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- This article is on mythology involving great floods. For other uses of the word, see the disambiguation page deluge.
The story of a Great Flood sent by God or gods to destroy civilization is a widespread but not universal theme in myth. The stories of Noah and his ark in Genesis, Matsya in the Puranas scriptures of Hinduism, and Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh are among the most familiar versions of these myths. A large percentage of the world's cultures past and present have stories of a "great flood" that devastated earlier civilization.
Flood myths in various cultures
Sumerian (Eridu Genesis & Kings Of Sumer)
In the Eridu Genesis, the flood hero who builds the ark is Ziusudra. Unfortunately, this text is so fragmented that it can not be understood without the other near eastern flood accounts. The Sumerians also referred to a great flood in the Sumerian king list, a genealogy of Sumerian kings, both mythical and historical.
Babylonian (Gilgamesh Epic)
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, toward the end of the He who saw the deep version by Sin-liqe-unninn (tablet 11), there are references to a great flood. Gilgamesh, during his search for immortality, meets a man, Utnapishtim, who had succeeded in attaining such a goal. Utnapishtim goes on to explain how he attained it, that an assembly of gods resolved to destroy humanity by means of a flood. Though the decision was to be kept secret, the god Ea (in the Sumerian account, Enki) warned Utnapishtim about it and instructed him to build a survival vessel. After the flood, an assembly of gods was called who made Utnapishtim immortal. After the Deluge, Utnapishtim lived on the island of Dilmun and had achieved a great age when Gilgamesh sought him out for the secret of immortality.
Akkadian (Atrahasis Epic)
The Babylonian Atrahasis Epic (written no later than 1700 BC), gives human overpopulation as the cause for the great flood. After 1200 years of human fertility, the god Enlil felt disturbed in his sleep due to the noise and ruckus caused by the growing population of mankind. He turned for help to the divine assembly who then sent a plague, then a drought, then a famine, and then saline soil, all in an attempt to reduce the numbers of mankind. All these were temporary fixes. 1200 years after each solution, the original problem returned. When the gods decided on a final solution, to send a flood, the god Enki, who had a moral objection to this solution, disclosed the plan to Atrahasis, who then built a survival vessel according to divinely given measurements.
To prevent the other gods from bringing such another harsh calamity, Enki created new solutions in the form of social phenomena such as non-marrying women, barrenness, miscarriages and infant mortality, to help keep the population from growing out of control.
The God Chronos warned Xisuthrus of a coming flood, and Chronos ordered Xisuthrus to write a history and to build a boat measuring 5 stadia by 2 stadia to carry his relations, friends, and two of every kind of animal. The flood came, rose, and killed everyone except those in the boat. After the floodwaters subsided, Xisuthrus sent birds out from the boat, and all of them returned. He sent them out a second time, and they returned with their feet covered in mud. He sent them out a third time, and the birds didn't return. The people left the boat and offered sacrifices to the Gods. Xisuthrus, his wife, daughter, and the pilot of the boat were transported to live with the Gods.
According to the story of Noah's Ark in Genesis, several generations after mankind left Eden, they had become corrupt, full of violence and theft. God came to regret having made them and God decided to bring a flood to wipe out the violence. God found only one just man on the Earth, Noah. So God told Noah to build an ark of particular size and design, and to bring his wife, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives, as well as clean animals and birds by sevens, male and mate, along with 2 of each unclean animal, male and mate into the ark (versions differ as to whether this means seven individuals or seven pairs), with all necessary food and seedlings so mankind and the earth could begin again with a clean slate. In the 600th year of Noah's life, 1656 years after creating Adam, God sent the flood. According to the account, the rains lasted 40 days, and the waters covered the earth for 150 days. On the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ar'arat, and in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month of Noah's life, the face of the Earth was dry. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry, and God instructed Noah to leave the ark.
After the flood, Noah sacrificed from the pure animals and God swore to himself to never again wreak his vengeance on the Earth as a whole, since man is born with an evil inclination from youth and God commits himself to maintaining the rules of nature. God gave Noah this covenant, whereby people were given dominance over all animals and were now permitted to eat meat for the first time but not with its life still in it, and instructed to spread over the earth, but under a new law: that if a man spill another man's blood, his own blood must be spilt. God uses the rainbow in the clouds to seal and remind future generations of this everlasting covenant.
