Noah and the Flood Myths
April 2, 2005
Since I started Sunday school at age 4, I loved mythology. I started to read mythology from Jewish and Greek cultures, and many others as I got older. It’s unusual that a kid at my age back then would be so interested in mythology. I think I liked it because of the idea of Gods and Goddesses, and their amazing powers. I still love it now. I decided to make it the topic of my major paper.
I wanted to choose a myth that many cultures have, something that everyone knows. After reviewing a lot of my mythology books, I decided the most reasonable myth was Noah’s Ark, or Deucalion and Pyrrha, a very similar Greek story. In other words, I decided to research the flood myths.
Many civilizations had their own version of flood myths, but some of the most popular ones are the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 7th century BCE, which is Mesopotamian; Noah and the Ark, the Hebrew version, written down around the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, and Deucalion and Pyrrha, the Greek version, recorded in 140 BCE.
There are many Native American versions; also Sumerian; Babylonian; Egyptian; Hindu; many from Europe; many from Africa; many from South America; Australasia and the far East.
To refresh your memory, or if you don’t know it, I will tell you the story of Noah and the Ark and then the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the Greco-Roman version.
Noah and the Flood is in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Here is the story: God was sorry that he had created people as they had become evil and cruel to one another. He decided to wipe all living things off the earth. Noah (who was 600 years old) was a good person, who “walked with God” so Noah was warned about what God was going to do. God told him to build an ark. He gave Noah a lot of dimensions and instructions on exactly how it should be built, including the number of rooms, and where the windows should be.
God said that soon he would bring a flood so powerful that everything on earth would die. He said he would make a covenant with Noah and his family. He instructed them to take two of every kind of animal onto the ark, and more of some kinds that would be used for sacrifices, and to take all the food that would be necessary for survival. God sent Noah, his family and the animals into the ark, helped seal the door, and started the rain seven days later.
The flood waters rose for 40 days. Every living thing on earth died, except those in the ark. After 150 days the rain stopped and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. Noah sent out a raven, and then a dove, but neither could find a place to land. Seven days later he tried again. This time the dove returned with an olive leaf, indicating that the land was almost dry. In another seven days, he sent out a dove that did not return, a sign that he could open the ark. He sacrificed many animals to God.
God made a covenant with Noah, involving the following agreements: Noah and his family should populate the earth. They should eat animals and grains, and only eat animals that were killed in a certain way. The humans were instructed not to kill others, and God agreed that he would never bring another flood to destroy the earth. A rainbow appeared in the sky, and it was a symbol of the covenant between them.
Noah tilled the earth and became the first person to plant grape vines. He made wine, and drank too much one day. He went into his tent and took off his clothes. His youngest son saw him, and told his two older brothers. They took a cloth, put it across their backs, walked backward into the tent so that they did not see their father, and covered him up.
When Noah awoke, he learned what had transpired, and became angry at his youngest son. He cursed him and said that he should be a slave to his brothers. Noah lived another 350 years and finally died when he was 950 years old.
The Greek version is called Deucalion and Pyrrha:
Zeus sent a flood to destroy the men of the Bronze Age. Prometheus advised his son Deucalion to build a chest. All other men perished except for a few who escaped to high mountains. The mountains in Thessaly were parted, and all the world beyond the Isthmus and Peloponnese was overwhelmed. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha (daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora), after floating in the chest for nine days and nights, landed on Parnassus. When the rains ceased, he sacrificed to Zeus. At the bidding of Zeus, he threw stones over his head; they became men, and the stones which Pyrrha threw became women.
The first race of people was completely destroyed because they were exceedingly wicked. The fountains of the deep opened, the rain fell in torrents, and the rivers and seas rose to cover the earth, killing all of them. Deucalion survived due to his prudence and piety and linked the first and second race of men. Onto a great ark he loaded his wives and children and all animals, two by two. The animals came to him, and by God’s help, remained friendly for the duration of the flood. The flood waters escaped down a chasm opened in Hierapolis.
In my paper, I will tell you about a scientific explanation of the flood referred to in these stories. Then I will explain why this story became so important to the Hebrew culture.
There happens to be a recent scientific exploration that supports the idea that the flood actually happened, but didn’t cover the whole world as the myths suggest. The scientists are Bill Ryan, an oceanographer, and Walter Pitman, a geographer. Early in his career, Bill Ryan had the opportunity to map out the bottom of the Bosporus Strait, leading to the Black Sea. When he saw what it looked like, it seemed to him as though the bottom was a canyon that had been carved out by something and continued well into the Black Sea itself. He found this very interesting, but did not know what could have caused it.
