The Great Flood – How Collective Memory Can Become Legend

Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments


Image: Gustave Doré – The Holy Bible – Plate I, The Deluge – Via Wikipedia

One of the world’s most striking features, and the largest living mass on the planet, is the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia, up to 200 km off the coast of the state of Queensland. Home to over 14,000 individual species of plants and animals, it is one of the richest marine environments on earth, stretching over a distance of 2,600 km long and covering an area of over 344,400 square kilometers. It is ancient and glorious, and to anyone fortunate enough to have visited, surely is a place one will remember for a lifetime.

In the scale of human time, however, the Great Barrier Reef is a reasonably recent addition to the Australian coastline. Around 20,000 years ago the coastline of Queensland was dramatically different, and the area now occupied by the reef was low-lying coastal eucalypt and paperbark forests. During a dramatic shift in the planet’s global climate, around the end of the last Holocene Glacial Retreat, much of the planets glaciers melted into the sea, causing the coastline in these low areas to be overtaken by the ocean. Over time, due to the formation of sandbars and other existing geological structures in the landscape, the Great Barrier Reef formed, one polyp at a time, and became the magnificent structure we see before us today. The reef has changed and developed a lot since then, and the reef’s current structure is only about 8,000 years old.

While this is all very interesting, and while I suggest anyone who has the means to visit the reef should do so, what this illustrates is the possibility for the landscape of the world to be changed suddenly. This has happened numerous times in the earth’s history, and continues to happen to this day. For instance, due to a geological upheaval, the entire Mediterranean sea which was once above water, became a sea when some 5.3 million years ago, a flood lasting up to two years occurred when a breach in the mountains between Spain and Morocco allowed the inundation of the low-lying land between modern Europe and Africa. This deluge may have lasted up to two years, and caused the death of innumerable animal and plant species. It also caused a great physical and unassailable rift between Africa and Europe of the time. Of course this is long before the time if humans, yet we can still see the scarring on rocks caused by the flow of water over many months.

The indigenous Aborigines of Australia, who have called Australia home for over 60,000 years, have a legend of a great flood in which much of the land along the coastline was swallowed up by the sea. In it, a a gigantic frog, sometimes known as Tidalik, was hording all the water from the sky and rivers in his great belly, and was coaxed to release the water by being persuaded to laugh by his fellow bush-inhabitants. Of course we take the legends of the Australian Aborigines for what they are, teachings of events they didn’t understand, or passed on as word of mouth getting distorted and exaggerated as time and generations pass. But to put zero credence into the myths of tribal cultures is to miss the point; Many of the events described in the stories of the Australian Aborigines happened, only with actual physical causes, rather than at the whim of mystical spirit creatures.

Stories of a great flood are pervasive in many cultures. In fact, there are thousands of stories from around the world all detailing a great flood that took land away from people, drowned and killed whole villages, and turned the earth into a gigantic sea. We generally discount these stories as mythological fancy, as they depend upon the existences of gods, spirit animals and the supernatural. One story in particular however, the story of Noah in the biblical Old Testament, is still seen by many as a true story; That a man can build a boat large enough to fit 2 of every animal in it to save them from the 40 days and 40 nights of rain induced flood is farcical at best, and yet it is the tenacity of this story which lends it credence to many.

Let’s take a step back for a moment, and ask a question: What would an ancient human of, say, 20,000 years ago know of the world?

Firstly, an ancient human from this time would probably have little knowledge of agriculture, but he may have a domesticated dog or two. His interactions between people would be mostly confined to his immediate family or tribe, and his hunting and foraging grounds would be limited to a space of tens of kilometers in each direction. To the ancient man, the earth was as far as he could see, which even if perched on a high mountaintop, would only be a dozen or so kilometers to the horizon. Given this view of the world, not the world we now know to by huge, expansive and round, what would it take for a person to believe that the whole world were flooded? To put it another way, if all you’ve known is a single room, that room is your world; If the room is filled with water, your world is flooded.

