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Origins: The History of the Great Flood

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

With 71 percent of the planet covered in water, flooding has always been one of the biggest risks to human lives and settlements. Countries with lots of rain are in danger of rivers bursting their banks, smaller islands could be wiped out by intense storms or terrifying tsunamis, and even desert communities run the risk of deadly flash floods.

With these natural disasters happening quickly, and sometimes with no warning, it is easy to see why early civilisations turned to gods to explain and protect them from these confusing and terrible occurrences. Cultures and countries all over the world have different myths surrounding flooding. The myth of Atlantis disappearing into the sea is of course well known, and there are similar legends that describe other cities from collapsing beneath the waves. There are also other myths of monsters, serpents, and dragons whose battles and struggles cause flooding, such as the giant catfish trapped beneath Japan and whose attempts to free himself cause tsunamis.

One of the most well-known, enduring, and baffling myths, however, is the legend of the ‘Great Flood.’ The reason that this myth is so baffling is because very similar variations of the myth can be found around the world. They all tend to run along a similar theme: a giant flood is sent by the gods to punish the wicked, a few people (commonly one or two) survive this, and repopulate the earth with their descendants who are, presumably, of a much higher moral character.

One of the most commonly known Great Flood myths is, of course, Noah and the Ark. In order to punish the wicked, God decreed that a great flood would wipe them from the earth. Prior to the flood, he chose to warn the faithful Noah, who built a great ark and filled it with two of every creature. When god sent the rain for forty days and nights, Noah and his family retreated into the ark and survived. After the flood waters receded god sent a rainbow, to promise Noah that he would never again cause such destruction. The descendants of Noah inherited this new Earth.

While the names and finer details may change, variants of this story are found across the world. In China, legend tells of a brother and sister, who survived a flood which wiped out all life on earth. The sibling’s father had captured a thunder god, and the siblings managed to release him. In anger, the god flooded the world. As the siblings had saved him, he gave them a pumpkin or gourd, which they climbed inside and used as a boat to survive. The siblings were then forced to marry to repopulate the earth.

In Norse myth the world was flooded not by water, but by blood, after the slaughter of the giant, Ymir. It was not humans who survived this flooding, but the Frost Giant (Jotun) Bergelmir and his wife, who had built an ark. In a Hindu legend, Manu is warned by the fish incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Manu builds a raft which he ties to the horn of the fish, who leads him through the stormy waters to a mountain which is safe. While Manu was the only survivor, he performed a ritual sacrifice to the sea and a woman appeared from the waves, Manu and the woman then repopulated the world.

The Aztec version of the myth is a little different, in that the survivors do not get the chance to repopulate the world. The god Titlacauan warned Note and his wife Nena of the coming flood. He sealed them into a hollowed tree so that they might survive. When they emerged, Titlacauan warned them not to eat the fish, as rather than drowning the original people, Titlacauan had transformed them into fish. When Nata and Nena disobeyed, the god turned them into dogs, and decided to create a new species of human from scratch.

These are just a few of many similar myths that can be found from different times and cultures in history and around the world. There are several theories as to how these myths came to be so similar, although unfortunately it has thus far proved impossible to definitively say why the similarities between these myths exist.

Our first theory regarding the great floods is also the oldest. It comes from 1680 and was inspired by the sight of Halley’s Comet. William Whiston a close friend of both Halley, and Newton, proposed that a similar comet had passed close to the earth thousands of years ago. The comet, Whiston theorised, would have passed far closer to the earth, close enough that the water from its tail breached the atmosphere, causing massive rainfall and a gravitational pull that raised the sea level, drowning the world. It must be noted that Whiston was a firm Christian, believing that the bible was a factual recounting of historical events, rather than allegorical. His scientific discoveries and theories were therefore written to support this account of events.

The second theory also includes a comet, though in this one, rather than a comet barely missing the Earth, it collided with it!

In this theory, it is thought that a comet crashed somewhere in North America approximately 12,800 years ago, the impact would have caused mass flooding, with walls of water thousands of feet high. This would have had massive effects on the land, causing a shift in the climate that could have triggered mass fires across the continent, followed by a nuclear winter. This theory also argues that it was this impact and climate shift that caused the extinction of various megafauna across the globe. While many humans would have been wiped out by this mass flooding, the survivors may have resettled around the globe, sharing their story with the people they settled with. As the story was passed down through descendants, it would have grown into myth, and elements of divine retribution would have been added.

There are two major criticisms of this theory. Firstly, there is no evidence of such a large number of megafauna species going extinct at the same time, in fact evidence suggests that they died out gradually over a greater period of time. Secondly, scientist have been unable to find the impact site. Some theorise that this is because either the comet crashed into the sea, or because the comet crashed into a glacier, and so much of the damage to the ground was softened by the layers and layers of ice.

The final theory is the simplest one – that Great Flood myths each relate to separate isolated floods. Floods are regular issues around the globe and while there may not have been a flood the size indicated in the Great Flood mythos (great enough to swallow the entire world) there is still proof of floods big enough to drown civilisations. Three such floods took place in the Mediterranean, Europe and in China.

There is evidence that glacier melt flowing into the Mediterranean spilled over and turned a freshwater lake (which was at the time surrounded by lush land and human settlements) into the Black Sea we know today. This would have destroyed the human settlements in the process, with the survivors fleeing to higher ground.

The flooding in Europe was equally catastrophic. Once, Great Britain and Ireland were connected to the rest of Europe by a large land bridge. The flooding that separated them was, again, caused by the end of the ice age. Around 6000 years ago, glacier melt would have driven the Mesolithic settlers off this land and onto higher ground – some to Britain, and others to the Netherlands. Evidence of these ancient settlers has been found on the floor of the North Sea.

The evidence of a flood in China was, unlike the other two, caused by neither ice melt, nor by the sea. Instead, archaeological evidence points to a large flood bursting from the banks of the Yellow River, in approximately 1920 BC. It is believed that a landslide blocked the river. Months later, when the dam broke, the collected water would have flooded through in a terrifying wave. This could have travelled as far as 1,200 miles upriver and may have continued to affect the waterways and rivers for decades after the initial flood.

While this theory does not quite explain the overwhelming similarities between the different myths, there are other incidents of natural phenomena being interpreted similarly across multiple cultures – for example, the prevalence of ‘sky’ or ‘thunder’ gods serving as the ruling deity of various pantheons. There is also the possibility of myths gaining elements from different cultures as they met for trade, or other reasons. For example, China began trading with the West in 130 BC – using the silk road, which connected China to India, Persia and Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, allowing a sharing of myths and culture within these countries and beyond.

Unfortunately, it will likely never be possible to definitively prove where the myths of the Great Flood came from, and whether they stem from the same base myth / event, or whether their similarities are merely coincidence.


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03 nov 2022

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