THE RELATIONSHIP AND EXISTENCE
OF THE GREAT FLOOD AND A HIGHER BEING
The Great Flood myth—it is ever-present in society. Every other culture has one version or another that reflects their particular belief. Its pervasiveness has generated movies, books, debates, and a search for the Jewish faith’s Noah’s ark, the vehicle that saved humanity. But was Noah—or any of his counterparts: the older Utnapishtim of Babylon, Manu of India, Bergelmir of Norway, or Yu of China—ever real? Did the Flood happen? Some scholars say it did. Others say the myth is merely symbolic of death and resurrection. The truth is, the myth is too complex for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ There are strong arguments supporting both positions, but the existence of the Flood hinges on the success of ontological arguments, which have an important but faulty assumption that He exists.
The universality of the existence of the myth dictates that it did happen. David Leeming’s A Dictionary of Creation Myths lists five heroes of Flood myths from the world over: Utnapishtim (Babylonian), Ziusudra (Sumerian), Noah (Hebrew), Manu (Indian, and Deucalion (Greek and Roman). The prevalent pattern of the story goes that the gods (or the god), after setting human beings in the world and watching them become wicked, loud, and evil, have become dissatisfied with them and have decided to destroy them. However, there is one man who does not deserve to die, so a god warns him. This man is then told to build a lifeboat and to save his family and whatever animals and seeds he can. Sometimes the dimensions of the ark are given. The length of the storm that drowns the world varies from seven to one hundred and fifty days, during which everything outside the boat dies. After the storm, the animals familiar to the culture are sent to look for land three times, the third whence the animal does not return. It has found land to rest on. After disembarkation, a sacrifice is made to the god for saving the family and everything else. More often than not, the new race of humanity comes from the saved couples. Every other detail varies.
Some differences between versions of the story are evident. Manu of the Indian myth, according to Rachel Storm’s Indian Mythology, is saved by a fish that he had saved, called Matsya. It warns him of a flood to come, and Manu prepares for it (but the fish tows him to safety during the flood anyway). Matsya turns out to be Vishnu, one of the more powerful gods of the Hindu religion. The Talk.Origins Archive lists that in the Alaskan myth, the animals that were sent to look for land were not avian. Instead, they were the muskrat, the beaver, and the fox. In Stuart Gordon’s re-telling in The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, Odin, Vili, and Vé, the first three gods in Norse mythology, killed Ymir the Giant, the first being, whose blood became the Great Deluge. In Myths of China and Japan, by Donald A. Mackenzie, Nu Kwa of Chinese mythology warred against the gods to stop them from bringing the flood. All the same, Yu, according to Rachel Storm’s Asian Mythology: Myths of China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, in order to contain the flood, built a drainage system that took thirteen years to complete. Despite these differences, however, the Great Deluge is one of the more common stories in every culture.
One might argue that just because the myth is universal does not mean that it happened to everybody in the world all at the same time. It is likely that the stories are similar because they all come from one source. Mackenzie suggests “culture mixing” to explain its existence in many cultures (4). In the case between Egypt and China, Egypt acquired an agrarian way of living in which they were able to produce surplus. Surplus means trading. However, “not only the seeds and agricultural implements were passed along, but the ceremonies, and religious beliefs connected with the agricultural mode of life in the area of origin” (9). Egyptians did not pass on just their products, but also pieces of their belief system to anyone they came in contact with, like the Chinese. Similarities between the two cultures’ faith systems exist because of trading. Other agrarian societies traded with each other, and so the same happened with their mythologies and beliefs. The Great Deluge was one of those mythologies that they passed on.
One may argue that not all cultures are so easy to influence, but, while it is true, this argument does not work against the Great Flood. The goods and beliefs being traded must have some significance or familiarity to the other culture in order for the people to incorporate them into their culture. The Flood has significance to a lot of cultures. Practically all of the ancient civilizations started beside a body of water—the Egyptians of the Nile, the Babylonians in between the Euphrates and Tigris, and the Chinese on the Yangtze River are some examples. Flooding must be familiar to any one of these and other cultures, especially since it was at least a yearly occurrence when the winter ice melted. Death from drowning has been familiar to them since prehistoric times. It is a basic story of survival.
