. Nature, 408, 708-713.
Kramer, S. N. (1944, Dec.). Dilmun, the Land of the Living. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 96, 18-28.
Kramer, S. N. (1947). Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1(1), 3-46.
Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. (1982). Dilmun: Gateway to Immortality. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 41(1), 45-50.
Langdon, S. H. (1917). Sumerian Liturgical Texts. In The University Museum Publications of the Babylonian Section (Vol. 10 (2)). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, The University Museum.
Mark, S. (1997). From Egypt to Mesopotamia: A Study of Predynastic Trade Routes. London: Chatham Publishing.
Meeks, D. (2003). Locating Punt. In D. O’Connor & S. Quirke (Eds.), Mysterious Lands: Encounters with Ancient Egypt (pp. 53-80). London: Institute of Archaeology, UCL.
Naville, E. (1907). The Origin of Egyptian Civilisation. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 37, 201-214.
Price, T. D., Tiesler, V., & Burton, J. (2006). Early African diaspora in colonial Campeche, Mexico: Strontium Isotopic Evidence. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130, 485-490.
Pritchard, J., ed. (1958). The Ancient Near East Volume I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
PSD. (2006). Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. Retrieved 30042007, from Babylonian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology:
Singer, D. A., Berger, V. I., & Moring, B. C. (2005). Porphyry Copper Deposits of the World: Database, Maps, and Preliminary Analysis (U.S. Geological Survey No. 02-268). U.S. Geological Survey.
Smith, W. S. (1958). The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Thesiger, W. P. (1985). The Marsh Arabs. New York: Harper Collins.
Wendorf, F., & Schild, R. (1998). Nabta Playa and its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 17, 97-123.
Wicker, F. (1998). The Road to Punt. The Geographical Journal, 164(2), 155-167.
Woolley, C. L. (1928). The Sumerians. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Dilmun and Punt – Part II

In my last part, I discussed the mentions of Dilmun and Punt in Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts and examined their mythical contexts. In this part, I’ll discuss the physical considerations of the two mythical places in archaeological and geologic contexts.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Archaeological Remains

The pottery found at Bahrain at around 3000-2900 BCE, the period known in Mesopotamia as the Jemdet Nasr, closely resembles that of Uruk, as do the bowls of steatite and chlorite. Oman also has buff-ware painted jars that closely resemble those of Mesopotamia at this time. Together, these correlations in pottery and ceramics are indicative of contact between Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula, and it is Bahrain and the eastern Arabian coast that have variously been suggested as sites of Dilmun. Ubaid-ware characteristics include motifs of marsh or riverine origin and include designs resembling nets, reed-matting and aquatic subjects which are painted on green-grey buff or red ware. During the period that marks the rise of the Ubaid culture, the marshlands of Sumer would have been teeming with fish, game, and wild plant-life, offering an environment in whose new inhabitants would not need to be pressured into food production strategies like agriculture. The Ubaid culture that is most known is at Eridu, but sites have been found as far south as Saudi Arabia (Bibby 1969). It stands to reason that the resources available would have attracted inhabitants; indeed, it does even today, when one considers the Marsh Arabs who dwell in elaborate and complex reed huts.

Various authors have placed Dilmun at Bahrain, but Howard-Carter (1981, p. 223) reminds that Mesopotamian artifacts before dating to before 2200 BCE aren’t present in the archaeological record on Bahrain and, instead, places Dilmun at Qurna, Iraq, which lies just under 75 km northwest of Basra where the Tigris and Euphrates converge. On Bahrain, Bibby (1969) excavated funerary sites called tumuli-tombs which consist of earthen mounds piled on top of graves. Other archaeologists both preceded and followed these excavations who also excavated tumuli, discovering over 172,000 in all. Lamberg-Karlovsky (1982) notes that if the tumuli only contained an average of two occupants, the total cemetery population would be 344,000, which is “an unparalleled cemetery population for the Near East. He goes on to cite literature that reports on surveys which reveal that while the tumuli date to as late as the third millennium, the time of Dilmun, there aren’t data to suggest a settlement of sufficient size to support a cemetery of even 172,000.

