The earliest extant flood legend is contained in the fragmentary Sumerian Eridu Genesis, datable by its script to the 17th century BCE.
The story tells how the god Enki warns Ziusudra (meaning “he saw life,” in reference to the gift of immortality given him by the gods), of the gods’ decision to destroy mankind in a flood – the passage describing why the gods have decided this is lost.Enki instructs Ziusudra (also known as Atrahasis) to build a large boat – the text describing the instructions is also lost. After which he is left to repopulate the earth, as in many other flood legends.
After a flood of seven days, Zi-ud-sura makes appropriate sacrifices and prostrations to An (sky-god) and Enlil (chief of the gods), and is given eternal life in Dilmun (the Sumerian Eden) by An and Enlil.
Babylonian (Epic of Gilgamesh)
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, toward the end of the He who saw the deep version by Sin-liqe-unninni, there are references to the great flood (tablet 11). This was a late addition to the Gilgamesh cycle, largely paraphrased or copied verbatim from the Epic of Atrahasis
The hero Gilgamesh, seeking immortality, searches out Utnapishtim in Dilmun, a kind of paradise on earth.
Utnapishtim tells how Ea (equivalent of the Sumerian Enki) warned him of the gods’ plan to destroy all life through a great flood and instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, his friends, and his wealth and cattle.
After the Deluge the gods repented their action and made Utnapishtim immortal.
The best-known version of the Jewish deluge legend is contained in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 6–9). Two non-canonical books, the Enoch and Jubilees, both later than Genesis, contain elaborations on the Genesis story.
Genesis tells how,
“…the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and was grieved in His heart.
So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am grieved that I have made them.'”
God selects Noah, a man who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” and commands him to build an ark to save Noah, his family, and the Earth’s animals and birds. After Noah builds the ark, “all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened”.
Rain falls for 40 days, the water rises 150 days, and all the high mountains are covered. On the 27th of Cheshvan of the year 1657 from Creation “the earth dried” (Genesis 8:14) completing the 365-day duration of the Great Flood.
The ark rests on the mountains, the water recedes for 150 days, until the waters are gone and Noah opens up the ark. At this point Noah sends out a raven and then a dove to see if the flood waters have receded. Noah and the animals leave the ark, Noah offers a sacrifice to God, and God places a rainbow in the clouds as a sign that he will never again destroy the Earth by water.
The apocryphal 2nd century BCE 1st Book of Enoch adds to the Genesis flood story by saying that God sent the Great Flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim, the titanic children of the Grigori, the “sons of God” mentioned in Genesis, and of human females.
The Quran tells a similar story to the Judeo-Christian Genesis flood story, the major differences being only Noah and few believers from the laity enter the ark.
Noah’s son (one of four) and his wife refused to enter the ark thinking they will manage the flood by himself.
The Quranic ark comes to rest on Mount Judi, traditionally identified with a mountain near Mosul in modern Iraq; the name appears to derive from the local name of the Kurdish people, although this is not certain.
There are many sources of flood legends in ancient Chinese literature. Some appear to refer to a worldwide deluge but most versions record only a regional flood:
Shujing, or “Book of History”, probably written around 500 BCE or earlier, states in the opening chapters that Emperor Yao is facing the problem of flood waters that “reach to the Heavens”.
This is the backdrop for the intervention of the famous Da Yu, who succeeded in controlling the floods. He went on to found the first Chinese dynasty. Shanhaijing, “Classic of the Mountain & Seas”, ends with the Chinese ruler Da Yu spending ten years to control a deluge whose “floodwaters overflowed heaven”
Chuci, Liezi, Huainanzi, Shuowen Jiezi, Siku Quanshu, Songsi Dashu, and others, as well as many folk legends, all contain references to a woman named Nüwa. Nüwa repairs the broken heavens after a great flood or calamity, and repopulates the world with people. There are many versions of this legend.
The ancient Chinese civilization concentrated at the bank of Yellow River near present day Xian also believed that the severe flooding along the river bank was caused by dragons (representing gods) living in the river being angered by the mistakes of the people.
