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Two Thousand Years of Flood (A comparision between The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Bible and The Metamorphoses)

          The Great Flood is a common subject to everybody with a minimum taste for general knowledge (or no taste at all). We are aware of the rich amount of research material in the field but we also felt the lack of reachable writings to the wide public especially when comparing original sources. The motivation behind this material is a systematic comparison between three major writings from the antiquity, that comprise the Great Flood issue including the anterior and posterior facts avoiding the philological and archaeological jargon. These three texts, with considerate periods of time apart from each other, are The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BC), The Bible (circa 1445 BC) and Ovidius’ Metamorphoses (8 AD). In the first part, we will mark a set of similarities and differences between them, then, in the second part we will do the same, but with the three at the same time. All this is done in the form of an essay given that the writers are not experts in the field but curious outsiders. Our exploration relies mostly on the analysis of the original texts in translation (except the case of The Metamorphoses, for we used the Latin text as well) rather than on the scholars’ studies, without excluding their consultation either.

 

Similarities

 

          Concerning The Metamorphoses and The Bible, the first thing that’s calling the attention is the presence of giants in both books (Met. I, 151 and Gen. 6.4), followed by a feeling of regret. The Bible simply says that the Lord regretted (Gen 6.6), but Ovidius is covering this feeling with a sigh (Saturnius…ingemit; Met. I, 163). As a reaction to the regret, anger coming from the deepest makes its appearance. His soul conceived great anger (Met. I, 166.) and it grieved him to his heart (Gen 6.6). Another common point is the depravity of the human kind represented by Ovidius in the figure of Lycaon (Met. I, 162-251), but the Bible says that God saw that the wickedness of man was great on earth (Gen. 6.5). The effect of this depravity is the divinity’s desire to erase the human race from earth (Met I, 259 and Gen. 6.7). Both texts talk about one man and his family that was above the others and deserved to be saved. We’re talking about Deucalion in the Metamorphoses (Met. I, 322-323) and Noah in the Bible (Gen. 6.9). The last similarity that we could find is one posterior to the flood, i.e. the way it was stopped with the help of the wind. The Roman author tells us that Aquilo was sent and took the clouds away (Met. I, 328) while God made a wind blow over the earth, and the water subsided (Gen 8.1).

          Both the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh put an important stress on the continuity of the species after the flood. God says to Noah to take two pairs of every kind, male and female (Gen. 6:19) and Utanapishtim, telling his story to Gilgamesh, says that he loaded into the boat all the living beings that he had. (Gilg. XI. 084). After the storm, we’re being told that Ishtar wept with regret for causing the flood that destroyed the people and the other gods joined her in grief (Gilg. XI.117-127). The same kind of regret we see in God when He says “(Neither) will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” (Gen 8.21). After the flood stopped, the very first reaction of Noah was to open a window (Gen. 8.6) and so was Utanapishtim’s (Gilg. XI.137). Last, but not least, as a conclusion to everything, a very natural ancient reaction occurred: the sacrifice (Gilg. XI, 157-160 and Gen. 8.20) that pleased the divinity with its aroma (Gilg. XI, 161-163 and Gen 8.21).

          Given the time gap between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Ovidius’ great opera (that follows the Greek tradition, but with a specific Augustan twist), we thought that the similarities would be insignificant or not existent at all, but although we only found one, it is compelling. The most important characteristic is the malicious element of the divinity that wants the surviving human to suffer, or doesn’t want it to live at all. After the flood, seeing the god Enlil that Utanapishtim and his family was alive, addressed to the goddess Ea with a choleric voice: “Where did a living being escape? No man was to survive the annihilation!” (Gilg. XI, 150-152). After doing all that was in his power, which was more than enough to destroy the humans, Jupiter’s wrath was still not content, so he asked his brother, Neptune, to help him and bring even more destruction upon the mortals through his control of the waters (Met. I, 276).

          Despite the elements that distinguish the three narratives, we clearly see common material among the accounts which really confirms that the Primeval Flood is a unique and important event in humankind’s memory. When studying the details, we don’t want to lose from sight that all of them speak about a Universal Flood, in all of them there is a human survivor and the event is the result of some kind of interaction between divinity and human. The divine punishment produces a fundamental disturbance in human’s quality of life. The tragedy of the flood is manifested when approaching the landing mountain (Nisir, Ararat or Parnasus) at the first sight of the destroyed world (Gilg. XI. 138-139); after leaving the boat, in the Metamorphoses the two survivors approach the temple with the cheeks full of tears. The nostalgia becomes clear when the divinity looks with pleasure or compassion towards the affected ones (Met. I, 381, Gen. 8:20,21, Gilg. XI. 158-163). Even though Utanapishtim and Pyrrha are granted eternal life, they must spend it in isolation (Gilg. XI. 205).

