Matsya pulls a boat carrying Manu and Saptarishi during Pralaya
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A Flood of Myths and Stories

February 14, 2020 by Independent Lens in Beyond the Films

By Lennlee Keep

We Believe in Dinosaurs is an exploration of the scientific and historical veracity of the Bible and the construction of an authentic likeness of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky.  Known as “The Ark Encounter,” this theme park explores the Judeo-Christian story of the wrath of God, a great flood, and the repopulation of the earth. While not all flood stories are the same, the description of the destruction of the world by water is a common theme in many religions and cultures. Most flood stories include an angry God or deity, and a catastrophic water event that destroys the world but is only survived by a chosen few.

But even with that simple plot, the execution can vary greatly.

Gilgamesh sculpture
Gilgamesh sculpture

These flood stories also seem to have significant roots in science. Geomythology is the study of how these stories and geology could intersect.  Flood stories  may explain geological phenomena such as volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, fossils, and other natural features of the landscape.


In the Judeo-Christian flood story, God became angry with the sins of mankind. He told his faithful servant, Noah, to build an ark large enough for his family (which included eight people; his wife, his three sons and their wives) and two of every creature on earth. God delivered the promised deluge, killing everyone and everything on earth except the population of the ark.

After the flood, the ark came to rest on a mountain top, a detail that is repeated in many stories across different cultures. This was an attempt to show the immense depth of the water, that it was higher than the mountains. Noah and his family were the only humans alive and are presumably the origins of the current human race.

The same narrative is mirrored in the Quran: Allah told Noah to build the ark, the flood came and then from Noah, the world began again.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Perhaps the oldest flood story is one of the earliest stories known to man, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Recorded on 12 stone tablets this is among the first pieces of literature in history.

According to the poem, Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king who reigned for 126 years. This might seem a bit hard to swallow, but Methuselah lived to be 969 years old, making Gilgamesh look like a toddler in the grand scheme of things. After the death of a friend, Gilgamesh began to search for immortality and met an immortal man named Utnapishtim, whose story is very much like the story of Noah.

Apparently, Utnapishtim had been granted immortality after building a ship called Preserver of Life and surviving the “great flood.” Like Noah, Utnapishtim brought all of his relatives and all species of creatures aboard his ark to save mankind. Sounds kind of familiar. 

Some cultures’ flood stories bear only a slight resemblance to the story of Noah. They maintain the themes of the ark and an angry God, but their repopulation stories are wildly different.


The Aztec flood story shares similarities with the story of Noah with some radical plot twists. In this story, Titlacauan warned the man named Note and his wife Nena, of a coming flood. Nata and Nena hollowed out a cypress tree, and Titlachahuan sealed them inside, telling them that they may only eat one ear of maize each. Here is where the story is wildly different from others.

The earth is flooded, but the people weren’t killed, instead, they were turned into fish. After the flood Nata and Nena disobeyed Titlacauan and ate fish. So Titlacauan turned them into dogs. The story ends with the world essentially starting all over again only this time with a hearty fish population and a couple of dogs. 


Zeus, the king of the Gods, was displeased with the human population, or the Pelasgians, (which is a catch-all term for the indigenous people of the Agean region). Zeus told Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, to construct an ark for himself and his wife, Pyrrha, who also happened to be Deucalion’s cousin. After nine days of flooding, the world was destroyed, and the ark rested on top of Mount Parnassus. When the waters receded, Deucalion and his cousin-wife offered a sacrifice to Zeus to learn how to repopulate the earth. Zeus told them to throw stones over their shoulders. The stones thrown by Deucalion became men, and those thrown behind Pyrrha became women. Which was a relatively tidy (and magical) way to explain the repopulation of the earth while skirting the whole incest issue.

Deucalion and Pyrrha, painting, artist Rupert Bunny, early 20th C.
Deucalion and Pyrrha, painting, artist Rupert Bunny, early 20th C.

Asian flood stories retain some of the primary themes but are far more intricate. It’s interesting to note that in the Asian flood stories, humans are not just ark builders and survivors, they have far more agency and control than in other cultures.