The earliest mention of Punt is on the Palermo Stone, which describes King Sahure’s expedition to Punt that retrieved myrrh, electrum and staves. Sahure was pharaoh in the 5th Dynasty, between 2498 – 2345 BCE and the monument, the largest fragment of which now resides in the Regional Museum of Archaeology in Palermo, Sicily, is also significant because it lists rules that both predate and precede Menes, accepted by some to be the first pharaoh of the First dynasty of Egypt.

Another mention of Punt that is, perhaps, the most descriptive is that of the Punt Reliefs at Deir el-Bahri. Breasted (1906a: 102) goes so far as to describe them as “the most interesting series of reliefs in Egypt,” but he is correct that they are almost the “only source of information on the land of Punt.” In addition to these inscriptions and the Palermo stone references, Breasted also lists the other references known to him through various texts (102-103) as:

1) a Fifth dynasty expedition by King Isesi, which brought back a “dancing dwarf;”
2) a Sixth dynasty attempt by Pepi II to send and expedition, which resulted in “sand-dwellers” killing the detachment sent to build a ship on the coast destined to Punt;
3) Pep II’s eventual success;
4) Chief Treasurer Henu’s Eleventh dynasty expedition for Senekhkere-Mentuhotep III;
5) Kentkhetwer’s Twelfth dynasty expedition for Amenemhet II; and
6) an expedition for Senwosret II.

But it was the Hatshepsut expedition in the Eighteenth dynasty that offers the most detail, while the above mentions are cursory and meager in their descriptions of their respective expeditions. The Hatshepsut inscriptions provided both texts and illustrations of the commodities the Egyptians obtained from “the Land of God,” which included gold, ebony, ivory, incense trees like myrrh, resin or gum, ostrich eggs, giraffes, and baboons. The illustrations depict the Puntite houses [fig. 3] as on huts on stilts and the Puntites themselves as brown skinned, rather than black as might be expected if Punt were at the Horn of Africa. Perhaps the most familiar image in the Deir el-Bahri inscriptions is that of the wife of the ruler of Punt. She is depicted as being obese, considered a revered quality among some African cultures since it marks her status as healthy and wealthy.

Geological Considerations

The Persian Gulf was completely dry at around 15,000 BCE according to Howard-Carter (1981, 1987) who cites at least three reports of detailed studies of the Gulf’s geology. The Tigris and Euphrates flowed separately and together to the Strait of Hormuz and emptied into the Gulf of Oman until the rising sea levels rose gradually from 14,000 to 8000 BCE forcing any riverine populations inhabiting the soon-to-be submerged Tigris and Euphrates to retreat to higher ground over time. According to Howard-Carter, the Gulf would have been three-quarters filled by 8000 BCE and completely inundated by 5500 BCE, the time of the Ubaid period.

Bahrain is known for its artisan springs in antiquity, which provided fresh water and, for an island in the Persian gulf may been a frequent stop for sea travelers. Indeed, the springs themselves may have provided fodder for the myths that included passages about Dilmun such as “her city drinks water of abundance” and “her wells of bitter water, behold they become wells of sweet water” from the myth of Enki and Ninhursag. Frequently mentioned in texts associated with Dilmun is the trade of copper and, indeed, copper has been discovered at sites proposed to be the location of Dilmun both on the eastern Arabian coast as well as Bahrain. Copper, however, isn’t found in deposits in either location, and the nearest deposits are located in Iran and the Indus Valley.

Copper was one of the commodities mentioned in the Hatshepsut inscriptions and of great value to Egyptian rulers building pyramids and monumental structures since copper instruments are needed to quarry and form the blocks used in their construction. Copper deposits are known in Egypt and the Sinai but are of limited value due to their size and quality. Wicker states “the only copper deposit known to be worked in ancient times is at Cayönii Tepsi in south-east Turkey near the headwater of the Tigris where the earliest exploitation dates from around 7000 BC and that the copper of Cyprus isn’t exploited until much later (1998, p. 159).” He goes on to suggest that Egypt could have obtained its copper from there before the Third dynasty, though he admits the prospect to be unlikely. Another possible source for copper, Wicker says, is in present-day Uganda both west and north of Lake Victoria and that no copper or gold deposits have ever been located in present-day Somalia, the country that dominates the Horn of Africa.

