Ancient Accounts of the Great Flood

A recent movie reminded me that there are many ancient myths about the Great Flood, and each one communicates a different vision of man and his place in the cosmos.

A Bad Film

I ALWAYS CRINGE whenever Hollywood produces a Biblical movie, because generally Hollywood does not get religion and sees the Bible as a storehouse of hokey stories that need to be “re-imagined.” On the face of it, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah seemed to be another of such adaptation, but as it turns out the story of this film is derived from a non-Biblical account of Noah and the Great Flood, familiar to some Jews but to few others in America. (Is this a “Jewish film,” then? Even Jews themselves seem to disagree. For two perspectives, read this review by Marc Erlbaum or this one by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.)

It certainly is a movie that kicked up a lot of confusion. I probably would not have gone to see Noah last year if a friend hadn’t bought me a ticket and begged me to go with her. There had been a huge hue and cry from Christian viewers that this film was “not true to the Bible” (big surprise!), and even the offer of a free ticket might not have swayed me if a review by Barbara Nicolosi hadn’t assured me that there were many other reasons to hate this “terrible, terrible” film. I will admit, sometimes I just enjoy seeing something truly, laughably awful (this probably counts as “concupiscence of the eyes”), and Noah looked like it was going to be one of those, so off to the cinema I went.

These things definitely do not show up in the Biblical account.

It was pretty clear to me that the story Aronofsky chose to tell was not the story of Noah found in Genesis, so the fact that is was “not true to the Bible” didn’t really shock me, but I think Barbara Nicolosi was right in saying that there are plenty of reasons to hate this film. It suffers from a nonsensical story, poor casting choices, inconsistent characterization, illogical motivation, and goofy CG effects, not to mention some bizarre monsters, a weird ecological preoccupation that seems completely anachronistic, and an odd preoccupation with snakes.

I wasn’t really sure where all the weird bits come from—presumably not just out of the filmmaker’s imagination—so, after I watched it, I did a little digging and discovered that, in fact, Aronofsky’s story seems to be based (for the most part) on the Book of Enoch, a non-canonical apocryphal Jewish text with strong gnostic overtones, whose interpretation of the Great Flood grows out of a long tradition of Jewish mysticism. In other words, Aronofsky wanted to bring to the screen a non-Biblical (but apparently Jewish) version of Noah and the Great Flood, which accounts for at least some of its weirdness.

It’s too bad that the filmmaker didn’t advertise the fact that his film is derived from the Book of Enoch rather than from Genesis, because I think he could have avoided some of the Christian backlash and perhaps even intrigued viewers who might be interested to learn that there is an alternate account of Noah’s story. In fact, virtually every ancient culture told tales of a prehistoric deluge that wiped out almost all life on earth. These stories that were handed down through countless generations, yet today most of them have been forgotten by the great mass of humanity. Occasionally. though, one or another of them is mentioned in some comparative religion course, but usually only with the purpose of suggesting that they are all equally fictitious or to claim that the Bible is “influenced” by pagan stories that pre-exist it.

Vishnu rescues Manu and the Seven Sages in an Indian myth of the Great Flood.

Meaningful Myths

IT STANDS TO REASON that the multiplicity of these flood myths suggests that there must have been some ancient cataclysm that gave rise to these myths and, given that these stories have been handed down in all parts of the world, from ancient Uruk to the Peruvian Andes, the event must have been a global one. Like the familiar Biblical account, all of them share certain key features: the miraculous survival of one man who, with the help of a god, has prepared for the deluge by collecting seeds and animals in a boat, and who winds up repopulating the earth. But, as they say, God is in the details, and what I find most interesting about these various accounts is the ways in which they differ, particularly the different meanings that each version draws out of these events.

To explore the way these different meanings are embedded in the details of each account, and reflect a particular cultural belief, I’d like to repeat, here on this blog, an exercise in comparative mythology that I used to do in my college Humanities classes. Students in that course often started the semester convinced that (a) “myth” means “a bunch of weird, made-up stories that people used to believe way-back-when because they were too stupid to know any better,” and/or (b) all their professors were “liberals” (isn’t that why they call it “liberal arts”?), bent on convincing them that Christianity is just another big, stupid myth that educated people are smart enough not to believe. I was determined to get them to see that mythology is not “a bunch of lies” but a body of stories handed down by which a particular people tries to articulate and to pass on their understanding of why the world is the way it is, and how we should live as a result.

In the following series of posts, I will examine three different accounts of the Great Flood, all from ancient cultures that gave rise to our Western culture. The details they have in common will be pretty familiar, but my real interest is not in the ways they resemble each other but in the ways they differ. The unique, particular details of each are the clues to the truth which that particular version of the story was meant to convey. God, as they say, is in the details.

First, I’ll look at the Sumerian flood myth found in the Epic of Gilgamesh (click the link to the poem free online). Later, I’ll move on to the flood account found in a late Roman poem, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Only after I’ve taken a close look at both of these will I finally turn to the familiar account of Noah found in Genesis. Hopefully, by that point, it may be easier to focus on the telling details rather than the familiar outline, so that we can see how the Judaeo-Christian story presents a very different view of the cosmos and man’s place in it than similar accounts from pagan literature.

Begin the Series Here

2 replies on “Ancient Accounts of the Great Flood”

I saw it and liked it. I didn't dislike anything about it, except it was a bit long; but then I was expecting something dreadful. I especially liked the portrayal of the world before the Flood as being physically ruined by mankind's evil, as in "the ground is cursed because of you."

Hi, Christian! I'm glad you didn't find the movie as dreadful as you expected. The thing that bugged me most was Noah's insistence that EVERYONE must die, including himself — that seemed anachronistic to me, as if he were one of the modern nuts who insists that Mankind is a cancer in the body of Mother Gaia, etc. Now that I've been re-reading the Epic of Gilgamesh (for my next post), I realize that Aronofsky displaced the anger at humanity of God/the gods and attributed it to Noah himself — something that does not occur in any of the ancient sources, that I'm aware of. I guess I just felt that he was trying to make Noah too modern and messed up.

Stay tuned for my post on Gilgamesh — we'll see where some of those "weird bits" that bugged me got their start.

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