Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Mythology and Legend of Natural Disasters - Part Four - The Great Flood

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth.  The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water.  They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.  The waters rose and covered the mountains to the depth of more than fifteen cubits.  Every living thing that moved on land perished - birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.  Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.  Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth.  Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

                    -  Genesis 17-24

The story of a Great Flood in mythology is a myth shared among many cultures aross the globe, but if you were to think of one example it would probably be Noah and the Great Flood or, perhaps, Noah's Ark.  There are, however, many others - from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh to the Dreamtime Flood of Australia.  In many of these places, the Great Flood myth has its roots in real history, although the flood itself may not have been as great as it is portrayed.  Let's take a look at some of these flood myths from a variety of different cultures and see how similar they are to the most well known Noah and the Great Flood.

While Noah's Ark is the most well known story it is, by no means, the oldest.  The Great Flood, myth dates back to Sumerian times, with this particular myth going right the way back to the 7th century BC.  The story, in this case a poem, tells us of the creation of both animals and humans, along wth the five cities Eridu, Badtibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak.  It goes on to say that the gods had decreed there would be a flood which would wipe out humanity.  One of the gods, probably the water god Enki, decides that he will save mankind and tells Ziusundra (the Noah of this poem) to build a boat in order to save himself.

All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one,
The deluge raged over the surfaces 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,
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven and earth.
Ziusudra opened a window of the huge boat,
Ziusudra, the king,
Before Utu prostrated himself,
The king kills an ox, slaughters a sheep.

Unfortunately, large parts of the poem have been destroyed and much of it is missing.  However, it does make apparent the similarities between the ancient Sumerian myth and that of Noah's Ark.

The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, however, is detailed and mostly complete, with striking similarities to the Genesis version.  I'll just give you a quote here, but the can read the complete version here http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/mba/mba15.htm.  In this tale, which was written in the 7th century BC, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh, who is searching for immortality, of how te god Ea, had warned him of the coming of the Great Flood and instructed him to build a boat to save himself and his family and his livelihood. 

     At the dawn of day I saw rising athwart the heavens a dark cloud, and in the midst of it Ramman thundered.  Nebo and Merodach went in front, speeding like emissaries over hills and plains.  The cables of the ship let loose.
     The Ninip, the tempest god, came night, and the storm broke in fury before him.  All the earth spirits leapt up with flaming torches and the whole land was aflare.  The thunder god swept over the heavens, blotting out the sunlight and bringing thick darkness.  Rain poured down the whole day long, and the earth was covered with water; the rivers were swollen; the land was in confusion; men stumbled about in the darkness, battling with the elements.  Brothers were unable to see brothers; no man could recognize his friends...  The spirits above looked down and beheld the rising flood and were afraid: they fled away, and in the heaven of Anu they crouched like to hounds in the protecting enclosures.
     In time Ishtar, the lady of the gods, cried out distressfully, saying: 'The elder race both perished and turned to clay because that I have consented to evil counsel in the assembly of the gods.  Alas!  I have allowed my people to be destroyed.  I gave being to man, but where is he?  Like the offspring of fish he cumbers the deep.'
     The earth spirits were weeping with Ishtar: the sat down cowering with tightened lips and spake not; they mourned in silence.
     Six days and six night went past, and the tempest raged over the waters which gradually covered the land.  But when the seventh day came, the wind fell, the whirling waters grew peaceful, and the sea retreated.  The storm was over and the rain of destruction had ceased.  I looked forth.  I called aloud over the waters.  But all mankind had perished and turned to clay.  Where fields had been I saw marshes only.

In the Hindu mythology of India, contained within the Matsya Purana and Shatapatha Brahmana, we are told of Manu, who is washinig his hands in a river when a fish swims into his hands and begs him to save its life.  Manu puts the fish into a jar, which the fish soon outgrows.  So Manu puts the fish into a tank and, when it outgrows the tank, into a river and finally into the ocean.  At this point the fish warns Manu of the coming deluge and tells him to build a boat:

Along the ocean in that stately ship was borne the lord of men, and through
Its dancing, tumbling billows, and its roaring waters; and the bark,
Tossed to and fro by violent winds, reeled on the surface of the deep,
Staggering and trembling like a drunken woman.  Land was seen no more.
No far horizon, nor the space between; for everywhere around
Spead the wild waste of waters, reeking atmosphere, and boundless sky.
And now when all the world was deluged, nought appeared above the waves
But Manu and the seven sages, and the fish that drew the bark.
Unwearied, thus for years on years the fish propelled the ship across
The heaped-up waters, till at length it bore the vessel to the peak
Of Himavān; then softly smiling, thus the fish addressed the sage:
 'Haste, now, to bind thy ship to this high crag. Know me, the lord of all,
 The great Creator Brahmā, mightier than all might, omnipotent.

The whole version of the Hindu Great Flood can be found here.

