Historicity of The Flood

Paolo Magnone p.magnone at AGORA.STM.IT
Thu Jun 10 22:26:34 UTC 1999

In reply to Yaroslav V. Vassilkov's message of 10 Jun 99, 13:09:

> I would rather support Michael Rabe's position, stressing

> >> striking similarities that ... exist between the Matsya-avatar stories
> >> and the Middle Eastern references to an ark

> and object to Paolo Magnone's view,
> acc. to which

> > different flood traditions may have independently developed the
> > idea of an "ark"; and ... the similarities do not go much
> >beyond that.

> Here are some other similiarities between Ancient Indian and
> Mesopotamian myths:

> 1. Both INDIA and MESOPOTAMIA: a pious man is warned about the flood. A
> god/fish gives him advice to build an ark/ship. The difference between two
> forms of a benefactor is diminished by the fact that Sumerian/Mesopotamian
> god Ea/Enki sometimes appears in the form of a fish.

You overlook the paramount difference here: in Mesopotamian
myths, the pious man is, above all, an innocent man. Gods hate
humanity on account of some transgression and decide to
annichilate it. Indeed, one of the most prominent features in the
Mesopotamian myth is the ethical context and the structure: crime
- punishment - reconciliation, which is conspicuous for its absence
in all Indian versions which I know about (except for a faint shade in
a couple of quite late developments).

> pious man takes on board "the seed of souls of every kind"; INDIA: Manu
> takes on board "seeds of all kinds" (Mbh).

What version are you referring to? As far as I know, near-eastern
versions do not typically mention "seeds", but couples, or in any
case "complete" beings. In Uta-napiStim's account, seeds are
mentioned together with gold, silver, kinsmen, servants, craftsmen,
beasts and cattle. On the other hand, there are no seeds nor any
survivors apart from Manu in the most ancient Indian version, that of
ZBr, which should accordingly be closer to the near-eastern
prototype. The reason is plain to see: Manu has got to procreate all
alone, by dint of zrama and sacrifice according to the usual
brahmanical pattern. Likewise, when seeds do appear, in later
versions, there is no need to conjure up far-reaching connections
with Sumer-Akkad: they can be much better explained with the
Indian notion of zeSa which plays an all-important role in pratisarga
myths (under which heading the deluge myth belongs).

> 3. Number "7" plays some role
> in both myths, MIDDLE EAST: 7 months of the flood (Bible), 7 nights of the
> flood, 7+7 incence-burners used in the final sacrifice (Sumer); INDIA: 7
> sages aboard the ship; 7 clouds of Doomsday flood the earth.

Number 7 is usually deemed to be of near-eastern origin; however,
in India it becomes more and more prominent as time progresses.
It is particularly at home in puranic cosmography (7 dvIpas, 7
lokas, 7 pAtAlas, 7 suns + 7 clouds at doomsday), whereas, if I
am not mistaken, it is comparatively rare in vedic literature (e. g.,
tripartite cosmography). There is no 7 in the most ancient Indian
account of the flood, that of ZBr.

> 4. Both INDIA
> and MESOPOTAMIA: landing at the top of a mountain.

What else is left, when the low lands are flooded?

> 5. Both: the final
> sacrifice. MIDDLE EAST: the God "sensed the smell of Noah's sacrifice"
> (Bible), gods like flies sense the smell and come together to Utnapishti's
> sacrifice; INDIA: Manu poured into the water clarified butter, milk etc.:
> out of it arose IDA (ILA), soon after that "Mitra and VaruNa met her",
> i.e. the sacrificial offering (as in Mesopotamian accounts too) reached
> the gods.

This is an example in point, showing to what extent "material"
similarities can be misleading. The import of near-eastern sacrifice
fluctuates between thanksgiving and propitiation. In the Uta-
napiStim account it brings out the dependence of the gods on
human sacrifice and thus effectively seals the reconciliation
between gods and men. The sacrifice plays no part in the
propagation of creatures: obviously, the surviving couples will take
care of it in the usual way.
On the other hand, in the ZBr version it is Manu's procreative
concern that prompts the sacrifice. When the flood is over, there is
no need to appease the gods, because there was no fault to
expiate, and the flood itself was no vengeance, but a due event in
the course of things (although in the ZBr an explicit cyclic context
is still missing). The outcome of the sacrifice, i. e. IDA, the
quintessence of sacrifice, is not "offered" to the gods. Mitra-VaruNa
do not even know who she is, and hearing the she is Manu's
daughter, try to appropriate her: "say you are ours!" but she
refuses, and goes to Manu. Here it is the self-sufficient power of
sacrifice as man's inalienable property that is extolled, pursuant to
the brahmanical ideology of the preeminence of sacrifice. In
subsequent versions, the sacrifice no longer fulfilled any essential
task in the matsyAvatAra myth, and was accordingly dropped.

> There is one significant difference: Sanskrit versions contain no mention
> of any bird sent to look for a dry land. However birds appear in some
> tribal Indian flood myths: e.g., God sends two birds to see are there any
> survivors after the flood, the birds perch on the "ark" (hollow log) and
> hear the voices of children (survivors) inside (Kamars).

I would like to have references on this.

> It is tempting to
> view in this light the well-known IVC representation of a ship with two
> birds on it.

> Even without the "bird" motif, there are too many similiarities between
> Indian and Mesopotamian flood myths and this points to some kind of
> genetic connection.
>          Indian myth has no Indo-European parallels. It was most probably
> borrowed from a non-Aryan source (IVC heritage?). It is worth notice that
> in its earliest form (Zatapatha BrAhmaNa) the fish appears without any
> name, is not identified with anyone of Vedic gods, and this means probably
> that the ZatBr story is a first stage in the process of assimilation of a
> foreign (substratum?) myth. The similiarity between the hypothetical IVC
> flood myth and the Mesopotamian one would not be a surprise for us (some
> mythological motifs common for IVC and ancient Middle Eastern art have
> been discovered and studied already by Parpola, During-Caspers and other
> scholars).

Of course, I do not mean to deny that some theme borrowing
could, and therefore might, have occurred. My contention is only,
that the extant Indian accounts appear right at the outset so
thoroughly indianized, i. e. an integral part of contemporary Indian
culture, that they do not warrant hypotheses of borrowing.
Similarity of *alien* structural elements -- such as the motif of the
jealous god -- or contrariwise of *casual* non-structural elements --
such as the motif of the birds (whether they be two or more) --
would provide a clue towards borrowing: but, as I have tried to
show, I do no think that such similarities really obtain.

Paolo Magnone
Catholic University of Milan
pmagnone at mi.unicatt.it
Jambudvipa - Indology and Sanskrit Studies

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