A flood myth or deluge myth is a myth in which a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization, often in an act of divine retribution. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primaeval waters which appear in certain creation myths, as the flood waters are described as a measure for the cleansing of humanity, in preparation for rebirth. Most flood myths also contain a culture hero, who "represents the human craving for life".
The flood-myth motif occurs in many cultures as seen in: the Mesopotamian flood stories, Pralaya in Hinduism, the Gun-Yu in Chinese mythology, Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek mythology, the Genesis flood narrative, Bergelmir in Norse mythology, the arrival of the first inhabitants of Ireland with Cessair in Irish mythology, the lore of the K'iche' and Maya peoples in Mesoamerica, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa tribe of Native Americans in North America, the Muisca and Cañari Confederation in South America, Africa, and some Aboriginal tribes in Australia.
Although the story of Noah in the Hebrew Bible is the most well-known flood myth in Western culture, it shows the influence of earlier narratives from Mesopotamia. The nineteenth-century Assyriologist George Smith first translated a Babylonian account of a great flood, and further discoveries produced several versions of the Mesopotamian flood myth, with the account closest to that in Genesis being found in a 700 BC Babylonian copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Many scholars believe that this was copied from the Akkadian Atra-Hasis,[a] which dates to the 18th century BC.[b] In the Gilgamesh flood myth, the highest god Enlil decides to destroy the world with a flood because humans have become too noisy. The god Ea, who created humans out of clay and divine blood, secretly warns the hero Utnapishtim of the impending flood and gives him detailed instructions for building a boat so that life may survive. Both the Epic of Gilgamesh and Atra-Hasis are believed to have originated in the Sumerian creation myth--the oldest surviving example of such a flood myth narrative, known from tablets found in the ruins of Nippur in the late 1890s and translated by Arno Poebel.
In the Book of Genesis (c. 6th century BC) the god Yahweh, who created man out of the dust of the ground, decides to flood the earth because of the sinful state of mankind. It is also Yahweh who then gives the protagonist Noah instructions to build an ark in order to preserve human and animal life. When the ark is completed, Noah, his family, and representatives of all the animals of the earth are called upon to enter the ark. When the destructive flood begins, all life outside of the ark perishes. After the waters recede, all those aboard the ark disembark and have Yahweh's promise that he will never judge the earth with a flood again. He causes a rainbow to form as the sign of this promise.
In Hindu mythology, texts such as the Satapatha Brahmana (dated to around the 6th century BC) and the Puranas contain the story of a great flood, "Pralaya", wherein the Matsya Avatar of the Vishnu warns the first man, Manu, of the impending flood, and also advises him to build a giant boat. In Zoroastrian Mazdaism, Ahriman tries to destroy the world with a drought, which Mithra ends by shooting an arrow into a rock, from which a flood springs; one man survives in an ark with his cattle.
In Plato's Timaeus, written c. 360 BC, Timaeus describes a flood myth similar to the earlier versions. In it, the Bronze race of humans angers the high god Zeus with their constant warring. Zeus decides to punish humanity with a flood. The Titan Prometheus, who had created humans from clay, tells the secret plan to Deucalion, advising him to build an ark in order to be saved. After nine nights and days, the water starts receding and the ark lands on a mountain.
A worldwide deluge, such as the one described in Genesis, is incompatible with modern scientific understanding of natural history, especially geology and paleontology. In an early example of ichnology, Leonardo da Vinci explains in his notebooks that the fossils of marine shells would have been scattered in such a deluge, and not gathered in groups, which were evidently left at various times on mountains in Lombardy; he also doubts that so much water could have evaporated away from the Earth.
Excavations in Iraq have revealed evidence of localized flooding at Shuruppak (modern Tell Fara, Iraq) and various other Sumerian cities. A layer of riverine sediments, radiocarbon dated to about 2900 BC, interrupts the continuity of settlement, extending as far north as the city of Kish, which took over hegemony after the flood. Polychrome pottery from the Jemdet Nasr period (3000-2900 BC) was discovered immediately below the Shuruppak flood stratum. Other sites, such as Ur, Kish, Uruk, Lagash, and Ninevah, all present evidence of flooding. However, this evidence comes from different time periods. The Shuruppak flood seems to have been a localised event caused through the damming of the Karun River through the spread of dunes, flooding into the Tigris, and simultaneous heavy rainfall in the Nineveh region, spilling across into the Euphrates. In Israel, there is no such evidence of a widespread flood. Given the similarities in the Mesopotamian flood story and the Biblical account, it would seem that they have a common origin in the memories of the Shuruppak account. The Sumerian King List reads:
After kingship came down from heaven ... the kingship was taken to Shuruppak. In Shuruppak, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 5 sars and 1 ner. In 5 cities 8 kings; they ruled for 241,200 years. Then the flood swept over.
Floods in the wake of the last glacial period may have inspired myths that survive to this day. It has been postulated that in North America, flood myths may be based on a sudden rise in sea levels caused by the rapid draining of prehistoric Lake Agassiz at the end of the last Ice Age, about 8,400 years ago.
The geography of the Mesopotamian area was considerably changed by the filling of the Persian Gulf after sea waters rose following the last glacial period. Global sea levels were about 120 m (390 ft) lower around 18,000 BP and rose until 8,000 BP when they reached current levels, which are now an average 40 m (130 ft) above the floor of the Gulf, which was a huge (800 km × 200 km, 500 mi × 120 mi) low-lying and fertile region in Mesopotamia, in which human habitation is thought to have been strong around the Gulf Oasis for 100,000 years. A sudden increase in settlements above the present water level is recorded at around 7,500 BP.
Adrienne Mayor promoted the hypothesis that global flood stories were inspired by ancient observations of seashells and fish fossils in inland and mountain areas. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all documented the discovery of such remains in these locations; the Greeks hypothesized that Earth had been covered by water on several occasions, citing the seashells and fish fossils found on mountain tops as evidence of this history.
Another hypothesis is that a meteor or comet crashed into the Indian Ocean around 3000-2800 BC, created the 30-kilometre (19 mi) undersea Burckle Crater, and generated a giant tsunami that flooded coastal lands. Some of the largest tsunamis in history, resulting from the Chicxulub impact, 66 million years ago, were thought to have affected roughly the entire Americas (or nearly all of the Western Hemisphere).
In the late 17th century, there were speculations accounting for the Genesis flood by natural causes. Thomas Burnet's Telluris Theoria Sacra (Sacred Theory of the Earth) had water rising from the hollow earth. William Whiston's A New Theory of the Earth postulated that major changes in the earth's history could be attributed to the action of comets.
Speculation regarding the Deucalion myth has also been introduced, whereby a large tsunami in the Mediterranean Sea, caused by the Thera eruption (with an approximate geological date of 1630-1600 BC), is the myth's historical basis. Although the tsunami hit the South Aegean Sea and Crete, it did not affect cities in the mainland of Greece, such as Mycenae, Athens, and Thebes, which continued to prosper, indicating that it had a local rather than a regionwide effect.
A controversial hypothesis of long-term flooding is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis, which argues for a catastrophic deluge about 5600 BC from the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea. This has been the subject of considerable discussion. The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis is another proposed natural explanation for flood myths, but this idea is similarly controversial.
The Great Flood, by anonymous painter, The vom Rath bequest, Rijksmuseum
The Deluge, by Francis Danby, 1840. Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery