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The great Flood: the Greco-Roman story


A children's Ark. Museum Park Orientalis, Nijmegen (Netherlands). Photo Jona Lendering.
A children's Ark (Museum Park Orientalis, Nijmegen)
The Great Flood: mythological story about a great destruction that once befell the earth. There are several variants; the Biblical version is the most famous. The possibility that there is a historical event behind the story (a local flood in southern Babylonia in the twenty-eighth century BCE) can not be excluded.

Bible Sumer Babylonia Greece Archaeology
Full text Eridu Genesis Atrahasis Ovid
Reconstruction
Gilgameš Hyginus
Quran
Berossus Apollodorus

The Greek and Roman versions

The myth of the Great Flood was not among the most popular stories in Greece and Rome. We find hardly any pictures of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the two heroes of the western version of the myth. One reason is that the Greeks were not afraid of water in a way comparable to the Babylonians. Their rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, flooded when the wheat and barley were ripe: at the wrong moment. A river flood was a catastrophe indeed. Greek agriculture, on the other hand, depended on rainfall, and the Greeks hardly knew what a river flood meant.

The oldest reference to the Great Flood in Greek literature can be found in the works of Epicharmus, a comic poet from Sicily whose activity can be dated to the first quarter of the fifth century BCE (Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta in Papyris Reperta 85, fr.1).  Just as old is Olympic Ode 9 by Pindar. It is possible that Hesiod also referred to the Flood, because in a fragment from his Catalog of Women, he refers to Deucalion. If the Catalog is authentic, which we do not know for certain, the myth of the Flood was current in Greece before c.600 BCE.

In the second century BCE, the story was briefly retold in The Library, a work attributed to Apollodorus of Alexandria (text), and in the first century CE, the Roman author Hyginus did the same in a couple of lines (text). The longest version, however, was written by the Roman poet Ovid (text).

Like the the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Jewish version in 1 Enoch, 7, it starts with an insurrection by lesser supernatural beings -Giants in this case- and an account of human sin, which make Zeus/Jupiter decide to destroy the world. Deucalion, however, has been warned by his father Prometheus, the creator of mankind (cf. the role of Enki as creator and protector of humanity in all Babylonian versions). Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha build a wooden chest and embark; after the Flood, they find themselves on the summit of Mount Parnassus (Hyginus: Etna; Hellanicus: Othrys). During a visit to the oracle of Delphi (Plutarch, Life of Pyrhus, 1.1: Dodona) they learn how to recreate mankind: they have to throw stones behind their back, from which new people are born. Their 'real' son, Hellen, is the ancestor of the Greeks.

This story is far removed from the Near Eastern accounts, and contains no verbal similarities, but it is interesting to see that in both the Greek and Biblical versions, the heroes do not gain immortality, but live forever through their children.
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Eridu Genesis Atrahasis Gilgameš Bible Berossus Greece Quran
Date 3d millennium BCE c.1640 BCE c.1100 BCE c.1000-500 BCE 278 BCE c.700 BCE? c.600 CE
Revolt ? lesser gods ? giants? monsters? giants -
Hero Ziusudra Atrahasis Ut-napištim Noah Xisuthrus Deucalion Nuh
Country Šuruppuk Šuruppak Šuruppak - Sippar Thessaly -
Destroyer Enlil Enlil Enlil YHWH Enlil Zeus Allah
Warning Vision Dream Indirect order Direct order Dream ? Direct order
Reason Noise? Noise ? Sin, giants ? Sin, giants Sin
Cause Stormflood Rain Stormflood Rain, fountains - Rain, waves "from the valley"
Savior Enki Enki Enki YHWH Enki Prometheus Allah
Period 7 days 7 days 7 days 150/40 days "quickly" 9 days ?
Birds ? ? raven, dove, swallow doves/raven "several" none -
Destination ? - Nimuš Ararat Gordyene Parnassus Al-Gudi
Fate Eternal life Eternal life Eternal life Three sons Eternal life Three grandsons -


Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 7 June 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other