Mythology: Great Flood in Myth and Legend

Donald A. Mackenzie, in Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, gives an account of Gilgamesh and the Flood, and explores Flood Legends from the world including the Americas.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie (24 July 1873 – 2 March 1936) was a Scottish journalist and folklorist and a prolific writer on religion, mythology and anthropology in the early 20th century.
— Orly

The story of the Deluge which was related to Gilgamesh by Pir-napishtim runs as follows:--

"Hear me, O Gilgamesh, and I will make revelation regarding the hidden doings of the high gods. As thou knowest, the city of Shurippak is situated upon the bank of the Euphrates. The gods were within it: there they assembled together in council. Anu, the father, was there, and Bel the counsellor and warrior, Ninip the messenger, and Ennugi the governor. Ea, the wise lord, sat also with them. In their hearts the gods agreed together to send a great deluge.

"Thereafter Ea made known the purpose of the divine rulers in the hut of reeds, saying: 'O hut of reeds, hear; O wall, understand ... O man of Shurippak, son of Umbara Tutu, tear down thy house and build a ship; leave all thou dost possess and save thy life, and preserve in the ship the living seed of every kind. The ship that thou wilt build must be of goodly proportions in length and height. It must be floated on the great deep.'

"I heard the command of Ea and understood, and I made answer, saying, 'O wise lord, as thou hast said so will I do, for thy counsel is most excellent. But how shall I give reason for my doings to the young men and the elders?'

"Ea opened his mouth and said unto me, his servant: 'What thou shalt say unto them is this.... It hath been revealed unto me that Bel doth hate me, therefore I cannot remain any longer in his domain, this city of Shurippak, so I must depart unto the domain of Ea and dwell with him.... Unto you will Bel send abundance of rain, so that you may obtain birds and fishes in plenty and have a rich harvest. But Shamash hath appointed a time for Ramman to pour down destruction from the heavens.'"

Ea then gave instructions to Pir-napishtim how to build the ship in which he should find refuge. So far as can be gathered from the fragmentary text, it appears that this vessel was to have a deck house six stories high, with nine apartments in each story. According to another account, Ea drew a plan of the great ship upon the sand.

Pir-napishtim set to work and made a flat-bottomed vessel, which was 120 cubits wide and 120 cubits in height. He smeared it with bitumen inside and pitch outside; and on the seventh day it was ready. Then he carried out Ea's further instructions. Continuing his narrative to Gilgamesh, he said:

"I gathered together all that I possessed, my silver and gold and seeds of every kind, and my goods also. These I placed in the ship. Then I caused to go aboard all my family and house servants, the animals of the field and the beasts of the field and the workers--every one of them I sent up.

"The god Shamash appointed the time, saying: 'I will cause the Night Lord to send much rain and bring destruction. Then enter thou the ship and shut thy door.'

"At the appointed time the Night Lord sent at even-time much rain. I saw the beginning of the deluge and I was afraid to look up. I entered the ship and shut the door. I appointed Buzur-Kurgala, the sailor, to be captain, and put under his command the great vessel and all that it contained.

"At the dawn of day I saw rising athwart the heavens a dark cloud, and in the midst of it Ramman thundered. Nebo and Merodach went in front, speeding like emissaries over hills and plains. The cables of the ship were let loose.

"Then Ninip, the tempest god, came nigh, and the storm broke in fury before him. All the earth spirits leapt up with flaming torches and the whole land was aflare. The thunder god swept over the heavens, blotting out the sunlight and bringing thick darkness. Rain poured down the whole day long, and the earth was covered with water; the rivers were swollen; the land was in confusion; men stumbled about in the darkness, battling with the elements. Brothers were unable to see brothers; no man could recognize his friends.... The spirits above looked down and beheld the rising flood and were afraid: they fled away, and in the heaven of Anu they crouched like to hounds in the protecting enclosures.

"In time Ishtar, the lady of the gods, cried out distressfully, saying: 'The elder race hath perished and turned to clay because that I have consented to evil counsel in the assembly of the gods. Alas! I have allowed my people to be destroyed. I gave being to man, but where is he? Like the offspring of fish he cumbers the deep.'

