BMCR 2020.08.22

Ea’s duplicity in the Gilgamesh flood story

, Ea's duplicity in the Gilgamesh flood story. The ancient word. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. xxxii, 489 p.. ISBN 9781138388925 $140.00.

Martin Worthington’s new book, Ea’s duplicity in the Gilgamesh flood story, offers a detailed analysis of nine lines from the eleventh tablet of the Standard Babylonian Gilgameš (XI: 39-47). The research is so meticulous that the book contains 420 pages of narrative, 1631 footnotes, and 40 pages of bibliographical references. The passage so thoroughly discussed consists of Ea’s message instructing Uta-napišti on how to address the city, the crowd and the elders of Šuruppak regarding the imminent coming of the Flood. In Andrew George’s (2003: 705; 707) translation, the message reads:

39‘For sure Enlil has conceived a hatred of me! 40I cannot dwell in your city! 41I cannot tread [on] Enlil’s ground! 42[I shall] go down to the Apsû, to live with Ea, my master; 43he will rain down on you plenty! 44[An abundance] of birds, a riddle of fishes! 45[…] … riches (at) harvest-time! 46In the morning he will rain down on you bread-cakes, 47in the evening, a torrent of wheat’.”

Martin Worthington explains that, although other scholars have perceived ambivalence in Ea’s words, he will introduce a new theory of how the ambiguity is constructed (p. 4). Borrowing a term from Yigal Bronner’s (2010) study on Sanskrit literature, he argues that Ea’s speech is “bitextual” because it carries two different messages that are phonetically identical. The positive message promises foodstuff and the negative foretells the catastrophe. Worthington’s inquiries into bitextuality, wordplay, and puns allow him to explore the implications of Ea’s duplicity. The broader aim of this work is to present an extended study of form and meaning and their interaction, an approach uncommon “for any Babylonian or Assyrian narrative” (p. 5). The book is organized in four parts that progressively lay out interpretative complexities. The way in which the information is arranged is helpful and so are the summaries at the end of each section.

The first part, entitled “Preliminaries,” elaborates on the concept of bitextuality, including examples from other languages. The survey of previous translations of Ea’s message begins with George Smith’s first fragmentary edition published in 1873 and concludes with Joaquín Sanmartín’s Spanish translation of 2018. Worthington reviews renderings of the nine lines into languages such as English, German, French, Georgian, Finnish, Arabic, Dutch, Danish, Czech, Italian, Russian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Spanish, Polish, Catalan, Estonian and Portuguese. He further assesses various perceptions and interpretations of puns, wordplay, and ambiguities or lack thereof. In this section, Worthington also mentions that he will not pursue either Ea’s message as it appears in Atra-hasis or “how Ea’s word-play fits into the history of word-play in Babylonian literature and in Babylonian literary aesthetics” (p. 95). He then discusses the matter of internal and external audiences: the distinction is between “characters within the poem and humans in the real world” (p. 97). He considers ancient audiences’ reactions to poetry, exemplified with passages from Enuma eliš, the Marduk Ordeal, commentaries, colophons, and other texts that could provide clues about the manners in which ancient audiences, particularly Assyrian, construed meanings and reacted to poems. The first part of the book ends with a section on puns, where Worthington clarifies that he uses pun and wordplay as synonyms (p. 138). For the identification of puns he adopts an audience-centered rather than an author-centered model because Babylonian and Assyrian sources “make it especially difficult to gauge authorial intention” (p. 150). Worthington affirms that he argues for “iron-clad” wordplay, that is, puns beyond dispute.

The second part, “Dissecting Ea’s message,” honors the title. Each line is dismembered and multiple options on how to interpret words are appraised in order to pose one positive and one or two negative meanings for terms, expressions, and, therefore, lines. The survey is systematized under several subheadings devoted to components such as “raining plenty”, “birds”, “fish”, and so forth. The proposed interpretations rely on varied evidence and the pros and cons are generally estimated. The reasoning tends to rely on etymology, parallels and textual and cultural history. For instance, when reviewing the sense of puzur nūnī (XI: 44), Worthington cites Ulla and Age Westenholz’s view that the expression was “unintelligible for the Babylonians themselves” (p. 184). Then he lists possible nominal patterns for the root pzr and quotes other scholarly interpretations. For the positive sense he takes into consideration associations with the meaning “covering”, and produces archaeological data and textual evidence for fish as comestibles; for the negative sense he discusses the connections with the Mesopotamian traditions about fish-cloaked sages (apkallū). What is clear, apparently, is that “Whatever its precise senses, puzur nūnī with its mention of fish is a good fit for both the positive and negative sides of the message” (p. 197). Worthington then provides an alternative translation focusing on the negative and latent meanings:

39“[I am su]re that Enlil has rejected me (along with anyone else), so that 40I can [n]o longer stay in your city, nor 41plac[e] my [fe]et [on] Enlil’s ground (because the earth will be covered in water), with the result that 42[I must go] off to the ‘Apsû’ (which will become one with the Flood waters) and wait with my [m]aster Ea (i.e. in the fresh water). 43He (Enlil) will rain down upon you abundantly, 44(resulting in) birds [cut off (from their perches)], fish covering (human corpses), 45… wealth at harvest (i.e. death) time.” (p. 235)

Additional negative possibilities are listed in the next page. Worthington thinks that the message’s bitextual quality could be a Kuyunjik creation (p. 244). He maintains that audiences could have apprehended the message differently and that the pun’s ambivalent character may not have been as obvious as some scholars have thought. He also suggests that Ea’s message could have been composed for an oral delivery (p. 252).

The third part explores the “conspicuous silences in the Gilgameš Flood story” from a number of perspectives. Worthington ponders the problem of whether Atra-hasis fills in the gaps and examines the communication between Ea and the Flood hero. The intermediary role of the reed fence and the brick wall deserves comment. Not pleased with the meaning of the original manuscripts, Worthington suggests —as he did elsewhere (Worthington 2012: 306-307)— emending the imperative šime (preserved in two manuscripts) to the stative šemi and the imperative ḫissas(preserved in only one manuscript) to the stative ḫissus. He then translates “The reed fence listened, the brick wall remembered” (p. 272). But as long as Worthington has to render the stative as an active preterite for the sentence to make sense, the emendation of the two vowels does not do the trick. Later, when scrutinizing Uta-napišti’s reply, Worthington deduces the composition and function of the city, the crowd, and the elders, as well as the role and composition of assemblies from the third to the first millennium, and the Assyrian “city hall”. Worthington concludes that “audiences of different periods would have envisaged different configurations of people and powers behind the words ālu and šībūtu” (p. 299). He also reflects on how the people of Šuruppak reacted to Ea’s message and its connections with divination and the possible skepticism about diviners. Two more sections deal with Ea’s elusiveness, the enigma of Uta-napišti, and silences of the poet(s).

Part four examines “other interconnections.” The first section explores Ea’s duplicity and Babylonian/Assyrian divination, a relevant issue because the duplicitous message is the result of the communication between a god (Ea) and a human being (the Flood hero). A short subheading refers to dreams and the importance of gender roles. Here Worthington points out that the city assembly did not include women. He observes that if a dream was involved in the transmission of Ea’s message to Uta-napišti, it is unusual that no woman elucidated it, because dream interpretation was often a female activity in Mesopotamia. He thus wonders whether women would have done a better job with the message than men and whether they would have divined its double sense (p. 373). Worthington then turns back to the word kukku (XI: 46), which he had discussed in the second part of the book (pp. 202-222), and looks at it in a number of divination contexts: in a Middle Babylonian liver omen published by A. George (2010: 325; 2013: 230-247) that links the appearance of a kukku-like sign with the wrath of Enlil, in malformed-birth omens, and in liver omens. He also pursues the connections among gods, omens and divine deceit. Furthermore, Worthington compares the account of the Flood in Gilgameš with two texts “outside the cuneiform tradition” (p. 399), i.e., the biblical book of Genesis and Berossus’s Babyloniaca. But, even if written in Hebrew and Greek, are these two pieces really outside the cuneiform tradition? The purpose for including these alternative versions of the Flood story is to find out whether they too include an ambivalent message. The answer is that in Genesis and in the Babyloniaca there are no perceptible traces of the puns present in Ea’s message. Finally, in the general conclusion, Worthington neatly gathers all the argumentative lines that he had offered in the book.

As the reader progresses through the work, it becomes apparent that the bitextuality of Ea’s message is much more complicated than the illustrative example of the British pronunciation of /ʌɪskri:m/ as a homophone for both “I scream” and “ice cream” (pp. 22; 93). It becomes also clear that the book is not just about nine lines from tablet XI of Gilgameš. Literary devices such as allusions, puns, bitextuality and also humor are difficult to determine because it is impossible to be completely sure that the ancient scribe meant what we think he intended. In that sense, the modern interpreter’s task presupposes the difficult exercise of articulating the microcosm of the text with the macrocosm of culture and tradition. That is precisely what this book is about.


Bronner, Y. 2010. Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
George, A. 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. Introduction, critical edition and cuneiform texts. vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
George, A. 2010. “The Sign of the Flood and the Language of Signs,” BuB 4: 323-335.
George, A. 2013. Babylonian Divinatory Texts Chiefly in the Schøyen Collection. CUSAS 18. Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press.
Worthington, M. 2012. Principles of Akkadian Textual Criticism. Boston-Berlin: De Gruyter.