Ancient History & Civilisation


Life on Board

The animals went in two by two, Hurrah! Hurrah!

The elephant and the kangaroo, Hurrah! Hurrah!

The animals went in two by two,

The elephant and the kangaroo,

And they all went in- to the Ark for to get out of the rain


The Ark in the storm as portrayed by Dutch artist Reinier Zeeman.

(picture acknowledgement 9.1)

We left the completed ark at the end of the last chapter, waterproofed, anointed and ready, its occupants surely apprehensive as to what could possibly await them. The Flood Story versions that build up to this dramatic moment differ in their accounts of who and what came to be on board at Atra-hasīs’s side in his great vessel and it is to these intriguing questions that we now turn our attention. Most important, of course, are the animals, and then the people.

‘Spurn property and save life!’ said the god Enki to Atra-hasīs, and the essence of the task that lay ahead of him, one can only reflect, remains a valid proposition for our own modern world. The same injunction appears in our three chief flood tablets, Old Babylonian Atrahasis, the Ark Tablet and Gilgamesh XI, ‘save life’ in line 26 of the latter being amplified for emphasis by ‘Put on board the seed of all living creatures.’

Boat-building notwithstanding, one cannot help but worry about the various Noahs, Babylonian and otherwise, and all their animals. The thought of rounding them up, getting them in line, marching them up the gangplank like a schoolteacher on an outing and ensuring good behaviour all round for a voyage of unknown length …

Atra-hasīs’s Animals

The animal boarders divide fundamentally into domestic and wild, and to convey this the Babylonian poets who write of Atra-hasīs use three Akkadian words: būl ṣēri, umām ṣēri and nammaššû. The word ṣēru means ‘hinterland, back country, open country, fields, plain and steppe land’, the broad countryside that outlies a village or town, uncultivated and more often than not the haunt of demons. The word būlu can mean on the one hand ‘herd of cattle, sheep or horses’, on the other ‘wild animals, as a collective, referring mainly to herds of quadrupeds’. Finally, umāmu means ‘animal, beast’, often but not necessarily wild, and nammaššû, ‘herds of (wild) animals’.

This breakdown makes it look as if words in Akkadian can mean whatever you want them to mean, but that is not the case. These are literary words whose full range of possible meanings seems too all encompassing to be much help when it comes to the Great Natural History Project, but, in context, the appropriate meaning – domestic or wild, one or many – is usually clear. I think that we cannot go far wrong with understanding būl ṣēri in the Ark situation as referring to ‘domesticated animals’ and nammaššû as meaning ‘wild animals’. We can comfortably translate umām ṣēri with our expression ‘beast of the field’, which can be either domestic or wild.

With these translations in mind, it becomes apparent that Old Babylonian Atrahasis has normal livestock, domesticated animals and wild animals being taken on board:

Whatever he [had …]

Whatever he had [ … ]

Clean (animals) … [… ]

Fat (animals) […]

He caught [and put on board]

The winged [birds of] the heavens.

The cattle (būl šakkan)[… ]

The wild [animals of the steppe (nammaššû ṣēri)]

[… ] he put on board.

Old Babylonian Atrahasis: 30–38

It is a pity that such timeless lines are broken in what is our best-preserved account of the cuneiform story. ‘Clean’ and ‘fat’ animals are separated here from the other categories, probably referring to domestic sheep and goats. In prime condition they would be brought on board not only with the survival of species in mind, but also to provide milk, cheese and meat. The distinction between būl šakkan and nammaššû ṣēri is essentially that between domesticated and wild animals, but it is worth pointing out there is no indication in Old Babylonian Atrahasis (in the surviving lines) that species completeness was conceived as part of the deal, or indeed that there were Male and Female of each. The category of ‘clean’, too, cannot pass without comment, for the notion of clean and unclean animals did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia as it does in the Bible. While the pig was certainly typecast as unclean there is no occurrence of, or antecedent to, the Hebrew dietary conception: it is certainly more than curious that it should occur here, of all places, in the clearest parallel of all, parallel to the text of Genesis, where the issue is important.

Middle Babylonian Nippur mentions wild animals and birds but is fragmentary:

[Into the boat which] you will make

[Bring aboard] wild beasts of the steppe (umām ṣēri), birds of heaven.

