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The story of a Great Flood (also known as the Deluge) sent by a deity or deities to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution is a widespread theme among many cultural myths. Though it is best known in modern times in the Western world through the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, it is also well known in other versions, such as stories of Matsya in the Hindu Puranas, Deucalion in Greek mythology and Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Flood myths in various cultures
Ancient Near East
The earliest extant Flood myth is the fragmentary Sumerian Eridu Genesis, datable by its script to the 17th century BC.
The Sumerian myth tells how the god Enki warns Zi-ud-sura (meaning "he saw life," in reference to the gift of immortality given him by the gods), of the gods' decision to destroy mankind in a flood - the passage describing why the gods have decided this is lost. Enki instructs Ziusudra to build a large boat - the text describing the instructions is also lost. After a flood of seven days, Zi-ud-sura makes appropriate sacrifices and prostrations to Anu (sky-god) and Enlil (chief of the gods), and is given eternal life in Dilmun (the Sumerian Eden) by Anu and Enlil.
Akkadian (Atrahasis Epic)
The Akkadian Atrahasis Epic (written no later than 1700 BC, the name Atrahasis means "exceedingly wise"), gives human overpopulation as the cause for the great flood. After 1200 years of human fertility, the god Enlil felt disturbed in his sleep due to the noise and ruckus caused by the growing population of mankind. He turned for help to the divine assembly who then sent a plague, then a drought, then a famine, and then saline soil, all in an attempt to reduce the numbers of mankind. All these were temporary fixes. 1200 years after each solution, the original problem returned. When the gods decided on a final solution, to send a flood, the god Enki, who had a moral objection to this solution, disclosed the plan to Atrahasis, who then built a survival vessel according to divinely given measurements.
To prevent the other gods from bringing such another harsh calamity, Enki created new solutions in the form of social phenomena such as non-marrying women, barrenness, miscarriages and infant mortality, to help keep the population from growing out of control.
Babylonian (Epic of Gilgamesh)
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, toward the end of the He who saw the deep version by Sin-liqe-unninni, there are references to the great flood (tablet 11). This was a late addition to the Gilgamesh cycle, largely paraphrased or copied verbatim from the Epic of Atrahasis (see above).
The hero Gilgamesh, seeking immortality, searches out Utnapishtim (whose name is a direct translation into Akkadian of the Sumerian Zi-ud-sura) in Dilmun, a kind of paradise on earth. Utnapishtim tells how Ea (equivalent of the Sumerian Enki) warned him of the gods' plan to destroy all life through a great flood and instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, his friends, and his wealth and cattle. After the Deluge the gods repented their action and made Utnapishtim immortal.
The best-known version of the Hebrew flood-story is that in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 6-9), but the two non-canonical (non-Biblical) books of Enoch and Jubilees (both later than Genesis) contain elaborations on the Genesis story.
The record in the book of Genesis says, "Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am grieved that I have made them.'"
God selects Noah who "found favour in the eyes of the Lord" and commands him to build an ark. God instructed the ark's construction to be three hundred cubits (450 feet/137 m) long, fifty cubits (75 feet/23 m) wide, and thirty cubits (45 feet/14 m) high. Then God commanded Noah to put one pair of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals. After Noah builds the ark, "all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened" by God. It rains for 40 days. "The water prevailed upon the earth one hundred and fifty days." The water recedes for 150 days. On the seventeenth day of the seventh month, the ark rests upon the mountains of Ararat. After 40 days on the mountain, Noah opens up the ark. "Then God spoke to Noah, saying, 'Go out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your sons' wives with you.'" Everyone and every animal exits the ark to fruitfully repopulate the Earth. See also Noah's Ark.
Book of Enoch and Book of Jubilees:
The 2nd century BC 1st Book of Enoch is an apocryphon. It adds to the Genesis flood story by saying that God sent the Great Flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim, the titanic children of the Grigori, the "sons of God" mentioned in Genesis and of human females. The Book of Enoch enjoyed great prestige around the time of Jesus and is quoted directly in the New Testament (Jude 1:14-15), but failed to gain admittance to the Jewish and Christian canon.
