Why are flood myths found around the world so similar? Do these myths contained in oral literature have a basis in fact? Folklorist Gary R. Varner delves into this interesting subject.
The mythology of the ancient Americans is extensive and is important in the understanding of the Native American’s arrival and existence on the North American continent. We have a tendency to label the history of other people as mythic whereas we hold our own accounts to be sacred and true . This is a tragic loss to the understanding of our past.
Because Native American accounts of the creation and flood are almost identical to other legends around the world, we must entertain the possibility that there was a common source. Evidence seems to exist to indicate that an event, an event of catastrophic importance, did in fact occur. Whether the legends originated from one point in the world and spread throughout the globe or the disaster was experienced by different people at different times cannot be absolutely determined.
What at times may appear to be a quaint folk-story, such as tales about elves, giants, etc., may in fact have a basis in reality.
Regardless, the mythological world of the Native American was an important part of Native American religion—just as Christianity is composed of many ancient myths and legends. We have sufficient evidence to assume that some myths are a part of humankind’s true history.
It is important to understand the meanings of myths as well. These legends may have a historical basis and should not be dismissed as easily as they have been. Webster’s definition of “myth” states that it is “a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon…”
Religion scholar Mircea Eliade wrote that myth is a sacred reality. Myth relates to a sacred history, a telling of the creation and other events that occurred prior to humankind’s existence. Such sacred reality exists outside of the normal, profane reality that we see in the physical world. It is a reality that cannot be fully comprehended but is no less true . We cannot treat the mythological context of our world any less seriously than we treat the world that we can touch and feel. They coexist in time but are entirely separate realities.
We must not belittle myth and folklore as they offer us an entirely different perspective of our world, our place in that world, and the unseen powers that have so much influence over us in our existence on this Earth. The fascinating thing about myth and folklore is the universality of it. How this universal application of myth has occurred, and why, is a subject for extensive study.
A study undertaken in the 1970’s by Dr. Cesare Emiliani brought a new understanding to the dark legends of the deluge. According to Emiliani, approximately 11,600 years ago a massive ice sheet in North America suddenly collapsed, moved southward down the Mississippi Valley and melted in the warmer climate of that region. This melting of the ice sheet produced a great deal of fresh water into the oceans—raising the sea level by at least 135 feet in the world’s lower coastal regions. This rise in sea level was almost instantaneous.
Since coastal areas around the world are fairly well populated and have been throughout time, Emiliani believed that the universal deluge myths may have resulted from this sudden rise in the sea level which inundated much of the coastal areas. The inhabitants were forced to move inland to flee the rising water or escaped on rafts or other water craft—or drowned. As the people fled to higher ground, their stories of terror and death would certainly have had an impact on surrounding cultures as well as their cultural psyches.
The date that Emiliani settled on for the massive ice melt, 11,600 to 9,600 BCE also coincides with Plato’s account of the submerging of Atlantis. There is no evidence to support the belief that a continent existed between America and Europe, continental drift rules this theory out, however “Atlantis” could have been part of the actual land mass of North America which was submerged due to this surge of water. This could have been the “great land to the west” the Egyptians related to Solon in Plato’s writings. Supposedly, the Egyptians lost all contact with this land after the cataclysmic event.
In studying the legends of the Great Flood, it is interesting to note the variations in the flood stories. One legend that is certainly supportive of Emiliani’s theory is that of the Sia Indians of New Mexico:
“The whole earth was filled with water. The waters did not fall in rain, but came in as rivers between the mesas. It continued to flow in from all sides until the people and the animals fled to the mesa tops. The water continued to rise until nearly level with the tops of the mesas.”
However, was the flood simply a catastrophe or was it also the cause of new beginnings—of creation? In many Native American myths, the world is created anew from the flood. The Omaha traditional account of Genesis recorded by Francis LaFlesche in the early 1900’s reads:
“At the beginning, all things were in the mind of Wakonda. All creatures, including man, were spirits. They moved about in space between the earth and the stars. They were seeking a place where they could come into bodily existence. They ascended to the sun, but the sun was not fitted for their abode. They moved on to the moon and found that it also was not good for their home. Then they descended to the earth. They saw it was covered with water. They floated through the air to the north, the east, the south, and then the west, and found no dry land. They were sorely grieved. Suddenly from the midst of the water’s arose a great rock. It burst into flames and the waters floated into the air in clouds. Dry land appeared; the grasses and the trees grew. The hosts of spirits descended and became flesh and blood. They fed on the seeds of the grasses and the fruits of the trees, and the land vibrated with their expressions of joy and gratitude to Wakonda, the maker of all things.”
