This essay was originally posted on our PPEH blog as Part 2 of The Nature of Our Ruin continues to explore various ethical responses to environmental destruction as well as the environmental politics of the epic of Gilgamesh.
Tucked away in a drawer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, an Old Babylonian clay tablet from the ancient city of Nippur (17th century BCE) contains about 60 lines of Sumerian text narrating parts of the flood story from the epic of Gilgamesh.
The text includes the creation of mankind, the foundation of cities and their rulers, and the flood. From the third to first millennia BCE, the flood story in particular seems to have been an important fixture in popular imagination. The famous biblical account of Noah, his ark, and the flood, is just one manifestation of the ancient flood myth, which was probably transmitted orally throughout the Near East for millennia.
The hero of the flood story is Ziusudra (or Utnapishtim, in the Akkadian version). One day, Enlil--the god of wind and storm--and the other great gods decide to cause a great flood that would kill off every living being on the planet, since mankind, they thought, was "making too much noise" on the planet. It is clear that humankind's collective presence was offensive, even noxious, to the gods of nature. In this way, the flood was a kind of ecological vengeance brought in large part by mankind. Breaking his oath of secrecy, however, Enki, the god of the sea, reveals this divine plan through the walls of Ziusudra's house. Enki warns Ziusudra to tear down his house and build a large ship so that human and nonhuman beings may survive. The frightful storm blackened the world while the shock of the lightning and thunder caused fear. On the 7th day, the flooding finally stopped.
In Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos, William Burroughs offers some possible sources from which this popular myth emerged. Attempting to contextualize the anicent flood narratives through material and scientific data, Burroughs suggests that a steady rise in the sea level may have flooded human settlements, but that "this is unlikely as, in human terms, the rate of the rise was slow." (219) Burroughs does say, however, that the potential source could be attributed to discrete catastrophic events caused by long-term, global changes. (219-221) Similarly, Penn Museum's excavations at Ur added soil samples of flood deposits from antediluvian houses to its collection, potentially providing material and scientific evidence for the flood. These efforts to historicize the flood myth through data, while provocative and historiographically interesting, can obscure a profound moral and ecological lesson that is particularly meaningful today.
In the epic of Gilgamesh, the powerful storm destroyed everything: the entire plain was completely flattened while all humans beings turned to clay. Grief fills Ziusudra, who looks out, falls to his knees, and weeps. Since the sea is an uninhabitable space, Ziusudra looks out from his ship in search for a coastline. Spotting one, he docks his ship atop a mountain, releases the animals, and proceeds to make a sacrifice to the gods."Ye gods, as surely as I shall not forget this lapis lazuli [amulet] around my neck, I shall be mindful of these days and never forget them!” (lines 165-166; emphasis added). Grief embeds itself into historical and collective memory, perpetually warning and reminding communities so that they may never forget the outcomes of tragedy and the violent power that our earth wields.
Ziusudra continues, “But Enlil may not come, because he brought about the flood and annihilated my people without considering [the consequences]" (lines 168-170). Without compassion or consideration for the serious, long-term effects on human and nonhuman life, the gods, or earth’s forces, indiscriminately threatened human existence and their lifeways. Recognizing this, Ziusudra angrily refuses to offer any sacrifices to Enlil. The flood story shows us that if grief is an ethically useful response to humanity’s destruction of the environment, then blame is an ethically inevitable response to environmental catastrophe.
Discussions of anthropogenic climate change and environmental catastrophe are now matters of both domestic and foreign policy. While we are quick to react to single catastrophic events, it is more difficult to respond meaningfully to global changes that take place at a much slower pace. We struggle against the timescale of the impacts that anthropogenic climate change will have on future generations, despite our awareness of its effects on coastlines and island nations and the threats it poses to agriculture, public health, and infrastructure.
Often, these conversations are tinged with resentment and calls for accountability. While Ziusudra holds the god Enlil responsible for destruction, who are we to blame? The government of the present? Leaders of the past? Amorphous corporate entities? Our neighbors? Ourselves? And as our planet warms and our seas rise at a faster rate than ever, is it already too late to apologize?
Today, blame and its various performances have been accompanied by action. Scientists, humanists, and activists have responded by creating conversations that foster dialogue locally, regionally, and globally. The recent Paris talks at COP21 are evidence of an international network of actors and agencies who seek to take responsibility for the actions of mankind.
Like grief, perhaps blame is as useful of a response because of its capacity to hold humanity accountable for its present and future actions. Responsibility and regret have, and hopefully will continue to, fuel public calls for action, serving as a perpetual warning of the consequences of our own collective environmental “noise.”
Burroughs, William James. Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.