William Johnson Sollas
(30 May 1849 - 20 Oct 1936)
GEOLOGIES AND DELUGES.
British Association Address to Workingmen
By Prof. W.T. SOLLAS, F.R.S.
from Popular Science Monthly (1894)
[p.245] IN the days when geology was young, now some two hundred years ago, it found a careful foster-mother in theology, who watched over its early growth with anxious solicitude, and stored its receptive mind with the most beautiful stories, which the young science never tired of transforming into curious fancies of its own, which it usually styled “theories of the earth.”
Of these, one of the most famous in its day and generation was that of Thomas Burnett, published in 1684, in a work of great learning and eloquence. Samuel Pepys, of diary fame, is said to have found great delight in it, and it is still possible to turn to it with interest when jaded with the more romantic fiction of our own day.
It was the fashion to commence these theories with chaos, and chaos, according to Barnett, was a disorderly mixture of particles of earth, air, and water, floating in space; it was without form, yet not without a center, a center indeed of gravity, toward which the scattered particles began to fall, but the grosser, on account of “their more lumpish nature,” fell more quickly than the rest, and reaching the center first accumulated about it in a growing heap, a heap, as we might now express it, of fallen meteorites; the lighter particles, which form fluids, followed the heavier in their descent and collected around the solid kernel to form a deep ocean. This was at first a kind of emulsion, like milk, formed of oily and watery particles commingled, and, just as in the case of milk, there separated on standing a thick, creamy upper layer, which floated on the “skim milk” below. That this really happened, the good Burnett bravely remarks, “we can not doubt.” The finest dust of chaos was the last to fall, and it did not descend till the cream had risen; with which it mingled to form, under the heat of the sun, the earth’s first crust, an excellent but fragile pastry, consisting of fine earth mixed with a benign juice, which formed a fertile nidus for the origin of living things. Outside nothing now was left but the lightest and most active particles of all, and these “flying ever on the wing, play in the open spaces” about the earth, and constitute the atmosphere of air.
Such was the earth when first it formed the abode of unfallen man—perfect in form and beauty, for it was a true sphere, smooth as an egg; undisfigured by mountains, and unwasted by the sea. It was unfortunately but too like an egg, since its fragile [p.246] shell rested on the treacherous waters of the interior abyss, “the waters under the earth,” and the sun overroasting, finally cracked and burst it; the broken fragments of the ruined world fell downward into the abyss, and the subterranean waters rushed out in a mighty flood to remain as our present seas and oceans, from which the broken crust protrudes as continents and islands. As might naturally be anticipated, the bursting out of the abyss corresponds to the Noachian deluge, which we thus perceive to have been profounder in its origin and wider reaching in its effects than we might previously have supposed. This, for distinction, we may call Burnett’s deluge; of his geology we may say that it is cosmological, since it endeavors to trace the history of the earth backward to its origin in chaos; that it is catastrophic, because it attempts to account for all the great features of the earth by a single event which occurred suddenly and with violence; and that it is theologic, since it owes its inspiration to Holy Writ.
As geology grew older it went to school: what was the name of the school is not quite certain; some have called it “Science falsely so called,” others more briefly, “Inductive Science.” However this may be, the immediate effect on the manners of young geology was very distressing. It grew contradictory, and was frank in the expression of obnoxious opinions. One of its most irritating remarks was that the world was not made in a week, and it would appear that at this time the relations of child and foster-parent became not a little strained. Still, geology proved an apt scholar, and its progress was rapid. One of the most important lessons it learned was that if we want to know how the world was made, the first essential is to study the earth itself, to investigate with patient drudgery every detail that it presents, and particularly the structures that can be seen in river banks, sea cliffs, quarries, pits, and mines. Thus it discovered that the solid land beneath our feet is to a large extent composed of layers of sediment which were once deposited more or less quietly at the bottom of ancient seas, and certain curious bodies known as fossils it concluded to be the remains of plants and animals, seashells and the like, which were once the living denizens of these seas.
It discovered that these deposits lie so regularly, one upon another, that it compared them to a pile of books, or to a slanting row of books lying cover to cover; and that in some cases, at least, the simile was not strained, will appear if we trace the structure of England from Oxford westward toward Bristol. We then find that the thick bed of clay upon which Oxford stands lies evenly on a series of gently sloping beds known as the lower Oölites; these in like manner repose on those thin [p.247] seams of limestone and clay called the Lias, and these in their turn upon the red beds of the Trias. It might perhaps have been expected that this uniform arrangement would continue through the whole thickness of the stratified rocks, but it was discovered, and the importance of the discovery was recognized so early as 1670 by Bishop Steno, a man of great genius, that the regularity of the successions is liable to interruption at intervals. Thus as we approach Bristol we encounter those beds of limestone which are associated with our coal-bearing strata, and which are consequently called “carboniferous”; but these are by no means related to the beds we have just passed over in the same manner as they are to one another—we do not find the highest bed of the carboniferous series offering its upper surface as a gently sloping platform on which the trias may rest; on the contrary, the carboniferous beds are seen to lie in great rolling folds, with tne tops of the rising folds absent, as it were sliced off, and it is on the edges, not on the surface, of these beds that the red trias layers are seen to be spread out. This sudden change in disposition may well be called a break in the succession of the rocks, and, as if to emphasize it and compel attention to it, we find it accompanied by a complete change in the character of the fossils, those occurring in the carboniferous rocks being of entirely different kinds from those which are found in the overlying beds.
