Clas 3305 Flood Lecture Lec 15 One of the themes which underlies the lectures and discussions for this second term is that of man's relationship to the gods

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Clas 3305 Flood Lecture Lec 15

One of the themes which underlies the lectures and discussions for this second term is that of man's relationship to the gods
and the way that manifests itself in mythology
In the lecture on creation myths we looked at man's perception of the beginning of that relationship
Those mythologies attempted to provide answers for such questions as:
-- where the world came from

-- why it operates the way it does

-- who ordered the seasons, the stars, time itself

-- who ordered social relations, kingship, privilege and power

the answer in each case: the gods


Two questions which these myths suggest but do not answer:
1. What happens if the gods stop ordering the stars in their planets? In other words: if the gods created the world, can they uncreate it? What happens to the world? What happens to man?
2. What happens if man does not keep his side of the bargain? If the people rebel? If they no longer obey the laws of god? If they anger the gods?

If they try to steal the secret of the gods?
The variety of answers to these questions fall under the heading of Eschatology
Mythology about the end of things

Interpreting the flood myth

ways to interpret the flood myth:

the flood does what water does:

  • the flood cleanses the old and gives birth to the new

  • washes away:

sinful mankind to make way for new man

the old world to allow rebuilding


Many other civilizations and cultures have flood myths as well

They can be divided into two kinds:

1. in some, such as that in China, the flood represents simply the state of the world before the organization of human societies

the flood, in these stories, has no moral aspect -- not sent as divine retribution (look at this type first)

2. In others, which we are more interested in, the central motif is the destruction of mankind

the gods are so angered or so discouraged by the behaviour of mankind that they decide to destroy them and begin again with a single couple or family who is miraculously saved from the waters

the reasons for the decision of the gods varies from the ridiculous to the sublime people are too noisy people are too sinful


In many cultures, the Flood stories are a type of eschatological myth

they mark the end of one era and the beginning of another


Chinese Myth: the story of Yu

very ancient theme in Chinese mythology

from the Shu ching -- dating from the Chou dynasty 1,000 BCE

emphasis not on sinfulness of mankind -- water not punishment

rather on necessity of bending unruly water to the purposes of man

tremendous flood waters wreaking destruction everywhere

rose above the hills and circled the mountains

people groaned under their oppression

they reached almost to the heavens

Ti, hearing the lament of the people, commanded Kun to deal with the flood

Kun laboured nine years against the flood, but without success

Kun was executed and his son Yu attempted to finish the task

thought of channeling the water instead of damning it up

eventually conquered the flood

made the land fit for habitation

rewarded with the throne

became founder of Hsia dynasty

another version:

Kun, after being ordered to deal with the flood, stole the "growing soil" for the gods

used it to build dams

when he failed, he was executed at Feather Mountain

a sunless place in the extreme north

after three years, his undecomposed body was cut open to reveal Yu (other versions claim that Yu was born from a stone -- perhaps another version of his father's petrified body)

Yu came down from the mountain to complete his father's work

succeeded only after 8 or 10 years of ceaseless work


obviously a different sort of flood story -- no moral lesson -- no just punishment

merely a sort of creation story

Indian Myth: the story of Manu

story told in the Shatapatha-Brahmana (6th C. BCE)

Manu is the first human -- found a small fish in his washwater

fish begged for protection against bigger fish

"Rear me; I will save thee"
"from what?" asks Manu
"A flood will carry away all these creatures; from that I will save thee"
"keep me in a jar while I am small"

"dig a pit for me when I am bigger"

"take me back to the sea when I am grown, for then I shall be beyond destruction"

Mayan Myth: the Popul-Vuh

Popul-Vuh is the sacred book of the Mayans
"In the very beginning, there was only the still sky and the still sea. Nothing moved and there was no sound because there were no living creatures. There was no earth and no sun or moon to give light. Only god was surrounded with His own light, and He was in the heart of the still, dark sky and in the heart of the still, dark sea. In the sky he was called hurricane, the heart of heaven; and in the depths of the water, . . . he was called the feathered serpent.”
God planned what to do:

First he said, "Let the emptiness be filled. Let the earth appear."

and the earth appeared

Not liking the silence, he created animals

assigned their places and their voices

Not finding that satisfactory either, he determined to create man from mud

his creations were soft and limp

they didn't make sense when they spoke

when they got wet, they were even more useless

God tried again:

he made men out of wood

they could walk and talk

they built houses and had children

but, they were dry and yellow

their faces had no expression because they had no souls or hearts

They beat their dogs and they burned the bottoms of their cooking pots

they had forgotten how they were made

and they could not remember any of the names of god

again god was not happy

he determined to destroy them with a flood

they had mistreated everything in their world

nothing would help them

only a few escaped the flood (later considered the descendants of the monkeys)

God tried again

he pondered and planned

he found a beautiful valley with many plants and fruits

he took ears of corn and ground them

he fermented the meal and made nine kinds of liquor

these became man's strengths and energies

he used the meal to make dough to shape man

he made four young and handsome men

while the men slept, he made four young and beautiful women

when they awoke they saw the world -- they could see everything in the world and in the sky

we can see, we can hear, we can move and think and speak, we feel and know everything, we can see everything in the earth and in the sky. Thank you for having made us, O our Father

something about this worried god

these people could see too much

they were not very different from god

he leaned down and blew mist into their eyes

man never saw clearly again

Greco-Roman Myth: the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha

story told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses

Jupiter thinks about the descent of man through the Golden Age, The Bronze Age and into the Iron Age

Man has become vain, greedy and forgetful of his duty to the gods:

Jupiter decides to punish humanity for its sins by means of fire

remembers just in time that a great fire had been foretold which would destroy the heavens

decides to finish off mankind by a great cleansing flood instead

not content with his efforts, he asks for the help of his brother, Neptune

Neptune ordered the rivers to overflow their banks

sweep away crops and orchards

cattle and men,

temples and houses


From Ovid:

sea and earth could no longer be distinguished -- only Mt. Parnassus remained above the waves:
A mountain of stupendous height there stands

Betwixt th'Athenian and Boeotian lands,

The bound of fruitful fields, while fields they were,

But then a field of waters did appear:

Parnassus is its name; whose forky rise

Mounts through the clouds, and mates the lofty skies.

High on the summit of this dubious cliff,

Deucalion wafting, moor'd his little skiff.

he with his wife were only left behind

of perish'd man; they two were human kind.

The mountain nymphs and Themis they adore,

And from her oracles relief implore.

The most upright of mortal men was he;

The most sincere and holy woman, she.

When Jupiter, surveying Earth from high,

Beheld it in a lake of water lie,

That, where so many millions lately liv'd,

But two, the best of either sex, surviv'd,

he loos'd the northern wind; fierce Boreas flies

to puff away the clouds, and purge the skies:

Serenely, while he blows, the vapours, driven,

discover Heav'n to Earth, and Earth to Heaven.

the righteous couple are named Deucalion and Pyrrha
Deucalion is the son of Prometheus

After lamenting their fate, they seek an oracle to find out what to do

Tell how we may restore, by second birth,

Mankind, a people-desolated earth.

They follow the instructions:
The stones (a miracle to mortal view,

But long tradition makes it pass for true)

Did first the rigour of their kind expell,

and suppled into softness as they fell;

They swelled, and swelling, by degrees grew warm;

And took the rudiments of human form;

Imperfect shapes: in marble such are seen,

When the rude chisel does the man begin;

While yet the roughness of the stone remains,

Without the rising muscles, and the veins.
the stones thrown by Deucalion became men

the stones thrown by Pyrrha became women

The animals were formed independently in the ground:
The rest of animals, from teeming earth

Produced in various forms received their birth.

the native moisture, in its close retreat,

Digested by the sun's ethereal heat,

As in a kindly womb, began to breed:


From hence the surface of the ground with mud

And slime besmeared (the faeces of the flood),

Received the rays of Heav'n; and sucking in

the seeds of heat, new creatures did begin:

some were of several sorts produced before;