Oral history supports the existence of many catastrophes even though they cannot point to a single source. Immanuel Velikovsky, a historian-scientist of the century, lists in Worlds in Collision the ancient civilizations in Greece, Persia, India, China, Hawaii, the Polynesian Islands, and North America (the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations) as having kept a history (oral, written, and religious) of different “world ages” (29-33). The number of worlds varies from five to nine; each is bookended by a catastrophe, such as an inundation or combustion. It is interesting to note, while reading the section “The World Ages,” that the idea of “world ages” is so widespread. Once again, “culture mixing” may have a hand at explaining this. It is also possible, even though Velikovsky did not hypothesize so, that the myth of the Great Deluge derives from one of the catastrophes, each culture according to what they experienced. The problem with this hypothesis, however, is that it leaves more floods than can be accounted for in history.
However, there could still be just one source that the Myth originated from. Paley’s watch supports this argument. William Paley, an eighteenth century philosopher and clergy from England, wrote his ontological argument in “Natural Theology” (a selection of which is in Fifty Readings in Philosophy by Donald C. Abel). In it, Paley hypothesizes that if he were to find a rock in a desert, he would not ask where it came from for a rock has always belonged in a desert. However, if he found a watch (representing all of God’s creations) instead, he would begin to wonder how the watch came to be there. If it came to exist there through another watch, and that watch from another watch, this line of reproduction may go on forever, and it would not answer who made the first watch. Someone or something intelligent with the purpose of the object in mind must have made the first one. Similarly, even though oral and written history passed on the Deluge, they cannot account for its origin. The Flood myth still needs a source.
Hard evidence can be provided that the Flood occurred around 7000 BC. In a Current Science article, geologists William B. F. Ryan (also credited as Bill Ryan) and Walter C. Pitman III explain how the Biblical flood refers to the making of the Black Sea. The end of the Ice Age affected the rising of the waters in the Mediterranean Sea, which was pushing on an earthen dam that separated it from a lake. The water from the Mediterranean eventually forced through the dam, and the saltwater overflowed into the lake, thereby creating the Black Sea. The flooding happened quickly, widening the lake by as much as a mile a day. A New York Times article encompassing the subject reported that a team of scientists has found a settlement underneath the Black Sea, quite possibly the same one that the people fled because of the flooding. The storm associated with the Flood myths from this area could be the large amount of water that evaporated due to the new sun.
Despite the oral history of the world ages and the discovery of the submerged Black Sea settlement, some will argue that the Flood is a story of symbolism. How could one man predict the Flood without any sort of technology in order to save himself and his family? If he could do it, why were the others who mocked him not able to? They must have had the same methods for predicting weather. Because of these arguments, one must consider that the Flood is really a symbol of the transition from this life to the next. Gordon writes,
One account derives ‘arc’ [like Noah’s ark] from Latin arca (‘a chest’), another from the Hindu argha (‘crescent’, or ‘arc of a circle’). Harding suggests that the ark is a moon boat and that ‘Noah’ is from Nuah, a Babylonian moon goddess. While accepting that Flood-myth may refer to a genuine event, as recorded worldwide, she says the ark or ‘moon boat’ refers to psychological events in which living men are ferried from one world to another. Thus, Egyptian Osiris ferries dead initiates to the Otherworld, Charon ferries dead over the Styx and King Arthur is ferried to Avalon. (169)
Religious beliefs concerning the moon state that the moon descends “for three nights to the underworld, during this period sending storm, flood, and death” (Gordon 316). If the Flood myth did come from a religion based on the moon, then the moon’s descent to the Underworld explains how the waters rise in a high tide, causing flood, and its new phase the low tides. The flood becomes the medium between this life and the next. In this light, the water element represents death and rebirth. (Indeed, in most mythologies, a large body of water is the chaos from which life comes.)
If the Flood myth is really a story of rebirth, then perhaps the moral of the story is that faith in this lifetime results in rewards in the next lifetime. A god has already warned the main character of the story of the coming flood, which represents imminent death. It is up to him to do what he can with his life: either to listen, accept it then prepare for it, or ignore it then live like nothing will happen. The focus of the flood myth is the reward that comes after the flood—that is, beyond death. Noah, in particular, was able to receive God’s new lands and create new generations of devoted men because of his faith. Within this interpretation of the myth, the flood does not need to exist at all! Any catastrophe will do since it is merely symbolic of a greater force beyond a human being.
