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Black Sea Abyss: Chaos and Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia

David Prescott-Steed


This discussion explores the intersection of chaos and writing in the context of the Eridu Genesis, a Sumerian cuneiform text dating back to the 18th century BC and containing three narratives : the Creation of humankind, the building of cities, and a flood myth. Researchers analyze the extent to which conceptions of chaos, found in this text, recount the Black Sea deluge that scientists agree occurred around 5500 BC. Having authored the world’s oldest known historical texts, Sumerian writings simultaneously mark the beginning of written literature and the birth pangs of chaos ‘in’ writing. Thus the Eridu Genesis, as the archetype for these narratives, deserves critical attention when affording ‘writing and chaos’ a historical context. The question of whether or not the Black Sea flood continues to underpin late modern notions of chaos remains open. However, this geo-cultural reading shows that writing about chaos can provide insight into the human condition, by giving expression to what it means for a civilization to exist in an unpredictable world.

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An Introduction to Chaos and Writing: ‘origin’ and ‘beginning’

1This discussion examines ‘writing and chaos’ in the context of ancient Mesopotamia. Of central interest is the Eridu Genesis, a text of six columns written in Sumerian and containing three narratives; the Creation of the world (out of a chaotic sea), the founding of cities, and a great flood.The text was excavated in Nippur during the Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania (1893-1896)and has been dated back to around 1600 BC (Jacobsen, 1981: 513).

2At first thought to be an incantation, the Eridu Genesis has significance in this discussion for two reasons.On the one hand, the Sumerians are credited as being the authors of “the oldest known historical inscriptions” that reach as far back as the “third millennium BC” (Bottero, 2001: 4-7).This means that the Sumerians produced the world’s first administrative and private legal documents, scholarly and literary texts, the first to write about emotions and beliefs.However, not only does a discussion of the Eridu Genesis text provide us with insight into the beginnings of writing, its constituent narratives mean that it contains first conjunction of writing and chaos in history.At the cornerstone of ancient literature, the Sumerians remain critically important when affording ‘writing and chaos’ a historical context.

3It is in terms of ‘writing’ that the Eridu Genesis signals a ‘beginning’; a notion that Edward W. Said, in Beginnings: Intention and Method, differentiates from ‘origin’.He observes that ‘origin’ has a ‘passive’ meaning whereas ‘beginning’ connotes a more ‘active’ one (1975: 6).The former stems from acknowledging a past or current event and the latter pertains to choice and activity (1975: 380).Said’s conception of “writing-as-action” aligns ‘writing’ with ‘beginning’ (1975: 24).Said’s distinction between ‘origin’ and ‘beginning’ presents an opportunity to examine the conditions under which they intersect but, here, I have accounted for only one side of the union.

4It should also be said that notions of chaos connotes notions of ‘origin,’ a view that is supported by a range of historical precedents.Consider how creation mythologies and flood legends (such as Nordic, Japanese, Mayan, Egyptian and Christian narratives) interpret the origin of the universe as an original chaos, a chaotic and aquatic abyss.In the Western world, we understand the abyss as “[t]he great deep believed in the old cosmogony to lie beneath the earth; the primal chaos”(Brown, 1993b: 11).Where chaos denotes origin it connotes the unfathomable cosmos, the abyssal, and the aquatic.As ancient attempts to “satisfy man’s craving for the answers to the universe,” the Sumerian myths, and associated ancient Mesopotamian narratives, remain “proto-types” for this chain of signification whereby meaning is made of a material reality (Kramer, 1961: 183).

5However, if “[t]he beginning… is the first step in the intentional production of meaning,” what is this activity of writing about chaos an attempt to understand (Said, 1975: 5)?In other words, a beginning may well function to “restructure and animate knowledge” (Said, 1975: 380).Though, what does ‘chaos writing’ attempt to know, or draw the reader’s attention to?What kind of material reality will motivate writing about chaos?These questions are worth addressing, not least of all because their answer will directly impact on how ‘chaos’ is understood in the Eridu Genesis.Perhaps an answer lies in the striking resemblances that details of creation and the flood, in the Eridu Genesis, have to the Black Sea deluge that scientists agree occurred around 5500 BC.Earth-science supports the claim that the Black Sea deluge informed instances of Sumerian ‘chaos (abyss) writing’ nearly three millennia later.