"The earth spirits were weeping with Ishtar: they sat down cowering with tightened lips and spake not; they mourned in silence.

"Six days and six nights went past, and the tempest raged over the waters which gradually covered the land. But when the seventh day came, the wind fell, the whirling waters grew peaceful, and the sea retreated. The storm was over and the rain of destruction had ceased. I looked forth. I called aloud over the waters. But all mankind had perished and turned to clay. Where fields had been I saw marshes only.

"Then I opened wide the window of the ship, and the sunlight suffused my countenance. I was dazzled and sank down weeping and the tears streamed over my face. Everywhere I looked I saw water.

"At length, land began to appear. The ship drifted towards the country of Nitsir, and then it was held fast by the mountain of Nitsir. Six days went past and the ship remained stedfast. On the seventh day I sent forth a dove, and she flew away and searched this way and that, but found no resting place, so she returned. I then sent forth a swallow, and she returned likewise. Next I sent forth a raven, and she flew away. She saw that the waters were shrinking, and gorged and croaked and waded, but did not come back. Then I brought forth all the animals into the air of heaven.

"An offering I made on the mountain. I poured out a libation. I set up incense vessels seven by seven on heaped-up reeds and used cedar wood with incense. The gods smelt the sweet savour, and they clustered like flies about the sacrificer.

"Thereafter Ishtar (Sirtu) drew nigh. Lifting up the jewels, which the god Anu had fashioned for her according to her desire, she spake, saying: 'Oh! these gods! I vow by the lapis lazuli gems upon my neck that I will never forget! I will remember these days for ever and ever. Let all the gods come hither to the offering, save Bel (Enlil) alone, because that he ignored my counsel, and sent a great deluge which destroyed my people.'

"But Bel Enlil came also, and when he beheld the ship he paused. His heart was filled with wrath against the gods and the spirits of heaven. Angrily he spake and said: 'Hath one escaped? It was decreed that no human being should survive the deluge.'

"Ninip, son of Bel, spoke, saying: 'Who hath done this save Ea alone? He knoweth all things.'

"Ea, god of the deep, opened his mouth and said unto the warrior Bel: 'Thou art the lord of the gods, O warrior. But thou wouldst not hearken to my counsel and caused the deluge to be. Now punish the sinner for his sins and the evil doer for his evil deed, but be merciful and do not destroy all mankind. May there never again be a flood. Let the lion come and men will decrease. May there never again be a flood. Let the leopard come and men will decrease. May there never again be a flood. Let famine come upon the land; let Ura, god of pestilence, come and snatch off mankind.... I did not reveal the secret purpose of the mighty gods, but I caused Atra-chasis (Pir-napishtim) to dream a dream in which he had knowledge of what the gods had decreed.'

"Having pondered a time over these words, Bel entered the ship alone. He grasped my hand and led me forth, even me, and he led forth my wife also, and caused her to kneel down beside me. Then he stood between us and gave his blessing. He spoke, saying: 'In time past Pir-napishtim was a man. Henceforth Pir-napishtim and his wife will be like unto deities, even us. Let them dwell apart beyond the river mouths.'

"Thereafter Bel carried me hither beyond the mouths of rivers."

Flood myths are found in many mythologies both in the Old World and the New.

The violent and deceitful men of the mythical Bronze Age of Greece were destroyed by a flood. It is related that Zeus said on one occasion to Hermes: "I will send a great rain, such as hath not been since the making of the world, and the whole race of men shall perish. I am weary of their iniquity."

For receiving with hospitable warmth these two gods in human guise, Deucalion, an old man, and his wife Pyrrha were spared, however. Zeus instructed his host to build an ark of oak, and store it well with food. When this was done, the couple entered the vessel and shut the door. Then Zeus "broke up all the fountains of the deep, and opened the well springs of heaven, and it rained for forty days and forty nights continually". The Bronze folk perished: not even those who fled to the hilltops could escape. The ark rested on Parnassus, and when the waters ebbed the old couple descended the mountain and took up their abode in a cave.