Copper is associated in trade expeditions to both Dilmun and Punt by Mesopotamians and Egyptians, but no copper is known to have been mined on the Arabian Peninsula. The copper deposits of present-day Uganda, west of Lake Victoria or in South Africa, are locations that are either inland or of considerable distance for either the Sumerians or the Egyptians. That Bahrain and Dhaharan traded in copper is evident in the archaeological record, so this metal must have come from other sources as yet unknown or at least as yet not connected to the Persian Gulf such as from the upper Indus Valley. But also important to the production of bronze was tin, with sources generally thought to be found in mountains of modern-day Iran and Afghanistan.

I looked for other mentions of copper in antiquity that might reveal what sources there were at the relevant periods of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations but found none that didn’t require active trade networks for the two, though sources in the Persian gulf such as modern-day Oman are eventually used. I think its entirely probable that the need for copper helped drive the Dilmun and Punt legends since there are very real needs that are fulfilled.

In the last part of this series, I’ll end with a brief discussion and list a bibliography for anyone wishing to look into this or related topics further.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Dilmun and Punt: Two Mythical Origins for Two Early Civilizations (Part I)

Archaeology is about examining the material remains of the human past, often in hopes of learning something of the origins of civilizations in antiquity: where did they come from? why did they leave there? what motivated them to seek a new home? -these are but a few questions that archaeologists and cultural historians work with when looking at the earliest civilizations.

In this series, I’m going to examine two of the earliest civilizations of the Near East, both of which have fascinated me for some time. Specifically, I’ll look at the Sumerian and Egyptian cultures and their legends of mystical places of origin: Dilmun and Punt. In this first post, I’ll discuss the myths, legends and stories surrounding the two and I invite others to comment.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) evidence has demonstrated the human propensity to migrate beginning at around 30,000 to 45,000 years ago, coinciding with the artifactual evidence of cultural change. In regions like the Indus Valley, Central Europe and Mesoamerica migrations and population density were influenced by climate and catastrophe and demographic reorganization in response to these pressures resulted in various instances of successes in the form of the rise of complex civilization or failures in the form of societal collapse.

It follows, then, that populations of the Near East experienced cycles of diffusion and migration as they evolved into sedentary and complex societies. It may even follow that this diffusion and migration may have had some common points of origin following the peak of the Würm glaciation around 18,000-16,000 BCE as climate changed from dry to wet conditions and sea levels began to rise as the glaciers melted, potentially displacing coastal and riverine populations. Since these migrations would have occurred prior to the advent of writing, evidence would need to be looked for by tracing artifacts to points of origin or following motif patterns that can be traced from culture to culture. But both of these could also have explanations involving trade and diffusion between adjacent cultures. Another line of evidence that could be followed might be strontium isotope analysis of human remains, which can reveal geographic regions that an individual spent time in over his life. The number of bones and teeth available to analyze become exponentially decreased the further back in time one looks, however, due to preservation problems and lower population densities, and this type of analysis only looks at the origin and travels of the individual in his lifetime not migrational trends spanning generations.

Still another line of evidence that could be examined, albeit one that is more subjective and includes more induction than deduction, is the examination of early written texts since there is some indication that the earliest accounts of myths and stories have origins in oral traditions. Among the earliest literate societies is that of the Egyptian and the Sumerian. Both have legends, myths and stories that speak of distant lands that may have been the origin of their people; lands that are considered holy and sacred; and lands that are the subject of trade and considered in high regard. Those lands are Dilmun and Punt of Sumerian and Egyptian legends respectively.

Mythical References

The earliest mythical references to Dilmun are Sumerian and found in cuneiform texts known today by the titles: Enki and Ninhursag, Enki and the World Order, Enki and Nanna-Suen, Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living, and the Myth of Ziusudra.

In the myth of Enki and Ninhursag Dilmun is referred to as:

“the pure clean and bright land of the living, the garden of the Great Gods and Earthly paradise, located eastward in Eden, was the place where Ninhursag-Ki, the Earth Mother, Most Exalted Lady and Supreme Queen, could be found.”

The same story also refers to Dilmun as being, “blessed by Enki with everlasting agricultural and trade superiority, for through its waterways and quays, fruits and grains were sold and exchanged by the people of Dilmun and beyond” and as a “holy” place. In this myth, Enki created all the canals that irrigated the crops of the people as the “Sweet Waters god.”

In Enki and the World Order, Dilmun is mentioned alongside Magan and Meluhha as trading partners with boats from Dilmun being filled with wood, suggesting that Dilmun was a place of plentiful trees. The word “kur” is used before Dilmun, which has various meanings in Sumerian and Akkadian including land, country, hill and mountain. Dilmun is regularly mentioned in Sumerian mythology alongside Magan and Meluhha, which are referred to as south of Sumer.

