Legends of the Flood
Anthropologists who study legends and folktales from different geographical locations and cultures consistently have reported one particular group of legends that is common to practically every civilization. Legends have surfaced in hundreds of cultures throughout the world that tell of a huge, catastrophic flood that destroyed most of mankind, and that was survived by only a few individuals and animals. Although most historians who have studied this matter estimate that these legends number into the 200s, according to evolutionary geologist Robert Schoch, “Noah is but one tale in a worldwide collection of at least 500 flood myths, which are the most widespread of all ancient myths and therefore can be considered among the oldest” (2003, p. 249, emp. added). Schoch went on to observe:
Narratives of a massive inundation are found all over the world…. Stories of a great deluge are found on every inhabited continent and among a great many different language and culture groups (pp. 103,249).
Over a century ago, the famous Canadian geologist, Sir William Dawson, wrote about how the record of the Flood
is preserved in some of the oldest historical documents of several distinct races of men, and is indirectly corroborated by the whole tenor of the early history of most of the civilized races (1895, pp. 4ff.).
Legends have been reported from nations such as China, Babylon, Mexico, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Persia, India, Norway, Wales, Ireland, Indonesia, Romania, etc.—composing a list that could go on for many pages (see Perloff, 1999, p. 167). Although the vast number of such legends is surprising, the similarity between much of their content is equally amazing. James Perloff noted:
In 95 percent of the more than two hundred flood legends, the flood was worldwide; in 88 percent, a certain family was favored; in 70 percent, survival was by means of a boat; in 67 percent, animals were also saved; in 66 percent, the flood was due to the wickedness of man; in 66 percent, the survivors had been forewarned; in 57 percent, they ended up on a mountain; in 35 percent, birds were sent out from the boat; and in 9 percent, exactly eight people were spared (p. 168).
AMERICAN INDIAN LEGENDS
The Aztecs tell of a worldwide global flood in a story with striking parallels to the biblical deluge. “Only two people, the hero Coxcox and his wife, survived the flood by floating in a boat that came to rest on a mountain” (Schoch, p. 103). Then, soon after the flood, giants constructed a great pyramid in an endeavor to reach the clouds. Such ambition is said to have angered the gods, who scattered the giants with fire sent from the heavens (cf. Genesis 11:1-9).
In the ancient land we now refer to as Mexico, one tribe of Indians, known as the Toltecs, told of a great flood. In their legend, a deluge destroyed the “first world” 1,716 years after it was created. Only a few people escaped this worldwide flood, and did so in a “toptlipetlocali” (a word that means “closed chest”). After these few people exited the closed chest, they wandered about the Earth, and found a place where they built a “zacuali” (a high tower) in case another flood came upon the Earth. At the time of the “zacuali,” the Toltecs’ languages were confused and they separated to different parts of the Earth.
Another ancient tribe of Mexico told the story of a man named Tezpi who escaped the deluge in a boat that was filled with animals. Similar to Noah, who sent out a raven (a scavenger bird) that never returned, and a dove that came back with an olive leaf, “Tezpi released a vulture, which stayed away, gorging on cadavers. Then he let a hummingbird go, and it returned to him bearing a twig” (Schoch, p. 104).
ANCIENT GREEK MYTHOLOGY
According to the Greek legend of the deluge, humans became very wicked. Zeus, the leader of the many gods in Greek mythology, wanted to destroy humans by a flood, and then raise up another group. However, before he could do this, a man by the name of Deucalion, and his wife Pyrrha, were warned of the impending disaster. This fortunate couple was placed in a large wooden chest by one of the immortals named Prometheus. For nine days and nights, the floodwaters covered almost all of the Earth. Only a few mountain peaks remained. The wooden chest came to rest on the peak of Mount Parnassus. Later, after leaving the wooden chest, Deucalion sacrificed to Zeus.
CHINESE AND ASIAN LEGENDS
In the land of China, there are many legends about a great flood. One of those comes from a group of people known as the Nosu. According to their legend, God sent a personal messenger to Earth to warn three sons that a flood was coming. Only the youngest son, Dum, heeded the messenger. He constructed a wooden boat to prepare for the coming flood. When the waters arrived, Dum entered his boat, and was saved. After the waters began to recede, the boat landed on the mountains of Tibet, where Dum had three sons who repopulated the Earth. Interestingly, even the Chinese character for “boat” possibly reveals the story of Noah and the other seven people on the ark. The three elements used to symbolize a boat are:
The Iban people of Sarawak tell of a hero named Trow, who floated around in an ark with his wife and numerous domestic animals (Schoch, p. 252). Natives from India tell a story about a man named Manu who built an ark after being warned of a flood. Later, the waters receded, and he landed on a mountain (Schoch, p. 250).
