The Gods of Atlantis
The Voyage of Uta-napishtim
The man gripped the edge of the boat and squinted at the western horizon, trying to see past the blinding glare of the sun. Earlier he had sensed a flickering in the sky, a strange smell in the air, but he no longer knew whether it was real or a dream, after weeks of wallowing in this weed-choked sea. He tensed his hands and heaved himself up, then leaned over the side and stared into the depths. His knuckles were raw and bleeding from sunburn and salt, but he no longer felt the pain. Ever since they had been marooned in this windless sea he had taken to staring down, pulling his tattered leopardskin cape over his head to shade the water, letting it form a cover that had stiffened with the salt.
The sea was deep blue, and he could see far down, to where blue became black. He glimpsed flashes of silver, and sparkles of light. He knew that something was down there, shadowing them, a shape that lurked on the edge of the underworld. If only he could fix it with his eyes, then he would be able to draw on the power of its spirit. He had spent hours looking, days. Even his brother Enlil no longer called him by the nickname they had used as boys, Noah, but now addressed him, half mockingly, by his shaman name, Uta-napishtim, ‘he who sees the deep’. The others in his boat were too far gone to help him look, only four of them now, paralysed by thirst and hunger and fear. But he was their spirit traveller, their shaman. They might see the earthly form of the monster, but only he could touch its spirit.
He picked up his obsidian knife and ran his thumb along the blade, feeling it cut into his skin. He remembered going with Enlil and their father Ra Shamash deep into the volcano to find the sacred black stone, and watching the old man make the rippled flat of the blade by pressing off tiny flakes with a piece of antler. Noah had a cache of blades here now, in a basket under the thwarts, but this knife made by his father was the most sacred. That had been the day their father had taken them for the first time to the spirit cave and given them their shaman names, and taught them to inscribe their names into the rock using the ancient symbols, beside the paintings of bulls and leopards and vultures. But their father had gone to the spirit world years before, and now only Noah could give the others in his boat the strength to raise the paddles and seek out the shore he knew lay somewhere ahead. Three cycles of the moon ago, as the flood waters rose up the walls of their city, before he had completed the last bull sacrifice and they had taken to the boats, his dying mother Nisir had closed her eyes and seen it in a vision: a thunderbird flying towards her, then twin peaks on the edge of the western sea, lofty like those of the sacred mountain of Atlantis that had been drowning all around them. And now he was sure he had seen it too, through a crack in the horizon the day before, framed by distant breakers like those that skirted the last land they had sighted weeks ago, the great cape that jutted out from the desert shore. If they could survive this malevolent spirit that would drag them down, if he could tame the beast and ride it into the spirit world, then they might reach that shore. Atlantis might be reborn.
A man’s voice came over the water. ‘Noah Uta-napishtim, my brother.’ Noah put down the knife and shielded his eyes. He saw the raft of seaweed they had drawn in from the sea, tendrils of green and yellow filled with small crabs and fish to sustain them, until they had consumed them all. His eyes moistened in the glare, and he lifted a finger to them, wiping his eyelids and licking it, and then put his thumb on his lips, feeling the wetness of the blood that had been drawn by the knife. They had swallowed the last of the fresh water days ago. That morning his cousin Lamesh had drunk seawater and the malevolence had entered him, and they had lashed him down over the crossbeams at the front of the boat. Lamesh had consumed the lifeblood of the underworld, but before appeasing the spirits with the knife, Noah knew he must see the malevolence himself, must fix the monstrous shark that lurked below them with his own eyes.