In one of the tablets that reveals the Myth of Ziusudra, Dilmun is referred to as “the mountain of crossing, the mountain of Dilmun, the place where the sun rises.” And Kramer (1944) attributes the “land of the living” in Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living as being Dilmun, since it is also referred to in the poem as, “land of the cedars” and “as a land whose ‘creature’ is the sun-god Utu, which Kramer feels he has demonstrated to be references to Dilmun.

Punt is similarly referred to in Egyptian texts as “the Land of God” and as a place “to the East” where expeditions could be sent for specialty goods including gold, copper, myrrh, exotic animals, and staves or rods for spears since there were few good sources for these along the Nile. It was also called the “land of beginning” and the “country of first existence,” and Breasted (1906a, p. 117) notes that the ancient Egyptians may have viewed this as their ancestral homeland. Punt is mentioned in the Tale of a Shipwrecked Sailor, which describes a sailor marooned on a mystical island where he meets a serpent that identifies himself as “the Prince of Punt.” This prince helps the sailor on his way, returning the sailor and his new found riches to Egypt in a two-month boat journey.

Both Punt and Dilmun are referred to in their respective myths as holy places and being to the east. Both are places of trade and are revered as being ancestral homelands. Both are given mystical and Utopian status and spoken of in myth with respect. And both are considered to be the “land of the god(s).” Punt, unfortunately isn’t written of nearly to the degree that Dilmun is, but its allure is, perhaps, equally mysterious and appealing to those of both antiquity and modernity.

In the next part, which I’ll post in a day or so, I’ll discuss archaeological remains associated with Dilmun and Punt in Mesopotamian and Egyptian contexts. I’ll also briefly describe the geologic considerations associated with each.

In the final part, I’ll conclude with a discussion and a bibliography of the sources I used.

Part I: Mythical References
Part II: Archaeological and Geological Considerations
Part III: Discussion and Bibliography

Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian Mythology Part II

In my last post, I discussed both the Old Babylonian and the Akkadian versions of the Gilgamesh Epic and some of their similarities and differences. I find the Akkadian acceptance and fascination of Sumerian gods and mythology to be fascinating itself. I often wonder if, perhaps, their fascination with the earlier Sumerian culture could be analogous to the fascination modern Americans have with Native American culture. Like the Akkadians, we assign many place-names based on Native words and we continue to have a special reverence for Native mythology and culture.

In this part, I’ll quote two passages of the Flood Myth present in Gilgamesh which demonstrates the popularity and appeal of at least one aspect of the story that still resonates with people even today.


Non-Mesopotamian versions of the Flood diverge further. Berossos, who wrote the Greek history of Babylonia in the 3rd century BCE, has his ark land in Armenia rather than Dilmun or even Mt. Nisir. He uses the name Xisouthros instead of Ut-napishtim, indicating that he is familiar with the Ziusudra version, but the use of mountains might demonstrate an embellishment designed to show that no culture could escape the flood. Nisir is only 9,000 feet and further south, while the Armenian mountains are probably among the highest known to Berossos. It could very well be that the original intent of the story was to maintain the Dilmun connection in an inaccessible and secret land, since NIŞIRTU, the possible source of the NI SIR sign in line 140, means “inaccessible,” “secret” or “hidden.” The assumption that the sign referred to Nisir may have led to an embellishment of landing the boat on a mountain, further embellishing the significance of the Flood’s reach.

By the time the story has been adopted by Jewish authors in Genesis, many embellishments are added, such as significantly increasing the number of days of rain from six or seven to forty days and forty nights; changing the perspective to a monotheistic one; the inclusion of two of every animal; the size of the boat; and so on. Even the reason for the destruction of mankind is embellished, evolving from being noisy to being wicked. But the core framework of the Sumerian flood myth still remains:

Gligamesh XI, 145-54

When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth and set free a dove.
The dove went forth but came back since no resting place was visible, she turned around.
Then I set forth a swallow
The swallow went forth but came back, since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.
I then set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not around.

Genesis 8:6-12

Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made;
and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth.
Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land,
but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself.
So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark.
The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth.
Then he waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; but she did not return to him again.

