In today’s eSkeptic, Skeptic magazine religion editor Tim Callahan offers a useful summary of how and why claims of a “universal” myth of a world-destroying flood are wrong. However, in doing so, Callahan makes several mistakes and oversimplifications that are worth pointing out. As I noted when I criticized skeptic Ben Radford, accuracy counts. It’s also worth pointing out that Callahan’s book, The Secret Origins of the Bible, relied heavily on outdated theories, especially the long-exploded concept of the Solar Hero, in attempting to analyze the origins of Biblical stories.
Let’s dismiss the nitpicking first: In his opening paragraph, Callahan claims that the program Ancient Aliens airs on the History Channel and that it features commentary from “Zecharia Sitchen.” As most readers probably are aware, Ancient Aliens currently airs on H2, History’s sister station, where it moved after three seasons on History proper. Zecharia Sitchin (the surname spelled with two i’s) died in 2010 and is not a featured commentator on the show, which premiered in April 2010, only a few months before Sitchin’s death.
More importantly, though, Callahan oversimplifies the prevalence of flood myths. Let me state up front that I do not believe that the evidence supports the assertion that all such flood myths ultimately derive from a single, exceedingly ancient source. Ancient people were more than capable of imagining their own floods, just as they imagined stories of the sun and the stars. Additionally, as Callahan rightly notes, many cultures have no flood myth whatsoever, at least none that has any traits recognizably in common with the Biblical flood. However, it does no one any good to pretend that such stories don’t exist in some places.
Callahan cites Chinese mythology as providing evidence that such flood myths are not universal.
Let’s begin with the Miao flood myth, which should not be simply dismissed because the Miao “immigrated” to China; the country has more than fifty ethnic groups and the Miao are, according to archaeology, among the oldest peoples of China, possibly dating back to 4000 BCE. This story tells how the god of thunder sent a flood to destroy the earth, and only a single sibling pair who used a bottle gourd as a boat. They moved around some stones, had a misshapen child, cut him up, and planted the pieces to repopulate the earth. The story has many similarities to the Greek tale of Deucalion and Pyrrah, though I could not say how that came to pass. It is probable, though, that they borrowed the story from the Han.
Far from Callahan’s assertion of but two flood myths, the Handbook of Chinese Mythology records 400 flood myths, which can be divided into four primary subtypes according to Chinese scholars who study the country’s myths. The second subtype is the one given above, in which the sibling pair escapes in a gourd from the wrath of the Thunder God, who kills all other humans. The first subtype, quite similarly, has a sibling pair escape in a stone vessel and repopulate the earth after all other people are destroyed through a world flood of unspecified cause because a goddess gives them a warning. According to Chinese scholars, this flood myth originated with the Han, the ethnic group comprising the majority of modern Chinese people. The third and fourth types, less relevant to our discussion, mix elements of the first two types with a story of the sole survivor obtaining a heavenly maiden to repopulate the earth.
According to Chen Jianxian, a scholar of Chinese myths, all four subtypes diverged from a common ancestor and were adapted to meet the cultural and social needs of the communities and ethnic groups telling them.
Now, I am no scholar of Chinese mythology, so I can’t really speak to the deep origins of these 400 flood myths. Given that there is no geological evidence of a global flood, that leaves a few possibilities I can think of:
As I said, I don’t know the answer. But I do know this: Pretending these stories don’t exist to score points against creationists and ancient astronaut theorists does no one any good and actually works to reduce the chances that we’ll find answers to these questions and thus gain new knowledge.
10/18/2012 08:57:16 am
First, let's start with the nitpicking criticisms.
10/18/2012 09:59:40 am
I just looked at the Handbook of Chinese Mythology online. I see that it was published in 2005, which is probably why I hadn't seen before. There are two entries on flood myths in the Handbook, one pp. 74, 75 and on pp. 114 -117, the latter entry being an appendix.
10/18/2012 10:07:01 am
The section on the 400 flood myths is on pp. 21-24 of the book, summarizing the work of Chen Jianxian. I have to differ about the myth. As given by Chen, the story of a sibling pair who alone in all the world are saved from a universal flood when a deity tells them to remain safe in a vessel (stone or gourd, by variant) and then repopulate the earth is pretty much identical in theme and content to the Near East flood myth. As I said, I don't know how this story came about, but it does appear to exist.
10/18/2012 10:42:44 am
In researching Chen a bit more, I find that the most recent work finds 568 flood myths, attributable to increases in anthropological knowledge. There are 56 ethnic groups in China, and the flood myths are distributed throughout. According to Archie Chi Chung Lee, the Han version (the ethnicity, not the dynasty) is the Yu flood story, which was heavily euhemerized from a universal flood story to a specific riverine flood by Confucians. (This is, of course, speculative.) Lee's overview of the Flood myths and their relationship to China's understanding of the Biblical story can be found here: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/religious_studies/SBL2008/Lee.doc
10/18/2012 10:02:19 am
10/18/2012 10:54:23 am
We'll have to agree to disagree about the Samson myth. However, Samson is clearly a mythic hero of a far different sort from the more legendary heroes of the rest of the Book of Judges, none of which share either his divinely ordained birth, nor his sexual appetites. Also, Samson's feat of killing a lion with his bare hands strongly parallels the myth of Heracles and the imagery Gilgamesh and Baal Melkarth.
10/18/2012 11:01:10 am
I certainly don't doubt the Samson myth is a myth, or that it is related to other hero stories. I'm just not the biggest fan of the Max Muller-style Solar Hero idea, which to my mind was well-refuted in the twentieth century.
10/18/2012 11:17:59 am
I looked and pp. 21 24, and I must say that I did underestimate the complexity of the Chinese flood myth issue. I do note from the Lee article that what seems to be the dominant flood myth of China, the myth of the Emperor Yu, involves him carving channels to drain the flood waters into the sea - again, no ark.
10/18/2012 11:26:40 am
The Han are the dominant ethnic group of China; their flood myth is primarily that of Yu, which Lee says was euhemerized from a broader flood story. That they also have the "two people and a vessel" flood story may be due to borrowing from the southeast Asian flood story diffused with the 56 minority ethnicities of China, but this isn't certain and more work needs to be done.
10/18/2012 12:01:00 pm
Okay, so the dominant flood myth of China was that of Yu or Yao cutting canals to lead the flood waters to the sea: no ark, flood not universal.
You both may want to take a look at our article concerning the Chinese Flood "myth'. Did it ever occur to you how close
12/15/2012 07:55:18 am
First of all, due to the proselytizing activities on the part of Muslims (mainly in Africa, but some in south Asia as well) and Christian missionaries (worldwide) variations of a number of biblical myths were adopted through religious syncretism by peoples all over the world. For example, just about every ancient culture has a myth about why humans die. The three most common forms of these myths are the failed or perverted message, death in a container and forbidden fruit. Since these myths are found among widely separated peoples who have no contact with each other, they can be seen to have arisen separately as parallels, rather than being spread by cultural diffusion or religious contamination via missionaries.
7/2/2015 02:52:53 pm
Whatever the Noah's ark story is, it is not science. The term "creation science" is an oxymoron. I would love to hear a creation scientist respond to this short essay: thackerlorenc.wordpress.com
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.