A garbled version of the biblical accounts of Noah and Babel? Perhaps. This story comes from the Aztecs of Mexico—one of many such tales, from geographically remote and widely divergent cultures, that speak of a cataclysmic flood.
Tablets excavated from Iraq recount the myths of ancient Mesopotamia. They speak of a vanished culture in Sumer and of a king called Gilgamesh. He was renowned for his great wisdom and knowledge. Gilgamesh related the story of a worldwide flood. This was told to him by Utnapishtim, a king of a pre-flood civilisation and a survivor of the catastrophe.
The story relates that Ea, lord of the waters and man’s guardian, warned Utnapishtim of the deluge by which the gods planned to exterminate mankind. Ea told Utnapishtim to “tear down your house and build a boat” and to “take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures. … [E]ach side of the deck measured one hundred and twenty cubits, making a square”. There were seven decks in all. The flood itself was frightening and full of fury. Utnapishtim recounted that ‘the god of the storm turned daylight to darkness, when he smashed the land like a cup’. Once the tempest had subsided, Utnapishtim ‘looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was returned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched flat as a rooftop … on every side was the waste of water’. Utnapishtim loosed a dove who returned finding no resting place, and then a swallow with the same result. Finally, a loosed raven did not return. The boat came to ground on a mountaintop and Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice.2
The North American Indians have several flood stories. One from the Choctaw tribe tells how, long ago, men became so corrupt that the Great Spirit destroyed them in a flood. Only one man was saved—a prophet whose warnings the people disregarded, and whom the Great Spirit then directed to build a raft from sassafras logs. After many weeks, a small bird guided the prophet to an island where the Great Spirit changed the bird into a beautiful woman who became the wife of the prophet. Their children then repopulated the world.3
Likewise, there are several Australian Aboriginal flood stories. One tells how, long ago, there was a flood that covered the mountains so that many of the Nurrumbunguttias, or spirit men and women, were drowned. Others, including Pund-jil, were caught up by a whirlwind into the sky. When the waters receded, and the mountains appeared again, and the sea went back into its own place, the son and daughter of Pund-jil ‘went back to earth and became the first of the true men and women who live in the world today’.4
Early Jesuit scholars were the first Europeans to gain access to the Chinese ‘book of all knowledge’ from ancient times. This 4,320-volume collection told of the repercussions of mankind’s rebellion against the gods: “The Earth was shaken to its foundations. The sky sank lower towards the north. The sun, moon, and stars changed their motions. The Earth fell to pieces and the waters in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the Earth.”5
Another story, in the folklore of the Bahnars, a primitive tribe of Cochin, China, tells of how the rivers swelled “till the waters reached the sky, and all living beings perished except two, a brother and a sister, who were saved in a huge chest. They took with them into the chest a pair of every sort of animal …”.6
Flood stories from the continent of Africa are rare, but one from Egypt tells of an ancient creation god, Tem, who “was responsible for the primeval flood, which covered the entire earth and destroyed all of mankind except those in Tem’ boat”.7
The Incas of Peru also had a tradition of a deluge. “They said that the water rose above the highest mountains in the world, so that all people and all created things perished. No living thing escaped except a man and a woman, who floated in a box on the face of the waters and so were saved.”8
The stories of the Teutonic tribes of Scandinavia are vivid and describe terrifying events. The imagery of these legends emphasizes the size of the cataclysm. One such tale portrays the chaos of the world when the mighty wolf Fenrir shook himself and “made the whole world tremble. The aged ash tree Yggdrasil [envisaged as the axis of the earth] was shaken from its roots to its topmost branches. Mountains crumbled or split from top to bottom … ”. Men “were driven from their hearths and the human race was swept from the surface of the earth. The earth itself was beginning to lose its shape. Already the stars were coming adrift from the sky and falling into the gaping void. … Flames spurted from fissures in the rocks; everywhere there was the hissing of steam. All living things, all plant life, were blotted out. … And now all the rivers, all the seas rose and overflowed. From every side waves lashed against waves. They swelled and boiled and slowly covered all things. The earth sank beneath the sea …”. Then slowly “the earth emerged from the waves. Mountains rose anew … . Men also reappeared. … Enclosed in the wood itself of the ash tree Yggdrasil … the ancestors of a future race of men had escaped death.”9
There are at least 500 legends of a worldwide deluge. Many of these show remarkable similarities, with many aspects similar to the details about Noah’s Flood in the Bible (see aside below).
We are left with a few options. Perhaps all the peoples of these remote civilisations had different flood experiences that, by chance, had all these features in common, on which they based their stories. However, the more reasonable alternative is that these legends all find their root in the same one global Flood experience that Genesis records.
So why do sceptics reject the story today? The Bible says that people willingly close their minds about the Flood: “For this is hidden from them by their willing it, that the heavens were of old, and the earth out of the water, and through water, being held together by the word of God, through which the world that then was, being flooded by water, perished” (2 Peter 3:5-6).
