Stephen McGinty: Pushing the boat out again

The £100m film Noah, starring Russell Crowe, is just the latest rehash of the ancient myth about a man being asked by a god to built a ship in preparation for a great flood, says Stephen McGinty
The heavens open on Russell Crowe in the Hollywood blockbuster Noah. Picture: APThe heavens open on Russell Crowe in the Hollywood blockbuster Noah. Picture: AP
The heavens open on Russell Crowe in the Hollywood blockbuster Noah. Picture: AP

The sodden climate of Scotland means it was always likely that Noah would one day wash up on our shores, and today is that very day.

Russell Crowe will this afternoon introduce a preview screening of his new movie at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, where anxious fans are no doubt already queuing “two by two” in the hope of gaining entry and a first glimpse of Hollywood’s latest rendition of the ark.

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Clearly, the actor feels passionately enough about the project to spend most of today not at sea but in the air, flying across Britain and Northern Ireland to attend a variety of screenings of the £100 million movie.

Peta, the animal rights organisation, has given the film its solemn blessing, as no animals were harmed during the filming, as, well, very few animals were actually involved in the filming as “the lions, the tigers and the kangaroos” (as the old nursery rhyme went) were all computer animated.

However, the response from the religious community has been less enthusiastic. Muslim countries have banned it all together, as Noah was mentioned in the Koran and is deemed a prophet, and so should not be shown on film, while certain sections of the Christian community are divided over whether the film has too much or too little divine presence. Apparently the film has a strong environmental theme, quite understandable given the idea of flooding, but when I heard that Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan and The Fighter, and the excellent Requiem for a Dream, was making a big-budget movie about Noah, I kept thinking: “Will people of faith really want to see God portrayed as a serial killer?”

I remember reading why Harrison Ford refused to reprise the role of Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears, the next Tom Clancy novel after the huge success of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. It was because the plot revolved around the detonation of a nuclear bomb in an American city and his argument was that how could the audience care about his character’s survival after so much carnage and death? Hollywood didn’t listen. They made the movie anyway, with Ben Affleck. Yet it is a point that I think is applicable to Noah. How wicked does the world have to be for the audience to accept that every man, woman and child not on board Noah’s wooden sanctuary deserves to die?

No wonder Peta is proving to be the biggest cheerleader, as animals are elevated above humans. Audiences are used to chomping down on popcorn as the world goes up in flames, as in Independence Day or Man of Steel, but usually the hand behind the trigger is an evil alien, not a deity worshipped by more than half the planet.

Still, the God of Wrath used to be big box office. The Ten Commandments, in which the Egyptians are drowned in the Red Sea, had them queuing round the block in 1956.

But then again, Noah doesn’t just belong to Jews or Christians but to all of us. The story is one of the best-known tales in the modern world, and also one of the oldest on the planet. In many ways it is fitting that a new generation can witness in air-conditioned Imax cinemas, a story that was once told 5,000 years ago around the flickering camp fires of ancient Babylon. For the Noah we know from the Bible’s Book of Genesis is taken from the scrolls of the Torah, with this particular story written, according to scientific research, between 538-332 BC.

Yet the story of a good man being asked by God to build a boat in preparation for a great flood is an ancient myth that stretches back even further. The first person to discover that the story predated the Old Testament was an academic called George Smith, who was working in the British Museum in 1872 when he began to decipher cuneiform tablets, clay bricks the size of a iPhone, on which the people of the ancient civilisations of Assyria, Babylonia and Sumeria wrote. When Smith, who was a devout Christian, translated a cuneiform tablet that detailed a cleansing flood, and realised that Noah was but a rewrite of an even more ancient pagan myth involving a hero called Ziusudra, it had the most curious effect on his person. He began to strip off his clothes and ran partially naked through the corridors.

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The revelation (of the translation, not the striptease) prompted the Daily Telegraph to fund a trip by Smith to the River Tigris, which gave Mesopotamia its name – it is Greek for “Between the Rivers” and refers to its positioning between the Tigris and the Euphrates. During the expedition to the abandoned city of Nineveh, he found more tablets that would become the tale of Gilgamesh.

As Mesopotamia was positioned on what is effectively a flood plain, the destructive power of a deluge of water was a genuine fear for the people and archeological research has dated a particularly devastating flood to 5,000BC. Earlier this year, Dr Irving Finkel, an Assyriologist at the British Museum, published a book, The Ark: Before Noah: Decoding the story of the Flood, which reveals the story of how in 1985 a man called Douglas Simmonds went to the museum and showed him a clay tablet on which was written a 60-line text about the great flood thatpre-dated the findings of George Smith. Simmonds had been given the tablet by his father, who served in the Middle East with the RAF and is believed to have bought it in a bazaar.

It was 30 years before Finkel persuaded Simmonds to let him study the tablet in depth and what it revealed was the story of Noah, 1,500 years before the Old Testament. The tablet is dated from 1900-1700BC and tells the story of how a kindly god called Ea urged the hero Atra-hasis to build a boat: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live for ever! Destroy your house, build a boat; Spurn property and save life! Draw out the boat that you will make on a circular plan; let her length and breadth be equal.”

The good god Ea even gave specific instructions on how to make a round coracle-style boat which should be 75 yards in diameter, woven from reeds and sealed with ancient asphalt. Finkel spent hours studying the text using a magnifying glass and the biggest revelation was when he recognised the ancient symbols used to describe how Atra-hasis’s animals entered the boat: it was “two by two”.

As the ancient civilisation was polytheistic, they were able to find a way round the principal problem of Darren Aronofsky’s new movie, Noah, which is the fact that the villain is, or certainly should be, viewed as God. In this, the earliest known version of the flood, the good god Ea urged Atra-hasis to build the ark as he was aware of what one of his fellow gods planned to do.

If you considered the God of the Old Testament to be a wretched figure of woe, then he is positively cuddly compared to Enlil, the ill-tempered god of the Sumerians and Babylonians, whose reason for wiping out mankind was an exercise not in moral correction but in noise abatement. For the tablet read: “The noise of mankind has become too intense for me, With their uproar I am deprived of sleep.”

The story of Noah or Ziusudra or Atra-hasis has been echoing around Earth for at least 5,000 years and is probably good for another few millennia. Russell Crowe, who was promised by the director that he wouldn’t have a long white beard or have to wear open-toed sandals, is just the latest custodian of an ancient role that is forever being tweaked and polished, chopped and changed for each new audience and millennium. I’m sure his visit to Edinburgh today will go well. I just hope it doesn’t rain.