The Flood in the Legends of the World
THE Flood of Noah’s day was such a devastating cataclysm that mankind could never forget it. Over 2,400 years later, Jesus Christ spoke of it as a fact of history. (Matthew 24:37-39) This awesome event left such an indelible impression on the human race that it has become legendary all over the world.
In the book Myths of Creation, Philip Freund estimates that over 500 Flood legends are told by more than 250 tribes and peoples. As might be expected, with the passing of many centuries, these legends have been greatly embellished with imaginary events and characters. In all of them, however, some basic similarities can be found.
As people migrated from Mesopotamia after the Flood, they carried accounts of the catastrophe to all parts of the earth. Thus, inhabitants of Asia, the islands of the South Pacific, North America, Central America, and South America have tales of this impressive event. The many Flood legends existed long before these people were exposed to the Bible. Yet, the legends have some basic points in common with the Biblical account of the Deluge.
Some legends mention violent giants living on the earth before the Flood. Comparably, the Bible indicates that before the Deluge disobedient angels materialized fleshly bodies, cohabited with women, and produced a race of giants called Nephilim.—Genesis 6:1-4; 2 Peter 2:4, 5.
Flood legends usually indicate that one man was warned about a coming deluge of divine origin. According to the Bible, Jehovah God warned Noah that He would destroy wicked and violent ones. God told Noah: “The end of all flesh has come before me, because the earth is full of violence as a result of them; and here I am bringing them to ruin together with the earth.”—Genesis 6:13.
Legends concerning the Flood generally indicate that it brought about global destruction. Similarly, the Bible says: “The waters overwhelmed the earth so greatly that all the tall mountains that were under the whole heavens came to be covered. Everything in which the breath of the force of life was active in its nostrils, namely, all that were on the dry ground, died.”—Genesis 7:19, 22.
Most Flood legends say that a man survived the Deluge along with one or more other persons. Many legends have him taking refuge in a boat he had built, and they have it land on a mountain. Comparably, the Scriptures say that Noah built an ark. They also state: “Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark kept on surviving.” (Genesis 6:5-8; 7:23) According to the Bible, after the Deluge “the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat,” where Noah and his family disembarked. (Genesis 8:4, 15-18) Legends also indicate that Flood survivors started to repopulate the earth, as the Bible shows that Noah’s family did.—Genesis 9:1; 10:1.
Ancient Flood Legends
With the foregoing points in mind, let us consider some Flood legends. Suppose we begin with the Sumerians, an ancient people who inhabited Mesopotamia. Their version of the Deluge was found on a clay tablet unearthed in the ruins of Nippur. This tablet says that the Sumerian gods Anu and Enlil decided to destroy mankind with a giant flood. Being warned by the god Enki, Ziusudra and his family were able to survive in a huge boat.
The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh contains many details. According to it, Gilgamesh visited his ancestor Utnapishtim, who had been granted eternal life after surviving the Flood. In the ensuing conversation, Utnapishtim explained that he was told to build a ship and take cattle, wild beasts, and his family into it. He built the ship as a huge cube 200 feet [60 m] on each side, with six floors. He tells Gilgamesh that the storm lasted six days and six nights, and then he says: “When the seventh day arrived, the hurricane, the Deluge, the shock of battle was broken, which had smitten like an army. The sea became calm, the cyclone died away, the Deluge ceased. I looked upon the sea and the sound of voices had ended. And all mankind had turned to clay.”
After the vessel grounded on Mount Nisir, Utnapishtim released a dove that returned to the boat when it could not find a resting-place. This was followed by a swallow that also returned. A raven was then released, and when it did not return, he knew that the water had subsided. Utnapishtim then released the animals and offered a sacrifice.
This very old legend is somewhat similar to the Biblical account of the Flood. However, it lacks the graphic details and simplicity of the Bible account, and it does not give reasonable dimensions for the ark nor supply the time period indicated in the Scriptures. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh said that the storm lasted six days and six nights, whereas the Bible says that “the downpour upon the earth went on for forty days and forty nights”—a continuing heavy rain that finally covered the entire globe with water.—Genesis 7:12.
Though the Bible mentions eight Flood survivors, in Greek legend only Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, survived. (2 Peter 2:5) According to this legend, before the Flood the earth was inhabited by violent individuals called the men of bronze. The god Zeus decided to destroy them with a great flood and told Deucalion to build a large chest and get into it. When the flood subsided, the chest came to rest on Mount Parnassus. Deucalion and Pyrrha descended from the mountain and started mankind again.
Legends of the Far East
In India there is a Flood legend in which Manu is the human survivor. He befriends a small fish that grows to a large size and warns him of a devastating flood. Manu builds a boat, which the fish pulls until it is grounded on a mountain in the Himalayas. When the flood subsides, Manu descends from the mountain and with Ida, the personification of his sacrifice, renews the human race.
