Flood Myths
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Basic Information

The tale of a world-spanning Deluge or Great Flood is one of the most popular and enduring myths, despite some obvious plotholes that are literally bigger than an ocean. Setting aside our skepticism for the sake of an interesting story, we can acknowledge that part of what makes it so intriguing and compelling is that the general framework of the story appears up and down the list of mythologies. Here’s a quick breakdown of the Flood Myth as told in the soggy corners of the globe:
(Note: the characters fulfilling the Noah role are bold to make them easier to spot.)

In Genesis, Yahweh decides to wipe all the sinners and start over. He tells Noah to build an Ark and put a mated pair of each species in it. He does so. Yahweh makes it rain for 40 days and floods the world. Afterward, he promises never to do this again, and creates the rainbow as reminder of his oath. In exchange for that promise Noah vows that mankind will never drink the blood of animals.

Mesopotamian Mythology has nine similar but slightly different versions. In all of them, the storm god Enlil decides mankind is too noisy, and needs to die. First he sends plagues, then a drought, and lastly a flood. One human, named Utnapishtim, Atrahasis, or Ziusudra, finds out, and builds a boat. Sometimes this is because Enki (the trickster god who created mankind) decides to warn one of his favorites. Other versions spell out that no one intentionally tipped off the human, he just happened to be eavesdropping on the gods and overheard about what was coming. It rains for 7 days straight. Humans were originally created when Enki carved them out of clay, so the flood doesn’t just drown people, it causes most humans to melt away into mud. Then the waters recede. In one version of the myth, Utnapishtim immediately offers a sacrifice to the gods, and is rewarded with immortality. In the other versions, there’s no reward other than being allowed to survive. Also entirely absent from the Mesopotamian versions is any sort of promise that they won’t just kill all humans again sometime later. Enlil’s a jerk (and a genocidal maniac) like that.

Greek Mythology tells us that Zeus had grown angry with the hubris of mankind. The triggering incident may have been when King Lycaon sacrificed his own son to Zeus. Other versions say it was punishment for mankinds generalized habits of war and violence. Either way, Prometheus learned of Zeus’ plan to flood the world and kill all humans, and didn’t like it. Prometheus was concerned because he had a half-human son, Deucalion. So he told Deucalion to build a giant chest and hide inside it with Pyrrha (his wife). It rained for 9 days and everyone else on earth drowned. After the storm ends, Deucalion and Pyrrha realized they weren’t up to the task of repopulating the traditional way, so they talked to the Titan Themis about it, and she helped them make new humans out of rock.

Hindu Mythology doesn’t blame the flood on any person or deity. A tiny fish named Matsya appears to Manu (the first human) and asks him to help the fish grow huge. Manu does this by making a series of larger fish tanks for the fish to grow into. Matsya is no ordinary fish: not only does he talk, and grow enormous, but he’s also got a horn. When Matsya is huge, it warns Manu that a big flood is going to destroy the world, and offers to repay his kindness by helping him survive. Manu gets a ship and ties it to Matsyu’s horn. The big fish guides him to a mountaintop that doesn’t quite get swallowed by the water. After the storm abates, Manu builds an altar, and performs sacrifices that bring life back to the world. It turns out Matsya was the fish-avatar of the god Vishnu.

Noah himself also shows up in the Celtic Mythology version. He refuses to provide space on his ark for Bith and Birren or their daughter Cessair, but either he or an idol that Cessair builds tells them they’ll survive if they get a ship of their own and flee westward. They crash in Ireland, and decide to settle there. An inter-related story tells of how Fintan mac Bóchra turns into a salmon to survive the flood.

In Norse Mythology it’s not flood water - it’s flood blood. Ymir was a giant so big that Midgard was formed from his dead body. He was slain by Odin, Vili and Vé. The gods were able to avoid it, but the blood flood drowned all the giants smaller than Ymir except for a Jotunn named Bergelmir and his wife, who climb aboard a coffin and survive the deluge. Other interpretations of the tale have Bergelmir laid down in a flour-bin by some unspecified entity, implying he was a baby giant. It makes him sound a bit more like Moses than Noah.

