Flood Tablet (made around 700 – 600 BC). Clay writing tablet from northern Iraq

When you think about rain that falls for ‘forty days and forty nights’, you might just be considering the prospect of living through yet another summer in Britain. But of course, what you’re really referring to is the biblical story of Noah, his ark and the Great Flood – a story that’s become so much part of our language, that any child in the country can tell you that the animals went in two by two. But the story of the Great Flood is itself one that goes back far beyond the Bible to many other societies, and is part of a global collective consciousness. Why? How did a story like Noah’s Flood, so ancient, come into being? And for me, that leads to the next question – when did the idea of writing down a story at all begin?

It’s no ark, but the main entrance of the British Museum is at least dry – and the visitors certainly come in more than two by two. What’s great about museum collections is that they let you stride through the centuries and across the continents in a single afternoon, without even getting wet. This week, I’ll be striding across a tightly interconnected world that stretched from the southern Nile to the Black Sea, and from Greece to Iran – it’s a world that flourished about three and a half thousand years ago, so around 1500 BC. The objects I’m going to be looking at raise big questions and very big ideas, like the origins of mathematics and, in this programme, the beginnings of literature.

“There’s a really kind of a hymn to the beauty and the fragility of human culture, caught between the world of the gods and the world of an unforgiving nature.” (David Damrosch)

“And without that Jewish break with the world of myth, we would never have had science.” (Jonathan Sacks) WTF IS HE ON ABOUT JEZZZZUS!!

It’s lunchtime at the British Museum and the place, as usual, is bustling with visitors. Locals from Bloomsbury are dropping in as they regularly do for any number of reasons and, just over 140 years ago, one of those locals, a regular lunchtime visitor, was a man called George Smith. He was an apprentice to a printing firm not far from the museum, and he’d become fascinated by the museum’s collection of ancient clay tablets. He was so engrossed by these, that he taught himself to read them and, in due course, he became one of the leading translators of his day. In 1872, Smith was studying a particular tablet from Nineveh (modern Iraq) and that’s what I want to look at now.

I’ve walked across the museum, and I’m now sitting in the library where we keep the clay tablets from Mesopotamia; a room filled with shelves from floor to ceiling, and on each shelf a narrow wooden tray with up to a dozen clay tablets in it – most of them fragments. The fragment that George Smith was particularly interested in, in 1872, is about five or six inches (130 – 150mm) high, it’s dark brown clay and it’s covered with very densely written text organised in two very close columns. From a distance, it looks a bit like the small ads column of an old-fashioned newspaper. But this fragment, once George Smith had realised what it was, was going to shake the foundations of one of the great stories of the Old Testament, and indeed raise big questions about the role of scripture and its relationship to truth.

Our tablet is about a flood – about a man who is told by his god to build a boat and to load it with his family and animals, because the deluge is about to wipe humanity from the face of the earth. The tale on the tablet was startlingly familiar to George Smith – because as he read and deciphered, it became clear that what he had in front of him was an ancient myth that paralleled and – most importantly – ‘predated’ the story of Noah and his Ark. Just to remind you, here are a few snippets of the Noah story from the Bible:

“Make thee an ark … and of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring unto the ark … I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.”

And here’s a snippet of what George Smith read on the clay tablet:

” … demolish the house, and build a boat! Abandon wealth and seek survival. Spurn property, save life. Take on board all living things’ seed! The boat you will build, her dimensions all shall be equal: her length and breadth shall be the same. Cover her with a roof, like the ocean below, and he will send you a rain of plenty.”

That a Hebrew biblical story should already have been told on a Mesopotamian clay tablet was an astounding discovery – and Smith knew it – as a contemporary account tells us:

“Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which the conservator who had cleaned the tablet had brought to light; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, ‘I am the first man to read that after 2,000 years of oblivion’. Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!”

But this really was a discovery worth taking your clothes off for. This tablet, now universally known as the Flood Tablet – had been written down in what is now Iraq in the seventh century BC, 400 years before the oldest surviving version of the Bible narrative. Was it thinkable that that Bible narrative, far from being a specially-privileged revelation, was merely part of a common pool of legend that was shared by the whole Middle East?