According to the Chinese flood legend, the thunder god gives a tooth to two children, Nuwa and Fuxi. He instructs them to plant it and to take shelter in the gourd that would grow from it. A tree promptly grows from the tooth and produces a huge gourd. When the thunder god causes torrential rainfall, the children climb into the gourd. Though the resulting flood drowns all the rest of earth’s inhabitants, Nuwa and Fuxi survive and repopulate the globe.
In the Americas
Indians of North America have various legends that carry the common theme of a flood that destroys all but a few people. For example, the Arikara, a Caddo people, say that the earth was once inhabited by a race of people so strong that they ridiculed the gods. The god Nesaru destroyed these giants by means of a flood but preserved his people, the animals, and maize in a cave. The Havasupai people say that the god Hokomata caused a deluge that destroyed mankind. However, the man Tochopa preserved his daughter Pukeheh by sealing her in a hollow log.
Indians in Central and South America have flood legends with basic similarities. The Maya of Central America believed that a great rain serpent destroyed the world by torrents of water. In Mexico the Chimalpopoca version tells that a flood submerged the mountains. The god Tezcatlipoca warned the man Nata, who hollowed out a log where he and his wife, Nena, found refuge until the water subsided.
In Peru the Chincha have a legend of a five-day flood that destroyed all men except one whom a talking llama led to safety on a mountain. The Aymara of Peru and Bolivia say that the god Viracocha came out of Lake Titicaca and created the world and abnormally large, strong men. Because this first race angered him, Viracocha destroyed them with a flood.
The Tupinamba Indians of Brazil spoke of a time when a great flood drowned all their ancestors except those who survived in canoes or in the tops of tall trees. The Cashinaua of Brazil, the Macushi of Guyana, the Caribs of Central America, and the Ona and Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego in South America are among the many tribes that have flood legends.
South Pacific and Asia
Throughout the South Pacific, legends of a flood with few surviving are common. For example, in Samoa there is a legend of a flood in early times that destroyed everyone except Pili and his wife. They found safety on a rock, and after the flood they repopulated the earth. In the Hawaiian Islands, the god Kane became annoyed with humans and sent a flood to destroy them. Only Nuʹu escaped in a large boat that finally grounded on a mountain.
On Mindanao in the Philippines, the Ata say that the earth was once covered by water that destroyed everyone except two men and a woman. The Iban of Sarawak, Borneo, say that only a few people escaped a deluge by fleeing to the highest hills. In the Igorot legend of the Philippines, only a brother and sister survived by taking refuge on Mount Pokis.
The Soyot of Siberia, Russia, say that a giant frog, which was supporting the earth, moved and caused the globe to be flooded. An old man and his family survived on a raft he had made. When the water receded, the raft grounded on a high mountain. The Ugrians of western Siberia and Hungary also say that flood survivors used rafts but drifted to different parts of the earth.
What can we conclude from these many Flood legends? Though they differ greatly in details, they have some common features. These indicate an origin in some gigantic and unforgettable cataclysm. Despite vivid colorations over the centuries, their underlying theme is like a thread that ties them to one great event—the global Deluge related in the simple, uncolored Bible account.
Since the Flood legends are generally found among people who did not come in touch with the Bible until recent centuries, it would be a mistake to contend that the Scriptural account influenced them. Moreover, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says: “The universality of the flood accounts is usually taken as evidence for the universal destruction of humanity by a flood . . . Moreover, some of the ancient accounts were written by people very much in opposition to the Hebrew-Christian tradition.” (Volume 2, page 319) So we can confidently conclude that the Flood legends confirm the reality of the Biblical account.
Living as we do in a world filled with violence and immorality, we do well to read the Biblical account of the Flood, as recorded in Genesis chapters 6 through 8. If we meditate on the reason for that global Deluge—the practicing of what was wicked in God’s sight—we will see in it a vital warning.
Soon the present wicked system of things will experience God’s adverse judgment. Happily, though, there will be survivors. You may be among them if you heed the apostle Peter’s words: “The world of [Noah’s] time suffered destruction when it was deluged with water. But by the same word the heavens and the earth that are now are stored up for fire and are being reserved to the day of judgment and of destruction of the ungodly men. . . . Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in holy acts of conduct and deeds of godly devotion, awaiting and keeping close in mind the presence of the day of Jehovah.”—2 Peter 3:6-12.
Will you keep the presence of Jehovah’s day close in mind? If you do so and act in harmony with God’s will, you will enjoy great blessings. Those who thus please Jehovah God can have faith in the new world to which Peter refers when he adds: “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to [God’s] promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.”—2 Peter 3:13.
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The Babylonian flood legends were passed on from one generation to another
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Are you heeding Peter’s warning by keeping Jehovah’s day in mind?