Evidently the carboniferous beds could not have been laid down in the sea in the steeply folded form they now present; at first they must have been spread out in nearly horizontal layers, and the folded form must have been subsequently impressed upon them, no doubt by the action of some stupendously powerful force. Subsequent also must have been the removal of the upper parts of the folds and the general planing down which they appear to have undergone.
To the young geology all this might seem perfectly clear, but in its impulsive explanations it assumed that Nature must have frequently acted in a great and terrible hurry: thus the folding of the rocks was supposed to have been produced suddenly and violently by a single mighty convulsion, which simultaneously changed sea floors into mountain chains, split open the land in wide-gaping chasms—our present river valleys—and with the same blow destroyed every living inhabitant in the world.
But the discordance between two sets of rocks is met with not once only, but several times, in the stratified rocks of the earth’s crust, and for every discordance there must have occurred a corresponding catastrophe.
These catastrophes were as wonderful as Burnett’s, and there were more of them, so that at this stage of its existence geology was appropriately designated “catastrophic.” It had completely [p.248] severed the apron-string, and ceased to be theologic, but it still to its credit remained cosmologic. It traced the earth from chaos up to a stage when islands and continents rose out of a primeval ocean, the waters of which were boiling; saw it peopled with strange and various forms of life, and watched it run its course, rejoicing in the sun, “cheerful, fresh, and full of joyance glad,” then pictured it overtaken with disasters, shaken with earthquakes, overwhelmed by floods, and agonizing in the labors of a new birth. Calm followed after storm, and life rejoiced afresh in a remade world to be again destroyed. Thus, through alternations of peace and strife, the earth moved on its changeful way, to the crowning creation of man, who was himself a living witness of the last great catastrophe of all, the Noachian deluge. Its waters covered the whole earth, to the tops of the highest mountains under heaven, and on their retreat they left behind, as a standing witness to their extension, great sheets of sediment, supposed to be spread out over the entire surface of the globe, and appropriately named the “diluvium.” The diluvium may be seen in most parts of the British Isles, except in the south of England; it consists of clays and sands, containing vast numbers of curiously scratched stones.
As the powers of geology matured it became increasingly able to dispense with catastrophes. The very diluvium itself was shown to be local in its distribution, and glacial in its origin; masses of moving ice, like that which buries the greater part of Greenland out of sight, covered a large part of the temperate regions, and this it was that produced the curious scratched stones; and the deposits containing them, which are consequently no longer called “diluvial” but “glacial.” More important yet, land could be shown to be still actually rising from the sea, and mountains growing into the air, but so slowly that the fact was not established without much dispute, which is hardly yet over. Valleys could be shown to result, not from any bodily fracturing of the land, but from the slow wearing action of the rivers which flow through them, and the waves of the sea were shown to be capable of cutting down cliffs and of reducing the land to a plain.
From these facts the discordance in the succession of stratified rocks found an easy solution. Recurring to the instance of the carboniferous rocks and their relations to the trias, we no longer need suppose that the stupendous force which folded the carboniferous rocks and raised them into the air acted suddenly or even very rapidly; judging from the rate at which mountains rise now, their upheaval may have proceeded slowly; a few feet in a century would suffice. If we allow but one foot in a century, it would only require two million years to produce a mountain range twenty thousand feet in height. The movement might naturally be expected to be accompanied by earthquakes, but there is nothing to lead us to suppose that these would be on a much grander scale than those of the present. During its slow elevation, the mountain range would be exposed to wind and weather, rain and rivers would carve it out into ridges and valleys, and frost would splinter its peaks into spires and pinnacles. Subsequently it would sink beneath the sea, and the waves of the sea, as they battered down its cliffs, would remove the last remnants which had escaped the rain and rivers, and roll over an unbroken plain. On this plain, as it continued slowly to subside beneath the sea, the immense deposits of the trias, lias, lower oölites, and Oxford clay would be piled up.
If the rise of the sea floor into the Bristol Alps took place slowly, and involved a great lapse of time, so equally did the sinking of the land to form the sea floor afresh, and in this long interval time was afforded for great changes in the organic world; and thus we reach an explanation of the great and striking differences which distinguish the fossils of the carboniferous rocks from those of later date.