It was one of the great moments in the nineteenth century’s radical rewriting of world history. George Smith published the tablet only 12 years after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species. And in doing so, he opened a religious Pandora’s box. Professor David Damrosch, from Columbia University, gauges the Flood Tablet’s seismic impact:

“People in the 1870s were obsessed by biblical history, and there was a great deal of controversy as to the truth of the biblical narratives. So, it created a sensation when George Smith found this ancient version of the Flood story, clearly much older than the biblical version.

Prime Minister Gladstone came to hear his lecture describing his new translation, it was reported on front-page articles around the globe, and there was a front-page article in the ‘New York Times’ in 1872 in which they’re already noting that the tablet could be read either in two quite different ways – does this prove the Bible is true or show it’s all legendary? And Smith’s discovery gave further ammunition in the debate on both sides as to the truth of biblical history, debates over Darwin and evolution, geology – all of these things were coming in.”

And of course these debates still continue today. But what does it do to a religious text when you discover that it comes in fact from an older society, with a very different set of beliefs? We asked the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks:

“Clearly there is a core event behind both narratives which was a great flood, part of the folk memory of all the peoples of that area. What the ancient texts that tell flood stories do, is they talk essentially of the great forces of nature being controlled by deities who don’t like human beings very much, and for whom ‘might makes right’. Now the Bible comes along and retells the story, but does so in a unique way – God brings the flood because the world was filled with violence, and the result is that the story becomes moralised, and that is part of the Bible’s programme. This is a radical leap from polytheism to monotheism – to a world in which people worshipped power, to the Bible’s insistence that power must be just and sometimes compassionate. And from a world in which there are many forces, many gods, fighting with one another, to this world in which the whole universe is the result of a single rational creative will. So the more we understand what the Bible is arguing against, the deeper we understand the Bible.”

But the Flood Tablet was important not just for the history of religion, it’s also a key document in the history of literature. Smith’s tablet comes from the seventh century BC, but we now know that other versions of the Flood story had originally been written down a thousand years before that. It was only later that the Flood story was woven by storytellers into the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great epic of world literature. Smith’s tablet forms the eleventh chapter of that story. Gilgamesh is a hero who sets off on a grand quest for immortality and self-knowledge. He confronts demons and monsters, he survives all kinds of perils and, eventually, like all subsequent epic heroes, he has to confront the greatest challenge of them all: his own nature and his own mortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh has all the elements of a cracking good tale, but it’s also a turning-point in the story of ‘writing’. Writing in the Middle East had begun as little more than bean-counting – created essentially for bureaucrats to keep records. It had been used above all for the practical tasks of the state. Stories, on the other hand, were usually told or sung – and they were learnt by heart.

But gradually, around four thousand years ago, stories like Gilgamesh began to be written down. Insights into the hero’s hopes and fears could now be shaped, refined and fixed – an author could be sure that ‘his’ narrative and ‘his’ understanding of the tale would be transmitted directly, and not constantly reshaped by other storytellers. Hardly less important, a written text can be translated, and so a story could pass easily into many languages. Literature written down like this can always become world literature. David Damrosch again:

“Gilgamesh is now very commonly assigned as a very first work in all the literature courses, and it shows I think a kind of early globalisation. It’s the first work of world literature that circulates widely around the ancient world. The great thing about looking at Gilgamesh today is that we see that, if we go back far enough, we find there’s not a clash of civilisations between the Middle East and the West. We find in Gilgamesh the origins of a common culture – its offshoots, that go off into Homer, and the ‘1001 Nights’, and the Bible – so it is really a sort of a common thread in our common global culture.”

With the Epic of Gilgamesh, represented here by Smith’s Flood Tablet, writing changed its nature. And it has changed ‘our’ nature – for literature like Gilgamesh allows us not just to think our own thoughts, but to inhabit the thought worlds of others – and that for me is also the point of the Museum, and the power of the objects that make up this thread of human history that I’m tracing. They lead us to other existences.

In the next programme, we have the creation of another ‘new world’ of thought that has changed both us and the world we inhabit – mathematics.

The transcript for this programme will be published when the programme is broadcast.