Floods in religions. Disaster historian John Withington’s new book Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) reveals that dozens of religions in different parts of the world have their own tales of apocalyptic deluges.
The story of Noah is one of the best-known in the Bible – the universal flood, the warning to the one righteous man to save his family, the ark, the dove that goes out to find land, the sacrifice to God, the repopulation of the earth.
But disaster historian John Withington’s new book Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) reveals that dozens of religions in different parts of the world have their own tales of apocalyptic deluges – perhaps a reflection of the fact that floods are the natural disaster most commonly suffered by humanity.
So in 1839, a young English lawyer named Austen Henry Layard, excavating the ancient city of Nineveh in what is now Iraq, found bits of clay tablets on which was told a story called The Epic of Gilgamesh. It related how, as humanity grew in numbers, the gods were being driven mad by all the noise they made, and eventually things got so bad, they decided all human beings must be destroyed.
But one god had a soft spot for a king named Utnapishtim, and tipped him off. The king built a huge boat, and put on board his family, a collection of animals and the craftsmen who had made the vessel. Like Noah, his vessel eventually came to rest on a mountain top, from where he sent out an exploratory dove, and then made an offering to the gods.
The similarities between the stories are striking, and fragments of Gilgamesh were found in Palestine, so some believe it provided the inspiration for Noah’s story. But the ancient Greeks also had a flood myth – the story of Deucalion.
In this tale too, humankind goes badly off the rails, and news reaches the gods on Mount Olympus. Once again, a great flood wipes out everyone, except for one righteous man, who has been forewarned, and his wife. They escape in a boat.
Hindus have Manu, who was washing one day when a little fish swam into his hand. It asked Manu to take care of it and protect it from bigger fish. Manu agrees, and the fish, which is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, warns him that soon a great flood will destroy the world and that he must build a boat. The fish grew to be the biggest in the world, and when the waters came, it towed Manu’s boat to the top of a mountain, allowing him to become the sole survivor.
Apart from the Middle East, Greece and India, flood myths are also found in south-east Asian countries such as Burma, Vietnam, and Indonesia; in New Guinea and Australasia; in many South Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Kamchatka peninsula of Far Eastern Russia, Lithuania, Transylvania, and all over North and South America. The nineteenth-century painter of Native Americans, George Catlin, said every one of the 120 Indian tribes he had visited had a tradition of a devastating flood, which only a handful of people survive.
In Mexico, the Huichol Indians told of a young man who was trying to clear a field to plant crops, but every morning he found the trees he had cut down the day before were back as tall as ever. On the fifth day, he met an old woman who revealed to him that she was the one who restored the trees each night. Angrily he asked her why, and she said it was because she needed to talk to him. He was wasting his time felling them, because in a few days, there was going to be a great flood. Though the young man did not realise, the woman was actually Great-grandmother Nakawe, the goddess of earth. Not only did she tell him to make a wooden box, she even put on the cover and made it watertight, enabling him to survive.
Sometimes, the problem is not the dreadful sins of mankind. The French Polynesian island of Raiatea has a tale of a flood sent by a sea-god who flies into a rage when fishermen get their hooks tangled in his hair while he is trying to take a nap.
In a myth from the Great Plains of central North America, humans are victims of a power struggle between gods. The Sioux related that the Sky-spirit created human beings and put them on the fertile earth, but Unktehi, the horned water-spirit of the Missouri River, took them for lice and she and her followers tried to flood the land and drown them. Only a few managed to escape by scrambling to the top of a mountain. They prayed for survival and the Great Thunderbird, Wakan Tanka, along with his followers, set out to save them. For many ages they fought Untekhi and her offspring, until at last they prevailed.
Flood also includes chapters on the deadliest floods in history, how floods have been portrayed in literature, art and films, how some of the most ambitious structures ever built by humans have been erected to protect against flooding, and how climate change may now be making humanity more vulnerable than ever to the waters.
John Withington, an award-winning television, radio and newspaper journalist, is the author of a number of books on the history of disasters, including A Disastrous History of the World (published in the USA as Disaster!), A Disastrous History of Britain, London’s Disasters, and Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters.
Flood: Nature and Culture is published by Reaktion Books. Price £14.95. ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9.