In Chinese Mythology, the flood happened in the reign of Emperor Yao, and lasted multiple generations. Instead of building a boat, the Count of Chong stole the Xirang (magical ever-expanding soil) from the gods to soak up the water. 9 years of flooding overwhelmed even the Xirang, so the Count was fired and the Emperor abdicated, but the Count’s son Yu the Great took over for them. Yu didn’t build a boat, either, but he did hire a Dragon, a giant turtle, and all the heroes of his era to dig a drainage plan that saved the day.

Native American Mythology is packed full of flood tales, but they are as varied as the tribes and nations themselves.
The Cree said the flood was caused by the Great Beaver. Wisagatcak built a raft to survive the beaver’s wrath, and that raft became the new land mass.
The Micmac legend blames the flood on the tears of the sun.
The Caddo legend puts the blame on men, the flood is punishment for the desecration of animals.
Michabo, the hero of the Algonquin version uses magic arrows to rebuild, and marries a muskrat to found the human race.
The Athabaska tale has the boat being built by The Raven, and the continent rebuilt by The Muskrat after the rain stops.

The Skeptical Eye

The stories have been told and retold for thousands of years. Details have merged and diverged over time, and later retellings have often indulged in syncretism. Amusingly, that these stories have similarities (which are often the result of storytellers intentionally referencing other bodies of myth) is often sited as “evidence” that it “must be true”. So let’s be clear: the consensus amongst the geologists and archaeologists of the world is that there was never a flood along the scale of the one in these myths.

Realistically, it’s probably more likely that a single simple reason explains why the Deluge idea has such staying power: Flash Floods are scary and memorable. For most of human history, most people spent their entire lives within a few miles of the place of their birth. A flood that washes away your town and drowns most of your community is naturally going to feel like it swallowed your entire world. Another, relatively popular theory is that a single large flood sometime early in human history (some suggest the inundation of the Mediterranean basin at the end of an ice age as the Atlantic broke through the Straits of Gibraltar) was remembered and dispersed around the planet by migration, with the survivors stories being embellished in the re-telling.

Ark-aeology

Adventurers, archaeologists, zealots, and conmen have launched numerous expeditions to find Noah’s Ark. The first such expedition dates to the 3rd Century. Rabbinic tradition states the Ark was looted thousands of years ago and the parts used in idol worship. There are some wacky conspiracy theories that state a tri-party government conspiracy is keeping it hidden. The United States, Turkey and Russia are supposedly cooperating to keep people away from the site where all three governments know the big boat (or it’s two broken halves) sit on a mountainside. And then there's the ancient astronauts / Chariots of the Gods? angle by Erich von Däniken and his ilk.

Here a partial list of places that various versions of the ark, boat, or chest are said to have washed up at:

And it may have been subsequently moved to Area 51, Warehouse 23, Dulce Base, etc.

The boat itself varies quite a bit from one tale to the next. Noah’s Ark was 3 stories tall, and built to exacting specifications with important numerological meaning. Utnapishtim’s boat (called the Preserver of Life) is 7-stories tall, and built along the lines of a submarine. It’s water-tight and with a sealed hatch and no windows or external decks. Manu's boat is basically a narwhal-drawn water-chariot. Deucalion builds a treasure chest, not a ship, and Bergelmer just grabs the nearest box.

