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 It’s also worth pointing out that Callahan’s book, The Secret Origins of the Bible, relied heavily on outdated theories, especially the long-exploded concept of the Solar Hero, in attempting to analyze the origins of Biblical stories.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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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