The Great Flood. The gods hitting the “undo” button on humanity. Many cultures have myths that tell of a terrible flood that covered all the land and destroyed all life, except for one or two people and some animals, depending on the story. Are these stories cautionary tales to remind humanity to live responsible lives? Are they attempts at assigning meaning to natural disasters and unimaginable loss of life? Let’s explore three stories from different cultures and examine their similarities, differences, and themes.
The Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths all tell the story of Noah and his ark. The King James Bible version begins with God looking at his creation with disgust. He’s offended by the wickedness of man and its violent ways, and didn’t care for the Giants or beasts either. He regrets making humanity and decides to destroy all life on earth.
However, Noah and his family are the exception. He considers Noah to be righteous and worthy of surviving, so he instructs Noah to construct a three-story ark from gopher wood. He tells him to gather animals and food so that he and his family might survive and life can start over.
The heavens opened and rain fell upon the earth for 40 days and nights. After it stopped raining, all the land was covered even up to the highest mountaintops. The waters did not subside for 150 days. When it was all over, the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat.
Noah sent out a dove every seven days to see if the ground had dried yet, and one day it returned to him with an olive leaf. This is how Noah knew the flood waters had left. God then told Noah to open the ark and go forth and populate the land.
After seeing the devastation of what He’d done, God then vowed never to destroy humanity again. (“Genesis Chapters 6-8.”)
In the Indian tradition, a man named Manu was washing himself when a fish jumped into his hands. The fish implored him “Reer me, I will save thee!” Manu asked what the fish would save him from, and the fish responded “A flood will carry away all these creatures: from that I will save thee!”
When Manu asked how, the fish instructed him to keep him in a jar. This would protect him from the bigger fish who would eat him. Then when he was too big for the jar, he would be moved to a pit. Finally, once he was a big and strong fish, he should be taken to the ocean.
Manu did all that the fish instructed. He kept the fish safe and when he was big enough, delivered him to the ocean.
The fish then told Manu that in a certain year the flood would come and he should prepare a ship. Manu did this in the year the fish told him and entered it.
Then the giant fish swam up to Manu’s ship and Manu tied the ship’s rope around its horn. Then the great fish swam and led the ship up to the northern mountain.
The fish told Manu that when the waters descended, so too would the ship.
The flood killed all the creatures but Manu survived. (Unknown and Eggeling).
The Ojibway people tell the story of Nanabozho and the Great Serpent. One day Nanabozho returned home after a long trip and could not find his cousin there. He looked all around and noticed the tracks of the Great Serpent – his enemy. He knew that the Great Serpent had kidnapped his cousin, so Nanabozho set out after them.
Nanabozho followed the Great Serpent’s trail across rivers, mountains, and valleys until he came to the Manitou Lake (also known as Spirit Lake and The Lake of Devils).
When he peered into the water he saw The Great Serpent’s home. Next to it were hundreds of serpentine servants of the Great Serpent, the young cousin, and the Great Serpent himself. The Great Serpent, with a vibrant red head, eyes like fire, and rainbow colored scales, was coiled around the young cousin’s lifeless body.
Nanabozho was furious and sough revenge. He ordered the clouds to disappear and the winds to be still. Then he commanded the sun to shine fiercely on the lake in order to cause it to become so hot that the snakes would have to come onto the shore. There, Nanabozho would slay the Great Serpent with his arrows.
The sun’s rays beamed down on the lake. Nanabozho transformed himself into a tree trunk amongst the shady trees and waited.
It started to become uncomfortable, so some of the serpents came up to have a look around. “Nanabozho is sleeping” they said, and swam back down.
Soon after the water was boiling and it became too hot for the serpents, and since they had not seen Nanabozho earlier, decided to leave the lake.
Cautiously they took in their surroundings on the shore. The serpents noticed the withered tree trunk and knowing how cunning Nanabozho was, suspected that it might be a disguise. They coiled themselves around it and dragged it into the lake. It took all of Nanabozho’s might to keep from crying out, but when he was released his secret was still intact.
The serpents retreated deeper into the trees except for one serpent who remained on guard. Nanabozho waited patiently. Then, when the Great Serpent was asleep and the guard had turned his gaze away, Nanabozho saw his opportunity and took it. He fired his arrow into the Great Serpent and struck a fatal blow.
The Great Serpent and his cronies plunged into the water. Incensed by what had happened, they tore the cousin’s dead body into pieces. The Great Serpent, realizing he was about to die, was determined to kill Nanabozho. He moved about vigorously and caused the lake waters to slap loudly against the mountains like thunder claps. The waves struck the shore and the flood waters caused Nanabozho to run for his life.
Nanabozho ran past mountains and valleys and rivers and all the while, the Great Serpent rode the crest of the wave with madness in his eyes and fire on his breath. As Nanabozho came across villages, he shouted at them to run for the mountains.
Nanabozho ran past Lake Superior up a mountain. At the peak he found people and animals that had escaped the flood waters. Together they built a large raft and when the flood waters reached the top, they were able to seek refuge on it.
They floated for many days until the waters slowly began to subside. The mountain peaks appeared, then the hill tops and trees, and finally the valleys until they were back on land.
The Great Serpent was dead and the remaining serpents retreated to the bottom of the Sprit Lake, never again returning to the surface for fear of Nanabozho. (“Great Serpent and the Great Flood”).
Common Themes in Flood Myths
What can we learn form these flood myths? In the beginning of this post I speculated on the possible meanings behind these stories. In the case of the Ojibway myth, our hero vanquishes a great enemy but many must suffer initially because of it. Perhaps this speaks to the precarious balance between humanity and nature?
In the stories of Noah and Nanabozho, the gods rewarded these faithful men by saving them from the great floods. Perhaps the purpose of this is to remind people to stay true and walk the righteous path?
Another point to keep in mind – often times when one culture colonizes another, they either appropriate that culture’s myths or overwrite them with their own. This could be one explanation for flood myths being so prevalent.
What do you think the flood myths represent? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
Unknown authors. “Genesis Chapters 6-8.” Bible: King James Version, University of Michigan Digital Collections, Accessed 22 June 2020.
Unknown authors. Satapatha Brahmana Part 1 EIGHTH ADHYÃ‚YA. FIRST BRÃ‚HMANA..Translated by Julius Eggeling, www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbr/sbe12/sbe1234.htm. Accessed 25 June 2020.
Unknown authors. “Great Serpent and the Great Flood.” An Ojibway Story, www.native-languages.org/ojibwestory3.htm. Accessed 25 June 2020.