Heap up …

Middle Babylonian Nippur: 10–12

Assyrian Smith specifies domestic animals and non-carnivorous wild animals as part of the initial building instructions. Atra-hasīs is off the hook, though, as regards herding and rounding-up:

[Send up into] it …

Domestic [animals] (būl ṣēri), all the wild beasts

(umām ṣēri) that eat grass,

[I] will send to you and they will wait at your door.”

Assyrian Smith: 8–10

At first sight, the very broken lines 51–2 of the Ark Tablet look very unpromising. The surface, if not completely lost, is badly abraded in this part of the tablet. I needed, then, to bring every sophisticated technique of decipherment into play: polishing the magnifying glass, holding it steady, repeatedly moving the tablet under the light to get the slightest shadow of a worn-out wedge or two, and, of course, trying a hundred times. Eventually the sign traces in line 51 could be seen to be ‘and the wild animal[s of the st]ep[pe]’.

What gave me the biggest shock in 44 years of grappling with difficult lines in cuneiform tablets was, however, what came next … My best shot at the first two signs beginning line 52 came up with ša and na, both incompletely preserved. On looking unhopefully for words beginning šana- … in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Š PART 1 ŠA-ŠAP, I found the following entry and nearly fell off my chair as a result of the words: ‘šana (or šanā) adv. Two each, two by two; OA*; cf. šina’.

In plain English, there is an Akkadian word šana, or possibly šanā, an adverb derived from the numeral two, šina, which has the specific meaning ‘two each, two by two’. It is a very rare word among all our texts – in fact when the dictionary was published there had only been two occurrences (as is indicated by the asterisk that follows ‘OA’, which stands for Old Assyrian Period, about 1900–1700 BC). A merchant wrote using this word, ‘I will set aside one or two garments apiece (šana) and send them to you.’

The world’s most beautiful dictionary definition.

For the first time we learn that the Babylonian animals, like those of Noah, went in two by two, a completely unsuspected Babylonian tradition that draws us ever closer to the familiar narrative of the Bible. So, we can read in the Ark Tablet:

But the wild animals (namaštu) from the steppe (ṣēru) […] …

Two by two … did [they enter the ark.]

Ark Tablet: 51–2

The Ark tablet, back view, with close-up to show the signs for ‘two-by-two’.

(picture acknowledgement 9.2)

This discovery meant that a fresh look had to be taken at the corresponding cuneiform in Old Babylonian Atrahasis, for there is a broken line in exactly this spot where only the traces of the first sign survive: ‘x […] … he put on board’, and previously there had been no way of identifying this sign for certain.

This innocuous-looking ‘x’ sign proves to be highly important. Consulting the original tablet in the British Museum shows that this sign, of which only the front wedges are preserved, can now be positively identified as š[a-.

This is clear from my sketches, which show both the š[a- as it is preserved and a complete ŠA sign from the same tablet for comparison. (The large upper horizontal wedge over two smaller horizontals tucked underneath are characteristic of the beginning of this sign.) This, then, is the remains of ša-[na. We can see, therefore, that Old Babylonian Atrahasis included the same two-by-two idea found in the Ark Tablet and, furthermore, the discovery reinforces the reading of the crucial signs in the Ark Tablet, which are, as I already stated, very worn. We can thus restore the crucial words in Old Babylonian Atrahasis col. Ii line 38 as:

š[a-na i-na e-le-ep-pi-im uš]-te-ri-ib

Two by two he brought on board the boat,

and Ark Tablet 52 as:

ša-na MÁ! lu-ú × x × x × x x [x × x x]

Two by two the boat did [they enter … …] [ … …] … …

There is a further consideration raised by these two lines in the Ark Tablet: they only mention wild animals. Given the fuller spectrum covered by the other manuscript traditions I think we have to assume that taking domestic livestock in this telling was plainly understood, rather than imagine that a line of narrative has fallen out (especially given the line total of sixty). Domestic livestock might well be taken for granted, especially if some of the animals were going to be part of their own food chain. Line 51 begins with the word ‘and’, as if following on directly from the preceding line, which has nothing to do with quadrupeds, feral or otherwise, and for that reason is better translated ‘but’.

The following materials listed in the Ark Tablet are surprisingly difficult to make out; the lines are broken and the measurement system behind the numbers is not given.

Five (measures) of beer (?) I … […]

They were transporting eleven or twelve [ … …]

Three (measures) of šiqbum(?) I […] … …,

One third (measure) of fodder, … and kurdinnu plant (?)

