The Flood from Heaven

The legend of the flood is one of the best known and most appealing genres of myth. During the past few centuries, missionaries and anthropologists have collected several hundreds of versions from all parts of the world. Even Africa and Australia, long thought to lack proper parallels to the deluge of Noah, have now been shown to have their share. 

Not all flood myths need to be related nor do they have to refer to the same event. What can be demonstrated, however, is that the earliest attested versions, originating in the ancient Near-East, derive from a common source and form a true literary tradition. These include the famous Greek myth of Deucalion, the Jewish account of Noah, and the Mesopotamian myths of Ut-Napishtim, Ziusudra, and Atrahasis. The Old-Babylonian clay tablet shown above, which is held in the British Museum in London, tells the story of Atrahasis, dated to 1635 BCE in the conventional chronology.

When dealing with flood myths, one must tread with great care and not leap to conclusions. There is a good possibility that at least some variations commemorate local floods of the kind that sometimes occur when earthquakes or tsunamis strike. Nevertheless, the myths that speak of a universal inundation tend to relate to the cosmic axis in the centre of the world, a feature rarely if ever explored in the existing literature.

This connection takes essentially two forms. A large class of myths portray the axis – in its familiar symbolic forms as a world mountain, acosmic tree, and so on – as the hero's place of refuge. An unambiguous example is the Greek Deucalion, whose ship safely lands on Mount Parnassus. It is no coincidence that Parnassus was also the celebrated 'navel of the earth'. According to another group of myths the waters of the flood poured forth when the axis was uprooted or displaced. This motif is particularly common in South-America. The Makiritare of Venezuela, for instance, recall the giant tree Marahuaka, that grew upside down with its roots in the sky. When it was cut down, the flood ensued.

Such clues indicate that a large segment of flood myths may belong to the complex mythology of the axis mundi. As argued on these pages, the referent of these 'axis myths' was a stupendous high-energy plasma discharge tube with a semi-permanent character, whose existence was terminated amid catastrophic circumstances. If this model is right and the outburst of the flood had something to do with the disruption of this plasma column, one might contemplate the possibility that the water of the flood was not actually water, but a symbolic expression of glowing plasma.

Far-fetched as this may sound at first, this assumption would actually clarify various issues. Commentators have often noted that, in many myths, the flood comes down from the sky. Unless we are to resurrect the antiquated idea of 'watery comets' discharging their wet burden, such assertions do not make much sense. Apart from that, a significant number of flood myths insist that the water was no ordinary water, but a different substance – hot and fiery. Jewish legend had it that the rain was hot, scalding the skin of the sinners. The Makah of Washington, the Quileute, the Chimakum, the Salinan of California and the Ipurina of Brazilian Amazonia agreed that the earth was overwhelmed by a hot flood coming down from the sky. This intriguing lead does not seem to have been followed by any specialists in the field, but the image of an outburst of 'fire-water' certainly reminds one of a return to chaos, in which water and fire were commingled into a single substance.

The recurrent links of the flood with the world axis and an outflow of 'fire-water' spur a renewed examination of this fascinating body of folklore,

Contributed by Rens van der Sluijs