There is no insuperable difficulty in this explanation; its great merit lies in its accordance with the course of Nature as we observe it at the present day; and henceforward it became the motto of geology that the processes of the present furnish the key to the interpretation of the past. The changes in which the life of the earth is manifest are not only slow and gradual now, but they have ever been the same. The earthquakes, which in ancient times shook the land, were no more violent than those of which we have lately read in the daily newspapers; the ancient volcanoes were not more terrible in their outbursts than Krakatoa; floods were not more appalling than those which still from time to time sweep away tens or even hundreds of thousands of human beings from the Ganges plain, and the earth, instead of falling into convulsions every now and then, proceeds on the even tenor of her way, without haste and without rest, preserving a uniformity in her progress which impresses us with its solemn grandeur, but which sometimes seems a trifle monotonous. From its belief that an unbroken uniformity in the operations of Nature extends from the present into the most remote past, geology now came to be called “uniformitarian.” It was no longer theologic, no longer catastrophic, and, I am sorry to add, no longer cosmologic. It persistently refused to inquire into the early history of our planet, and restricting its study to the accessible parts of the earth’s crust, it abdicated its regal position as the science of the earth, and became as it were a mere petty chieftain, dealing only with rocks and the fossils they contain; the fossils, by the way, not rightly belonging to its province at all. [p.250] And it was because it passed from being a science of the earth to become a mere study of rocks and fossils that Hutton was able to make his famous declaration that as a result of his inquiries into the system of Nature he could discover “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Apart from this, however, and in its self-limited career, geology pursued a luminous advance, and as it did so the Noachian deluge began to sink into an oblivion which it might be thought to have scarcely merited. For if the biblical account is to be taken literally, it furnishes us with a catastrophe of the first order; and since it is said to have occurred comparatively recently, or at least in historic time, the uniformitarian, by his own principles, would have been compelled to infer, as the catastrophist had done, that such deluges form a part of the orderly scheme of the world. The universality of the deluge had, however, for various reasons, been denied, not only by geologists, but by writers of other schools of thought, and toward the middle of the century belief in it among the learned was gradually expiring; such a number and variety of convincing arguments as converged against it could indeed but lead to that result; and that the deluge, so far from being universal, was a local and very local phenomenon, became an article of belief so settled among all good geologists—and I think I may add theologists—that it may be said to have finally fallen into the deep slumber of a decided opinion, from which I for one have no desire to arouse it.
Thus the deluge, so far from shaking the uniformitarian position, was rather itself submerged by uniformitarian views, and growing geology was in danger of taking the uniformitarian formula for an infallible dogma. It was saved from this by physics, a clever brother of its own, which had now discovered the famous principle of the “conservation of energy,” and another equally famous, “the dissipation of energy.” From these it was deducible that the duration of the earth as a living planet must be strictly limited in time. It must have had a beginning, and at the beginning was furnished with a store of energy, which it has ever since been spending. In this spending of energy its life consists, and when the store is at length exhausted its life will cease, and it will become numbered among the dead planets.
A good deal of this uniformitarian geology might perhaps itself have guessed, had it extended its views beyond rocks and fossils to the stars and other shining bodies which people the vast realms of space. The present, then, strange to say, will still afford a key to the past. We have but to turn to the sun, our nearest luminary, though still more than ninety millions of miles away from us, and in that great orb we find much to suggest the state of our planet some ninety millions of years ago or more. [p.251] It is scarcely necessary to remind you of the fact that the sun is a body so hot that the most refractory substances known to us on the earth exist in it in a state of gas or vapor; tongues of glowing gas shoot from it like flames; the clouds which emit its brilliant light are probably clouds of carbon or silicon, which have momentarily condensed from a gaseous state; and rain, if rain ever occurs, must be a rain of molten metals, such as iron, which will be dissipated in gas before it has fallen very far.
If we proceed to the more remote nebulae, largely composed of glowing masses of gas, we find a suggestion of a stage more embryonic still, when the earth had as yet no separate existence, but formed, with its sister planets and the sun, a single shining cloud. On the other hand, if we turn our gaze on our nearest relative—offspring possibly—that dead planet, the moon, we may read in its pallid disk the sad reminder, “Such as I am, you, too, some day will be.”
But this was not all that was contained in the admonition of physics; it showed not only that the earth is mortal, but that its span of life, as measured in years, or millions of years, is brief compared to the almost unlimited periods which geology had been in the habit of postulating. If catastrophic geology had at times pushed Nature to almost indecent extremes of haste, uniformitarian geology, on the other hand, had erred in the opposite direction, and pictured Nature, when she was “young and wantoned in her prime,” as moving with the tame sedateness of advanced middle age. It became necessary, therefore, as Dr. Haughton expresses it, “to hurry up the phenomena.”
With its uniformitarianism thus moderated, geology has again become cosmologic, and, neglecting no study that can throw light on any question connected with our planet, has regained its position as the science of the earth: it is henceforth known as evolutional geology.