Ark Tablet: 53–6

Probably all this was for the animals; diluted beer might have had its uses in husbandry, and one of the lines, probably line 54, might refer to straw or bedding.

Gilgamesh XI takes a very different stance on these issues. Once the boat was ready and the moment had arrived, Utnapishti loaded aboard a good deal more than the ‘seed of all living creatures’ that had earlier been specified.

[Everything I had] I loaded aboard it.

I loaded aboard it whatever silver I had,

I loaded aboard it whatever gold I had,

I loaded aboard it whatever seed I had of living things, each and every one.

All my kith and kin I sent aboard the boat,

I sent aboard domestic quadrupeds (būl ṣēri), wild beasts of the steppe (umām ṣēri), persons of every skill and craft …

Gilgamesh XI: 81–7

The first three of these items are really surprising when one recalls the pure injunction, ‘Despise property and save life!’ Who needs silver and gold on board an ark? If such items were so important couldn’t they just find more later? Rescue of living things, it seems, now plays second fiddle. Note, too, the reduction in scale of the operation, from the ideal ‘seed of all living things,’ which Ea commanded in line 26 to ‘whatever seed I had’. What does the text mean by ‘seed?’ Breedable animals that carry seed? All the animals, plants and birds?

This is the only animal line anywhere in cuneiform in which the word ‘all’ appears. It looks as if someone had said to Utnapishti, ‘We couldn’t take all living things, how on earth would we collect them? And think of ants together with elephants, or those giant baby-eating lizards we saw in Syria,’ and the story, to its disadvantage, is reinterpreted to mean living things within Utnapishti’s reach.

The wild animals in Utnapishti’s line 84, moreover, look like an afterthought to me, for they should have come under the umbrella of all living things above; again this looks like careless editing. If the two lines were meant together to cover all living things, domestic and wild, they should have formed a couplet. Utanapishti’s speech has been elaborated beyond the rational necessities that were quite sufficient according to the contemporary Assyrian Smith fragment quoted above.

Based on this evidence, one could say, on balance, that whereas the Old Babylonian narrative is concerned with the preservation of life, the Late Assyrian tradition is thinking more in terms of the preservation of civilisation

To summarise all this succinctly:

Old Babylonian Atrahasis:

normal livestock; birds; domesticated animals; wild animals; 2 [x2]

Middle Babylonian Nippur:

wild animals and birds (as preserved)

Assyrian Smith:

domestic animals and non-carnivorous wild animals

Ark Tablet:

2 × 2 wild animals

Probably the underlying Babylonian conception is ‘all animals, domestic and wild’ but this is not articulated as such. Only Gilgamesh XI uses the word ‘all’. Only Old Babylonian Atrahasis mentions birds on board although Middle Babylonian does include them in Ea’s plan. There are three categories of animals involved between the versions: domestic, wild and non-predatory wild. Avoiding predators would certainly be a sensible Ark policy.

The Ark Tablet, with its two-by-two, even without any domestic species, remains a miraculous discovery!

Noah’s Animals

There is something about Noah and his queue of ark animals that inspires cartoonists. One of my favourites shows Noah remarking ruefully to his wife, three days out, that perhaps they should have made an exception in the case of Mr and Mrs Woodworm. There is another fine drawing of two Diplodoci on a beach, the Ark meanwhile disappearing over the horizon, where one says to the other, ‘I told you it departed on Thursday!’

Noah, of course, could manage. He too had Instructions. In fact there were two slightly conflicting versions:

1: Genesis 6:19–22

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.

The first stipulates one male and one female of every species together with food for one and all, thus encapsulating the essence of what we might call the Ark Project. If hand-picked pairs were destined to guarantee survival of their species, none could themselves be eaten. The tooth-and-claw Laws of Nature would thus need to be suspended for the duration, with every link in the normally voracious food chain agreeing to hold off. However you look at it, umpiring life on board was going to be a matter of considerable finesse for the Captain. This simple instruction is not, however, the whole story.

2: Genesis 7:2–3

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth.”

Here, a follow-up suggestion, with an extra six male and female pairs for every clean species, while birds are itemised separately from the animals, with seven pairs of each for every type. The amendment reads almost as if a disadvantage had been spotted in the first plan. Since Noah’s first post-diluvial deed on dry land was to offer grateful sacrifices of clean animals and birds, perhaps anticipation of this led to the amendment. A cartoonist might attribute the suggestion to Mrs Noah, responsible for the cooking and trying to plan ahead for an unknown number of meals. In the end, though, as we again see from the two following accounts, Noah took on board one male and one female of absolutely every living species and rejected the sevens options.

