Flood Legends From Around the World
"In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights." - Genesis 7:11-12
In Genesis 6-8, the Bible describes a flood of global proportions. The fountains of the great deep exploded out of the ground. Something happened to that great firmament that God created to divide the waters above from the waters below, and water came crashing down on the earth after hundreds of years of dew watering the earth without the help of rain. During the Flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and the waters rose high enough to cover the tops of the mountains (however tall they were at that time). It was a devastating, catastrophic event that destroyed all the land-dwelling creatures on the planet, except for those protected on the ark that Noah built.
The Bible is not alone. Around the world, legends can be found of a global flood. Many of the details are different, but the essential elements tend to be there; a massive flood wiped out everybody but a particular righteous man. Often boats and animals are involved. The use of animals and birds to check the receding of the waters, and the violence of the flood are common themes.
The most famous flood story outside of the Bible is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, discovered in the ruins of Asurbanipal's library in Nineveh. Gilgamesh may have actually been a real person; he is listed in the Sumerian King List in the first dynasty of Uruk (and apparently reigned for 126 years).
In Tablet 11, after a variety of adventures, Gilgamesh meets a man named Utnapishtim who survived the Great Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh his story, which parallels the Biblical account in many ways. There are differences, of course. In Gilgamesh, multiple gods are involved, the flood lasted just a week, and the boat landed on Mount Nisir rather than in the mountains of Ararat. However, there are a significant number of details that are the same between the two accounts. In the Gilgamesh epic, Utnapishtim describes how he was ordered to build a large boat, which he coated with pitch and into which he brought "the seed of life of everything." The flood wiped out everybody but righteous Utnapishtim and his family, and while they waited for the waters to drain away, he sent out a dove, a swallow, and then a raven to check for land. Later, Utnapishtim made a sacrifice.
Missionaries made their way to the Biami people of Papua New Guinea in the late 20th century and discovered that this cannibalistic people had Creation and Flood myths already in their culture. While their Creation myth was fairly vague, their Flood myth had many similarities to the Biblical account:
The Biami tell about a great flood that came and killed everybody on the earth except for their ancestors. There is no boat in the story, but the Biami ancestors climbed into a Gobia Tree, and they took with them all their animals and the things they needed for planting crops. Once the waters receded, they came down and repopulated the land. Until the missionaries came, the Biami did not know that other people existed on the earth aside from themselves and the tribes around them.
Andaman Islands: After the British arrived on the Andaman Islands, a place isolated throughout much of known history, they found people who spoke strains of very old Asian languages. In the local mythology, a flood came upon the earth as a result of the wickedness of humanity. According to the myth, the Creator Puluga found that humankind grew disobedient, and he sent a flood that covered the whole land. Only two men and two women in a canoe were saved from the flood. When the waters sank, they landed. Then Puluga recreated the birds and animals, and created a fire in the damp world.
India: In the Hindu flood myth, a man named Manu met a fish that warned him that a great flood was coming. The fish asked Manu to protect him in a clay jar and then a pond until the fish grew large enough to be safe in the ocean. In return, the fish would save him from the flood. Manu built a boat like the fish told him to. When the fish was fully grown, a great big ghasha, Manu took him down to the ocean. Then he got into his ship. When the flood came, the ghasha pulled him to a mountain where Manu was able to slowly walk down as the flood waters receded.
North America: The Chippewa tribe have a story in which a hero, Nanabozho, followed the Great Serpent to the deep lake where it had dragged and killed Nanabozho's cousin. There the Great Serpent lived with all his evil spirits. In order to kill the Serpent, Nanabozho told the sun to shine on the lake and make it boil so that the Serpent would come out. After the Serpent emerged, Nanabozho shot him and fatally wounded him. Before he died, however, the Serpent caused the waters of the lake to boil out and flood the land.
"Madly the flood rolled over the land, over the tracks of Nanabozho, carrying with it rocks and trees."
Nanabozho and other men, women and animals climbed to the tallest mountain, where Nanabozho built a raft from timber. The people and animals on the raft watched even the tallest mountains disappear. Then they floated there until slowly the mountains and hills began to appear again as the waters receded.
The Ottawa tribe tell of the prophet Kwi-wi-sens Nenaw-bo-zhoo, whose name means, "the greatest clown-boy in the world." The prophet sought revenge on the sea-god for killing his beautiful wolf-dog. He waited until the god came on land, and then shot him through the heart. In revenge, water monsters sent mountains of water after him "which swept down the forests like grass before the whirlwind." According to the account:
He continued to flee before the raging flood, but could find no dry land. In sore despair he then called upon the God of Heaven to save him, when there appeared before him a great canoe, in which were pairs of all kinds of land-beasts and birds, being rowed by a most beautiful maiden, who let down a rope and drew him up into the boat. The flood raged on; but, though mountains of water were continually being hurled after the prophet, he was safe.
After a time, the prophet sent a beaver to swim down and check and see how deep the waters were. The beaver nearly drowned. Then he sent a muskrat, and it nearly drowned, but it brought back a handful of dirt. The prophet tied that ball of earth to the raven and sent it to fly over the waters to make them recede. When the world dried, the prophet and the beautiful woman repopulated the earth.
One Choctaw tribe version of the Flood story tells about Oklatabashih (People's mourner), who lived in the distant past. The Great Spirit grieved because the people of earth had become so wicked. He told Oklatabashih to build a large boat and take on it his family and one male and one female animal of all the animals on earth. Oklatabashih collected all the animals, except for some particularly quick birds, and then went on the boat. It rained for a long time and thousands of animals and people died, but there were still groups found here and there. Then a raging wall of waters crashed down on those that were left and killed everybody except for Oklatabashih and those in the boat. The boat floated safely for many moons. Oklatabashih sent out a dove, which returned with grass in its beak. Finally, the waters receded and those on the boat went out to repopulate the earth.
This story also includes stories about why the dove coos and how those three quick birds developed forked tails because of trying to keep above the dancing waves. These birds delighted the Great Spirit and were made the guardians of the red men.
The Indians of Brazil had various versions of a Flood legend when they were discovered by Europeans. In the story, only two brothers and their wives survived a global flood that destroyed everybody else on earth. In some accounts the brothers survive by climbing the tallest tree on the top of the tallest mountain. In others, they rode on a canoe.
The Frenchman André Thevet related a story by the Indians about Cape Frio in the 16th Century. The Indians told about a great medicine-man named Sommay who had two sons called Tamendonare and Ariconte. Tamendonare was the righteous brother who took care of his wife and children and worked the ground. Ariconte just wanted to subdue the people around him, including his brother. One day, during an argument over Ariconte's violence and pride, the village they lived in was transported to the sky. The brothers remained on the earth. Then Tamendonare stamped the earth and a great fountain of water sprang out and shot higher than the hills. The water continued to spout until it covered the whole earth. The two brothers climbed the trees on the tallest mountains and pulled their wives up with them, and were therefore the only ones to survive the great flood.
After the Tower of Babel incident, humanity spread across the face of the earth and took the memory of their ancestor Noah's great escape with them. There are certainly stories about local floods among tribes – floods that took place long after The Deluge. However, the theme of a massive flood that destroyed all living things can be found among tribes and peoples all over the world.
The Bible's version of the story, however, goes into the greatest detail. It describes the dimensions of the ark, names of the survivors' descendants for several generations, and gives dates. It gives a constant notation of the events' dates. These are facts that cannot be easily dismissed.
"And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated. And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen." - Genesis 8:3-5