 

Differences

 

          In the present case we’re talking about a time gap of thousand years approx. between each of accounts and three different cultures, therefore the differences were expected from the very beginning.

          First of all, in the Metamorphoses the boat on which Deucalion and Pyrrha survived is a small and fragile boat (Met. I, 319), while Noah’s ark is a big and solid ark (300 cubits by 50 by 30, which means 158.7m long by 26.45m wide by 15.87m high; Gen. 6:15) and neither was Utanapishtim’s smaller (the exterior walls 120 cubits and the length of it 120 cubits as well). The size of the boat also implies that in the Roman’s epic poem there were no animals to be saved. The human depravity that we talked about before, referring to the Bible and the Metamorphoses we could not find in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

          Right on the moment the flood starts and the chosen ones were in the boat, God himself closed the door (Gen. 7:16), while Utanapishtim was ordered to close it (Gilg. XI, 90-93). Forty days after the flood stopped, Noah sends three times a dove to check whether the waters subsided (Gen. 8:6-12). In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we see Utanapishtim sending after only seven days, first a dove, then a swallow and last a raven which did not come back to the boat. (Gilg. XI, 115-126). The Metamorphoses is the only one who mentions the recreation of the humanity through stones (Met. I, 398-415).

 

Conclusions

 

          In the conclusions we would like to make a point about the purpose of the three writings with respect to the Flood:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

          The struggle of Gilgamesh of gaining eternal life when realizing that he will share the fate of his friend Enkidu leads him to the immortality quest. However, the only man that can decode for him this mystery is Utanapishtim the immortal. However, unexpectedly, the latter’s situation was an eternal life of isolation. The inner message of this chapter is the extent and limit to which the human can aspire to resemble the gods. For more information about this theological contradiction we have consulted the prologue to our version of the poem, pages 8 and 9.

Bible

          God hates sin and that’s why before destroying the earth the text iterates several times over the fact that the earth was corrupt (e.g. Gen. 6:11, 12). This corruption is correlated with the violence on the earth at that point and the sickness of human thought (every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually; Gen. 6.5). It is also correlated with some uncommon creatures for the post-Flood world like the “sons of God” (Gen. 6.2) which married human females, leading to the divine limitation of human age to 120 years.  Bizarre and evil creatures like the giants not only occur in the Bible but form the prototype of human depravity in the Metamorphoses. We won’t further speak about whether the sons of God are in fact the descendants of Seth or whether the giants are simply cruel land-owners. For further discussion on the topic see the interesting article of Keil in his biblical commentary [1]  given that the exact meaning of those creatures cannot be easily elucidated by philological means but by theological ones.

Metamorphoses

          Beyond describing the closing of another chapter in the human history, Ovidius also makes remarks the wickedness of humans before the Flood and the necessity of a new race of miraculous origins (Met. I,250). The contagious state (Met. I,250) of the humans is best represented in the image of Lycaon. One may consider Lycaon as a parallel to the uncommon creatures in the Bible because their association with the Flood episode, however The Metamorphoses exposes more features of this individual as a bloody being with anti-god aspirations (Met. I,250 220, 224-225). Lycaon is a clear image of the humans in the pre-flood world in places like Met. I, 215.

          Our comparison leads us to the conclusion that the red thread of the Primeval Flood is the guiltiness of the human kind before the divinity, either by trying to acquire a divine feature, like eternity, either by social disorder and immorality or by direct dishonor brought to the divinity, despite the syntax used for describing that.

 

 

Notes

[1] Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament. Gen 6.1-4.

 

Sources

Ovidio, N. P. “Metamorfosis. Libros I-V, Madrid: Gredos.” (2008)

Ovid. “Metamorphoses. Ed.Hugo Magnus. Gotha, Germany: Friedr. Andr. Perthes.” (1892)

Bible. “English Standard Version. Bible Gateway.” (web 15 Feb. 2016)

Biblia. “Traducerea Dumitru Cornilescu.” (1924 ediția revizuită în 2014)

El poema de Gilgamesh. “Madrid: Cátedra.” (2015)
Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament. Studylight (web 10 Mar. 2016)

 

Brumar, I. and Pleșa, D.C.

10 Mar. 2016

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