In addition to the similarities of the end of the survivor’s time at sea, other key elements remain, which include: deciding to send a flood to wipe out life on earth; selecting a worthy man to survive; building a boat; riding out the storm on the boat; offering a sacrifice on dry land at the end; and establishing a covenant between the gods and mankind. Ut-napishtim and his family achieve immortality and Noah is instructed to “be fruitful and multiply. Ishtar tells Ut-napishtim that she “shall remember these days and forget never,” and Enlil, seeing the error of his rage, takes Ut-napishtim and his wife by the hands, touches their foreheads and announces, “Hitherto Ut-napishtim and his wife shall be like unto us gods. Yahweh tells Noah, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”

The natural appeal of Gilgamesh as an adventurous hero was likely a source of its popularity in pre-literate as well as post-literate Mesopotamia. Oral traditions may have out-weighed written ones in transmitting the story during the heights of Sumerian and Akkadian cultures, but the traces of the motif are present in cultures that are far removed from Mesopotamia in both space and time, testifying to the power of a good story to propagate itself in human culture, particularly when its themes of heroism, loss, survival, and friendship resonate so well with human nature.


Dalley, S. (1989). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kraeling, Emil G (1947) Xisouthros, Deucalion and the Flood Traditions. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 67 (3), 177-183.

PSD (2006) Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. Babylonian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Found on the Internet at:

Pritchard, J. B. (1958). The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Woolley, C. L. (1928). The Sumerians. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

The Gilgamesh Epic and its Relationship to other Mesopotamian Myths

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of heroism and adventure that still has an appeal to the reader today, suggesting that the human need for fictional identification with heroes and adventure is one that has possibly always existed. Keeping this in mind can help when the epic as a whole is examined and its parts dissected to reveal its origins. It can also benefit the reader of related Mesopotamian and Near Eastern Myths as motifs and themes find their way from one to another across time and space.

Part I

The standard version of the Gilgamesh Epic is comprised of written and oral stories and tales that originate from Sumer but were probably collected and redacted by one or more Akkadian scribes, perhaps Sin-leqe-unnini of the Kassite period whose name is known because he “signed” his work. But Sin-leqe-unnini didn’t invent the epic. Earlier Sumerian stories include Gilgamesh as the central character, such as Gilgamesh and the halub-tree, Gilgamesh and Huwawa, and The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld. In these and other stories, themes and events are drawn from to create the Akkadian epic where Gilgamesh, part god, part man, teams up with Enkidu who is created by the gods to provide a balancing companion to Gilgamesh. Throughout the epic, many themes are dealt with by Gilgamesh: friendship, honor, life, death, loss. But it is, perhaps, human mortality that becomes the central theme as Gilgamesh deals with the death of his friend and explores the concept of immortality with Siduri, the wine maker, in tablet ten and Ut-napishtim in tablets ten and eleven. To them both he asks, “Am I not like him [Enkidu]? Must I lie down too, never to rise, ever again?” And to both of them he says, “I was frightened. I am afraid of death.”

In the Old Babylonian version, it is Siduri where Gilgamesh’s journey ends rather than Ut-napishtim. As with Enkidu, who was humanized by a harlot, Gilgamesh is humanized by a woman (an ale-wife or wine-maker). The addition of the Ut-napishtim story, however, is significant and it imparts the significance of the flood event that is regarded in many Mesopotamian and Near Eastern stories as one that was initiated by gods to “cleanse” the land of wicked or just annoying humanity.

Other stories that included the subject of wide-scale flood, which displaces or wipes out humans that inhabit the world include the Myth of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Genesis, through which there are many similarities and distinctions. The similarities are interesting and useful to students of mythology and anthropology for obvious reasons, since the motifs can be traced through space and time giving evidence that these cultures had ties to each other. The distinctions are, likewise, useful but perhaps for less obvious reasons. Where the stories depart can show how cultures evolve, differ, or intentionally accept or reject the motifs of other, contemporaneous or preceding cultures.

In looking first at the similarities, the evolution of the flood myth can be examined. Ziusudra, from a Sumerian tablet dating to around 1600 BCE, provides a flood myth among the oldest in known literature. In it, the gods have decided to destroy mankind and one of the gods warns Ziusudra, Sumerian for “extra-wise,” which is the same meaning of the Akkadian name “Atrahasis.” Ziusudra escapes the flood, which lasts seven days and seven nights by boat, to the island of Dilmun, where he prostates himself before the gods.

