A flood myth is a type of origin story common to many cultures worldwide. In most versions of the story, much of the earth’s population is wiped out in a global flood caused by a deity or several deities. Some experts suggest that the flood myths may be based in human memory of extinction events or natural disasters, used to explain ancient ruins, or meant to encourage the belief that the survivors were chosen by a higher power to be saved.
Probably the most famous flood myth is the story of Noah’s Ark, from Judeo-Christian texts. In this tale, God has become angry that most humans are sinning and not being devoted. He gets Noah, an honest and devout man, to build an enormous boat and fill it with his family and two of each kind of animal. After Noah has done this, God kills everything else on the planet with a flood, leaving Noah’s family and the animals as the only survivors. Being pleased with Noah and his sons, God decreed he would never again send a flood.
Indian mythology provides a tale quite similar to the story of Noah, regarding a man named Manu. Because he saved the life of a small fish, the fish informs Manu that a great flood is coming, and tells him to build a boat. Manu does so and manages to survive along with his sister, with whom he repopulates the world.
The Tarahumara flood myth gives an interesting explanation of why corn is so important to Central American culture and gives a variation of the “chosen people” story. After God sent a flood to kill men as punishment for making war, he sent three men and three women to repopulate the planet. God sent them three types of corn to plant, that they were meant to guard forever after. All Tarahumara people are believed to have descended from the original six.
Although there are hundreds of versions of the flood myth, experts remain puzzled as to exactly why they are so prevalent around the world. Some suggest that actual floods could be the origin of many of the stories, but some cultures that live nowhere near water still have a flood myth. Another possibility is that a global event, such as a comet striking the earth, caused a sudden and massive flooding, even in normally dry locations. This could account for the suddenness of the floods in so many of the stories.
In ancient times, nature was considered by many to be a tool of the gods and a signal of their moods. In most stories, the flood comes after a war or sin has taken over most of the populous, and is usually explained by saying the gods were angry or disappointed in humans. Actual weather events could easily have been interpreted as the swift fury of a deity, while what caused the anger may have been added after the fact.
Flood myths are a fascinating means of studying the origins of mythology in cultures across the world. The fact that almost every ancient culture and religion possesses at least one flood myth seems to indicate that at some point in history, something went badly wrong with the waters of earth. We may never know the true physical origin of the many stories, but the tales themselves provide insight into the ancient world, both of the cultures who invented the stories, and the unpredictable patterns of the natural world.