A Flood of Floods
A televised documentary I saw this past week on rising sea levels reminded me of the widespread myths of a great flood. The best known is found in the Bible (Genesis 6-9), in which God commands Noah to build a large ship in which to save himself, his family, and representatives of each kind of animal from God’s judgment on all other life.
The biblical myth, probably written after 1000 bce, has connections to the far older ones from ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq). The so-called “Eridu Genesis” written in the Sumerian language from the 17th century bce, starts with creation but an impending flood threatens the world. Sadly, the tablet is too badly damaged to read the reason why. A god warns Ziusudra (“Found Long Life”) to build a boat to save himself and his animals. Afterwards, the hero offers sacrifices. Ziusudra is granted eternal life in the fabled land of Dilmun.
The roughly contemporary myth of Atrahasis (“Exceedingly Wise”), written in Akkadian, also starts with creation; humanity being made from clay and the blood of slain god. The earth suffers from overpopulation and a human caused uproar disturbs the gods. Famine and drought fail to control human numbers, so the god Enlil decides to destroy the earth with water. The god Enki slyly warns the hero to build a boat. After the flood, Atrahasis offers sacrifices in thanksgiving and the gods decide on other means to control the human population.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim stands in for Atrahasis and this story follows the same general plot. In an striking parallel to Noah’s story, Utnapishtim releases birds to seek out dry land. Like Atrahasis, he too, is awarded eternal life while other people must die.
These stories had a wide circulation in the Middle East and were recopied for well over one thousand years and influenced the biblical myth of Noah, penned sometime in the first millennium bce.
Flood mythology appears around the world. For example, floods appears in North American Native tradition and Hindu mythology. Many stories collected from indigenous peoples show signs of influence from the biblical myth, knowledge of which was spread by missionaries before folklorists and anthropologists could record Native traditions. Still, there are many more that do not bear the marks of contact with Christianity.
There is simply too much variety amongst the myths to think that they all stemmed from a single, original story, or one particular global flood (besides there being no evidence of such an event in human history). Not all of the myths involve a god angered by the actions of humanity. In the Indian Manu story, a man saves a small fish that eventually grows huge. In gratitude, the fish warns Manu of an impending flood, and helps guide Manu’s boat.
Water is a powerful and widespread religious symbol, probably because it is so mysterious, necessary and dangerous. Not enough or too much, and human life is impossible. The nightmarish fear of drowning lend a psychological force to the symbolic power of water.
Water is heavy and powerful when in motion and yet, as a liquid, it is without form. In many religious traditions, it is a symbol of chaos, the unformed matter from which the ordered and solid world is created. Some flood myths, therefore, speak of the fear of the world returning to its primordial, shapeless origin, and emergence from the flood is a kind of renewed creation.
If the ice caps do melt, one can only wonder what new versions of such myths will be told in next millennia!