According to the Matsya Purana and Shatapatha Brahmana (1-8, 1-6), the mantri to the king of pre-ancient Dravida, Satyavata who later becomes known as Manu was washing his hands in a river when a little fish swam into his hands and begged him to save its life.
He put it in a jar, which it soon outgrew; he successively moved it to a tank, a river and then the ocean. The fish then warned him that a deluge would occur in a week that would destroy all life. Manu therefore built a boat which the fish towed to a mountaintop when the flood came, and thus he survived along with some “seeds of life” to re-establish life on earth.
Hindu religious tradition holds the Bhagavata Purana to be one of the works of Vyasa written at the beginning of Kali Yuga.
In legends of the aboriginal tribes inhabiting the Andaman Islands people became remiss of the commands given to them at the creation.
Puluga, the god creator, ceased to visit them and then without further warning sent a devastating flood. Only four people survived this flood: two men, Loralola and Poilola, and two women, Kalola and Rimalola. When they landed they found they had lost their fire and all living things had perished.
Puluga then recreated the animals and plants but does not seem to have given any further instructions, nor did he return the fire to the survivors.
In Batak traditions, the earth rests on a giant snake, Naga-Padoha.
One day, the snake tired of its burden and shook the Earth off into the sea. However, the God Batara-Guru saved his daughter by sending a mountain into the sea, and the entire human race descended from her. The Earth was later placed back onto the head of the snake.
The only way to finish the drought was to make the frog laugh. Animals from all over Australia gathered together and one by one attempted to make the frog laugh. When finally the eel succeeded, the frog opened his sleepy eyes, his big body quivered, his face relaxed, and, at last, he burst into a laugh that sounded like rolling thunder.
The water poured from his mouth in a flood. It filled the deepest rivers and covered the land. Only the highest mountain peaks were visible, like islands in the sea. Many men and animals were drowned.
The pelican who was blackfella at that time painted himself with white clay and went from island to island in a great canoe, rescuing other blackfellas. Since that time pelicans have been black and white in remembrance of the Great Flood.
In a tradition of the Ngati Porou, a Maori tribe of the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, Ruatapu became angry when his father Uenuku elevated his younger half-brother Kahutia-te-rangi ahead of him.
Ruatapu lured Kahutia-te-rangi and a large number of young men of high birth into his canoe, and took them out to sea where he drowned them. He called on the gods to destroy his enemies and threatened to return as the great waves of early summer. As he struggled for his life, Kahutia-te-rangi recited an incantation invoking the southern humpback whales (paikea in Maori) to carry him ashore.
Accordingly, he was renamed Paikea, and was the only survivor (Reedy 1997:83-85).
Some versions of the Maori story of Tawhaki contain episodes where the hero causes a flood to destroy the village of his two jealous brothers-in-law. A comment in Grey’s Polynesian Mythology may have given the Maori something they did not have before – as A.W Reed put it,
“In Polynesian Mythology Grey said that when Tawhaki’s ancestors released the floods of heaven, the earth was overwhelmed and all human beings perished – thus providing the Maori with his own version of the universal flood”.
(Reed 1963:165, in a footnote).
Christian influence has led to the appearance of genealogies where Tawhaki’s grandfather Hema is reinterpreted as Shem, son of Noah of the biblical deluge.
According to the legend of the Temuan, one of the 18 indigenous tribes of peninsular Malaysia, the “celau” (storm of punishment) is for the sin of the people who angered the gods and ancestors so much that a great flood was sent in punishment.
Only two of the Temuan tribes, Mamak and Inak Bungsuk, survived the flood by climbing the Eaglewood tree at “Gunung Raja” (Royal Mountain), which thereafter became the birth place and ancestral home of the Temuan tribe.
Greek mythology knows three floods. The flood of Ogyges, the flood of Deucalion and the flood of Dardanus, two of which ended two Ages of Man:
- the Ogygian Deluge ended the Silver Age
- the flood of Deucalion ended the First Bronze Age
The Ogygian flood is so called because it occurred in the time of Ogyges, a mythical king of Attica.
