TIME movies

Before Noah: Myths of the Flood Are Far Older Than the Bible

Russell Crowe in Noah
Niko Tavernise—Paramount Pictures/AP

While the Hollywood blockbuster has been a hit, it has also faced opposition from Christians and Muslims angry with its supposed misrepresentation of their scriptures. But tales of great floods did not begin with the Bible

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah dominated the U.S. box office on its opening weekend and won critical acclaim, but not without controversy. The film, based on the biblical story in Genesis of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, arrived amid a deluge of outrage from religious groups. Some Christians fumed at the film’s straying from biblical Scripture. Meanwhile, a host of Muslim-majority countries banned Noah from screening in theaters because representations of Noah, a prophet of God in the Koran, are considered blasphemous. Such images “provoke the feelings of believers and are forbidden in Islam and a clear violation of Islamic law,” read a fatwa issued by Cairo’s al-Azhar University, one of the foremost institutions of Sunni Islam. Egypt has not banned the film, but Indonesia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have. “It is important to respect these religions and not show the film,” lectured the main censors of the UAE.

Aronofsky, an atheist, has no interest in defending his film’s scriptural authenticity. Indeed, the director has described Noah as “the least biblical film ever made” and thinks of its chief protagonist in secular terms as the world’s “first environmentalist.” Noah is as much a parable for the modern threat of climate change as it is an Old Testament morality play.

But there’s another reason why the angry religious crowd ought to check their outrage. The story of Noah may be part of the Abrahamic canon, but the legend of the Great Flood almost certainly has prebiblical origins, rooted in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh dates back nearly 5,000 years and is thought to be perhaps the oldest written tale on the planet. In it, there is an account of the great sage Utnapishtim, who is warned of an imminent flood to be unleashed by wrathful gods. He builds a vast circular-shaped boat, reinforced with tar and pitch, that carries his relatives, grains and animals. After enduring days of storms, Utnapishtim, like Noah in Genesis, releases a bird in search of dry land.

Various archaeologists suggest there was a historical deluge between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago that hit lands ranging from the Black Sea to what many call the cradle of civilization, the flood plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The translation of ancient cuneiform tablets in the 19th century confirmed the Mesopotamian flood myth as an antecedent of the Noah story in the Bible. In an interview with the London Telegraph, Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum and author of the recent book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, described one way the tradition may have emerged:

There must have been a heritage memory of the destructive power of flood water, based on various terrible floods. And the people who survived would have been people in boats. You can imagine someone sunbathing in a canoe, half asleep, and waking up however long later and they’re in the middle of the Persian Gulf, and that’s the beginning of the flood story.

Yet tales of the Flood spring from many sources. Myriad ancient cultures have their own legends of watery cataclysm and salvation. According to Vedic lore, a fish tells the mythic Indian king Manu of a flood that will wipe out humanity; Manu then builds a ship to withstand the epic rains and is later led to a mountaintop by the same fish. An Aztec story sees a devout couple hide in the hollow of a vast tree with two ears of corn as divine storms drown the wicked of the land. Creation myths from Egypt to Scandinavia involve tidal floods of all sorts of substances — including the blood of deities — purging and remaking the earth.

Flood myths are so universal that the Hungarian psychoanalyst Geza Roheim thought their origins were physiological, not historical — hypothesizing that dreams of the Flood came when humans were asleep with full bladders. The religious purists now upset with Hollywood probably don’t want to hear that it’s really just all about drinking too much water before bedtime.

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