The Popl Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, gives this account:
“This is the first account…there was neither man nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky.
“The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky.
“There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble…
“There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed.
“There was only immobility and silence in the darkness…Only the Creator, the Maker, Tepeu, Gucumetz, the Forefathers, were in the water surrounded by light…By nature they were great sages and great thinkers. In this manner the sky existed and also the Heart of Heaven, which is the name of God and thus He is called.
“Then came the word. Then they planned the creation, and the growth of the trees and the thickets and the birth of life and the creation of man.
“Thus let it be done! Let the emptiness be filled! Let the water recede and make a void, let the earth appear and become solid; let it be done. Thus they spoke. Let there be light, let there be dawn in the sky and on the earth!
“Then the earth was created by them. So it was, in truth, that they created the Earth. Earth! they said, and instantly it was made.
“Like the midst, like a cloud, and like a cloud of dust was the creation, when the mountains appeared from the water; and instantly the mountains grew.
“So it was that they made perfect the work…”
The Popul Vuh then goes on to state that the Creators became displeased with the animals that they had created. The animals were unable to worship the creators, so man was made:
“Of earth, of mud, they made [man’s] flesh.”
However, as in the Biblical account of the fall of man, humankind fell from the grace of the gods:
“They no longer remembered the Heart of Heaven. It was merely a trial, an attempt at man…Therefore, they no longer thought of their Creator nor their Maker…there were the first men who existed in great numbers on the face of the earth.
“Immediately the [men] were annihilated…a flood was brought about by the Heart of Heaven, a great flood was formed which fell on the heads of the…creatures.”
The Yaqui people living in the American southwest and Mexico, have their own legend of the flood. This account is interesting due to its attention to several survivors. It also gives dates for the flood’s occurrence. The myth was handed down in a rather factual manner with little elaboration. The Yaqui myth is perhaps the best indication of an actual disaster:
“Yaitowi, in his time, walked with Dios when came to pass the days when water rose over the earth to destroy all living creatures, alike beneath the sky, on the earth and living in the water—even the birds…It so happened that on the seventh day of February the flood waters covered the earth. In this time of Yaitowi, in the year 614, the day of the seventeenth of that same month, February, it rained all over the world, this continued for fourteen days and fourteen nights. Since the blessed end, everything that had been alive, and all life substance was thus finished.
“And on the seventeenth of the month of July the waters were receding until the first of October, when the tops of the hills showed. Yaitowi, and thirteen others as well as eleven women were saved on the hill of Parbus, which today is called Maatele. And on the hill of Jonas, eleven souls and one woman called Enrac Dolores were saved.”
The legend continues, relating how another sixteen survivors were found safe on various hills along with a number of animals. And then:
“And they heard the voice of Dios, ‘And I, Dios…will spread the blood of man because man is made in the image of Dios. Now there will be no more flood to destroy the earth, which is a sign. For centuries I will put my arch (rainbow) in the clouds…today my arch will be [seen]…to remind me of my pact between myself and all living souls.”
Throughout all of the myths concerning the flood there appear several accounts of the creation before the deluge. Evidently, these earlier creations were very unsatisfactory to the Creator. The Mayan legends tell of men before the Judeo-Christian Adam who were destroyed in a succession of catastrophes.
The first race of man, according to Mayan lore, were destroyed—except two who raised a new race of giants. The second destruction was by earthquake and “the overthrow of the highest mountains.” The third stage of man’s development was again destroyed in a terrible hurricane. Those that survived, according to legend, lost their powers of speech and reason and became monkeys. The Mayan’s believed that the age we are presently in will be annihilated by fire.
Several other cultures elaborate on their mythical accounts of the flood to include an ark that saved a few humans and animals from the ravages of the rising waters. The Miztecs, Zapotecs, Tlascaltecs and Michoacan people all had depictions of an ark in their painted manuscripts.
Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote of the legends concerning the Mexican Noah and the confusion of language:
“In Atonatuh, the age of water, a great flood covered all the face of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were turned into fishes. Only one man and one woman escaped, saving themselves in the hollow trunk of an ahahuerte, or bald cypress…On the waters abating a little, they grounded their ark on the peak of Colhuecan…Here they increased and multiplied…children who were all born dumb. And a dove came and gave them…innumerable languages. Only fifteen of the descendents…who afterward became heads of families, spoke the same language or could at all understand each other; and from these fifteen are descended the Toltec’s, the Aztecs, and the Acolhuas.”