6While we might find a discussion of the Eridu Genesis drawing us towards the beginning of writing, it is a discussion of the Black Sea deluge that turns our attention to the origin of chaos, and it on this point that this discussion shall commence.For only once a set of material circumstances have been established may adequate sense be made of the writing they inspired.Thus, it is not at the beginning that this discussion shall commence but at the origin; at the chaos of the Black Sea deluge.

The Black Sea Deluge: a geographical context

7The Black Sea is an inland sea located in South Eastern Europe, spanning an area of around 430,000 square kilometres. The Encyclopaedia Britannica World Atlas shows the Black Sea to be approximately 1150 kilometres across from Georgia on the East to Bulgaria on the West and extending along the northern coast of Turkey (2006: 15).It is 580 kilometres across from North to South, from Odesa to Istanbul, although this distance reduces to around 250 kilometres between Sevastopol and Sinop due to its kidney-like shape (2006: 15).With a maximum depth of 2.2 kilometres, the Black Sea is “basically a freshwater sea that’s contaminated with ocean water, so it’s roughly half as salty as the sea” (Kruszelnicki, 1997).

8Dubbed Pontus euxinos by the Greeks, with its image as a ‘hospitable sea’ stemming from its weak tides due to relative isolation, the history of the Black Sea is one of seafaring.Supported by the Bosporus Strait (which connects it to the Mediterranean Sea), the sea has been the site of trade between surrounding and distant countries for centuries, leading to the rise of cities such as Byzantium in the Middle Ages and “the Grand Comnenian Empire of Trezibond during the medieval period” (Ascherson, 1996: 8).Even today, Hiebert points out, there is an “attempt to re-establish the Black Sea as one of the major trading zones in Eurasia” (in McCalla, 1999).In the meantime, the Black Sea’s temperatures and sunny climate make it a desirable holiday destination for locals and tourists.

9However, through scratching beneath the surface of the water, scientists have found reason to believe that the Black Sea has not always been a sea.In their book, Noah’s Flood: the New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History (1998), Columbia University Geologists Ryan and Pitman outline their discoveries regarding the preponderance of flood legends such as ‘Noah’s Ark’ in the Old Testament and the Epic of Gilgamesh.To the extent that mythologies attempt to “satisfy man’s craving for the answers to the universe,” it is widely understood that these narratives are motivated by the conditions of a material reality (Kramer, 1961: 183).Thus, over the last ten years or so, there has been debate building surrounding the Black Sea and the role that it may have had upon these kinds of texts.Ryan and Pitman theorise that a number of flood epics can be explained via a study of the history of the Black Sea and that, what is referred to as the Great Flood, could have been the Mediterranean Sea filling the Black Sea at this time.To the extent that earth-science frames the Black Sea as a prehistoric site of watery chaos, a catastrophic deluge, it is this research that provides some insight into the conjunction of chaos and writing in the Eridu Genesis.

10It is understood that the end of the world’s last period of glaciation, a period that lasted for approximately 100,000 years, ended about 10,000 years ago, with the melting ice from the retreating sheet resulting in a rise of global sea levels (Laing, 2003).During this ice age the Black Sea region was a mostly dry region (the Euxine basin) and had, up until that time, been separated from the Mediterranean Sea by the Bosporus Strait.Not only do scientists believe that the rises in global sea levels caused the Bosporus Strait to breach, but that this breach resulted in a catastrophic flood.This interpretation is supported by results that Ryan et al. have gained through the radiocarbon dating of shells from an underwater beach front, as well as the results of core samples taken from its base.In both cases, data has “pointed to an abrupt inundation of the entire Black Sea Basin… [that] occurred sometime around 5,550 BC” (Laing, 2003).

11Some sense of the magnitude of the flood can be gained from Ryan et al.’s observations of dozens of bedrock cross-sections.Flooding an area of 155,000 square kilometres, the deluge would have filled the Black Sea region rapidly.As Ryan and Pitman explain, “[t]en cubic miles [42 km³] of water poured through each day, two hundred times what flows over Niagara Falls…The Bosporus flume roared and surged at full spate for at least three hundred days,” (p. 124, 1998).Occurring with a roar that could have been heard over one hundred kilometres away, this was certainly no ordinary flood.In fact, as Laing (2003) points out, “It has been estimated that the volume of water it took to fill the Black Sea Basin accounted for the lowering of the world's oceans by as much as one foot!”