Now he saw his brother’s boat, shimmering in silhouette, a pair of carved wooden leopards facing each other on the pointed upswept prow. Theirs were the last two boats of the flotilla that had set out from the drowning city, the ones that had carried on past the cataract that was flooding their sea and reached the safety of Troy, their outpost on the edge of the Middle Sea. For one full cycle of the moon they had paddled on, past rocky islands and great stretches of desert shore, until they had reached another narrowing of the sea and a towering rock the local people called the Pillar of Herakleos; then they had been on the western ocean. They had raised sails of deerskin, and the wind and current had taken them south along the desert shore. Before the great cape that had been their last sight of land they had alighted at Lixus, at the Garden of Hesperides, where the priestesses called the Ladies of the West had fed them with golden apples and honeyed almonds, where Noah’s brother had fallen under their spell and been tempted to stay and found their new citadel.
But just as they had done at Troy, they inscribed a pillar with their names in the ancient symbols and sailed west, over a vast open ocean with no landfall in sight. When the days were overcast, Adad the navigator had stood in the bow of his brother’s boat and held up the crystal sunstone; it too had come from the volcano, prised from the spirit cave generations before, and used many times by Adad and his forefathers to navigate the spirit lines of their own sea. Its light had dazzled Noah’s eyes, as if it were drawing in the rays from the dawn, leading them on over the ocean. And at night Noah had traced the line of the Great Bear to the pole star, keeping it on the right, just as he had watched his father do when he had aligned the pyramid of Atlantis to the rising and setting of the sun: his father Ra Shamash, he who gave the light, sun shaman, whom they had laid to rest in the chamber inside the pyramid, surrounded by the sacred obsidian blades and ironstones from the sky that had been brought across the ice by their ancestors. But Noah need hardly have bothered to chart the heavens. It was as if they were on a river on the ocean, being swept inexorably west, a river like those of his dreams in the cave that had become the flow of his own spirit journey.
The planks in their boats had held, their sewn seams caulked with boiled animal fat. The sweet foods of the Ladies of the West had sustained them, along with the flying fish that leapt into their boats. But then they had been beset by fearsome storms and mountainous waves. Six boats had become four. And finally they had entered this flat ocean, where there was no wind to fill the sails. They had paddled on until they were exhausted. Men desperate for food had scraped and licked the animal fat from the seams, and the boats had leaked and wallowed. They had made fire with flint and boiled their deerskin sails for broth; Enlil alone had insisted on keeping his sail. They had gnawed the boars’ teeth they wore as necklaces, and scraped the marrow from the bulls’ horns that adorned the prow of Noah’s boat. That had kept them strong enough to fish, using nets made of twisted seaweed. But even that had proved too much. They had sickened, their gums swelling and bleeding and their teeth falling out, and they had become listless. Then they had begun to die.
Noah saw his brother clearly now, heaving on the cord that lashed the two boats together, compressing the floating weeds in between. Enlil stopped, panting and coughing a terrible dry cough, and then tottered upright with a club in one hand and a spear in the other. He was unrecognizable as the muscle-bound giant who had once guarded the holy of holies, the chamber in Atlantis where they had kept their most sacred objects. Now he looked like one of the scarecrows they had made together in their father’s fields, naked except for the tattered remnants of his lionskin cloak. Like Noah’s, his skin was peeling off in blistered layers, his face a puffed mass of sores surrounded by matted hair and a beard. He stared across, trying to lick his lips, and then shook his spear. ‘Noah Uta-napishtim,’ he croaked again.
‘Enlil, my brother,’ Noah replied, his voice cracking. ‘If you call me that, I will call you by your shaman name, Gilgamesh, “he who would stand above men”.’
Enlil slapped the club, then dropped it and stumbled, trying to stand upright, holding himself with the spear. His boat tilted, revealing the repairs they had made after the last storm: thick bulls’ skins taut over the wooden frame, hemp rope sewn through the planks and lashed around the hull. Enlil had taken care of his boat. Noah saw the other matted and blistered bodies inside, men whose skin was grey beneath the sunburn, whose eyeballs had shrunk into their sockets, whether dead or alive he could not tell. Enlil went down on his knees against a thwart, still holding the spear. ‘My brother,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Your animals are all gone.’
Noah turned to look at his own boat. Enlil was right. They had left with breeding pairs of animals: goats,