The change has not taken place without occasional relapses into catastrophism. Some indications of this can, I fancy, be perceived in the writings of that eminently great geologist Suess, who, among other suggestions savoring of heresy, has lately recalled attention to the “Deluge,” and endeavored to show that though certainly local, and indeed confined to the Mesopotamian Valley, it was on a grander scale than we had been accustomed to suppose, or, in plain language, a genuine historic catastrophe.
A local flood must have had a locality, and the clew to this is furnished by Genesis itself, which informs us that Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew race, left his ancestral city, “Ur of the Chaldees,” at a time long subsequent to the flood; it is, therefore, rather in the land of the Chaldees than in Palestine that we should be led to seek the scene of this momentous, tragedy.
[p.252] This land is no other than the famous and once beautiful valley of Mesopotamia, through which the great Euphrates and arrow-swift Tigris flow to empty themselves into the Persian Gulf. Almost lost sight of for a while, interest in it was reawakened some seventy years ago by the investigations commenced by Mr. Rich, and followed up with such wonderful results by Botta, Place, Layard, George Smith, and others. Their discoveries have revealed to us in unexpected fullness the details of a complex and advanced civilization almost if not quite as ancient as the Egyptian, and far more profoundly interesting, for the ancient nations of Mesopotamia are the intellectual forefathers of the modern world. The learning of the Chaldees was the heritage of the Jews and Greeks; from these the torch was handed on to the Romans, and Jew and Greek and Roman inspired, and still inspire, for good and evil, the civilization of the nineteenth century. There is much more of the Chaldean in every one of us than we are given to imagine.
The people whom we find in possession at the dawn of history were Semites, the parent stock from which the Jews subsequently branched off; and one has but to glance at their faces and forms, as portrayed in their statues and pictures, to recognize the strong family likeness, while the emphasis with which muscular development is expressed in parts of the human figure suggests that the remarkable assertion, “The pride of a young man is in his legs,” was a Semitic opinion long before the time of Solomon.
Just as Egypt is the gift of the Nile, so is Mesopotamia equally the gift of the Tigris and Euphrates, for it is built up of the mud brought down from the mountains by these two streams into the Persian Gulf, which is thus in process of obliteration. So long as the two great rivers were not regulated, they produced terrible floods in the wet season; and one of the earliest works of the Chaldeans was to control their flow by great dams, and by diverting a part of their water into canals. These canals covered the country like a network, and served not merely to ease the rivers, but also to irrigate the land, which, thus richly supplied by water, became, under the hot sun, so fat and fruitful that corn is said to have borne three hundred fold. Groves of palms, orchards, with grapes and many other luscious fruits, were cultivated, while the pastures supported abundant flocks and herds. It was a true garden of Eden, and differed chiefly from the biblical paradise, which Delitsch thinks was actually situated within this garden, in the fact that even here man had still to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. This the Turks, who now possess the country, have no inclination to do, and consequently it is rapidly returning to its primitive desolation. Were England as enterprising as she was in the time of Elizabeth, we should rent this land from the Porte, [p.253] run a railway through it, and thus shorten our route to India by a thousand miles, farm it, and thus provide ourselves with one of the richest granaries in the world.
In a land so favored, it is nothing wonderful that the inhabitants teemed in millions, villages were everywhere dotted about, and in their midst great and flourishing cities arose—Ur, the City of the Moon-god; Erech, the City of Books; Nippur, and, most famous of all, proud Babylon, “the Gate of God,” which stood on the left bank of the Euphrates, some two hundred and eighty miles above its present mouth. In early times, probably about 2300 b. c., the Jews left this beautiful land for some unknown reason, and after various vicissitudes settled in Palestine. Another branch of the Chaldean stock migrated in later times to the northern part of the Tigris Valley, where they built many mighty cities, and founded the warlike kingdom of Assyria. Of their cities it is sufficient to mention Assur, which gave its name to the kingdom, and Nineveh, which afterward became the capital.
The Mesopotamian plain, owing to the way in which it has been produced, is an almost dead flat, and offers no natural elevations for building; the Chaldees, therefore, to raise the foundations of their palaces, temples, and houses above the reach of floods and fever, and for better defense against their enemies, constructed, with incredible labor, great mounds, by piling together quantities of sun-dried bricks and rubbish, and building round this a thick wall of burned bricks, well cemented together. Some of these mounds, as that of Kojundjik at Nineveh, are as much as sixty feet in height, and it has been computed that this mound alone would have required the labor of twenty thousand men for six years in its construction. But there was never any difficulty in obtaining all the labor that was wanted. Prisoners of war were compelled to work under the stick, and the building of mounds was one of the wholesome occupations to which the Jews were set during their captivity in Assyria.