Ogyges is somewhat synonymous with “primeval”, “primal” and “earliest dawn”. Others say he was the founder and king of Thebes. In many traditions the Ogygian flood is said to have covered the whole world and was so devastating that Attica remained without kings until the reign of Cecrops.
Plato in his Laws, Book III, estimates that this flood occurred 10,000 years before his time.
Also in Timaeus and in Critias (111-112) he describes the “great deluge of all” happening 9,000 years before the time of Solon, during the 10th millennium BCE. In addition, the texts report that “many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years” since Athens and Atlantis were preeminent
The theory of the flood in the Aegean Basin proposes that a great flood occurred at the end of the Late Pleistocene or beginning of the Holocene. The Holocene is a geological period that began approximately 11,550 calendar years BP (or about 9600 BCE) and continues to the present.
This flood would coincide with the end of the last ice age, estimated at approximately 10,000 years ago, when the sea level rose as much as 130 meters, particularly during Melt-water pulse 1A when sea level rose by about 25 meters in some parts of the northern hemisphere over a period of less than 500 years.
The Peloponnese was connected to the mainland and the Corinthian Gulf was not formed. Islands around Attica, such as Aegina, Salamis and Euboea, were part of the mainland. The Cyclades formed a big island known as Aegeis, while the Bosporus and Hellespont were not formed yet.
These geological findings support the hypothesis that the Ogygian Deluge may well be based on a real event.
The Deucalion legend as told by Apollodorus in The Library has some similarity to Noah’s Ark: 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, after floating in the chest for nine days and nights, landed on Parnassus. An older version of the story told by Hellanicus has Deucalion’s “ark” landing on Mount Othrys in Thessaly.
Another account has him landing on a peak, probably Phouka, in Argolis, later called Nemea. When the rains ceased, he sacrificed to Zeus. Then, at the bidding of Zeus, he threw stones behind him, and they became men, and the stones which Pyrrha threw became women. Appollodorus gives this as an etymology for Greek Laos “people” as derived from laas “stone”.
The Megarians told that Megarus, son of Zeus, escaped Deucalion’s flood by swimming to the top of Mount Gerania, guided by the cries of cranes.
This one has the same basic story line. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Dardanus left Pheneus in Arcadia to colonize a land in the North-East Aegean Sea.
When the Dardanus’ deluge occurred, the land was flooded and the mountain on which he and his family survived, formed the island of Samothrace. He left Samothrace on an inflated skin to the opposite shores of Asia Minor and settled at the foot of Mount Ida. Due to the fear of another flood they didn’t build a city, but lived in the open for fifty years.
His grandson Tros eventually built a city, which was named Troy after him.
The Theogony of Apollodorus
This one has the same basic story line as Deucalion. Prometheus molded men out of water and earth and gave them also fire, which, unknown to Zeus, he had hidden in a stalk of fennel.
But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus, which is a Scythian mountain. On it Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver, which grew by night. That was the penalty that Prometheus paid for the theft of fire until Hercules afterwards released him.
And Prometheus had a son Deucalion. He reigning in the regions about Phthia, married Pyrrha, the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora, the first woman fashioned by the gods. And when Zeus would destroy the men of the Bronze Age, Deucalion by the advice of Prometheus constructed a chest, and having stored it with provisions he embarked in it with Pyrrha.
But Zeus by pouring heavy rain from heaven flooded the greater part of Greece, so that all men were destroyed, except a few who fled to the high mountains in the neighborhood and Peloponnesus was overwhelmed.
But Deucalion, floating in the chest over the sea for nine days and as many nights, drifted to Parnassus, and there, when the rain ceased, he landed and sacrificed to Zeus, the god of Escape. And Zeus sent Hermes to him and allowed him to choose what he would, and he chose to get men.
And at the bidding of Zeus he took up stones and threw them over his head, and the stones which Deucalion threw became men, and the stones which Pyrrha threw became women. Hence people were called metaphorically people (Laos) from laas, “a stone.”
