By Israel Drazin
The biblical and a Greek flood stories – 1
Judaism is far from alone in chronicling the flood that covered the entire earth. Virtually every culture had the story, including the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, several Greek versions, and even one among the American Indians. The tales vary in some ways – the names of the characters are different as well as their locations – but there are remarkable similarities. One could argue that this broad universal acknowledgement of the existence of the flood proves that the biblical account is true.
However, one could also insist that despite clear statements to the contrary, none of the floods were world-wide, since this is against the natural law. The deluges in each culture’s account are local overflows that undoubtedly occurred in each land at different times. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (the student of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great, 384-322 BCE), noted a Greek version of the world-wide inundation story, known as Deucalion’s Flood, and wrote in his Meteorologia i. 14, that it only occurred in “the district about Dodona and the Achelous River.”
Archeologists discovered that there was a local flood that inundated several cities in Sumeria around 5000 years ago. They state that the flood was unusually large, unexpected, and it is understandable that it made a huge impression. They suggest that scribes who wrote about the flood elaborated upon and exaggerated the event. Whether one is convinced that the Bible and the other non-Sumerian cultures are describing the same Sumerian event in different ways or that each is recording a separate flood, it is still informative to compare the diverse versions to learn how the each culture understood the tragedy.
- What is the story of the Deucalion Flood?
- What are the similarities of this Greek myth of the world-wide submersion to the biblical report?
- What are the differences between the two accounts?
The Greek tale of the Deucalion Flood
Greek myths relate many tales of torrents that covered the entire earth. One is called the Deucalion Flood. It happened that Zeus, the chief god of the Greeks, was angry. He had heard that the impious sons of Lycaon had sacrificed a boy to him. He visited them, disguised as a poor traveler, to check on the veracity of these reports. The sons greeted him warmly and served him a loathsome banquet in which they mixed the flesh of one of the brothers. Enraged, Zeus turned them into wolves.
Zeus was still angry and disgusted when he returned to Olympus, the home of the gods, and he let out a flood of water to destroy all humanity. But Prometheus the Titan, a semi-divine figure who was especially helpful to humans, warned his son Deucalion. Deucalion built an ark, filled it with food, and entered it with his wife Pyrrha, who was also his cousin, the daughter of Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus.
The flood started when the south wind blew and rain fell. The entire world was covered with water, except for some mountain peaks. All humans below the mountain peaks were killed, except for Deucalion and Pyrrha. The ark floated for nine days until the water subsided. Then it came to rest on a mountain. Deucalion sent out a dove to assure him that the water subsided, and when it assured him, he and Pyrrha left the ark.
The two offered a thanksgiving sacrifice to Zeus. They then prayed that mankind should be renewed. Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to tell them to throw stones behind their backs. Every stone thrown by Deucalion became a man and each thrust by Pyrrha evolved into a woman.
The myth concludes with a report that some other people besides Deucalion and Pyrrha were saved from drowning by escaping to the dry mountaintops. They left the mountains after the water decrease and resumed the human sacrifices.
Deucalion’s son planted and grew a vineyard. Another of his sons was the first person to mix wine with water, making it more accessible to mankind.
- Both the better educated Greeks and Israelites abhorred the ancient barbaric well-meaning practice of offering one’s son as a sacrifice to God. Zeus’ anger in this Greek tale is a moral teaching expressing the more civilized disgust against this “religious ceremony.” Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, was understood by Moses Maimonides (1038-1204) as a dream. It can be seen as Abraham’s inner struggle over this wide-spread misguided way of expressing love to God and Abraham’s final understanding that God does not want such a sacrifice.
- In both narratives, Zeus and God bring the flood because of disgust with human behavior.
- The human heroes in both accounts are saved in an ark that rode above the water.
- In both, the ark came to rest finally on a mountain, and the two, Noah and Deucalion, sent out a dove to see if the water subsided.
- Both reports end with comments about wine.