A couple of decades later, after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Russia, the Russians wanted to find out if the Black Sea was affected by it. The Americans helped with our sonar system and the Russians provided a research vessel, called the Aquanaut. They found a drowned coastline, and ancient beaches and river banks of what used to be a river. They concluded that this had been a coastal area of dry land. Only an abrupt flood of water could have preserved the sand dunes, which were in perfect shape.
Then, they decided to do some underwater core drilling, to see what kind of fossils were there. The top layer started out with normal saltwater animals, but then after a few layers, the fossils revealed fresh water animals. So obviously, the Black Sea had once been a freshwater lake. Through radio carbon dating, the scientists discovered that all of the freshwater mollusks found in the layers died at the same time. Therefore, the scientists concluded that something very brutal and sudden had killed all the marine life in the Black Sea.
In considering what could have happened, they reviewed their knowledge of the Ice Age and geology. The polar ice caps hold a lot of water and, at the end of the Ice Age, they started to melt, releasing tons of water into the oceans. Since the oceans are all connected, they all rose, inch by inch. The Mediterranean Sea is connected to the Atlantic Ocean, so it gained water too. The Mediterranean Sea rose so high, it began to overflow. A lot of the water from the Mediterranean Sea was directed to a barrier of land that was in front of the Black Sea, which then was a fresh water lake. This land was called the Bosporus. The water built up in front of the piece of land, and eventually broke it open, into what is now known as the Bosporus Strait, and turned the Black Sea into a salt water sea and connected it to the Mediterranean. This destroyed the marine life of the former freshwater lake.
According to Ryan and Pitman, “10 cubic miles of water poured through each day, 200 times what flows over Niagara Falls, enough to cover Manhattan Island each day to a depth of over half a mile.” They also estimated that you could hear the roar of the rushing water from 300 miles away, that the water would be moving at the speed of 50 miles per hour, that the Black Sea would be rising at about 6 inches per day, and that all the world’s oceans would have been lowered by a foot. They also estimate that this would have taken a period of 2 years and that 60,000 miles of land around the former freshwater lake became inundated.
Just because this flood happened, there’s no proof that this is related to the Noah Story. But this flood’s story had people in it also. Ryan and Pitman researched archaeological findings and put together evidence of an advanced civilization well before Mesopotamia, the supposed “cradle of civilization.” Another scientist, Robert Ballard, was brought in to help find underwater evidence of human life, like pieces of wood or stone tools. Ballard is the scientist who located the shipwreck of the Titanic. He used the same technology for this project and found wooden timbers crafted by people and stone tools that were highly polished and drilled carefully with holes. Pieces of ceramics and wooden tools were also found. These discoveries prove that a surprisingly advanced civilization must have been living around the Black Sea before the burst through.
Ryan and Pitman had to combine their knowledge with that of archaeologists to understand more about this civilization. Apparently, the inhabitants had an organized religion. Their main god was the Great Mother Goddess, who was the most powerful deity. Bull’s horns were found in many archaeological digs, representing masculinity.
Many different shaped tokens were also found, with symbols on them, and archaeologists figured out that the tokens represented different animals, and this suggests they kept track of domesticated animals as well as crops. These tokens, and their use for accounting, are a very early form of writing. They dated 5,000 years before Egyptian hieroglyphs, previously considered the earliest writing.
A main city was excavated by archaeologists in what is now known as Turkey. There were many different towns surrounding it. This was probably the center of an empire. The city had several thousand people in it. The homes were advanced and decorated. There was evidence that these people made bread, which was thought to have been developed much later. They wore woven clothes, made
basketry, and were the earliest found yet to have created pottery. Of great surprise, they were also good at working with metal.
These people and many people like them were the ones who experienced the flood, thought to have occurred around 5,600 BCE. Most of them had little or no warning, and lost their lives. But if some of them survived, they would need to bring with them some resources, such as a few animals and seeds to grow crops so that they could start a new life somewhere else. This is essentially what Noah did, but, according to the story, he had an ark to put everything in. Excavations had also shown that the people had boats that could hold cargo. Some scientists believe that certain people had warning of the flood because they could see the increasing strain on the Bosporus land bridge. They also believe that they may even have had evacuation boats waiting.
Where did everybody go? Through the study of language, writing, and religious practices, Ryan and Pitman traced the spread of people from the Black Sea area in all different directions. On the coastlines of many different land masses, similar megalithic (which means very, very big) monuments to the dead were found. Archeologists hypothesize that these were built by ancient peoples who fled the disaster and settled in far-flung places. They built them in memory of their ancestors who were lost in the flood. They all arrived by boat, hence their appearance only in coastal regions. Very similar constructions can be found on Crete, Malta, Tunisia, the Western Mediterranean islands, the Spanish and French coasts and the British Isles.
