ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Great Flood Myths: from a School Play to the Pandemic," an essay by Jiayi Liao

“A flood is what these sinful people deserve. But there are two who shall live: Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha.” Wearing a beard made of wool, I stroked a paper-made lightning bolt and spoke in mighty rage as a cross-dressing Zeus.

As a fun assignment in the Ancient Greece Unit of English class, each team was asked to put together a short play adapted from Greek myths in three days and present it to the whole class. As I looked over the list of topics, “Zeus and the Great Flood” immediately caught my eyes. It was such an interesting echo of Noah’s Ark, which we had just discussed in the Bible Unit.

Topic approved, my team leapt to work. All the props we used were built with our hands or from our imaginations. A fire cut out of cardboard and a paper lightning bolt were the most powerful attributes we made for Prometheus and Zeus. The catastrophic Great Flood was created by teammates shaking two ends of a blue silk scarf up and down.

So, it is probably not surprising that the whole class burst into laughter when the end of the world came. Although the short play was performed for fun in class, at its heart, this myth itself really isn’t hilarious or enjoyable. After all, we are talking about the end of the world.

Realizing the connection between Noah’s Ark and Zeus and the Great Flood, I was intrigued but confused by the cross-cultural obsession with DOOM. Why do people love talking about the end? Individual death is already incredibly horrifying to contemplate. Still, across time and cultures, stories depict in detail the death of the entire human race.

Out of curiosity, I did some more research on the myth of the Great Flood. Surprisingly, it is far from merely a Hebrew or Greek tradition. There are numerous stories about a catastrophic flood in various distinct cultures.

Noah’s Ark probably has its origin in two Mesopotamian flood myths recorded in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics. Ancient Indian and Aztec cultures also have similar accounts. There are several versions of a destructive flood in Chinese myths. In one version, the flood was the aftermath of a war of gods. A defeated god furiously broke one of the four mountains that supported the heaven above the earth, causing many disasters, including a flood. In another version, the flood was sent from the heaven as a warning to corrupting humans. Instead of wiping out mankind immediately, it plagued people for years until a great man called Yu successfully drained the water. He provided outlets into the sea through dredging, and thus saved the mankind. Although details of the myth are somewhat varied in each cultural context, the basic plot of the Great Flood is almost universal. Typically, the disastrous flood is inflicted on the mankind by a powerful god as a punishment, aiming to wipe out humans on earth.

Yet, taking a closer look, I found something striking:

The Great Flood is never just about endings, it is also about beginnings.

It seems that in every version of this myth in any culture, the flood nearly destroys mankind. Nearly—which means, humanity is never completely wiped out. Be it Deucalion in Greek mythology, Noah in the Old Testament, or Manu in Hindu tradition…someone and his family either received a warning of the flood and advice to build an ark in advance, or escaped from the disaster accidentally. They then lived on to become the ancestors of a more advanced human race. In short, there are always survivors into a new world that is built upon the relics of the old.

My curiosity about the Great Flood myths was brought to a pause until a “flood” of sorts inundated my own life: the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not trying to dramatize or exaggerate the pandemic as “the end of the world” but at the worst stage of the outbreak, I felt like I was drowning in an overwhelming flood of harrowing COVID-19 updates, with confirmed cases and deaths count climbing every day.

That was when I revisited myths about the Great Flood and found them strangely comforting. Ancient tales about catastrophes gave me hope and strength within a global disaster in the modern world. In those tales, humans were brought so close to extinction in large-scale disasters but somehow, miraculously, managed to survive. If we made it before, do we not have the potential to make it again?

My teammates and I were simply poking fun at the myth in the short play we performed in class. It was kind of a disrespect of such a serious topic, but perhaps we happened to grasp the optimistic essence of the tale.

In the flood myths, people from many cultures share an interest in talking about a close encounter when humans are at the verge of extinction. As it turns out, however, our keen obsession with depicting the end is actually comforting, knowing that there never really is the end. Every cloud has a silver lining. Every flood has its survivors. After all, we are here, telling the stories.

Jiayi Liao is a 17-year-old student from Beijing, China. She is deeply intrigued by art, music, and literature of different cultures in the world. She aims to promote cross-cultural understanding through writing. Her pieces have been published by Skipping StonesBlue Marble Review, and KidSpirit. She also published a collection of her artworks Paper Boat in 2014

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