The Book of Jubilees, also from the early 2nd century BC found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls also elaborates on the story in Genesis; this book is largely concerned with chronology.
There are many sources of flood myths in ancient Chinese literature. Some appear to refer to a worldwide deluge:
- Shujing, or "Book of History", probably written around 700 BC or earlier, states in the opening chapters that Emperor Yao is facing the problem of flood waters that "reach to the Heavens". This is the backdrop for the intervention of the famous Da Yu, who succeeded in controlling the floods. He went on to found the first Chinese dynasty. The translator of the 1904 edition dated the Chinese deluge to 2348 B.C., calculating that this was the same year as the Biblical Flood. In fact, the Mideast Flood myth tradition (including the Biblical Flood) was erroneously linked to a flood mentioned in the Sumerian king list, which was actually dated to 2900 BC.
- Shanhaijing, "Classic of the Mountain & Seas", ends with the Chinese ruler Da Yu spending ten years to control a deluge whose "floodwaters overflowed [to] heaven".
- Shiji, Chuci, Liezi, Huainanzi, Shuowen Jiezi, Siku Quanshu, Songsi Dashu, and others, as well as many folk myths, all contain references to a personage named Nüwa. Nüwa is generally represented as a female (although not always) who repairs the broken heavens after a great flood or calamity, and repopulates the world with people. There are many versions of this myth.
The ancient Chinese civilization concentrated at the bank of Yellow River near present day Xian also believed that the severe flooding along the river bank was caused by dragons (representing gods) living in the river being angered by the mistakes of the people.
According to the Matsya Purana and Shatapatha Brahmana (I-8, 1-6), the mantri to the king of pre-ancient Dravida, Satyavata who later becomes known as Manu was washing his hands in a river when a little fish swam into his hands and begged him to save its life. He put it in a jar, which it soon outgrew; he successively moved it to a tank, a river and then the ocean. The fish then warned him that a deluge would occur in a week that would destroy all life. Manu therefore built a boat which the fish towed to a mountaintop when the flood came, and thus he survived along with some "seeds of life" to re-establish life on earth.
Archaeologist MS Dhingra links this myth to a possible meteor impact event in the Indian Ocean. This impact may have occurred in 2084 BC.
In myths of the aboriginal tribes inhabiting the Andaman Islands people became remiss of the commands given to them at the creation. Puluga, the god creator, ceased to visit them and then without further warning sent a devastating flood. Only four people survived this flood: two men, Loralola and Poilola, and two women, Kalola and Rimalola. When they landed they found they had lost their fire and all living things had perished. Puluga then recreated the animals and plants but does not seem to have given any further instructions, nor did he return the fire to the survivors.
In Batak traditions, the earth rests on a giant snake, Naga-Padoha. One day, the snake tired of its burden and shook the Earth off into the sea. However, the God Batara-Guru saved his daughter by sending a mountain into the sea, and the entire human race descended from her. The Earth was later placed back onto the head of the snake.
According to the Australian aborigines, in the Dreamtime a huge frog (Tidalik - this story originates from the Murray-Darling riverina of New South Wales and Victoria. The Murray-Darling frequently experiences drought-flood cycles lasting up to years at a time, linked to El Niño/La Niña events in the Pacific) drank all the water in the world and a drought swept across the land. The only way to finish the drought was to make the frog laugh. Animals from all over Australia gathered together and one by one attempted to make the frog laugh. When finally eel succeeded, the frog opened his sleepy eyes, his big body quivered, his face relaxed, and, at last, he burst into a laugh that sounded like rolling thunder. The water poured from his mouth in a flood. It filled the deepest rivers and covered the land. Only the highest mountain peaks were visible, like islands in the sea. Many men and animals were drowned. The pelican who was blackfellow at that time painted himself with white clay and went from island to island in a great canoe, rescuing other blackfellows. Since that time pelicans have been black and white in remembrance of the Great Flood.