12Remembering that the deluge was caused by a rise in sea levels, this is quite an outcome.But, more importantly here, what this earth-science research constructs for us is a mental picture of the first days of the Black Sea—an evidence based snapshot of a prehistoric and watery chaos.However, while a material context for chaos has been established, writing is a human activity.What is the cultural significance of the Black Sea deluge?In what way might the Black Sea deluge, as a cultural context, have led to the ‘play’ of chaos in ancient Mesopotamian writing?

The Black Sea Deluge: a cultural context

Let us not forget that The Origin deals with the essence of truth…, and the abyss… which plays itself out there like the ‘veiled’ destiny [fatum] which transfixes being. (Derrida: 306)

13If it only took a short period of time for the chaotic deluge to transform into the Black Sea, it would have been a terrifying and amazing sight for anyone who witnessed it. This is one of the reasons why archaeologists who are interested in theories about the Black Sea deluge have, for some time, also been interested in uncovering the human side, especially in relation to those who might have been directly impacted upon by the deluge.Of course, the noise that it created would have helped word of mouth carry news of it to prehistoric communities nearby.However, explorations of the bottom of the Black Sea have uncovered various artefacts, the nature of which leads scientists to believe that, around 5,000 BC, having mostly dried up during the last ice age, the Euxine Basin was inhabited by small villages of “Neolithic farmers and foragers” (Ryan et al., 1997: 1).This means that not only do details of the chaotic deluge have environmental significance, they also have cultural significance.

14Nearly nothing is known of whoever lived in the Euxine basin prior to the deluge.As a result, it is hoped that an examination of objects found in the depths of the Black Sea (a region referred to as the ‘abyss,’ in line with oceanographic convention) will help resolve this uncertainty.Fortunately, the research process is being helped by the fact that the Black Sea is “the world’s biggest single reservoir of hydrogen sulphide,” an extremely deadly substance that makes “90 per cent of the Sea’s volume sterile” (Ascherson, 1996: 4-5).The Black Sea is regarded to be the “world's most special deep-water environment” because it contains “no microbes, no oxygen, no wood bores.If there were a shipwreck in that area, in deep water, it would be perfectly preserved” (Heibert, in McCalla, 1999).Thus, while the top 200 metres or so is full of “thriving marine life,” as Gugliotta puts it, “the rest is as dead as the ancient day when the flood waters settled” (2000: A01).

15This information indicates that the aquatic conditions at the bottom of the Black Sea are conducive to the success of archaeological investigations in that region, given that ancient artefacts are less likely to disintegrate over time spent at the bottom of the Black Sea than they are under ‘normal’ deep-sea conditions.It is no surprise, therefore, that theories about a human presence in the basin prior to the deluge stem from the discovery of human artefacts and ancient building materials 900 metres below the sea’s surface.Using remote-controlled underwater vessels and cameras to explore the Black Sea’s abyss, have scientists located “a former river valley” in which “a collapsed structure, including some preserved wooden beams that had been worked by hand” (Japan Times).

16Fredrik Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the chief archaeologist for the Black Sea project, said the discovery represented “the first concrete evidence for the occupation of the Black Sea coast prior to its flooding” (Krause, 2000, par. 4).Given that the structure was characteristic of other examples of stone-age structures that were built at the estimated time of the flood Hiebert’s research partner, Robert Ballard (discoverer of the Titanic), maintained that it was “clearly built by humans” (Japan Times, 2000).The expedition also spotted planks, beams, tree branches and chunks of wood untouched by worms or molluscs, a strong indication that the oxygen-free waters of the Black Sea's 2 kilometre-deep abyss may be sheltering intact shipwrecks that date back to the dawn of seafaring.

“It is beyond our wildest imagination,” explorer Robert D. Ballard, leader of the expedition, said yesterday.“Wood is existing much shallower than we thought.When we do go deep, it can only get better.” (Gugliotta, 2000: A01)

17While nothing is known of their language, customs, or creative practices, the discoveries of Ryan et al. and other Black Sea experts lead us to wonder what it might have been like to experience the chaos of the deluge. For communities living in the Euxine basin when the Bosperus Strait breached, the flood would have lead to the deaths of thousands of people.A person fleeing the flood might well have seen many drowned and drowning bodies sinking into the tumultuous waters depths to where their villages now lay.Ryan et al. (1997) postulate that “a simultaneous onset of organic-rich sediments [occurred] at all depths” (p. 120).What this means is that, as a result of the movement of the water over the surface of the earth, as well as the dark colour of the sediment, it would have become extremely murky throughout.Coupled with the fact that the water was already darkening in as much as it was getting deeper, it is possible that the villagers witnessed the same bodies of the dead, the injured as well as those others who were trying desperately to stay afloat, drifting out of the sight into a black aquatic mass, perhaps waving for help to those who were clinging to the land at the edges of the torrent.It could certainly have appeared as if the watery abyss had created an aquatic underworld where the villagers’ homes became abodes of the dead, sites of devastation, of death and despair.

