The Deluge 16 March 2014
Most are familiar with the story of Noah, the prophet who warned humanity of God’s divine justice that would come upon the earth in the form of a global flood. The story however is not singular, and is instead found in cultures and religions across the globe. Abdul-Azim Ahmed explores the ancient stories of a global flood.
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall….
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth…
Epic of Gilgamesh
This is how the Epic of Gilgamesh, thought to be one of the oldest poems in existence, describes the deluge that swept through Mesopotamia. Were it not for an important character in the story Utnapishtim, who under divine instruction built an ark to preserve mankind and Earth’s animal life, humanity would have been wiped out.
The elements of the story will be familiar to many. It parallels the story of Noah and the Great Flood sent by God to destroy mankind for its sins and allow for a righteous rebirth of civilisation.
The story is not exclusive to Judaism, Christianity and Islam however, all of which revere Noah as a patriarch. Rather, stories of a global flood are found among many of humanity’s foundational civilisations. The stories repeatedly echo down to us today from the earliest points of human history, hinting that what we receive in tablets and written texts is only a part of the pre-historic oral stories that have been forgotten in entirety.
What are these stories and where do they come from? Is there are historical basis for a global flood? What does the flood tell us about the earliest human societies?
The earliest record of a global flood myth can be found in a partial Sumerian tablet. The Sumerian civilisation is among one of the oldest in the world founded in the fifth millennium BCE in the area of Mesopotamia or current-day Iraq. The land, fed by the Euphrates and Tigris, was highly fertile and perfect for human settlement. The Sumerians were one of the most advanced civilisations of this era, with trade, industry and writing well ahead of their contemporaries.
A tablet excavated in Nippur, a now abandoned ancient city, that is dated from around 1600 BCE tells the Babylonian creation story. The tablet describes how, not long after the birth of humanity and the establishment of the Sumerian cities of Eridu, Larsa and Shuruppak, the gods decided to end humanity with a great flood. Why the gods made this decision remains a mystery due to a missing fragment of the tablet.
The god Enki however takes pity and warns a righteous king, Ziusudra to build an ark to preserve humanity. He does as he is told, and along with his family and various members of the animal kingdom, he endures a great storm that sweeps water across the lands of Mesopotamia and lasts for seven days. Once the water recedes and Ziusudra walks on solid ground, he prostrates himself in thankfulness to the gods. As a reward for his piety, Ziusudra is given life eternal and a semi-divine status.
All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one,
The deluge raged over the surface of the earth.
After, for seven days and seven nights,
The deluge had raged in the land,
And the huge boat had been tossed about on the great waters,
This Sumerian myth is considered to be the source of the narration in the Epic of Gilgamesh, preserved via the later Akkadian civilisation. The Epic tells the story of the King Gilgamesh, ruler of the city Uruk. The people of Uruk, terrified by their oppressive king, beseech the gods to restrain Gilgamesh. As a means to humble him, they create Enkidu, a human who embodies the chaos and power of the natural world. Enkidu and Gilgamesh face off in a wrestling match, but rather than becoming enemies, the two become close friends and embark on a series of adventures together. Towards the end of the poem, Enkidu’s tragic death spurs Gilgamesh to search for eternal life – and naturally he turns to the only man in Mesopotamian mythology who has achieved it. Ziusudra, although now referred to as Utnapishtim, is met by Gilgamesh. The story of the flood is recounted to the King, and a discussion of the meaning of eternal life ensues.
It is natural that many scholars consider the Epic of Gilgamesh and Sumerian deluge myths to be informing aspects for the creation story of Genesis in the Bible. The Sumerians after all were succeeded by the Akkadians, who spoke a Semitic language that was a precursor to Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic – these languages are tied closely to the Abrahamic traditions. It is therefore entirely understandable that the Middle-Eastern cultures and religions originating in that area shared the story of the deluge and the man who saved them.
The narrative of Noah in Genesis tells the story of a long-lived Prophet of God, who beseeches mankind to forego and abandon their sin and polytheism. He is rejected and rebuked by the people. Eventually, the one God decides to wipe out mankind for their transgression – except the righteous few. He instructs Noah to build an ark and to take on it his family and two of every animal. The dimensions of the ship, much like the Gilgamesh epic are clearly outlined. The heavens then open, and for forty days and nights rainfall sweeps clean the whole earth of humanity, until eventually Noah and his family resettle on dry land to repopulate the earth.
The Islamic narrative is similar – although the flood is not described as global, nor are any but a handful of animals taken onto the ark.
Noah is the great progenitor and preserver of human civilisation. His sons went on to populate the rest of the earth. Shem is the father of the Semitic peoples, Ham, patriarch of the Canaanites and Japheth of the Japhetic peoples (sometimes synonymous with Caucasians).
The story of a great flood is also found in Hindu traditions. The Shatapatha Brahmana scriptures which date from roughly the 8th to 6th centuries BCE tell the incidents around the avatar of Vishnu, Matsya. Matsya begins life as a fish, taken into care by Manu, a righteous king who was among the first to rule humanity. Unaware that the fish is a divine avatar, Manu continues to care for the growing fish’s needs. Eventually, Vishnu reveals himself and warns Manu of the coming deluge. He instructs him on how to build an ark and tells him to take his family onto the ship along with specific animals and seeds with which to repopulate the earth. Manu does as instructed, survives the deluge and repopulates the earth, living a long life (hundreds of thousands of years) before passing away.
