All around the world, various cultures have been telling stories about “the great flood” which reshaped the world early on in human history, leaving only one survivor, or a group of survivors, to reform the world or repopulate humanity. Flood myths have been described in many mythologies and religious traditions. Despite originating in different regions and time periods, these myths have similarities, such as a divine warning or instruction, the building of a vessel to survive the flood, the saving of a chosen few or a righteous individual, and the regeneration of life after the flood. They serve as cultural narratives that have been passed down through generations, reflecting the human fascination with water, the power of nature, and the desire to explain the origins and meaning of existence. As such, they often convey moral, religious, or cosmological messages, such as the consequences of human actions, the renewal of the world, or the power and mercy of the divine.
“Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, the mayfly floating on the water. On the face of the sun, its countenance gazes, then all of a sudden nothing is there!”
– The Epic of Gilgamesh, ancient Mesopotamian text
“The LORD then said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male, and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male, and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male, and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.’ And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.”
– The Hebrew Bible (Genesis 7:1-5)
“O kind-hearted man, you have care in your heart, listen now. Soon the world will be submerged by a great flood, and everything will perish. You must build a strong ark, and take a long rope on board. You must also take with you the Seven Sages, who have existed since the beginning of time, and seeds of all things and a pair of each animal. When you are ready, I will come to you as a fish and I will have horns on my head. Do not forget my words, without me you cannot escape from the flood.”
– Matsya Purana, Hindu text
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian (Sumerian and Babylonian) flood myth that dates back to around 2100 BCE. It is also the oldest written story we know of in all of human history. It tells the story of Utnapishtim, who was warned by the gods of an impending flood and built a massive boat to survive the deluge along with his family, animals, and craftsmen.
The story of Noah’s Ark is a well-known flood myth from the Hebrew Bible, which is important for the 3 Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to the story, God decided to flood the Earth to cleanse it of wickedness, and Noah was instructed to build an ark to save himself, his family, and pairs of all animals from the floodwaters, as Noah was deemed to be the only righteous man left on Earth.
The Matsya Purana, a Hindu scripture, contains a flood myth known as the story of Matsya Avatar. In this myth, the god Vishnu assumes the form of a fish to save Manu, the progenitor of humanity, and a few selected animals from a great deluge, eventually leading to the regeneration of life on Earth.
Various Native American tribes have flood myths, like that of the Hopi tribe of North America, which tells the story of a great deluge that destroyed the world. The only survivor was a man named Waynaboozhoo who had made a raft of logs and sticks for himself and other animals, and decided he would help rebuild the world.
The Chinese myth of the Great Flood, found in ancient texts like the Classic of Mountains and Seas, tells the story of a catastrophic flood that covered the Earth and was only stopped when the hero Yu, with the help of divine intervention, constructed massive flood-control projects to save the people and the land.
The Ancient Greek account of the flood myth involves a couple known as Deucalion and Pyrrha, who survived the flood caused by Zeus by building an ark and landing it on a mountain. They were then told by the god Hermes to throw stones behind them, which turned into the new men and women which would repopulate the Earth.