Noah in the Ark, illumination

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.

What can Darren Aronofsky’s Noah teach us about the Western cultural tradition?

About a year ago, I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah not long after it hit the cinemas. I always cringe whenever Hollywood produces anything vaguely Biblical, and probably would not have gone to see ...
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Epic of Gilgamesh: putting the Flood story in context

Reading ancient literature turns us into time travelers — but without a guide, we can suffer culture shock. Sometimes we have to learn to see treasured, but overly-familiar truths with the eyes of a stranger in order ...
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The Story of the Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Today we come to the second part of our examination of the story of the Great Flood found in the Epic of Gilgamesh — wherein we will look at the story itself. I’m actually going ...
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The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh: What does it all mean?

In the past couple of posts in this series, we’ve been looking at the Great Flood narrative found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, trying to put the flood story into context, both within the larger ...
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Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The real test of literature is whether it continues to speak to us, after generations or even millennia. We’ve almost finished our examination of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its account of the Great Flood ...
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Metamorphoses: Putting Ovid’s flood in context

Without context, we can’t tell where we are,
or what we’re looking at. Recently, we took a close look at the account of the Great Flood that appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and ...
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Zooming in on Ovid’s acount of the Great Flood

Ovidius Publius Naso, better known as Ovid Reading, like so much of life, is all about seeing what is to be seen — not only what is visible in  a cursory glance, but also patterns that ...
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Tradition, Truth and the Literary Epic

Were Homer’s epics inspired by the story of Gilgamesh? Yesterday, by a piece of serendipity, I discovered that there’s a revised edition of Charles Rowan Beye’s Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, which now contains ...
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Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Change is the only constant

I left the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by saying (as I often do) that, in literature, context is everything. We can’t really grasp the significance of Ovid’s version of the Great Flood unless we consider ...
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The Great Flood in Literature: Wrestling with Proteus

There is a figure in Greek mythology called Proteus, a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, however, one must first catch him ...
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Noah and his sons gaze at the rainbow God leaves as a sign of his covenant

The Great Flood in Literature: Joe Blow reads Genesis

When I started this reading exercise that I call “adventures in comparative mythology,” nearly two years ago, I said that one of the things I hoped to achieve was to get readers to be able to ...
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Noah in Perspective

In the previous installment in this series on the Great Flood in the literary tradition, we saw that the Biblical flood story, unlike its analogs in pagan literature, emphasizes the God who saves, rather than ...
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