What is a Flood Myth?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

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.

In the Bible, a dove carries an olive branch to tell Noah that the flood is ending.
In the Bible, a dove carries an olive branch to tell Noah that the flood is ending.

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.

Noah's Ark features in perhaps the most famous flood myth.
Noah's Ark features in perhaps the most famous flood myth.

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.

Some people place a mythological significance on modern-day floods.
Some people place a mythological significance on modern-day floods.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Floods are fairly common, as far as disasters go.

They tend to heavily affect a huge area, compared to other natural events, so a primitive people might well have assumed that such a massive event must have covered the entire earth.


There is also a Babylonian myth about a major flood. In this myth, there is a man who is warned by God that there will be a flood. Just like the Judeo-Christian text, he builds a boat where his family and animals used as the flood came in. After six days, the boat lands on a mountaintop and the man becomes immortal.

The interesting thing is, I read in the news that remnants of what is believed to be Noah's ark has been found on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey! The Bible says that the ark landed in the Kingdom of Urartu. Doesn't Urartu sound like a version of Ararat? I don't know! Is this a mere coincidence, a myth?


Couldn't the fact that there is a flood myth in basically every part of the globe tells us about how people came to populate the world?

I have heard so many different myths, from so many different places and yet, the stories are always similar. This makes me think that there really was such an event when the population of the earth was fairly small. And as we grew in numbers, spread to newer lands, and perhaps as the geography of the globe changed, we all ended up somewhere else. But the story of the flood was retold from generation to generation, changing a little bit with time and it is with us today.

This is just my idea, but I think it might be true! What do you think?


Interesting article. I personally believe the religious account of Noah and the flood, so it is not a myth for me. The origin of Noah's story actually comes from religious text, which is believed to be directly from God.

I guess if you prefer to be rational, it makes more sense to believe that an actual event in human history triggered stories about flood. But if you are more religious, than certainly, there is a truth behind Noah's story. It can be interpreted as a test by God in which the believers were rewarded with their lives. It also may have been be the second chance for humanity to make a better world.

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