On the mound of Kojundjik stood two great palaces, one of them that of King Assurbanipal. It was evidently not merely a royal residence, for one of its chambers at least was devoted to public purposes; this was the king’s library, to which the citizens, who were taught in their early years to read and write, had free access. Whether any of the books were written on papyrus is uncertain; all that have survived the conflagration, in which the palace was destroyed, are on tablets of kiln-made brick. Of such tablets many thousands have been recovered, not only from Nineveh, but from other towns, and many of them are now preserved in the British Museum. Thus within the last fifty years modern Europe has obtained a glimpse, and more than a glimpse, into the literature of a civilization that perished just as [p.254] the Roman was coming into existence; for, as Sir Walter Raleigh puts it, “In Alexander’s time learning and greatness had not traveled so far west as Rome, Alexander esteeming of Italy but as a barbarous country, and of Rome as but a village. But it was Babylon that stood in his eyes, and the fame of the East pierced his ears.”
The recovered literature covers a vast field of human interest, in science, as in astronomy and mathematics, particularly in astronomy, for the Chaldeans were famous star-watchers, and had already named the stars and constellations, associating them with the deeds and mighty works of their heroes and demigods, so that the starlit sky became a pictured dome, and the zodiac a frieze to the Assyrian, reminding him of history or fable, like the sculptures and paintings which adorned the king’s palaces; in religion and poetry, and in commerce, many of the tablets recording business contracts, and revealing a system of mortgage and banking, money being frequently lent at from thirteen to twenty per cent, which was moderate; for the advantages of cent per cent were already known and appreciated by these simple Semitic folk.
It was among the tablets from King Assurbanipal’s library at Nineveh that George Smith, now over twenty years ago, made a famous discovery. He found a fragment of a tablet, bearing words, which he deciphered as follows: “On the Mount Nizir the ship stood still. Then I took a dove, and let her fly. The dove flew hither and thither, but finding no resting place, returned to the ship.” Every Englishman who knows his Bible would have guessed, as George Smith immediately did, that he had before him a piece of a Chaldean account of the deluge. He searched for more fragments, and found them. He went out to Assyria, visited the king’s palace, and found still more tablets and pieces of tablets, some of them just those he required to fill up missing gaps in the story. Since its first translation by its discoverer it has been again translated and retranslated by some of the acutest scholars in Europe, so that we now possess a fairly complete knowledge of it; a few missing words or even lines, and occasional obscurities occur, but these are of no great importance. In a town which has the privilege to number the distinguished Assyriologist, Prof. Sayce, among its residents, there will be no necessity to present the story more than briefly. It runs as follows: Sitnapistim, the Chaldean Noah, is warned by Ea, the god of wisdom and the sea, that the gods of Surippak, a city on the Euphrates, even then extremely old, had decided in council to destroy mankind by a flood. Sitnapistim is told to build a ship in which to save himself, his family, household, and belongings. Anticipating the curiosity of his neighbors, since he had never before built a boat, he asks what answer he is to make [p.255] when questioned as to his unusual proceedings. Ea, who as the god of wisdom is naturally a master of evasion, provides him with a subterfuge, and Sitnapistim sets about building his boat. He forms it of timber and reeds, and makes it watertight by filling up the crevices with pitch, which he poured over it both within and without. It is of great interest, as showing the local coloring of the legend and the survival of an ancient custom, to observe that this practice of paying the native boats of the Euphrates with pitch has persisted in Mesopotamia down to the present day, natural pitch being used, which occurs at various localities in the valley, but particularly near the town of Hit. Sitnapistim’s method of procedure, both in building and paying his boat, may still be witnessed at Hit as a matter of almost every-day occurrence.
Sitnapistim having provisioned the vessel, and brought into it all his goods and chattels, received an intimation of the immediate approach of the catastrophe; he went on board with his family and friends, closed the roof, and prudently intrusted the helm to the sailor—Buzar-sadi-rabi. Heavy rain fell during an anxious night, and as soon as daybreak appeared—
“There arose from the foundation of heaven, a dark cloud,
The storm-god Raman thundered in its midst and Nebo and
Merodach went in front. As leaders they passed over mountain and plain.
Ninîb went therein, and the storm behind him followed.
The Anunnaki raised high their torches,
With their radiant brightness the land glittered,
The turmoil of Ramân reached to heaven,
All that was light was turned to darkness.
. . . . . . .
In the earth men perished. …
Brother beheld not his brother, men knew not one another. In the heaven
The gods were terrified by the deluge, and
Hastened to ascend to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were like a dog—sat down cowering on the ring wall of heaven.
Ishtar cried like one filled with anger.
Cried the mistress of the gods—the sweet-voiced—
‘The former generation is turned to clay. …
What I have borne, where is it?
Like fish spawn it fills the sea.’”
For six days the flood lasted and ceased on the seventh, and then Sitnapistim is made to say:
“I looked on the sea and called aloud,
But the whole of mankind was turned to clay.