And Deucalion had children by Pyrrha, first Hellen, whose father some say was Zeus, and second Amphictyon, who reigned over Attica after Cranaus, and third a daughter Protogonia, who became the mother of Aethlius by Zeus. Hellen had Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus by a nymph Orseis. Those who were called Greeks he named Hellenes after himself, and divided the country among his sons.
Xuthus received Peloponnese and begat Achaeus and Ion by Creusa, daughter of Erechtheus, and from Achaeus and Ion the Achaeans and lonians derive their names. Dorus received the country over against Peloponnese and called the settlers Dorians after himself.
Aeolus reigned over the regions about Thessaly and named the inhabitants Aeolians. He married Enarete, daughter of Deimachus, and begat seven sons, Cretheus, Sisyphus, Athamas, Salmoneus, Deion, Magnes, Perieres, and five daughters, Canace, Alcyone, Pisidice, Calyce, Perimede. Perimede had Hippodamas and Orestes by Achelous; and Pisidice had Antiphus and Actor by Myrmidon. Alcyone was married by Ceyx, son of Lucifer.
These perished by reason of their pride, for he said that his wife was Hera, and she said that her husband was Zeus. But Zeus turned them into birds; her he made a kingfisher (alcyon) and him a gannet (ceyx).
In Norse mythology, there are two separate deluges.
According to the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the first occurred at the dawn of time before the world was formed. Ymir, the first giant, was killed by the god Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve, and when he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that it drowned almost the entire race of giants with the exception of the frost giant Bergelmir and his wife.
They escaped in a ship and survived, becoming the progenitors of a new race of giants. Ymir’s body was then used to form the earth while his blood became the sea.
The second, in the Norse mythological time cycle, is destined to occur in the future during the final battle between the gods and giants, known as Ragnarök. During this apocalyptic event, Jormungandr, the great World Serpent that lies beneath the sea surrounding Midgard, the realm of mortals, will rise up from the watery depths to join the conflict, resulting in a catastrophic flood that will drown the land.
However, following Ragnarök the earth will be reborn and a new age of humanity will begin.
The mythologist Brian Branston noted the similarities between this legend and an incident described in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which had traditionally been associated with the biblical flood, so there may have been a corresponding incident in the broader Germanic mythology as well as in Anglo-Saxon mythology.
According to the apocryphal history of Ireland Lebor Gabála Érenn, the first inhabitants of Ireland led by Noah’s granddaughter Cessair were all except one wiped out by a flood 40 days after reaching the island.
Later, after Partholon’s and Nemed’s people reached the island, another flood rose and killed all but thirty of the inhabitants, who scattered across the world. As it was Christian monks who first wrote the story down (it had previously been oral tradition), it is likely that references to the Biblical Noah were inserted into the story, in an attempt to christianize it.
In the Kalevala rune entitled “Haava” (The Wound, section 8), Väinämöinen attempts a heroic feat that results in a gushing wound, the blood from which covers the entire earth.
This deluge is not emphasized in the Kalevala version redacted by Elias Lönnrot, but the global quality of the flood is evident in original variants of the rune.
In one variant collected in Northern Ostrobothnia in 1803/04, the rune tells:
The blood came forth like a flood
the gore ran like a river:
there was no hummock
and no high mountain
that was not flooded
all from Väinämöinen’s toe
from the holy hero’s knee.
In the analysis by Matti Kuusi, he notes that the rune’s motifs of constructing a boat, a wound, and a flood have parallels with flood legends from around the world.
When the Sun Age came, there had passed 400 years. Then came 200 years, then 76.
Then all mankind was lost and drowned and turned to fishes. The water and the sky drew near each other. In a single day all was lost, and Four Flower consumed all that there was of our flesh. The very mountains were swallowed up in the flood, and the waters remained, lying tranquil during fifty and two springs.
But before the flood began, Titlachahuan had warned the man Nota and his wife Nena, saying,
‘Make no more pulque, but hollow a great cypress, into which you shall enter the month Tozoztli. The waters shall near the sky.’ They entered, and when Titlacahuan had shut them in he said to the man, ‘Thou shalt eat but a single ear of maize, and thy wife but one also’. And when they had each eaten one ear of maize, they prepared to go forth, for the water was tranquil.