Account 1: Genesis 7:8–9

There went in two of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.

Account 2: Genesis 7: 13–16

On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons, entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

Reading this over, I find it remarkable in such a consequential matter as the future survival of the entire life of the world that the long-suffering Noah should be confronted by conflicting instructions. What was he supposed to do? Can this vacillation perhaps be explained?

In fact, the feature of two distinct instructions can be understood from the inside history of the Hebrew text itself. As is the case with many passages in the Old Testament, a close look at the received Hebrew wording makes it clear that certain paragraphs or even sentences have been woven together out of more than one strand of underlying text. This approach to the Hebrew text of Scripture depends on a long-established and largely non-contentious branch of biblical scholarship known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This distinguishes four principal sources as lying behind the text of the Hebrew Bible on the basis of, primarily, which name was used for God. These sources are referred to by the theologians who work on such matters as J (Yahwist source), E (Elohist source), D (Deuteronomist source) and P (Priestly source). It occurred to me to separate out the sources behind the Flood Story, and the animals section in particular as an experiment. The wording of Genesis 6–8 is constructed out of two sources, J and P, of which the former is considerably the shorter:

Genesis J first paragraph: 1Then the LORD said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth …’

Genesis J second paragraph: 7And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.

Genesis P first paragraph: ‘You shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him …

Genesis P second paragraph: 13On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons, entered the ark, 14they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind – every bird, every winged creature. 15They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him …

So, the input of the seven pairs motif comes only from the source J first paragraph; it was already rejected in J second paragraph and did not occur at all in P. (This question recurs in Chapter 10 when we have to compare the Genesis Flood Story as a whole with the cuneiform tradition.) Here we can visualise unmistakably the hand of a human editor, attempting to amalgamate traditions distinct in their content and wording. Faced with divergent traditions about the numbers of animals, he felt unable to decide on such a serious point and so included both.

In Koranic tradition Noah took one pair of each species on board, as is clear from Suras 11:40 and 23:27: ‘Place on board this Ark a pair of each species …’

Noah in biblical and Koranic traditions, thus found himself charged with collecting two specimens of all birds, animals and insects, one of each gender. This sounds like a very tall order, for the terms ‘every’ or ‘all’ add up rapidly, and thanks to Sir David Attenborough everyone today has an inkling of just what that ‘all’ might entail. The statistics, in fact, are staggering. Apparantly there are about 1,250,000 identified species of animal. This includes 1,190,200 invertebrates, among them 950,000 insects, 70,000 molluscs, 40,000 crustaceans, and 130,200 others. There are about 58,800 identified vertebrates, including 29,300 fish, 5,743 amphibians, 8,240 reptiles, 9,800 birds, and 5,416 mammals. As a comparison, almost 300,000 plant species are known.

It is no great feat of imagination to see the problems, then, with Noah’s agenda. Nothing aboard would be able to breathe, the big would squash the small, it would surely be impossible to control the carnivores for long, especially in the dark, and the vessel would sink anyway under the weight. Anything like all the world’s life forms together would be impossible, but there is one reassuring let-out factor to be considered: the Hebrew flood tradition – like the Sumerian and Babylonian that preceded it – could only have in mind the range of species that prevailed locally. All the animals, birds and insects, in other words, meant only all that they were familiar with. This means that many of the world’s bulkiest, most dangerous or least cooperative animal varieties (rhino, polar bear, giraffe), were unheard of and didn’t come into the picture, as well as uncountable myriads of lesser creatures. Bird, insect, mammal and reptile species in the Middle East did not – and do not – exist in unimaginable numbers. There was no need, either, to worry about accommodating fish or whales: they would all be in their element. From this perspective, the Ark idea begins to look more or less feasible after all.

It is time, therefore, to think about all these animals, Babylonian and biblical, and see what we can provide in the way of a checklist for ourselves at the top of the gangplank.

