Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fact Becomes Myth?

Every culture not only has a creation story of some kind, but they also share a myth or legend that concerns a great flood. Everywhere from the ancient stories of Scandinavia, through Egypt and Mesopotamia, China, Australia, North America, South America etc has one. Basically, name a place and you’ll find a similar legend. All these legends have another commonality in that at least one human being was somehow spared and managed to repopulate the race somehow. They all speak of purification of one kind or another and in every case it was caused by some god or gods, and it was these gods that saw the righteousness of certain individuals and saved them. Usually by getting someone to build a boat of some kind. Or, in the case of one story from China a couple just happened to find a canoe and managed to paddle around until they bumped into a mountain. Now how lucky’s that? The only real point around which some differ is that a few provide that a great deluge (an extended period of rainfall) was the cause, while most tend to lean towards the oceans rising or vast volumes of water coming out of nowhere. I think there is a good reason for that and that an historical case can be made.

Despite what some may think, the old testament as we know it is a reasonably good historical reference where ancient history is concerned, so using the old testament as an historical record rather than a spiritual one, science can prove that there’s absolutely no geological record to support that there was a great flood as written in the story of Noah. This is where we run into a bit of a problem, I think.

The general consensus is that there’s about 4000 years of human history tied up in the old testament one way or another. That means that Noah existed only about 2000BC. The problem I have with this is that we can only trace Yahweh back about 5700 years, which actually places Noah at about 1700BC. Of course, there’s evidence to suggest that monotheism of sorts (the God of Gods, Lord of Lords thing, the singular rules over the plural, etc) goes back much further than that. Every pantheon has it’s top god after all, but that doesn’t change the fact that around the time of Noah as it’s interpreted from the bible, things were pretty stable and there probably wasn’t any flood at all.

Given what we know of earth history though, this could also indicate that we may have made a mistake in estimating how old some of the old testament stories actually are. If that’s the case, and I think it is, then the reference in time we attribute to the historical data contained in the old testament is hazy at best, even though the data itself can be reasonably accurate. It could very well be that the stories were actually written down for the very first time about 2 – 3 thousand years ago, that seems to be about when written languages started becoming popular, but man has been around a hell of a lot longer than that. The problem with what we call pre-history is that it wasn’t written down, or if it was it’s been lost, hence the term.

We know that the earth came into existence about 4.5 billion years or so ago, via the interplay of astronomical forces, and that man is a relative youngster at about 400,000 years in one form or another due to evolutionary change and upheaval. Modern man however, we can say has been around for about 30 - 40 thousand years. We can also prove, via geological records and records locked in ice cores, that the earth suffers from an extended cycle of ice ages, with periods of major glacial activity where glaciers grow and retreat quite rapidly every 11,00 years or so.

The popular theory is that we are currently still in the grips of an ice age that began around 40 million years ago, or so the above records would seem to suggest. The problem with ice and particularly glaciers is that they scour the landscape and make interpretation of the data collected from the these sources difficult. We can’t be sure for instance, that the ice caps have ever truly disappeared once they formed for the first time, but that’s the benchmark we use to denote an ice age. One thing we can be sure of however, is that the last major glacial period ended about 11,000 years ago.

When the earth experiences a major glacial period, a lot of water is locked into ice, some land becomes uninhabitable but ocean levels drop markedly which causes other land, closer to the tropics, to be exposed. Naturally, when the glaciers melt, the opposite occurs but with some changes evident afterwards. Generally, what used to be high ground has been ground down a bit by the relentless action of the ice and the tailings of the grinding get deposited elsewhere, sometimes hundreds of miles from their point of origin.

The evidence that exists in cores and the geological record from both the start and the end of the last glacial period, would suggest that both events happened fairly rapidly by geological standards. 25 to 50 years for both events. This means two things: That the ice forms in about half a single lifetime when the freeze begins, and about 11,000 years later, water inundates the lower lying regions in less than half a single lifetime (once again, 25 – 50 years) when the melt occurs.

Evidence also suggests that sea levels rose 150 metres at the end of the last glacial period. So considering the size of the planet and the amount of ice and water involved, that much melt in that short a time will make for some very large and fast moving volumes of water that will spend very little time filling and devastating any low lying areas. Consider also that man has always felt the need to settle near water (for very good reason) and I believe we find the source of this particular and very common tale. Massive volumes of fast moving water are going to make for devastating floods in coastal areas all around the globe. The other result of course, what with all that moisture having been released in such a short time, would be that in some parts of the world, there’d be a hell of a lot of rain where there probably wasn’t much before.

What this probably means as far as the legends go is that Noah, Gilgamesh, Deucalion and his wife, the survivors from Samothrace and a myriad others are all one in the same. They are simply the survivors of the great melt that occurred in a very short period about 11,000 years ago and caused massive upheaval in many human settlements around the globe and the story itself I think, was just meant to serve as a reminder.

So in conclusion, I think it’s fairly obvious that the story of the flood is entirely plausible. I also think that science has proven the plausibility of it, just not in the biblical context and time frame that certain factions might have us believe.


Dikkii said...

And Plonka, I'm told that the rising seas may have been a source for Atlantis myths as well.

It's interesting - until I saw your link to Cro-Magnon man, I always was under the misapprehension that Cro-Magnon man was an extinct branch of the evolutionary line similar to Neanderthals. Good stuff.

Plonka said...