But of new monsters, earth created more.
Ovid (translated by John Dryden)

Classics of Roman Literature
based on Greek myth of Zeus flooding the earth

variation of this myth also known from Pindar in the 5th C. BCE

Greek version most likely influenced by earlier myths of the Hebrews and Babylonians

Perhaps via the Hittites (Greek colonies on the Aegean coast of present-day Turkey were once ruled by the Hittites)


Ancient Near Eastern Flood Myths

Egyptian: The Flood of Blood

the Egyptian flood is one of blood rather than water

The goddess Hathor sent by Ra to investigate the evil which men did

She began killing evildoers -- their blood flowed over the land

She became more and more bloodthirsty -- drinking the blood

Ra is upset at all the destruction

sends for Thoth, the wise one, for advice

Sektet is sent to mix beer with the blood and attract Hathor

She drinks the bloody beer and passes out, sparing the last few humans

The remainder repopulate the Earth

Ra retires, setting Thoth to watch over the humans

The humans prosper after Thoth teaches them about writing, poetry and governance

Mesopotamian Versions


by far the oldest version of the Flood

third-millenium BCE myth of the Sumerians



the gods decide to destroy humankind with a flood

one god, Enki, disagrees with this decision

instructs a worthy man, Ziusudra, to build a great boat

save himself and his family (and a few others)

and the seed of all living creatures

  • different version recorded by Berosus: Babylonian historian writing in Greek in the 3rd C. BCE

(his work has disappeared but there are references to it in other histories)
Late Babylonian Version:

The great flood took place in the reign of Xisuthrus, the tenth king of Babylon. The god Cronus (one of the Titans of Greek Mythology -- father of Zeus) appeared to him in a dream and warned him that all men would be destroyed by a flood

The god enjoined him to write a history of the world from the beginning and to bury it for safety in the holy city of Sippar,
Then he was to build a ship, lay in a store of food and drink, bring his family and friends on board, bring living things on board, animals and birds, and then batten down the hatches and wait for the flood.

tradition says that that ship came to rest in Armenia

  • in Berossus's time, there were supposed to be still remnants of it "and the people scrape the pitch off it and make charms"

It was not until the third quarter of the nineteenth C. that the earlier version from the library of Ashurbanipal (668 - 626 B.C.) at Nineveh was found and deciphered

  • Ziusudra has become Utnapishtim
  • Enki has become Ea

Version at Ninevah is Assyrian:
Utnapishtim explains to Gilgamesh how he and his wife came to join the Assembly of the gods

I will reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter

and a secret of the gods I will tell thee:
Utnapishtim reveals how he was living in Shurupak on the banks of the Euphrates

Ea came to him and revealed (while pretending to talk to the walls only) that the gods were planning the destruction of mankind

Ea tells him to tear down his house and use the materials to build a boat
Give up possessions, seek thou life

Forswear worldly goods and keep the soul alive
Utnapishtim must save not only himself:
Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things
Ea tells him, also, what to tell his friends and neighbours

for he cannot tell them the truth:

Thou shalt then speak thus unto them:

I have learned that Enlil is hostile to me,

So that I cannot reside in your city,

Nor set my foot in Enlil's territory.

To the Deep I will therefore go down,

To dwell with my lord Ea.
He is also supposed to assure them that Enlil will bless the city when he himself has left

(puns and plays on words)

(words may designate either food or misfortune -- Utnapishtim seems to promise that the city will be blessed with good harvests, but, in reality, promises destruction)
When the day arrives, Utnapishtim seals up the boat and caulks the doors

the rain pounds down for six days and nights

the goddess Ishtar, seeing the world engulfed in flood, blames herself:

Pritchard: p. 69

The olden days are alas turned to clay,

Because I spoke evil in the Assembly of the gods.