The Atrahasis story, found on Akkadian tablets dating to about 1650 BCE, depicts the same hero in the same situation. Atrahasis is warned by Enki of the impending flood, speaking to him through a wall, and instructed to build a boat for him and his family to escape the flood which lasts seven days and seven nights.

The second Akkadian version, found in Gilgamesh, refers to the survivor as Ut-napishtim by name, which means “he found life,” though he is referred to once as Atrahasis in tablet ten, line 187 of the standard Babylonian version. Ut-napishtim weathers only six days and seven nights in the flood, however, and lands his boat on Mount Nisir (a.k.a. Nimush) rather than the island of Dilmun (perhaps Bahrain) or the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Dalley (1989) suggests at one point that the Ziusudra myth is “based on the relatively composition based on an Akkadian version of the story,” but acknowledges that the flood motif was one of Sumerian origin and was effectively incorporated into Atrahasis. The dating of the tablets themselves cannot date the individual stories and only reveal when they were scribed to clay for a given tablet. Oral traditions likely predate the cuneiform traditions and, thus, the flood motif may have existed long before the technology of writing. That the Akkadian culture is using Sumerian gods to tell a Sumerian story is telling, but examination of the differences might give further insight as to which story follows which.

Ziusudra reports that the boat lands on the island of Dilmun whereas Atrahasis has the landing at “the mouth of the rivers,” meaning the Tigris and Euphrates, which come together over 300 miles from Bahrain, often suggested as the island of Dilmun. But since Arab tradition holds that these two rivers flow beneath the sea only to emerge at the surface at Bahrain where they provide a “miraculous supply of sweet water,” it is still tenable that Bahrain is the intended location of Dilmun in the Atrahasis story. The Sumerian and Akaddian versions would seem to have a common progenitor, which is obviously Sumerian since the central figures are Sumerian as are the geographical details.

The Gilgamesh epic adopts the flood motif, with slight embellishments. The name, Ut-napishtim is contextually important since Gilgamesh is searching for immortality and it is the Flood survivor, Ziusudra (“extra-wise”) who finds it, thus living up to the new name, Ut-napishtim, which translates to “he found life” on at least two levels: surviving the deluge intended by the gods to destroy mankind; and granted immortality by the gods. The addition of the

The cuneiform sign for KUR [KUR] in line 140 of Gilgamesh refers to “underworld; land, country; mountain(s); east; easterner; east wind” (PSD 2006). The sign for NI SIR [KURKUR] is traditionally translated to mean the mountain, Nisir, which reaches 9,000 feet. But if KUR is referring to something other than “mountain,” such as land or country, then KUR KURKUR may have been derived from KUR NIŞIRTU, meaning “hidden land/country” or “secret land/country,” which is contextually consistent with the motif since the legend of Dilmun includes a Utopist perception of a place that is holy and removed from the profane. Dilmun is “pure,” “pristine” and “virginal” according to The Myth of Enki and Ninhursag.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on either cuneiform or ancient Mesopotamian languages and spent more than a few collective hours looking over some of the scripts and translations involving Gilgamesh and other ancient texts. I wouldn’t even consider myself a novice in the field and I defer willingly to any input others like Duane at Abnormal Interests might have to offer. The more I look at ancient cuneiform, however, the more I’m interested.

I’ll post Part II in a day or so, where I’ll look more closely at the flood myth in Gilgamesh and how it relates to other Mesopotamian texts, including the Noachian myth. I’ll also include a short bibliography that I used for those interested in following up or finding additional sources.

The Archaeology of Exodus

According to the Biblical account, Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites who gained their freedom by escaping their enslavement by the Pharaoh of Egypt. For most Christians, this weekend is significant for Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. I suppose I could write a whole blog post on just the pagan origins of Easter and the non-Christian aspects of celebrating spring festivals involving the goddess Eostre or Ishtar, but I’ll abstain from anthropological discussion and stick to archaeology.

Passover and Easter coincide and are different holidays, but its the source of Passover that I’m interested in today. Passover and Seder, which follows, are fascinating and, as religious holidays go, among my favorite even though I’m neither Jewish nor a believer. Regardless of whether or not these holidays and their rituals are based in factual events, to me, is irrelevant to the fact that they provide a very valid and purposeful reason to bring family and close friends together. To me, this is rarely a bad thing.

