THERE IS A FIGURE in Greek mythology called Proteus (sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea), a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, one must first catch him, though—not an easy feat. When anyone attempts to grasp him, he rapidly changes from one form into another in an attempt to evade his captor’s clutches. But if a person is tenacious enough to hold on until Proteus tires and resolves into his true form, the god will render up the truth his captor seeks.
Orally transmitted stories also have a “protean” character. Handed on by word of mouth, each time a story is told the teller gives it a slightly different form and a different shade of meaning, so that over time many different versions of the same story emerge. The literary author who works from an oral tradition is like the hero who captures Proteus: first he must wrestle with the many versions of the story, but when he finally confers upon it a fixed form, he is able to make it serve him to convey a particular truth.
Taken out of context, different literary accounts of the Great Flood bear a striking, but superficial and misleading, similarity to one another. Similar elements do not indicate similar meanings–God is in the details. In this blog series, I’ve taken pains to examine different versions of the Flood story in their proper contexts, in order to discern the meaning that each writer sought to draw out of it. I hope that, having looked at the meaning in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we will now be able to see more clearly what makes the Biblical story of the Great Flood stand out from the others. First, though, it might be good to recap what we have learned about the significance of the Flood as it is presented in the other two poems.
Gilgamesh Grasps at Immortality, but Seizes on Wisdom
We saw that the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh is related by Utnapishtim as an object lesson for Gilgamesh, to dissuade him from his mad pursuit of immortality. Gilgamesh, a great king who is “two-thirds divine, and one-third man,” becomes obsessed with immortality after the death of his great friend, Enkidu. Enkidu, struck down by the gods, shares death-bed visions of what awaits him after this mortal life: a great nothingness of rotting bodies and oblivion, something the immortal gods will never suffer. In his determination to escape this dismal fate, Gilgamesh abandons his city to seek out the only man who has ever escaped death, Utnapishtim. A god bestowed immortality on him after he and his wife survived the gods’ destructive flood, but what was intended as a blessing turns out to be a kind of curse. Forced to live far from mortal men, an outcast from the restored human race, Utnapishtim lives an unnatural life of never-ending loneliness. Although Utnapishtim intends his story to dissuade the king from seeking a similar fate, Gilgamesh is not immediately convinced. Eventually, though, he becomes reconciled to the inescapable brevity of human life. This knowledge is the only lasting trophy that he takes with him as he returns to the great city over which he reigns. From now on, he will seek immortality only through the lasting nature of his kingly achievements.
The Enduring Human Spirit
In contrast to the crude but powerful Gilgamesh epic, Ovid’s lengthy poem, Metamorphoses, written nearly two thousand years later, is both more finely wrought and apparently less philosophical. A careless modern reader might easily dismiss Ovid’s poem as an artful mishmash of Graeco-Roman mythology, with an emphasis on erotic love. Yet, by focusing on one small section of the rambling poem, we saw that there is a more serious, philosophical theme pervading the poem just below its artful surface. Ovid’s account of the Great Flood suggests both the cruelty and capriciousness of the gods—a theme amply illustrated throughout the poem—and the human virtue that allows mere mortals to endure the vicissitudes of life.
Poetic Choices Shape Meaning
Creative choice is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled craftsman. When reworking material taken from a long poetic tradition, the poet creates something new and distinctive by choosing carefully; what he excludes can be as telling as what he includes. For instance, in order to emphasize his intended meaning of the Flood story, Ovid leaves out an important detail that most earlier versions of the myth included: he does not say that Deucalion and Pyrrha owe their survival to the forewarning of Deucalion’s immortal father, the Titan Prometheus, nor that Prometheus instructed them to build a great chest and fill it with provisions to sustain them after every other source of food has been destroyed by the flood. Instead, Ovid makes it seem as if nothing more than a divine whim ends the flood before the elderly couple too, last of all mortals, perish in the waters that have destroyed every other living thing.
While the poet, on the one hand, suppresses this important detail, on the other hand he emphasizes another, namely the way the in which the elderly couple replenishes the world’s human population. To make sure that the reader does not miss the point, the poet even adds an explicit interpretation of the significance of their producing offspring from stones: “[Thus] the toughness of our race, our ability to endure hard labour, and the proof we give of the source from which we are sprung.” In this way, Ovid harmonizes the meaning of the Flood story with the overall theme of the poem: life consists of constant change, but we mortals, whose life is short and at the mercy of the gods’ fickle affections, are tough enough to endure it all.
We can see that both of these poems, so different from one another, share a preoccupation with human mortality. In fact, in the understanding of the ancient world, mortality was the single-most characteristic that unavoidably distinguishes men from gods. Both poems suggest that the way to get the most out of life is to accept our human limitations and learn to rejoice in them. We are not gods, nor should we seek to be. How much better it is to strive to be the very best kind of humans, rather than to compete with the gods!
Let’s bear this in mind as we prepare to look at the most familiar Flood story of them all: the story of Noah and the Great Flood in the book of Genesis in the Bible.