Greek mythology knows three floods. The flood of Ogyges, the flood of Deucalion and the flood of Dardanus, two of which ending two Ages of Man: the Ogygian Deluge ended the Silver Age, and the flood of Deucalion ended the First Bronze Age.
|"The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left."|
|Plato’s Critias (111b)|
The Ogygian flood is so called because it occurred in the time of Ogyges, a mythical king of Attica. Ogyges is somewhat synonymous to "primeval", "primal", "earliest dawn". Others say he was founder and king of Thebes. In many traditions the Ogygian flood is said to have covered the whole world and was so devastating that Attica remained without kings until the reign of Cecrops.
Plato in his Laws, Book III, estimates that this flood occurred 10,000 years before his time. Also in Timaeus (22) and in Critias (111-112) he describes the "great deluge of all" happening 9,000 years before the time of Solon, during the 10th millennium BC. In addition, the texts report that "many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years" since Athens and Atlantis were preeminent.
The theory of the flood in the Aegean Basin, proposed that a great flood occurred at the end of the Late Pleistocene or beginning of the Holocene. The Holocene is a geological period that began approximately 11,550 calendar years BP (or about 9600 BC) and continues to the present. This flood would coincide with the end of the last ice age, estimated approximately 10,000 years ago, when the sea level rose as much as 130 metres, particularly during Meltwater pulse 1A when sea level rose by about 25 metres in some parts of the northern hemisphere over a period of less than 500 years.
The map on the right shows how the region would look about 12,000 years ago, or 10,000 BC, when the sea level would have been 125 meters lower than today. The Peloponnese was connected to the mainland and the Corinthian Gulf was not formed. Islands around Attica, such as Aegina, Salamis and Euboea, were part of the mainland. The Cyclades formed a big island known as Aegeis, while Bosporus and Hellespont was not formed yet.
These geological findings support the hypothesis that the Ogygian Deluge may well be based on a real event.
The Deucalion legend as told by Apollodorus in The Library has some similarity to Noah's Ark: Prometheus advised his son Deucalion to build a chest. All other men perished except for a few who escaped to high mountains. The mountains in Thessaly were parted, and all the world beyond the Isthmus and Peloponnese was overwhelmed. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, after floating in the chest for nine days and nights, landed on Parnassus. An older version of the story told by Hellanicus has Deucalion's "ark" landing on Mount Othrys in Thessaly. Another account has him landing on a peak, probably Phouka, in Argolis, later called Nemea. When the rains ceased, he sacrificed to Zeus. Then, at the bidding of Zeus, he threw stones behind him, and they became men, and the stones which Pyrrha threw became women. Appollodorus gives this as an etymology for Greek laos "people" as derived from laas "stone". The Megarians told that Megarus, son of Zeus, escaped Deucalion's flood by swimming to the top of Mount Gerania, guided by the cries of cranes.
According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Dardanus left Pheneus in Arcadia to colonize a land in the North-East Aegean Sea. When the Dardanus' deluge occurred, the land was flooded and the mountain on which he and his family survived, formed the island of Samothrace. He left Samothrace on an inflated skin to the opposite shores of Asia Minor and settled at the foot of Mount Ida. Due to the fear of another flood they didn't build a city, but lived in the open for fifty years. His grandson Tros eventually built a city, which was named Troy after him.
In Norse mythology, there are two separate deluges. According to the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the first occurred at the dawn of time before the world was formed. Ymir, the first giant, was killed by the god Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve, and when he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that it drowned almost the entire race of giants with the exception of the frost giant Bergelmir and his wife. They escaped in a ship and survived, becoming the progenitors of a new race of giants. Ymir's body was then used to form the earth while his blood became the sea.
