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Noah's Ark And Other Historical Allegories

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Noah's Ark and other Historical Allegories

A great flood that devastated an earlier civilisation is a recurring theme in the vast majority of cultural traditions. The stories of Noah and the Ark in Genesis, Matsya in the Hindu Puranas, Deucalion in Greek mythology and Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh are amongst the most familiar versions of these myths.

But a great flood myth also occurs in Aztec, Inca, Hopi, Maya, Cado, Menominee and Mikmaq traditions in the Americas, in Polynesian, Maori, Indonesian and several versions in Chinese traditions.

In Europe there are similar stories in Norse mythology and in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle Beowulf. In Ireland, according to the apocryphal history of Ireland, Lebor Gabála Érenn, the first inhabitants of Ireland led by Noah's granddaughter Cessair were all, except one, wiped out by a flood 40 days after reaching the island. Later, after Panthalon's and Nemed's people reached the island, another flood rose and killed all but thirty of the inhabitants, who scattered across the world.

Much lively debate continues as to the origins of these myths, most notably the Great Flood as described in Genesis. Archaeological searches for the remains of the Ark continue on Mount Arafat in Turkey, on Mount Sabalan and Mount Suleiman in the Alborz mountains in Iran and at other sites.

In 1998, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, geologists from Columbia University, caused a sensation that was headline news by publishing evidence that a massive flood through the Bosphorus occurred about 5600 BC. They hypothesized that the area that is now covered by the Black Sea contained a smaller freshwater lake and that a rise in the level of the Mediterranean breached the land wall allowing the sea to pour through. This caused the drowning of thousands of square miles of productive farmland and the settlements around the lake's shore.

There are many possible explanations for these recurring myths, but geologically the most likely are mega-tsunamis, the rising sea overflowing a natural sill and entering an enclosed basin or big glacier-dammed lakes bursting as their ice melted.


Mega-tsunamis, wave heights in the order of 40 metres to 100 metres plus, are caused by a very large impact or landslide into a body of water. These are typically associated with a meteor impact or volcanic eruption.

On 18 May 1980 the upper 1500 ft (460m) including the former summit of Mount St. Helens, a volcano in Washington, detached as a landslide. The avalanche slammed into Spirit Lake sending a tsunami surging around the lake basin as high as 250m (820 ft) above lake level.

The collapse of much of Santorini during its cataclysmic eruption around 3,500 years ago produced a 100-150 metre wave that struck the north coast of Crete which some historians believe may have been the cause of the sudden end of the Minoan civilisation.

More recently in 2004, the Indian Ocean Tsunami killed over 230,000 people and although not classified as a mega-tsunami, it was one of the worst human losses of life the modern world has seen. The tsunami waves were recorded at heights over 30 feet.

In 2011 an earthquake reaching a magnitude of 9.0, caused a 23 foot tsunami to hit the cost of Japan and many other neighbouring countries. The loss of life was estimated at over 15,000.

Sill Breaches

At the most recent glacial maximum, so much of the planet's water was locked up in the vast ice-sheets, that the sea level dropped by about 120 to 130 meters. As the sheets melted, starting around 18,000 years ago, sea levels rose. If the rising sea overflowed a natural sill and entered an enclosed basin, the ocean could swamp vast areas in matters of weeks or months catastrophically.

As well as the Black Sea, it is likely that the Persian Gulf, which surveys have confirmed was an entirely dry basin in 15,000 BC was refilled from the Gulf of Oman by such a breach at the Strait of Hormuz.

Glacial Lakes

The last of the North American proglacial lakes, north of the present Great Lakes, has been designated as Lake Ojibway by geologists. Situated 250 feet above sea level, its outlet was blocked by the great wall of the glaciers and it was drained by tributaries into the St. Lawrence far to the south. About 8,300 to 7,700 years ago, the melting ice dam over Hudson Bay's most southern extension narrowed to the point where pressure and its buoyancy lifted it free. The result was that the ice-dam failed catastrophically. The volume of Lake Ojibway is commonly estimated to have been about 163,000 cubic kilometres enough to cover the entire United States to a depth of 15 metres.

Whatever the sources of these stories, their enduring place in our mythologies is a testament to the destructive power of water and its ability to destroy our families, homes and way of life. In this website you will find advice on preparing for the more common flood events that affect the UK each year and simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your property.

Useful Links

Mark Isaak's extraordinarily detailed account of flood stories and myths from cultures around the world.

Summary and transcript of BBC Horizon programme on Mega-tsunamis broadcast in 2000. Wave of Destruction

Archaeological Institute of America’s abstract and review of Ryan and Pitman’s book on the inundation of the Black Sea.

US Geological Survey – Latest news on Mt St Helens.

News item from National Geographic August 2006 reporting a re-estimation of the size of the Santorini volcanic eruption.

The Global Flood Map offers an interactive view of how various countries would be affected by rising sea levels.

Hewsweb is the Humanitarian Early Warning Service, which offers early warnings for floods, storms, volacnos, seismic activity, general weather alerts and even locust swarm warnings.