I opened the air-hole, and the light fell on my face:
I bowed low, sat down, and wept,
Over my face flowed my tears.”
[p.256] Sitnapistim then beheld the land, Mount Nizir, on which the ship grounded. It remained swinging there for seven days; on the seventh day Sitnapistim sent out a dove, which returned, then a swallow, which flew to and fro, but also returned, and finally a raven: “The raven went, saw the going down of the waters, came croaking nearer, but did not come back.” Sitnapistim then left the ship with his people, built an altar on the summit of the mountain, and offered sacrifice. The poem then runs:
“The gods smelt the savor, the gods smelt the sweet savor, The gods gathered like flies over the sacrificer. The mistress of the gods, Ishtar, lifted up the (bow?) which Anu had made according to her wish.” A discussion then takes place among the gods, who all through are very human, and in its course Ea suggests to Bel, who seems to have been the prime mover in all the mischief, that he should for the future destroy mankind in a less undiscriminating manner—by wild beasts, pestilence, and famine. The scene ends happily with the apotheosis of Sitnapistim and his wife.
The surprising resemblance of the story to the biblical narrative, extending into identity of words, as in the case of the “gods smelt the sweet savor” points to direct derivation or borrowing, and there can be very little doubt in deciding on which side the borrowing lav. The biblical narrative is indeed a Jahvistic or monotheistic edition of the Chaldean. To this conclusion the most distinguished Assyrian scholars have been led. I need only mention here Prof. Sayce, whose opinion is expressed on page 119 of his work on The Higher Criticism and the Monuments, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, during the current year.
The Chaldean story certainly reduces the flood to much smaller dimensions, and so far brings it nearer the range of probability; the rain lasted only seven days, and the waters have subsided sufficiently at the end of a fortnight for Sitnapistim to land. They do not cover all the high mountains, and the stranding of the ship on Mount Nizir when the flood was at its climax gives us a maximum height, which it can not have exceeded; for if this mountain had been deeply submerged, it could not have arrested the passage of the ship. The height of the Nizir mountains is about one thousand feet above the sea level, which still leaves room for a very respectable flood.
The skepticism which prevailed in the middle of this century with regard to legends seems to have given place to an almost equally great credulity. The older argument seemed to be that the presence of some obviously unveracious statements in a legend condemned the rest, want of faith in some was want of faith in [p.257] all; while the more modern view would appear to be that since so many discredited legends have been found to enshrine some important truth, all are to be assumed trustworthy till they are proved otherwise.
It may be in this spirit that Suess has elaborately discussed the Chaldean legend as though it presented us with a trustworthy account of the Mesopotamian deluge.
Reasoning from the facts as it records them, Suess lays great stress on the course taken by the ship from Surippak, supposed to have been situated near the mouth of the Euphrates, to the land of Nizir, a distance of about two hundred and forty miles up stream. Had the flood been produced solely by heavy rainfall and a consequent overflowing of the swollen rivers, the ship instead of being carried inland would have been drifted out to sea—i. e., southward into the Persian Gulf. Suess therefore suggests that a great wave was produced in the Persian Gulf, partly by a cyclone and partly by an earthquake. This wave of twofold origin then rolled in upon the low-lying land of Mesopotamia, and drove its floods of water up the valley till they washed the foot of the Nizir hills.
Of all catastrophes none are more terrible, none more disastrous than those thus produced. When the shock of an earthquake occurs beneath the sea, and affects the adjacent land, a trembling of the ground is first felt, then the sea retires and leaves the beach bare, only to return in a long, mighty wave which breaks with violence on the shore. Thus on October 28, 1746, Callao in Peru, after being shaken by an earthquake, was overwhelmed by a sea wave and utterly destroyed; of its five thousand inhabitants only two hundred survived the flood. Still more destructive was the famous earthquake of Lisbon, November 1, 1755, when the inhabitants, without a warning, were destroyed in the falling city, and in six minutes sixty thousand persons perished. The sea in this case, as in others, retired first, and then rose fifty feet or more above its usual level, swamping the boats in the harbor; at Cadiz the wave is said to have reached a height of sixty feet, and it was felt over the greater part of the North Atlantic Ocean, arriving even on our own shores, as at Kinsale in Ireland, where it rushed into the harbor and poured into the market place.
That a great sea wave so produced might have thus arisen in the Persian Gulf is quite within the bounds of possibility, particularly as a zone of the earth’s crust, very liable to earthquakes, stretches across the mouth of the gulf near the Ormus Mountains.
But if we are to follow the legend, we must follow it faithfully, and as a result of the most recent investigations it turns out that all the passages which were supposed to refer to an [p.258] earthquake have been mistranslated. The earthquake is thus put out of court, and we are left with what help we can get from the hurricane, a kind of disturbance which often vies with the earthquake in the destructive nature of the sea waves to which it gives rise.
