It's customary for unbelievers to contend that Bible writers share the same mythological outlook as their pagan neighbors. This includes critical Bible scholars who write monographs and commentaries about Scripture. The assumption is that since pagan mythology is fictional, if Bible writers (allegedly) operate with a similar mythological framework, then Bible stories are fictional as well.
There is, however, evidence that critical Bible scholars don't really understand mythology. For there's evidence that folklore sometimes employ mythopoetic categories to encode real phenomena. This is studied in geomythology and archaeoastronomy
I'm going to quote some examples from a geomorphologist. Although his own perspective is naturalistic, he demonstrates that some of these legends, despite the mythological imagery, record actual events. When you compare the legends to the underlying events, they are actually quite accurate, once you make allowance for the fact that the mythopoetic garb is an analogy for the event.
My point in quoting this material is to present an a fortiori argument. If even heathen myths and legends can analogize historical events, Scripture can be historically accurate, even if, to some modern readers, the description appears to be mythological. The quotes begin after the break:
Since devastating floods were a fact of life on the margins of the world’s great ice sheets, people in those areas probably witnessed them. Early missionaries in eastern Washington reported stories of a great flood among Yakima and Spokane tribes, who could identify locations where survivors sought refuge. An Ojibwa Indian legend from around Lake Superior tells of a great snow that fell one September at the beginning of time: A bag contained the sun’s heat until a mouse nibbled a hole in it. The warmth spilled over, melting the snow and producing a flood that rose above the tops of the highest pines. Everyone drowned except for an old man who drifted about in his canoe rescuing animals. The native inhabitants of the Willamette Valley told stories of a time the valley filled with water, forcing everyone to flee up a mountain before the waters receded.
Around the tsunami-prone Pacific, flood stories tell of disastrous waves that rose from the sea. Early Christian missionaries were perplexed as to why flood traditions from South Pacific islands didn’t mention the Bible’s 40 days and nights of rain, but instead told of great waves that struck without warning. A traditional story from the coast of Chile described how two great snakes competed to see which could make the sea rise more, triggering an earthquake and sending a great wave ashore. Native American stories from coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest tell of great battles between Thunderbird and Whale that shook the ground and sent great waves crashing ashore. These stories sound like prescientific descriptions of a tsunami: an earthquake-triggered wave that can catastrophically inundate shorelines without warning.
Other flood stories evoke the failure of ice and debris dams on the margins of glaciers that suddenly release the lakes they held back. A Scandinavian flood story, for example, tells of how Odin and his brothers killed the ice giant Ymir, causing a great flood to burst forth and drown people and animals. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this might describe the failure of a glacial dam.
New research recently published in Science by a group of mostly Chinese researchers led by Qinglong Wu reports geological evidence for an event they propose may be behind China’s story of a great flood. This new research delves into the field of geomythology, which relates oral traditions and folklore to natural phenomena like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods.
The story of Emperor Yu, the legendary founder of China’s first dynasty, centers on his ability to drain persistent floodwaters from lowland areas, bringing order to the land. This ancient flood story centers on the triumph of human ingenuity and labor over the chaotic forces of the natural world. It’s strikingly different from other flood traditions in that its hero didn’t survive a world-destroying flood but rather pulled off feats of river engineering that brought order to the land and paved the way for lowland agriculture. But was Emperor Yu a real historic person, and if so what triggered the great flood so central to his story?
In their new analysis, Wu and colleagues build on previous studies of landslides in the Jishi Gorge that dammed the Yellow River where it flows down off the Tibetan Plateau. They marshal geological and archaeological evidence to argue that when a landslide dam failed, a flood ripped down China’s Yellow River around 1920 B.C. They dated lake sediments trapped upstream of the landslide dam and flood sediments deposited downstream at elevations of up to 165 feet above river level. They estimated the landslide dam’s failure sent almost a half million cubic meters of water per second surging down the Yellow River and on across early China. They also note that the timing of this flood coincides with a major archaeological transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age in the downstream lowlands along the Yellow River.
The Science study not only reports evidence of a great flood at the right time and place to be Yu’s flood, but also notes how it coincides with a previously identified shift in the course of the Yellow River to a new outlet across the North China plain. The researchers suggest the flood they identified may have breached the levees on the lowland river and triggered this shift.
And this, in turn, would help explain a unique aspect of the story of Yu’s flood. A large river rerouted to a new course could trigger persistent lowland flooding. A longer route to the sea would impose a gentler slope that would promote deposition of sediment, clogging the channel, and splitting flow into multiple channels—all of which would exacerbate flooding of lowland areas. This sounds like a pretty good setup for the story of Yu’s long labor to drain the floodwaters and channel them to the sea.
The late geologist Dorothy Vitaliano coined the term geomythology in the 1960s to describe oral lore that explains peculiar landforms or references geological cataclysms—earthquakes, fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, diverted waterways, or the sudden emergence or disappearance of islands. Like most geologists, I once dismissed these accounts as imaginative fantasies. Embellished with supernatural details and shrouded in the language of myth, they rung no truer than science-fiction yarns about Martian colonies and cyborg races. There is some evidence, however, that many geomyths are in fact grounded in events that actually happened...Often, the features of a fabled flood bear a striking resemblance to local geological processes, suggesting that many myths record real catastrophes witnessed in antiquity.
