One Deluge or Many? Examining Cultural Flood Stories

Did a great flood once cover our entire planet? Some creationists apply literal interpretations to the Genesis flood story. They point to various geological features and deluge myths all over the world as evidence backing their assertions. The scientific community at large dismisses these claims, but why do so many flood stories exist? Both science and folklore may hold the answers to this question.

Flood Myths Around the World

Professor David R. Montgomery quickly mentions some deluge myths in an article for The Conversation. Tales from cultures around the Pacific Ocean describe catastrophic flooding from huge waves that suddenly rise from the sea. The Mapuche people of Chile tell of a tsunami caused by two giant snakes battling to see who could raise the waters higher. Yet stories in other parts of the world have slightly different details. Scandinavian myths depict Odin and his brothers slaying the frost giant Ymir, which unleashes a great flood upon the land. Time writer Ishaan Tharoor discusses Gilgamesh’s famous flood narrative, which may predate the Genesis version. In both tales, the deluge results from immense thunderstorms with lots of rain.

Most myths depict massive flooding that threatens humanity’s extinction. One notable exception, known as “Great Yu controls the waters,” comes from Chinese folklore. Repeated flooding impacted China’s lowlands for over two generations, forcing people from their homes. After years of failed attempts by his father Gun, Yu solves the problem by creating multiple channels that carry floodwaters to the sea. Thanks to his success, Yu becomes China’s emperor and founds its first dynasty.

Evidence for Global Flooding?

How old is our planet? The answer you’ll hear depends on who you ask. Radiometric dating of zircon crystals from Australia’s Jack Hills revealed that they’re 4.4 billion years old. However, Young Earth creationists insist that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. They derive their beliefs from both a literal interpretation of the Bible and the works of Anglican archbishop James Ussher, who claimed in 1650 that God created the earth in 2002 B.C.E.

Published in 1961, “The Genesis Flood” helped launch the modern creationism movement. It’s also an early example of flood geology, which attempts to prove the Genesis flood narrative with geological evidence. David R. Montgomery points out two of its ideological inconsistencies in another piece for The Conversation. Multilayered rock strata show many cycles of erosion, deposition, and burial. A single universal flood cannot explain these physical characteristics. The Genesis story also claims that Noah saved every living thing, but 99% of species found in the fossil record are extinct.

Geological Findings Point to Many Floods

If science doesn’t support the idea of a global flood, then what does it tell us? Geomythology examines the connections between folklore and natural events such as earthquakes and floods. In 2016, Chinese researchers found geological and archaeological evidence of catastrophic flooding in the country’s lowlands. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan explains that this evidence dates the flooding to around 1900 B.C.E. This date closely matches the great flood myths and Emperor Yu’s lifetime.

Slate’s Andrew Lawler mentions archeologist Jennifer Pournelle’s discovery of significant climate changes in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago. Satellite images, geomorphological charts, and mud core samples revealed rapidly rising sea levels that covered vast expanses of land. Melting glaciers may have caused outburst flooding during prehistoric times, especially in areas like Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Reconciling Myth and Science

Humans are naturally attracted to mysteries. We’re curious beings who seek answers, so it is no surprise that flood myths invite speculation and investigation. While geology doesn’t prove the existence of a single worldwide deluge, it does reveal several smaller floods caused by changes in our climate. Geology also confirms that our myths contain some kernels of truth and the power of stories to preserve memory.

The Serpent That Eats Itself? Understanding the Ouroboros
The ouroboros, and ancient symbol, has endured until modern times while powerfully embodying many physical and esoteric concepts.

The ouroboros, and ancient symbol, has endured until modern times while powerfully embodying many physical and esoteric concepts.

As purveyors of wisdom, representations of fertility, or masters of deception, serpents have evoked both fear and awe from human beings for thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also gained an association with hidden knowledge, transformation, and renewal. One ancient symbol, the ouroboros, has endured until modern times while powerfully embodying these and other esoteric concepts.

What Is the Ouroboros?

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers a short explanation of the ouroboros’s history and meanings. With roots in ancient Egypt and Greece, this emblem depicts a serpent coiled in a circle with its tail inside its own mouth. A Greek-English lexicon hosted by the Perseus Digital Library reveals that our modern version of the word comes from an ancient Greek term that translates to “devouring its tail.”

Ironically, this symbol with a Greek name didn’t originate in any ancient Hellenistic cultures. BBC Culture writer Joobin Bekhrad clarifies that the oldest representation of an ouroboros appeared on a golden shrine located inside Tutankhamen’s tomb. Its contents, including the shrine, have been dated to the 13th century B.C.E. German Egyptologist Jan Assmann added that the ouroboros stood for the “mystery of cyclical time.” Ancient Egyptians would have seen these tendencies reflected in the Nile’s flooding cycles and the movements of the sun.

Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff

Egyptian views on the nature of time aren’t surprising, given that many other older civilizations believed that it operated in cycles rather than a strictly linear path. The “wheel of life” and “wheel of time” concepts arose within Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and both the Mayan and Aztec cultures regarded time as cyclical.

Curiosity writer Reuben Westmass discloses that modern thinkers refer to this concept as “eternal return.” Supporters of the idea include German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and proponents of the “Big Bounce” theory who insist that the universe blows up, expands, and contracts in continually repeating cycles.

Not only that, discourse on these ideas is common in pop culture. One example comes from a 2007 “Doctor Who” episode in which the protagonist exclaims, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”

Time, Space, and Alchemy

Bekhrad also explains that the ouroboros symbol was adopted by Greek alchemists during the Alexandrian era of Egyptian history. Within alchemic practice, it retained its original connotations of endless cycles and eternity. This emblem also possesses connotations of rebirth and renewal, considering how snakes regularly must shed their skins.

The Symbol Dictionary’s visual glossary discloses that it became associated with the spirit of Mercury, which is thought to be the essence that infuses all matter. A double ouroboros, or two snakes swallowing each other, stands for volatility as well as a balance between the higher and carnal selves of each human being.

Modern esoteric believers borrowed from and expanded upon these and other older alchemic traditions when using the ouroboros in their practices. Thelemapedia illuminates some of these additional meanings, referring to it as both a paradox and a “purifying sigil.” For some, it can stand for the unification of one’s primary presenting personality and the shadow self. Others may see it as an endless process of destroying and regenerating aspects of the self. In turn, it can become a representation of immortality.

An Existence That Never Ends?

Symbols can take on many different meanings, depending on who’s using or interpreting them. Contemporary worries about climate change, political turmoil, and economic instabilities lead some to wonder whether humanity will survive past the end of the 21st century. If nothing else, the ouroboros may be a sign of hope. Perhaps by prompting us to seek renewal and change, it can inspire us to face these challenges.