Sources

Bibliography

Game and Story Use

  • The hunt for the Ark is a great pulp genre quest. Conspiracies to hide the mythic truth from the sheeple are campy and fun, and that just sweetens the plot.
    • The notion that exposed lumber is surviving 4,000+ years of weathering is almost as fanciful as the notion that USA, Turkey, USSR (this conspiracy goes all the way back to Leon Trotsky) and modern Russian Federation would all play nice enough to conceal together the existence of some wooden ruins on a cliff for the past hundred years. But hey, this is arcanawiki, and that kind of craziness is perfect for gaming.
    • Mountain-climbing in war-torn nation in a race against some nefarious conspiratorial faction? Sign me up to play in that.
    • You could have some fun by finding the wrong boat. Say, searching on Ararat for Noah's Ark and instead finding Bergelmer's giant-coffin.
  • That said, be prepared for a bunch of uncomfortable questions if your setting is otherwise logical and scientific but presents a relatively recent (geologically speaking) flood as proven indisputable fact. I’m going to throw a few at you so you have a chance to dream up your answers in advance of your players or readers surprising you with them:
    • Wouldn’t drastic levels of flooding just a few thousand years ago have left visible marks on every corner of the globe?
    • Where did all that water come from, and go to? Are we talking some sort of dimensional portal to offload the water? Did it drain into subterranean caverns, or evaporate and somehow reach escape velocity?
      • There’s actually an old apocryphal tradition that the flood waters came from Hell or Gehenna, and were boiling-hot. As if drowning isn’t bad enough. If they came from Hell, then I suppose that means they could drain off back into the Underworld when it was all over.
    • How did land-animal life spring back from the genetic bottleneck and more importantly, how do you fit all those animals in one tiny boat without them eating each other?
    • How did Noah (etc) safely collect samples of millions of species from all around the globe, some of them quite dangerous, and redistribute them to remote regions afterwards?
    • Did he also have fish tanks inside his ark? The changes to salinity levels with all that flooding would have been bad for a lot of aquatic species.
    • Are all the variants of the myth telling the same story of a single boat, or were there multiple arks in different regions? Which version(s) of the myth are closest to the real truth?
  • If your game is set in the Age of Myths, or just a really wicked age, the PCs might be told to “build an ark” by their patron deity or supernatural mentor.
    • If you’re struggling with how to make some consecutive boatwright crafting skill checks exciting enough to carry your entire plotline, don’t worry: chances are high that your players will decide to steal a submarine from the nearest naval base anyway.
      • If you want to guarantee this course of action, have the god who gives them the bad news be a trickster who values cleverness and mayhem over craftsmanship and work ethic.
  • In a fantasy game, you can have all kinds of fun figuring out what the local Flood myths tell you about the inhabitants.
    • Did the orcs steal a submarine from some dwarf artificier named kwalish, and crash it in the badlands where they now reside?
    • Are reptilians just so stubborn they refused to budge as the world flooded around them, and that’s why lizard men live in swamps to this day?
    • Dragons so strong because they had to fly above the clouds for 40 days and 40 nights. Before the flood, all races could breathe fire, but only the dragons avoided having their internal flames extinguished by the storm.
    • etc.
  • Another common theme in many of these stories is that people from before the Great Flood were different somehow from people that came after. Often the original people had much longer lifespans — we’re talking hundreds of years.“Antediluvian” means “before the Deluge”. A Time Abyss character may have been there and seen it all. Just about any of the flood-surviving characters mentioned earlier on this page would work well as an immortal hermit on some remote mountain-top.
    • In the old World of Darkness, the Antediluvians were ancient vampires, the "children" and "grandchildren" of Caine. Does a flood count as "running water" and make their (un)life very difficult, or were the really old vampires actually quite comfortable at the bottom of sea where the sun couldn't reach them? (Off the top of my head, I can't remember what the official answer on that was.) Noah's vow never to drink the blood of animals takes on an eerie deeper meaning in this vampiric context.
  • If you want to get really Von Daniken an ark-myth could actually be the result of (humanity) travelling from another planet - making the Ark a colony ship - prior to a technological collapse. The flood in this case may turn out to be some other kind of disaster entirely - either causing the original exodus or taking out the civilisation that had dispatched a fairly mundane settlement expedition. This is, essentially, an ancient astronauts plot.
    • This is fan theory for the ship-born migration of the Sithi in Tad William's Osten Ard novels - that the ships that brought them to Osten Ard did not travel by sea.
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