Having said that, however, I’ve long been fascinated by the story that inspired Passover. A story that has been integral to Judeo-Christian mythology and often taken literally by fundamentalists. Moreover, its a story, alleged to have occurred nearly 4,000 years ago, that has probably contributed greatly to the current crises in the Middle East, specifically the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Below the fold is my discussion on Exodus and what can be said archaeologically about it, based mostly on the work of Finklestein and Silberman, cited below.

The Biblical Claim
The claim is, in a nutshell, this: 600,000 “children of Israel” escaped from Egypt where they were the slaves of the pharaoh. These Israelites were chased by the pharaoh’s armies who were unable to catch them. The entire band of 600,000 former slaves “wandered” the desert, camping at various locations, encountering various peoples and kingdoms, and finally settled to form a new nation. All of this occurred, ostensibly, in the 15th century BCE. We “know” this because I Kings 6:1 tells us Solomon’s temple was constructed in the 4th year of his rule, 480 years after Exodus. 966 BCE + 480 years = 1446 BCE.

Exodus 1:11 mentions two cities of Egypt: Pi-Ramesses and Pithom as forced labor projects of the Israelites. The first pharaoh named Ramesses is the son of Seti I and reigns in the year 1320 BCE, so even the 480 years of I Kings doesn’t work. Pi-Ramesses was built in the Nile Delta during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) and Egyptian records indicate Semites were used in its construction.

Who Were the Hyksos?
Often in discussions of Exodus and Israelites in Egypt, the Hyksos come into the picture. This is because the Hyksos were Semite in origin, specifically Canaanite. The same progenitor peoples of the modern day Israelites and Palestinians. The Nile Delta, a.k.a. Lower Egypt, was frequently inhabited by migrating peoples and nomads who sought to find refuge in the relatively stable delta ecology, particularly in times of drought and famine. From about 1668 – 1565 BCE, Canaanites occupied the Delta and ruled Lower Egypt. Manethos referred to the them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners.

The Hyksos had a distinctive Canaanite pottery and architecture, which is present in the archaeological record and, according to the Turin Papyrus, they ruled Lower Egypt for 108 years. One of the most prominent of their rulers was Apophis and their capital was Avaris, known today as the archaeological site Tell Daba’a.

Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it.

From that point, the Egyptians maintained tight control of the border between Eastern Egypt and Canaan.

For those that are quick to pick up on the similarities of the Hyksos and the Exodus tale, it’s important to note that the dates also don’t line up with the I Kings account and the difference is more than 130 years. Moreover, there is no “Ramesses” for whom a city can be named at this point. Though, the correlation is one to not be quickly dismissed.

What if the Exodus Story Were Concocted?
What if, indeed? Why concoct such a tale and how would we know it was either concocted or true. Believers in Christianity and Judaism assign varying degrees of trust in Old Testament mythology: some willing to accept it as myth at one extreme; others taking great umbrage to the use of the term “myth” at the other.

But if we hypothesize for a moment that the Exodus narrative (I’ll stick to this term) is one that was invented by the authors of Genesis, then what might we expect to find to corroborate the hypothesis?

First, we might expect that narrative be limited to only what the authors knew. Assuming that they didn’t have Iron Age archaeologists excavating sites, we can assume that their knowledge was limited to the geography and politics of their time.

Second, if the narrative is an invented one, we would fail to see corroboration in Egyptian texts of it.

Third, if, indeed, this is a narrative invented by a much later author or set of authors, we would not expect to find archaeological evidence that supports it.

Guess What?
The sites mentioned in Exodus are real.

The problem is this: the sites mentioned were sparsely populated by a few pastoralists or otherwise completely unoccupied during the alleged period that Exodus occurred in the Late Bronze Age (13th century BCE). A few were well-known and occupied much earlier and certainly much later than the Late Bronze Age, but during the Exodus period, nada. They were unoccupied at precisely the time they were reported to be by Exodus.

