“Forty days and forty nights I held my head and cried….”
-Muddy Waters ( American blues musician, 1913-1983)
We know the story, but here’s a quick review. God brings a flood on the earth, warning and saving only Noah and his family. The world is destroyed, in Hebrew, because of hamas: violence, thievery, injustice. Noah, his family, and seed pairs of all the creatures of the earth are saved to repopulate the earth. Noah and the other survivors are aboard the ark for for forty days and forty nights. The Talmud points out that this echoes the time it takes to grow a human child in the womb (40 weeks) and the time Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah; it is a time of death, transformation and rebirth. God makes a covenant with Noah that He will not again destroy the earth- a fortunate thing for us since the earth has been filled with hamas for much of the time between Noah and now.
Yoram Hazony, in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, argues that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) has to be understood as a form of reasoning through narrative. The Tanakh is not less philosophical than The Republic or The Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike those seminal texts of the Graeco-roman world, however, the Tanakh presents its arguments and reasonings by way of narratives. We can extend Yoram Hazony’s argument to the mythologies of the ancient world. By examining different constructions of the primordial flood, for instance, we can perceive arguments about what is important in life, about the structure of the cosmos, and about what we should value and how we should act. Arguably Flood narratives have a particular relevance for us today as we face the threat of ecological chaos.
What is truly incredible is the ubiquitous nature of flood myths in the ancient world- a search online finds stories from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, the Near East, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, ie, everywhere. Aside from the suggestion that human mythology remembers a primordial flood, reading these stories as history seems to miss the point. The narratives are educational tales. Here I will look at those of India and of Indigenous Western Canada (where I live), as these flood narratives form interesting and enlightening contrasts to the Biblical one.
Flood myths from India are manifold and intriguing. The hero of the flood myths is Manu, who in some versions is simply an ancient man, and in some versions is more of a demi-god, a quasi-divine being born of the gods or the primordial sages. Manu is asked by a small fish to protect him against the bigger fishes and he does. He moves the fish to bigger and bigger bodies of water until the fish is very large. The fish then tells Manu that a flood is coming to destroy the earth. In what are apparently the oldest versions no reason is given for the flood- it is a natural occurrence or it is connected to the end of the yuga, the cosmic age. In later versions, possibly dating from after exposure to Islam and its Koranic version of the Genesis story, it is said that the earth has become corrupted because a demon has stolen the holy books which guide humankind or simply because humans are behaving badly. Manu either builds a boat or ties himself to the fish and survives the flood with its protection until he can be deposited on a mountain. Later stories identify the fish as an incarnation of Brahma or Vishnu. Manu offers a sacrifice (as does the surviving hero in Genesis and the MIddle Eastern narratives of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis). In one version a woman rises magically from the fire and her and Manu repopulate the Earth. In another Manu had taken a woman and all the animals onto a boat (this is probably post-Islamic) and in another Manu and his sister were on the boat and God (here Rama) allows them to marry and repopulate the Earth. Interestingly, here a surprising addition has Rama/God angry at the fish for having told Manu of the flood and cuts out its tongue, thus explaining why fishes have been tongueless since then.
The narrative contains interesting and unique details. In all versions Manu is saved by his compassion for the fish, by his wish to save it from the violent cycle of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. This element reflects the preoccupation in Indian spiritual culture with the virtue of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In older versions the flood is a natural occurrence, not brought on by God or a god- this is a detail shared with many other flood narratives all over the world. In most versions Manu is saved by divine intervention, although in some versions it seems to be a natural result of his compassionate piety alone (ie., his good karma). It is also interesting to note that in at least one version the flood is brought by God/Rama who resents Manu’s survival. The idea here seems to be that it is the divinely ordered way of things that humans perish at the end of the yuga, ie. that they be subject to nature including death. Manu’s survival overcomes the natural, as does his saving of the fish: neither is here envisioned as the will of Rama/God. In the Indian version the evil that threatens is the violent structure of the cosmos itself, an idea consonant with Jain, Buddhist and Yogic worldviews. The lesson is that compassionate nonviolence overcomes the natural order, and even God Himself.
British Columbia, Canada
In the haunting version of the Haida, a strange woman in an unusual fur cape one day comes to their Island. The children notice that along her spine she has strange protuberances like growing plants and jeer at her, despite the censure of their Elders. She sits by the water and it comes up to her feet, and she gradually moves back further and further. Each time the water follows her until the Island is inundated. The people build canoes and the survivors are scattered all over, which gives rise different tribes. In this story the sin of the people seems to be to jeer at a stranger, or perhaps to disrespect a spirit woman. The people survive purely by their own efforts.
The Tsimshian story says the flood was born by a god who was annoyed by the noise of boys at play. The people again survive by their own efforts, and again are scattered into various tribes. An echo here of the Haida story is that again the flood is caused by children. This may suggest a theme: that of the importance of disciplining children and teaching them virtues whose absence brings chaos (the flood) to the world.
The Kwakiutl myth simply states that a flood came and submerged all but three mountains. A man, woman and dog were the only survivors, and the Bella-bella (presumably another tribe they didn’t like much?) are descended from the woman and the dog. The Kootenay version is notably different. In this myth a woman is seized and raped by a monster. The woman’s husband shoots the monster with an arrow and either the monster’s blood causes the flood or the woman pulls out the arrow and unleashes a flood. Here it seems like crimes of passion bring on the flood- it is the disrespect of the woman’s sexuality, the husband, and the marital bond which causes the eruption of chaos.
In a Squamish tale the elders of the tribe discern that a flood is coming and decide to build a giant canoe, which they do. They then put in all of the babies and their mothers, along with the bravest young men of the tribe. The survivors are stoic and “do not cry as everyone else drowns”. Eventually they come aground on Mt Baker in Washington State. This tale seems remarkable for its celebration of self-sufficiency and stoic detachment.
A Bella Coola myth is interesting for its unique positing of a god as playing a purely salvific role. In their story a god who is the creator of human beings sees the flood coming and ties the earth to the sun so it will not drown, thus saving some human beings (those able to survive the ensuing storm in boats). The survivors are scattered and this scattering gives rise to the diversity of languages. The flood here is again a result of natural causes, but God acts as a compassionate saviour figure.
The Indian and Canadian narratives shows the protean nature of the flood story. Is there a hero or just a general struggle for survival? Is the hero a human or a demi-god? Are the survivors warned by God, by a god, or by a magical or semi-divine creature? Do they survive by climbing to a high place or by building a boat? Is there one survivor, one family who survives, or scattered members of a community? If the flood is brought by God or a god, does the Divine agent both bring the flood and cause it to cease, or just act as a saviour? Does the flood come because of natural causes or divine caprice? Does it come because of divine hostility? Or because of humanity’s sin? If it is sin, is the sin violence and injustice, lack of discipline, sexual passion, or disrespect for the spirit world?
The Canadian Indigenous tales often see the flood as a result of a breach in social or spiritual mores which unleashes chaos. This breach might be dishonouring a spirit, sexuality without boundaries, or failing to discipline children. In most of the tales human beings survive the flood through their own ingenuity, clearly teaching the great importance of cultivating ingenuity and skill. The Bella Coola story stands out here for teaching a reliance on grace, on the divine being, as key. The Indian version argues that suffering and death are a natural part of the violent cycles of nature. Human beings can be saved from this by acts of compassion, and according to a majority view this receives God’s blessing.
In the Biblical story God destroys the earth through a flood due to human beings betraying the purpose of their creation, which was to embody the image of God on earth. The assumption of the story is that this entails acting with nonviolence and justice towards each other. When humans stray into mass ethical corruption God regrets their existence and wipes them out except for Noah who is saved not through ingenuity and skill but because of his righteousness, a position closest to the Indian tales who see Manu as saved because of his compassion. A new human race descends from Noah, carrying God’s hopes for a more righteous humanity with them. The lesson here is that social injustice and violence are extreme dangers, as they offend God. If human beings are not righteous, they betray their very being, and risk corrupting nature and courting destruction. Only a commitment to personal righteousness saves, and that righteousness will provoke a grace which will save and give one the honour of carrying forward the true mission and future of humanity.
All of these stories teach important human values, and chart a path away from chaos towards human survival, whether the means is righteousness, compassion, ingenuity, or cunning. Today it doesn’t take prophecy to see the flood coming. Pope Francis spoke well to the ethical tradition of the Bible in his Encyclical on Climate Change (Laudato Sii), where he argues that climate change is inherently both a matter of our being truant to our purpose as stewards of the Earth and a matter of social injustice and violence. Means of production which are truly ecologically responsible also tend to be more economically just and to promote long term, healthy, empowered communities. The behaviour of the resource industry over the last few centuries has been brutal to both the earth and to people, especially the poor, and it continues to be so.
The Indian flood narratives teach us that we need to be more than mere consumers or passive spectators- we need to actively care for the earth and be compassionate actors. The Indigenous narratives speak to us about the need for human ingenuity. Innovators all over the earth, many of whom increasingly take their inspiration from studying the wisdom of nature herself, are coming up with creative solutions to the crisis we are in. These are the modern day canoe builders who will ferry us above the waters. The Indigenous tales also speak of the importance of discipline and boundaries, as well as a respect for the mysterious and strange. When we lumber into the natural world without a sense of caution and reverence we are much like the Haida children who jeered at the strange woman. The Indigenous tales also echo the Genesis narrative in seeing the need for grace, for a humble calling out to Creator for help and guidance.
One could argue that today we are experiencing a flood in slow motion. Species are going extinct by the dozens every day. The water is slowly rising. I’m sure many more ancient myths could counsel us on what we will need to get through. This small sample has pointed towards social justice, compassion towards all creatures, ingenuity, discipline and respect for the mysterious and the stranger as virtues our various ancestors would recommend.
Hazony, Yoram. The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Isaak, Mark. Flood Narratives From Around The World. 2002. (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html. Accessed Dec 1 2015)