Deluge (mythology)

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This article is about myths involving great floods. For other uses, see deluge.

The story of a Great Flood sent by a deity or deities to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution is a widespread theme in myths. The stories of Noah and the ark in Genesis, Matsya in the Hindu Puranas, Deucalion in Greek mythology and Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh are among the most familiar versions of these myths. A large percentage of the world's cultures past and present have stories of a "great flood" that devastated earlier civilization.


[edit] Flood myths in various cultures

[edit] Ancient Near East

[edit] Sumerian

Fertile Crescent
myth series
Levantine myth
Arabian myth
Yazidic religion
Mesopotamian mythology





The Sumerian myth of Ziusudra tells how the god Enki warns Ziusudra (meaning "he saw life," in reference to the gift of immortality given him by the gods), king of Shuruppak, 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, Ziusudra makes appropriate sacrifices and prostrations to An (sky-god) and Enlil (chief of the gods), and is given eternal life in Dilmun (the Sumerian Eden) by An and Enlil.

The Sumerian king list, a genealogy of traditional, legendary and mythological Sumerian kings, also mentions a great flood.

Excavations in Iraq have shown evidence of a flood at Shuruppak about 2,900-2,750 BCE, which extended nearly as far as the city of Kish, whose king Etana, supposedly founded the first Sumerian dynasty after the flood.

The myth of Ziusudra exists in a single copy, the fragmentary Eridu Genesis, datable by its script to the 17th century BC. <ref>Overview of Mesopotamian flood myths</ref>

[edit] Babylonian (Epic of Gilgamesh)

The "Deluge tablet" (tablet 11) of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian.

In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, toward the end of the He who saw the deep version by Sin-liqe-unninn (tablet 11), there are references to a great flood. The hero Gilgamesh, seeking immortality, searches out Utnapishtim (whose name is a direct translation into Akkadian of the Sumerian Ziusudra) in Dilmun, a kind of terrestrial paradise. 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.

[edit] Akkadian (Atrahasis Epic)

The Babylonian Atrahasis Epic (written no later than 1700 BC), 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.

[edit] Hebrew (Genesis)

Further information about the Genesis version can be found at Noah and Noah's Ark.

According to the story of Noah's Ark in Genesis, several generations after leaving Eden mankind had become corrupt and violent. God came to regret having made mankind and decided to bring a flood to wipe out the violence. God found only one man on Earth worthy of saving, Noah. So God told Noah to build an ark of particular size and design, and to bring his wife, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives, as well as clean animals and birds by sevens, male and mate, along with 2 of each unclean animal, male and mate into the ark (versions differ as to whether this means seven individuals or seven pairs), with all necessary food and seedlings so mankind and the earth could begin again with a clean slate. In the 600th year of Noah's life, 1656 years after creating Adam, God sent the flood.

According to the account, the flood came from (1) the first historical mention of rains in the Bible, lasting 40 days from the "floodgates of the heavens," and (2) waters from the "springs of the great deep." From textual analysis of Genesis 1, it is often speculated that a large firmament of water existed, above the sky.

"Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse "sky."

The flood waters covered the earth for 150 days.

On the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat, and in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month of Noah's life, the face of the Earth was dry. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry, and God instructed Noah to leave the ark.

After the flood, Noah sacrificed from the pure animals and God promised to never again destroy the Earth as a whole with flood waters, since man is born with an evil inclination from youth and God commits himself to maintaining the rules of nature. God gave Noah this covenant, whereby people were given dominance over all animals and were now permitted to eat meat for the first time but not with its life still in it, and instructed to spread over the earth, but under a new law: that if a man spill another man's blood, his own blood must be spilt. God uses the rainbow in the clouds to seal and remind future generations of this everlasting covenant.

[edit] 1st Book of Enoch

In the 1st Book of Enoch, God sends the Great Flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim. The Nephilim are the titanic children of the Grigori and of human females.

[edit] Europe

[edit] Greek

Greek mythology knows two floods, ending two Ages of Man: the Ogygian Deluge ended the Silver Age, and the flood of Deucalion ended the First Brazen Age.