Dikkii: Thanks...:)

Atlantis is a slippery question and it suffers all the same problems as the bible does. Was it real or just an often used example for a philosophical lesson that Plato taught?

extinct branch of the evolutionary line similar to Neanderthals.

There's even evidence to suggest that Neanderthals integrated with modern man as well.

tina said...

Very interesting. I wanted the post to keep going! Do some "religious" people question their bibles? After reading your post I would think some people would want to investigate further.

Plonka said...

Tina: Very interesting. I wanted the post to keep going!


Do some "religious" people question their bibles?

Well I did which is why I'm no longer a christian, obviously. I think the closest most come is trying to retrofit facts to the bible. It doesn't work of course, which is why we end up with so many factions and arguments over context etc.

After reading your post I would think some people would want to investigate further.

Thanks again...:) The trick is to get them to read it at all...

Sean the Blogonaut said...

A shared event or a story that has been passed around for millenia. It would nbe cool to try and track the travel and evolution of myths through what we know of the movement of language and people. Almost impossible probably.

Plonka said...

Sean: Thanks for stopping by...:)

I'll hasten to add here that this is just a theory and I could very well be wrong. I think the data I've presented supports it, but only to an extent.

As you say, tracing it through linguistics and migratory lines would be ultra cool, if only it were possible, but I think way to much time has passed. I think this story in particular is in excess of 10,000 years old and who knows how it really started. 7 - 8 thousand years of varying aural traditions will undoubtedly have changed it quite a bit.

Sean the Blogonaut said...

On a related tangent I seem to remember that a tribe in North Western WA had a dreamtime story regarding the boab(i think) tree - this story was extremely similar to that found in another indigenous group on either the sub continent or South America.

Can't for the life of me remember the reference though.

Like the blog by the way.

Plonka said...

Sean: Yeah, there are a lot of stories that seem to cross massive distances by no apparent means. That's why I think that a lot of them are much older than we give them credit for.

Christine said...

Great post. It led me to poke around Wikipedia a bit:


Scroll down to "The flood of Ogyges" - apparently Plato also believed that this major event happened 10,000 years before his own lifetime.

As you suggest in your response to Sean, it would be almost impossible at this point to track all of the myths via linguistics to one single origin; but we can still see some broad similarities within specific regions.

For example: several Mideast cultures describe a righteous man building and stocking a boat with family and animals, waiting X days, then sending various birds off to test the waters (ouch, sorry - bad pun). Several of the African cultures involve a magic woman blessing or cursing mankind based on their treatment of her, or Pandora's Box scenarios (don't touch that pot, don't ask me a forbidden question).

Another example: some myths describe the storm's duration, and some don't. Of those that do, some claim 7 days, 9 days, 10 days, 40 days, one full year, etc. (I haven't (yet) spotted any arbitrary-looking number claims, like 23; the stories generally gravitate toward cultural "magic" numbers.)

It seems likely that desert cultures would consider "7 days and nights" enough to signify a really long storm, with the storm getting bigger and longer as one moves to more temperate regions. Very rainy areas might have to claim the storm lasted much longer, or might not bother to specify a time period - i.e., if it typically rains a little or a lot every day, a storm that lasted "all month" or "all year" wouldn't make an impression - the benchmarks would be height and speed of the rising water.

First time here, on a virtual vacation from rainy New England, U.S.

Plonka said...

Christine: I can't get to your blog from the link...:(

Thanks for dropping by, excellent comment.

I hadn't read all of that. I read most of them at "talkorigins" which is a fantastic resource for this sort of thing but it really only presents the stories themselves. It looks like I'm among some decent company at least...:)

Magical or divine numbers are very important to any religious ideal. The bible seems to be pre-occupied with 3, 7 and 40, which are still known as "God's numbers" in Christian circles, while the devil gets 6 to use as his very own.

My favourite was an Australian Aboriginal one from Victoria (that's where I live). Bunjil got upset with the people because of the evil they did so he made the ocean flood by urinating into it.

These are interesting in so far as only a couple of them speak of rain while they all speak of the ocean rising and covering the land.

Dikkii said...

That Bunjil story is a classic, Plonka. Is there a reference for this one that you know of that I can have a look at?

It's like the old euphemism for rain - "being pissed on from a great height."

Plonka said...

Dikkii: Is there a reference for this one that you know of that I can have a look at?

Go to the "talkorigins" link in the article (the first link in there), scroll down to "Australia", then select "Victoria". It should be the top entry...

But I think it's time I came up with something new here...

Dikkii said...

Oh yeah. And there's the story ot Tidallik, the frog too.

I'd forgotten that one.

beepbeepitsme said...

Because floods are a natural and common occurence and could be local or regional, I have no problem in the idea that many floods have occurred in the past and will occur in the future.

It is the scope of these floods, the time frame of these floods and ultimately, the cause of these floods which people disgree about.

Obviously, I don't believe that either G-d, god, El, Baal or Yahweh had anything to do with floods past or floods present.

But people like me are probably in the minority.

There is also the possibility that people write about what they know according to the limited information that they have at the time. Would the Mediterranean have been considered "the whole world" at one time? Of course. And the same could apply to any other region that has a "global flood story."

There is also the possibility of a global thaw in the past which did flood many areas of land which was inhabited by humans. For each group of humans that this happened to, it would have seemed that "their world" was coming to an end and to try and explain it to themselves, they believed that it must have been the will of whichever god they worhipped at the time.

And, of course, their god was punishing them.

Plonka said...

Beep: And, of course, their god was punishing them

And let's not forget, saving the "righteous"...

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