In Ancient Greece, Poseidon was one of the three greatest deities, with the power to summon earthquakes and storms.  If he felt slighted or angry, Poseidon might even release a great flood, as occurs in the following myth:

Poseidon and the Flood

     The gods vied for power over Greece's largest city and its surrounding area, known as Attica.  Athena and Poseidon were especially keen to be named patron deity of the city, and to decide which one of them would win the title, they declared that they would compete to provide the people there with the greatest gift.
     Poseidon went to the Acropolis (the hill overlooking Athens) and struck the ground with his trident, whereupon a spring of salt water began to flow.  Athena made a much more useful gift, the first  olive tree, planting it on the Acropolis.  But to make the final decision fair, Zeus called together all the gods to hear evidence, including testimony form Cecrops, king of Attica, who confirmed that Athena's tree was indeed the first olive tree ever seen on the Acropolis.  Athena won the day, and has been the goddess of Athens ever since.
     Poseidon was furious at the other gods' decision and brought down his trident on the Aegean Sea with an almighty crash.  A great wave rose up and cascaded over the plain of Eleusis where Athens stood.  Although flooded for a long time, the city finally recovered, and the Athenians could once more enjoy food, oil, and wood from Athen's olive trees.

There are a large number of Mesoamerican flood myths which have been recorded in written form or passed down through the generations orally.  The Aztec myth in particular has its similarities with Noah's Ark.

Tata and Nena - An Aztec legend

During the era of the fourth sun, the Sun of Water, the people grew very wicked and stopped worshiping the gods.  The gods became very angry and the God of the rains, Tlaloc, decreed that there would be a flood which would destroy the world.  However, there was one devout couple which were deserving of life - Tata and Nena.  Tlaloc warned the couple of the coming deluge.  He instructed them to hollow out an enormous log and to hide inside it with two ears of corn for them to eat.
Tata and Nega did as they were instructed and, when the rains came, they hid inside the enormous hollow log.  When the rains subsided, Tata and Nena directed the log to dry land and here they caught a fish.  But Tlaloc was very angry with them.  He'd told them to eat only the ears of corn they'd taken with them.  So Tata and Nena were transformed into dogs.  The gods soon destroyed the world and brought in the era of the Fifth Sun.

The planets altered their courses, the Earth fell to pieces, and the water in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the earth.
            From China's Imperial Library

Chinese mythology relates how the Emperor of Heaven, Tien Ti, wanted to destroy humanity with a worldwide flood.  The text tells us that the god Yeu took pity on the downing men and sent a giant turtle to save them before turning the turtle into new land.
Another Chinese text tells us the following:

The pillars supporting the sky crumbled, and the chains from which the earth was suspended shivered to pieces.  Sun, moon, and stars poured down into the northwest, where the sky became low; rivers, seas, rushed down to the southeast, where the earth sank.  A great conflagration burst out.  Flood raged.

Slovenia have a myth of how the laziness of the first people was the cause of a great flood which killed everyone but the watchman, Kranyatz.

The Great Flood of Slovenia

     The first humans enjoyed a life of paradisical ease in a valley where everything grew without the need for toil.  The valley was irrigated by seven rivers that flowed from an egg, and was surrounded by high mountains.  The people became very lazy and complacent: they could not even be bothered to pick the bread that grew on the trees, but instead set fire to the trees so that the bread fell into their hands.  The people decided to break the egg and each take as much water as they wanted.  The egg split with a roar like thunder and water poured from it, filling the valley, until there was nothing but an enormous lake.
     All the people died except Kranyatz, the watchman on guard on the highest mountain top.  Kurent stretched down and held out his walking stick - a vine - to save Kranyatz, who clung to its tendrils for nine years until the flood waters receded, nourishing himself in the meantime on the vine's grapes.

The Australian Aborigines also have a Great Flood legend.  This is one of my favourites and tells of a drought which preceded the Great Flood after the water had been swallowed by an enormous frog.