The world to an ancient human being would consist of few people, short distances and a distorted view of space. All the news a human of this time received would be word of mouth, and as we know, word of mouth can distort quickly from a fact to something only vaguely resembling a fact in very few steps. We have evolved to only understand within these kinds of limitations, and are only now beginning to see how huge the universe actually is, and how insignificant an individual is in the grand scheme of things. This is precisely why people have difficulty understanding distances between planets and stars, and why we have difficulty with keeping over 150 people as friends, family and acquaintances within our spectrum of caring. We had no need to evolve an understanding of larger spaces, and would rarely meet more than 150 people in a lifetime.

Let’s for a moment think back to the flood myth of the Australian Aborigines. If, for example, their flood myth, though not caused by a frog, maintains an element of truth about a sudden or gradual loss of land to the ocean, can the same be said of the biblical accounts of a great flood?

Working backwards it goes like this: Man, limited in scope of the world, witnesses a terrible flood which wipes out an entire valley, including all the people he ever knew, except for his dogs which he manages to haul onto a small boat he had in the nearby river. This is the world to him, destroyed by a flood. He tells the story to a stranger 10 years later, where the details of the account may have changed over time in his own mind. The stranger takes this great tale to his local village, and tells it to some others. As it is a tale of woe that we can all relate to, this story gains tenacity, and becomes legend in the local population. Along comes a scribe many generations later, and finally captures all this on paper. Fast forward 6,000 years, and the loss of many languages and civilisations, suddenly we have something resembling the biblical story of Noah, or the legends of Gilgamesh. With each passing generation and subsequent retelling of the story, it becomes embellished, and the story reaches legendary proportions.

We are creatures limited by our own facilities. Our evolution to modern man is that from ancient man, and before that, ancient pre-human. Our physical world is the same all over the planet, in that it is effected by wind, rain, seismological activities, droughts, plagues and floods. Disasters such as floods and volcanoes are going to be the things we remember the most, as they can threaten our very lives, and given that historically we were at a loss to explain how and why these things happen, they are easily distorted into a story of legend. Given this, I have no doubt that the mythological stories of great floods hold some kind of credence. Floods happen, this we know, and the great flood of the Old Testament could be just a bad retelling of a story from the life of one man whose village was engulfed by a river or sea. Alternatively, it could just be a story using props from our collective imagination to back up a baseless assertion about how a god would want us to act.

If we keep this in mind, we can see how the mythical accounts of the Bible may have arisen. Hallucinations caused by ergot in wheat, seizures like that in Paul of Tarsus, sun-induced visions of gods, the thundering boom of a volcano misheard as the voice of Zeus, misremembered and distorted stories, even the odd fable or fairytale misconstrued as fact, these kinds of things, because misunderstood or misrepresented, create the mythology that is now seen on today’s major religions. And we can use our newly gained knowledge of humanity and the universe to see these mistakes for what they are.

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  1. I remember talking with a friend of mine at a local game shop once, when the subject of flood legends came up. He brought up the fact of the flooding of the Mediterranean as a possible explanation for myths of that sort, while I brought up that this didn’t explain such myths in other parts of the world. 
    I would have liked to at the time, but neither of us knew then that what happened to the Mediterranean was far, far too long ago to be remembered even through even the most accurate oral traditions to be entered in our mythology, considering the inaccuracies inherent in remembering and transmitting them. 
    As you noted above, the places inhabited by early civilizations, like near large bodies of water such as rivers, experience flooding, and frequently in historical timescales, and this happens nearly everywhere where people depend on bodies of water for trade, transport and sustenance.
    So given that, it’s hardly surprising that such legends, or myths, would be so universal. Good post, Martin.

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  2. I enjoyed your well-written post. You may be interested in my essay which examines the grandiose claims of young earth creationists that all flood myths emanate from Noah.

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