Almost every culture on Earth includes an ancient flood story. Details vary, but the basic plot is the same: Deluge kills all but a lucky few.

• The story most familiar to many people is the biblical account of Noah and his ark. Genesis tells how “God saw that the wickedness of man was great” and decided to destroy all of creation. Only Noah, “who found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” his family, and the animals aboard the ark survived to repopulate the planet.

• Older than Genesis is the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, a king who embarked on a journey to find the secret of immortality. Along the way, he met Utnapishtim, survivor of a great flood sent by the gods. Warned by Enki, the water god, Utnapishtim built a boat and saved his family and friends, along with artisans, animals, and precious metals.

Ancient Greeks and Romans grew up with the story of Deucalion and Pyhrra, who saved their children and a collection of animals by boarding a vessel shaped like a giant box.

Irish legends talk about Queen Cesair and her court, who sailed for seven years to avoid drowning when the oceans overwhelmed Ireland.

• European explorers in the Americas were startled by Indian legends that sounded similar to the story of Noah. Some Spanish priests feared the devil had planted such stories in the Indians’ minds to confuse them.

Next: The Theory

German Engraving of Noah’s Ark, 1658

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