Atra-hasīs’s Animals

To get a handle on Atra-hasīs’s animal carnival we find ourselves remarkably well served, thanks to our indispensable ancient cuneiform dictionaries, one of which has chapters actually listing the words for all living things. The dreary-sounding ancient name by which cuneiform librarians referred to this Super Dictionary is ‘Urra = hubullu’, the Sumerian and Babylonian respectively for ‘interest-bearing loan’, because the first line of the first chapter deals with bilingual legal and business terminology. There are chapters for all known domestic creatures (Urra Tablet XIII), birds and fish (Urra Tablet XIV), and wild animals (Urra Tablet XVIII). Impressively large, heavy tablets can contain a complete chapter, but many school exercise tablets – of the kind familiar to theArk Tabletscribe as a schoolboy – show that a few excerpted lines of natural history could be scribbled as a daily chore. Old lists, going back at least to the period of our Ark Tablet, provided first of all the words in Sumerian. One thousand years later King Ashurbanipal’s librarians at Nineveh had bilingual versions of all the Urra = hubullu chapters in near-perfect calligraphy, with everything translated into Akkadian. The result is that today we know the names of all the birds, animals and creeping things of ancient Mesopotamia, in two dead languages. If our venerable Babylonian Noah ever had to tick off names on a register, in other words, we have an idea of what the entries would have been.

Urra Tablet XIII lists basic domestic animals, sheep, goats and so forth, of which particular twos or sevens could easily be selected. The Old Babylonian sheep section, for example, contains eighty-four entries, and is the last word on the subject:

Fattened sheep; good quality, fattened sheep; knife-shorn, fattened sheep; male sheep; male breeder sheep; grass-fed sheep … sheep with a collapsed lung; sheep with mange; sheep with arthritic hips; sheep with diarrhoea; sheep given to butting …

Urra Tablet XIV lists all the other animals, big and small. The structure is consistent: a head section word, on the basis of Sumerian, acts like a dictionary hyperlink. Sumerian UR = Akkadian, kalbu, ‘dog,’ for example, meaning dog, heads up a long run of words that are dog or dog-like that all begin with ur-.

I think, for fun, we should list them. That these entries can be translated today reflects selfless decades and mountains of philology by many valiant cuneiformists, in the forefront of whom was the Chicago Assyriologist Benno Landsberger, who pulled all the ancient dictionaries into shape for incorporation within the modern Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. Some identifications are more or less certain, others are conventional, but viewed as a whole we have a reliable impression of what the ancient list of animals was intended to achieve.


The animal names given below are more or less in the order in which they occur in Urra Chapter XIV, except that, with Atra-hasīs’s responsibilities in mind, I have in each case put male and female together and collated scattered entries for the same name. ‘Types’ include Sumerian names, habitats, colours and even temperament; mythological animals find their way in, too, but in and among the lexical distinctions are what we call distinct species.

Snake (ṣēru: forty-four types)

Turtle (šeleppû: three types) and young

Eel (kuppû)

Rodent (asqūdu)

Wild bull (rīmu: two types) and wild cow (rīmtu: two types)

Elephant (pīlu: two types)

Camel, dromedary (ibilu: two types)

Cow (littu: two types)

Dog (kalbu: nineteen types) and bitch (kalbatu)

Lion (nēšu, labbu, girru: twenty types) and lioness (nēštu: seven types)

Wolf (barbaru; parrisu)

Tiger or cheetah (mindinu)

Leopard (dumāmu)

Badger (kalab urṣi)

Hyena (būṣu: two types)

Fox (šēlebu)

Cat (šurānu)

Wild cat (murašû)

Caracal (zirqatu)

Lynx (azaru)

Zebu(?) (apsasû) and female zebu(?) (apsasītu)

Ape (pagû) and female ape (pagītu)

Bear (asu)

Bull (lī’û)

Leopard (nimru)

Eagle (erû: five types)

Jackal (zību: three types)

Wild sheep (bibbu; atūdu)

Wild ram (sappāru)

Bison (ditānu; kusarikku: two types)

Red deer (lulīmu)

Stag (ayyālu: two types)

Mountain goat (turāḫu)

Roe deer (nayyālu: two types)

Gazelle (ṣabītu: two types and kid ḫuzālu)

Buck (daššu)

Hare (arnabu) and female hare (arnabtu)

Bear (dabû) and female bear (dabītu)

Pig (šaḫû: twenty-three types)

sow (šaḫītu: five types) and piglet (kurkizannu)

Wild boar (šaḫ api)

burmāmu (unidentified: three types)

Doormouse (arrabu; ušummu)

piazu (small rodent: three types)

Mongoose (šikkû: two types; puṣuddu; kāṣiru)

Mouse (humṣīru; pērūrūtu)