In Indian mythology the world is destroyed by a flood at the end of each Age of the Universe. There are four ages: the Krita or Perfect Age, the Treta Age, the Dwapara Age, and the Kali or Wicked Age. These correspond closely to the Greek and Celtic ages. There are also references in Sanskrit literature to the destruction of the world because too many human beings lived upon it. "When the increase of population had been so frightful," a sage related, "the Earth, oppressed with the excessive burden, sank down for a hundred Yojanas. Suffering pain in all her limbs, and being deprived of her senses by excessive pressure, the Earth in distress sought the protection of Narayana, the foremost of the gods."

Manu's account of the flood.  The god in fish shape informed him: "The time is ripe for purging the world.... Build a strong and massive ark, and furnish it with a long rope...." When the waters rose the horned fish towed the ark over the roaring sea, until it grounded on the highest peak of the Himavat, which is still called Naubandha (the harbour). Manu was accompanied by seven rishis.

In the Celtic (Irish) account of the flood, Cessair, granddaughter of Noah, was refused a chamber for herself in the ark, and fled to the western borders of the world as advised by her idol. Her fleet consisted of three ships, but two foundered before Ireland was reached. The survivors in addition to Cessair were, her father Bith, two other men, Fintan and Ladru, and fifty women. All of these perished on the hills except Fintan, who slept on the crest of a great billow, and lived to see Partholon, the giant, arriving from Greece.

There is a deluge also in Egyptian mythology. When Ra, the sun god, grew old as an earthly king, men began to mutter words against him. He called the gods together and said: "I will not slay them (his subjects) until I have heard what ye say concerning them." Nu, his father, who was the god of primeval waters, advised the wholesale destruction of mankind.

Said Ra: "Behold men flee unto the hills; their heart is full of fear because of that which they said."

The goddess Hathor-Sekhet, the Eye of Ra, then went forth and slew mankind on the hills. Thereafter Ra, desiring to protect the remnant of humanity, caused a great offering to be made to the goddess, consisting of corn beer mixed with herbs and human blood. This drink was poured out during the night. "And the goddess came in the morning; she found the fields inundated, she rejoiced thereat, she drank thereof, her heart was rejoiced, she went about drunken and took no more cognizance of men."

It is obvious that the Egyptian myth refers to the annual inundation of the Nile, the "human blood" in the "beer" being the blood of the slain corn god, or of his earthly representative. It is probable that the flood legends of North and South America similarly reflected local phenomena, although the possibility that they were of Asiatic origin, like the American Mongoloid tribes, cannot be overlooked. Whether or not Mexican civilization, which was flourishing about the time of the battle of Hastings, received any cultural stimulus from Asia is a question regarding which it would be unsafe to dogmatize, owing to the meagre character of the available data.

The Mexican deluge was caused by the "water sun", which suddenly discharged the moisture it had been drawing from the earth in the form of vapour through long ages. All life was destroyed.

A flood legend among the Nahua tribes resembles closely the Babylonian story as told by Pir-napishtim. The god Titlacahuan instructed a man named Nata to make a boat by hollowing out a cypress tree, so as to escape the coming deluge with his wife Nena. This pair escaped destruction. They offered up a fish sacrifice in the boat and enraged the deity who visited them, displaying as much indignation as did Bel when he discovered that Pir-napishtim had survived the great disaster. Nata and Nena had been instructed to take with them one ear of maize only, which suggests that they were harvest spirits.

In Brazil, Monan, the chief god, sent a great fire to burn up the world and its wicked inhabitants. To extinguish the flames a magician caused so much rain to fall that the earth was flooded.

The Californian Indians had a flood legend, and believed that the early race was diminutive; and the Athapascan Indians of the north-west professed to be descendants of a family who escaped the deluge. Indeed, deluge myths were widespread in the "New World".

The American belief that the first beings who were created were unable to live on earth was shared by the Babylonians. According to Berosus the first creation was a failure, because the animals could not bear the light and they all died. Here we meet with the germs of the Doctrine of the World's Ages, which reached its highest development in Indian, Greek, and Celtic (Irish) mythologies.

The Biblical account of the flood is familiar to readers. "It forms", says Professor Pinches, "a good subject for comparison with the Babylonian account, with which it agrees so closely in all the main points, and from which it differs so much in many essential details."

FINIS

Mythology: Creation and the Fall

J. A. MacCulloch: Elysium