The Andaman Islands of the East Indies are a center which give birth to some of the most terrific hurricanes in the world. Traveling more or less westward and northward, these whirlwinds sweep over the waters of the Bay of Bengal and raise the sea into waves mountains high, which every now and again rush over the low-lying lands of the Ganges delta, overwhelming the unfortunate inhabitants by myriads. Thus on the night of October 14, 1737, one of these waves, estimated at forty feet in height, suddenly overtook the dwellers by the Ganges and destroyed them to the number of one hundred thousand, or, as some say, three hundred thousand souls. These storms do not, as a rule, travel toward the Persian Gulf, and the North Arabian Sea is singularly free from them; but Suess, tracing the course of the storm of October 24, 1843, suggests that for once, in the case of the deluge, an East Indian storm may have lost its way and blundered, as it were, into the Persian Gulf. The track of this storm of 1842 was as follows: At five o’clock on October 24th it reached Pondicherry; it then slightly altered its direction and veered more to the southwest, and on the 25th at midday it crossed the western Ghats, and then divided into two parts; the south center need not concern us. The northern center traveled northeastward toward the Persian Gulf, and was felt from the Gulf of Aden to Cape Guardafui, wrecking in this tract a number of vessels.
The greatest estimated height of storm waves is from forty to forty-five feet, and, as Suess points out, it must have needed a much greater wave than this to drown out all Mesopotamia up to the Nizir hills. How much greater, is a question we are fortunately able to answer positively, thanks to the accurate measurements made by the engineer Czernik during a survey for a projected railway. The Tigris rises very slowly from its mouth inland, but at Bagdad it is already one hundred and fifty-four feet above the sea level, and at Mansurijah, the lowest point where its tributary Diala Tschai emerges from the Hamrin Mountains, the height is given as two hundred and eighty-five feet; but the land of Nizir lies even still more to the north than this, and the Lower Zab, which cuts through it, can not have a less elevation than six hundred or seven hundred feet. No storm wave of which we have any record, no recorded earthquake wave, nor any combination of the two, approaches even remotely the height that would be required to carry the sea even to Bagdad; while as for the Nizir Mountains, the Valiant Pherson, who “nearly spoilt the [p.259] flood,” might have drank up all the sea water which came there without any assistance from Glenlivat. If we admit that the Tigris valley was ever submerged up to this point and restored to its original condition in the course of fourteen days, we are confronted with a catastrophe not only stupendous in degree, but of a nature beyond our present powers of explanation.
But are we compelled to admit anything of the sort, and would it not be well before doing so to inquire a little more closely into the credentials and character of the Chaldean story? We have seen that the tablets on which it occurs were found in King Assurbanipal’s library, and it is fairly certain that they were copied from others much older preserved in the ancient city of Erech, the city of books. It is indeed probable that the tablets in Erech may date from the time of King Khammarubi, or from about 2350 b. c. Tlie tablets present themselves therefore with good recommendations, and we proceed to the character of the story itself. It does not occur alone, but as one chapter out of twelve in a long poem of about three thousand lines, concerning the adventures of a mythical hero named Izdubar or Gizdubar, perhaps the same as Nimrod, that “mighty hunter before the Lord” of biblical story, and plainly the prototype of the Greek Hercules.
The first tablet, containing the first chapter, is incomplete. So far as can be made out, it sets forth the misfortunes of the city of Erech, probably under the oppression of its Elamite enemies, who were so terrible in battle that poor Ishtar, its protecting goddess, “could not lift up her head against the foe.”
The second and third introduce Gizdubar, already famous as a hunter, as the hero, who was looked for to deliver the city. His rivals induce Ururu, the mother of the gods, to fashion a strange being, Eabani, half man and half bull, to fight with Gizdubar. This monster comes to Erech, bringing with him a powerful lion, desert-bred, to fight Gizdubar; but the hero succeeds in slaying the lion, and so wins the friendship and esteem of Eabani. In the fourth and fifth tablets the friends encounter and overcome the terrible tyrant Humbaba, whose voice was as “the roaring of the storm, his mouth wickedness, and his breath poison.” The sixth tablet, which is well preserved, tells how the hero was beloved of Ishtar. “Be my husband,” she says, “and I will be thy wife. I will make thee to ride in a chariot of gold and precious stones, with golden wheels and diamond horns. When thou enterest our house under the pleasant fragrance of the cedar, men shall kiss thy feet. Kings, princes, and lords shall bow down before thee, and bring tribute.” Gizdubar, however, is not to be seduced; he repels the advances of the goddess, who then presents herself as a naturally angry woman before her father Ann, and persuades him to frame a divine bull which is to destroy Gizdubar. [p.260] He and Eabani together slay this bull, however, and the goddess, now terribly incensed, pronounces a terrible curse upon Gizdubar. The seventh tablet is unfortunately missing. The eighth, ninth, and tenth narrate how Gizdubar, suffering under the divine anger, loses his friend Eabani and is smitten with a grievous illness. He journeys to the river’s mouth to consult his divine ancestor Sitnapistim. On his way he crosses a desert where “scorpion men” guard the dark path to the “waters of the dead,” which separate him from his quest. On the shore of this sea he finds a park of the gods, with wonderful trees bearing precious stones for fruit. After waiting here a long time a ferryman takes him over to the fields of the blessed, where he meets Sitnapistim. He tells his sorrowful tale, and the heart of Sitnapistim is filled with pity; but, alas! neither gods nor men can give him help. In the eleventh tablet Gizdubar inquires of Sitnapistim how he became immortal, and receives in answer the story of the deluge. After its recital Sitnapistim heals Gizdubar of his disease, and gives him the plant of life, its name being “Altho’-a-graybeardthe-man-becomes-young-again.” Unfortunately, an evil demon robs him of this on the way home. In the twelfth and last tablet Gizdubar returns to Erech and utters a lament over his lost friend Eabani, whose ghost subsequently appears and recounts the doings of the dead in Hades.