Doormouse (arrabu) iškarissu (rodent)

kurusissu (rodent)

Vole (harriru) aštakissu (rodent)

Shrew (ḫulû: two types)

Jerboa (akbaru)

asqudu (rodent: three types)

Otter (tarpašu)

Marten (šakadirru)

Chameleon (ḫurbabillu; ayyar-ili: four types)

Lizard (anduḫallatu: two types; ṣurārû: five types)

Tortoise (raqqu, usābu)

Crab (kušû: two types; alluttu: two types)

Locust or grasshopper (erbu: three types; irgilum; irgizum; large: ṣinnarabu; medium: ḫilammu; small: zīru; tiny: zerzerru)

Cricket (ṣāṣiru: three types; ṣarṣaru)

Praying mantis (šā’ilu: two types; sikdu; adudillu)

lallartu (insect: three types) išid-bukannu (insect)

Head louse (uplu)

Louse (nābu)

kalmatu insect (thirteen types)

šīḫu (insect)

Flea (perša’u)

Weevil (tal’ašu)

Termite (bušṭītu: five types)

Moth (ašāšu; sāsu: seven types; miqqānu: three types; mēqiqānu)

Bug (ibḫu)

Worm (tūltu: four types; urbatu: four types)

Earthworm (išqippu)

Grub (mubattiru)

Caterpillar or larva (munu: eight types; nappilu: five types; ākilu: five types; upinzir: three types; nāpû)

šassūru (insect: three types)

Butterfly (kurṣiptu: three types; kurmittu: three types; turzu)

Nit (nēbu)

Fly (zumbu: nine types)

Horse fly (lamṣatu)

Small fly (baqqu: three types)

Mosquito (zaqqītu)

Gnat (ašturru: two types)

Wasp (kuzāzu ‘the buzzer’; hāmītu ‘the hummer’; nambubtu)

Water boatman (ēṣid pān mê)

Centipede (ḫallulāya: two types)

Spider (ettūtu: four types; anzūzu; lummû)

Jellyfish (ḫammu: four types)

mūr mê (insect)

ummi mê (water insect)

Dragonfly (kulilītu; kallat-Shamash: four types)

Ant (kulbabu: eight types)

Scorpion (zuqaqīpu: eleven types)

Gecko (pizalluru: three types)

Lizard (humbibittu)

Frog (muṣa’’irānu)

Toad or frog (kitturu: seven types)

Atra-hasīs would probably identify with the common insect, the water boatman, ēṣid pān mê (whose elegant name means ‘reaper-of-the-water-surface’). Perhaps, in his place, we might have thought twice about booking seats for the eight types of annoying flies who, according to the lexicographers, specialise in biting people, lionesses, wolves, oxen, water, stone, honey, butter and cucumber, while, if he had any sense at all, he would have left out the zaqqītu, or mosquito, altogether.

Noah’s Animals

Today the question of Noah’s animals is no longer a preoccupation of scientific enquiry, but there was a time when serious scholars like Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) and especially the great polymath Athanasius Kircher (c.1601–80), thought a good deal about them, just when knowledge of natural history was on the increase. I fancy Kircher would have approved of the Ark Tablet and its implications, for his religious convictions in no way inhibited his burning scientific curiosity, and exposition of its content would have found a place in his wonderful Arca Noe, published in 1675. Kircher was renowned in his day as ‘master of a hundred arts’, and his great illustrated work on Noah’s Ark is stunning, with full plates to show the Ark under construction in Noah’s workshop and the animals, tidily accommodated in their quarters, in a cross-section view of the finished boat.

The great Athanasius Kircher himself.

Kircher’s view of Noah’s Ark under construction.

Kircher’s understanding of how the animals were accommodated.

(picture acknowledgement 9.5)

Kircher’s Ark taxonomy ran to only about fifty pairs of animals, leaving him to conclude that space inside was not such a difficulty. He developed the interesting explanation that Noah had rescued all the animals that then existed, and that the subsequent profusion of different species in the world resulted from post-diluvian adaptation, or interbreeding among the core Ark species; so that giraffes, for example, were produced after the Flood by camel and leopard parents. Kircher even had a serious try at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, and although no one relies on his voluminous three-tome work today he learned Coptic in 1633 and was the first to argue – correctly – that living Coptic was the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language. Kircher would have had fun with cuneiform, especially as another of his works, the wonderful Turris Babel, represents an early outbreak of Assyriology, and is a volume that is hard to put down.

