Friday, 17 April 2015

Some Flood Legends

The two dominant literary flood myths of the West are those arising from Mesopotamia (and to be found embedded in Jewish, Christian and Islamic mythic history) and those surrounding Atlantis. We say 'myth' but the question is equally and always whether they are 'legends', elaborations of real events. The Akkadian Noah is the immortal Ut-napishtim who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This story is quite definitely mythic as an attempt to explain the ineluctability of death.

The version of the Great Flood here and in the Bible is also mythic - the Gods (like the Abrahamanic God) decide to destroy mankind and Ea (like the Abrahamanic God) makes one exception by warning him to build a ship. In the Gilgamesh story, the point is made that Ut-napishtim was the first, last and only man ever to be granted immortality by the Gods. The rest of the story demonstrates that 'truth' even as Ut-napishtim advises Gilgamesh how he might possibly gain immortality through the use of a plant deep under the ocean. Naturally, he fails ...

The Atlantis myth needs no elaboration here (to repeat it in all its manifestations would be to become a bore). If we note the probable Cretan or Santorini origin of the myth (if not invented by Plato) and push aside all the modern fantasies and accretions, we may still be left with some credibility for stories of lands sinking just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. The Celtic zone is part of the same Atlantic seaboard and has a persistent tradition of flood legends that appear largely independent of these main traditions and which appear to relate to actual events that took place on the British Coast.

The myth of the land of Lyonesse is one such. Villages have been lost in historic times on the English East Coast. In addition to Lyonesse (between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) we have the submerged Breton land of Ys and the lost Green Isle known as a legend along the whole Atlantic seaboard from Iberia to Scotland. These must be distinguished from pseudo-flood legends where the existence of lakes and islands are topographically explained through the heroic digging out of land that has been thrown into the sea - so that the Isle of Man was created out of Lough Neagh and the four Aran Islands out of Finn Mac Cool's creation of Lough Corrib.

A common theme in Celtic legend is of submarine territories that appear occasionally out of the sea (not unknown as volcanic islands). The ready-made cultures on these islands can be ignored as fantasy but exceptional low tides and freak weather conditions can reveal former habitations and the story of submarine countries and towns is probably drawn from these events. These are common enough to have many examples in Ireland - Hy Brasil, Tir na hOige, Mainstir Leitreach, Beag-Arainn - but the best examples are Welsh and Cornish. Some are more apocryphal than others - the sunken city under Llyn Syfaddon (Llangors Lake) is too like the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah to be credibly non-derivative. Another lies under Bala Lake.

The cause of such laken cities is always sinful living and drowning is a vengeance. The most interesting is that of the prosperous Kingdom, ruled by Gwyddno Garanhir, Cantre'r Gwaelod, now drowned under Cardigan Bay and very possibly a folk memory of the loss of some neolithic agricultural settlements by the encroaching Irish Sea. As always the tale is moralistic. The Prince is given to pleasures of a decidedly pagan nature and so he and his land are punished for his and his people's sins because of their neglect of their duty to the sea defences.

And as so often (the Suffolk case of Dunwich springs to mind), it is claimed that, even today, the bells of the town can be heard as the remains of its walls may be seen. The stories are moral exemplars from the Christian era but it does seem likely that they may represent the destruction of real communities living on vulnerable land and destroyed by sea encroachments - whether tidal, tsunami or from local earthquake - but it is unlikely that these encroachments were Atlantean in scale or too far distant in the past.

Perhaps the only other major flood tradition (though there are others) is that of the Tamils who have a flood myth connected to the two 'lost' cities of Tenmaturai (possibly Maturai as it was before a major flood: Maturai exists today as a temple centre) and Kapatapuram, of which the earliest source is ninth century. In both cases, they were destroyed by 'sea-floods' - presumably tsunami - and the later discovery of the remains of temple architecture during the sea recession of the last great tsunami indicates this to be a probability. So we have at least four great traditions - the Mesopotamian which may have affected the reading of the Celtic through Christian exemplars but which latter may also reflect sea encroachments around the British Isles, the Atlantaean which probably derives from Santorini and the Tamil derived from early medieval tsunami.