18Because the Black Sea is surrounded by steep hills, and so is situated near very little flat land, any escape from a deluge is likely to have been nearly impossible.Kruszelnicki suggests that the few survivors of this deluge would have moved “to Russia and Ukraine…, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece… to Georgia and India…. to Turkey and the Middle East.Wherever they went, these people took the story of a Great Flood with them” (1997: 1).Ryan et al. raise the point that “such ‘wave-of-advance’ population movements… could have been induced by the permanent expulsion of inhabitants which had adapted to the natural resources of the formerly-emerged Black Sea periphery” (1997: 125).

19This information means that, not only can the Black Sea deluge be acknowledged as a catastrophic and chaotic flood, understood in terms of its geographical context, we may proceed to interpret it as a cultural context—a set of circumstances to which human lives were subjected.To many villagers it would have been an abrupt and fatal end for, in the aftermath of the deluge, little more would have remained of the Euxine villages than the bodies of the drowned amidst the debris of ravaged communities and inconceivable trauma.

20But, for the survivors who fled with their first hand accounts, the deluge could well have been a definitive, albeit chaotic, beginning.It, perhaps, marked a Mesopotamian beginning that is characterised by an almost complete break with the past—a veritable erasure of the history of a culture outside of the capacity of human memory.It is of little surprise that flood stories have been passed on through oral traditions and into the creation mythologies of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, that scientists consider the Black Sea discoveries to be “dramatic new evidence of an apocalyptic flood 7,500 years ago that may have inspired the Biblical story of Noah” (Gugliotta, 2000: A01).Consider also the raging currents of Tiamat and Absu, as described in Babylonian mythology and later reinterpreted as the ‘abyssal deeps’ of Genesis in the Old Testament and, their archetype, the Sumerian creation mythology and flood epic dating back to the period between 3500 BC and 2000 BC.Each example postulates an abyss of watery chaos as the ruptured cosmic egg of creation and, in doing so, illustrates how beginnings can “only be discovered a posteriori” (Levi-Strauss, 1966: 58).

21But taking into account that “[t]he Origin deals with the essence of truth, the truth of essence and the abyss,” is it reasonable to ever expect to capture the chaos and trauma of the Black Sea deluge in the cuneiform writing of the ancient Mesopotamians?If the locus of ‘truth’ finds us arriving at a truth about the chaotic abyss, maybe this shall be a truth about the nature, the limitations of its written representation that play into the problem of representation itself.

22It is from this point that we may proceed to examine the close relationship between the act of writing, as a performative cultural practice, and preoccupations with chaos that, in time, can be seen to have informed Sumerian cosmology.

23So far, this discussion has addressed research that establishes the Black Sea deluge both as a geographical context and as a cultural context.The purpose of this has been to observe an ‘origin’ that is chaotic, as the first step to unravelling the conjunction of ‘writing and chaos’ in the Eridu Genesis.It is now possible to take the second step by considering the beginning of writing, i.e. the conjunction of chaos and writing in ancient Mesopotamia, by turning our attention to the Eridu Genesis.It will be apparent that notions of chaos, in this text, recall the Black Sea deluge and, in turn, find chaos and writing playing a central role in a proto-historical cosmology.

The Eridu Genesis: Finding a Form for Chaos

The invention of writing was one of Mesopotamia’s greatest achievements.It facilitated the organization and management of society and served as the chief instrument by which a complex civilization could come into being.Eventually, it became the medium through which the people’s collective experience and wisdom were transgenerationally transmitted. (Bertman, 2003: 144)

24Sumerian artefacts have fascinated archaeologists and historians ever since they were first discovered in the 1850’s, and knowledge of this innovative culture is increasing. The proximity of Sumerian culture to the Black Sea makes it a primary focal point when examining the legacy of the Black Sea deluge in the writing of the ancient world.But while it is believed that the Sumerians had settled in the southern part of Mesopotamia by the fourth millennium B.C. (between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, South East of the Black Sea region), their origin is still uncertain (Chavalas & Younger Jr, 2002: 92).It is interesting that the fate of the Euxine villagers is as indeterminate as the origin of the Sumerians as if one culture had ventured into the unknown and the other out of it.The migrating survivors of the Black Sea deluge may well have found refuge in the southern Mesopotamian region and, across the millennia, provided the basis of the Sumerian people.Whatever the case, there is little doubt that they emerged from the “pre-history” of Iraq (Kramer, 1988: xx).

