By Janani and Leela Praneeth
“When the flood submerges the whole country, no raindrop may feel responsible.”
– Erik Pevernagie
The Matsya Purana.
Yu the Great.
These are just a few forms of a classic piece of lore, that has persisted in numerous cultures across time, from the Sumerians to the Greeks; The Flood Myth. Each culture has its own distinct rendition of this story, but the intrinsic narrative remains almost indispensably constant; an all-encompassing, world-consuming deluge that leaves a wake of destruction in its turbulent path.
It isn’t a mere coincidence that so many civilizations share this seemingly universal myth, an occurrence that has always been an area of anthropological and archaeological intrigue.
Comparative Mythology, is the term used to describe this global commonality in lore, with the infamous Flood Myth at the forefront of a transcultural umbrella of shared narratives. It is often said that at the heart of fiction, lies an underlying fact. So with the degree of intersecting stories about the flood myth around the world, it’s impossible not to wonder-
Could there really have been an ancient apocalyptic flood?
Unfortunately according to modern-day scholars, this idea is scientifically incompatible. There is no conclusive evidence indicating the existence of a deluge on the scale depicted by many pieces of ancient literature.
So what exactly was it that so many different cultures were describing?
It has been theorized that ancient civilizations like the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and more, observed seashells, and fish fossils deep inland, and assumed that the land was once underwater, possibly due to a massive flood. Unbeknownst to them, the real answer for the presence of these marine remnants was the rise and fall of plate tectonics. Another explanation is the occurrence of an enormous tsunami, triggered by either an earthquake or a meteor impact.
Some even believe that the ending of the last glacial period caused massive flooding due to the rise in sea levels.
All of these scenarios have merit in their own right, especially when we consider a fairly obvious, but crucial line of thought.
What did “the world”, mean to the people of the past?
We see 7 continents. 195 countries. An entire planet. So a “World encompassing” deluge simply isn’t fathomable, or possible. But, to the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Sumer, or Uruk, their world was much smaller. It existed within the confines of what they could reach. Most ancient civilizations were situated along a river, or other large bodies of water (due to the presence of fertile land), and when these rivers flooded, it destroyed the whole of their known world.
Based on these rationalizations, it can be seen that the flood myth isn’t a tall tale that stems from nothing, nor is it an infallible narrative.
It could rather be described as rivulets of isolated accounts of flooding incidents throughout history, that pooled into an overarching, universal myth.
This kind of amalgamation of folklore and actual events isn’t something new and is often a basis of comparative mythology. So now that we’ve understood how the flood myth could have formed, we can take a glimpse at its cultural and theological significance.
First and foremost, let it be established that culture and religion are not the same. Culture refers to the social heritage of an ethnic group, while religion is a system of belief centered around the existence of an omnipresent being- more fondly known as God.
When it comes to interpretations of the flood myth, it’s important to note whether the context is cultural, or religious. For example, when it comes to the Chinese Flood Myth of Yu the Great, it’s seen as a tale of wisdom and bravery on the part of Yu, in preventing the flood from overwhelming his nation. When it comes to theological narratives, the most notable example would be the Genesis Flood of Abrahamic religions- where God opens the floodgates of heaven to drown the world in chaos and renew the creation cycle- and it’s a tale of God’s wrath and punishment for humanity.
Now, in a seemingly abrupt, but ensuingly relevant thematic shift, let’s talk about one of the most pressing matters of modern times- Climate change.
When people think of climate change, they often see it as just a looming threat waiting for us down the road- wherein they acknowledge the eventuality but disregard the prevailing signs.
A massive ice melting event occurred in Greenland on the 28th of July, with a melt extent of about 80%. Ice that melted in terms of gigatons could hypothetically cover the state of Florida in about 2cm of water.
Henan, China received rainfall that normally takes place over the course of months, in a matter of a few days, and is currently experiencing severe flooding.
12 million people were displaced from their homes in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh due to recent floods and landslides.
And these are just a few of the climate disasters that took place over the course of a year.
Several holes in the ozone, the disappearance of massive glaciers, rising sea levels, and increasing median temperatures around the globe- the heralds of a modern-day apocalypse.
Climate change isn’t coming out of nowhere, and we cannot simply hit the brakes on this disastrous path before sudden doom, and take a U-turn back into safety. The current climate crisis is a downward, accelerating spiral of calamity, and recovering from it, is an uphill battle.
And what does it take, to fight an uphill battle?
When it comes to the ongoing climate crisis, this word needs to be considered with nuance.
It is commonplace to see large corporations and the like, preaching to regular citizens to “reduce their carbon footprint”, “Use public transport”, “Follow the 3 R’s”, and other similar self-righteous drivel in an attempt to shift the blame onto the masses.
Now, we’re not saying that following a sustainable lifestyle is pointless. It’s ideal, really! But what needs to be understood is the degree of liability being placed on an average citizen, and the distracting narrative being formed.
It feels like a weaponization of the fear people have about climate change (from the pitifully lacking percentage that does actually believe in it) and attempting to create a false sense of personal responsibility, in an effort to distract from the real issue- the undeniable, destructive role large corporations are playing, with no intention of changing their ways.
So is it fair? That the masses are paying for the actions of the few at the very top? Because climate change affects everybody– no one is exempt, regardless of individual contribution.
A striking parallel to the Flood Myth can be drawn here.
God sends divine retribution, due to humanity’s corruption and destructive ways. The whole world pays, and is then reborn anew, upon a clean slate,
It’s a tale of collective punishment.
Was every human in this unworthy world, scum in the eyes of God? Even the newborn babe, who had no awareness of its existence or the world around it?
Was every animal that lived, oblivious to human nature, deserving of being wiped away in the destructive deluge that followed?
But they still paid the price anyway.
And that theme, that very concept of collective punishment, is being mirrored in our world now.
Nature is a force that tries to attain balance and does not distinguish between the victims and the perpetrators in its process.
This piece also isn’t trying to remove accountability entirely from the masses either. Our actions do indeed have a cumulative effect, and there is also a general apathy, where many are content with simply acknowledging climate change as a threat, but taking no steps to prevent it.
What this article is really trying to say, is that regardless of the degree of culpability, the consequences are collective.
You may ask, “Well what’s the point of this information? What should we do?”
Circling back to the Flood Myths- like every story, it too has a hero; that somehow gains the benevolence of the divine power behind the flood, and is the herald of a new world, as one of the only survivors.
Noah, Manu, Ziusudra, Deucalion, Utnapishtim.
Our protagonist goes by many names.
Now, we’re not saying the solution is to find a protagonist or hero that will lead us out of impending doom- but rather look at what they did.
Noah built an Ark. Manu built a boat. Yu redirected the torrents.
They took action- not just any action- effective action.
If collective consequence was the moral of the Flood Myth, then what about remedying it through collective action?
If all of humanity had helped Noah build his Ark, wouldn’t they have all made it?
The reason why Comparative mythology is such a compelling topic is because it identifies a universality in human experiences. A sense of understanding is formed from these shared narratives.
And climate change is a global tale of destruction that calls for solidarity.
It’s good to take personal responsibility, and it’s better to demand collective change- because like it or not- we’re all in this together.