Thus the deluge story is a myth within a myth, containing statements plainly unveracious; and how we are to distinguish in this mass of fiction the true from the false passes the wit of man to conceive. If we say of the deluge part of it that it is a gross exaggeration, the judgment will sound mild, but this is all that is requisite to reduce the catastrophe to commonplace proportions.
Whether Gizdubar ever existed in the flesh or not has been doubted; it is certainly remarkable that each of the chapters of the poem corresponds to one of the signs of the zodiac, and they are arranged in the same order as the signs of the zodiac. A fanciful correspondence is thus drawn between the succession of events in the life of Gizdubar and the yearly course of the sun through the heavens, and it has consequently been maintained that Gizdubar is no other than the sun himself personified. The stages in the life of man find, however, so ready an analogy in the course of the sun, that this conclusion is by no means forced upon us, and we may turn to another identification of more significance in our inquiry. It is that of the Greek story of Heracles with the legend of Gizdubar. Heracles himself is no other than a Greek Gizdubar, the Chaldean Eabani corresponds to the centaur Cheiron, the tyrant Humbaba to the tyrant Geryon, the divine bull to the bull of Crete, the park of the gods to the garden [p.261] of the Hesperides, the lion slain by Gizdubar to the lion of Nemea which Hercules slew, and finally, just as Gizdubar is ferried across the waters of the dead, so Hercules is taken by Helios in the golden boat of the sun across the ocean.
As the Greeks have borrowed so much of the legend it would be surprising if they had not taken the rest, including the story of the deluge, and accordingly we find the Greeks provided with a legend of the flood, or with more than one, as they appear to have had more than one Heracles; but that which most closely accords with the Chaldean is the flood of Deukalion.
On the other hand, the Egyptians, who had sun stories of their own, did not borrow the legend of Gizdubar, and are silent as to a deluge; a fact of extreme importance when we consider that the Egyptian civilization was contemporaneous with the Chaldean, if not indeed older. The Nile is gentler in its overflowing than the Tigris, so that Egypt did not suffer under the scourge of unexpected floods.
If, finally, we turn to China, also possessed of very ancient historic records, and liable to the destructive deluges of the Yellow River, which have earned for it the designation “The Curse of China,” we discover a deluge story of great importance, to which Suess has already called attention. In the third Schû of the Canon of Yao, a monarch who reigned, it is supposed, somewhere about 2357 b. c., and therefore contemporaneous with Khammurabi, we read: The Tî said, “Prince of the Four Mountains, destructive in their overflowings are the waters of the flood. In their wide extension they inclose the mountains and cover the great heights, threatening the heaven with their floods, so that the lower people is unruly and murmur. Where is a capable man whom I can employ this evil to overcome?” Khwan was engaged, but for nine years he labored in vain; a fresh engineer, named Yû, was therefore called in; within eight years he completed great works: he thinned the woods, regulated the streams, dammed them, and opened their mouths, provided the people with food, and acted as a great benefactor to the state.
It is refreshing thus to pass from the ornate deceptions of legend to the sober truth of history; and if the facts on which the Gizdubar legend of the deluge is founded could be expressed in the same simple language, we should probably find it narrating similar events, or events as little calculated to surprise us as those of the straightforward Chinese Schû.
History then fails to furnish evidence of any phenomenon which can be called catastrophic in the geologic sense of the word, and geology has no need to return to the catastrophism of its youth; in becoming evolutional it does not cease to remain essentially uniformitarian.
[p.262] And the careful foster-mother? She too, as it appears to me, has widened her studies, and must, I should think, recognize with pride the stalwart growth of her early friend. May they be drawn nearer together, and feel the warm glow which is produced by the sympathy of a common love for truth!
- Science Quotes by William Johnson Sollas.
- 30 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Sollas's birth.