25Because the Sumerians are credited as the authors of “the oldest known historical inscriptions,” the Eridu Genesis is one of the first texts ever to have been written (Bottero, 2001: 4-7).Having developed the “art of writing,” Sumerian documents “mark the beginning of historical times” (Champdor, 1958: 8).This is what Bertman refers to as the beginnings of “humanity’s autobiography,” in turn implicating chaos and writing in self-reflective practices, in ‘writing the self’ (2003: 142).Just as importantly, given the present discussion, the subject matter of the Eridu Genesis places it at the beginning of ‘chaos and writing’.

  • 1  Perhaps there is some echo of this process in the English language, at least, where the word ‘writ (...)

26To consider the practice of writing in general, it can be said that the “ideas, values and beliefs of a group are embodied in symbols, artefacts” and that these symbols “can be part of a written language,” (Inglis, 2005: 9).For the Sumerians, this writing came in the form of cuneiform text, achieved by way of blunt reeds being impressed onto a clay tablet; hence the resulting wedge shaped characters.1 Writing can be used to pre-empt the fallibility of memory, and so cuneiform enabled Sumerian writers to afford their ideas and beliefs a degree of permanence (even though, as van de Mieroop points out, cuneiform itself “is a script, not a language”) [1999: 10].

27In view of the administrative, private legal, scholarly, literary, and historiographic cuneiform texts, as well as letters that have been uncovered by archaeologists over the past century, the Sumerians seem to have understood that writing also carried with it the thrust of authority, of ownership and in this way, perhaps, of certainty.But the permanence of cuneiform opened the door to another way of teaching Sumerian culture, of aligning everyday experience with cosmology.That is to say, writing played a role in an attempt to create a bridge between a material reality and a spiritual reality as von Rad points out, ancient man “makes no distinction between spiritual and material—the two are intertwined in the closest possible way; and in consequence he is also unable to differentiate between word and object, idea and reality” (1965: 80-1).

28As Jacob recognises, “[a] spoken word is never an empty sound but an operative reality whose action cannot be hindered once it has been pronounced, and which attained its maximum effectiveness in formulae of blessing and cursing” (1958: 127).The cuneiform word, in Sumerian culture, could also possess spiritual import, as reflected in the metaphorical concepts that structure a meaning system.As Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 3) acknowledge, “[o]ur concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world… [thus playing] a central role in defining our everyday realities.”Thus, it is useful to consider the role of chaos in Sumerian writing by acknowledging how notions of water have been in metaphorical expressions in Sumerian writing.

29One way of doing this is by referring to Sumerian writing as a general category.A Sumerian once wrote, “Tears, lament, anguish, and depression are within me.Suffering overwhelms me.Evil fate holds me and carries off my life.Malignant sickness bathes me” (Marcus, 1998).These expressions of feeling ‘bathed’ and ‘overwhelmed’ conjure up impressions an emotional flood whereby the individual implies an association between misery, misfortune, and a watery chaos.

30Another way of identifying the role of chaos, as part of a metaphorical concept system, in Sumerian writing, is by referring to the Eridu Genesis, a segmentary (thus incomplete) text that archaeologists have pieced together using remnants and preserved lines.However, because notions of ‘chaotic water’ ground metaphorical expressions, it is not necessary to literally pin-point the word ‘chaos’ as it occurs in translation.This would reduce the task down to a criticism of translation rather than an assessment of the meaning behind the passages.Rather, the task is to identify points in the writing that connote chaos, and water.After 36 lost lines, the first column recounts the words of Nintur, the goddess of birth and the mother of humankind.Kramer’s (1983: 117-8) numbered transliteration reads:

37.… sets up…
38.I would [halt(?)] the perishing of my mankind,
39.I would restore there to Nintu the… of my creatures,
40.We would return the people from their (dispersed) habitations.
41.Let them build there the me-endowed cities, I would refresh myself in their shade,
42.Let them lay the bricks of the me-endowed cities in holy places,
43.Let them erect the me-endowed ki-es in holy places,
44.I have directed there the fire-quenching holy (?) water,?
45.I have perfected there the divine rites (and) noble me,
46.I have watered the earth, I would establish well-being there.
47.After An, Enlil, Enki, (and) Ninhursag
48.Had fashioned the blackheads,
49.Nig-gil (rising) repeatedly out of the earth, multiplied
50.Herds of animals, four legged, were brought into existence in the steppe as is befitting