– Ancient Aztec document Codex Chimalpopoca, translated by Abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg.
In Caddo mythology, four monsters grew in size and power until they touched the sky.
At that time, a man heard a voice telling him to plant a hollow reed. He did so, and the reed grew very big very quickly. The man entered the reed with his wife and pairs of all good animals. Waters rose, and covered everything but the top of the reed and the heads of the monsters. A turtle then killed the monsters by digging under them and uprooting them.
The waters subsided, and winds dried the earth.
In Hopi mythology, the people moved away from Sotuknang, the creator, repeatedly. He destroyed the world by fire, and then by cold, and recreated it both times for the people that still followed the laws of creation, who survived by hiding underground.
People became corrupt and warlike a third time. As a result, Sotuknang guided the people to Spider Woman, and she cut down giant reeds and sheltered the people in the hollow stems. Sotuknang then caused a great flood, and the people floated atop the water in their reeds. The reeds came to rest on a small piece of land, and the people emerged, with as much food as they started with.
The people traveled on in their canoes, guided by their inner wisdom (which is said to come from Sotuknang, through the door at the top of their head). They travelled to the northeast, passing progressively larger islands, until they came to the Fourth World.
When they reached the fourth world, the islands sank into the ocean.
In Maya mythology, from the Popol Vuh, Part 1, Chapter 3, Huracan (“one-legged”) was a wind and storm god who caused the Great Flood after the first humans angered the gods.
He supposedly lived in the windy mists above the floodwaters and spoke the word “earth” until land came up again from the seas.
Four men & four women repopulate the Quiche world after the flood
all speaking the same language (but a confusing reference)
and gather together in the same location
where their speech is changed (affirmed several times)
after which they disperse throughout the world.
In Mapuche mythology, the Legend of Trentren Vilu and Caicai Vilu says that a battle between two mythical serpents provoked a Great Flood; and subsequently created the Mapuche world as we know it today.
In Menominee mythology, Manabus, the trickster, “fired by his lust for revenge” shot two underground gods when the gods were at play. When they all dived into the water, a huge flood arose.
“The water rose up… It knew very well where Manabus had gone.”
He runs, he runs; but the water, coming from Lake Michigan, chases him faster and faster, even as he runs up a mountain and climbs to the top of the lofty pine at its peak.
Four times he begs the tree to grow just a little more, and four times it obliges until it can grow no more. But the water keeps climbing “up, up, right to his chin, and there it stopped”: there was nothing but water stretching out to the horizon.
And then Manabus, helped by diving animals, and especially the bravest of all, the Muskrat, creates the world as we know it today.
In Mi’kmaq mythology, evil and wickedness among men causes them to kill each other.
This causes great sorrow to the creator-sun-god, who weeps tears that become rains sufficient to trigger a deluge. The people attempt to survive by traveling in bark canoes, but only a single old man and woman survive to populate the earth.
The people of Ra’iatea tell of two friends, Te-aho-aroa and Ro’o, who went fishing and accidentally woke the ocean god Ruahatu with their fish hooks. Angered, he vowed to sink Ra’iatea below the sea.
Te-aho-aroa and Ro’o begged for forgiveness, and Ruahatu warned them that they could escape only by bringing their families to the islet of Toamarama. These set sail, and during the night, the island slipped under the ocean, only to rise again the next morning. Nothing survived except for these families, who erected sacred marae (temples) dedicated to the god Ruahatu.
A similar legend is found on Tahiti. No reason for the tragedy is given, but the whole island sank beneath the sea except for Mount Pitohiti. One human couple managed to flee there with their animals and survived.
A human couple, Nu’u and Lili-noe, survived a flood on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Nu’u made sacrifices to the moon, to whom he mistakenly attributed his safety.
Kane, the creator god, descended to earth on a rainbow, explained Nu’u’s mistake, and accepted his sacrifice.
The great war god Tu was angered by critical remarks made by his sister Hii-hia. His tears tore through heaven’s floor to the world below and created a torrent of rain carrying everything in its path.
Only six people survived.