The Hindu deluge tale is unique from other religions. In Hindu teachings, Manu, or the first man, was not visited by a God, but rather by a fish. In some tellings of this story, the fish is the deity, Lord Vishnu.   This fish/God told Manu that the world would be destroyed in a great flood. Manu built a boat and tied it to the horn of the great fish. The fish guided Manu’s boat through the floods and, not surprisingly, to the top of a mountain. When the floodwaters receded, Manu performed a ritual sacrifice and poured butter and sour milk into the sea. After a year, a woman rose from the water and announced herself as “the daughter of Manu.” So it is Manu and his “daughter” that repopulate the earth.


Buddhists have an elaborate flood story called Samudda-vāṇija Jātaka. In an Indian village, there lived 1000 families of dishonest carpenters. These carpenters would tell people that they could build anything from houses to chairs and would take the money and never deliver any goods or do any work. Because of this they were, not surprisingly despised in the village and quickly needed to find a new place to live.  

They built a ship and sailed until they found a beautiful island. The island was populated by a  man who had been shipwrecked. The man told them that food was plentiful, life on the island was comfortable, and the carpenters were welcome to stay. The only catch was that the island was haunted by spirits.  The spirit’s only rule was that every time a human needed to defecate or urinate, they needed to dig a hole and cover it up when they were finished. The spirits wanted to keep their island clean and who can blame them.

The carpenters loved the island and decided to have a big party to celebrate their new home. However, they became drunk on fermented sugar cane and quickly ignored the rules and pretty much defecated and urinated all over the island. The spirits were furious and decided to flood the island with a giant wave, on the full moon. While the spirits were angry they didn’t want to kill the carpenters, they just wanted them gone. One spirit became a ball of light in the sky and told the people that because of their carelessness, the island would be flooded and that they should flee for their lives. 

Another spirit was angrier at the carpenters and wanted to trick them. So he appeared in the sky announcing that the previous warning about a flood had been a lie. He said there was nothing to worry about, everything’s fine, keep on partying and there isn’t going to be a flood. Just kidding!

These 1000 carpenter families were ruled by two men, one wise and one very foolish. The foolish carpenter believed the other spirit and told the people to stay, relax, and enjoy the party. The smart carpenter told his people to build a ship, just in case they weren’t kidding. 

While the wise man built a ship, the foolish man stayed and proceeded to drink more. On the day of the full moon, as the spirits promised, a giant wave came up and flooded the whole island. The wise man set sail with his people while the foolish man and his people died. 

God of Thunder from Chinese mythology
God of Thunder from Chinese mythology

What is interesting about this story is the flood was limited to one island, not the entire world.  While there is an ark or ship, there was no need for repopulation, as only a small number of people were killed, and not much land destroyed. And this may be the only flood story with close ties to bodily functions.


Throughout history and even today, flooding has been an enormous problem in China.  The success of an Emperor’s reign would be judged on how well they dealt with flooding and protected the food supply.  

The Chinese have many stories and myths about floods, gods, dragons, and spirits. Just as in other flood stories there are few survivors. But the Chinese flood story has a very complicated repopulation tale. 

One day a farmer managed to capture and imprison a thunder God. The farmer went into town but warned his children to stay far away from the caged deity.  The children took pity on the thunder god and released him. In gratitude the God warned them there was going to be a great flood. He gave the children a (presumably very large) gourd and told them that they would be safe from the waters as long as they are inside the gourd.

The rains came, the brother and sister got inside the gourd. They were the only people to survive the flood and having a brother and sister as the only survivors made the repopulation part of the story a little tricky since the incest taboo in almost every culture is very strong. There were a few different endings to this story. In one version, the brother and sister were given a special  “pass” from the heavens, like “It’s okay just this one time.”

In another version, the sister put her brother through many seemingly impossible physical challenges before agreeing to marry him. He completed the tasks, they married, and she had a child. The child was born damaged, without arms and legs. The brother killed the baby by cutting it up and throwing the pieces over the hill. The next day the brother and sister found that the pieces had turned into men and women.