31These lines recount the creation of humankind and the animals, an interpretation that is clarified by way of introduction to the roles of the four primary gods that are mentioned. First of all, An (or ‘Anu’), whose name literally means ‘heaven,’ was a “supreme authority among the gods, and among men,” dispensing justice and controlling the laws “that governed the universe” (Bertman, 2003: 116).Second in charge was Enlil (or ‘Ellil’), ruler of the earth and director of “the forces of nature (especially torrential floods)” [Bertman, 2003: 118].Enki (or ‘Ea’) dwells in, and is in charge of, the Abzu (or ‘Apsu’), an aquatic abyss that gives life to the “streams and rivers” and “was associated with arcane wisdom” and creation (Bertman, 2003: 118).Ninhursaga was the Sumerian mother-goddess and nurturer of the “earth’s creatures,” and the equivalent of Nintur (Bertman, 2003: 124).

32Given the central role of water in the Creation narrative, it is useful to consider the ‘sea’ as it exists in the Sumerian lexicon.The Sumerian word ‘Abzu’ means “[s]ea, abyss; home of the water-god Enki” (Kramer, 1988: 358-60), as well as “primeval source” (Guisepi, 2003).A variation of Abzu, ‘Apsu,’ has been translated into the English language as “deepwater” and “beginning (one who exists from the beginning)” (Guisepi, 2003).Reference is made to “the abzu, the pure place” that is associated with “sacred water” throughout Sumerian incantations (Cunningham, 1997: 116).Thus, the life giving waters that are represented by Enki, and in which he dwells, provide the foundations of human and animal life.In this context, chaos is that primeval sea before the creation of the universe, a kind of “first cause” and “prime mover,” a boundless and aquatic abyss (Kramer, 1988: 76).Given that Sumerians never considered that there might be anything “prior to the sea in time and in space,” it is not unlikely that they considered the sea to have existed “eternally” (Kramer, 1988: 76, 82).

33Thus, the universe is created out of the chaos of the sea, perhaps stemming from the problem of being clear about ‘what existed before’.Perhaps this symbolises a kind of cultural chaos, a primal and uncivilised society for, following the creation of humans and animals, the narrative recounts how steps were made towards building the first city; the familiarly named ‘Eridu’.Eridu, once located in the south of the Sumerian region, speaks not only of the beginning of the universe, its Genesis, but the beginning of civilisation and settlement, wherein people are conceivably committed to place.

34By bringing order to chaos Creation has put an end to nomadicism, planting the seed of settlement in the Neolithic age.Up until this time, Palaeolithic nomadic communities moved through nature seasonally, as a way of taking advantage of animal migration as well as the ripening of fruits and so on.Thus, while they possessed the skills required to survive, they had no irrigation or crop development technology.They had no sense of up, down, forwards or backwards.In short they possessed what can be referred to as non-geometric knowledge and, as a result, have been described as existing in a state of disorientation.

35The ability to construct permanent buildings saw the nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle eventually give way to something quite opposite, i.e. a state of orientation, and the beginning of architecture.The ability to build more permanent structures meant an emerging and fundamental sense of geometry.The Sumerians narrative reflects this transition into the clearing of land, the beginning of architecture and agriculture, the domestication of plants and animals.

36In addition, having established themselves on the land between two main rivers, the Sumerians relied heavily on irrigation for the maintenance of their crops.They had achieved a level of expertise in the art of irrigation, though they struggled constantly against the forces of the two rivers that surrounded them.Childe (1969) explains:

Arable land had literally to be created out of a chaos of swamps and sand banks by a ‘separation’ of land from water; the swamps drained; the floods controlled; and life-giving waters led to the rainless desert by artificial canals. (p. 114)

37In short, being civilised entails a culture’s presumption of mastery over the natural world—knowledge and skill become invested in a project of bringing order to the environment, especially where no perceivably order previously existed. This means that notions of chaos, in Sumerian writing, can be seen to document a new phase in cultural thinking—the emergence of the culture/nature binary opposition.This is also the emergence of the inside/outside binary opposition.When what is inside the walls of a city, within the perimeter of Eridu as a place of civilisation is presumably safe, domesticated, predictable, tame, ordered, that which remains outside of the city (the natural world with all of the forces that it maintains) is rendered a place of danger, of the untamed, of disorder, and chaos.