The second, in the Norse mythological time cycle, is destined to occur in the future during the final battle between the gods and giants, known as Ragnarök. During this apocalyptic event, Jormungandr, the great World Serpent that lies beneath the sea surrounding Midgard, the realm of mortals, will rise up from the watery depths to join the conflict, resulting in a catastrophic flood that will drown the land. However, following Ragnarök the earth will be reborn and a new age of humanity will begin.
The mythologist Brian Branston noted the similarities between this myth and an incident described in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which had traditionally been associated with the Biblical flood, so there may have been a corresponding incident in the broader Germanic mythology as well as in Anglo-Saxon mythology.
According to the apocryphal history of Ireland Lebor Gabála Érenn, the first inhabitants of Ireland led by Noah's granddaughter Cessair were all except one wiped out by a flood 40 days after reaching the island. Later, after Partholon's and Nemed's people reached the island, another flood rose and killed all but thirty of the inhabitants, who scattered across the world.
In the beginning of Kalevala there are a couple of lines that describe a sea rise.
There are several variants of the Aztec story, many of them are questionable in accuracy or authenticity.
- When the Sun Age came, there had passed 400 years. Then came 200 years, then 76. Then all mankind was lost and drowned and turned to fishes. The water and the sky drew near each other. In a single day all was lost, and Four Flower consumed all that there was of our flesh. The very mountains were swallowed up in the flood, and the waters remained, lying tranquil during fifty and two springs. But before the flood began, Titlachahuan had warned the man Nota and his wife Nena, saying, 'Make no more pulque, but hollow a great cypress, into which you shall enter the month Tozoztli. The waters shall near the sky.' They entered, and when Titlacahuan had shut them in he said to the man, 'Thou shalt eat but a single ear of maize, and thy wife but one also'. And when they had each eaten one ear of maize, they prepared to go forth, for the water was tranquil.
- — Ancient Aztec document Codex Chimalpopoca, translated by Abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg.
Note: These Aztec translations are controversial. Many have no credible source and there is no proof of their authenticity. Some are based on the pictograph story of Coxcox, but other translations of this pictograph mention nothing of a flood. Most significantly, the time that these myths were heard from the local people was well after missionaries entered the region.
In Inca mythology, Viracocha destroyed the giants with a Great Flood, and two people repopulated the earth. Uniquely, they survived in sealed caves. See Unu Pachakuti.
Chibcha and Muisca
In Colombian mythology, there are references to a great flood that nearly destroyed the whole of mankind and a savior, the god Bochica.
In Maya mythology, from the Popol Vuh, Part 1, Chapter 3, Huracan ("one-legged") was a wind and storm god who caused the Great Flood (of resin) after the first humans (made of wood) angered the gods (by being unable to worship them). He supposedly lived in the windy mists above the floodwaters and spoke the word "earth" until land came up again from the seas.
Later, in Part 3, Chapter 3&4,
- Four men & four women repopulate the Quiche world after the flood
- all speaking the same language (but a confusing reference)
- and gather together in the same location
- where their speech is changed (affirmed several times)
- after which they disperse throughout the world.
Like many others, this account does not present an "Ark". A "Tower of Babel" depends upon the translation; some render the peoples arriving at a city, others, at a citadel.
In Hopi mythology, the people moved away from Sotuknang, the creator, repeatedly. He destroyed the world by fire, and then by cold, and recreated it both times for the people that still followed the laws of creation, who survived by hiding underground. People became corrupt and warlike a third time. As a result, Sotuknang guided the people to Spider Woman, and she cut down giant reeds and sheltered the people in the hollow stems. Sotuknang then caused a great flood, and the people floated atop the water in their reeds. The reeds came to rest on a small piece of land, and the people emerged, with as much food as they started with. The people traveled on in their canoes, guided by their inner wisdom (which is said to come from Sotuknang, through the door at the top of their head). They travelled to the northeast, passing progressively larger islands, until they came to the Fourth World. When they reached the fourth world, the islands sank into the ocean.