"Zeus sent a flood to destroy the men of the Bronze Age. Prometheus advised his son Deucalion to build a chest. All other men perished except for a few who escaped to high mountains. The mountains in Thessaly were parted, and all the world beyond the Isthmus and Peloponnese was overwhelmed. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha (daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora), after floating in the chest for nine days and nights, landed on Parnassus. When the rains ceased, he sacrificed to Zeus, the God of Escape. At the bidding of Zeus, he threw stones over his head; they became men, and the stones which Pyrrha threw became women. That is why people are called laoi, from laas, "a stone." – Apollodorus. The Library, Sir James G. Frazer (transl.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1921, 1976. (http://home.earthlink.net/~misaak/floods.htm#Apollodorus)
An older version of the story told by Hellanicus has Deucalion's "ark" landing on Mount Othrys in Thessaly. Another account has him landing on a peak, probably Phouka, in Argolis, later called Nemea. The Megarians told that Megarus, son of Zeus, escaped Deucalion's flood by swimming to the top of Mount Gerania, guided by the cries of Cranes. An earlier flood was reported to have occurred in the time of Ogyges, founder and king of Thebes. The flood covered the whole world and was so devastating that the country remained without kings until the reign of Cecrops. – Gaster, Theodor H. Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, Harper & Row, New York, 1969. (http://home.earthlink.net/~misaak/floods.htm#Gaster)
The Timaeus of Plato refers to the "great deluge of all" and the Critias refers to the "great destruction of Deucelion." In addition, the texts report that "many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years" since Athens and Atlantis were preeminent. Destruction by fire and other catastrophes was also common. In these floods, water rose from below, destroying city dwellers but not mountain people. The floods, especially the third great flood before Deucalion, washed away most of Athens' fertile soil. – Plato, "Timaeus" 22, "Critias" 111-112
In Norse mythology, Bergelmir was a son of Thrudgelmir. He and his wife were the only frost giants to survive the deluge of Bergelmir's grandfather's (Ymir) blood, when Odin and his brothers (Vili/Hönir and Ve/Lodur) butchered him. They crawled into a hollow tree trunk and survived, then founded a new race of frost giants.
There are several variants of the Aztec story, many of them are questionable in accuracy or authenticity.
A pious man named Tapi lived in the valley of Mexico. The Creator told him to build a boat and to take his wife and a pair of every animal that existed into the boat. His neighbors mocked him for his foolishness. After he finished the boat, it began to rain, flooding the valley; men and animals tried to escape in the mountains, but the flood reached to the mountains and drowned them. The rain ended, and the waters receded. Tapi sent out a dove, and rejoiced to find that it did not return, meaning that the ground had dried and he, his wife, and the animals could leave the boat. -- No Source
When the Sun Age came, there had passed 400 years. Then came 200 years, then 76. Then all mankind was lost and drowned and turned to fishes. The water and the sky drew near each other. In a single day all was lost, and Four Flower consumed all that there was of our flesh. The very mountains were swallowed up in the flood, and the waters remained, lying tranquil during fifty and two springs. But before the flood began, Titlachahuan had warned the man Nota and his wife Nena, saying, 'Make no more pulque, but hollow a great cypress, into which you shall enter the month Tozoztli. The waters shall near the sky.' They entered, and when Titlacahuan had shut them in he said to the man, 'Thou shalt eat but a single ear of maize, and thy wife but one also'. And when they had each eaten one ear of maize, they prepared to go forth, for the water was tranquil." -- Ancient Aztec document Codex Chimalpopoca, translated by Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg.  (http://www.noahsarkzoofarm.co.uk/research/centralamerica.shtml)
These Aztec translations are controversial. Many have no credible source and there is no proof of their authenticity. Some are based off the pictograph story of Coxcox, but other translations of this pictograph mentions nothing of a flood. Most significantly, the time that these myths were heard from the local people was well after missionaries entered the region.  (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/6040/flood20.htm)
Among the Inca, Viracocha destroyed the giants with a Great Flood, and two people repopulated the earth. Uniquely, they survived in sealed caves. In Maya mythology, Huracan ("one-legged") was a wind and storm god who caused the Great Flood after the first humans angered the gods. He supposedly lived in the windy mists above the floodwaters and spoke "earth" until land came up again from the seas.
The people moved away from Sotuknang, the creator, repeatedly. He destroyed the world by fire, and then by cold, and recreated it both times for the people that still followed the laws of creation, who survived by hiding underground. People became corrupt and warlike a third time. As a result, Sotuknang guided the people to Spider Woman, and she cut down giant reeds and sheltered the people in the hollow stems. Sotuknang then caused a great flood, and the people floated atop the water in their reeds. The reeds came to rest on a small piece of land, and the people emerged, with as much food as they started with. The people traveled on in their canoes, guided by their inner wisdom (which, it is said comes from Sotuknang through the door at the top of their head). They travelled to the northeast, passing progressively larger islands, until they came to the Fourth World. When they reached the fourth world, the islands sank into the ocean.
Four monsters grew in size and power until they touched the sky. At that time, a man heard a voice telling him to plant a hollow reed. He did so, and the reed grew very big very quickly. The man entered the reed with his wife and pairs of all good animals. Waters rose, and covered everything but the top of the reed and the heads of the monsters. A turtle then killed the monsters by digging under them and uprooting them. The waters subsided, and winds dried the earth.
