Traditions Of The Deluge

It is difficult to condense within the limits which are here appropriated to it, the substance of the traditions which are found among various nations with reference to the flood. We shall however attempt to state the leading points of coincidence, and shall at the close indicate to the reader the sources from which more extended information may be obtained. In going thus cursorily through the subject, it will not fail to be noticed that in proportion as we recede from the Ararat of Armenia, the traditions become less distinct, and more mixed up with extraneous matters—and this seems to us a strong argument in favor of the general conclusion that this was the mountain on which the ark rested, and therefore the cradle of the human race—the center from which mankind diverged into all lands, as population increased after the deluge.

The Chaldeans believed that during the reign of Xisuthrus, the tenth king of Babylon (corresponding to the tenth generation of mankind, in which it really happened), the deluge thus took place: The god Chronus appeared to this Xisuthrus in a vision, and warned him that on the fifteenth day of the month Daesius there would be a flood, by which mankind would be destroyed. He therefore enjoined him to build a vessel, and take with him into it his friends and relations; and to convey on board everything necessary to sustain life, together with all the different animals, both birds and quadrupeds, and to trust himself fearlessly to the deep. In obedience to these directions Xisuthrus built a vessel five stadia (about three quarters of a mile) in length, and two in breadth; into which he put everything he had prepared, and last of all went into it himself, with his wife, children, and friends. After the flood had been upon the earth, and was in time abated, Xisuthrus sent out birds from the vessel,  which, finding no food or place for rest, returned to him. After some days he sent them forth again, and they returned with their feet tinged with mud. Subsequently he made a third trial with them, and they returned no more, by which he judged that the surface of the earth had appeared above the waters. He therefore made an opening in the vessel, and on looking out found that it was stranded upon a mountain, which he afterwards found to be in the land of Armenia. Note: This tradition in full may be found in Cory’s Ancient Fragments from Syncellus and Eusebius.]

The tradition of a general deluge was also found among the ancient Persians. The subject is only wildly alluded to in the Zendavesta, Note: The Boun-deheseh, of which there is a translation by Anquetil de Perron, the translator of the Zendavesta.] but among the ancient books of the Parsees (who inherit the worship and ideas of the ancient Persians) is one which states that the world having been corrupted by Ahriman, the evil one, it was thought necessary to bring over the world a universal flood of waters, that all impurity might be washed away. Accordingly, the rain came down in drops as large as the head of a bull, until the earth was wholly covered with water to the height of a man, and all the khanfaters (the creatures of the evil one) perished. The waters then gradually subsided, and first the mountains and then the plains appeared once more. In this tradition there is the remarkable deficiency of a family preserved in an ark, which we find in even remoter regions. But it is stated that after the flood there was a new creation of men and animals.

It is usually stated that the Egyptians had no tradition of the deluge. But this is not correct. We have the means of knowing that they were acquainted with the doctrine of a general deluge, though the details of their belief have not been transmitted to us. The Egyptian historian Manetho, as quoted by Syncellus and Eusebius, speaks of certain inscribed pillars which were set up by the Thoth, the first Hermes,  and the inscriptions on which were after the deluge transcribed into books. Plato also stated in his Timaeus, that having questioned a certain Egyptian priest on the subject, he was informed that the gods, wishing to purify the earth by water, overwhelmed it by a deluge. On this occasion certain shepherds and herdsmen were saved upon the tops of the mountains—but those who dwelt in towns were swept away by the rising waters. It might be doubted whether this statement applied to the general deluge, were it not that the religion of the ancient Egyptians abounds in Noachic memorials, which fix the true purport of such statements; and it is also true that men in later ages became disposed to localize in their various nations the general traditions of the deluge.

The famous tradition of Deucalion’s deluge, as preserved among the Greeks, has the closest coincidence with that of Noah, so that the accounts which we possess seem to read like amplified reports of the record in Genesis. Philo, the Alexandrian Jew, who was well acquainted with both sacred and pagan literature, plainly affirms that Deucalion was Noah; and of this there can be no question. We have two accounts of this deluge: one by Lucian, and another by Ovid. The latter is the most poetical and the most full in descriptive details—but the former is the most consistently in agreement with the Mosaic details throughout. The great variation is that Ovid does not provide for the safety of any animals, and Lucian does; the substance of the account given by the latter is this: There was another race of men before the present, which owes its origin to Deucalion. The first race of men were a fierce and haughty people, who committed most heinous iniquities. For this a horrible calamity came over them. All at once the waters burst forth from all parts of the earth, and floods of rain came down from above, till the earth was covered with water, and all mankind perished.
Deucalion alone was preserved; on account of his piety and uprightness, for the propagation of a new race. He had a very large chest, into which he packed his wives and children, and last of all went in himself. Just as he was  entering, there came running to him all kinds of wild beasts and creeping things, pair-wise. He took them all in, and Jupiter instilled into them such peaceful dispositions that they did him no harm, but lived in the most peaceful accord together, and were thus preserved in the chest as in a ship so long as the flood lasted.

The chief variation in Ovid’s description of the same deluge is, that Deucalion and his wife (not wives and children, nor animals) escape the flood in a small skiff, which is stranded upon Mount Parnassus. But in his account the incidents are finely brought out, and the Divine intervention more strongly indicated. Strikingly does the poet represent the unbounded riot of the ocean covering the hills, and the strange waves dashing on the mountain tops, and the birds falling into the water from fatigue, because there was nothing left on which they could alight to rest their wings. He does not, indeed, specify the exact duration of the flood at its height; yet he supposes that it lasted long, because he makes hunger, from the absence of all food, destroy all those whom the water spared; namely, such as availing themselves of rafts or boats contrived to float above the flood, but being taken unprepared for such a voyage, necessarily died of famine. This is indeed a very satisfactory solution of the only objection of apparent weight, that could have been urged, against the reasons we have adduced for the strong persuasion, that vessels for floating upon the water, existed among the antediluvians before the ark of Noah was constructed.