In Caddo mythology, four monsters grew in size and power until they touched the sky. At that time, a man heard a voice telling him to plant a hollow reed. He did so, and the reed grew very big very quickly. The man entered the reed with his wife and pairs of all good animals. Waters rose, and covered everything but the top of the reed and the heads of the monsters. A turtle then killed the monsters by digging under them and uprooting them. The waters subsided, and winds dried the earth.
In Menominee mythology, Manabus, the trickster, "fired by his lust for revenge" shot two underground gods when the gods were at play. When they all dived into the water, a huge flood arose. "The water rose up .... It knew very well where Manabus had gone." He runs, he runs; but the water, coming from Lake Michigan, chases him faster and faster, even as he runs up a mountain and climbs to the top of the lofty pine at its peak. Four times he begs the tree to grow just a little more, and four times it obliges until it can grow no more. But the water keeps climbing "up, up, right to his chin, and there it stopped": there was nothing but water stretching out to the horizon. And then Manabus, helped by diving animals, and especially the bravest of all, the Muskrat, creates the world as we know it today.
In Mi'kmaq mythology, evil and wickedness among men causes them to kill each other. This causes great sorrow to the creator-sun-god, who weeps tears that become rains sufficient to trigger a deluge. The people attempt to survive by traveling in bark canoes, but only a single old man and woman survive to populate the earth.
Several different flood stories are recorded among the Polynesians. None of them approach the scale of the Biblical flood.
The people of Ra'iatea tell of two friends, Te-aho-aroa and Ro'o, who went fishing and accidentally awoke the ocean god Ruahatu with their fish hooks. Angered, he vowed to sink Ra'iatea below the sea. Te-aho-aroa and Ro'o begged for forgiveness, and Ruahatu warned them that they could escape only by bringing their families to the islet of Toamarama. These set sail, and during the night, the island slipped under the ocean, only to rise again the next morning. Nothing survived except for these families, who erected sacred marae (temples) dedicated to the god Ruahatu.
A similar legend is found on Tahiti. No reason for the tragedy is given, but the whole island sunk beneath the sea except for Mount Pitohiti. One human couple managed to flee there with their animals and survived.
In a tradition of the Ngāti Porou, a Māori tribe of the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, Ruatapu became angry when his father Uenuku elevated his younger half-brother Kahutia-te-rangi ahead of him. Ruatapu lured Kahutia-te-rangi and a large number of young men of high birth into his canoe, and took them out to sea where he drowned them. He called on the gods to destroy his enemies and threatened to return as the great waves of early summer. As he struggled for his life, Kahutia-te-rangi recited an incantation invoking the southern humpback whales (paikea in Māori) to carry him ashore. Accordingly, he was renamed Paikea, and was the only survivor (Reedy 1997:83-85).
Some versions of the Māori story of Tawhaki contain episodes where the hero causes a flood to destroy the village of his two jealous brothers-in-law. A comment in Grey's Polynesian Mythology may have given the Māori something they did not have before - as A.W Reed put it, "In Polynesian Mythology Grey said that when Tawhaki's ancestors released the floods of heaven, the earth was overwhelmed and all human beings perished - thus providing the Māori with his own version of the universal flood" (Reed 1963:165, in a footnote). Christian influence has led to the appearance of genealogies where Tawhaki's grandfather Hema is reinterpreted as Shem, son of Noah of the Biblical deluge.
In Hawaii, a human couple, Nu'u and Lili-noe, survived a flood on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Nu'u made sacrifices to the moon, to whom he mistakenly attributed his safety. Kāne, the creator god, descended to earth on a rainbow, explained Nu'u's mistake, and accepted his sacrifice.
In the Marquesas, the great war god Tu was angered by critical remarks made by his sister Hii-hia. His tears tore through heaven's floor to the world below and created a torrent of rain carrying everything in its path. Only six people survived.
