Within the last year, devastating floods have hit Pakistan, Vietnam, Brazil, Queensland, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, such that the Christmas flooding in the southwestern U.S. seems like a single drop of water by comparison. Floods are epic events that claim or change lives, fundamentally altering landscapes and leaving traumatic memories in their wake. Unless you have lived through it, it is impossible to imagine the horror of looking in all directions to see water covering the land right to the horizon. At such times, it seems as if the whole world has — as the Queenslanders stoically called it — “gone under.”
Floods strike almost everywhere sooner or later. So it is no surprise that most cultures have a catastrophic flood myth. Some flood myths attempt to grapple with why God or the gods would unleash such a cataclysm. Other times, flood myths turn from the terror of destruction to the hope of creation, explaining how new life arose from a deluge that nearly destroyed the world.
Here is a survey of a few of these myths.
Babylonian Flood Myths: 2nd millennium BCE
Many students of the Bible know that there’s a flood story in the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. In fact, there are even older records of that story going back to the 17th century BCE. As in many myths of the early history of the world, an early race of giants rebels against the gods and has to be put down. Shortly afterwards, uppity humans run afoul of a no-tolerance rule for lesser infractions. The Babylonians annoy the gods simply by being too noisy! Humans have multiplied too fruitfully, and they’re keeping the gods up at night with their clamor. So Enlil the supreme god summons a flood to wash away the pests. However, Enki, the creator of mankind, warns one man — Atrakhasis or Ut-napishtim, depending on the story — to build an ark and save his family. There is no mention of animals, but as in the Biblical story, our hero releases birds to help him find land, and after many days comes to rest on a high mountain. There he sacrifices to the gods, wins divine pardon, and life begins again. [Source]
Greek and Roman Flood Myth: 5th Century BCE (probably older)
The Greek versions of the myth are vague about reasons; they know only that the gods sent a flood that wiped out the previous race — the race of Bronze, says Apollodorus— and that Deukalion and Pyrrha were the man and woman who escaped the flood in an ark (a wooden chest) or ship. They came to rest on the heights of Mount Parnassos (above), where they sacrificed to the gods and were spared.
Two variants of the myth tell how the gods advised them to cast behind them stones which turned into people where they touched, replenishing the human race. In the Greek version, Hermes the messenger-god brings this counsel to the grieving couple. In the Roman poet Ovid, who tells the story with typical flare, the goddess Themis dismays them with the riddle that they should “cast their mother’s bones behind them.” It falls to wise Deukalion, son of Prometheus, to decipher the oracle.
Deukalion and Pyrrha, incidentally, have connections to another war of gods and giants. Deukalion’s father is Prometheus, Titan benefactor of the human race who created men from clay and water gave them the gift of fire. Prometheus plays the part of Enki in some versions, advising his son to build an ark. Pyrrha’s mother is Pandora. Deukalion and Pyrrha’s son is Hellen, father of the Hellenes, called in the Latin tongue “Greeks.”
Inca Flood Myth, The Unu Pachakuti (1100-1600 CE)
Flood myths are a part of the creation myths of many Native American peoples from north to south, including the Pueblo peoples, Maya and Aztecs, and Inca.
The Inca’s supreme being and creator god, Con Tici (Kon Tiki) Viracocha, first created a race of giants, but they were unruly, so he destroyed them in a mighty flood and turned them to stone. Following the deluge, he created human beings from smaller stones. [Source] In other versions of this story, the impious race is the pre-Inca civilization of the Tiahuanaco Indians about Lake Titicaca, the large high lake in the Andes. Viracocha drowns them and spares two, a man and a woman, to start the human race anew. [Source] Some versions of the Unu Pachakuti have the surviving man and woman floating to Lake Titicaca in a wooden box [Source].
Miao Flood Myth, China, Present-Day
The Heavenly King created the world, the animals, the birds, the insects, and the people. Then fire and water destroyed the world (for reasons unclear) and only two people were saved, a brother and sister floating in a large gourd. Afterwards, the sister did not wish to marry her brother, since that was improper. She proposed a strange test: each should stand on a hill on opposite sides of the valley and push down a stone; if they rolled to the middle of the valley and landed one atop the other, then the couple should marry. Her brother rigged the contest by secretly leaving two other stones in the correct position. Unconvinced, she proposed a second test, that each should stand atop opposite hills and toss a knife, and if the knives landed in the same sheath, they should marry. Again, the brother secretly contrived to leave two knives in a sheath on the valley floor.
So they were married. Their child was born deformed, and the father cut him up and tossed the pieces about in rage. From those pieces arose human beings, men and women, to start the race anew. [Source]
Many More Flood Stories
Here are a couple of pages of flood stories from around the world. These pages are not scholarly, but they give god-names and offer a starting place for research in flood mythology.
Back in the Real World
Unfortunately, flood mythology is widespread because floods are so common. All these myths ask, “How do humans start over, when everything has been wiped out?” In the real world, the answer is: with hard work and a lot of helping hands. Please consider a donation to a reputable relief agency (be careful; there’s many scams) helping people in one of the afflicted areas. I suggest Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, or the Queensland Relief Fund.