For Noah all we can do is collect the Hebrew words for animals that appear in the Old Testament and see what sort of bulk they make. This procedure is little easier than with the ancient Akkadian tablets, for identifying many nouns depends either on old translations into different languages, or on etymology, for words certainly change their meaning over time, and lots of animal words are rare in the Hebrew text. Since we are only seeking a glimpse of Noah’s register, we need not dwell on such problems. The creatures we find are as follows:

Domestic: horse, ass, mule; swine; one-humped camel; cattle, buffalo, goat, sheep; dog, cat.

Wild: bat; hedgehog(?); jackal and fox; bear; hyena; lion; leopard; coney; onager; wild boar; red deer, fallow deer, roe deer; wild ox; gazelle; ibex; antelope; hare; mole rat; mouse; elephant (import!); apes; peacock or parrot.

Birds: eagle, vulture, hawk; various owls; ostrich (?); swallow or sparrow; heron, stork, cormorant, crane; rock pigeon, turtledove; goose; domestic fowl; partridge; quail.

Reptiles: various lizards; frog (and several irrelevant monsters and dragons).

Invertebrates: viper, adder, (and others); scorpion, leech.

Insects: lice; grasshopper and locust; ants; wasp; bee; moth; flea; fly; gnat; spiders.

For Noah, then, this is maybe not such a bad proposition: a few ropes, some strong nets, some honey perhaps and a lot of patience …

The Bible has accustomed us to think of the Flood lasting for forty days and nights although the Babylonian tradition is for seven days and nights, which would be sufficient time to annihilate life on earth very efficiently. Did the god Enki actually mention to Atra-hasīs how long the Deluge would last? There is no clue from the cuneiform.

As the work reaches completion and the Ark is ready for loading Atra-hasīs declares himself exhausted but, at first, joyful, according to the Ark Tablet:

I lay myself down (?) … […] … of rejoicing

My kith and kin [went into] the boat … ;

Joyful … [… … ] … … of my in-laws,

and the porter with … …

They ate and drank their fill.

Ark Tablet: 34–8

Who actually did go on board then? Kith and kin (in Babylonian kimtu and salātu), means the immediate family – the nuclear Mr and Mrs A. H., their unnamed sons and daughters-in-law – and kin by marriage (‘in-laws’), that is, the families of their daughters-in-law. We do not know in this case what this meant in terms of total numbers. In Old Babylonian Atrahasis there is a clear distinction between the workers who had built the boat and the family (kimtu) who were to go on board:

…] he invited his people

…] to a banquet.

…]  … he sent his family on board, They ate and drank their fill.

Old Babylonian Atrahasis: 40–43

This phrase ‘They ate and drank their fill’, occurs word for word in both Old Babylonian accounts. Literally it translates, ‘The eater eats, the drinker drinks’, and it is difficult to capture the right nuance. There is a similar Babylonian expression used by diviners, ‘the seer sees, the hearer hears’; both have the ring of a folk proverb or saying.

In Gilgamesh XI the workmen had already been well treated throughout the work, right up until the day before the oiling, so there was no need for another celebration:

For the workmen I butchered oxen.

Every day I slaughtered sheep.

Beer, ale, oil and wine.

[I gave my] workforce [to drink], like the waters of a very river!

They were celebrating as on the feast-days of the New Year itself!

Gilgamesh XI: 71–5

The on-board humans get their mention later. There is no partying for them, and the on-deck quarters will need to accommodate more than just Utnapishti’s nearest and dearest:

All my kith and kin I sent aboard the boat,

I sent aboard … persons of every skill and craft.

Gilgamesh XI: 85–6

First-millennium Utnapishti is planning ahead with no wish to find himself and his family in a post-Deluge world uncomfortably devoid of expertise. The same point is made in Assyrian Smith:

[Send up into] it …

[Your wife], your kith, your kin, and the skilled workers.

It is interesting, considering what was afoot, that Puzur-Enlil the shipwright was not numbered among these indispensable on-board experts, to deal with leaks. All of them, one presumes, were accustomed to animals and at least one (it is to be hoped) was a vet.

In Hebrew tradition it was just the nucleus of the family taken on board:

But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

This meant Mr and Mrs Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth and their respective wives, and that was that. Eight people, in other words.