Flood stories from coastal settlements, for instance, such as in Fiji and Tahiti, tell of giant waves that struck from the ocean without warning or rainfall. A prehistoric tale from central Chile depicts two powerful serpents that vie to lift the sea the highest, inciting an earthquake and flooding the shore. In the American Pacific Northwest, native tribes tell of epic battles between Thunderbird and Whale. Again and again, the winged being grabs the sharp-toothed monster out of the water and then drops it, rousing enormous waves that sweep canoes into treetops.
These reports sound a lot like tsunamis. Indeed, thanks to Japanese temple records, we know that a major earthquake struck the Pacific Northwest on Jan. 26, 1700, sending waves as far as Japan. About that time, according to archaeological remains, Native Americans abandoned villages along the western coast of North America, from British Columbia to Oregon. In the myth of Thunderbird and Whale, survivors apparently preserved the memory of this or earlier tsunamis that drove them from their homes.
Similarly, inhabitants of the Arctic and high alpine regions, like the Tibetans of the Tsangpo valley, have retained flood myths that seem to describe glacial dam breaks. Norse mythology, for example, recounts how Odin, the “allfather” of gods, and his brothers killed the ice giant Ymir, whose blood, made of water, gushed forth in a deluge that drowned men and animals. Connecting this fantastical tale to an historical act is fraught with speculation. But I’d be surprised if Ymir wasn’t born out of an actual ice-dam rupture as glaciers retreated from Scandinavia at the end of the Pleistocene.
I came to Tibet in the spring of 2002 to investigate a geologic mystery: How had the mighty Tsangpo River cut through the rising Himalaya to carve the deepest gorge in the world? Origin questions like this one fascinate me. I’m a geomorphologist—I study landforms and construct scientific narratives to explain the evolutionary processes that created and molded them. For years, I believed that my stories stood apart from myth in that they were forged in the topography of real landscapes—in the shape of hills to the lay of valleys. But that was before I visited the Tsangpo.
From the airport in Lhasa, my colleagues and I drove southeast, up and over an icy pass that descended into a tributary. As we wound our way toward the main river, I was surprised to see a series of flat surfaces perched, like a giant’s banquet tables, above the bottom of the valley. Known as terraces, these enormous piles of loose sediment commonly form when a river slices into its bed, leaving older, higher floodplains behind. But many of the terraces I now beheld were capped in alternating layers of silt and clay. Such fine, orderly strata would never settle out in a turbulent mountain river like the one beside us. What were these quiet-water deposits doing in an alpine valley at the top of the world?
Bouncing in the back of our Land Rover, I kept careful track of the terraces, marking their elevations on topographic maps. I noticed that at some point downriver, they all rose to roughly the same contour and then stayed at that elevation on down the valley, growing progressively taller as the river dropped lower and lower. Days later, when we visited the confluence where this tributary entered the Tsangpo, the terrace tops stood hundreds of feet above the valley floor.
Out of this landscape-scale jigsaw puzzle, a picture took shape: An ancient lake had once submerged the Tsangpo and its tributaries. Rivers emptying into the lake had deposited deltas, stacking sediments into layered terraces that today record the lake’s timeworn shorelines. There was just one missing puzzle piece: What had kept all of that water from draining down the Tsangpo gorge?
Could these two stories—one cast in culture, the other written on land—be telling different versions of the same affair?
At the head of the gorge (which at its deepest depth drops the river almost 20,000 feet below the surrounding peaks), we found the eroded remnants of a glacial moraine—dirt and rocks pushed downhill by flowing ice. Debris appeared on both banks of the Tsangpo, indicating that a glacier advancing down the flanks of a nearby mountain had bulldozed a colossal dam of earth and ice over the river. The barrier had sealed off the valley, and the river had swelled to form a massive lake. But the water-worn form of the moraine told us that the dam hadn’t lasted. When it broke, a wall of water raged down the steep, narrow gorge at hundreds of millions of gallons per second—surpassing the discharge of the Amazon.
This discovery was electrifying. In reading the land, we had unearthed a grand geological saga long lost to history. Or so we thought. One day, as we bumped along past a small peak ringed by terraces, one of my graduate students told a story he’d read in a guidebook. The peak, he said, marked the site of a kora—a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage—commemorating how the spiritual teacher Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche, brought Buddhism to Tibet. According to legend, Guru Rimpoche converted the people from animism through a series of miracles, which included defeating a demon who dwelled in a great lake. How did the guru beat the demon? He drained its lake.
Guru Rimpoche came to the Tsangpo in the eighth century, around the time the ancient lake we had just stumbled upon filled the valley, according to radiocarbon tests of charcoal bits collected from the terraces. I pondered these two stories—one cast in culture, the other written on land. Could they be telling different versions of the same affair?
When I returned to the Tsangpo valley in 2004 on another research expedition, I told a local farmer that our team had found geological evidence of an ancient flood that drained a lake where her village now stood. Yes, she replied, she knew about the flood. The lamas at the local temple taught that when the lake emptied, it exposed flat, fertile land for her people to farm. She pointed halfway up the valley wall. There, she told me, the falling water had stranded three boats.