Wednesday, January 6, 2010
The Great Flood Myth
A follow-up to my Monday post "Good Stories Never Die," about the Great Flood. Information from Barbara Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets: Flood The biblical flood story, the "deluge," was a late offshoot of a cycle of flood myths known everywhere in the ancient world. Thousands of years before the Bible was written, an ark was built by Sumerian Ziusudra. In Akkad, the flood hero's name was Atrakhasis. In Babylon he was Uta-Napishtim, the only mortal to become immortal. In Greece he was Deucalion, who repopulated the earth after the waters subsided, with the help of his wife Pyrrha and the advice of the Great Goddess of the waters, Themis. In Armenia, the hero was Xisuthros - a corruption of Sumerian Ziusudra - whose ark landed on Mount Ararat.(1) According to the original Chaldean account, the flood hero was told by his god, "Build a vessel and finish it. By a deluge I will destroy substance and life. Cause thou to go up into the vessel the substance of all that has life." Technical instructions followed: the ark was to be 600 cubits long by 60 wide, with three times 3600 measures of asphalt on its exterior and the same amount inside. Three times 3600 porters brought chests of provisions, of which 3600 chests were for the hero's immediate family, while "the mariners divided among themselves twice three thousand six hundred chests."(2) It seems that Noah's ark was much smaller than earlier heroic proportions. [Cubit: From Latin cubitum, "elbow"; the length of an average hand and forearm from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow (about 18-21 inches).] As long ago as 1872, George Smith translated the Twelve Tablets of Creation from Ashurbanipal's library, and discovered he earlier version of the flood myth.(3) [Ashurbanipal - King of Assyria c. 669-630 BC., military leader and statesman. He collected at Nineveh a large library of cuneiform texts, rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century A.D.] Among the details that religious orthodoxy took care to suppress was the point that the god who caused the flood was disobedient to the Great Mother, who didn't want her earthly children drowned. Mother Ishtar severely punished the disobedient god by cursing him with her "great lightnings." She set her magic rainbow in the heavens to block his access to offerings on earthly altars, "since rashly he caused the flood-storm, and handed over my people to destruction."(4) Old Testament writers copied other details of the ancient flood myth but could not allow their god to be punished by the Great Whore of Babylon, as if he were a naughty child sent to bed without supper by an angry mother. Thus, they transformed Ishtar's rainbow barrier into a "sign of the covenant" voluntarily set in the heavens by God himself (Genesis 9:13). The Tigris-Euphrates valley was subject to disastrous floods. One especially was long remembered: geologists have linked it with the volcanic cataclysm that blew apart the island of Thera (Santorin) and destroyed Cretan civilization. When Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating the site of Ur, he found the track of a mighty flood - a layer of clay, without artifacts, eight feet thick.(5) [Holy crap!] Such a flood may have been identified with the watery Chaos that all Indo-European peoples believed would swallow up the world at the end of its cycle, and out of which a new world would be reborn in the womb of the Formless Mother.(6) The ark and its freight represented seeds of life passing through the period of Chaos from the destruction of one universe to the birth of the next. Even in the Bible, the "birth" was heralded by the Goddess's yonic dove (Genesis 8:12). Gnostic literature preserved the older view of the flood-causing God as an evil destroyer of humanity, and the Goddess as its preserver. Because people refused to worship him alone, jealous Jehovah sent the flood to wipe out all life. Fortunately the Goddess opposed him, "and Noah and his family were saved in the ark by means of the sprinkling of light that proceeded from her, and through it the world was gain filled with humankind."(7) This Gnostic interpretation had both Babylonian and Hellenic roots. Greeks said the primal sea-mother Themis gave Deucalion and his wife occult knowledge ("light") of how to create human being from stones, "the bones of their Mother," i.e., of the earth. (8) Raising up living people from stones or bones was a popular miracle. Jesus mentioned it, and Ezekiel's God claimed to have done it in the valley bones (Ezekiel 37). Notes: (1) Graves, G.M. 1, 142; Hooke, M.E.M., 130. (2) Lethaby, 239. (3) Ceram, 314. (4) Assyr. & Bab. Lit., 357; Epic of Gilgamesh, 112. (5) Ceram, 353. (6) Avalon, 233. (7) Pagels, 55. (8) Graves, G.M. 1, 139.