Hypotheses of origin of Flood myths
The publication of The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, followed by Fossil Legends of the First Americans, have caused the hypothesis that flood stories have been inspired by ancient observations of fossil seashells and fish inland and on mountains to gain ground. Though the the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Chinese all commented in ancient writings about seashells and/or impressions of fish that they found inland and/or in the mountains, it was no less than Leonardo da Vinci who postulated that an immediate deluge could not have caused the layered and neatly ordered strata he found in the Italian Apennines. The Greeks hypothesized that the earth had been covered by water several times, and noted the seashells and fish fossils that they found on mountain tops as the evidence for this belief. Native Americans also expressed this belief to early Europeans, though they had not written these ideas down previously.
Some geologists believe that quite dramatic, greater than normal flooding of rivers in the distant past might have influenced the myths. One of the latest, and quite controversial, hypotheses of this type is the Ryan-Pitman Theory, which argues for a catastrophic deluge about 5600 BC from the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea.
There has also been speculation that a large tsunami in the Mediterranean Sea caused by the Thera eruption dated ca. 1630-1600 BC geologically, but to ca. 1500 BC archaeologically, was the historical basis for folklore that evolved into the Deucalion myth. One might argue that although the tsunami hit the South Aegean Sea, and Crete, it did not affect cities in the mainland of Greece such as Mycenae, Athens, Thebes which continued to prosper, therefore it had a local rather than a regionwide effect.
There is also a hypothesis that suggests an asteroid crashed into Earth and created a series of major floods throughout the world. Archaeologist Bruce Masse of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world. He believes that if the stories reflect a single worldwide cataclysm, that the stories would be consistent with a single event. Masse finds that "only a globally catastrophic deep-water oceanic comet impact can account for all the environmental information encoded in the corpus of worldwide flood myths". He and other members of the Holocene Impact Working Group believe the impact occurred near Madagascar at Burckle Crater. Others disagree - the impact expert Jay Melosh of the University of Arizona said "I don’t believe the evidence of a crater off Madagascar, and the impetus is on Abbott to prove it.”
The majority of the myths had a sustained rainstorm along with a tsunami. Masse has stated that an asteroid would throw 10 times its mass in water into the sky. The water droplets would circumnavigate the planet and it would take days for the rain to subside. When the durations of each of the myths were plotted, it formed a bell-shaped graph, with the majority occurring between 4 to 10 days. The survivors from the stories typically found safety between 150 and 300 meters above sea level. Multiple references to astronomical events during the flood lead him to believe the event occurred on or around May 10, 2807 BC.
There are also references to a cosmic explosion in some myths, such as in the Mesopotamian flood myth. Gilgamesh describes seeing a pillar of black smoke in the horizon, followed by dark clouds and a flood.
Hypotheses of origin of the Biblical Noah story
Proponents of flood geology contend that the Biblical account of the global Great Flood is to be taken literally in which most observed geological processes, like fossilization and sedimentary strata, are a later result of this perceived divine event.
While many people hold the belief there was a worldwide flood, flood geology itself has been unequivocally rejected by mainstream geologists, many of whom consider it a form of pseudoscience. Though at one time even prominent workers in Biblical archaeology were willing to argue support for flood geology, this view is no longer widely held.
Sumerian king list flood
The Sumerian king list mentions a flood which divides older, possibly mythic kingships from more recent and possibly historic kingships in Sumer. In the 1920's, archaeologists associated this historic flood with a layer of riverine deposits which interrupted Sumerian settlements over a wide area of southern Mesopotamia. This led to speculation at the time that "Noah's Flood" had been found, by trying to connect the Ancient Near East Flood myth tradition (beginning with the Sumerian Eridu Genesis and continuing with the later Atra-Hasis myth, the Utnapishtim episode in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Biblical story of Noah) with this historic flood. However, there is no evidence that the mythical Flood in the Eridu Genesis was the same as the historic flood mentioned in the king list, or that the Sumerians themselves ever linked them together.