The Ogygian flood is so called because it occurred in the time of Ogyges, founder and king of Thebes. It covered the whole world and was so devastating that the country remained without kings until the reign of Cecrops. <ref>Gaster, Theodor H. Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, Harper & Row, New York, 1969. [1]</ref>

The Deucalion legend as told by Apollodorus in The Library has some similarity to Noah's flood: 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 aitiology for Greek laos "people" as derived from laos "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.

There has been speculation that a large tsunami in the Mediterranian 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.

Plato's Timaeus (22) refers to the "great deluge of all" and Critias (111-112) refers to the "great destruction of Deucalion." In addition, the texts report that "many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years" since Athens and Atlantis were preeminent.

[edit] Germanic

In Norse mythology, Bergelmir was a son of Thrudgelmir. He and his wife were the only frost giants to survive the deluge of Bergelmir's grandfather's (Ymir) blood, when Odin and his brothers (Vili and Ve) butchered him. They crawled into a hollow tree trunk and survived, then founded a new race of frost giants.

The mythologist Brian Branston noted the similarites between this myth and an incident described in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which had traditionally been associated with the Biblical flood, so there was probably a corresponding incident in the broader Germanic mythology as well as in Anglo-Saxon mythology.

[edit] Irish

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 Panthalon's and Nemed's people reached the island, another flood rose and killed all but thirty of the inhabitants, who scattered across the world.

[edit] Americas

[edit] Aztec

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 Etienne 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.

[edit] Inca

In Inca mythology, Viracocha destroyed the giants with a Great Flood, and two people repopulated the earth. Uniquely, they survived in sealed caves.

[edit] Maya

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 "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.

Curiously, 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.

[edit] Hopi

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, it is said comes 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.

[edit] Caddo

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.

[edit] Menominee

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.

[edit] Mi'kmaq

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.<ref>Canada's Fist Nations - Native Creation Myths</ref>

[edit] Far East

[edit] China

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". (see: Shanhaijing, chapter 18, second to last paragraph; Anne Birrells translation. note: Nuwa is not mentioned in this translation in the context of a flood)

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. (see: Shujing, Part 1 Tang Document, Yao Canon; James Legges translation)

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 Nuwa. Nuwa is generally represented as a female who repairs the broken heavens after a great flood or calamity, and repopulates the world with people. There are many versions of this myth. (see Nuwa article for additional detail)

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 [citation needed].

[edit] India

Image:Matsya painting.jpg
Incarnation of Vishnu as a Fish, from a devotional text.

Matsya (Fish in Sanskrit) was the first Avatara of Vishnu.

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.

[edit] Indonesia

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.

[edit] Polynesian

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 familes 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.<ref>This story has all the hallmarks of a Christianized tradition, heavily influenced by knowledge of the Biblical story of Noah. It is unlikely to represent a genuine Hawaiian tradition.</ref>

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.

[edit] Theories of origin

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, theories 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. Many other prehistoric geologic events, including tsunamis, have also been advanced as possible foundations for these myths. For example, some have asserted that the original versions of the Greek myth of Deukalion's flood likely originated from the effects of the megatsunami created by the eruption of Thera in the 18th-15th century BC.<ref></ref> More speculatively, some have suggested that flood myths could have arisen from folk stories of the huge rise in sea levels that accompanied the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, passed down the generations as an oral history. Another controversial theory is that a deluge was caused by one or more asteroid impacts which released a large amount of water vapor into the atmosphere and low space. See Tollmann's hypothetical bolide.

Recently, perhaps starting with the publication of The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, followed by Fossil Legends of the First Americans, the hypothesis that flood stories have been inspired by ancient observations of fossil seashells and fish inland and on mountains has gained ground. Indeed, there is much documentary evidence to support this view, as the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, and Japanese all commented in ancient writings about seashells and/or impressions of fish that they found inland and/or in the mountains. The Greeks theorized 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 obviously had not written these idea down previously.

Additionally, Christians during the Middle Ages recorded fossil seashells on mountains as proof of the Biblical flood. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the first to refute this explanation by stating that the mountains had perhaps been raised up from the sea bed instead.

Many biblical archaeologists, as well as laypeople, consider the story of Noah's flood to be a non-historical myth. Many traditional orthodox Jews and Muslims, as well as many Christians, regard it as historical fact. The latter may claim that the large number of flood myths between many cultures suggests that they originated from a common, historical event. Proponents of Flood geology contend that the myths from various cultures are corrupted memories of an historical global deluge.