In Hindu scriptures (the Puranas, and Shatapatha Brahmana, I, 8, 1-6), an avatar of Vishnu in the form of a fish, Matsya, warned Manu of a terrible flood that was to come and that it would wash away all living things. Manu cared for the fish and eventually released it in the sea. There the fish cautioned Manu to build a boat. He did so, and when the flood arrived, the fish towed the ship to safety by a cable attached to his horn.
In Chinese ancient mythology Shan Hai Jing, the ancient Chinese ruler Da Yu (Yu the great) spent ten years to control a deluge which swept out most of the ancient China at that time. He was aided by the goddess Nuwa who literally "fixed" the "broken" sky through which huge rains were pouring.
The earth rests on a giant snake, Naga-Padoha. One day, the snake tired of its burden and shook the Earth off into the sea. However, the God Batara-Guru saved his daughter by sending a mountain into the sea, and the entire human race descended from her. The Earth was later placed back onto the head of the snake.
According to the apocryphal history of Ireland Lebor Gabála Érenn, the first inhabitants of Ireland, led by Noah's granddaughter Cessair were all except one wiped out by a flood 40 days after reaching the island. Later, after Panthalon's and Nemed's people reached the island, another flood rose and killed all but thirty of the inhabitants, who scattered across the world.
Theories of origin
Some geologists believe that quite dramatic, greater than normal flooding of rivers in the distant past might have influenced the myths. One of the latest, and quite controversial, theories of this type is the Ryan-Pitman Theory, which argues for a catastrophic deluge about 5600 BC from the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea. Many other prehistoric geologic events, including tsunamis, have also been advanced as possible foundations for these myths. For example, some have asserted that the original versions of the Greek myth of Deukalion's flood likely originated from the effects of the megatsunami created by the eruption of Thera in the 18th-15th BC  (http://www.mystae.com/restricted/streams/thera/thera.html) More speculatively, some have suggested that flood myths could have arisen from folk stories of the huge rise in sea levels that accompanied the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, passed down the generations as an oral history.
Most biblical archeologists consider the story of Noah's flood to be legend or myth. Many Christians, Muslims and Jews accept the deluge story as an allegory intended to convey meaning, not historical fact. On the other hand, most traditional orthodox Jews and Muslims, as well as many Christians, regard it as historical fact. They claim that the large number of flood myths between many cultures suggests that they originated from a common, historical event. They claim further that the text of the Genesis account is unique among the flood myths, due to what they perceive to be a high degree of detail, including specific dates for the events of the flood, specific dimensions and design of the ark, detailed genealogies before and after, and an objective and historical textual style. Flood geology, a subset of Creationism, contends that the myths from various cultures are corrupted memories of an historical global deluge, which it argues is depicted most accurately in the book of Genesis.
Most scholars of mythology believe that the Genesis myth is actually a later version of the story, which was based upon earlier Mesopotamian myths. They strongly dispute the idea that the Genesis myth has features that would date it to a more earlier version, and argue that the various claimed points of uniqueness in the Biblical tale are actually quite common in the other versions of the myths as well. Instead of trying to find cataclysmatic real life floods to explain these stories, these experts point out that early civilized cultures lived in the fertile flood plains along river basins such as the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris-Euphrates river basin of Mesopotamia (in present day Iraq). It is not unusual that such peoples would have deep memories of floods and have developed mythologies surrounding floods as it was an integral part of their lives. To these ancient groups, a flood that covered the world as they knew it could simply be what is considered minor local flooding these days instead of literally the entire planet. The scholars point out that most cultures that lived in areas where flooding is less likely to occur did not have any flood myths of their own. These facts, added to the natural human tendency to make stories more dramatic than they originally started as, are all the points most mythology scholars feel is necessary to explain how myths of world-destroying cataclysmatic floods evolved.
- The Atrahasis Epic and its Significance for our Understanding of Genesis 1-9 (http://home.apu.edu/~geraldwilson/atrahasis.html)
- Mark Isaak, "Flood stories from around the world" (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html)
- "The House Of The Sky" - Exploring flood myths and ancient astronomy and the mythical stories of mankind's past and future (http://www.biroz.net/words/flood.htm)
- Noah’s Flood and the Gilgamesh Epic (http://www.answersingenesis.org/docs2004/0329gilgamesh.asp) A Creationist viewpoint on the origin of flood myths.
- "Biblical Evidence for the Universality of the Genesis Flood" by Richard M. Davidson (http://www.grisda.org/origins/22058.htm)
- The Flood: Myth and Science (http://www.mystae.com/restricted/streams/science/flood.html)
- A site about the eruption of Thera, which casued a tsunami some believe influenced deluge myths in Greece and elsewhere (http://www.mystae.com/restricted/streams/thera/thera.html)