All around the world, there are ancient records of a global flood that wiped out humanity early in human history. The most famous version of this is the account of Noah’s Flood from the Bible, but there is also a version of this in Greek mythology. This is the legend of the Flood of Deucalion. Both of these stories have strong similarities to even earlier records from the Ancient Sumerian civilization.
What was the Greek and Biblical version of the Flood?
The Flood of Deucalion is a legend set very early in the history of Greece. Because of mankind’s wickedness, Zeus resolved to destroy mankind. He sent an enormous deluge, flooding Greece and destroying all its people. However, Deucalion managed to survive by following the direction of his father, Prometheus, and building an enormous wooden chest.
According to at least one version of the story, recorded by the second-century writer Lucian, Deucalion took pairs of animals with him. The giant wooden chest kept them all safe during the flood. Eventually, after nine days, the floodwaters receded and they came to rest on a mountain. Deucalion and his wife then repopulated the world by throwing rocks behind them, which became people.
The Biblical account is quite similar. Noah and his family lived early in human history. The people of that time were wicked, so God decided to destroy humanity. However, he gave Noah instructions about how to survive the coming flood. During a period of many years, Noah and his family built an enormous wooden ark, or chest.
This ark kept them, as well as a few of each type of animal, safe during the flood. After many months, the ark came to rest on a mountain and the floodwaters began receding. Finally, Noah and his family left the ark. His three sons and their wives then became the ancestors of mankind.
What explains these similarities?
Why would there be such extensive similarities between a story from the Bible and a story from Greek mythology? Well, one possibility is that the Greeks adapted it directly from the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible. While there are various references to Deucalion in Ancient Greek texts, it appears that the earliest reference to his flood comes from the first century BCE.
By that century, the Greeks had long been in contact with the Jews. They had ruled Judea for a few centuries, before the Romans finally conquered the area. The Jewish sacred texts had already been translated into Greek before the first century BCE. Therefore, it is perfectly possible that the Greek legend of Deucalion’s Flood was influenced directly by the Jewish story.
However, it seems more likely that this story has a more ancient origin. After all, many cultures all over Europe, and much further afield too, have stories of a global flood early in mankind’s history. Many of these may have originated from Mesopotamia.
The Sumerian flood story
In Ancient Mesopotamian records, there is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Within this legend, there is a story of a great flood that destroyed all of humanity. According to this legend, a man named Utnapishtim survived a flood that destroyed the whole world. A divine being told him to build a wooden chest to save him and his family, along with various animals.
Unlike the Bible’s version, this chest was a giant cube, measuring sixty meters on each side. The Flood came and destroyed everything just like in the Bible’s account and the story of the Flood of Deucalion.
The length of the flood in this version is also much more similar to the Greek story. The Epic of Gilgamesh says that the flood lasted a week, while the legend of Deucalion gives it a similar length of nine days. On the other hand, the Flood in the Bible lasts many months.
As the floodwaters began to recede, the ark of Utnapishtim came to rest on a mountain, Mount Nisir. Again, this is just like what happened in the parallel versions in the Bible and in Greek mythology.
Greek mythology’s connection to Sumerian records
Aside from the length of the flood matching the Sumerian tale more closely than the Bible’s account, what reason do we have for concluding that the Greek legend might have stemmed from the Sumerian version? There is actually a lot of evidence that various aspects of Greek mythology originally came from Ancient Sumer, or Mesopotamia, in general.
For example, the story of Adonis and Aphrodite seems to come directly from the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar. Furthermore, one reference work states that “one ancient Greek fable is nearly a literal translation of an Akkadian original.”
Some scholars have also noted that the Greek pantheon in general appears to be related to the gods of Mesopotamia. A certain scholar explained:
The same general grouping is to be recognized; the same genealogical succession is not unfrequently to be traced; and in some cases even the familiar names and titles of classical divinities admit of the most curious illustration and explanation from [Mesopotamian] sources.
In view of all of this evidence, it is very likely that the story of Deucalian’s flood originally came from Sumer, although exactly when and how is up for debate.
Will the Flood happen again?
The Bible’s account of the Flood ends with God telling Noah that he will never again flood the earth. He even refers to the first rainbow as a sign of this promise. Interestingly, we also find the same concept in several other flood stories from around the world, although it is found neither in the Sumerian nor the Greek version.
In a flood legend from Mexico, God gives the rainbow as a sign of his promise that “no other flood would destroy earth” again. In northern India, a flood legend presents God as ending the flood by sending a snake to stop the water. It did so by puffing itself up into the shape of a rainbow.
Since the Indus Valley civilization in northern India had much contact with Ancient Sumer, perhaps this reference to a rainbow preserves a detail that was also originally in the Sumerian version of the flood story.