Other scholars believe that the Genesis flood myth is actually a later version of the story, which was based upon earlier Mesopotamian myths (including the Epic of Ziusudra, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Gilgamesh flood myth). Although some scholars dispute the idea that the Genesis myth has features that would date it to an even earlier Babylonian version, the various claimed points of uniqueness in the Biblical tale are actually quite common in the earlier versions of the myths as well. According to Biblical scholars Campbell and O'Brien <ref>Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O'Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch, (1993) pp. 2-11, and note 24.</ref> both the J and P portions of the Genesis flood text were authored during and after the Babylonian exile (after 539 BC) and were derived from Babylonian sources.

Instead of trying to find cataclysmic real life floods to explain these stories, some historians point out that early civilized cultures lived in the fertile flood plains along river basins such as the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris-Euphrates river basin of Mesopotamia (in present day Iraq). It is not unusual that such peoples would have deep memories of floods and have developed mythologies surrounding floods to explain and cope with an integral part of their lives. To these ancient cultures, a flood that covered their known world would likely be considered local flooding by First World standards instead of literally the entire planet. Scholars point out that most cultures living in areas where flooding was less likely to occur did not have flood myths of their own. These observations, coupled with the human tendency to make stories more dramatic than events originally warranted, are all the points most mythology scholars feel is necessary to explain how myths of world-destroying cataclysmatic floods evolved.

On the other hand, it is interesting to note that most ancient civilizations lived nearby rivers or seas, because of the fertility of those areas. Smaller subsequent floods could have re-ignited memories about the deluge, triggering stories about it to be passed down the generation. Of course, in civilizations living in less flooded areas, memories about the deluge would have faded faster, due to the lack of triggering events.

These myths can be seen metaphorically as a manifestation of the same perceived need of numerous societies to show its population what could happen if they break a certain taboo. The cause of nearly all of these mythical floods was said to be the wickedness of the masses, and the lone survivor would be a man who best exemplified the virtues of whatever culture the myth came from.

[edit] Local flood theory

A theory that found support with archaeologists Max Mallowan and Leonard Woolley is the local flood theory that links the Ancient Near East flood myths to one specific river flood of the Euphrates River that has been radio-carbon dated to about 2900 BC at the end of the Jemdet Nasr Period. The Epic of Atrahasis tablet III,iv, lines 6-9 clearly identifies the flood as a local river flood: "Like dragonflies they [dead bodies] have filled the river. Like a raft they have moved in to the edge [of the boat]. Like a raft they have moved in to the riverbank." The WB-444 Sumerian king list places the flood after the reign of Ziusudra, the flood hero in the Epic of Ziusudra that has numerous parallels to the other flood stories. According to archaeologist Max Mallowan <ref>M.E.L.Mallowan, "Noah's Flood Reconsidered", Iraq, 26 (1964), pp 62-82.</ref> the Genesis flood "was based on a real event which may have occurred in about 2900 BC... at the beginning of the Early Dynastic period."

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes


[edit] References

  • Alan Dundes (editor), The Flood Myth, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988. ISBN 0-520-05973-5 / 0520059735
  • Lloyd R. Bailey. Noah, the Person and the Story, University of South Carolina Press, 1989, ISBN 0-87249-637-6
  • Robert M. Best, "Noah's Ark and the Ziusudra Epic", Enlil Press, 1999, ISBN 0-9667840-1-4
  • John Greenway (editor), The Primitive Reader, Folkways, 1965
  • G. Grey, Polynesian Mythology, Illustrated edition, reprinted 1976. (Whitcombe and Tombs: Christchurch), 1956.
  • A.W. Reed, Treasury of Maori Folklore (A.H. & A.W. Reed:Wellington), 1963.
  • Anaru Reedy (translator), Ngā Kōrero a Pita Kāpiti: The Teachings of Pita Kāpiti. Canterbury University Press: Christchurch, 1997.
  • W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood, Eisenbrauns, 1999, ISBN 1-57506-039-6.

[edit] External links

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Deluge (mythology)

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