Floods are among the most powerful and devastating of natural events. Long after the water has subsided, people remember and talk about the loss and destruction. Moreover, the scale of devastation is often so great as to convince people that the flooding is the work of supernatural beings.
Small wonder, then, that flood myths occur in cultures around the world. One of the most common tells of a great flood that occurred in the distant past. The biblical story of Noah and the ark he built to save certain people and animals from the flood is just one version of a much older myth from Mesopotamia * . Similar stories appear wherever people have experienced floods.
Some scholars believe that memories of real disasters, such as the violent and unpredictable floods that occurred along Mesopotamia's Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, underlie mythological accounts of catastrophic rains and inundations. These stories give meaning and purpose to events in the natural world. In myths, floods become part of a cycle of destruction and rebirth.
Mythological floods are not local. They take place on a cosmic scale, generally covering the whole world. Though the direct cause of the rising waters may be heavy rainfall, gods or other supernatural beings are responsible. Often the flood is sent as punishment for the wrongdoings of humankind.
supernatural related to forces beyond the norma! world; magical or miraculous
inundation floodwaters that cover the land
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
In some traditions, a flood reproduces the original mythological conditions of creation—the formless, empty expanse out of which the world was created. The inundation not only destroys the old world but also sets the stage for a brand new one. In myths in which the flood was sent to punish people for their sins, the new world that follows the flood is purified. The religious ritual of baptism reenacts the flood myth on an individual level. The baptismal water is believed to wash away sins, allowing people to be reborn in a purified state. In India, Hindus bathe in the sacred Ganges River to purify themselves. According to many myths of the great flood, a few virtuous individuals survived the inundation, perhaps with the help or advice of a friendly deity. Those survivors repopulated the world, becoming the parents of the present human race. In this way, flood myths are often myths of human origins as well.
Although the details of the stories differ, flood myths from around the world have many similarities. The themes of punishment, survival, and rebirth or renewal occur frequently.
deity god or goddess
Ancient Near East. The basic flood myth of the ancient Near East, in which the flood was sent as a divine punishment, originated among the Sumerian cities in southern Mesopotamia. Over a period of several thousand years, the Babylonians, the Hebrews, and other civilizations developed their own versions.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
The Sumerian myth tells how the human race, which the gods had created to do their work, became so numerous and noisy that the god Enlil sent a flood to destroy it. However, another god, Enki, wanted to save King Ziusudra (King Atrahasis in some versions). Forbidden by Enlil to warn the king, Enki spoke to the king's reed house. The king overheard the warning, built a boat, and saved his family and a collection of animals.
The Babylonian version of the flood myth appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this account, the survivor is a man called Utnapishtim. Warned of the flood by a dream in which he heard a god whispering to his reed house, Utnapishtim built a boat, took aboard his family and a selection of craftspeople and animals, and rode out a terrible storm that raged for six days and six nights. Finally the boat landed on a mountaintop, the only land above the flood. Utnapishtim and his wife become immortal as a reward for following the advice of the god in the dream.
The Hebrew version of the story, told in the book of Genesis in the Bible, places greater emphasis on the sinfulness of humankind. The flood was not a cruel whim or mistake of the gods but a deliberate punishment. Like Utnapishtim, Noah was a good man who received a warning and instructions to build a boat. He and his family, and two of every sort of living thing, survived the flood and landed upon the peak of Mount Ararat.
Egypt. The Egyptian flood myth begins with the sun god Ra, who feared that people were going to overthrow him. He sent the goddess Hathor, who was his eye, to punish the people. But she killed so many that their blood, flowing into the Nile River and the ocean, caused a flood. Hathor greedily drank the bloody water. Feeling that things had gone too far, Ra ordered slaves to make a lake of beer, dyed red to look like blood. Hathor drank the beer, became very drunk, and failed to finish the task of wiping out humanity. The survivors of her bloodbath started the human race anew.
Ancient Greece. The Greek flood myth says that Zeus, father of the gods, sent a mighty inundation to destroy the human race. Some versions say that Zeus was angry at the Titan Prometheus * for stealing the gift of fire from the gods and giving it to people. Others say that the flood was punishment for human sinfulness. Prometheus warned his son Deucalion to escape the flood by building a boat. Deucalion and his wife survived, and when the flood waters retreated, they were the only humans left on earth. The couple began the race of people who inhabit the world today. The story of the flood, along with many other Greek myths, appears in the Metamorphoses * by the Roman poet Ovid.
immortal able to live forever
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
China. For thousands of years, the Chinese people have suffered from the flooding of the two great rivers that flow through their land, the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) and the Huang He (Yellow) Rivers. Taming the rivers was one of the chief goals of early Chinese civilization. The story of Yu, one of several Chinese flood myths, celebrates a victory in the long struggle against floods.
In the myth, a man named Gun tried for nine years to dam the destructive waters that covered the land. Because he failed, the supreme god executed him. Gun's son, Yu, took up the task of taming the waters. Instead of building a dam, he decided to drain away the floodwaters through channels. A winged dragon flew in front of him, marking with his tail where Yu should dig the channels. Yu worked for many years, too busy even to see his family. In the end, however, he tamed the rivers, making the land along them suitable for farming. As his reward, Yu became emperor of China.
India. The flood legend of India begins with a creator god named Manu washing himself with water from a jar. A fish in the jar asked for Manu's protection and promised to save him from a great flood that would occur in the future. Manu raised the fish until it was one of the largest fish in the world, and then he released it into the sea. The fish told Manu what year the flood would come and advised him to build a ship. Manu built the ship, and when the flood came, the fish towed it to a mountaintop. Manu alone survived the flood. The fish is generally identified as one form of the god Vishnu * .
Native America. In many Native American myths, floods occur as punishment for human misdeeds. The Chiricahua Apache maintain that the Great Spirit sent a flood to drown the whole earth because people did not worship him. According to the Navajo, a series of floods forced the people to emerge from deep in the earth through several higher worlds. The final flood was caused by Water Monster, who became angry when Coyote stole his child. This flood, which drove the people to the surface of the present world, ended when Coyote returned the Water Monster's baby. The Cheyenne say that the gods use floodwaters to control people's movements.
Floods also have positive powers. In myths of the Arikara and Caddo people, floods wipe out evil giants and make the world safe for humans. Several Indian mythologies in Mexico and the American West tell of cycles of destruction in which one whole world creation was destroyed by flood, while others ended in fire, ice, wind, or other disasters. The Aztecs believed that the first age of creation ended in a flood. In the Mayan creation story, a flood washes away the wooden people made by the gods in an early attempt to create human beings.
Australia. Several groups among the Aborigines, the native people of Australia, believe that a vast flood swept away a previous society. Perhaps these myths grew out of conditions at the end of the last Ice Age, when sea levels rose and coastal regions flooded.
The Yao people of southern China have a myth that tells how the thunder god caused a great flood. A man captured the god to stop the rains, but the god convinced the man's son and daughter to set him free, and the flooding resumed. The man built a boat and floated to heaven to ask the other gods to help. They were too helpful. The water god drained the flood away so rapidly that the boat crashed to earth, killing the man. His children, meanwhile, were the only survivors of the flood. They floated on the water in a large gourd that grew from a tooth the thunder god had given them. They became the parents of a new human race.
One group of Aborigines says that their ancestral heroes, the Wandjina, caused the flood and then re-created society in its present form. Another version of the myth tells that a huge half-human
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
snake called Yurlunggur brought on the flood to punish two sisters for sexual misbehavior, that is, for breaking tribal rules concerning proper partners. Yurlunggur swallowed the sisters, but after the floodwaters withdrew, he spat them out and allowed them to start a new society.