The Bible also proclaims that this world is being reserved for another cataclysm: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a rushing noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat. And the earth and the works in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
All too often we rest in the surety of yet another benevolent sunrise. We rely too smugly upon the delicate balance that makes life on our planet possible. The ancient prophecies and legends, corruptions though they are of the original true account, help to remind us of our vulnerability before God. We should humbly bow the knee and get in step with His purposes. They are the only purposes that really count.
One of the more striking Flood accounts, summarized here, was discovered by anthropologists among a remote Aboriginal tribe in Western Australia, before any contact with missionaries.
“It came about that the earliest-time children tormented and ill-treated the Winking Owl, Dumbi. Ngadja, the Supreme One, was inwardly grieved and felt deep sorrow for him. He instructed Gajara, ‘If you want to live, take your wife, your sons and your sons’ wives and get a double raft. Because of the Dumbi affair, I intend to drown everyone. I am about to send rain and a sea flood,’ he told them. ‘Put on the raft long-lasting foods that may be stored, foods such as gumi, banimba, and ngalindaja, all these ground foods.’
“So Gajara stored all these foods. He also gathered birds of the air such as the cuckoo, the mistletoe-eater, the rainbow bird, the helmeted friar bird and finches; these he took on the raft, and also a female kangaroo. Gajara gathered his sons as the crew, and his own wife and his sons’ wives together.
“Then Ngadja sent the rainclouds down, shutting the clouds in upon them. The sea-flood came in from the north-north-east and the people were closed in by the salt-water flood and the tidal waters of the sea. Ngadja whirled the flood waters and the earth opened, drowning and flattening them all. He finished them at Dumbey. Meanwhile, the flood carried all those who were on the raft with Gajara along on the current far away to Dulugun.
“At last, the floodwaters brought Gajara back in this direction. He sent some birds out from the raft, first the cuckoo. The cuckoo found the land and did not return to him. Gradually the waters were going down. Later on, the other birds returned to Gajara and he sent them out again the following day. The land was already drying the waters up and the living creatures found a home and food. They killed a kangaroo after landing, and Gajara’s wife, Galgalbiri, put it in the earth oven and cooked it with other foods. The smoke rose slowly until it reached through into the sky. Ngadja, the Supreme Being, could smell the steam and smoke rising from the female kangaroo as it was cooking and he was pleased.
“Ngadja, the Supreme Being, put the rainbow in the sky to keep the rain-clouds back. The rainbow protects us so that the rainfall does not rise too high. Our people understand the significance of it. When we see the rainbow we say, ‘There will not be any abnormally heavy rain.’.”10
Funk and Wagnall’s 1950 Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend stated under the heading ‘Deluge or Flood’: “A world cataclysm during which the earth was inundated or submerged by water: a concept found in almost every mythology in the world. The exceptions are Egypt and Japan …” [But see Egyptian myth mentioned above (Ref. 7).] It goes on to describe the ‘bare bones of the usual deluge story’ as follows: “The gods (or a god) decide to send a deluge on the world, usually as punishment for some act, broken tabu, the killing of an animal, etc. (in a Tsimshian myth the deluge comes because the people have mistreated a trout), but sometimes for no reason. Certain human beings are warned, or it comes without warning. If warned, the people construct some kind of vessel (raft, ark, ship, Big Canoe, or the like), or find other means of escape (climbing a mountain or tree, growing tree, floating island, calabash or coconut shell, a turtle’s back, crab’s cave, etc.). Sometimes they also save certain things essential to a way of life, such as food, rarely domestic animals. The deluge comes (rain, huge wave, a container broken or opened, a monster’s belly punctured, etc.). Bird or rodent scouts are often sent out, but this is not universal. When the deluge is over the survivors find themselves on a mountain or an island; sometimes they offer a sacrifice (not universal), and then repeople the earth, recreate animals, etc., by some miraculous means.”11
If there were no near-universal distribution of world-destroying flood legends, sceptics would no doubt attack the Bible’ credibility on this basis, questioning how the memory of such an awesome account could be lost in so many cultures.
The dictionary quoted from here seemed to feel the need to reassure its readers with, “The fact [of a world Flood] itself finds no place in the geological history of the earth … .” But arguing against a global Flood on the basis of the earth’s ‘geological history’ of ‘long ages’ is only sound if that long-age history is a correct reading of the rocks, and the long-age reading is only true if there was no global Flood. This is known as the logical fallacy of ‘begging the question’—assuming that which you are trying to prove.12 The cultural memories of a world-destroying Flood, obviously altered by centuries of telling and retelling, are powerful, worldwide evidence consistent with the veracity of Genesis. They are an exciting reminder of the way in which the true history of the Bible connects with the real world of today. Return to text.