Another interesting story of the deluge is contained in the Chimalpopoca manuscript:
“When the…age of Nahul-atl came, there had passed already four hundred years; then came two hundred years, then seventy and six, and then mankind were lost and drowned and turned into fishes. The waters and the sky drew near each other; in a single day all was lost the day Four Flower consumed all that was of our flesh. And this year was the year Ce-Calli; on the first day…the very mountains were swallowed up in the flood, and the waters remained, lying tranquil, during fifty and two spring times…But before the flood began, Titlacahuan [God] had warned the man Nata and his wife Neva, saying: …hollow out to yourselves a great cypress, into which you shall enter, when, in the month Tozoztli, the waters shall near the sky.”
One theory that has been advanced concerning the universal themes of flood legends is that by Native American scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. He believes that the Genesis legend is the same among most cultures due to the myth’s natural presentation of a disaster. Deloria wrote “the sequence of action [in Genesis] is not incompatible with the phenomenon that would be expected in a catastrophe of major importance.”
Deloria compares the catastrophic deluge event in the Genesis myth and the recovery from it:
“While light itself is apparently present in the Genesis account prior to plant life, distinguishing the source of light comes after the emergence of plant life. We could find no better description of a planet emerging from a catastrophic event than to find light diffused in its atmosphere…”
Citing the various Native American myths of the subterranean origin of humankind, Deloria wrote “there would appear to be no reason for a number of tribes sharing this story, unless there was some event behind it even though very dimly recalled…Perhaps the disaster…did not affect the people of North America, who had prepared an underground shelter…in anticipation of the event.”
If we accept Deloria’s theory then we must also be ready to accept the idea that ancient people had an advanced technology to both anticipate a disaster of this magnitude and to prepare in advance underground shelters. This may well have been the case. However, the many deluge legends of North American tribes indicate that disaster did indeed strike North America as well. The Owens Valley Paiute have legends of the flood with only a few survivors able to get away from the waters by climbing to the top of the White Mountain. The various rock art depictions found on the top of the mountain depicting fish and other marine animals, according to legend, were left by the survivors of the flood who drew and carved on the rocks what they saw in the waters below them.
Do these myths have their origin in the same event?
The Pima Indians of Arizona give this account of the flood:
“The Creator took clay in his hands, and mixing it with the sweat of his own body, kneaded the whole into a lump. Then he blew upon the lump till it was filled with life and began to move; and it became man and woman. This Creator had a son called Szeukha, who, when the world was beginning to be tolerably peopled, lived in the Gila Valley, where lived also…a great prophet, whose name has been forgotten. Upon a certain night when the prophet slept, he was wakened by a noise at the door…and when he looked, a great Eagle stood before him. And the eagle spake: Arise, thou that healest the sick, thou that shouldest know what is to come, for behold a deluge is at hand. But the prophet laughed the bird to scorn…Afterward the Eagle came again and warned him of the waters at hand; but he gave no ear to the bird at all. …A third time, the Eagle came to warn the prophet, and to say that all the valley of the Gila should be laid waste with water; but the prophet gave no heed. The, in the twinkling of an eye, and even as the flapping of the Eagle’s wings dies away into the night, there came a peal of thunder and an awful crash; and a green mound of water reared itself over the plain. It seemed to stand upright for a second, then, cut incessantly by the lightning, goaded on like a great beast, it flung itself upon the prophet’s hut. When the morning broke, there was nothing to be seen alive but one man—if indeed he were a man; Szeukha, the Son of the Creator, had saved himself by floating on a ball of gum.”
Szeukha, seeing bodies of the dead, raised them to life once again to repopulate the earth.
The Hopi, another desert tribe, also have a legend about the flood. The Hopi “were almost overwhelmed by a great flood which kept rising over the plains and over the hills till it reached nearly the tops of the mountains where the ancestors were waiting in fear.”
How is it that these desert people have such vivid stories of such massive “mounds of water” and of “great floods” unless there was a factual basis to their legends?
Emiliani’s theory is again supported by these legends from the desert and there is certain physical evidence of a large water flow in desert areas in ancient times. Marine sediments found in such places as Palomar Mountain in Southern California in Luiseño territory, and shells found on the higher plateau of the Grand Canyon suggest that a great deal of the American continent was once under water.
The flood myth though is one of those fascinating stories that transcend time and geography. Almost every culture has a legend of a flood in which only a few people survive to rebuild the world. People as far away as the Australian Aborigines and the North American Indians have very similar stories. Is this, then, a powerful memory in the human species of an actual event? On the other hand, is it a memory of devastating localized floods, which surely have occurred though time in most every land?
