Forty Days and Forty Nights

In which The Author is sick and tired of the rain

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
(Genesis 7: 11-12)
Now, you’ll probably be surprised (especially if you come from a fairly average Judaeo-Christian upbringing) to learn that this Biblical story has a direct equivalent in the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia (roughly equivalent to modern Iraq) and further afield again:
There are two ways in which the presence of myths in any society may be explained; one is by way of diffusion, and the other is through the independent working of imagination when confronted by similar situations. [Hermann] Usener’s researches have shown that the myth of the Flood is to be found in almost every part of the world.
(Hooke, 1971: 16.)
Here’s where this particular story starts. In 1853, at an archaeological dig at the site of the city of Nineveh, Sir Austin Henry Layard unearthed a cache of baked clay tablets. They were sent to the British Museum, where scholars began gradually translating their contents. It was there, in 1872, that a linguist named George Smith first translated the ancient poem which we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In his books A Test of Time and Legend, the archaeologist David Rohl explores the background to the familiar Old Testament stories, and draws some controversial conclusions. Here he is, filling in the background to a key episode in the Gilgamesh story:
In the narrative, Gilgamesh (who lived centuries after the flood) goes in search of Utnapishtim – a once mortal human being who, because of his piety, had been given eternal life by the gods. It was immediately apparent that Utnapishtim was the Akkadian name for the hero of the deluge – the Mesopotamian Noah. This was the first extra-biblical narrative to be found which made reference to the great flood of Genesis. Here was mention of an ark, of a terrible rainstorm, of a dove and a raven being sent out from the ark to find land.
(Rohl, 1998: 154.)
To everyone’s astonishment, Smith had uncovered an earlier version of the Biblical story. He presented his findings to the Society for Biblical Archaeology in London the same year, and unsurprisingly they caused a sensation. The Daily Telegraph sponsored him to travel to the Middle East in search of the remaining pieces of the jigsaw. Against the odds, he found it. In Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic, the story continues like this:
Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, finds Utnapishtim living out his eternal existence in a place ‘at the mouth (i.e. source) of the rivers’. Gilgamesh asks the flood hero how he had attained his immortality. Utnapishtim explains that the assembly of gods had determined to destroy the earth by means of a great flood. However, the water-god Ea (Sumerian Enki), the friend of Man, had spoken to him through the wall of a ‘reed house’ (perhaps a shrine or palace) whilst Utnapishtim was living in the city of Shuruppak.
Ea, the clever prince, was under oath with them (the gods) so he repeated their talk (of the flood) to the reed house: ‘Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall! Hear, O reed house! Understand, O wall! O man of Shuruppuk, son of Ubartutu, tear down the house and build a boat!
(Rohl, 1998: 154-5.)
So far, we’ve got the Babylonian roots of this episode in a Mesopotamian text. However, in 1914 an American scholar named Arno Poebel published a translation of a fragment of a cuneiform tablet, containing part of an even earlier account of a mighty deluge:
The outlines of the Sumerian version of the Flood story are as follows. At the point where the fragment continues the story, a god appears to be declaring his intention of saving mankind from the destruction which the gods have decided to bring upon them. The reason for their decision is not given. Enki is the god who takes steps to save mankind from destruction. Apparently he instructs Ziusudra the pious king of Sippar to stand by a wall, through which he will reveal to Ziusudra the dire intention of the gods, and tell him what must be done to escape the coming flood. The part of the text which must have described the building of the boat is missing, but its existence is implied in the following passage which describes the Flood and Ziusudra’s escape:
All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one,
At the same time, the flood sweeps over the cult-centres.
After, for seven days (and) seven nights,
The flood had swept over the land,
(And) the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters.
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven (and) earth.
Ziusudra opened a window of the huge boat,
The hero Utu brought his rays into the giant boat.
Ziusudra, the king
Prostrated himself before Utu,
The king kills an ox, slaughters a sheep.
(Hooke, 1971: 30-31.)
Rohl has this to say about the Sumerian version:
The superb literary quality of the extra-biblical flood stories is well illustrated by the earliest Sumerian version in which the hero is called Ziusudra. I suppose that if literary prose were the only factor in deciding which civilisation provided the original source for the flood story, then the Mesopotamian version would be a clear winner over the rather dry tale to be found in Genesis. The Ziusudra narrative has a wonderful originality about it.
(Rohl, 1998: 156.)
So here we have the story of Noah, but under a different name and with a different timescale, long before the Old Testament came to be written down. There’s nothing new under the Sun, is there?
Oh, yes, the Sun – I knew I’d typed all this for a reason. That particular heavenly body made a brief but welcome appearance above Aberdare just over a fortnight ago. It was a Saturday, and we had clear skies for almost a whole day and night. (In fact, it was quite icy underfoot when I got home.)
Apart from that, most of the UK seems to have been under a grey blanket of cloud since I posted Take the Weather With You at the end of October. We’ve had forty days and forty nights of rain, and then some…
In comparison to some parts of the UK we seem to have got off quite lightly, mind you. During the Xmas and New Year holiday period, TV news crews were reporting on catastrophic flooding in coastal areas the length and breadth of the country. On the east coast of England, a landslip destroyed a number of houses. Along the south coast, there have been further landslips along the famous Jurassic Coast of Dorset and Devon. Several hundred families (at least) have had their properties or businesses flooded, and a number of lives have been claimed by the weather.
There were photographs in the weekend papers of the Somerset Levels, where emergency pontoon bridges have been put in place so that residents can leave their properties. Yesterday, Owen Patterson, the Environment Secretary and avowed climate change sceptic, got a rough reception from the locals when he went to see the extent of the damage for himself.
Closer to home, the site of the new multi-million pound ‘super school’ in Aberdare was inundated when the River Cynon broke its banks a couple of weeks ago. We’re used to the railway line near Cwm Cynon Hospital flooding – that’s happened on and off for years – but I don’t recall such constant heavy rain for such a prolonged period of time. In spite of frequent warnings about building on flood plains, new houses are springing up all around the Valleys, which are right in the firing line when the next inundation occurs.
Possibly the most frightening event which made the newspapers, however, was the opening of a ‘sink hole’, 130 feet across and 150 feet deep, over disused mine workings at Foolow in Derbyshire. (Derbyshire Times, 2013.) The South Wales Valleys are riddled with disused mine workings, and it’s surely only a matter of time before similar ground collapses are reported here.
Given that it’s rained pretty much constantly for three months, it was somewhat ironic to find that many of my friends were without clean water this morning. Apparently, the main running under the road in Llwydcoed had burst, and the utility company’s contractors were working to restore the supply. By the time my codeine-fuelled semi-sleep had worn off, the situation had been resolved. (I think I saw yellow flashing lights passing my window at some point, which usually presage a drain-cleaning vehicle. Or I might have dreamt it.)
The Government talks a great deal about saving energy (by draughtproofing, loft insulation, wearing an extra jumper, and so forth), and solar panels are becoming increasingly common on the rooftops in my area. However, there’s very little action when it comes to re-engineering the relationship between the supply and our demand for water.
As we’ve seen in the past couple of months, there’s little shortage of it at the moment. As we concrete and tarmac over more of our land, there’s simply nowhere for the water to go. It runs straight into the drains, which can’t cope with the increased volume. The underground aquifers which used to supply our towns and cities don’t get replenished; instead, the excess flows straight into streams and rivers, and we get the situation we saw earlier this month.
Building more reservoirs isn’t the solution either. It doesn’t take long before they start to run dry when we do get a spell of decent weather. This imbalance between flooding and water shortage is a problem which is going to become increasingly common over time. It’ll take a better man than I to figure out a solution to it.
Mind you, I might have solved the mystery of what my next-door neighbour has been doing for the past fortnight or so. Every so often I’ve been disturbed by the sound of sawing, hammering, drilling, and more sawing. He’s obviously building an ark, to try and ride out the next spell of bad weather. As long as he leaves the cats out this time, I’ll be happy.


HOOKE, S.H. (1971) Middle Eastern Mythology. (Harmondsworth: Pelican.)
ROHL, D. (1998) Legend: the genesis of civilisation. (London: Century.)

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