The movie Noah has revived interest in the biblical account of the Great Flood thousands of years ago. Yet virtually every civilization has a flood story of its own. The Hebrew story is one of many accounts of a great flood. Some other accounts will follow. I will be using the word “myth” to describe these stories. By “myth” I mean stories shared by a group of people as part of their cultural identity. Myth in this context does not necessarily mean true or false, and it is absolutely not used in a judgmental sense to discount any civilizations account of what is universally described as a harrowing experience.
The Islamic Koran recounts a version of a great flood similar to the Hebrew version:
Allah sent Noah to warn the people to serve none but Allah, but most of them would not listen. They challenged Noah to make good his threats and mocked him when, under Allah's inspiration, he built a ship. Allah told Noah not to speak to Him on behalf of wrongdoers; they would be drowned. In time, water gushed from underground and fell from the sky. Noah loaded onto his ship pairs of all kinds, his household, and those few who believed… The ship sailed amid great waves. Allah commanded the earth to swallow the water and the sky to clear, and the ship came to rest on Al-Judi… Allah told Noah to go with blessings on him and on some nations that will arise from those with him. (Koran 11:25-48)
The theme of mankind’s wrongdoing being punished by the gods also appears in the Greco Roman version of the flood where, weary of the sins of men, Jupiter and Neptune conspire to wash humanity away by flooding the earth. The creator of mankind, Prometheus, warns the human Deucalion of the plot. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha sail a boat to the top of Mt. Parnassus, the only spot of the world above water. There they throw stones behind their backs. The stones become people and the earth is repopulated.
The Lakota Sioux of North America tell of a time where “people didn’t know how to behave or how to act human, and the creating power was displeased.” The god sang songs to bring forth rain and “the earth split open, and water flowed from the cracks and covered everything.” The god floated on the water on his huge pipe bag, which contained animals and birds. The creating power spread mud over the water, thus replacing the water with land. The creating power wept for the earth, and his tears became streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. He created a rainbow as a sign he would not flood the earth again, but also warned mankind to be good. [Erdoes and Ortiz, pp. 496-499]
China’s story of the flood is fundamental to Chinese culture, literature, and poetry. As usual, humans were misbehaving. The Chinese god ordered Gong Gong, the god of water, to create a flood. Gong Gong’s flood lasted 22 years. Survivors lived high in the mountains and fought a day to day existence for survival. The hero of the story, Gun, stole growing soil and began to dam up the flood. The gods executed Gun but his son, Yu, sprang from Gun’s corpse and forced the gods to give him back the growing soil. This was used to counteract the flood so people could come back down from the mountains and begin farming again.
China in fact did experience a great flood during the reign of the Emperor Yao (approximately 300 BC). Chinese history books quote Yao saying:
“Like endless boiling water the flood is pouring forth destruction. Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering.”
China’s flood myth is unique in that it has a specific date. A version with a more general timeline is the best known myth in Western culture - the story of Noah and the flood:
God, upset at mankind's wickedness, resolved to destroy it, but Noah was righteous and found favor with Him. God told Noah to build an ark, 450 x 75 x 45 feet, with three decks. Noah did so, and took aboard his family (8 people in all) and pairs of all kinds of animals (7 of the clean ones). For 40 days and nights, flood waters came from the heavens and from the deeps, until the highest mountains were covered. The waters flooded the earth for 150 days; then God sent a wind and the waters receded, and the ark came to rest in Ararat. After 40 days, Noah sent out a raven, which kept flying until the waters had dried up. He next sent out a dove, which returned without finding a perch. A week later he set out the dove again, and it returned with an olive leaf. The next week, the dove didn't return. After a year and 10 days from the start of the flood, everyone and everything emerged from the ark. Noah sacrificed some clean animals and birds to God, and God, pleased with this, promised never again to destroy all living creatures with a flood, giving the rainbow as a sign of this covenant. (Genesis, Chapters 6-9).
Scripture scholars contend the biblical Great Flood occurred sometime within the last five centuries, which realistically makes it somewhere between 2000 and 3000 BC. There is no timeline in the Hindu scriptures regarding the first human, Manu, negotiating with a fish. In return for protection by Manu from larger fish, the fish promises to protect Manu from an impending deluge. The fish is really the Lord Vishnu, who floods the world to vanquish moral depravity. The virtuous Manu is the sole survivor. He makes on offering to the Lord and from this offering a woman appears, making repopulation possible. A new generation of humans begins, under the moral code of the caste system.
The major flood myths blame mankind’s wickedness for provoking God (or gods) to punish ill deeds with a massive flood. When humanity is wiped out God is appeased, and everyone gets to start over. An exception to the wicked man/angry God theme is a Babylonian flood myth in which the deluge is the gods solution for human overpopulation. One of the gods (Enki) told a man (Atrahasis) to build a boat for his family and animals. After the flood ended the gods took further precautions against overpopulation by creating stillbirths and miscarriages, and by making some women barren.
Flood myths come to us from all over the world. The Philippine islands have at least six different flood stories. Australia has fifteen. Africa has dozens, as does North America. The Mayans, Egyptians, Celtics, Aztecs and Sumerians all have myths of a Great Flood. It is logical to theorize that all these flood myths are based on an actual event in human history.
For instance, a catastrophic flood would explain the extinction of dinosaurs. It would explain numerous discoveries of sea shells in mountain ranges, and fossil records consistent with a catastrophic geological event in Earth’s history. Many flood myths record water flooding not just from the sky but gushing up from the oceans. Flood geologists theorize that before the Flood there were interconnected subterranean caverns of water, tightly compressed beneath the earth’s crust. If a split occurred in the crust it could possibly run around the entire earth, causing the compressed waters to pour up from below. Such an event would change the face of the earth, and perhaps explain how parts of the earth are land and parts are water.
Flood geology is a branch of creation science, and is scorned by the professional scientific community as a pseudo-science. Anthropologists claim that all the accounts of a great flood are explained by the fact that most of the human population lives near water, and unusually severe floods happen to everyone. Surely they are recorded by each civilization’s historians, but each flood is a separate event, not a world-wide flood.
But how do we explain the large boat resting 4,600 meters above sea level on the snowline of Mount Ararat? The area, which is on the border between Turkey and Armenia, is covered in ice much of the year, and threats of avalanche are omnipresent. Nevertheless, it has been visited by more than three dozen explorers over the centuries, including Marco Polo in 1269.
In 1840 an earthquake created a canyon on the side of the mountain the boat was resting on and shifted its position. During World War II American pilots flying over Mount Ararat described a large boat-like structure on the mountain. In 2007 Turkish explorers climbed the mountain and filmed the boat from the outside and the inside. Nearly all flood myths involve a boat, but only one flood myth specifies that when the waters receded the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.
Perhaps something we can all agree on is that every civilization has its trials and traumas, be it wars, droughts, or floods. Rather than debate which story is “right”, let us share our experiences and be stronger and more united for it.
R.C. Armour, North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, (1905).
Campbell, Joseph, Myths of light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal. Novato, California: New World Library, 2003.
Dundes, Alan (ed.) The Flood Myth, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.
Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, Editors, American Indian Myths and Legends, Pantheon Fairytale and Folklore Library.
Mayor, Adrienne (2011). The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times: with a new introduction by the author. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah's Flood: The new scientific discoveries about the event that changed history, Simon & Schuster, (1998).
Yang, Lihui, et al. (2005). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University