03 September 2010

The World Flood - Diluvian Tales in Comparative Mythology

Hey everyone! I know, it's been a long time since I blogged. I'm blaming it on my new catchphrase: I have A.D.O.S -- Attention Deficit...Ooh Shiny!

But I'm back now, so today is another post on mythology. I'm doing another Comparative Mythology bit, somewhat like the World Tree article I wrote some time ago.

This time, it's The World Flood.

I'm going to make a leap and assume that everyone knows the story of Noah's Ark. For those who left Sunday School behind some time ago, here's a quick recap.

Noah and his wife had three sons, who had three wives. During their life, the people of God were becoming increasingly sinful and wicked, growing further and further from God. It was time for a do-over. He decided if He could find one righteous man on the face of the earth, He wouldn't destroy mankind entirely. And there was just the one. Noah.

So God addressed Noah directly and told him what He was going to do. He directed Noah to build an ark so that one pair of each creature on earth could be saved. Noah started his ark, all the while telling people that God was mightily ticked off with them and fixin' to send a flood. (What? I was raised Southern Baptist.)

Noah built his ark, collected the critters and got himself and his family inside just as the rain started to fall. And fall it did. For 40 days and 40 nights, the earth was inundated with water. After the rain stopped, Noah found himself afloat with no landmarks because, hello, no land! So he sent out a raven to see if it would come back with some sign of land. Then he sent out a dove, but again, no luck. Finally, he sent out another dove, which returned with an olive branch in its beak. As the waters receded, he discovered he was atop what's now known as Mount Ararat, he let the critters out, made a sacrifice and the world started over.

In addition, God built a rainbow in the sky as a promise that he would never again flood the earth.

The End.

Except...not quite. The thing is, the idea of a flood wiping out the earth isn't purely a Judeo-Christian concept. The flood "myth" is very likely not a "myth" at all. Many cultures from the Mediterranean to the Near East share a similar story.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Just saying his name makes me shiver. I love that story.) relates the tale of Utnapishtim. The gods of Babylonia decided mankind was too numerous and noisy, so it was time for a do-over. They decided that only Utnapishtim (also Ziusudra or Atrahasis) and seven others (let's see, 3 sons +3 wives + Noah's wife =7) could accompany him. The gods commanded Utnapishtim to build a big boat for all the critters, and then the rain starts coming down.

In Utnapishtim's story, it only rained for seven days and seven nights, but the desired objective was attained. Mankind was entirely wiped out except for those on the ship. He also sent out birds to discover whether there was dry land, and when the waters receded, he let the critters out, made a sacrifice and the world started over.

The gods promised they would never again destroy the earth with a flood.

If this keeps up, I'm just going to start copying and pasting.

So, all well and good that Israel and Babylon share a common flood myth. They're in the same part of the world, right? Well, how about a story slightly further afield, in India?

In this, the hero is named Manu or Satyavrata. One day, he finds a wee little fish in a wee bowl of water. The fish begs Manu to save its life by placing it in a bigger bowl. He does so and the fish grows. Every time, Manu places it in a larger container until finally it grows so large, he throws it back into the sea.

In gratitude, the fish warns him of a great flood that is coming to end this age of man. Manu is told to build a boat to save himself, his wife and a few chosen others (I'm betting there were 8 humans, but that's just a guess), seeds of all the plants, and two of every creature.

In the midst of the storm, a serpent god appeared as a rope, which Manu bound to the horn of another god-fish, and they were pulled to safety, landing in the Malaya Mountains.

No birds in this one, and the sacrifice isn't consistent throughout the different versions, but (copy/paste) when the waters receded, he let the critters out and the world started over.

Still too geographically close?

For our final version, let's head west again, to Greece. Yes, there's a Greek version of the flood myth, this time with Deucalion in the role of Noah.
Zeus had come to earth and met the evil king Lycaeon, who killed his own child and served it to Zeus for dinner. Disgusted with descent of humanity, he turned Lycaeon into a wolf ( Get it? Lycaeon? Lycanthropy? I do love when stories intertwine.) and decided to end the Bronze Age by divesting it of mankind.

He gets the gods together and they figure out how to wash the earth clean of men. Prometheus, however, was the father of the good King Deucalion and he warned his son of the coming flood. Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, constructed a boat and rode out the flood. In this version, no animals are saved, but they did come to rest atop Mount Parnassus, where they came out and worshipped the Corycian Nymphs of the mountain, as well as Themis, the goddess of oracles.

Seeing they were alone in the world, Deucalion prayed to Themis in his loneliness, asking how to rebuild the land. She told him and his wife to take up the bones of their mother, or the rocks of the earth, and throw them behind their heads. As they did, the stones that Deucalion threw became men and the stones that Pyrrha threw became women. The earth spontaneously regrew both plant and animal life, as well.

As I researched, the diluvian myths of other continents and cultures seemed to show up after the spread of Christianity, leading me to conclude that if they had flood myths, they were co-opted by Noahic tales so they're no longer reliable as historical markers.

However, the common threads of the stories from the Mediterranean Sea to India do seem to indicate that there may have been a massive, destructive flood of the Middle/Near East during ancient times and that it may have occurred within the same time period.

Two websites are good jumping off points for diluvian myths, although they also mention cultures which, as I said, may simply have co-opted the Biblical tale after coming into contact with Christianity.

(Art credit: Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks, 1846. Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
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