The Great Flood in Ancient Literature


I thought it would be opportune to collect here all the posts from the series in which I compared three accounts of the Great Flood in ancient literature: In the Epic of Gilgamesh, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and in Genesis in the Bible.

The idea for the series grew from an exercise I used to use with my Humanities students, back when I taught at a secular university. Part of my purpose in the classroom exercise was to disabuse my students of the notion that "myth" is the opposite of "fact." A "myth" is a not a lie or a superstition, but a particular kind of story, one that tries to get at some ineffable truth. Before Socratic philosophy came along, myths were the best means most ancient Mediterranean cultures had for exploring philosophical questions. I wanted my students to see that ancient peoples outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition nonetheless were deeply interested in questions about what it means to be human, what is the best way to live, and what the proper relationship is between Man and God(s). I wanted them to understand that these are natural questions for human beings of any era or culture to ask -- indeed, to fail to ponder them is unnatural and inhuman.

When I began to translate that classroom exercise into a series of posts on this blog, I wanted to do something a bit more -- to demonstrate the methods of literary analysis and the ways it can uncover the truths that great works of literature attempt share. I hope that an open-minded and thoughtful reader will see that even though the Roman poet Ovid and his ancient predecessor, the Gilgamesh poet, were "just pagans," they nonetheless thought deeply about the meaning of life and, through their poems, tried to share their understanding of its meaning with their readers. (The same is true of the Biblical account of Noah, of course.)

But there is a third, and even more important, motive behind this series, and that is to help the Christian reader to see with fresh eyes and new understanding the sublime truths found in the Biblical flood story. Most of us were raised from infancy on stories of Noah and his ark. Popular culture is full of references (mostly quaint or humorous) to the animals collected, two by two, in the Ark. The story is so familiar to us that few bother to read it in its proper context or to ponder deeply the truth it is meant to convey. By examining two other (we might say "competing") versions of the story in ancient literature, I hoped to "de-familiarize" the overly familiar story, so that the reader could see it with fresh eyes and keener insight, and thus, perhaps, learn something new from it.

Here, then is the series in its entirety.

1. What can Darren Aronofsky's Noah teach us about the Western cultural tradition?

This is the post that kicked off the series. The Noah movie, based on an extra-Biblical Jewish mystical tradition, reminded me that most modern people don't realize that there are a number of ancient stories about an a great flood, sent by the gods, to obliterate all life on Earth. Aronofsky's Noah was similar enough to the Biblical figure to attract many Christians to the movie, but different enough to provoke a fair amount of outrage.

2. Epic of Gilgamesh: Putting the Flood story in context

The story of the flood occupies one small, but crucial, episode in the ancient epic about the hero Gilgamesh. To understand what the flood narrative plays in that poem, we need to look at the poem as a whole, to see what kind of story it is trying to tell and what themes are in play.

3. The Story of the Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Here we look at the poem as a whole as constituting a "frame tale," with the flood story being set within that frame. How does this arrangement help us to understand both the frame tale and the framed tale?

4. The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh: What does it all mean?

Here we look at the big questions posed by the poem, and the answers it offers. This is where we see what the poet wanted his readers to understand about life, mortality, kingship, and greatness.

5. Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The themes explored in the Epic of Gilgamesh raise questions still of concern to many people today. But do the answers it provides remain satisfying in the modern sphere?

6. Metamorphoses: Putting Ovid's flood in context

Who was Ovid, and what were his first readers like? What concerns did they share? By looking at the rhetorical context in which Metamorphoses was written, we begin to get a sense of the kind of poem it is.

7. Zooming in on Ovid's account of the Great Flood

While the previous post asked "big picture" questions about  the cultural and historical context of Ovid's poem, in this post I focus on the flood account itself and the position it occupies within the larger work.

8. Ovid's Metamorphoses: Change is the only constant

Although the story of the great flood occupies a small place near the beginning of this lengthy poem, our analysis shows that it actually is a perfect illustration in miniature of the overall theme of the Metamorphoses.

Yet to come:

At some point, I hope to write several posts on the story of Noah in the Bible, wherein I will address questions such as these:

  • How does the story of Noah and the flood fit into the overall meaning of the Book of Genesis? 
  • When we look closely at the story, how does it differ from those we've already studied in Ovid and the Gilgamesh epic? 
  • How does the story of prehistoric Noah relate to the overall message of the Bible? 
  • Why is it important for twenty-first century Christians to to know and reflect on the story of a man who lived back in the dim recesses of prehistory? 
  • Does Noah have any immediate relevance to us in our own day?
Until then, I hope what I've already written in this series is enough to show that no story is self-interpreting nor its meaning self-evident. A lot depend on who is tell it, to whom it is being told, in what context, and for what purpose.

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