In the Koran not even Nuh’s own son came aboard to join the few believers:

We said, ‘Place on board this Ark (…) your own family – except those against whom the sentence has already been passed – and those who have believed,’ though only a few believed with him. He said, ‘Board the Ark. In the name of God it shall sail and anchor. My God is most forgiving and merciful.’ It sailed with them on waves like mountains, and Noah called out to his son, who stayed behind, ‘Come aboard with us, my son, do not stay with the disbelievers.’ But he replied, ‘I will seek refuge on a mountain to save me from the water.’

Sura 11:40–43

In the Old Babylonian narrative, thanks to previously unknown lines from the Ark Tablet, we are confronted with Atra-hasīs the man, the Suffering Servant. The daily distraction of shipbuilding was over and he must face reality; he sees his family in innocent party mood, possibly even construing the imminent voyage as a treat or an adventure and oblivious to the imminent fate – known to him alone – that was to overwhelm all their friends and neighbours together with every other living thing. He gives a banquet for his ‘people’, those who had worked on the project for him, knowing that each would soon be drowned. The burden on his mind became intolerable. Consider the picture in Old Babylonian Atrahasis once everyone was aboard; the moon had already disappeared, and Atra-hasīs knew what that meant. As for the hero himself,

he was in and out: he could not sit, could not crouch

For his heart was broken and he was vomiting gall.

Old Babylonian Atrahasis: 45–7

The Ark Tablet develops this image at greater length in a poetic but sadly damaged section of text. Atra-hasīs tries to avert the catastrophe and prays to the Moon God for intercession before it is too late.

As for me, there was no word in my heart, and

my heart;

my […]

of my …

… of my lips

…, I slept with difficulty;

I went up on the roof and pr[ayed] to my lord Sin:

“Let my heartbreak (?) be extinguished! [Do you not disap]pear!”


Into my …

Sin, from his thr[one, swo]re as to annihiliation

And desola[tion on (the)] darkened [day (to come)]

Ark Tablet: 39–50

The background to this is explicit in the Old Babylonian Schϕyen tablet where it is recorded that the Flood will begin at the new moon:

The gods commanded an annihilation,

A wicked thing that Enlil will do to the people.

In the assembly they commanded the Deluge, (saying): “By the day of the new moon we shall do the task.”

Old Babylonian Schϕyen: 21–2

Atra-hasīs’s reasoning was evidently that, if the Moon God proved sympathetic and just didn’t disappear as usual, there would be no new moon and the fateful day would never actually come.

In Old Babylonian Atrahasis Enki had been very clear about the timetable:

He opened the water-clock and filled it;

He announced to him the coming of the flood for the seventh night.

Old Babylonian Atrahasis: 36–7

If the anguished Atra-hasīs was praying with this stratagem in mind at very much the last minute, the date will have been the evening of the 28th since the moon would normally disappear on the 29th or 30th; the conversation about building the rescue boat will therefore have taken place during the day on the 22nd or 23rd of the month and Atra-hasīs had his six days to build the Ark. In Gilgamesh XI the timetable is the same: the great boat has taken shape by Day 5; oiling and so forth is done on Day 6; the Flood comes on Day 7. In the Assyrian Smith Atra-hasīs is simply told, [observe] the appointed time of which I will inform you’.

In Gilgamesh XI, in comparison, Atra-hasīs’s counterpart Utnapishti is faceless. He receives his instructions and the god Ea gives him a cover story for the Babylonians; he will be descending to the subterranean waters of the Apsû to live with his master. The sign will be a symbolic rain of plenty including birds, fishes, bread-cakes and wheat. Once the work is over and everything is loaded on board, Utnapishti reveals that Shamash, the Sun God, had set a deadline, and the day on which that very downpour is seen will be the day of the Flood. There is no room here for any sympathising with Atra-hasīs, or any visualising of his personal predicament. This literary episode with the symbolic rain has evolved – laden with ripe meanings for a Babylonian – out of a much simpler passage inOld Babylonian Atrahasis, which promises simply,

‘I will rain down upon you here

An abundance of birds, a profusion of fishes.’

Old Babylonian Atrahasis: iii 34–5

There is no reference to this topic in the Ark Tablet.

The word for water-clock in Old Babylonian Atrahasis, incidentally, is maltaktu, from the verb latāku, ‘to test’. One cannot help thinking that for Atra-hasīs the relentless drip-drip-drip of the water measure must have seemed quite unnecessarily stressful considering what lay ahead.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!