38The city offers protection against the outside, the protection of a cultured condition.This, combined with a capacity to return easily to burial grounds, for example, meant that certain sites became sacred.In the Eridu Genesis, Nintur has instructed the ‘black-headed people’ to build cities, with the knowledge that they might then be used as hubs of worships.In fact Enki, being the primary god of the city of Eridu, has his own temple.The Abzu temple, otherwise known as é-engur-a or ‘house of the lord of deep waters,’ was situated in Eridu in the wetlands of the Euphrates (Kramer, 1968: 103).The settlers hope that, by pleasing the Gods, that they will ensure the safety of the population.It is here that we find watery chaos at the centre of civilised worship; that is, ironically, as an agent for cultural integration and cohesion.

39But there is a point, in the Eridu Genesis narrative, where our attention is drawn to a problem in the city.The people prove to be quite noisy and this is not at all pleasing to the Gods.As a result Enlil, vexed by the disturbances because they keep him from sleeping, convincing the other gods to bring about a destructive deluge.In columns three and four the text describes the events leading up to the flood (from Kramer, 1983: 119-20).

140.Then did Nintu [weep] like a…
141.Holy Inanna [sets up] a lament for its people
142.Enki took counsel with himself,
143.An, Enlil, Enki (and) Ninhursag
144.Adjured the gods of heaven (and) earth by An (and) Enlil.
145.In those days Ziusudra, the king, the gutug-priest…
147.Humbly eloquent [filled with] fear,
148.Standing daily, constantly…
149.Bringing forth all kinds of dreams, con[versing],
150.Adjuring the gods of heaven (and) earth he…
151.… the gods…
152.Ziusudra standing at its side, list[ened]:
153.“Stand by the wall at my left side…
154.At the wall I would say a word to you, take [my word],
155.[Give ear] to my instruction:
156.The me-endowed cities(:)—the flood [will sweep over their] kab[dugga]
157.To destroy the seed of mankind—[thus it has been decreed],
158.The verdict, the word of the assembly, [cannot be revoked]
159.The word commanded by An (and) Enlil [knows no overturning],
160.Their kinship—its reign [has been cut off, the heart is aggrieved].

40Enki has spoken, deciding to flood the city. This watery chaos will come to breach Eridu’s perimeter and wash away the failed city with the full force of the natural world; something that is, in Sumerian cosmology, demonstrative of the power of the angry Gods.

41The reason that Ziusudra’s status as a priest is announced is that, as Jacobsen notes, the fact that the priest has fashioned a statue of the ‘god of giddiness’ “suggests that he also was able to communicate with the world beyond through ecstasy, and so valued and sought the giddiness that precedes and induces ecstatic trance” (1981: 523).His status symbolizes a bridge between the world or order and that of a divine chaos.Ziusudra’s valuing of giddiness, of the divinity of chaos, is perhaps what finds him to be favoured by Enki—favoured enough to be informed, by Enki, of the impending deluge.He is advised to build a boat that will enable himself, his family, and representatives of the animals to survive the flood (a part of the text that scholars recognise as being strongly reminiscent Noah’s Arc).The boat symbolises of hope for, when skilfully made, it is protective.Once again, knowledge of water becomes a way to survival.Kramer’s (1983: 120) transliteration continues.

201.All the windstorms (and) gales attacked together,
202.At the same time, the flood swept over the kabdugga
203.After, for seven days (and) seven nights,
204.The flood had swept over the land
205.(And) the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters,
206.Utu came forth, who illuminates heaven (and) earth.
207.Ziusudra drilled an opening in the huge boat
208.Valiant Utu brought his light into the huge boat
209.Ziusudra, the king,
210.Prostrated himself before Utu,
211.The king slaughters oxen, multiplies sheep

42The flood has passed.Its chaos, and that of the windstorms, is over.But we are left with the question of how the written construction of a chaos can ever do justice to it.While they often seem normal, representations are not naturally occurring depictions, which is precisely why they can be examined for their cultural, ideological, and semiotic content (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002).The problem of finding a form for chaos, in terms of the Eridu Genesis, is only further frustrated by the “restrictions imposed by the nature of the text type” (Oppenheim, 1977: 144).If the Eridu Genesis constitutes a latent response to the Black Sea deluge can writing, in its infancy, ever be expected to capture the essence of chaos?As Lyotard (1987) says:

We can conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object destined to “make visible” this absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate.Those are ideas of which no presentation is possible. (p. 78)

Reflecting upon Chaos

43While we cannot, with certainty, distinguish between fact and fiction in Sumerian writing, the evidence available today, particularly that attributed to earth-science, gives us reason to interpret the Eridu Genesis as a use of literature to reveal a historical event in theological terms. That is, it seems highly probable that certain literary qualities of the Eridu Genesis, in its description of Creation and of Eridu’s inundation, have been inspired by a historical episode known as the Black Sea deluge.