ANCIENT BABYLONIAN MYTHOLOGY
Possibly the most famous flood account (aside from the biblical record of Noah and the Flood) comes from the ancient Babylonian empire. The Gilgamesh Epic, written on twelve clay tablets that date back to the seventh century B.C., tells of a hero named Gilgamesh. In his search for eternal life, Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim, a person who was granted eternal life because he saved a boatload of animals and humans during a great flood. On the eleventh tablet of this epic, a flood account is recorded that parallels the Genesis account in many areas. According to the story, the gods instructed Utnapishtim to build a boat because a terrible flood was coming. Utnapishtim built the boat, covered it with pitch, and put animals of all kinds on it, as well as certain provisions. After Utnapishtim entered the boat with his family, it rained for six days and nights. When the flood ended, the boat rested on Mount Niser. After seven days, Utnapishtim sent out a dove to see if the waters had receded. The dove came back, so he sent a swallow, which also returned. Finally, he sent out a raven—which never returned. Utnapishtim and his family finally exited the boat and sacrificed to their gods (see Roth, 1988, pp. 303-304).
What is the significance of the various flood legends? The answer seems obvious: (a) we have well over 200 flood legends that tell of a great flood (and possibly more than 500—Schoch, p. 249); (b) many of the legends come from different ages and civilizations that could not possibly have copied any of the similar legends; (c) the legends were recorded long before any missionaries arrived to relate to them the Genesis account of Noah; and (d) almost all civilizations have some sort of flood legend. The conclusion to be drawn from such facts is that in the distant past, there was a colossal flood that forever affected the history of all civilizations.
Those living soon after the Flood did not have the book of Genesis to read to their descendants. (Genesis was not written until several hundred years after the Flood.) The account of the Flood was passed from one generation to the next. Many parents and grandparents told their children and grandchildren about the huge ark, the wonderful animals, and the devastating Flood, long before the Genesis record ever existed. Over the years, the details of the story were altered, but many of the actual details remained the same. Alfred Rehwinkel wrote:
Traditions similar to this record are found among nearly all the nations and tribes of the human race. And this is as one would expect it to be. If that awful world catastrophe, as described in the Bible, actually happened, the existence of the Flood traditions among the widely separated and primitive people is just what is to be expected. It is only natural that the memory of such an event was rehearsed in the ears of the children of the survivors again and again, and possibly made the basis of some religious observances (1951, pp. 127-128).
Harold W. Clark, in his volume, Fossils, Flood and Fire, commented:
Preserved in the myths and legends of almost every people on the face of the globe is the memory of the great catastrophe. While myths may not have any scientific value, yet they are significant in indicating the fact that an impression was left in the minds of the races of mankind that could not be erased (1968, p. 45).
After the “trappings” are stripped away from the kernel of truth in the various stories, there is almost complete agreement among practically all flood accounts: (a) a universal destruction by water of the human race and all other living things occurred; (b) an ark, or boat, was provided as the means of escape for some; and (c) a seed of mankind was provided to perpetuate humanity. As Furman Kearley once observed: “These traditions agree in too many vital points not to have originated from the same factual event” (1979, p. 11). In volume three of his multi-volume set, The Native Races of the Pacific Slope—Mythology, H.H. Bancroft wrote: “There never was a myth without a meaning; …there is not one of these stories, no matter how silly or absurd, which was not founded on fact” (1883).
Among the noted scholars of days gone by who have studied these matters in detail are such men as James G. Frazer (Folklore in the Old Testament) and William Wundt (Elements of Folk Psychology). Wundt, who did his utmost to find some kind of reasonable case for independent origins of the various flood sagas (and who had no great love for the biblical evidence), was forced to admit:
Of the combination of all these elements into a whole (the destruction of the earth by water, the rescue of a single man and seed of animals by means of a boat, etc.), however, we may say without hesitation, it could not have arisen twice independently (1916, p. 392, parenthetical comment in orig.).
Or, as Dawson concluded more than a century ago:
[W]e know now that the Deluge of Noah is not mere myth or fancy of primitive man or solely a doctrine of the Hebrew Scriptures. …[N]o historical event, ancient or modern, can be more firmly established as matter of fact than this (1895, pp. 4ff.).
Bancroft, H.H. (1883), Works: The Native Races of the Pacific Slope—Mythology (San Francisco, CA: A.L. Bancroft).
Clark, Harold W. (1968), Fossils, Flood and Fire (Escondido, CA: Outdoor Pictures).
Dawson, John William (1895), The Historical Deluge in Relation to Scientific Discovery (Chicago, IL: Revell).
Kearley, F. Furman (1979), “The Significance of the Genesis Flood,” Sound Doctrine, March/April.
Perloff, James (1999), Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (Arlington, MA: Refuge Books).
Rehwinkel, Alfred M. (1951), The Flood (St. Louis, MO: Concordia).
Roth, Ariel (1988), Origins: Linking Science and Scripture (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing).
Schoch, Robert M. (2003), Voyages of the Pyramid Builders (New York: Jeremy P. Parcher/Putnam).
Wundt, William (1916), Elements of Folk Psychology, trans. Edward L. Schaub (New York: Macmillan).
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