Whereas there is a genealogy that one can trace from the Sumerian deluge to the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Biblical book of Genesis, the Hindu scriptures stand apart. The similarity is even more striking for lack of a common origin with the Middle-Eastern myths.
A Global Tale
Europe too has a similar story. Ancient Greek mythology tells the story of a great deluge. Deucalion, the son of the titan Prometheus, is warned by his father of an oncoming flood that puts all mankind at risk. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survive in a wooden chest, floating amidst a violent storm for nine days and nights, until landing on a mountain. Upon descending, Deucalion sacrifices an animal to Zeus in thankfulness.
Similar stories, though less detailed, are also found in Native American oral stories, such as those that belong to the Hopi peoples, as well as Mesoamerican myths such as that of Bochicha and countless African tribes that share the motif of a global flood.
Though the stories in Gilgamesh, Genesis and the Hindu Scriptures are the most extensive and most similar, the presence of deluge stories across the globe speaks of a collective human memory. Indeed, many theologians, particularly Christian creationists, point to the prevalence of flood narratives as evidence that a global flood did indeed take place.
The Science of the Flood
Geologists have found little evidence of anything that could be described as a global flood. There is however much evidence of severe localised flooding at the end of the last Ice Age. Human civilisation emerged in earnest in the last five thousand years, and the last Ice Age ended only a few thousand years prior. During the Ice Age, the expansion of the polar caps meant that the average sea level was significantly lower. As the ice melted, sea levels steadily rose, flooding areas that were once populated by humans.
A powerful example of this phenomenon is seen in what is sometimes referred to as Doggerland. Before 6500 BCE, Britain was connected to the European continent via a substantial landmass that reached far into the North Sea which is now known as Doggerland. This area would have been rich in animal life and very fertile – increasingly there is archaeological evidence that humans had settled in such areas that are now deep below the North Sea.
The melting of the polar caps would have had similar effects across the globe, submerging coastal cities and reducing the landmass of the continents. Most famously, marine archaeologists discovered an ancient city off the western coast of India, considered a very possible site for Dwarka – a lost city mentioned in Hindu scriptures. The findings are still subject to intense debate, but the same phenomenon of melting ice caps has been highlighted as the likely cause of the flooding.
Given the time frame, it is entirely possible that melting ice caps would have given rise to a collective memory of a deluge across civilisations and cultures. They may have even led to the stories of Atlantis and other lost civilisations.
There is a problem however – the deluge myths almost always speak of a sudden flood and overwhelming catastrophe that takes place with little warning. By contrast, melting ice caps would have taken generations to be noticed.
Outburst floods, or mega floods, may be a way to better reconcile human myth and science. Walter Pitman, a geophysicist and professor emeritus at Columbia University, put forward the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. He argued that in the sixth century BCE, the Mediterranean Sea breached suddenly into the Black Sea, causing a sudden rise in the size of the Black Sea over a period of a few months. The rising sea levels would have destroyed coastal cities abruptly in a way that fit descriptions in the Babylonian deluge myths. It was no global flood, but to a relatively small population of humans in the Middle-East, it may have indeed felt like a global catastrophe.
Similar explanations have been forwarded for the flood narrative of Deucalion. The Thera eruption (1630-1600 BCE) caused tsunamis that may have inspired the Greek stories. Likewise, a meteor impact in the Indian Ocean, suggested to have taken place around 3000 BCE, may have inspired the Hindu stories.
The Value of Myth
There are important things that are missed by simply trying to answer the question about whether humanity ever faced a global deluge or not. As Karen Armstrong writes in The Case for God, myths can sometimes hold important truths that far transcend discussions about historical accuracy.
Our early progenitors perhaps knew of no civilisations before their own, and thus were not so certain there would be one to follow. Humanity faced many bottlenecks and near-extinctions in history and the story of a deluge helped negotiate that history and uncertain future. Water is so often mentioned in creation stories as the source of all life – the deluge was not just about destruction, but about re-birth. In the Babylonian myths, Ziusudra is given eternal life so that he may continue the human race if all fails. Genesis remarks that God used the rainbow as a sign of the covenant that humanity would be protected. Thus the story reminds humanity of the power of human perseverance.
In many of the flood myths, God or the gods send down the deluge as punishment for mankind. In a modern era of environmental crisis, the story is a reminder that human action is not devoid of impact or consequence. ‘Green theologians’ in Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all held the example of Noah as a role-model for ethical living in the modern era. He was someone who preserved the natural world and lived in close harmony with it. The Laws of Noah (comparable to the Ten Commandments) refer to the treatment of animals alongside more familiar moral values.
This environmental aspect of the flood story in Genesis is an important theme for a modern remake of the story of Noah as a film starring Russell Crowe due to be released March 2014.
Whatever their origins, the flood myths have an enduring legacy in human memory and hold important messages for modern-day society.
To read more great content like this from On Religion, you can subscribe to our quarterly print magazine. Get a no-strings-attached, year’s subscription for just £19.