- As in the Greek myth, Genesis 11:7 speaks of God going down and chapter 18 relates that God appeared to Abraham as three travelers. However, while the general Greek population understood the story literally, that Zeus had a body, the sophisticated Jewish view is that God is incorporeal. As Maimonides explains, the term “going down” here is only a figurative expression for directing the divine action to a certain area, and the visit of the three travelers was a dream.
- Zeus decides to kill all humans because of the deed of a few. In the Bible, all of humanity deserved to die.
- Zeus decided to destroy all of humanity and two people were only saved by the intervention of Prometheus the Titan. The biblical God brought the flood, but He Himself saved humanity by preserving an entire family, a total of eight people.
- While Zeus and God are both disgusted over human behavior and react by flooding the earth, Zeus is revolted over the way he is being treated, but God is appalled by the people’s behavior to one another, “for all flesh had corrupted their way upon earth” (Genesis 6:12).
- The Greek chronicle identifies Deucalion’s wife by name and even tells us that her father was Deucalion’s father’s brother. The Bible gives us no information about any of the four women that entered the ark.
- Noah brought animals into the ark and saved them. Deucalion did not.
- The Greeks mention the wind as a cause of the flood. Scripture reports it as an aid in decreasing the water: “God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged” (Genesis 8:1). This may express the Torah’s satisfaction with the forces of nature.
- In the myth some mountain tops are uncovered by water, but in the Bible all the mountains are covered. Thus there is an inconsistency in the myth. There was no need for Deucalion to dispatch a bird to determine if the water subsided. Since it had never reached the mountain tops, and there were presumably trees there that had never been covered by water, the bird returning with a leaf revealed nothing about the receding water. Besides, Deucalion and Pyrrha could have left the ark and settled on the mountain top.
- The flood lasted only nine days in the myth, but Genesis 8:3 states, “after 150 days the waters decreased.”
- Noah alone offered a sacrifice to God, while both Deucalion and Pyrrha, male and female, did so.
- The unusual story of the preserving of the human race by means of two humans tossing stones while facing in another direction does not appear in the Bible.
- In the Greek version, some people were saved by running to the mountaintops that were not flooded. In the Bible, all but Noah and his family were killed.
- The survival of some people other than Deucalion and Pyrrha accounts for the failure of Zeus’ plan to destroy people and the continuation of evil. This implies the existence of an evil nature in these people. This concept is absent from the Bible, which insists that everything that God creates is good. People, not their nature, bring about evil.
- In the bible, it is Noah himself who plants the vineyard and who gets drunk, not his son, as in the myth. However, Ham, Noah’s son, “saw the nakedness of his father,” a hint of some dastardly deed.
The account of a flood that covered the entire earth is found in almost every culture. There are many similarities between the stories. However, the mind-set of the different cultures determined how they told the story.
In the Greek myth of Deucalion, the world of the gods is filled with many divine beings who are concerned with their own desires and not humanity. Zeus becomes enraged because of an unsuitable sacrifice offered by one family, and decides to destroy every person. It is only because of the intervention of Prometheus, a lower level divine-type being, that humanity is saved. And even then Prometheus saves his own son and niece, his son’s wife.
After the flood, when Deucalion and Pyrrha pray for the birth of more humans and their preservation, Zeus responds through a messenger – unlike his direct action to bring harm – and tells the two survivors to throw stones behind their backs. The stones thrown by the man became men and those tossed by the woman became women. One can only speculate about the meaning of this curious incident. What is clear is that the Greeks who authored this tale did not see God as the creator of humanity. In the creation myth, it was Prometheus who did so. Here it is fellow humans who do so. The tossing of rocks behind one’s back raises thoughts of lack of care, of growth depending on chance, and lack of direction and purpose.
In short, the Bible promises a good life if one lives life properly. However, the Greek world, as seen in this tale, but not in other Greek literature, was run on blind fate with no purpose. People lived a pessimistic life totally out of their control, with evil capricious forces torturing them for no reason.