“And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.” ~Book of Genesis
We all know what happens after that. The wickedness of the world is washed away in a deluge of planetary proportions, and only Noah, his family and the two of each unclean animal along with seven of every clean animal (but oddly, no plants) are saved to repopulate the world. Of all the mythological motifs that circle the Earth and run like a string through human history, none is told with more regularity and consistency than the story of the flood.
Myth is analyzed by different methods, and often not consistently with just one method. Until the 20th century, the Judeo-Christian flood myth was often regarded as historical truth; some Christian archeologists are still searching Mt. Ararat for the remains of Noah’s Ark. Literal interpretations of myth tend to be put forth by believers in a particular religion, and, consequently, are inconsistent insomuch as they dismiss all myths except their own as pure fantasy. The 20th century saw the rise of symbolic interpretation of myth, drawing from the works of Freud and Jung. A few mythologists have suggested that myth was a form of proto-science: a way of categorizing and explaining the natural world.
To what extent myth served as proto-science is not our present concern; however, with the prevalence of astronomical information—particularly the math of the precession of the equinoxes—included in myths as far separated as Scandinavia and the Indian subcontinent, and ranging as far back in time as the written record exists, we must consider that myth has served as at least a mnemonic device for ancient man’s scientific information.
While symbolic interpretation does a wonderful job of bringing the motifs of disparate mythologies together into an explainable whole, it falls short in a few instances. The inclusion of astronomical data would seem to have little to do with Jungian archetypes. And i have read no symbolic interpretation of the flood myths that strikes me as robust enough to account for the story being so widespread and consistent through time and across cultures. To say that the deluge represents cleansing is no more than a repetition of the myths themselves, which all claim that the flood was unleashed to punish humans.
Combining interpretations to suit a scholar’s needs is a popular method of mythological explanation. For example, the antediluvian king list of Sumer is regularly regarded as fantasy, while the list of kings post-deluge is considered historical fact. Flood stories are often interpreted in semi-literal fashion. That is, the story of the flood is accepted as historical truth, but it must have been a local flood inflated by the literary imagination of the population. This explanation strikes me as particularly weak. We have ancient people capable of making precise records of the heavens, building fantastic architecture and establishing complex social orders, who are also so intellectually primitive as to mistake a flooding river for a world-encompassing deluge.
We can be sure that no mythological record of the flood depicts literal, historical fact, if for no other reason than that so many of them, e.g. the story of Noah, build on and borrow from earlier traditions. The Vedas depict a deluge, but it would strain the bounds of credibility to believe that Manu and the Seven Sages were carried to such a height that they tethered their ship to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. Similarly, we might question how Noah’s Ark was capable of holding (and feeding) all the animals of the planet, and that Noah was able to repopulate the Earth with animals but without plants. A strict, literal interpretation of the flood myths fails by way of the devil in the details.
But can we wholly discount the basis of the stories because of literary embellishments that have accrued over the course of thousands of years?
Common to most, if not all, of the flood myths is the idea that the antediluvian world was populated by great beings. Genesis uses the terms “giants” and “mighty men”. From Sumerian texts and the Vedas we hear of a group called “the Seven Sages”. These antediluvians are often referred to as “gods”, but we would be unwise to assume that the ancients were operating under the same conception of god(s) that we use. The line between godliness and mortal man as solid and impenetrable is a fairly recent construct. Consider also the common theme that the great man/men who survived the deluge bequeathed the arts of civilization to humanity. Manu explicitly saved the cultivated plants and introduced agriculture. Or more precisely, re-introduced agriculture if we take the Vedas at their word, because the agricultural cornucopia must have predated the deluge for Manu to be able to have saved it for the benefit of his fellow men.
To continue we must cross the intersection of archeology and mythology, a hazardous journey in the best of times. In what appears to be a fantastic moment in human history, the arts of civilization spring forth, fully formed in Mesopotamia. Classically, this is considered to have occurred c. 4,500 BCE. That date, however, does not stand the evidence of modern archeology. The great sites of Sumer have revealed themselves to be several thousands of years older than the dates most of us learned in school. Jericho shows signs of settlement going back 10,000 years. And anything written about ancient, Indian history before 1995 is hopelessly out of date. The sites of the Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization were not even discovered until the 1970’s, and research there is ongoing, though it seems to have put to rest the well-worn story of an Aryan invasion. (or even the idea of the Aryans)
Consider that fully modern humans have populated the planet for 40,000 years. Yet we assume that very little happened for the majority of that time in terms of social, cultural and technological evolution. And then one day, towards the end of that history, everything happened almost at once. Perhaps we give our ancestors too little credit. Granted, we prefer to not hazard speculative guesses without evidence, and the hard evidence we possess says very little about time periods before c. 5,000 BCE.
What if we are missing, or misinterpreting, information? We have found the five great antediluvian cities recorded in the Sumerian flood myth (of which we have only a partial record). What we’ve unearthed is at odds with their supposed splendor; ergo their greatness must be a figment of mythological imagination. Imagine 7,000 plus years into the future. Climate change has reduced the polar ice caps to nothing, raising sea levels. The reduced weight at the poles has changed the lithosphere, causing subsidence of some land masses, violent earth quakes, volcanic activity, etc. The records of our civilization are mostly lost and the remainder is hopelessly confused. Future archeologists have scant, but tantalizing, records of a great city called London that was supposed to exist on an island off the coast of Europe. No such island exists. Digs in what we call Ontario reveal a small city called London. With the evidence at hand, these archeologists conclude that our great London was, in fact, a myth.*
Would these future archeologists be correct in their assumption? Can we firmly conclude that our ancestors would not have named a new city after an older, greater city? If we accept our present conclusion because we base it on what we know rather than what we don’t know, aren’t we forced to admit that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know? Can we simply discount a long tradition spoken of by the ancients that they were heirs to civilization rather than its creators because we don’t have any evidence beyond their words?
We know, based on geological fact, that the world we inhabit is not static and that it has gone through great changes during the time period of modern humans. Yet we assume that humans have lived only in the places we know today, or at least that civilization occurred only in the few places where we’ve found it. Can we discount the possibility that our “pre-civilized” ancestors might have lived in places lost to the sea since the end of the last ice age? Can we be sure that those possible locations did not see the developments we consider to be the hallmarks of civilization?
And if the above questions have any merit, we cannot discount the flood myths as mere imagination. Perhaps the most common of shared, mythological motifs rests on a kernel of truth passed down to us from before our conception of human history. Where antediluvian civilization might have arisen and what it might have looked like can only be speculation based on mythological clues. How it might have been destroyed is a question for geology and climatology. But the question is there to be answered if we’re willing to ask it.
*This is in no way intended to be a prediction of climate change or its effects, but merely a thought experiment.