Proceeding to remoter regions, we find in the far East the  same substantial traditions. The earliest sacred books of China contain frequent, although not very precise, notices of the deluge. The waters are represented as covering the hills on every side, and overtopping the mountains, and reaching even unto heaven, and the people as struck with terror and perishing. Note: Sir William Jones in Asiatic Researches, ii. 376.]
In India the traditions are more copious. In ancient time, the god Vishnu appeared to the sun-born
monarch, Satyavrata, in the form of a fish, and said—“In seven days all creatures that have offended me shall be destroyed by a deluge; but thou shalt be preserved in a capacious vessel miraculously formed. Take, therefore, all kinds of medicinal herbs and esculent grains for food, and, together with the seven holy men, your respective wives, and pairs of all animals, enter the ark without fear.” Satyavrata conformed himself to these directions, when, after seven days, the floods descended and drowned the world. Note: Sir William Jones in Asiatic Researches, ii. 116, 117; see also i. 230.]

Going now to the extreme west, we observe, with surprise, that the traditions of the deluge exist among all the various tribes and nations of the American continent, where, from the great remoteness, we should expect to find but faint traces of that event. The Mexicans had traditions of a deluge that destroyed all animals with the exception of one man and his wife, who escaped in the hollow trunk of an ahahuete or cypress (gopher) tree. The children born numerously to them after the subsidence of the waters were dumb, until they received the gift of speech from a dove, which came and perched itself upon a lofty tree. There are Mexican paintings of this event extant, in which Coxcox, the Noah of the Mexicans, and his wife Xochiquetzal, are seated in the trunk of a tree, covered with leaves, and floating amid the waters, Note: Humboldt’s Vues des Cordilleras pl. 26, pp. 206, 207; also Herrara, to the same effect.] while the goddess of water, called Matalcueje or Chalchiuhege, pours down her floods upon the earth. In  the different representations of this scene, men are seen swimming and perishing in the waters, and birds are seen fluttering and dying upon the surface, where they have fallen exhausted.

In an allegorical painting, which may be found in plate 15 of Humboldt’s Vues des Cordilleras, a serpent cut asunder but still living, is seen shut up in a tank full of water, from the midst of which a plant arises. To the left is a woman crowned with a garland, probably the voluptuous Tlamezquimille; while to the right is seen a man shut up in a kind of jar. A personage is also represented to whose victorious arm the miserable condition of the serpent is to be ascribed. The allegory thus pictured has reference, Humboldt says, to the serpent which poisoned the water—the source of all organic life; to the victory over him, like that of Khrishna over the dragon Kaliya; to the seduction of the world, and to its purification by water. In this we cannot fail to see the deluge, and more exact inquiry into the tradition would probably furnish still more exact Scripture analogies.

The Mechoachans, a people contiguous to the Mexicans, believed that mankind, becoming forgetful of their duties and origin, were punished by a universal deluge, from which the priest Tezpi, and his wife and children, were alone preserved. He shut himself up in a large chest of wood, into which he put all kinds of animals and useful seeds. When the Great Spirit ordered the waters to subside, Tezpi sent out a bird called aura, Note: The zopilote, a species of vulture (Vultur aura), an American substitution for the raven.] which, finding food in dead carcasses, returned; then several other birds, till at length the humming bird returned with a branch in his beak. Note: Humboldt’s Researches, ii. 65; Clanigero, Hist. Mex. i. 204; Herrera, Hist. Mex.; Hist. Gen. des Voyages, xviii. 590.]

In North America, there are more or less obscured traditions of the deluge among most of the tribes. The most distinct is, perhaps, that among some of the lake tribes, who hold that the father of all their tribes originally dwelt  towards the setting sun, where, being warned in a dream that a flood was coming, he built a raft, on which he preserved his own family, and the whole of the animal world. The raft drifted for many months upon the waters, till at length a new earth was made, and man and the animals placed upon it. Note: Thatcher’s Indian Traits, ii. 148, 149.] The traditions of Peru, of Terra Firma, of the Guancas, of the Cubans, and many others might be mentioned, but they all resemble some of those which have been cited. The Brazilians had a very peculiar tradition of a deluge, which grew out of a quarrel between two brothers, and which rose till the earth was entirely covered. All mankind were destroyed except these two and their wives, who were saved by climbing to the tops of the mountains.

Is it credible, or even possible, that such numerous and wide-spread traditions, embodying so many pointed coincidences, and in which the ark and the dove so frequently appear, could have been founded on merely local deluges; and not rather on that from which the second father of all mankind was saved? Note: The reader who is disposed to pursue this inquiry, will find ample information in the works named below—Bryant’s Analysis of Ancient Mythology; Faber’s Origin of Pagan Idolatry; and Mysteries of the Cabiri; Catcott on the Deluge; Harcourt’s Doctrine of the Deluge. The traditions are also stated in portions or chapters of Sharon Turner’s Sacred History of the World; by Professor Hitchcock in the American Biblical Repository for 1836; and more fully in Smith’s Sacred Annals; Bochart in his Phaleg also collects some of the traditions. The interest of the subject is far from adequately represented by the brief indications we are here enabled to afford.]