Jiayi Liao explains how doom-obsessive “great flood” myths, from around the world, made her more optimistic about the future.
“A flood is what these sinful people deserve. But there are two who shall live: Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha.” Wearing a beard made of wool, I stroked a cardboard lightning bolt forcefully and spoke in a mighty rage as a cross-dressing Zeus. My classmates shook two ends of a blue silk scarf up and down. And the whole class burst into laughter as the end of the world came.
I haven’t thought about my school production of Zeus and the Great Flood for a while. But now a “flood” of sorts has inundated all our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not trying to dramatise or exaggerate the pandemic as “the end of the world” but at the worst stage of the outbreak, I felt like I was drowning in an overwhelming flood of harrowing COVID-19 updates, with confirmed cases and death count climbing every day. I wondered if there were some lessons to be learned from human beings’ seeming cross-cultural obsession with DOOM.
Why do people love talking about the end? Individual death is already horrifying enough to contemplate. Still, across time and cultures, stories depict in detail the death of the entire human race. At the time I did my play I had been struck by the strong echo of Noah’s Ark (which we’d studied a few weeks before) in the story of Zeus and the Great Flood. Out of curiosity, I did some more research on the myths and found, surprisingly, it is far from merely a Hebrew or Greek tradition. There are numerous stories about a catastrophic flood all over the world. Noah’s Ark probably has its origin in two Mesopotamian flood myths recorded in the Atra-Hasis and Gilgamesh epics.
There are several versions of destructive flood stories in Chinese myths, including Gun-Yu. There is Manu in the Ancient Indian tradition and CoxCox in the Aztec culture. Although details of the myth are somewhat varied, the basic plot of the Great Flood seems universal.
Yet, taking a closer look, I found something striking:
The Great Flood is never just about endings, it is also about beginnings.
It seems that in every version of this myth in any culture, the flood nearly destroys mankind. Nearly—which means, humanity is never completely wiped out. Be it Deucalion in Greek mythology, Noah in the Old Testament, or Manu in Hindu tradition…someone survives.They then live on to become the ancestors of a more advanced human race. In short, there are always survivors into a new world that is built upon the relics of the old.
I’ve found that thought strangely comforting. Ancient tales about catastrophes give me hope and strength within a global disaster. In those tales, humans were brought so close to extinction in large-scale disasters but somehow, miraculously, managed to survive. If we made it before, do we not have the potential to make it again?
Perhaps it wasn’t just my paper lightning bolt and the cloth waves that made my classmates laugh. Perhaps they grasped instinctually the optimistic essence of these seemingly pessimistic stories.
Jiayi Liao is a rising senior in high school born and raised in Beijing, China. She is deeply intrigued by art, music, and literature of different cultures in the world.
She aims to build bridges of cross-cultural understanding through writing. Her pieces have been published by Skipping Stones, Blue Marble Review, and KidSpirit.
Jiayi initiated Youth League of Traditional Culture to promote cultural heritage preservation in her community and beyond.