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The Flood: A Greek Perspective

Updated on April 1, 2009

Once upon a very long time ago, Zeus, king of gods and men, looking down from his home on high Olympus upon the children of men as they went about their various affairs, was extremely grieved, for everywhere his eyes settled upon there was nothing but badness and illegality. The children of men had no interest whatsoever in what was good nor did they care to follow the dictates of the law. In every nook and corner of the whole wide world, man’s wickedness grew by the day and the respect due to the gods themselves, even mighty Zeus himself, had been thrown by the wayside. High Olympus reeked with the stench of the wickedness that men delighted in, so Zeus decided to come down to earth and see for himself what these folk were up to.


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Deep in the Arcadian hills, in the city founded by their illustrious father, the sons of Lykaon held sway in the city of Lykosoura. Bold in their pride and unrepentant in their wickedness, they held their feasts and declared that not even the undying ones could prevent them from doing just as they pleased.


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As Helios, the golden sun, was going down to his western home one evening, an old man arrived at the city gate. His hair, all grey, streamed in the breeze and his beard, all matted, was a tangled mass on his ragged cloak. His visage bespoke extreme weariness as he moved slowly with the aid of his staff, following the sounds of merriment that came to his ear  borne by the gentle breeze, and he came to the Agora where there was a feast in full swing.


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As soon as they saw the old man, the sons of Lykaon gathered around him. “You must be a wise seer”, they mocked, “and we are certain that you can tell us everything about those far off days when earth herself was born out of Chaos! You certainly look old enough to have lived through the event!”


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Seizing the old man, they made him sit down on the ground close by to where they had been feasting. “You have come in good time”, they declared. “We have made sacrifice in honour of Zeus and of all the undying gods; and now you will definitely partake in it with us”. So saying, they placed a dish containing human flesh before the old man; for it was their belief that by a resort to human sacrifice, they could ward of the just anger of the undying gods. But the old man pushed aside the dish and rose up and, rising, all the age and weariness left his countenance and Zeus stood before them in all his glory surrounded by the terrible lightnings that herald the presence of the god! And all the sons of Lykaon were consumed and their ashes crumbled to the ground.


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Then Zeus returned to high Olympus and he spoke the word that the sons of men should be wiped off the face of the earth on account of their great wickedness by means of a great flood of waters. Then the north wind, which disperses the mists and the vapours, was locked up and the west wind was let loose in all of its might and power. The very heavens were completely enveloped in the dark rain clouds and on hill and valley, the relentless rain came pouring down. The rivers burst their banks and the plains were flooded and the waters rushed up the hills and mountains. Men wept and prayed, but for most there was to be no respite from Zeus’ great anger.


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High up in the mountains of Phthia, Deukalion looked down and saw what was happening and recalled to mind the words of his father, the wise Prometheus who had taught the children of men the use of fire, that one day Zeus would destroy men on account of their wickedness. He called his wife, Pyrrha, daughter of Epimetheus, and together they filled the ark, which Deukalion had prepared against this day, with food and drink and entered into the ark. When the flood waters reached the heights of Phthia, they carried off the ark which floated away. For eight days, they were carried along and apart from the fishes which swam in what had once been mountains or forests, all that they saw were the dead bodies of men, women, children and animals; all perished in the great flood that Zeus had sent down in his fierce anger. Apart from a very lucky few who had found refuge on the summits of the very highest mountains, that race of men was wiped out in its entirety! On the 9th day, the ark came to rest upon the summit of Mt. Parnassus.


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Now, even quicker than when it was rising, the flood waters receded and the tangled remains of the forests were filled with the carcasses of dead fishes and sea monsters, but, apart from the vultures which circled above in the sky, there was not a living thing as far as Deukalion and Pyrrha could see.


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The couple were very sad as they stepped back on solid ground, for it was unclear if they were the only living humans left on the face of the earth, but Deukalion told his wife that whatever the case, it was right that they should give thanks to the powerful being who had brought about the flood but had permitted them to survive. So they erected an altar to Zeus and made a prayer of thanks giving, and Zeus heard their prayer.


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Then Hermes, the ever youthful messenger of the gods appeared before them. “Zeus has heard your prayers and, because only both of you have been found with clean hands and pure hearts in the whole wide earth ask what you will and it will be given unto you”. Then, bowing low before Hermes, Deukalion declared his heartbrokenness at the desolation of the earth and prayed that man would once more walk upon the earth.


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“Your request has been granted”, replied Hermes. “All you need do is cover your faces with your cloaks and throw your mothers’ bones behind you as you go on your way”. So Hermes returned to Olympus.


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For a long time Deukalion pondered Hermes’ words, then the wisdom of his father, Prometheus, revealed to him that the earth was their mother and the stones were her bones. So, as the descended the mountain, they both cast stones behind them, and those cast by Deukalion tuned into men while those cast by Pyrrha turned into women and it is from that race of parentless men that most of the human race is descended. But, not all; some of the old race were born to those few who had escaped the effects of the flood and Deukalion and Pyrrha also gave birth to a son, Hellen, and a daughter, Protogeneia, through whom vestiges of the old race continued, no doubt to this day.

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