People started passing down the flood story orally and eventually wrote it down. They thought that the flood was worldwide because it seemed so gigantic to them. This is a plausible explanation of why so many different civilizations have similar flood stories.
As I said earlier, many cultures have a “flood story”. Some cultures have this story just to remember, and it has no other value to them. In the Jewish culture, this story was valued enough to make it into the big book (the Bible). Why do we value it so much when other cultures use it only as a historical record?
Every culture recorded this story in its own way. The Jewish culture added something that earlier versions of the flood stories didn’t have: a moral component. We typically have a moral for all of our Bible stories, but this moral is probably among the most fundamental. Aside from telling the events of the flood itself, the story has a lot more information.
The writers of the Bible believed in monotheism, a concept that wasn’t fully accepted at the time. Eventually, polytheism evolved into monotheism. In the Noah story, the only way not to have another “natural disaster” is to follow this God’s rules and please him/her. This may have been used by the writers of the Bible as a way to promote monotheism.
The writers of the Bible had two different perceptions of God, both of which ended up in the Noah story. One is commonly referred to as the J writer who wrote about the God referred to as Yahweh. In German, Yahweh is spelled with a J. The J God is very emotional, and says “If you don’t please me, I’m going to severely punish you.” He can be nice though, like when he saved Noah and shut the door of the ark for him. He is personal, vengeful, angry, passionate and appeased by sacrifice.
The P writer, or Priestly writer, promotes a version of God that is precise, and is very rule oriented. He says “Here are the rules. I will be watching, so don’t break them.” This God is dispassionate, logical, and focused on control and order. The parts of the story attributed to the P writer involve the dimensions of the ark, rules about sacrifices, rituals, and purity. The Hebrew priests felt that
people could only contact God through them. People had to have priests sacrifice animals to God for them. The P writer was attempting to reinforce the importance of priests in the culture.
Some writers believe that this myth acts as a social charter. A social charter is like a constitution for people. It lays out laws for people and sets guidelines for how they should live. For example, this myth promotes family and procreation. The writers of the Bible wanted a lot of people in their culture so they would grow and hopefully dominate the region. They put this message into the Noah story, and made it look like God commanded it.
It laid out a hierarchy for the Jewish culture, and some rules to follow. The writers of the Bible said that God had power over the people, and the people had power over the animals and the plants.
This myth also promotes worship of a certain kind. It lays out the rules of the sacrificial ritual system. This was very important to the priests of that time. They set out the rules of purity, and the foundations of Jewish dietary laws are also present in the Noah story.
Finally, the charter regulates human action in society and the world. It defines justice, family relationships, and what is considered right and wrong. In a less publicized part of the Noah story, values about drunkenness and family loyalty are also illustrated. After Noah’s drunken sleep, Noah praised his two loyal sons for covering him up and cursed his disloyal son for telling his brothers he was naked in the first place.
At the end of the flood, God makes a rainbow and tells Noah that the rainbow is a reminder that they have a covenant between them. God would help Noah as long as he still worshipped, sacrificed to him, and followed his rules. These rules were put into the already existing flood story by the writers of the Bible, but they made it more effective by promoting the idea that the rules had a divine origin.
In conclusion, I am amazed that a myth that I’ve read for years probably happened as I described. Before I wrote this paper, I didn’t know that there were 2 or even more writers of the Bible. I like the J version of God more than the P version, because it’s more interesting to read about him. He’s more active and powerful. The P writer was very focused on rules and sacrificing, so I don’t like him much. Back then, the writers of the bible were competing against each other for how their society should be. The two writers created a balance so that neither one prevailed. The writers of the Bible used the powers of god to get people to follow their ideas.
A related, very unfortunate event recently occurred. A big tsunami hit approximately 12 countries in the Indian Ocean. The people being flooded probably felt the same way the ancient Black Sea inhabitants felt when they were flooded by the Mediterranean overflow. Some of the people that just got hit by the tsunami and didn’t have radios or education might think this was a punishment from the god(s). A man in Sumatra was quoted by Newsweek Magazine as saying “This is punishment from the gods… because there is no justice, because our leaders are oppressive. They don’t care about the poor.” Others who are educated understood that the disaster was caused by an underwater earthquake.
Though this didn’t affect nearly as large an area as the Black Sea catastrophe, it was still a very rare disaster that took many lives. Even today, horrible natural events, similar to events of the past, can change the societies who experience them, and we will only know in the future how their survivors interpreted and recorded what happened to them.