At present, there is no way to date stories as we date the fossilized bones of our ancient ancestors or the beasts that lived in the dim past. There has been other, more recent work that seems to indicate that at least in the Middle East a catastrophic flood did occur which left an indelible mark in the human psyche. According to the theory during the 6th millennium BCE the present Black Sea was then a fresh water lake. The surface of the lake was approximately 500 feet below sea level. As the water rose in the Mediterranean Sea due to the melting of the glaciers the narrow land bridges that separated the Mediterranean from the lake failed allowing as much as 10 cubic miles of water a day to pour into the area for two years. The shoreline around the lake disappeared at the rate of a mile a day. This area was occupied at the time by farming and fishing communities who would have witnessed the deluge with absolute horror. To substantiate this theory underwater cameras have recorded possible buildings located in depths of 300 feet in the Black Sea.
More recently, archaeologist from the University of Birmingham discovered a 23,000 square kilometer area under the North Sea that had suddenly sunk beneath the waves some 8,000 years ago. According to the scientist “At times this change would have been insidious and slow—but at times it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people.” Landscape viewed as sacred to these ancient people would have been swallowed up, affecting not only their livelihoods but their very spirituality.
“In 10,000 BC hunter gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6,000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years.” Such a huge loss affecting so many people and cultures may well have impacted the Americas as well with immigrants not only bringing their myths and legends but also their tales of the disastrous flood.
According to Haas and others, “The sudden inundation of human settlements along the old shoreline is a plausible source of accounts of a world flood: in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, and other ancient writings.”
However, it is probably not the origin
of flood legends found in other areas of the world including North America.
Anthropologist James Mooney recorded a flood myth of the Cherokee:
“A long time ago a man had a dog, which began to go down to the river every day and look at the water and howl. At last the man was angry and scolded the dog, which then spoke to him and said: ‘Very soon there is going to be a great freshet and the water will come so high that everybody will be drowned; but if you will make a raft to get upon when the rain comes you can be saved…”
The man set out to build the raft and, as it started to rain, he gathered provisions and his family together and set off. “It rained for a long time, and the water rose until the mountains were covered and all the people in the world were drowned. Then the rain stopped and the waters went down again, until at last it was safe to come off the raft. Now there was no one alive but the man and his family…”
We could assume that this legend was the result of Christian influences among the Cherokee except for one thing. Mooney noted that the Cherokee informant who related this story “accounted for the phenomenon by an upheaval and tilting of the earth, so that the waters for a time overflowed the inhabited parts.” This is very indicative of an eye-witness account handed down through the ages and taking the form of myth.
The Luiseño myth of the flood is short and concise and appears to be more a statement of fact than any mythic elaboration. Moriarty wrote that the Luiseño “believed that at one time, very long ago in the past, the sea began to fill up so that it came over the valleys and mountains. As a result, all the people and animals dies except some who went to live on a very high mountain. The water did not go up that high. This is all there is to the legend.”
Other California Indians tell similar stories, all of which include certain mountains on which the survivors have fled. The Mattoles in Northern California believed that their ancestors had fled to Taylor Peak, others believed that Mount Diablo or Reed Peak were the only areas above the flood waters. All of these legends indicate that the great deluge did occur during man’s existence and that only scattered pockets of humanity survived.
Flood myths are also found in Canada and Alaska where the Tlingit Indians believed their ancestors survived the flood in a “great floating building.” The Tlingits also account for the diversity of language by saying that the “ark” broke into sections, which drifted away. Where each section finally made land fall a different culture sprung up—with a different language.
Many Native American cultures believed that mankind had been subjected to a series of catastrophes that were caused by the gods to rid the world of evil. The Hopi, Mesoamericans and others believed in at least three or four ages that had been swept away by God. The Trinity River Indians of Northern California believed in three destructions. The first being destruction by conflagration, the second destruction by terrible winds, and the third by flood.
“The belief in one or more previous destructions of the world by water was widely held” in Mesoamerican tradition, according to archaeologist Robert Rands.The Wichita have legends of a prophet who, like Noah, saved grain, animals and, last but not least, his wife in an ark-like vessel:
“The prophet was told by a voice from above that he had a work that was soon to begin, for everything was going wrong…the prophet was told to get a tall cane, and place it between the joints all kinds of seeds, grass, corn, etc….then he was told to get (select) in pairs those animals he thought best should be saved. He was to save all the good ones and leave out all the bad ones. The voice said it would attend to the bad ones.
“…after the prophet had put everything in the cane he went to the man in the North and told him…and he asked him (the man in the North) to go ahead with the work and finish it. The Man at the North replied…that when the time should come there would be a sign indicating that dire things were going to happen…On a certain day the fouls of the air appeared in the North…the prophet crawled into the cane. The people wondered what was the reason for this, finally the animals came, and the people began to cry and to run for the mountains and for other places, but it did them no good. After the birds and animals passed there came a flood, and the water was all over, and it got deeper and deeper. The bad people were drowned and everything else that was not in the cane.
