Europeenses

Flood myths

“One day it chanced that the supreme god Pramzimas was looking out of a window of his heavenly house, and surveying the world from this coign of vantage he could see nothing but war and injustice among mankind. The sight so vexed his righteous soul that he sent two giants, Wandu and Wejas, down to the sinful earth to destroy it. Now the two giants were no other than Water and Wind, and they laid about them with such hearty good will, that after twenty nights and twenty days there was very little of the world left standing.

The deity now looked out of the window again to see how things were progressing, and, as good luck would have it, he was eating nuts at the time. As he did so, he threw down the shells, and one of them happened to fall on the top of the highest mountain, where animals and a few pairs of human beings had sought refuge from the flood. The nutshell came, in the truest sense of the word, as a godsend; everybody clambered into it, and floated about on the surface of the far-spreading inundation. At this critical juncture the deity looked out of the window for the third time, and, his wrath being now abated, he gave orders for the wind to fall and the water to subside. So the remnant of mankind were saved, and they dispersed over the earth. Only a single couple remained on the spot, and from them the Lithuanians are descended. But they were old and naturally a good deal put out by their recent experience ; so to comfort them God sent the rainbow, which advised them to jump over the bones of the earth nine times. The aged couple did as they were bid ; nine times they jumped, and nine other couples sprang up in consequence, the ancestors of the nine Lithuanian tribes.”

( Sir James George Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion Legend and Law, Volume 1 ( London: MacMillan and Co, 1918), 176.)

delugeThe flooding of Doggerland calls to mind the widespread occurrence of flood myths among Eurasian and American cultures.  The version with which Westerners are most familiar is that of Noah in Genesis 6-9, in which Noah builds an ark after God warns him that He will destroy the earth.  The story of Noah has much in common with the earlier Sumerian and Babylonian flood myths in which respectively Enlil warns Ziudsura or Enki warns Atrahasis to build an ark to escape the coming devastation. The Greek myth of Deucalion contains similar elements with the ark being replaced by a chest and the messenger being Deucalion’s own father, Prometheus. The Lithuanian flood myth repeated above again contains the standard motifs of the flood myth; an angry and vengeful deity, the destruction of a disobedient original population, and the survival of a select few to repopulate a world reborn.

The historicity of a great flood remains a topic of debate today, particularly among creationists and the more literal Christian sects who seek evidence of a flood, or of the remains of Noah’s ark, to confirm their views on the historical accuracy of the Bible. The geological record firmly discountenances any suggestion that a flood of the scale described in Genesis happened. Yet the flood myth is a common motif in the folklore of peoples all over the world, raising the question whether the myths are based on fact rather than representing the commonly featured properties of water as an instrument of purification and expiation in many belief systems.

The rise in sea level during the Mesolithic that saw Doggerland overwhelmed by the seas between 12,000 and 5,000 BC was responsible for inundating low lying areas of land around the world, including much of the modern day Persian Gulf. Evidence from the mapping of Doggerland suggests that at times the rising sea levels would have been noticeable within a generation. Presumably information about these changes would have been passed on between generations, initially as useful information and perhaps over time becoming part of the tradition of the peoples inhabiting the area.

Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s work on oral tradition in the 1930’s demonstrated that oral tradition allows for the long-term storing and transmission of knowledge and ideas in non-literate societies. In 1934 Parry transcribed a sixty year old illiterate Serbian bard extemporizing a 12,000 line poem, equivalent to the length of the Odyssey (321 pages long in the current Penguin Classics edition), while Russian scholars have reported equally impressive feats of memory and improvisation among Uzbek and Kyrgyz bards.  Though Parry and Lord were interested in the works of Homer and the roots of the written Homeric poems in an older oral tradition, their work demonstrates the viability of oral traditions to preserve and disseminate information over many generations.

Interestingly the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the sources for the Babylonian version of the great flood, are works with deep roots in the oral tradition. Given that fragments of historical fact may be transmitted over long periods of time, albeit with the loss of context and meaning, it is possible, if unlikely, that the Eurasian flood myths represent an oral history handed down through the generations in pre-literate societies that record in an extremely remote form events that would have been a catastrophic loss of fertile habitat for the contemporary Mesolithic populations.

This is not to say that all flood myths have ancient origins, or even represent actual events. As Frazer (Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, 360) points out, several cultures have flood myths which appear to be based on the observation of marine fossils found on mountains or other places far from current shorelines. These ‘myths of observation’ would seem to be based on the false assumption that sea levels must have been higher than contemporary land features.

Other flood myths would appear to be based on localized events that had a devastating effect on landscapes and populations. The flooding of the Huang He (Yellow River) in 1931 completely inundated 88,000 square kilometres of land leaving 80 million people homeless and a death toll from the flood and ensuing disease and famine ranging from 850,000 to 4,000,000. Human settlement patterns have long followed waterways and shorelines and we can easily posit devastating natural disasters that resonated down the generations until their origins were lost in myth.

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This entry was posted on December 5, 2013 by in Mythology and tagged , , .
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