These arguments, however, do not deny the flood myth, so a closer analysis is needed. To this point, it is acknowledged that ancient civilizations had their own versions of the great flood myth because they experienced frequent flooding—but what makes the one Great Flood special? All but the most prevalent factor has been explained: the Higher Being. (One must point out that there are versions of the myth in which no god warns the people. In the Norse myth, the gods who killed the giant Ymir did not give any warnings to Bergelmir (the Noah equivalent of the story). In the book Daughters of Copper Woman (a book of stories from the Pacific northwest natives), by Anne Cameron, the flood that occurred was because a Thunderbird wept, and when he weeps, a great storm falls. No one warned the people, but Copper Woman, along with her sisters1, still built the house to float, knowing that the storm will bring a flood. In these two mythologies, Bergelmir and Copper Woman are already like gods. The knowledge of the flood turns them into higher beings, in comparison to the other ordinary human characters that had to be told of it.)
A good majority of the myths have a Higher Being, however, and the survival of everything on this world is attributed to Him. Whether He exists or not is beyond the scope of this topic. It depends entirely on a person’s faith, for just as there are many Floods, there are as many Gods. The question of whether the Flood existed or not depends on His existence because He defines the Flood. He made it happen and He was the common factor in all the myths. His role, however, can be minimized by referring to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung in The Basic Writings of C. G. Jung. The Higher Being—he termed Him ‘God’ in his writings—is present because “[w]ith civilized people, collective feelings are also bound up with certain collective ideas, such as for example the idea of God, [...]” (224). Early human beings used the intrinsic idea of God to explain things. The Deluge was an unexplainable mystery. However, if the argument of Paley’s watch is to be recalled, the idea of a God must have come from a real one. Then again, the one attack against ontological arguments is that they succeed only because they speak to the converted.
Ontological arguments, except for the add or more circular one, do not begin with “Does God exist or does He not?” They ask, “How can we prove that God exists?” This question is the first assumption. He exists. It is just a matter of using logic to back it up. It leads only the believer, not the dissenter, deeper into his faith. Ultimately, using ontological arguments to support the existence of the Flood would lead to an affirmative, assuming the question is, “How can we prove that the Deluge existed?” The search for physical evidence of Noah’s ark, like those being conducted in Mount Ararat, assumed that it is real, and perhaps facts are being twisted to fit the theory. It is harder to investigate “Did it happen or not?”
So did it happen? No one can answer that. It depends on whether the Higher Being exists or not because He is the one that let the Flood rise. It is impossible to prove or disprove His contribution to the myth. Many great floods existed around many ancient civilizations. The Chinese great flood could be a memory of the Yangtze River. The Jewish’s is perhaps the Black Sea. The Egyptian myth would almost certainly be the Nile. The North American version could be the melting of the icebergs from the North. It is hard to answer yes or no. “Yes” would mean that each version happened in several bodies of water along with several other gods. The universality of the myth would be taken away. ‘No,’ on the other hand, would ignore the existence of a Higher Being, and this would be to take away the most significant part of the myth. One can only conclude that the Great Flood has to exist according to one’s belief and faith.
Cameron, Anne. “Qolus the Changeable.” Daughters of Copper Woman. York University course kit for HUMA 1210, Fall 2003.
Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline Book Publishing PLC, 2003.
Isaak, Mark. “Flood Stories from Around the World.” The Talk.Origins Archive. 2 Sep. 2002: 47. 5 Oct. 2004. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html.
Jung, C. G. The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung. Ed. Violet S. deLaszlo. New York: Modern Library, 1959.
Leary, Warren. “Found: Possible Pre-Flood Artifacts.” New York Times. 13 Sep 2000: A4.
Leeming, David. A Dictionary of Creation Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Mackenzie, Donald A. Myths of China and Japan. New York: Gramercy Books, 1994.
Paley, William. “Natural Theology.” Fifty Readings in Philosophy. By Donald C. Abel. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Storm, Rachel. Asian Mythology: Myths and Legends of China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. New York: Lorenz Books, 2000.
Storm, Rachel. Indian Mythology: Myths and Legends of India, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. New York: Lorenz Books, 2000.
Velikovsky, Immanuel. Worlds in Collision. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1950.
Westrup, Hugh. “The Great Flood.” Current Science. 84.12 (1999): 4-5.
Essay was written on November 4, 2004.
Essay was written on November 4, 2004.