How could I bespeak evil in the Assembly of the gods,

Ordering battle for the destruction of my people,

When it is I myself who give birth to my people?
The ship comes to rest on Mount Nisir

is held fast for a further six days and nights

on the seventh day Utnapishtim sends out a dove

the text does not clarify what angered Ishtar to this destruction

but she swears never to forget:
Ye gods here, as surely as this lapis

Upon my neck I shall not forget,

I shall be mindful of these days, forgetting them never

Let the gods come to the offering;

but let not Enlil come to the offering,

For he, unreasoning, brought on the deluge

And my people consigned to destruction
She swears by her jewelled (Lapis is blue) necklace never to do this again

Biblical version predates the Assyrian versions found in Ninevah in 1872

-- scholars might have concluded that the Assyrian version was based on the Hebrew Noah

but for the discovery by Turkish expeditions at Sippar and one undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania at Nippur -- the holiest centre of the country:
Turkish discovery accurately dated at 1966 BCE

U.S discovery dated at prior to 2100 BCE (time of Hammurabi)

Like the Jahwistic (J) version of creation, it mentions the creation of man before the animals

Genesis-like story appears on bottom half of tablet -- top not found yet

Old Akkadian version:

Ziudsuddu, king and priest, pious and faithful in his service to Enki

Enki, in reward for his service, warns him that the council of gods, at the request of Enlil, have decreed a flood which will destroy mankind

Enki tells the priest-king to stand by the wall to hear the message


Hebrew Version

In the Old Testament story of the Deluge there are again two somewhat inconsistent accounts:

P and J Versions

The early Jahwistic J

The later The Priestly P


The J version written at the time of Solomon

The P version during or after the Babylonian Exile


J more interested in the characters involved -- their dilemma and their fate

P more interested in the lessons to be taught -- instruments of God's will


J's religion personal and worldly -- a matter of spirit

P's religion formal and liturgical -- a matter of right observance


J written in times of exuberance and dreams of empire

P written when the people are or were recently enslaved and those dreams no longer viable


J looked to the world for fulfillment of dreams

P looked to heaven for world of fulfillment


J represents supremacy in the secular world

P represents supremacy in the spiritual world


James George Frazer suggests that the difference is not unlike the difference in the Rome of the Caesars and the Rome of the Popes


J calls God, Jehovah (Lord)

P calls God, Elohim (God)


J distinguishes between the clean and the unclean animals

(7 of each clean, 2 of each unclean)

P makes no such distinction


J has the flood lasting (after the 40 days) 3 weeks

P has the flood lasting 364 days altogether


J speaks of rain only

P speaks of subterranean springs as well


J speaks of Noah sacrificing at an altar

P would not have condoned a layman sacrificing


Differences Between the Mesopotamian and Biblical Versions

Moral dimension

Nature of God


Other Interpretations

  • The Flood Story
    as a (Re)Creation Story

  • In vino veritas

  • Tree of knowledge


Aspects of ANE Flood Myth

The details vary but there are certain repeated themes:

  1. One man is warned of the coming catastrophe and told how to save himself and his family or friends from destruction

  2. The world is depopulated except for these few survivors

  3. Animals also play a part -- they must also be saved -- they provide warning or help

  4. The flood has a moral dimension -- brought about by man's sinfulness

from: Arthur Custance


Comparison of flood myths:

Culture Hero Warned by


Sumerian Ziusudra Enki

Babylonian Utnapishtim Ea

Hindu Manu Vishnu's Avatar

Hebrew Noah God

Persian Yima Ahura Mazda


Science and the Flood

“…if all the water came down in forty days and drowned all the mountains of the world, that would require the rain to come down at about eleven and a half feet per hour.”

"... most of the world's volcanic activity, sea-floor spreading, mountain-building and continent-splitting was supposed to have occurred at this time as well, filling the seas with additional huge volumes of rock, ash, and noxious gases. Undersea volcanoes usually decimate all life in the surrounding area, and their extent had to be global during this terrible year. The earth's pre-diluvian surface would thus have been scoured clean, and forests, multi-ton boulders and the debris of civilization hurtled about like missiles. Finally, this tremendous explosion of energy would have transformed the seas into a boiling cauldron in which no life could possibly survive."

Moore calculates that the temperature of the oceans would have been increased by at least 2700 C.

William Ryan and Walter Pitman

Noah’s Flood

The New Scientific Discoveries


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