Floods and Fairytales

Never mind that the Bible gives only a cursory description of “Noah’s ark.” Never mind that the story in Genesis is clearly derivative from Mesopotamian originals such as the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh (the Utnapishtim version). Never mind that all species of animals cannot survive within a single, extremely limited biosphere without evolving afterward into the diversity that the world currently hosts, even counting extinctions. Never mind that not enough water exists (with apologies to Kevin Costner) to cover all landforms without every mountain being pounded flat and stacked neatly on top of the ocean floor. In short, never mind reality—people will continue to build replicas of Noah’s ark. As a literary trope the ark has proved invaluable; many of my posts demonstrate how it appears and reappears in books and movies as a symbol of human irresponsibility. And yet, in order to demonstrate the veracity of an ancient myth, we continue to build fundamentalist arks.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to a msnbc story of an ark being built—and sailed—in the Netherlands. Certainly those in the “low countries” have global warming to deal with more immediately that those on higher (geologically, not morally, speaking) ground, and the engineer of this particular ark does not strike the viewer as a rabid literalist (he is a little too unkempt for that, and his shirt is not white and he wears no tie). John Huibers, however, worries about a more localized flood in the Netherlands. The ark may be overkill since polar bears, koala bears and panda bears are rare in Amsterdam, at least when one is not medicated. Arks, however, make great tourist attractions.

In Hong Kong the Kwok brothers built an ark replica in 2009. Greenpeace has one in Istanbul. A Christian theme-park featuring a full-size ark is under development in Kentucky, and just two years ago I drove past a roadside ark being built in Maryland. Most of these arks, interestingly, follow the design in the Sun Pictures’ production In Search of Noah’s Ark rather than the more traditional, mythic design in my children’s Bible. It is a natural human tendency to mistake form for substance. The story of Noah is a cautionary tale that has taken on daunting real-life implications in our treatment of our planet. Water is the signature of life, but for us land-dwellers too much is not a good thing. Thankfully, should a flood come, there will soon be enough arks around the world that would-be Noahs may find themselves in a buyers’ market.

Still my favorite ark

Noah’s Lark

This podcast deals with the myth of the great flood. It begins with a consideration of why modern expeditions do not find anything (nothing to be found), and considers the reasons the story is so appealing to present-day readers. The Sun Pictures productions on the flood story are reviewed, along with the story of the hoax played on Sun in their 1992 made-for-television movie. The history of the flood story is briefly narrated, beginning with George Smith’s 1872 discovery of the Mesopotamian flood story, back to Atrahasis and the Eridu Genesis from Sumer. The flood story is one of the earliest religious stories known.

The Original Mud-bloods

“Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.”

This quote is from the myth of Atrahasis (Benjamin Foster’s translation; my Akkadian’s a bit shaky these days), an early version of the flood story. Although I have a burning itch to write about the flood, I would rather focus on the creation of humanity in this post. Maybe it is because in my unemployed mode it is easy to think of myself as only dirt and blood, but maybe it is because in my evening class we’ve just been talking about creation stories.

One of the benefits of polytheism is the lack of a pressing need to ascribe uniformity to your myths. Ancient peoples who believed in a multiplicity of gods had a wide variety of versions about how the world was created, where people came from, who sent the flood, and so forth. They were not writing about what actually, factually happened — these were myths, for the gods’ sake! Nobody was there to see the creation of humanity, so who’s to say what really happened? One element that is repeated in ancient accounts, however, is the creation of people from dirt.

Perhaps it is because people often treat each other like dirt, frequently with religious motivation, but a more likely explanation is that in ancient times the dead were known to return to soil after they were buried. Logic dictates that if the dead turn to dirt, their living version must have been created from dirt. So far, so good. But dirt isn’t exactly alive. The ancients differed on what animated this soil with a soul.

The Bible presents a lofty account of God breathing air into the soil-man. It is clear that the Hebrew Bible equates breathing to being alive. A person is alive when they first breathe; when they stop breathing, they die. At the same time, blood is an essential component too. This is so much the case that the Bible dictates that “the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12.23). For this idea the Israelites were indebted to the Mesopotamians. As seen in the Atrahasis Epic, humans are a mix of clay and the blood of the gods, the original mud-bloods. For all their differing opinions, the ancients realized that in this messy world of dirt and dread, human beings, for all their problems, had a bit of the gods within their very veins.