The seed for this series of articles was planted years ago, when I devised a reading exercise for my Humanities students. I wanted them to see (a) that many ancient cultures told stories of a Great Flood that, in primeval times, destroyed most life on Earth, and (b) although the various versions of this myth shared significant details, each culture drew a different meaning from the story. I selected the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the Bible as the texts we would compare, because they fit the parameters of a course called “Humanities in the Western Cultural Tradition,” and because they were texts of which I had some little knowledge. (In another situation, I once added Popol Vuh to the mix, to show that Flood accounts are not confined to Mediterranean cultures.)
A Biblical (?) movie
I was reminded of the classroom exercise when I saw Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, which drew a sizable audience simply because screen treatments of Biblical epics are such a rare thing these days. It drew quite a few Catholic viewers because the film was praised by people such as Bishop Robert Barron and Catholic movie critic Steve Greydanus. (Another prominent Catholic movie critic (and screenwriter), Barbara Nicolosi, however, was not impressed.) I thought the movie was spectacularly awful (I wrote about it here), but I became intrigued when I realized that many of the film’s oddities resulted from the fact that the filmmaker based his story not on the well-known Biblical account of Noah and the Ark, but on a quasi-gnostic version from the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition. Same characters, same situation, totally different interpretation of the events. I know I was not the only one confused by this. In fact, many viewers were upset by what they interpreted as another attempt by Hollywoood to “make the Bible look bad,” when that was not really the case at all. (Aronofsky, in his way, is quite religious, and sought to embody his religious beliefs in a modern movie.)
When I realized that most moviegoers have no idea that there are other versions of the Great Flood “out there,” I thought it would be a good idea to replay here on the blog the exercise that I once used in my college classroom. I decided it would also be a good idea to demonstrate how the Four-Step Reading Method (something else I developed for my Humanities classes) can be applied to literary works. So I conceived a series of posts that would examine these three Great Flood accounts, analyzing them in the context of the works in which they appear. I realized this would probably complicate the exercise somewhat (I originally thought I could complete it in a single blog post, or two at most), but I had no idea that it would consume me for months (actually, years — with breaks now and then).
I knew next to nothing about the Epic of Gilgamesh when I started this project, although I had read the Flood account which is part of one small episode in that poem; my memory of studying the Metamorphoses in a Western mythology course in graduate school was, by this time, somewhat faded. So I had to do some studying to do, and I learned a lot in the process. (N. B. If you want to learn something really well, try to teach it to others. Works every time.)
A lens for reading the Bible
I saved the Bible for last — because I wanted both my readers and myself to take a look at it with “fresh eyes,” to see what new depths we would find after having spent so long delving into the less-familiar Mesopotamian and Roman versions of the Great Flood. In a way, this was my primary motivation for the whole exercise — little did I suspect how much fun I would have on the other two, lesser known accounts.
I don’t know how many readers have followed the whole series — a number of people have told me their eyes were opened by the discussion of Gilgamesh — but I know it has been immensely beneficial to me to write it. Here are all the posts in the series, so that newcomers can read the whole thing in the order in which I wrote it. If you find it beneficial, please leave a comment on one of the posts.