“And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.” —Genesis 7:24
“The World Destroyed by Water” by Gustave Doré.
by Tim Callahan
One of the programs of the (so-called) History Channel that is particularly galling to me as a skeptic is their Ancient Aliens series, where Erich von Daniken, Zecharia Sitchen, Georgio Tsoukalos and David Childress, among others, advance the pseudo-scientific theory that extraterrestrials both created us through biological engineering and gave us our ancient civilizations. In the process of advancing their dogma, they spout blatant falsehoods that go utterly unchallenged. The History Channel, shamefully, makes no attempt whatsoever to offer any rebuttal to these spurious claims. Rather, as is their policy with any program dealing with the historicity of anything from the Bible, their policy toward ancient astronaut theorists is one of shameless pandering, a strategy most probably determined by favoring profits over proof and ratings over reason. Fortunately, filmmaker Chris White has addressed this imbalance, putting the lie to these claims thoroughly in his three-hour documentary Ancient Aliens Debunked,recently posted on Skeptic.com.
Unfortunately, in one area in particular Mr. White has stumbled badly in his assertion that the biblical story of the flood is not derived from Sumerian flood stories (whose connection to the ancient alien series is thin in any case) and instead claims that both biblical and Sumerian flood stories reflect an actual worldwide flood and are not the result of cultural diffusion from some earlier myth. According to White, all over the world there is a universal myth of a worldwide flood in which only a few people, usually about eight, are saved by entering a boat, while the rest of humanity is drowned. White argues that, of course, one great drawback to such an assertion is that science in no way supports such a universal flood. Geology and the fossil record and genetics all militate strongly against any historical validity of a worldwide flood. Thus, comparative mythology is his only evidence on the offing.
Are flood myths universal? No. At least, not one in which a worldwide flood wipes out all of the human race but for a couple or a single family. Consider the case of China. Does this large country with an unbroken history going back to ancient times have a flood myth, replete with a boat on which a few survivors escape, from thence to reestablish the human race? It does, however that particular flood myth comes from an ethnic minority called the Miao. They speak a language similar to Thai and appear to have immigrated to China from Southeast Asia. The only other flood myth from China involves annual flooding from rivers and the need for people to work together to prevent such destruction. It involves no ark and no destruction of all life on the planet.
Consider also an Egyptian flood myth. Surely this one should be similar to those of the Bible and Mesopotamia if the flood were, in fact, historical. In this myth the gods, suspecting mortal treachery against them, dispatch the goddess Hat-hor to take vengeance on the human race. However, her blood lust gets out of hand and threatens to utterly annihilate humanity. Since this is not the aim of the gods, they pour out upon Egypt a flood of beer brewed from mandrake root, which has soporific properties. Hat-hor, setting out on her daily rampage, looks down at the flooded land of Egypt, sees her own beautiful visage reflected in the beer and bends down to kiss it. She begins to drink the mandrake root beer and drinks so much of it that she forgets the plan of destruction and instead staggers off to bed. Thus, in the Egyptian flood story, the flood saves the human race.
Yet another flood story that differs significantly from the biblical one is found in Norse myth. Odin and his two brothers, Villi and Ve, kill the frost giant, Ymir, and make the world out of his body. His blood creates a flood that drowns most of the other frost giants. All this happens before the creation of the human race.
There is no native Celtic flood myth. I have to stress the word “native” since the Celtic myths, like those of the Teutonic peoples were written down by Christian monks, who harmonized them with myths from the Bible. Here is yet another problem with the vaunted universality of flood myths: Many of them appear courtesy of cultural contamination by Christian and, in some cases, Muslim, missionaries.
Diffusion of flood myths is also a factor. While there are differences between earlier Mesopotamian myths and the story of Noah’s ark, and while there is not a literary descent from the earlier material to the later, there is a cultural continuity. Thus, the Akkadian flood epic, Atrahasis, gave rise to later flood tales, not only the story of Noah in the Bible, but, as well, that of Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek mythology. We do not find, nor would we expect to find, any great literary correspondence between an Akkadian epic, written on preserved tablets dating from ca. 1650 BCE and the biblical flood myth, the earliest version of which probably dates from ca. 850 BCE.
In his defense of the biblical flood story as history, White also falls back on an old canard, to whit, that the scribal transcription of the biblical text is so precise that it is far more accurate and less open to corrupting changes than any other ancient document. Certainly this might have been true of their transcription once the documents in question were seen as holy writ. However, varying versions of biblical tales were still being written perhaps as late as the Babylonian Captivity (587–538 BCE). That the biblical text is of late compilation is further attested to by its many anachronisms. Consider, as an example, what Genesis says of the place of origin of Abrahm, that is, Abraham (Gen. 11:31 emphasis added):
Tereh took Abrahm his son and Lot, the son of Haran, his grandson and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abrahm’s wife, and he went forth from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran they settled there.
While this test purports to be from the hand of Moses, written sometime between 1400 and 1200 BCE, the Chaldeans did not occupy Ur until ca. 800 BCE. Hence, this document’s reference to Ur as “Ur of the Chaldeans” dates it as having been written after that time.
Chris White would do a great service to the cause of critical thinking, and to himself as well, were he to excise the flood material from his otherwise exemplary documentary.