“…the water began to go down. It wholly disappeared, so that the land could be seen, especially one high point, to this point the prophet and his wife were sent…”
The creation myth of the Wichita is just as vivid. It again shows the closeness of Native American myth with those of other times and cultures:
“In the time of the beginning there was no sun, no stars, nor anything else as it is now. Time passed on. Man-never-known-on-earth, Kinnekasus, was the only man that existed, and he it was who created all things. When the earth was created it was composed of land and water, but they were not yet separated. After the earth was formed, (Kinnekasus) made a man…He also made a woman for the man…”
This primordial time before creation was described by the Iroquois as: “An unlimited expanse of water once filled the space now occupied by the world we inhabit. Here was the abode of total darkness, which no ray of light ever penetrated.”
An interesting thing to note in all of these legends is that the world is already in existence, albeit covered with water, before the “creation”. This would tend to support Deloria’s theory concerning the flood. Also in support of Deloria is a legend of a Brazilian Indian tribe which begins the creation of the world with the destruction of it in fire and water. In this legend, a single man survives and is given a woman by God to repopulate the earth.
Yet another supportive myth comes from the Yokut tribe of Central California. In their legend, people are present on a lone mountaintop as the rest of the world is submerged. The myth suggests that the few people on the peak are the sole survivors of a disaster and that starvation is imminent:
“Far in the south was a mountain. It was the only land. Everything else was water. The eagle was the chief. The people had nothing to eat. They were eating the earth and it was nearly gone.”
The myth continues to describe the survivor’s effort to salvage more ground until they eventually built up the Sierra Nevada range. In doing so the recreated the world. The myth does not elaborate as to how these people found themselves in their plight in the first place, but a disastrous flood is the most likely possibility.
Other creation myths of the Native Americans indicate that a common source for these tales exists. The Mesoamerican Chimalpopca manuscript establishes the seven-day period of creation as does the Biblical account. However, the Chimalpopca record refers to each of the seven days as “epochs” which would make Darwinists happy. According to the manuscript, in the sign Acatl, the firmament was formed; and in the sign Tecpal, the animals were formed. Mankind was created out of ashes or dust on the seven day, or epoch, the sign Ehecatl. Mankind reportedly was created and destroyed four times in this pre-Columbian work.
Several other deluge legends existed in Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayans believed that the first race of beings on the earth were dwarfs called Zayamuincobs which the Mayans credited the ancient road works and other ruins. Supposedly, these dwarfs had magical powers that enabled them to move massive weights or start fires just by whistling a certain tune.
The Zayamuincobs became wicked in time and a great flood was “announced to them”—by whom was not reported in the ancient legend. In defense of a pending flood the dwarfs built “stone tanks” which they hoped would save them. Naturally, the stone boats sank and the dwarf race perished.
Variations of this myth are found throughout Mesoamerican folklore as well as in some legends of North American Indians. Mesoamerican terms for the small-folk included Yichobe bei Yichob Coleloab, meaning “those with eyes like those of bees,” and “the twisted men.” There is also a reference to them as being “on high.”
The Tzotil believed there were three creations of which the first ended in a great flood supposedly caused by God because the people refused to die. The only survivors of this disaster were priests who were transformed into monkeys.
The second creation also ended with a watery destruction, but water that was boiling hot. All life was destroyed but after three days, people were resurrected to repopulate the earth.
The Trinity River Indians of California have the following creation myth:
“When Olaibes (the “One who is up above”) created this earth He put the animals first on the earth and had them act like people. Now Olaibes looked down on animals, saw that they were not getting along good. Olaibes says to himself, I will put human beings on earth. So Olaibes put human beings on earth, man and woman. Their color were dark reddish color.”
The Papago creation myth includes a great flood as well:
“The Great Spirit made the earth and all living things before he made man…those first days of the world were happy and peaceful days. The sun was nearer the earth than is now; his grateful rays made all the seasons equal, and rendered garments unnecessary. Men and beasts talked together, a common language made all brethren. But an awful destruction ended this happy age. A great flood destroyed all flesh wherein was the breath of life; Montezuma and his friend, the Coyote prophesied its coming, and Montezuma took the warning and hollowed out a boat to himself, keeping it ready on the topmost summit of Santa Rosa. …So when the waters rose these two saved themselves, and met again at last on dry land after the flood had passed away.”
After the water receded Montezuma aided the Great Spirit in repopulating the world.
Floods, while causing terrific destruction and death also are regenerative and bring forth new life and fertile soil in a succession of creations. Such creations continue in our present age.