In another form of the story, there is no incest at all: The brother wasn’t able to meet the sister’s challenges, and they didn’t marry or procreate. Instead, they repopulated the human race by creating humans from clay.


The Norse flood story is starkly different from the others in that the world was flooded, but not with water. When Odin and his brothers Villi and Ve killed the giant Ymir, the blood that poured from his body flooded the earth. That’s right, the world was drowned in blood. In this literal bloodbath, a single frost giant named Bergelmir and his wife made an ark, were saved, and repopulated the earth. 


The Aboriginal culture has a history rich in storytelling, and their flood story has a noticeable lack of the common elements. No angry deity and no ark. But the story is so entertaining that there are several children’s books about the frog who flooded the world. 

A frog named Tiddalik was very thirsty and drank up all of the water in the land, which caused an incredible drought. Creeks were dry, plants withered, and watering holes dried up. After many animals had died, all the remaining animals got together in a great council to devise a plan. They decided that the only way to get the water from the frog was to make him laugh. All the animals took turns, the kangaroos, emus, bears, and possums, with no luck. Finally, an eel wriggled and shivered and folded himself into funny shapes and Tiddalik couldn’t hold back any longer. The frog started a low laugh that sounded like distant thunder, and when he opened his mouth, water came pouring out, flooding the land. The flood gradually subsided, and the land was verdant and peaceful again.

Ojibwe/Chippewa Tribe

Nanabozho in the flood. (Illustration by R.C. Armour, from his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, 1905)
Nanabozho in the flood. (Illustration by R.C. Armour, from his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, 1905)

Native American tribes have long told stories to preserve their language, and to teach values and moral lessons. Such is the story of Waynaboozhoo (or Nanabozho) and the Great Flood. This story explores the time which is not commonly explored, the period between the flood and the receding of the water. 

The story goes that the Great Spirit was unhappy with man and created a great flood. The only survivor was a man named Waynaboozhoo who had made a raft of logs and sticks for himself and other animals that were alive. They floated around for over a month, but the waters had not gone down. Waynaboozhoo decided that he was going to have to rebuild the earth, and he needed mud from the ‘old world’ buried deep underwater.

First, a loon tried, but the water was too deep. A beaver was also unsuccessful. While they were arguing about who would try next, a coon (small duck) named Aajigade said that he would try. All the animals told him to go away, that he was too small. Then they continued arguing until the sun went down. Suddenly someone noticed the body of the little coon floating on the surface. Waynaboozhoo picked him up and saw a small piece of mud in his bill. He revived Aajigade, who flew away.

Waynaboozhoo shaped the mud, and it became bigger and bigger. He needed a place to put it, and a snapping turtle, Mikinaak, offered his back. The land grew and grew until it was the size of the whole earth. 

The Reality in Flood Myths?

Flood stories pervade hundreds of cultures and there are striking similarities to many of the accounts. It seems that at least some of these stories could be based upon actual events. Geologists have proposed the possibility of a great flood in the Middle East at the end of the last Ice Age, which was about 7,000 years ago. At that time, the Black Sea was a freshwater lake surrounded by farmlands.

The hypothesis is that the European glaciers melted and the Mediterranean Sea overflowed with a force that was  200 times greater than Niagra Falls. That would be an incredibly fast-moving wall of floodwater. There is physical evidence that supports this theory, including stone age structures under the Black Sea.  

Other theories include tsunamis and suggest that comets might have caused the flooding as well.

The big question is, will there be another catastrophic flood? With increased deforestation, climate change and rising sea levels we seem to be headed in that direction to create a new flood story of our very own.


Lennlee Keep is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller and reticent D&D player. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, and ESME. Her films have been shown on PBS, A&E and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about death more than most people are comfortable with. She is working on a memoir about addiction, grief and a literally broken heart. She lives in Austin, Texas with her son and their guinea pig, Chuck Norris. She is much funnier than all of this might lead you to believe.

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