44The Eridu Genesis takes part in an attempt, not only to “satisfy man’s craving for the answers to the universe,” but to attribute some kind of form, an order, to a watery abyss (Kramer, 1961: 183).But, with Lyotard’s comments still in mind, it seems that the question of the text’s adequacy as a representation of chaos becomes rhetorical.In other words, to the extent that chaos and the abyss cannot be fathomed, we are left to consider what insight such inadequacy provides us in terms of the human condition.

45If Sumerian writing, in general, became another tool for expressing mastery over the natural world, it follows that, at some stage in writing’s development, it also provided an unpassable opportunity to domesticate the legacy of the Black Sea deluge; a chance to inscribe, in clay, millennia old cultural memories of an abruptly inundation.This was an inundation that confirmed humankind’s impotence in the face of nature’s unforgiving power, and so writing functions as a symbolic gesture through which human evolution can be demonstrated.

46The conjunction of ‘writing and chaos’ is disclosed as a battle between the will to personal power and autonomy in the world, and the inherent power of an essentially unpredictable nature of that very world.If the Black Sea is understood as a place where place was erased by chaos, it can be taken to represent a site of death and subjectivity—that is, a place in which personal or individual feelings, belonging to the survivors of the deluge, emerged in response to humankind’s impotence in the face of nature’s unforgiving power.Thus, the writing of chaos becomes an attempt to negotiate the part of the human condition that is a struggle between chaos and order, between the assessment of threat and risk, and a course of action that will ensure one’s safety in the future.It seems that the Eridu Genesis responds to a timeless question.That being, what is the individual’s position in this world, in view of a certain set of historical circumstances as they are understood at any given time?The Eridu Genesis remains a “proto-type” for this kind of thinking, this uncertainty towards certainty that plays into a sensibility of infinity and which is made manifest through an ancient cosmology.

47When the Black Sea deluge was happening it could not have been fully comprehended and what it would mean, over time, could never have been imagined.But what can be ascertained is that the Eridu Genesis marks the beginning of a profound negotiation of the notion of origin.By using the innovation of writing to express an impossible narrative of a primordial chaos that dwells in the consciousness of a civilised society, the Eridu Genesis sets the challenge of writing and chaos in motion.For this reason, it is entirely plausible to claim that notions of the watery abyss underpin how chaos is viewed in the late modern world.

48Perhaps, in a way that is coherent with the subject matter, the origin of chaos raises an uncertainty with regard the beginning of writing.In the same way that we may wonder how far the Black Sea can be credited for the content of the Eridu Genesis, it is also fair to wonder how much credit can be taken by the Black Sea for the text’s very form.Did writing emerge from a need to document laws, property and everyday life, or did it emerge as a response to a very human need to secure oneself in the world, with these others being merely secondary applications?This question will take much more time to address. But whatever the answer may be, the Eridu Genesis continues to anchor ‘writing and chaos’ in a literature of ‘the deep’.

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1  Perhaps there is some echo of this process in the English language, at least, where the word ‘write’ originates from the Old English writan, meaning to “sense, to score, scratch” (Brown, 1993b, p. 3731).

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David Prescott-Steed, « Black Sea Abyss: Chaos and Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia », TRANS- [En ligne], 6 | 2008, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2008, consulté le 29 mai 2016. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/trans.249

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David Prescott-Steed

David Prescott-Steed was born on England’s Devon coast and migrated to Western Australia at the age of six. Having exhibited artwork since 1993, David continues to pursue a creative praxis and, in 2006, completed his PhD on representations of the abyss. He is unit coordinator and lecturer for Cultural History and Theory in the Faculty of Education and Arts at Edith Cowan University and also works within the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia. His research interests include deep-sea imagery and concepts, historical representations of the unknown, and the role of indeterminacy in everyday thinking

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