Not only that, but Egyptian texts don’t mention “Israelites” at all. If 600,000 slaves escaped the pharaoh, they were so stealthy they slipped past all the border stations that were put into place following the Hyksos expulsion, snuck past each of the fortifications used to supply soldiers along the “Ways of Horus,” the 250 km route between Egypt and Gaza. And they successfully eluded Egyptian soldiers that were already present in Canaan, which was controlled by Egypt from the 13th through the 7th centuries BCE. The only mention of “Israel” is on the Merneptah Stele where Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE) boasts that “Isrir lies in waste its seed no more.” The lack of a country determinative in the hieroglyphs clearly indicates Merneptah was referring to a people not a country and the depiction of the Israelites on the stele was consistent with Canaanite hair style.

Addressing the third point above, regarding archaeological evidence, it must be recognized that there has been extensive work done in archaeology in the Levant, particularly in the Sinai desert where the “children of Israel” (all 600,000 of them) were said to “wander.” Biblical stories are very much responsible for this archaeology as “biblical archaeologists,” searched -and still search- for evidence that supports their beliefs.

600,000 Wandering Jews?
Let’s put the number into perspective. Fresno and Mission Viejo, both in California have populations of 500,000. Bakersfield is only 250,000. Vancouver, Canada has a population of 600,000.

Not a single archaeological expedition, and there have been a great many, has discovered evidence of any substantial group of people subsisting off of the land in the Sinai desert or in or near any of the sites mentioned in Exodus. According to the biblical narrative, the equivalent of the population of Vancouver was moving around and camping in the desert for 40 years. Not only were they stealthy (not encountering the Egyptian armies who recorded even encounters with a few nomadic pastoralists tending their flocks); but they were frugal! Not a single pot sherd has been found!

Not a single campsite or site of occupation has been found with the exception of the well-documented coastal forts and stations of the Egyptian army for the period of Ramesses II or for any of his immediate predecessors or successors. There have been repeated archaeological excavations at the site of St. Catherine’s Monastary in the Sinai, where Moses is supposed to have spoken to a burning bush, but the results have always been negative evidence. Not a single sherd or indication that the site was occupied in the Late Bronze Age. Modern archaeological techniques can trace the remains of hunter-gather and pastoral nomads all over the world, but cannot find a population the size of that of Vancouver in a barren desert! Indeed, the activity of a small population of pastoralists is present in the 3rd millennium (2000-3000) BCE, as well as in the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. But the evidence is NON-EXISTENT for the Late Bronze Age.

Tell Arad
East of Beersheba there is the remains of a great Early Bronze Age city that spans about 25 acres. A “tell” is a mound of past human habitation that has since eroded from mud bricks to a pile of dirt, often built upon again and again over many generations. This tell also became an Iron Age fort, but there are no remains for the Late Bronze Age when Exodus is alleged to have happened.

This directly contradicts the biblical narrative since the king of Arad “who dwelt in the Negeb” attacked the Israelites who appealed for divine intervention to destroy the Canaanite cities (Num. 21:1-3). There’s no evidence of Arad anywhere in the Beersheba valley (Negeb).

Tell Heshban
The wandering Jews supposedly did battle here with the Ammorite king, Sihon, who tried to block there passage (Num. 21:21-25). Excavations here reveal NO Bronze Age city. Not even a village.

Eddom and Ammon were alleged to be full-fledge states ruled by kings on the Transjordan plateau, yet the evidence shows that the plateau was sparsely inhabited by pastoralist populations in the Bronze Age. Not a single sedentary population is evident in the archaeological record.

Exodus was probably a story written by authors in the 7th century, or possibly as late as the 6th century, BCE. The place names mentioned above existed by the 7th century but not in the Bronze Age. Iron Age authors would have known of the many public works created by the Saite Dynasty in Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, who employed the largest numbers of foreign settlers. A large community of immigrants from Judah was present from the 7th through the 6th centuries. Pithom, mentioned in Exodus 1:11, was built in the 7th century. Migdol, mentioned in Exodus 14:2, was built in the 7th century.

Exodus apparently did not happen in the period or in the manner in which it is portrayed in biblical mythology.

Useful References:

Beitak, M. (1996). Avaris the capital of the Hyksos: recent excavations of Tell el-Daba. London

Finkelstein, I. & Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York

Oren, E.D. (1987). The “Ways of Horus” in North Sinai. In Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1992). Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton

Redford, D.B. (1987) An Egyptological perspective on the Exodus narrative. In: Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1973). Studies in Relations between Palestine and Egypt during the First Millennium B. C.: II. The Twenty-Second Dynasty. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 93(1), pp. 3-17.