Flood Myths: A Comparative Study
A comparative study of a few of the universal flood myths found in most religions.
Most Americans have been raised in roughly the same religion, in one of its many variations. Since America was primarily settled by western Europeans, and since most western Europeans had Christian-based religions, it’s understandable that most Americans have at least a little knowledge of the Bible and its stories. And one of the most well-known Bible stories is the story of Noah’s Ark.
According to the story, God decided to flood the Earth to cleanse away all of the wicked and sinful people, and he needed one family to ensure the continued survival of the human race. God warned Noah about the flood, and instructed him to build a great boat, the ark, and onto this ark gather two of every kind of animal, one male and one female, to ensure the survival of all of God’s animals.
And this happened, and mankind was washed away, except for Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their wives, and this family re-started life on earth, along with a boatful of animals.
Here’s the new part, that most people don’t know. Quite a few other religions, most of them as old or older than Christianity, have similar myths about a great flood, a big boat, and one small group of people being saved. Of course, few of these stories are as well known as Noah’s Ark, since the cultures have changed so much over the past few thousand years, but most ancient cultures believed in a flood of some sort. I’ll give a couple of examples.
The Greek story, straight from the same mythology that brought us the Trojan War and Hercules, is about a man named Deucalion, and his wife, Pyrrha. Deucalion was the son of the titan Prometheus, who had the power of foresight, and Pyrrha was the daughter of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, who only saw things after the fact.
Zeus and the other gods were weary of the human weakness in battling against sin, since the humans (those without godlike ancestry) had been made from clay. The gods decided that the earth needed to be cleansed of all the weak humans, so that the gods could start over with a new human race. However, before the flood began, Prometheus (or Themis, the oracle at Delphi) warned his son to build a boat, and collect his wife, so that they alone would survive the flood.
Survive they did, after an unspecified amount of time, and they were the only humans alive on the face of the earth. While the gods started recreating the animals, it was up to the two survivors to recreate the humans. Following more instructions from Prometheus, the couple threw stones over their shoulders. Every stone Deucalion threw became a man, every stone from Pyrrha a woman. Thus, humanity was reborn.
The Sumerian myth more closely resembles Noah, and is most likely where the story of Noah came from. The Sumerian myth of the flood came down from the story of Gilgamesh, the heroic king of Sumeria. While on his adventures, Gilgamesh decides that he wants to be immortal, and he seeks out Utnapishtim and his wife, known as the only immortal humans in the world. Upon meeting them, Gilgamesh learns their story.
Their story is almost identical to Noah’s, in that the gods planned a flood to wash away the wickedness from the earth, and one of the gods went aside to warn Utnapishtim of the impending disaster. So Utna gathered together his family, as well as the “seed of every race” by bringing along one pair of every animal to breed. This flood lasted only six days (it didn’t need to last as long, since humanity hadn’t spread itself out very far at this time), and after the flood was over, Utna’s family went off to recreate humanity, while Utna and his wife lived happily forever after.
These cultures and many more have flood stories, all the way from Australian aborigines to Native American tribes and Nordic fjords. The legends are all surprisingly similar, so much so that the idea of a flood actually happening is very likely. But which version of the story is accurate? Maybe all of them? Maybe all of the gods from all of the different religions warned specific members of their people, and there might have been two dozen boats out floating on those waters. Or maybe, and more likely, the original civilization from Sumeria spread out around the world, and the story adapted to every place the people settled. We may never know the truth of the past. A lot of it relies on faith, a lot on guesswork. The only way to truly understand the truth of history is to find the common threads in every culture and assume these to be truth.