Following up on my last post, the worldwide flood is easily the most commonly encountered myth just about anywhere you look. Generally the flood leaves only a bare handful of survivors who frequently, although certainly not always, stay alive by taking refuge in a box or other container. In some myths the survivors are human, in which case everybody in the present world descended from them. In other cases they are divine or semi-divine beings, and the creation of mankind occurs after the flood. In any case, the flood seems to serve as a type of return to the primordial, watery chaos out of which the world was first formed, and serves to separate an ancient world of supernatural beings from the current world dominated by humans.
Now, before I go any further, I need to make it clear that I am approaching this subject as an anthropologist. Therefore, by “myth” I mean a sacred narrative, believed to be true, which often plays a central role within a larger belief system (Lehmann, Myers, and Moro 2005:54). I specifically do not mean that it is fictitious or false. Myths express sacred truths to believers, and there is nothing about the status of a story as myth that prevents it from also being historically accurate. (Nor, it must be said, is there anything that requires it to be. The historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of any narrative, is simply not relevant to its being a myth.)
In addition to the Great Flood story, there are some other myths that are found all over the world. Examples include:
- A man makes a long journey to the world of the dead to try and recover his wife. He finds her, but on the return trip he violates some sort of prohibition, resulting in his being unable to bring her back to the world of the living (often called the Orpheus myth, after the protagonist in the Greek version of this story).
- With the world originally covered in water an animal, often a duck or other water bird, dives down to the very bottom and returns with bit of mud from the bottom under it’s fingernails. From that bit of mud, dry land is created.
- People obtain fire by stealing it from a group of divine or semi-divine beings. Often the theft is carried out by animals, who are pursued and pass the fire from one to another as a sort of relay.
Many other myths are widespread within geographical regions. (The monster slaying Hero Twins being one example that is found throughout much of North America.)
To relate this back to my last post, when we’re discussing narratives like these, that are widely distributed throughout the world, it must not be assumed that the story in question had not been part of any particular cultural tradition for millennia prior to the oldest textual record of it that survived to the present day. In the absence of evidence that the story was not part of certain cultural traditions prior to a particular date, we can not make any assumption about who had that story first. Therefore, any speculation about borrowing in one direction or another is unwarranted. Applied to the specific situation of the ancient near east, I consider it likely that the Great Flood story did not originate with any of the historically identified cultures of the region, but is quite a bit older than any of them.
In addition, we also need to keep in mind that the origin of a traditional narrative isn’t a particularly interesting or useful question. That, however, will need to addressed in another blog post.