A Legend of the Great Flood

    In the dream-time, a terrible drought swept across the land.  The leaves of the trees turned brown and fell from the branches, the flowers drooped their heads and died, and the green grass qithered as though the spirit from the barren mountain had breathed upon it with a breath of fire.  When the hot wind blew, the dead reeds rattled in the river bed, and the burning sands shimmered like a silver lagoon.
    All the water had left the rippling creeks, and deep, still water holes. In the clear blue sky the sun was a mass of molten gold; the clouds no longer drifted across the hills, and the only darkness that fell across the land was the shadow of night and death.
    After many had died of thirst, all the animals in the land met together in a great council to discover the cause of the drought. They travelled many miles. Some came from the bush, and others from the distant mountains.
    The sea-birds left their homes in the cliffs where the white surf thundered, and flew without resting many days and nights. When they all arrived at the chosen meeting place in Central Australia, they discovered that a frog of enormous size had swallowed all the water in the land, and thus caused the drought. After much serious discussion, it was decided that the only way to obtain the water again was to make the frog laugh. The question now arose as to which animal should begin the performance, and, after a heated argument, the pride of place was given to the Kookaburra.
    The animals then formed themselves into a huge circle with the frog in the centre. Red kangaroos, grey wallaroos, rock and swamp wallabies, kangaroo rats, bandicoots, native bears and ring-tailed possums all sat together. The emu and the native companion forgot their quarrel and the bell bird his chimes. Even a butcher bird looked pleasantly at a brown snake, and the porcupine forgot to bristle. A truce had been called in the war of the bush.
    Now, the Kookaburra, seated himself on the limb of a tree, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, looked straight at the big, bloated frog, ruffled his brown feathers, and began to laugh. At first, he made a low gurgling sound deep in his throat, as though he was smiling to himself, but gradually he raised his voice and laughed louder and louder until the bush re-echoed with the sound of his merriment. The other animals looked on with very serious faces, but the frog gave no sign. He just blinked his eyes and looked as stupid as only a frog can look.
    The Kookaburra continued to laugh until he nearly choked and fell off the tree, but all without success. The next competitor was a frill-lizard. It extended the frill around its throat, and, puffing out its jaws, capered up and down. But there was no humor in the frog; he did not even look at the lizard, and laughter was out of the question. It was then suggested that the dancing of the native companion might tickle the fancy of the frog. So the native companion danced until she was tired, but all her graceful and grotesque figures failed to arouse the interest of the frog.
    The position was very serious, and the council of animals was at its wits' end for a reasonable suggestion. In their anxiety to solve the difficulty, they all spoke at once, and the din was indescribable. Above the noise could be heard a frantic cry of distress. A carpet snake was endeavoring to swallow a porcupine. The bristles had stuck in his throat, and a kookaburra, who had a firm grip of his tail, was making an effort to fly away with him.
    Close by, two bandicoots were fighting over the possession of a sweet root, but, while they were busily engaged in scratching each other, a possum stole it. They then forgot their quarrel and chased the possum, who escaped danger by climbing a tree and swinging from a branch by his tail. In this peculiar position he ate the root at his leisure, much to the disgust of the bandicoots below.
    After peace and quiet had been restored, the question of the drought was again considered. A big eel, who lived in a deep water hole in the river, suggested that he should be given an opportunity of making the frog laugh. Many of the animals laughed at the idea, but, in despair, they agreed to give him a trial. The eel then began to wriggle in front of the frog. At first he wriggled slowly, then faster and faster until his head and tail met. Then he slowed down and wriggled like a snake with the shivers. After a few minutes, he changed his position, and flopped about like a well-bitten grub on an ant bed.
    The frog opened his sleepy eyes, his big body quivered, his face relaxed, and, at last, he burst into a laugh that sounded like rolling thunder. The water poured from his mouth in a flood. It filled the deepest rivers and covered the land. Only the highest mountain peaks were visible, like islands in the sea. Many men and animals were drowned.
    The pelican-who was a blackfellow at this time -sailed from island to island in a great canoe and rescued any blackfellow he saw. At last he came to an island on which there were many people. In their midst he saw a beautiful woman, and f ell in love with her. He rescued all the men on this island until the woman alone remained. Every time he made a journey she would ask him to take her with the men, but he would reply: "There are many in the canoe. I will carry you next time." He did this several times, and at last the woman guessed that he was going to take her to his camp. She then determined to escape from the pelican. While he was away, she wrapped a log in her possum rug, and placed it near the gunyah; then, as the flood was subsiding, she escaped to the bush. When he returned, he called to her, but, receiving no answer, he walked over to the possum rug and touched it with his foot. It, however, did not move. He then tore the rug away from what he supposed was a woman, but, when he found a log, he was very angry, and resolved to be revenged. He painted himself with white clay, and set out to look for the other blackfellows, with the intention of killing them. But the first pelican he met was so frightened by his strange appearance, that it struck him with a club and killed him. Since that time pelicans have been black and white in remembrance of the Great Flood.
    The flood gradually subsided, and the land was again clothed in the green garments of spring. Through the tall green reeds the voice of the night wind whispered soft music to the river. And, when the dawn came from the eastern sky, the birds sang a song of welcome to the new flood-a flood of golden sunlight.

For more legends from the Aborigines, this page is fantastic.

For more flood myths, this website is great.

That's it for today.  Tomorrow we will look at the Myths and Legends of Lost Locations.  Until next time.

Useful Resources

Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic by W.J. Wilkins
Some Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines by W. J. Thomas
From the First Rising Sun: The Real First Part of Prehistory of the Cherokee People and Nation According to Oral Traditions, Legends and Myths by Charla Jean Morris
DK Eyewitness Companions: Mythology by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip

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